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Financial Crisis, Political Upheaval, and Putin's Rise to Power
In March 1998 Yeltsin dismissed his entire government and replaced Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin with fuel and energy minister Sergei Kiriyenko. On Aug. 28, 1998, amid the Russian stock market's free fall, the Russian government halted trading of the ruble on international currency markets. This financial crisis led to a long-term economic downturn and political upheaval. Yeltsin then sacked Kiriyenko and reappointed Chernomyrdin. The Duma rejected Chernomyrdin and on Sept. 11 elected foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov as prime minister. The repercussions of Russia's financial emergency were felt throughout the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Impatient with Yeltsin's increasingly erratic behavior, the Duma attempted to impeach him in May 1999. But the impeachment motion was quickly quashed and soon Yeltsin was on the ascendancy again. In keeping with his capricious style, Yeltsin dismissed Primakov and substituted Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin. Just three months later, however, Yeltsin ousted Stepashin and replaced him with Vladimir Putin on Aug. 9, 1999, announcing that in addition to serving as prime minister, the former KGB agent was his choice as a successor in the 2000 presidential election. That same year the former Russian satellites of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined NATO, raising Russia's hackles. The desire of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, all of which were once part of the Soviet Union, to join the organization in the future further antagonized Russia.
Just three years after the bloody 1994–1996 Chechen-Russian war ended in devastation and stalemate, the fighting started again in 1999, with Russia launching air strikes and following up with ground troops. By the end of November, Russian troops had surrounded Chechnya's capital, Grozny, and about 215,000 Chechen refugees had fled to neighboring Ingushetia. Russia maintained that a political solution was impossible until Islamic militants in Chechnya had been vanquished.
In a decision that took Russia and the world by surprise, Boris Yeltsin resigned on Dec. 31, 1999, and Vladimir Putin became the acting president. Two months later, after almost five months of fighting, Russian troops captured Grozny. It was a political as well as a military victory for Putin, whose hard-line stance against Chechnya greatly contributed to his political popularity.
On March 26, 2000, Putin won the presidential election with about 53% of the vote. Putin moved to centralize power in Moscow and attempted to limit the power and influence of both the regional governors and wealthy business leaders. Although Russia remained economically stagnant, Putin brought his nation a measure of political stability it never had under the mercurial and erratic Yeltsin. In Aug. 2000 the Russian government was severely criticized for its handling of the Kursk disaster, a nuclear submarine accident that left 118 sailors dead.
Russia was initially alarmed in 2001 when the U.S. announced its rejection of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, which for 30 years had been viewed as a crucial force in keeping the nuclear arms race under control. But Putin was eventually placated by President George W. Bush's reassurances, and in May 2002, the U.S. and Russian leaders announced a landmark pact to cut both countries' nuclear arsenals by up to two-thirds over the next ten years.
On Oct. 23, 2002, Chechen rebels seized a crowded Moscow theater and detained 763 people, including 3 Americans. Armed and wired with explosives, the rebels demanded that the Russian government end the war in Chechnya. Government forces stormed the theater the next day, after releasing a gas into the theater that killed not only all the rebels but more than 100 hostages.
In March 2003, Chechens voted in a referendum that approved a new regional constitution making Chechnya a separatist republic within Russia. Agreeing to the constitution meant abandoning claims for complete independence, and the new powers accorded the republic were little more than cosmetic. During 2003, there were 11 bomb attacks against Russia that were believed to have been orchestrated by Chechen rebels.
Putin was reelected president in March 2004, with 70% of the vote. International election observers considered the process less than democratic.
A Shocking Hostage Situation, a Move Towards Climate Change, and Radiation Poison
In April 2003 reformist politician Sergei Yushenkov became the third outspoken critic of the Kremlin to be assassinated in five years. Just hours before he was gunned down, Yushenkov had officially registered his new political party, Liberal Russia. In Nov. 2003, billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky, president of the Yukos oil company, was arrested on charges of fraud and tax evasion. Khodorkovsky supported liberal opposition parties, which led many to suspect that President Putin may have engineered his arrest. On May 31, 2005, Khodorkovsky was sentenced to nine years in prison.
On Sept. 1–3, 2004, dozens of heavily armed guerrillas seized a school in Beslan, near Chechnya, and held about 1,100 young schoolchildren, teachers, and parents hostage. Hundreds of hostages were killed, including about 156 children. Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility. In the aftermath of the horrific attack, Putin announced that he would radically restructure the government to fight terrorism more effectively. The world community expressed deep concern that Putin's plans would consolidate his power and roll back democracy in Russia.
