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Jamal Khashoggi: Russia refuses to criticise Saudi Arabia in wake of journalist's murder

Richard Hall

Saudi Arabia has faced a wave of international condemnation over the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi earlier this month, with many allies considering downgrading ties or halting weapons sales.

But, outside of Riyadh’s Gulf allies, there is one other place where criticism has been non-existent: Russia.

In public statements since Khashoggi’s disappearance, Moscow has sought to downplay the case and largely refused to go beyond acknowledging official Saudi statements. It also sent a high-level delegation that included billionaire oligarchs to an investment conference that is being boycotted by Riyadh’s key allies in the West.

Russia’s reluctance to pass judgement in the case comes at a time of steadily improving economic and political ties between the two energy giants, and as Moscow faces international pressure for allegedly carrying out its own assassinations of opponents abroad.

“Obviously someone like Putin isn’t going to be terribly worried about the killing of a journalist, particularly after what has just happened in Britain,” said Mark N Katz, professor of government at the George Mason University, referring to the attempted assassination of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal, on UK soil, which the British government has blamed on Russia.

“Putin sees Saudi-Western relations in decline, and he’s prepared to take advantage of that. The Russians are fully aware that they are unlikely to replace America and the West as the primary ally, but they are happy to have a piece of it,” added Professor Katz, who specialises in Russia-Middle East relations.

Speaking on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment on the details of the case, saying only that “one needs to have verified information about the incident to react to it.”

He added that Russia acknowledges Saudi Arabia’s official statement in which it said the royal family had no connection to the killing.

Russian president Vladimir Putin has also urged caution. When asked about the case last week, he would not say how the killing might affect ties between the two countries.

“Why do we need to take some steps towards the deterioration of our relations if we don’t understand what is happening? But if someone understands and someone believes that the murder occurred, then I hope that some evidence will be provided,” he said.

Khashoggi, a well-known Saudi journalist who wrote articles that were critical of the Saudi government, went missing on 2 October after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Saudi Arabia initially insisted that Khashoggi had left the consulate, but after a steady stream of leaks by Turkish investigators, it said the 59-year-old was killed there in a “fist fight”.

Press rights campaigners have pointed to Russia’s own dark history on journalist killings as a reason for its laissez-faire attitude to Khashoggi’s death.

According to research by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 58 journalists have been killed in direct retaliation for their work in Russia since 1992 — government officials are implicated in at least 13 of those deaths. One of the most high profile victims was Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist known for her critical coverage of the Chechen conflict, who was killed by gunmen in her apartment building in 2006.

“In many of those killings, we haven’t seen the masterminds being brought to justice,” said Gulnoza Said, the programme coordinator for Europe and Central Asia at the Committee to Protect Journalists. “The Russian authorities have a record that is no less brutal than what we are seeing in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.”

“It’s interesting to see how autocrats who have a record treating journalists in a very brutal way and even killing journalists ... are following the case very closely, but have made no clear condemnation,” Said added.

The latest Saudi explanation for the killing was not enough to convince many western allies, who have sought to distance themselves from the kingdom.

Last week, the US and the UK – the two biggest suppliers of arms to Saudi Arabia – announced they were pulling out of a major investment conference in Riyadh. The US treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin and the UK international trade secretary Liam Fox had both been scheduled to attend the Future Investment Initiative conference.

Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, attends the Future Investment Initiative conference, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on Tuesday (AP)

The conference, which began on Tuesday, is being hosted by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de facto ruler. A number of the suspects linked to Khashoggi’s killing are alleged to have close ties to the 33-year-old heir apparent.

Mr Mnuchin did keep a scheduled meeting with the crown prince, however. Defending the trip before he arrived, he said the talks would be focused on fighting terrorism funding and Iran.

Russia, meanwhile, sent a high-level delegation to the conference, dubbed “Davos in the desert”, and its deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said on Monday that ties with Saudi Arabia have not been affected by the killing.

“Yes, we [had] visits, our inter-ministerial top-level delegation went, there were meetings,” he said, according to the Russian TASS news agency. “As for this case, it is notorious, but we have to wait for the results of the investigation,” he added.

In a widely anticipated speech to address the facts of the case on Tuesday, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan cast doubt on the official Saudi version of events, and called for those who ordered the killing to be "brought to account." Just hours later, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund announced that Saudi Arabia was ready to invest $5bn (£3.4bn) in a major natural gas project in the Russian Arctic.

Kirill Dmitriev, who manages the $10bn fund, described Saudi Arabia as a “great partner … not just a partner in investments or oil ... we believe modernisation and transformation in Saudi Arabia is truly historic.”

The deal comes at a time of steadily improving ties between Moscow and Riyadh.

Last year, King Salman became the first Saudi monarch to visit Russia, in what was viewed as a landmark step in relations between the two energy giants following years of Cold War enmity. The two signed $3bn worth of energy contracts following the trip, according to Russian minister of energy Aleksandr Novak.

Earlier this year, the crown prince said discussions were underway for a long-term oil production-cut deal with Russia that would last for 10 to 20 years. The deal would extend a year-to-year deal aimed at cutting supply to counter a collapse in oil prices in 2016.

Russia’s consistent, albeit muted position on Khashoggi’s death stands in contrast to the reaction to Saudi Arabia’s biggest supplier of weapons, the United States.

President Donald Trump’s administration has sent mixed messages over the past two weeks, prevaricating from promising “severe punishment” to expressing a desire to protect massive arms sales to the kingdom.

The administration’s response has been complicated by close ties between Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and the crown prince.

Mr Kushner told CNN on Monday that the US was in “a fact-finding phase”.