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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2161

The Kremlin doubles down on the Donbas;
A looming showdown in Syria

Edited by Amanda Azinheira, Evelyn Johns and Jack Verser
October 16, 2017


September 20:

Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's press secretary, has promised that Russia will continue to provide support to the residents of the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics in eastern Ukraine. The statement,
UAWire reports, comes in response to suggestions that Moscow might be scaling back its support for the separatist Ukrainian region - including by reallocating some aid to the Crimean peninsula and the Russian-speaking enclave of Kaliningrad. Peskov, however, has taken pains to indicate otherwise. According to him, "no one will abandon in a difficult situation the inhabitants of the unrecognized republics... who have been rejected by their country."

According to Defense One, Russia has tested an RS-24 "Yars" solid-fueled ICBM as part of the Kremlin's continued efforts to modernize the country's nuclear arsenal. Despite its accession to the 2010 New START treaty, which contains constraints on the development of new nuclear weapons, Russia has continued to increase the size of its atomic stockpile, adding over 396 new warheads since 2013. The United States and Russia continue to argue over the status of the "Yars" ICBM, with the U.S. claiming it to be a variant of the banned "Topol M" system, while Russia insisting that it is a brand new missile.

September 21:

The Washington Post reports that risk of direct confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria has reached new heights after Russia threatened to retaliate against the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) following their shelling of Syrian regime positions where Russian troops were stationed. These attacks came in response to strikes by Russian warplanes on an SDF position near the town of Deir al-Zour, where U.S.-led international coalition troops were also located. As American and SDF forces close in on ISIS-held territory from the northeast, regime soldiers and Russian forces approach from the west - setting Moscow and Washington on a potential collision course.

Efforts to head off past confrontations of this nature involved "deconfliction" agreements defining the area of operations of each nation's forces. However, such an agreement doesn't currently exist for the Euphrates River-Iraqi Border area, which represents a critical strategic area for all involved. Senior military officials have attempted to cool rising tensions between Russia and the United States through a series of high-level conversations, which are necessary since U.S. and Russian troops cannot currently communicate directly with one another.

September 22:

Newsweek reports that Russian hackers attempted to infiltrate Wisconsin voter registration systems prior to the 2016 presidential election. In all, twenty-one states, including Wisconsin, were alerted of a potential hack. However, the Department of Homeland Security has confirmed that Wisconsin's voter security remained intact despite Russian attempts to scan "internet-connected election infrastructure" in order to access voter registration databases.

September 24:

Iran's FARS News Agency has confirmed reports that Russia has begun work on a new military base in the Syrian city of Deir al-Zour. The base will have profound regional significance for all parties involved, as it is intended as a preventative measure to keep U.S.-backed SDF forces from accessing Syria's richest oil fields, located in the country's south. U.S.-backed forces and Russian-backed Syrian regime forces have begun to butt heads, and Russian officials have pledged that "[f]ire from positions in regions controlled by the SDF will be suppressed by all means necessary."

September 25:

Human rights are widely being violated on the Crimean Peninsula, a new United Nations report has charged.
The BBC reports that the international body's human rights agency has documented "grave human rights violations, such as arbitrary arrests and detentions, enforced disappearances, ill-treatment and torture, and at least one extra-judicial execution" since Russia took control of the Ukrainian territory in 2014. Moreover, the UN notes, human rights conditions have "significantly deteriorated" since Moscow's assumption of control. The Kremlin, for its part, has rejected the charges, with the country's human rights ombudsman, Tatyana Moskalkova, dismissed the report as "an unjust and biased assessment."