In Sept. 2004, Russia endorsed the Kyoto Protocol on climate change. It was the final endorsement needed to put the protocol into effect worldwide.
Former Chechen president and rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov was killed by Russian special forces on March 8, 2005. Putin hailed it as a victory in his fight against terrorism. An even greater victory occurred in July 2006, when Russia announced the killing of Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev, responsible for the horrific Beslan terrorist attack. In Feb. 2007, Putin dismissed the president of Chechnya, Alu Alkhanov, and appointed Ramzan Kadyrov, a security official and the son of former Chechen president Akhmad, who was killed by rebels in 2004. Ramzan Kadyrov and forces loyal to him have been linked to human-rights abuses in the troubled region.
Alexander Litvinenko, a former KGB agent who has been critical of the Kremlin, died from poisoning by a radioactive substance in November 2006. On his deathbed in a London hospital, he accused Putin of masterminding his murder. In July 2007, Moscow refused the British government's request to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, another former KGB agent who British authorities have accused in Litvinenko's murder.
Crumbling Relations with the United States and Conflict with Georgia
The International Olympic Committee announced in July 2007 that Sochi, Russia, a Black Sea resort, will host the Winter Games in 2014. It will be the first time Russia or the former Soviet Union hosts the Winter Games. That same month, President Putin announced that Russia will suspend the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which limits conventional weapons in Europe. Several U.S. officials speculated that Putin was acting in response to U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Europe―a move stongly opposed by Russia. The move provided further evidence of deteriorating relations between the United States and Russia. In Sept., Putin nominated Viktor Zubkov, a close ally, as prime minister. The Duma, the lower house of Parliament, confirmed the nomination.
Putin announced in October that he would head the list of candidates on the United Russia ticket, the country's leading political party. Such a move would pave the way for Putin to become prime minister, and thus allow him to retain power. In December parliamentary elections, United Russia won in a landslide, taking 64.1% of the vote, far ahead of the Communist Party of Russia, which took 11.6%. Opposition parties complained that the election was rigged, and European monitors said the vote wasn't fair. Putin used his sway over the media to stifle the opposition and campaign for United Russia, making the election a referendum on his popularity. Opposition leader and former chess champion Garry Kasparov said the election was "the most unfair and dirtiest in the whole history of modern Russia."
In Dec., Putin endorsed Dmitri Medvedev in the presidential election scheduled for March 2008. A Putin loyalist who is said to be moderate and pro-Western, Medvedev is a first deputy prime minister and the chairman of Gazprom, the country's oil monopoly. He has never worked in intelligence or security agencies, unlike Putin and many members of his administration. Medvedev said that if elected, he would appoint Putin as prime minister. Medvedev won the presidential election with 67% of the vote. Putin said he would serve as Medvedev's prime minister and indicated that he will increase the responsibilities of the position. Although Medvedev vowed to restore stability to Russia after the 1990s turmoil, significant change in the government is not expected.
On April 15, 2008, Putin was chosen as chairman of the United Russia party and agreed to become prime minister when Dmitri Medvedev assumed the presidency in May. On May 6, 2008, Dmitry Medvedev was sworn in as president, and Putin became prime minister days later. Although Medvedev assumed the presidency, Putin clearly remained in control of the government and signaled that the premiership would gain broad authority. In assembling a cabinet, Putin called on several members of his former administration.
In Aug. 2008, fighting broke out between Georgia and its two breakaway regions, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Russia sent hundreds of troops to support the enclaves, and also launched airstrikes and occupied the Georgian city of Gori. Observers speculated that Russia's aggressive tactics marked an attempt to gain control of Georgia's oil and gas export routes. By the end of Aug., after a cease-fire agreement between Russia and Georgia was signed, Medvedev severed diplomatic ties with Georgia, officially recognized South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent regions, and pledged military assistance from Russia. The move heightened tensions between Russia and the West.
Both Russia and Georgia have painted each other as the aggressor responsible for the war—Georgia said it launched an attack in South Ossetia because a Russian invasion was under way, and Russia claimed it sent troops to the breakaway region to protect civilians from Georgia's offensive attack. In November 2008, Erosi Kitsmarishvili, a former Georgian diplomat to Moscow, testified that the Georgian government was responsible for starting the conflict with Russia. Kitsmarishvili stated that Georgian officials told him in April that they planned to start a war in the breakaway regions and were supported by the U.S. government.
