Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2219

Moscow undermines OPCW efforts on Syria;
The Kremlin's opaque counterterrorism policy

June 4, 2018

April 26:

As the UN's Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) continues its investigation into the April 7th bombings in Douma, Russia is ramping up its campaign to undermine allegations of chemical weapon use by the Assad regime.
Al-Jazeera reports that Russian officials held a press conference at the OPCW's headquarters in The Hague, flying in more than a dozen physicians and victims from Douma – including young children – to testify that the episode was staged by Western-aligned volunteer rescue workers. During the conference, the participants blamed "unknown people" for creating chaos and panic, denied that victims of the bombing exhibited symptoms of exposure to a chemical agent, and claimed that there were no fatalities during the attack.

None of the testimony was backed up by scientific evidence, nor were the witnesses' identities confirmed, although many reportedly appeared in videos of the attack that prompted retaliatory airstrikes by the U.S., UK, and France. Yet Russian Ambassador to the Netherlands Alexander Shulgin boasted that "after this briefing, no one would have a shadow of a doubt who distributes fake news and who is waging an information war." But Western nations banded together to boycott the press conference, decrying Russia's flagrant theatrics and deliberate attempt to weaken the OPCW's active investigation.

Russia and China are planning to hold war games in the Pacific as part of an effort by both countries to "check American power,"
Newsweek reports. The announcement of the new exercises was made by Colonel Wu Qian, a spokesman for China's Defense Ministry, who told reporters that the two countries had formalized plans for the latest iteration of their "Joint Sea" exercise, which will take place later this year "in the Yellow Sea waters off the Chinese east coast city of Qingdao." Last year's drills, notes Newsweek, saw "the first-ever Russia-China naval drills in the Baltic Sea," as well as joint land training in Russia's Far Eastern province of Vladivostok.

April 27:

Syria could soon receive Russia's S-300 despite Western and Israeli objections.
According to Sputnik, representatives of Russia's state arms exporter, ROSOBORONEXPORT, have announced that the conglomerate it stands ready to supply the regime of Bashar al-Assad with units of the advanced Russian anti-aircraft system, if the Kremlin makes the decision to green-light the sale.

Just how successful is the Kremlin's counterterrorism strategy? Russia's leadership has long extolled the proactive measures taken by the country's assorted security services to keep its citizens safe from extremist elements, and periodic skirmishes between police and Islamic radicals continue to take place throughout the country. But the actual effectiveness of Russia's anti-terror efforts remains largely unverified,
a new expose from Novaya Gazeta asserts. According to the paper, while Russia's various agencies "regularly report" on the effectiveness of the measures taken by their departments, "it is not possible to verify all this information for the most part." That is because, "with rare exceptions," the names of those who either attempt or commit terrorist acts are withheld from the public. Similarly, "with few exceptions, nothing is known about the trials of the defendants in terrorism, nor about the sentences passed."

The result is an opaque and unverifiable Kremlin policy. According to the Novaya Gazeta study, between November 2015 and November 2017 Russia's main security service, the FSB, made no fewer than 3505 public statements and disclosures about having successfully thwarted terrorist attacks or apprehended extremist actors. During that same period, however, just 14 arrests and 13 prosecutions of such elements were carried out by authorities - raising serious questions about the veracity of Kremlin claims.

April 29:

As tensions between Israel and Iran continue to rise over the latter's growing strategic footprint in Syria, Russia is quietly moving into the role of regional mediator.
Al-Monitor reports that, in recent weeks, National Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev has held no fewer than "40 bilateral meetings," with regional officials, "including separate one-on-ones with the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani, and the deputy chairman of Israel's National Security Council, Eitan Ben-David," in an effort to diffuse tensions between the two countries.

The reasons for Russia's newfound activism, according to Al-Monitor, are both pragmatic and opportunistic. In addition to seeking to reduce "heightened regional tensions," Russian President Vladimir Putin also "may be seeking to play his hand as power broker in the Middle East, where his diplomatic cards may prove decisive, if played well."

Related Categories: Russia; Russia and Eurasia Program; Ukraine

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