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This week's main stories:
- SOVA Center publishes report into extremism prosecutions in 2022
- The crime of discrediting that which does not exist
- Russia labels attack in Bryansk terrorism
| SOVA Center publishes report into extremism prosecutions in 2022|
The SOVA Center —a nonprofit organisation that researches nationalism, xenophobia, and human rights — has published an extensive report on trends in the use and abuse of counter-extremism and counterterrorism legislation in Russia in 2022. The report finds that the volume of convictions for extremist statements is roughly comparable to that for 2021, whereas those for participating in terrorist and extremist groups has risen sharply (SOVA Center, 1 March).
Under the rubric of criminal prosecutions for extremist statements, SOVA Center includes charges brought under Articles 148.2.1, 282, 280, 280.1, 205.2, 354.1 of the Russian Criminal Code. This is a broad classification that runs the spectrum from inciting racial hatred and justifying Nazism to calling for terrorism. It excludes, however, more recent Articles covering statements that discredit the army (280.3) and fake news (207.3). In short, the report covers SOVA Center’s interpretation of which prosecutions could be considered to relate to extremist statements, not the authorities’, and they exclude cases they consider unjust or political, or where the suspect has been acquitted.
SOVA Center have identified 208 sentences for extremist statements issued against 220 people across 62 regions in 2022. This compares to 209 against 212 in 447 regions for 2021. Thus, the only significant change is in the geographic spread of sentencing. Mostly the charges related to online and social media posts. SOVA considers 21 of the convictions justified, 37 unjustified, 145 as lacking sufficient information, and 54 as difficult to assess or classify for one reason or another (the individual numbers do not tally with the total because convictions may cover multiple articles that are evaluated differently). As a result of verdicts in these cases, 85 people were sentenced to prison (mostly for crimes other than the statements included in the verdicts), 92 received a suspended sentence, 68 were fined, and 12 received other punishments.
Under the rubric of participation in terrorist and extremist groups, SOVA Center considers charges brought under Articles 282.1, 282.2, 205.4, 205.5 and 282.3. There were 44 sentences against 78 people in 2022, compared to 22 against 32 in 2021. Thirteen new organisations were added to the list of designated extremist and terrorist organisations.
| The crime of discrediting that which does not exist|
Russia’s State Duma will consider legislative amendments to the laws on spreading fake news and discrediting the army. If the proposals are adopted, it will make it difficult to legally publish any non-official information about substate actors operating alongside the military, such as Russian Private Military Company (PMC) Wagner (Mediazona, 1 March).
State Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has proposed the amendments to Article 20.3.3 of the Code on Administrative Offences, and Articles 207.3 and 280.3 of the Criminal Code. The formal text can be found here. They will expand the articles’ coverage from the regular military to “volunteer formations, organisations or people that assist in fulfilling tasks assigned to the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation.” They will also increase the severity of the punishment for violating them.
Although the amendments do not specifically mention Wagner, various media outlets have — reasonably enough — interpreted them as making it illegal to publish any information that will discredit or embarrass the group. Wagner owner Yevgeniy Prigozhin asked for the law to be expanded in January. Volodin has responded to that call, albeit without explicitly referencing former convicts as Prigozhin had requested. PMCs are, of course, still illegal under Russian law. Thus, in the theatre of the absurd that is the Russian courts, you could conceivably see someone face criminal charges for discrediting an organisation that official does not exist. Whereas Prigozhin — who has repeatedly attacked the army leadership — has not faced any legal consequences whatsoever.
Mediazona, citing data from the General Prosecutor’s Office, note that the Investigative Committee brought 187 criminal cases against 149 people in 2022. Investigative Committee head Aleksandr Bastrykin, however, reported 152 cases against 136 people in the same period. Whichever figure is accurate, the number of convictions in 2023 is likely to be much higher.
| Russia labels attack in Bryansk terrorism|
Russia claims that on 2 March a “Ukrainian diversionary-reconnaisance group” crossed over the border and carried out an attack in Bryansk Oblast. According to Bryansk Oblast Governor Aleksandr Bogomaz, one person was killed and a child was wounded. Bogomaz later revised the number killed to two (Novaya Gazeta, 2 March). Russian President Vladimir Putin labelled the incident a “terrorist attack” (Meduza, 3 March).
Russian media outlets were inconsistent in the details of the attack. According to the Meduza report, some outlets claimed a car had been attacked, others a schoolbus, and yet others claimed hostages had been taken. Bryansk Oblast authorities denied the reports about the schoolbus and did not confirm any hostages.
The attack was claimed by a group calling itself the Russian Volunteer Corpus (RVC), which the Guardian calls an “anti-Putin émigré group” (Guardian, 2 March). Bellingcat’s Michael Colborne described its leader, Denis Nikitin/Kapustin, as a “neo-Nazi” in a podcast profiling the group (The Naked Pravda, 3 March). RVC said 45 people took part in the operation and attacked two military vehicles (Istories, 2 March). The office of the Ukrainian President denied any official Ukrainian involvement in the incident (Meduza, 3 March). A report by state news agency TASS cited the Russian embassy in the United States as placing ultimate responsibility on the US for its support of Ukraine (TASS, 3 March).
Chechen Head Ramzan Kadyrov called for any relatives of the attackers who live in Russia to be held responsible. Chechnya has long employed collective punishment against the relatives of suspected insurgents. Kadyrov also called for the imposition of martial law in parts of Russia (Caucasian Knot, 2 March). Dmitriy Peskov, press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said that any such decision about martial law is the prerogative of the president, and no such decision had been made (RBK, 3 March).
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, incidents and individuals linked to Ukraine have featured prominently in Russian official reporting around terrorism.
| Other stories of interest|
- Two Dagestani women to face trial for membership of the designated extremist organisation Citizens of the USSR between December 2019 and October 2020. The group does not recognise the legitimacy of the Russian Federation (Argumenty i Fakty Dagestan, 1 March).
- A Moscow military court found a native of Dagestan guilty of plotting to blow up a court on behalf of the Islamic State. It sentenced him to 19 years in prison (Caucasian Knot, 3 March).
- Russian Interior Minister reports 157 crimes of a terrorist nature and 134 of an extremist nature in January 2023. The figures represent a 12.1% and 157.7% increase on the same period in 2022 (Meduza, 4 March).
- Wagner reportedly opened three recruitment points at Russian sports clubs in Rostov-on-the-Don, Samara and Tyumen (Kavkaz Realii, 5 March).
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