MOSCOW - Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova is clear. There is nothing the Kremlin can do about Russian military contractors operating in Africa.
During one of her weekly press briefings shortly after news broke that more than two dozen Russians had been killed in Libya, I pressed her about whether the Kremlin endorsed their presence.
And if it did not, what would be done to prevent Russian veterans pursing freelance foreign policies.
“I have no detailed information about what soldiers you are talking about,” she said. She added there is nothing the Kremlin can do to stop Russian military outfits waging secret wars overseas. It is reminiscent of 2014 when the Kremlin presumably could do nothing about the so-called “little green men” who miraculously appeared in Crimea but paved the way for the annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula.
“We have no laws to stop this,” Zakharova said, throwing her arms wide open.
Afterward, I talked with her deputy who, before taking up his role at the foreign ministry in Moscow, had been Russia’s press attaché in Berlin, and someone who I thought therefore might be open to some sociable contact with reporters. I sent a follow-up email and suggested lunch.
He has not replied.
That is par for the course. Russian officials are wary nowadays of socializing with foreign journalists, especially from international public broadcasters, deemed to be what the Russian government has labeled “foreign agents.” VOA, BBC, France 24, Radio Free Europe and Deutsche Welle are all in the frame.
On the margins of a press conference the other day a soberly suited man who said he was a lawyer but who I assumed was some kind of spook, asked me who I worked for and finding out, declared, “Oh, we are enemies then.” I responded, “No. I am just a reporter.”
Some old guard Kremlin-types will flout what appears to be a general ban on socializing with foreign reporters, but on the whole, we are given a wide berth outside the confines of stilted formal meetings. The one exception is Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. He is been known to drink with foreign journalists in hotel bars, but only on overseas trips. Despite his mien, akin to that of an undertaker, he is said to have an uproarious sense of humor.
Lavrov on Wednesday came out formally against banning foreign international public broadcasters from working in Russia, something being proposed by lawmakers who have accused the broadcasters of breaking legislation covering election reporting.
Difficult to pin down
Even securing a formal meeting with some officials can be an uphill struggle. Take Boris Titov, the presidential commissioner for entrepreneurs’ rights. His role is to defend business interests and to act not only as a liaison between the Kremlin and Russia’s entrepreneurs but to promote their views.
Recently, I requested an interview with Titov to discuss how Western sanctions are impacting Russian business. I wanted to ask him also about whether Russian entrepreneurs who took advantage of a tax amnesty offered by President Vladimir Putin may now feel cheated.
Putin had promised Russians repatriating assets held overseas that they would not face unpaid taxes. And they have not, but some declarations apparently are being used as evidence in fraud cases. Last week, financier Andrey Kakovkin, who had recently returned to Russia assuming all would be well, was sentenced to three years in a penal colony for embezzlement of $157,000.
I still have not heard back from Titov.
Trolls and bots
Shunning foreign journalists does not help the Kremlin get its spin on the news. But then it prefers apparently to do that unfiltered via trolls and bots, and through the assistance of oligarchs like Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Putin, whose soldiers were the ones killed in Libya fighting on the side of Gadhafi-era renegade general Khalifa Haftar.
Seven more Wagner Group soldiers are believed to have been killed in Mozambique last month.
Prigozhin seemingly hasn’t been deterred by the indictment filed against him last year by U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller for overseeing a troll factory that spearheaded alleged Russian meddling in U.S. elections. Prigozhin mocked the Mueller indictment, telling the Russian state news agency Ria Novosti: “The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. I have a lot of respect for them. I am not upset at all that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”
Last week, Facebook revealed that Prigozhin was behind a network of 200 fake accounts pumping out disinformation to assist local political clients of the Kremlin in eight African countries. The countries were Madagascar, Central African Republic, Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ivory Coast, Cameroon, Sudan, and Libya.
“While many of Prigozhin’s activities in Africa are known, we provide evidence that he is engaged in social media activities in several African countries to a much wider extent than we have previously known,” tweeted Shelby Grossman, a research scholar at the Stanford Internet Observatory, which partnered with Facebook on the investigation.
According to Facebook, the most recent of the Prigozhin-tied disinformation campaigns was launched in Mozambique last September, just weeks before the country held presidential and parliamentary polls. The content supported the incumbent president and sought to tarnish the opposition.
Hardly a day goes by now without some announcement from the Kremlin of a test firing of this or that new missile, a military exercise here or there or the launching of a new warship or development of a fresh weapon system. On Wednesday, President Putin assured military commanders that Russia won’t stop boosting its defensive capabilities with state-of-the-art weaponry.
“Hypersonic, laser and other state-of-the-art weapon systems, which no other country possesses, will be put in service,” Putin told the military commanders. But he added these new generation weapons “are no excuse for Russia to threaten anybody.”
Some Western military analysts say quite a lot of smoke and mirrors may be involved when it comes to the military buildup — at least when it comes to the Russian Navy. Writing in the National Interest, a U.S. magazine focused on international affairs, academic Robert Farley noted: “The Russian Navy inherited a massive, modern fleet of surface ships and submarines. Most of these disappeared in short order, as Russia was incapable of maintaining such a flotilla. The remaining major units of the Russian Navy are very old, and in questionable states of repair.”
Most of the holdouts from the Soviet Navy are approaching the end of their useful lifespans, according to Farley, author of “The Battleship Book” and a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College. “The Russian national security state thrives on the announcement of big projects, but not so much on their fulfillment.”
There is a tremendous buildup of frustration among the young in Moscow and St. Petersburg — and further afield, too — at how difficult it has become to get visas to travel to the U.S. and, to a lesser extent, Europe. Outward-looking and curious about the wider world, they are exactly the same as their peers in other Central European countries — aspirational, increasingly multilingual and determined to carve out their own paths without larger forces getting in the way.
Partly thanks to cycles of tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats and consular officials, most countries have fewer staff around to handle visa applications and so the wait for the application process to conclude just gets longer. And the rise of international suspicions and tensions has only added difficulties to the visa process, unless you are an oligarch or rich, of course.
On his departure, outgoing U.S. envoy Jon Huntsman publicly lamented the visa problems — while complaining, too, about Russian blocks on issuing visas for Westerners. Like his predecessors, Huntsman argues that people-to-people contacts will be crucial in breaking down suspicions.