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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2195

Russia's troublesome Taliban ties;
A new focus on nuclear competition

Edited by Ilan Berman
March 12, 2018

February 4:

A Syrian jihadist group appears to have downed a Russian military plane in Syrian airspace.
According to the Long War Journal, Hayat Tahrir al Sham - al-Qaeda's chief affiliate in Syria - is taking credit for the shoot-down of a Russian Su-25 fighter jet over northwestern Syria. Russia's Defense Ministry has confirmed that one of its fighter jets was shot down over the "Idlib de-escalation zone," that "the jet was brought down with a portable anti-aircraft missile system," and that the "pilot was killed while fighting against terrorists."

Iran is attempting to exacerbate Russian-American tensions. In recent comments
carried by CNBC, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani blasted the new U.S. nuclear posture as a threat to its strategic partner, Russia - and as a sign of American hypocrisy. "The Americans are shamelessly threatening Russia with a new atomic weapon," Rouhani said in a televised address. "The same people who supposedly believe that using weapons of mass destruction is a crime against humanity... are talking about new weapons to threaten or use against rivals."

February 5:

Russia is actively shielding the Assad regime from the international consequences of its chemical weapons usage, America's top diplomat at the United Nations has charged.
According to CBS, U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley has told the UN Security Council that Russia's recent proposal for an investigative body to probe the Syrian regime's conduct following repeated regime use of chemical weapons against opposition forces amounts to an effort by Moscow "to whitewash the findings of the last investigation" by the UN into Syria's possession of chemical weapons, which the Assad regime pledged to have dismantled back in 2013. Despite that pledge, the Syrian regime has continued to carry out suspected chemical attacks against its opponents, most recently in early February, and the Trump administration believes that the Syrian government is now developing new, more sophisticated chemical munitions.

February 6:

Russia's growing influence in Afghanistan is generating alarm among U.S. officials.
The Washington Examiner reports that a high-ranking State Department official has told Congress that Moscow's support for the Taliban and other forces has the potential to undermine the power and legitimacy of the Afghan government, which Washington backs. "There are reports that Russia has provided support to groups in northern Afghanistan that are aligned with the Taliban," Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan has told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This assistance greatly complicates U.S. efforts in Afghanistan, Sullivan explained, because "we're not willing to go to the peace table today with the Taliban because of their violent terrorist activities in Kabul."

For its part, Russia's government has denied this connection, with the Foreign Ministry stating, last summer, that "Russia is not supplying weapons to the Taliban," and "only maintains contact with them so as to protect the security of Russian citizens in Afghanistan and to encourage the Taliban to join the national reconciliation process." Sullivan, however, has told lawmakers he believes that this represents "sort of a hedging strategy." Russia, he said, is "playing both sides, dealing with the [Afghan central] government in Kabul but also supporting the Taliban."

The Trump administration's new National Military Strategy has identified competition with Russia as a key priority.
In testimony before the House Armed Services Committee, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis laid out that the "principal priorities" of his department "are long-term strategic competitions with China and Russia." "Given the magnitude of the threats they pose to U.S. security and prosperity today, Congress must commit to both an increased and sustained investment in our capabilities," Mattis urged.

A key component of this competition with Russia, Mattis laid out, lies in the nuclear realm. "While Russia has reduced only the number of its accountable strategic nuclear force as agreed upon in the New START treaty, Russia is modernizing these weapons as well as other nuclear systems. Moscow advocates a theory of nuclear escalation for military conflict." In order to respond effectively, he said, "we must recapitalize our Cold War legacy nuclear deterrence forces, continuing a modernization program initiated during the previous Administration."

Related Categories: Russia; Missile Defense; Terrorism; Radical Islam; Space Policy; Russia and Eurasia Program

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