Country Risk Report (July 2019)
RISK LEVEL: MODERATE
According to the Constitution of Russia, the country is an asymmetric federation and semi-presidential republic, wherein the President is head of state, and the Prime Minister is head of government. The Russian Federation is fundamentally structured as a multi-party representative democracy, with the federal government composed of three branches: legislative, executive, and judiciary. The Russian Federation is recognised in international law as a successor state of the former Soviet Union. Following the collapse of the communist Soviet Union, Russia is regarded as a democracy; however, it has long faced accusations of staging rigged elections. There have been raised concerns regarding illegal campaigning, voter fraud, and violations of the rights of voters. The Russian government denies any electoral rigging allegations. The President is elected by popular vote for a 6-year term. Ministries of the government are composed of the Premier and his deputies, ministers, and selected other individuals; all are appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Prime Minister.
Since his election as president in 2000, Vladimir Putin has remained Russia’s leading political figure. His is the incumbent Russian president and head of the United Russia party. The current prime minister Dmitry Medvedev has served since 2012. Putin served two terms as president, followed by four years as prime minister, before winning re-election as president in March 2018. International critics have voiced their disapproval of a ‘token’ opposition to Putin in the recent elections. At the legislative elections of 2003, United Russia reduced all other political parties to minority status. Freedom of the World, a yearly survey conducted by the US based non-governmental organisation Freedom House, has stated that ‘Russia’s electoral system is designed to maintain the dominance of United Russia.’ Under Putin, United Russia also maintains a tight control of Russian media, including two of the three main federal television channels in the country.
The draconian style of rule in Russia can prompt backlash from citizens and international actors, protest is likely to erupt in some areas during times of elections or during key events, as demonstrated during the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. Political demonstrations and rallies occur regularly across Russia, although predominantly concentrated in Moscow and St Petersburg. There have been widespread criticisms of human rights abuses and arbitrary detention and mistreatment of activists. Travellers to Russia are encouraged to avoid political demonstrations where possible and to be discrete when discussing political and religious views. Local media will often detail any rallies in the area. Key Western events or a change in government law can prompt demonstrations, therefore travellers are encouraged to remain vigilant and avoid any areas where conflict may arise.
RISK LEVEL: MODERATE
The Russian authorities take a strict attitude towards security, as well as compliance with visa and registration rules. Depending where you are travelling from, you may need to apply for a visa prior to visiting Russia and it should be noted that processing can take up to 20 days. Travellers to Russia must sign an immigration card upon arrival in the country, as well as ensuring their passport is valid for a minimum of six months after the expiration of their visa. Short-term travel restrictions are sometimes applied in relation to on-going security operations. When travelling by rail, individuals should contact their train or tour operator to seek advice regarding crossing borders. Rail is one of the most popular methods of transport in Russia, whilst road safety and road conditions in the country are poor.
When driving in Russia, it is important to consult the relevant authorities for advice on what documentation and equipment is required. Travellers are advised to limit driving at night and to avoid driving in poor weather conditions. The road density in the country is one of the lowest in the developed world, despite the vast landscape it occupies. This is largely due to a lack of investment in creating modernised infrastructure across the country. Those travelling by road are likely to encounter traffic police checkpoints and are advised to cooperate in these circumstances. Driving regulations are strictly enforced in Russia. Most Russian cities have well-developed systems of transport, with the most common varieties of vehicles being bus, trolleybus and tram.
The Moscow and St Petersburg metros are among the fastest and busiest metro systems in the world, they are widely utilised by Russian citizens and visitors. Seven Russian cities; Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod, Novosibirsk, Samara, Yekaterinburg, and Kazan, have underground metros. The Moscow metro, although generally considered safe, does not offer sufficient accessibility for those with disabilities. Access for those with limited mobility is not guaranteed even in the larger cities in Russia as crossing streets can sometimes require the use of pedestrian underpasses, which may include steps and steep ramps.
Railway transport in Russia is mostly under the control of the state-run Russian Railways monopoly, which is readily used by Russian commuters and visitors and accounts for over 3.6 per cent of Russia’s GDP. When travelling by train, passengers must adhere to the strict security procedure, including luggage and body scans. Those travelling on the rail network should check they are not in possession of any prohibited items prior to travel. There is a threat of possible terror attacks on the public transport systems in Russia, however law enforcement does conduct regular anti-terror operations to mitigate this risk. Due to the country’s size, travel by helicopter is often used in more remote areas of the country, and is regularly employed to transport oil and gas personnel. Travellers are advised to remain vigilant when travelling within Russia and in the event of an elevated threat to safety should contact law enforcement or their relevant embassy.
