Russia Reform Monitor - No 2181

Nationalist activism on the rise;
Is Russia really eyeing the exits in Syria?

January 9, 2018

December 9:

The Kremlin is expanding its nuclear business in the Middle East.
The Jordan Times reports that the Kremlin and the Jordanian government have signed a memorandum enlisting Russia's help in furthering Jordan's nuclear program. The agreement, signed by representatives of the Jordan Atomic Energy Commission (JAEC) and ROSATOM, Russia's State Atomic Energy corporation, represents part of Amman's efforts "to implement the national nuclear programme as a strategic option to strengthen local energy sources and boost the national economy."

December 11:

Recent military maneuvers by the United States and its regional allies in Asia have raised the hackles of Russia's military brass. According to Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, new drills by the U.S., Japan and South Korea aimed at countering the growing missile threat from North Korea are unnecessarily provocative. "Carrying out military training in regions surrounding North Korea will only heighten hysteria and make the situation unstable," Gerasimov warned Japanese Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera at a meeting in Tokyo in comments
carried by Reuters.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The visit of Gerasimov to Japan - the first by a senior Russian military official in nearly a decade - reflects a quickening of the complicated Russo-Japanese relationship amid rising tensions in the Asian theater. Territorial disputes have plagued contacts between Moscow and Tokyo for decades, and have prevented the two capitals from forging a stable diplomatic relationship. But the specter of growing U.S. military involvement in the area as a result of tensions with North Korea has led Russia to adopt a more activist profile in the region in an effort to shape the strategic environment there.]

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that members of a Russian nationalist group tried to prevent audience members from viewing a Moscow screening of a new documentary about the conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The activists formed a human chain in an unsuccessful attempt to physically prevent moviegoers from entering the theater, according to footage obtained by the news agency.

Meanwhile, Russia's second city has seen another outburst of racial tension. The culprits this time,
The Moscow Times reports, were three nationalists who attacked passengers in the St. Petersburg subway with weapons. The incident appears to have been racially motivated; the nationalists, now in custody by authorities, yelled "this car is for Russians" and directed their assault against a man of "non-Slavic appearance."

December 12:

On December 11th, Vladimir Putin paid a surprise state visit to Syria. The Russian president's trip included meetings with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and an inspection of the Khmeimim airbase in northwestern Syria, which serves as a logistical hub for Russia's extensive - and ongoing - air campaign in the country. The visit culminated in a suggestion that big changes were in store for Russia's military footprint there. As a result of recent successes against the Islamic State terrorist group, Putin announced, Russia was beginning the withdrawal of a "significant part" of its Syrian contingent. The redeployment, Russian military officials have subsequently clarified, will include twenty-three (of at least thirty-five active) fixed-wing aircraft and two helicopter gunships, as well as select detachments of special forces troops, military police, and field engineers.

But despite the announcement, the Kremlin has no intention of leaving the country militarily,
a new analysis from the Institute for the Study of War posits. Rather, Putin's declaration likely represents a tactical move to "rotate out select units for refit-and-repair, remove redundant capabilities, and reinsert alternative weapons systems better suited for the next phase of pro-regime operations," write experts Matti Suomenaro and Jackson Danbeck. The result will be a "refocusing" of the Russian air campaign against opposition forces in Western Syria now that the threat posed by IS has receded. "Russia likely intends to set conditions for future pro-regime operations to contain and ultimately clear opposition-held Idlib Province," Suomenaro and Danbeck suggest.

Related Categories: Middle East; Russia; North Korea; Russia and Eurasia Program; Nuclear Proliferation

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