A dispute over debts and pricing of gas supplies between Russia and Ukraine led Gazprom, the major Russian gas supplier, to halt its gas exports to Europe via Ukraine for two weeks in January 2009, affecting at least ten EU countries. About 80% of Russian gas exports to Europe are pumped through Ukraine. Russia and Ukraine blamed each other for the disruption to Europe's energy supply.
String of Suicide Bombs Sparks Fear of a Crackdown by Putin
On March 24, 2010, the United States and Russia reported a breakthrough in arms-control negotiations. Both countries agreed to lower the limit on deployed strategic warheads and launchers by 25% and 50%, respectively, and also to implement a new inspection regime. President Obama and President Medvedev signed the treaty that outlines this agreement on April 8 in Prague. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty, called New Start, in December.
Two female suicide bombers, acting just minutes apart, detonated bombs in two Moscow subways stations, killing at least 39 people in March 2010. It was the first terrorist attack in the capital city since 2004, when Moscow experienced a string of deadly violence. Doku Umarov, a former Chechen separatist and the self-proclaimed emir of the north Caucasus, claimed responsibility for masterminding the attack. Two days later, two explosions killed 12 people in the north Caucasus region of Dagestan. The attacks prompted concern that Prime Minister Putin would crack down on civil liberties and democracy as he did in 2004, following the siege of a school in Beslan.
In June 2010, the FBI announced it had infiltrated a Russian spy ring that had agents operating undercover in several cities in the United States. Ten people were arrested and charged with espionage. By most accounts, their attempts to collect policy information were largely ineffective and clumsy, and any material they managed to gather was readily available on the Internet. Days later, the U.S. and Russia completed a prisoner exchange, with 12 suspected spies deported to Russia and four men accused of spying on the West were sent to the United States.
Protests and Unrest Surrounds the 2012 Presidential Election
In Sept. 2011, Putin announced that he would run for president as the candidate of the United Russia party in March 2012 elections. In a deal that was reportedly struck two years ago, Putin and President Medvedev would swap positions, with Medvedev assuming the role as head of the party and thus becoming prime minister. Putin was all but assured to sweep the election and serve another six years as president. The announcement confirmed the widely held assumption that Putin ran the country. Putin announced his plans for the Eurasian Union that same month. The new union would include countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union.
The Dec. 2011 parliamentary elections sparked protests, mainly from middle-class Russians. International and local monitors condemned the election as fraudulent. United Russia, the party led by Putin, came out on top in the elections, receiving nearly 50 percent of the vote, but they lost 77 seats. Monitors said that United Russia would have lost more seats were it not for ballot-box stuffing and voting irregularities. The height of the protests came on Dec. 10, when over 40,000 Russians rallied near the Kremlin. It was the largest anti-Kremlin protest since the early 1990s. The activists called for Putin's resignation and denounced the election results. Three minority parties in Parliament also complained about the election's outcome, but they were all at odds over what to do about it. President Medvedev called for an inquiry into the election fraud. Meanwhile, Putin accused the United States, singling out Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, for instigating the demonstrations when she criticized conduct during the parliamentary elections.
On Dec. 12, billionaire industrialist Mikhail D. Porkhorov announced that he planned to run for president against Putin in 2012. Porkhorov owns many businesses in Russia as well as the New Jersey Nets, the NBA franchise, in the United States. In his announcement, Porkhorov said, "I made a decision, probably the most serious decision in my life: I am going to the presidential election." Many observers questioned if Porkhorov was truly challenging Putin or if he had Putin's approval to run to create an air of legitimacy to the race.
On March 4, 2012, Vladimir Putin won the presidential election, claiming 64% of the vote. The following day, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe challenged the election, saying Putin won because he had no competition and government spending at his disposal. The United States and the European Union called for an investigation into fraud allegations. Meanwhile, thousands of demonstrators in Moscow took to the streets, chanting, "Russia without Putin." A similar demonstration happened in St. Petersburg. When protestors refused to leave, police arrested them. In Moscow, 250 people were arrested. In St. Petersburg, 300 demonstrators were detained. Inspired by the protests against Putin, about 200 young Muscovites ran as independent candidates in municipal March 2012 elections. More than 70 of them won spots on district councils. Even with Putin's supporters occupying many of the other council seats, the elections were a sign that the protests had made an impact in the political system and, perhaps, would continue to do so.
In May of 2012 as Putin prepared to take office for a third time as president, demonstrations turned violent. The day before the inauguration, 20,000 antigovernment demonstrators fought with police near the Kremlin. The fighting included smoke bombs, bottles, and sticks. The following day, while Putin officially took office, the protests continued and police arrested 120 people. Even though antigovernment protests have been going on for months, the demonstrations had been peaceful until now. The violence was a dramatic shift. Dressed in riot gear, police searched cafes and restaurants for protesters. The demonstrators taken into police custody were sent to military draft offices. Right after Putin was sworn in as president, he nominated Medvedev as Russia's prime minister.