It is important to note that some prescription medicines from other countries may not be legal in Russia. It is strongly recommended that visitors check the ingredients of medicines in their possession before travelling as some ingredients require a prescription in the traveller’s name, translated into Russian. Health insurance cover is essential when travelling to Russia as treatment can be costly and private medical facilities typically require payment by cash or credit card prior to treatment. Medical care in many areas of the country outside of the larger cities is considered to be below Western standards. It may be difficult to find English-speaking staff in hospitals and the facilities are basic. There have been recent significant funding cuts to Russian healthcare institutions, resulting in a reduced quality of services, and limited resources.
Food and water borne illnesses can occur in any country and it is always advised to exercise caution when eating prepared food or drinking tap water in order to avoid becoming unwell. Access to clean tap water can vary between regions in Russia: if you are unsure about the water quality it is always advised to boil water prior to drinking or buy bottled water. Around 70 per cent of drinking water comes from surface water and 30 per cent from groundwater. As of 2015, around 72 per cent of the population had access to improved sanitation facilities. The levels of hygiene and access to clean water are greatly increased in the larger, more populous, cities. The quality of prepared food also varies across the country: it is recommended to practice good hygiene and to wash high-risk foods with untreated water where possible. The air quality also varies across Russia and, as with most major cities, the air quality in Moscow is considered slightly worse.
The lack of available investment in Russia over the last 20 years has meant that the level of infrastructure in the country is considered lower than most Western countries. The majority of investment projects are located in Western Russia due to the higher population density and economic activity. The transport systems in Moscow and St Petersburg are efficient and much of the commercial haulage is transported via the vast rail networks. Most areas in Western Russia have access to telecommunications systems. Internet and email services are now widespread and increasingly being improved. Western Russia is regarded as the primary political, cultural, and economical hub of the expansive country.
Geologically, Russia can experience small earth tremors, however these are typically without consequence. Russia can occasionally experience earthquakes and the east of the country is more likely to be affected, in areas such as Eastern Siberia. The country has previously suffered from forest fires in the central region and river floods however these are rare.
RISK LEVEL: MODERATE to HIGH
There are on-going security issues in Russia. Travellers are encouraged to seek country risk advice prior to travel. Areas within 10km of the border with the Ukrainian Donetsk and Lugansk Oblasts are typically regarded as unsafe areas for travel. The North Caucasus region remains insecure due to the threat of terror activity and a low-level risk of civil and political unrest. Travel to most parts of Russia for many Western nationals is considered relatively safe. However, travellers are advised to remain vigilant as they can be targets for criminal activity. Russia is known for its repressive treatment of its citizens and, in some cases, visitors to the country. Travellers must ensure they are aware of the common and local laws of the areas in which they are visiting.
Russian authorities have been previously accused of arbitrarily detaining individuals and it should be borne in mind that Police do not need to show probable cause in order to stop, question, or detain individuals. There are currently no laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression in Russia. Since 2017, credible reports have been received outlining the arrest, torture, and extrajudicial killing of gay men in areas such a Chechnya. Harassment and discrimination based on religion and race is also a possible risk to travellers. To ensure their own safety, those visiting Russia are encouraged to exercise discretion to avoid victimisation. Following recent legislation, Jehovah’s witnesses are considered an extremist organisation and can be subject to harassment. Other minority groups, such as Scientologists, are also subject to persecution.
Common low-level crimes are a threat to those visiting Russia. Muggings, theft, and assault can occur throughout the country; although most likely to happen in the larger cities and tourist areas of Moscow, St Petersburg and Novgorod. Travellers should keep their passport and valuables safe on their person and be particularly attentive when visiting crowded areas as they could be a target of pick-pockets. Visitors to the country have reported having their drinks spiked in bars and being assaulted. As such, it is recommended that drinks should not be left unattended in social environments. As in many other countries, credit card theft and fraud are a possible threat to travellers, authorities advise to be vigilant of large groups of women and children begging, and street gangs who may target foreign nationals if they appear to be wealthy. Individuals are also advised against carrying large amounts of cash for the same reason. The currency in Russia is the Russian rouble (RUB), however credit and debit cards are used widely in major Russian cities. It is illegal to pay directly for general transactions with dollars or euros, banks and some shopping centres offer currency exchange. It is important to keep receipts of any purchases you make while in Russia. There are strict regulations regarding the export of items of historical significance or antiques.
Rail travel in Russia is considered to be the safest mode of transport. All major railway stations have airport-style security, and passenger’s bags are scanned to ensure they are not carrying prohibited items. The use of taxis is common in the cities of Moscow and St Petersburg. Travellers are advised against flagging down taxis, as they may be unlicensed. Where possible, use taxi applications to book transport, such as Uber or Yandex, or your hotel will be able to assist in recommending a reputable company. Ensure the metre is working correctly or agree on a fare prior to travel to avoid being overcharged or scammed.
