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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2209

Fresh worries over Russian cyberwarfare;
New revelations about Moscow-Tehran ties

Edited by Ilan Berman and Margot Van Loon
April 26, 2018

March 25:

Russia's Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan has vehemently denied that Moscow is arming the Taliban, refuting accusations made by General John Nicholson, NATO's top commander in the country, to the BBC last week. The Embassy maintains that its limited contacts with the Taliban are solely intended to encourage peace talks and reconciliation in the war-torn nation. Taliban officials, however, have outlined a more substantial relationship with the Russians,
Reuters reports - although concrete evidence of financial or material support from Moscow to the Islamist movement has yet to surface.

Recent revelations regarding Russia's cyber attacks have generated a wave of activity and alarm within the U.S. government.
The Hill reports that the disclosures have prompted worries among American policymakers that Russia has the capability to "execute a disruptive cyberattack targeting the U.S. power grid." The results, according to Congressman Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, could be equivalent to a modern day "Pearl Harbor," one triggered not with bombs and torpedoes but with "an attack on our energy grid with rolling blackouts and chaos."

The U.S. government is mobilizing in response. The government is making "every effort to protect the electrical grid from those types of attacks," Energy Secretary Rick Perry has told the Senate Armed Services Committee - including through new proposals recently issued by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to increase cybersecurity measures and cyber incident reporting. Nevertheless, Russia's cyber activities against the United States remain both a practical and a policy problem for the U.S., lawmakers said, because they represent something akin to an "act of war" on the part of the Kremlin.

March 26:

The recent nerve agent attack on ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England is reverberating in Washington.
The Washington Times reports that the White House has expelled 60 Russian intelligence officers from the country and closed the Russian consulate in Seattle, Washington. The contingent of diplomats declared personae non gratae include 48 officials from the Russian embassy in Washington, DC, and 12 more attached to the Russian mission to the United Nations. The Administration's move mirrors similar measures undertaken by the British government and nearly two dozen others in retaliation for the Skripal affair, of which Russia has been accused.

Just how broad is the Kremlin's strategic partnership with Iran? The answer, according to new revelations
published in The Hill, is "very." According to the paper, a former employee of ROSATOM, Russia's nuclear agency, has come forward to charge that he provided evidence to the Obama administration of close cooperation between Moscow and Tehran - evidence that the Administration, eager to conclude a diplomatic deal with Iran, chose to ignore. "Moscow was supplying equipment, nuclear equipment, nuclear services to Iran," the informant, identified as William Campbell, has disclosed. "And Moscow, specifically the leadership in Moscow, were concerned that it would offset the strategy they had here in the United States if the United States understood the close relationship between Moscow and Tehran." According to Campbell, the cooperation was underpinned by "the same kind of payment network" between Russia and Iran that has been used to provide kickbacks by the Kremlin to collaborators in the U.S.

The charges have prompted anger and recriminations on Capitol Hill. The Hill reports that "Congressional Democrats have written a memo questioning Campbell’s credibility and memory while Republicans say his story calls into question the favorable treatment the Obama administration gave Russia."

March 27:

A fire in a shopping center in Russia's Kemerovo Oblast has claimed 64 lives and prompted a national scandal.
Moskovsky Komsomolets reports that Russian President Vladimir Putin has visited the region and met with local officials, who apologized to him for their mishandling of the incident - and for their attempts to downplay the severity of the fire in prior conversations with the Kremlin. The fatalities apparently stemmed from the fact that the doors to the mall's movie theater were improperly locked, which prevented patrons from exiting when the fire broke out. The incident, which took place on March 25th, has led to opposition rallies in the center of the region's capital - protests which local officials have ascribed not to grassroots discontent over their competence but to "opposition forces."

Related Categories: Russia; Afghanistan; Russia and Eurasia Program; Ukraine

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