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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2206

A new Kremlin counterterrorism sweep;
New details in Skripal case point to Russia

Edited by Ilan Berman and Margot Van Loon
April 12, 2018

March 14:

Reuters reports that Russia and Iran have strengthened their economic ties further through the conclusion of a new bilateral oil agreement. Under the terms of the contract just signed with the National Iranian Oil Company, Russian energy giant Zarubezhneft will develop Iran's Aban and Western Paydar oil fields, a project entailing $680 million in direct and indirect costs. Over the deal's ten-year lifespan, the two fields are projected to produce 67 million barrels of oil - 80 percent of which will belong to Zarubezhneft. Iran's Minister of Petroleum, Bijan Zanganeh, indicated that Iran is pursuing similar agreements with the other Russian oil giants as well, expressing his hope that this deal "won't be the last."

Russia's security forces have launched a new crackdown on Islamic radicals believed to be recruiting for ISIS.
Newsweek reports that as many as 60 suspected extremists have been detained as part of a far-reaching raid of multiple addresses and locations in Moscow believed to be involved in the facilitation of radical activity. Evidence uncovered as part of these raids includes forged documents, foreign passports and materiel necessary for the creation of false documentation "to help people cross borders illegally." The detained suspects are being accused by authorities of forming an "ethnic criminal group" to facilitate travel to Iraq and Syria in support of the Islamic State.

Just days ahead of Russia's national elections, the Kremlin is clamping down on the presence of foreign observers in the country.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Russia's Justice Ministry has branded two European election monitoring organizations - Germany's European Platform for Democratic Elections and Lithuania's International Elections Study Center - as "undesirable." "The legislation," RFE/RL notes, "enables the government to ban the organizations and launch criminal proceedings against Russian groups that work with them."

March 15:

The BBC reports that Britain's response to the poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal has generated solidarity from its allies and continued denials from Moscow. The Kremlin ignored British Prime Minister Theresa May's March 13th deadline for an explanation of the attack, which is now known to have been perpetrated using the nerve agent "Novichok." As a result, the UK expelled 23 Russian diplomats and announced impending additional penalties. Alongside these measures, the UK, France, Germany, and the U.S. issued a joint statement asserting Russia's guilt in the attack and condemning "the first offensive use of a nerve agent in Europe since the Second World War." British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson took particular issue with the Kremlin's "smug, sarcastic response," speculating that by design the attack allows Russia to "deny it and at the same time glory in it."

Russia's armed forces are intensifying their focus on military robotics.
Itar-TASS reports that, at a recent defense industry forum in Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stressed that the country is seeking to begin "serial production" of combat robots for use in the Russian military as early as this year. "We have started creating combat robots and their state and field trials are nearing completion," Shoigu noted. "I hope that already this year we will start serial production."

March 16:

As the scandal over the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal continues to unfold, many questions remain about the mysterious chemical agent at the center of the storm.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the nerve agent in question, Novichok, originated as a highly covert program in a Soviet government laboratory. The substance was hidden from international observers during trust-building scientific exchanges at the end of the Cold War, surfacing only when a dissident scientist leaked its existence in the early 1990s. Since the Russian government at the time denied that it was stockpiling Novichok, the country was permitted to accede to the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997 without being subject to verification protocols on the substance. The Skripal attack has since upset this balance, and NATO is now requesting that Russia open up its nerve-agent program for further investigation.

According to the Journal, the difficulty of obtaining sufficient quantities of a highly controlled substance like Novichok, along with its short lifespan and complex handling requirements, substantiates the idea that this attack could not have occurred without top-level approval and scientific expertise. Moreover, a law passed by the Duma in 2006 sanctioning hits on enemies of the state living abroad makes Moscow's vocal denials of involvement highly suspect. According to Russian security expert Mark Galeotti, the choice of this particular agent indicates that the Kremlin is not trying to hide its actions, but rather that "this is about the theater of assassination, about sending a message."