Other potential threats to visitors include fraud and cybercrime. In recent times, people have reported being the victims of fraud through using dating services, by sending money or buying gifts online and in person. Exercise caution when sending money and ensure the recipient is a legitimate person or company. Cybercrime continues to be a significant problem across Russia. Organised crime groups and hackers work together to threaten individuals and companies with the use of malware and sophisticated spear phishing. It is also important to note that electronic and telephone communications can be subject to surveillance without prior warning. The Russian System for Operational-Investigative Activities (SORM) legally permits authorities to monitor all data within Russia’s networks. This could present an issue of security and privacy for travellers who are LGBTQ. Travellers should exercise caution when using social media and device applications, as they can leave individual’s data vulnerable to external actors who may also be able to access their information.
A number of Western nationals have previously been kidnapped in the North Caucasus region. The use of kidnap-for-ransom can be employed by organised crime gangs, or terror groups, in order to try and attain political or financial gain. Previous kidnappings have involved aid workers, businesspeople, and journalists. Attackers have sometimes been known to impersonate police officers, therefore travellers are advised to ask to see identification if stopped. There is a threat of terror attacks on travellers to Russia and so individuals are advised to exercise caution in large cities and when travelling on Russian public transport or in areas of increased threat, such as the North Caucasus and border with Ukraine.
RISK LEVEL: HIGH
Russia faces an enduring threat of terrorism. A number of recent attacks carried out by Islamist terror groups have prompted increased counter-terror operations by the Russian authorities. We consider Russia to have a significant threat of future terror attacks. The most probable targets for attacks are the major cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, as well as areas such as Chechnya and Dagestan in the Caucasus region. Although the once high levels of insurgent violence in North Caucasus area have significantly declined since 2015, the area remains insecure. Travel to the area is strongly advised against by the FCO and US Government, and consultation is strongly advised if travel to the region is imperative for operational purposes.
Since 2017, Russian security forces have uncovered several terror plots in cities including St Petersburg, Moscow, and Stavropol. The most recent large-scale attack occurred in April 2017 on the St Petersburg metro, killing 15 and injuring many more. Suicide bombings appear to be a recurrent tactic employed by insurgents in Russia, as seen in an attack on a town hall in Grozny, Chechnya in 2014, wherein a suicide bombing killed five people. Further suicide bomb attacks include the targeting of public transport in Volgograd in 2013 killing 41 and an explosion at Moscow Domodedovo airport in 2011 killing 37. Attacks such as this emulate the wave of suicide bombings that took place in the North Caucasus conflict, primarily between 2000-2011. However, insurgents were also found to be responsible for an explosion that caused an aeroplane crash in 2015, killing 224 people travelling on-board a Russian operated flight to St Petersburg. It was hailed as the deadliest air disaster in Russian aviation history.
Travellers should remain vigilant in all public places; crowded areas such as sports arenas and entertainment venues, and when using public transport. Estimates suggest that there as many as 1,700 home-grown violent extremists based primarily in the North Caucasus region. Many of those involved in present day Islamic insurgencies have travelled to areas in Syria and Iraq to support the Islamic Sate’s (IS) operations. This presents a threat in the form of returning fighters from these areas to bring with them intent and capability given the recent defeat suffered on the ground by IS in places such as Syria. There continues to be frequent attacks between secessionist Islamic extremists and Russian forces in the North Caucasus, an escalation of violence in this area could prompt further attacks throughout the country. An affiliate group of IS in the largely Muslim North Caucasus region known as CEIS (the blending of Caucasus Emirate or CE, and IS) have claimed responsibility for many small-scale attacks in the region. Another faction of the CE insurgents have pledged allegiance to Al Qa`ida. The targets of the strikes carried out by these groups are largely law enforcement personnel, however there is a substantial risk to Western nationals and particularly those engaged in humanitarian work, business, or journalism.
In response to the extant terror threat in the country, a Russian intelligence initiative, the National Antiterrorist Committee (NAK) has been tasked with heading up counter-terror polices and ensuring the cooperation between intelligence services and law enforcement. The counter-terrorism forces in Russia employ many of the tactics employed by other similar organisations globally. The monitoring of extremist websites and implementation of stricter anti-terrorism laws has attempted to reduce the quantity of individuals acting upon extremist views. The military and law enforcement displayed their counter-terrorism capabilities at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics, using a range of low and high-tech security provisions such as drones and control centres to monitor online activity.
Russia faces a heightened threat of future terror attacks from Islamic insurgency organisations. Although travellers have not been outlined as specific targets, it is possible those visiting the country may become a target from explosive attacks as seen in recent years. Travellers are advised to avoid the North Caucasus region, specifically the areas of Chechnya and Dagestan, where a low-level conflict endures. The larger cities in Russia, such as the capital of Moscow are safe to visit, although vigilance and caution are encouraged. Public transport and large crowded areas are possible targets for terror attacks, travellers are advised to contact Russian law enforcement personnel if they believe there may be a threat, the emergency service number is 112. Security services conduct frequent counter-terrorism operations and travellers are advised to cooperate with any restrictions of travel or curfews imposed due to this.