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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2213

New U.S. sanctions begin to bite;
Russia frustrates response to Syrian atrocities

Edited by Ilan Berman and Margot Van Loon
May 15, 2018

April 9:

The saga over the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal has grown more sinister.
London's Daily Mail has reported that suspicious Russian communiques were intercepted by British intelligence on the day of the poisoning - suggesting official Kremin complicity in the attack. According to the newspaper, a message picked up by a British RAF listening post on Cyprus contained the phrase "the package has been delivered" and that two people have "made a successful egress." The interceptions were key pieces of evidence in the dossier given to allied countries in preparation for the mass coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats.

For its part, the Kremlin continues to maintain that it has no link to "Novichok," the substance used in the attack, since the nerve agent is meant to be administered as a gas and is too toxic to be handled safely. However, the Daily Mail also reports that the Novichok used to poison the Skripal and his daughter had been specially modified to have a delayed effect via skin absorption, giving the attackers the ability to transport it and flee without being discovered.

The latest round of U.S. sanctions against Russia is having a noticeable effect on the country's economy. reports that the new restrictions, leveled by the Treasury Department on April 6th, have resulted in a "black monday" that saw a precipitous decline in the value of the Russian ruble and a decline of more than 10 percent in the country's stock market. Leading the destabilization was the fallout from the U.S. government's blacklisting of RUSAL, the aluminum empire headed by oligarch Oleg Deripaska, which was formally designated as part of the new measures.

April 10:

Russia has once again blocked UN efforts to investigate illegal chemical weapon activity in Syria. In response to the recent suspected use of sarin gas by the Assad regime against civilians in Eastern Ghouta, a U.S.-drafted resolution proposed issuing an official condemnation and creating an impartial body to investigate such attacks. However, with China abstaining and only Bolivia joining in opposition, Russia's veto killed the resolution.
According to Politico, Russian UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia unfavorably compared the new body proposed by the resolution to the Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) – the original organization set up to establish accountability for all suspected Syrian chemical attacks. A Security Council attempt to renew the JIM's mandate in November 2017 was also defeated by Russian veto. While voting down this latest resolution, Nebenzia simultaneously accused the U.S. of conspiring for it to fail in order to "justify the use of force against Syria."

According to Axios, Russia has begun jamming U.S. drones in Syrian airspace. The GPS jamming began after the Syrian government's suspected chemical weapon attack on Eastern Ghouta, and was reportedly intended to deter a potential U.S. response to the incident. The Department of Defense has refused to comment on the jamming's operational effects, but insists that U.S. countermeasures remain sufficient to protect all ongoing missions.

April 11:

Is Russia attempting to raise the stakes of U.S. action in Syria? As a U.S. aircraft carrier strike group heads to the region in response to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s latest suspected use of chemical weapons, eleven Russian warships – including an advanced Kilo-class submarine – armed with advanced anti-ship missiles have departed the port of Tartus.
Business Insider reports that the Russian military is closely tracking the carrier group's movements, and that their ships may be redeploying to sea to deter a strike from the group once it is in position.