On June 8, 2012, Putin signed a law imposing a huge fine on organizers of protests as well as people who take part in them. The law gives Russian authorities the power to crackdown on the anti-government protests which started months ago when Putin announced his decision to run again for President. Four days later, 10,000 protesters took to the Moscow streets in response to the new law. The fine for those marching in protests was set at $9,000, a steep penalty considering the average yearly salary in Russia is $8,500. For organizers of demonstrations, the fine was set at $18,000.
Russia Blocks U.N. Action in Syria, Passes New Laws against Political Activists
In Feb. 2012, Russia made international headlines by blocking an effort by the United Nations Security Council to end the violence in Syria. Russia, along with China, vetoed the resolution just hours after the Syrian military launched an assault on the city of Homs. The Security Council voted 13 to 2 for a resolution backing an Arab League peace plan for Syria. Russia and China voted against the resolution, seeing it as a violation of Syria's sovereignty. Russia also continued to provide weapons to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as well as diplomatic support. Syria's 11-month uprising has caused more than 5,000 casualties.
Also in Feb. 2012, President Medvedev awarded Syrian writer and poet Ali Ukla Ursan a Pushkin Medal. Ursan was one of 11 foreigners honored for their close ties with Russia. Ursan, an adviser to the Syrian Writers Union, has publicly expressed anti-Semitic opinions and praised the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
On July 19, 2012, Russia and China vetoed a United Nations Security Council resolution to impose sanctions on the Syrian government. The proposed U.N. sanctions were intended to push Syria into putting a peace plan into action and ending its 17-month-old conflict. The resolution was proposed by Britain and backed by ten other council members, including France and the United States. Russian ambassador Vitaly I. Churkin explained the Russian veto to the council, "We simply cannot accept a document which would open the path for pressure of sanctions and further to external military involvement in Syrian domestic affairs."
During the summer of 2012, the government began cracking down against political activists in new ways. Two new laws were signed by Putin. One law gave the government the power to shut down websites that have content which could be harmful to children. The other law increased penalties for libel. In July 2012, the Investigative Committee began criminal cases against Aleksei Navalny, an anticorruption blogger, and Gennady Gudkov, a lawmaker. Navalny, a leader of the anti-Putin protest movement which began in Dec. 2011, was found guilty of embezzlement and faced five to 10 years in prison.
Also in July 2012, three members of a Russian punk band called Pussy Riot were arrested and put on trial for hooliganism after they performed an anti-Putin song on the altar of Moscow's main Orthodox cathedral. During one of the most high-profile trials that Russia's had in years, the band members said their demonstration was political, not an attack on Orthodox Christians. Masha, Katya, and Nadya, the three members of Pussy Riot, were convicted of hooliganism on Aug. 17, 2012, and sentenced to two years in a penal colony. At the sentencing, activists outside of the courthouse began to protest, chanting "Free Pussy Riot!" Police arrested dozens of protestors. Rallies supporting the three women were held in cities around the world, including London, New York and Paris. Immediately following the verdict, the United States, other governments, and human rights groups criticized the decision, calling the sentence severe.
On Oct. 10, 2012, a court in Moscow freed one of the three members of Pussy Riot, the punk band convicted of hooliganism for protesting in a cathedral last February. Yekaterina Samutsevich was released after judges accepted her new lawyer's argument that she played less of a role in the cathedral protest performance that landed her in jail with her band mates. More than a year later, President Putin announced that the two members of Pussy Riot who were still in jail would be released under an amnesty in Dec. 2013. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, age 24, and Maria Alyokhina, age 25, would be released, in part, because they are both mothers to young children.
On Oct. 19, 2012, Leonid Razvozzhayev, a Russian opposition leader, disappeared from Kiev, Ukraine. According to an interview with The New Times magazine, published on October 24, he was held for three days by men threatening to kill his children if he did not sign a confession. Razvozzhayev was in Kiev seeking advice on political asylum from the United Nations office there. He was held in a house and not allowed to eat or drink for three days. Once he signed the confession, his kidnappers turned him over to authorities in Moscow.
Russian authorities charged Razvozzhayev and other opposition figures with plotting riots and seeking aid from Georgia in order to overthrow Putin's government. Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for Russian federal investigators, said that Razvozzhayev turned himself in to the authorities in Moscow and, at the time, he did not speak of any "torture, abduction or any other unlawful actions." Markin said investigators would look into the claim of a forced signed confession.
Russia Joins World Trade Organization while at Odds with U.S. over Weapons Pact, Snowden, and Syria
After 19 years of negotiations, Russia became the newest member of the World Trade Organization on Aug. 22, 2012. Russia has cut tariffs on imports and set limits on export duties as part of a series of reforms enacted to qualify for entry into the international trading arena. Expectations of membership include an increase of 3% in the Russian GDP, more foreign investment, and a doubling of U.S. exports to Russia—as long as trade relations are normalized through the lifting of the 1974 Jackson-Vanik amendment.
On Oct. 10, 2012, the Russian government announced it would not renew the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program with the United States when the agreement expires in the spring of 2013. The agreement was part of a successful 20-year partnership between Russia and the United States. It eliminated nuclear and chemical weapons from the former Soviet Union and protected against the threat of nuclear war. For example, as part of the agreement, 7,600 nuclear warheads were deactivated and all nuclear weapons were removed from former Soviet territories such as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine.
Russian officials explained that their country's economy had improved since the agreement. In a statement, Russia's Foreign Ministry said that it had increased its budget allocation "in the field of disarmament." The statement went on to say, "American partners know that their proposal is not consistent with our ideas about what forms and on what basis further cooperation should be built." The statement left open the possibility of a new agreement with the United States, but no specific conditions of a new agreement were given.
In early July 2013, Fugitive American intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden, asked international human rights organizations to help him receive asylum in Russia. Snowden had been seeking refuge at an international transit zone at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport since June 2013. When he first arrived at the Russian airport, he expressed a desire for asylum in Russia. President Putin responded by saying that Snowden could stay in Russia only if he ceased "his work aimed at inflicting damage on our American partners." Meanwhile, the United States made diplomatic moves to prevent Snowden from receiving permanent asylum in Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, the three Latin American governments that have stated they would take him.
Snowden filed a temporary asylum request after more than three weeks at the airport in Sheremetyevo on July 17, 2013. After the request was filed, Putin would not say whether or not Russia would grant Snowden's request. Instead, Putin reiterated that Snowden must do no further harm to the United States. The following week, while Edward Snowden still waited on approval of his temporary asylum request, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., attempted to dissuade Russia from granting the asylum. Holder wrote in a letter to Russian Justice Minister Alexander Konovalov that Snowden would not face torture or the death penalty should he be returned to the United States to face charges of espionage. Despite these efforts, on Aug. 1, 2013, Russia granted Snowden asylum for one year. The temporary asylum allowed him to leave the Moscow airport where he had been since June. Russia granted Snowden asylum despite strong urging from the U.S. not to do so. In response, President Obama canceled a planned summit meeting with Putin which was to be held in Moscow in September.
On Sept. 9, 2013, U.S. secretary of state John Kerry suggested half-heartedly that a strike on Syria could be averted if Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to hand over all chemical weapons. Russia took the proposal seriously, and Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov said, "If the establishment of international control over chemical weapons in the country will prevent attacks, then we will immediately begin work with Damascus. And we call on the Syrian leadership to not only agree to setting the chemical weapons storage sites under international control, but also to their subsequent destruction." Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Moallem also embraced the option. "We are ready to reveal the locations of the chemical weapon sites and to stop producing chemical weapons and make these sites available for inspection by representatives of Russia, other countries and the United Nations," he said in a statement on Sept. 12. It was the first time the Syrian government acknowledged it had chemical weapons. Given the uncertainty of Congressional authorization, diplomacy would spare Obama a potential rebuke that could undercut his authority for the remainder of his presidency.
Russia and the U.S. reached an agreement on Sept. 15 that said Syria must provide an inventory of its chemicals weapons and production facilities within a week and either turn over or destroy all of its chemical weapons by mid-2014. If the government fails to comply, then the UN Security Council would take up the issue. The timetable is extremely aggressive; such disarmament typically takes years, not months. While the agreement delayed a Congressional vote on a military strike, the U.S. kept that possibility on the table. "If diplomacy fails, the United States remains prepared to act," Obama said.
On Sept. 16, the UN confirmed in a report that the chemical agent sarin had been used near Damascus on Aug. 21. "Chemical weapons have been used in the ongoing conflict between the parties in the Syrian Arab Republic, also against civilians, including children, on a relatively large scale," the report said. "The environmental, chemical and medical samples we have collected provide clear and convincing evidence that surface-to-surface rockets containing the nerve agent sarin were used." The report did not indicate who was responsible for launching the attack. Two days later, Russia denounced the UN's report, calling it incomplete. In a statement broadcast on Russian television, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei A. Ryabkov said, "We think that the report was distorted. It was one-sided. The basis of information upon which it is built is insufficient."
International Protests and Multiple Bombings Threaten 2014 Olympics
During the summer of 2013, Russia's State Duma passed an anti-gay bill with a 436-0 vote. Backed by the Kremlin, the legislation banned the "propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations." The language of the bill was vague, but it was seen by the international community as an effort to crack down on homosexuality. While the State Duma, or lower house, voted on the bill, more than two dozen protestors were attacked by anti-gay demonstrators and then arrested by police in Moscow. Russian President Vladimir Putin signed the law in July. The law included a large fine for holding gay pride rallies or for giving any LGBT information to minors. Those caught breaking the new law could be arrested. Foreigners could be deported.
Throughout July and Aug. 2013, Russia's anti-gay bill sparked international protest and outrage. Athletes throughout the world threatened to boycott the 2014 Olympics in protest. The International Olympic Committee began probing Russia to see how the country would enforce the law during the Olympics. In an effort to do damage control over the controversy, the International Olympic Committee said by late July that it had "received assurances from the highest level of government in Russia that the legislation will not affect those attending or taking part in the Games." Meanwhile, FIFA reported that it was also seeking out "clarification and more details" about the new anti-gay law from Russia, which would host the 2018 World Cup.
On Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013, at least sixteen people were killed in a suicide bombing at a railroad station in Volgograd, a city in southern Russia. Nearly three dozen others were wounded. The following day another suicide bombing took place on a trolley bus in the same city. At least ten people were killed and ten others were wounded. Both explosions came just six weeks before the Winter Olympics were being held in Sochi, 400 miles away from Volgograd. Never has a host country experienced this level of violent terrorism so close to the Olympic Games. President Putin vowed to double security in all of Russia's railway stations and airports. During the Olympics, the government has planned for more than 40,000 law enforcement officials to be on hand at the event.
In Jan. 2014, another bomb exploded and suspicious deaths occurred in the Stavropol territory, which borders the province where the Winter Olympics will be held. A vehicle exploded on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. One person was in the car at the time of the explosion. Two other bodies were found nearby. The following day, explosive material was found in another vehicle along with the bodies of three men. Russian authorities began an investigation into all six deaths.
Despite threats of terrorist attacks, complaints about poor preparations, and the international condemnation over their anti-gay law, Russia kicked off the costliest Olympic Games in history on Feb. 7, 2014, with an opening ceremony filled with music, floats and a light show using the most advanced technology available. While the games were originally estimated to cost $12 billion, that number has risen to $50 billion. The opening ceremony was mostly glitch free, although one of the five floating Olympic rings failed to open. Russian President Vladimir Putin attended and officially announced the start of the games during the ceremony. On the same day as the opening ceremony, a passenger on a Turkish jetliner told the crew that a bomb was on board and to fly the plane to Sochi. Instead, the crew landed in Istanbul. The suspect was taken into custody and no bomb was found. Meanwhile, the United States government banned all liquids, gels, aerosols and powders in carry-on luggage for flights to and from Russia. The ban came after the U.S. issued a warning that explosive material could be concealed in toothpaste tubes.
On Feb. 23, 2014, the Sochi Winter Games closed with an impressive ceremony, including Russia poking fun at its five floating ring opening ceremony malfunction. Despite the controversies and terror threats, the Sochi Games were incident free and considered a success. Russia led the medal count with 33, following by the United States with 28, and Norway with 26.
Russia Annexes Crimea, Experiences Economic Fallout Due to Sanctions
On March 1, 2014, Russian president Vladimir Putin dispatched troops to Crimea, citing the need to protect Russians from extremist ultranationalists, referring to the anti-government protesters in Kiev. The Russian troops surrounded Ukrainian military bases, and by March 3, Russia was reportedly in control of Crimea. The move sparked international outrage and condemnation just days after Russia successfully hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. President Obama called the move a "breach of international law."
In a press conference on March 4, Putin said he didn't see an immediate reason to initiate a military conflict, but Russia "reserves the right to use all means at our disposal to protect" Russian citizens and ethnic Russians in the region. Two days later, the U.S. imposed sanctions on officials, advisers, and other individuals who have been involved in the undermining of democracy in the Crimea. The sanctions involved revoking visas for travel to the U.S. for those who hold them and refusing visas for those seeking them. On the same day, the Crimean Parliament approved a referendum, scheduled for March 16, asking voters if they want to secede from Ukraine and be annexed by Russia.
Nearly 97% of voters in Crimea chose to secede from Ukraine in the referendum on March 16, 2014. The next day, the Crimean Parliament declared the region independent and formally sought annexation by Russia. In a statement from the Kremlin, Putin said, "The referendum was organized in such a way as to guarantee Crimea's population the possibility to freely express their will and exercise their right to self-determination." Obama told Putin that neither the U.S. nor the international community would recognize the results of the referendum. He said the referendum "violates the Ukrainian Constitution and occurred under duress of Russian military intervention." On March 17, Obama imposed economic sanctions on 11 Russian officials and Putin advisers, including Crimean prime minister Sergey Aksyonov, who were "responsible for the deteriorating situation in Ukraine." The sanctions froze the assets held in the U.S. and banned Americans from doing business with those sanctioned.
On March 18, Putin signed a treaty stating that Russia had annexed Crimea, reclaiming territory that was part of Russia from 1783, when Empress Catherine II took it over from the Ottoman Empire, to 1954 when Nikita Khrushchev transferred the region to Ukraine. After signing the treaty, Putin gave a speech that both defended his move, denounced internationally as a land grab, and lashed out at the West. "Our Western partners have crossed a line," he said, referring to the West's support for Kiev. "We have every reason to think that the notorious policy of confining Russia, pursued in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, continues today."
The move certainly jeopardized Russia's relationship with the U.S. and Europe, and complicated any hopes for a peace agreement in Syria and cast a cloud over the talks over Iran's nuclear program. Neither the U.S. nor the European Union recognized Crimea as part of Russia. The members of the Group of 8 industrialized nations announced on March 24 that they had suspended Russia from the group and moved the upcoming meeting from Sochi, Russia, to Brussels. The UN General Assembly passed a resolution on March 27 that declared Russia's annexation of Crimea illegal and described the referendum on the issue as "having no validity." One hundred countries voted in favor, 11 voted against, and 58 abstained. The resolution has no enforcement power, making it symbolic. Nonetheless, it clearly sent Putin a message.
After annexation, Putin continued to deploy as many as 40,000 Russian troops on the southern and eastern border with Ukraine, areas that are dominated by ethnic Russians, raising fears that he may attempt to take over additional regions of the country. Those fears were realized in early April, when pro-Russian protesters and armed militants in the eastern cities of Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk, and Mariupol took over several government buildings and police stations. On April 17, 2014, in Geneva, representatives from the U.S., Russia, Ukraine, and the European Union reached an agreement intended to de-escalate the tension in eastern Ukraine. The agreement stated that all illegal armed groups will lay down their arms and all buildings seized illegally will be surrendered. Both sides agreed to end the violence and intolerance, with anti-Semitism being singled out. However, Russia did not commit to withdrawing the 40,000 troops it has massed on the Ukrainian border.
In response to Russia's refusal to comply with the agreement reached in Geneva to rein in the pro-Russian groups, the U.S. imposed additional sanctions in late April on seven Russian individuals, including Igor Sechin, the head of Russia's largest oil producer, and 17 companies with close ties to Putin, targeting some of the country's wealthiest and most powerful businessmen. The sanctions, announced on April 28, put a travel ban on the individuals and froze the assets of the officials and the businesses. They also restricted the import of U.S. goods that could be used for military purposes. The European followed with similar sanctions and the U.S. added more sanctions at the end of the year. The sanctions took a toll on Russia's economy. Standard & Poor's downgraded Russia's credit rating, leaving it just one notch above junk status, investors withdrew about $50 billion from the country, and the stock market fell 13% in 2014.
Putin Signs Gas Accord with China, Begins Eurasian Union as Ukraine Fallout Continues
After a decade of discussion, Russia's Gazprom signed a deal to sell natural gas to China's National Petroleum Corporation in May 2014. The deal was a $400 billion, 30-year supply contract for 38 billion cubic meters of gas per year. The supply would start in 2018. The fuel would come from a new pipeline in eastern Siberia. By 2014, China consumed about 4% of the world's gas, but about half of the world's iron ore, coal, and copper. However, China was on its way to being the world's biggest gas user by 2035. That same month, Russian President Vladimir Putin launched an Eurasian Union. Kazakhstan and Belarus joined Russia in the new economic alliance that hoped to one day rival the European Union. With a combined $2.7 trillion gross domestic product between the three countries, the union has promise. However, the fallout from recent events in Ukraine, which had been expected to be a part of the new bloc, could hurt the union and prevent it from growing to the same level as the European Union.
As the fighting and chaos escalated in eastern Ukraine and the U.S. and Europe threatened additional sanctions, on May 7, Putin announced the withdrawal of the 40,000 troops from the border with Ukraine, urged separatists to abandon plans for a referendum on autonomy, and said Russia would participate in negotiations to end the crisis. "I simply believe that if we want to find a long-term solution to the crisis in Ukraine, open, honest, and equal dialogue is the only possible option," Putin said. Both the U.S. and European officials responded with a heavy dose of skepticism that Putin would follow through.
A Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 crashed in eastern Ukraine near the Russian border on July 17, killing all 298 passengers and crew members. The crash occurred in territory where pro-Russian separatists have been battling Ukrainian troops. Ukrainian, European, and American officials said the plane was shot down by a Russian-made surface-to-air missile, citing satellite images. President Putin denied having any role in the disaster. Most analysts said rebels may have thought they were targeting a military transport plane rather than a commercial jet. A day before the crash, the U.S. imposed further sanctions on Russia in response to Putin's refusal to stop arming the separatists.
In late July 2014, the U.S. accused Russia of violating the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, an agreement between the two countries banning medium range missiles. The treaty stated that the Russian Federation may not possess, produce, or test a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 310 to 3,417 miles, nor produce or possess launchers of such missiles. Senior U.S. State Department officials said that Russia had violated the treaty, citing cruise missile tests by Russia dating back to 2008. That same month Russia sent 20,000 troops to the border of Ukraine. The move was in response to an aggressive campaign by the Ukrainian military, which included taking control of some of the border crossings that Russia had been using to arm the rebels.
On Sept. 5, representatives from the Ukrainian government, the Russian-backed separatists, Russia, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who had been meeting in Minsk, Belarus, announced that they had agreed on a cease-fire, an agreement called the Minsk Protocol. The terms include an immediate end to fighting, the exchange of prisoners, amnesty for those who did not commit serious crimes, a 6-mile buffer zone along the Ukrainian-Russian border, decentralization of power in the Donbass region (the area dominated by the Russian-backed rebels), and the creation of a route to deliver humanitarian aid. However, the fighting continued despite the cease-fire. Between the signing of the cease-fire and early December, about 1,000 civilians and soldiers were killed-about 25% of the total 4,300 military and civilian fatalities. In addition, NATO reported that Russia has continued to supply the rebels with combat troops, vehicles, backing up claims by the Ukrainian government.
The cease-fire was all but shattered in January 2015 when the fighting between separatists and the government intensified in eastern Ukraine, rebels took over the Donetsk airport, and evidence mounted that Russia was supplying the rebels with increasingly sophisticated weapons. Poroshenko said as many as 9,000 Russian soldiers were taking part in the fighting in Luhansk and Donetsk, a claim Russia denied. Amid the crisis, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and France met in Feb. 2015 to try to resurrect the Minsk Protocol. After 16 hours of negotiations, the parties agreed to a cease-fire and to end the war in eastern Ukraine.
Nemtsov Is Assassinated, Two Aircraft Crash in 2015
On Feb. 27, 2015, just two days before he was scheduled to lead an opposition peace rally, Boris Nemtsov was shot and killed in Moscow. Nemtsov had been a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and most recently, of the war in Ukraine. According to fellow opposition leader Ilya Yashin, at the time of his death, Nemtsov had been working on a report of the Russian military's involvement in Ukraine. Putin condemned Nemtsov's murder and promised to lead the investigation into his death.
Nemtsov was the most prominent opposition leader to be killed during Putin's presidency. The incident sparked outrage and protests, including tens of thousands marching through Moscow in the days after the assassination.
On Oct. 31, 2015, Airbus A321-200, an 18-year-old Russian passenger plane, crashed just 20 minutes after taking off from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. All 224 people on board were killed. Investigators exploring the debris said that the plane's fuselage disintegrated in the air while flying over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. The cause of the disintegration was not immediately known. However, The Sinai Province of the Islamic State, an ISIS offshoot, claimed responsibility for bombing the plane. The following month, Russia's FSB security service announced that Airbus A321-200 was taken down by a homemade explosive device.
Turkey shot down a Russian warplane for invading its airspace in late Nov. 2015. At least one of the two pilots was killed. Turkish officials said that the plane ignored repeated warnings as it crossed over into its airspace from Syria. In a statement, Russian President Vladimir Putin called the act a "stab in the back." He also said that there would be "significant consequences." It was the first time in fifty years that a NATO member had shot down a Russian aircraft.