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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2228

The risks of being a Russian political opponent;
A delicate tango with Tehran

Edited by Ilan Berman and Margot Van Loon
July 3, 2018


May 29:

Russia and Iran may be longtime strategic allies, but Moscow is now rethinking at least one aspect of its partnership with the Islamic Republic.
Reuters reports that Russian oil giant Lukoil has opted not to move forward with plans to develop future projects within the Islamic Republic, at least temporarily. The move comes as a direct response to renewed economic pressure from the United States on Iran's trading partners in the wake of the Trump administration's decision to abandon the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. "Considering the latest developments, I guess, it's too early to say what our plans [regarding Iran] will be," a Lukoil official has confirmed. "For the moment, basically, we have everything on hold."

Political prisoner Oleh Sentsov has agreed to receive medical treatment as he continues his high-stakes hunger strike in a Siberian correctional facility.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, the prominent Crimean filmmaker – who was arrested in 2014 and convicted on terrorism charges after staunchly opposing the Russian annexation of his homeland – is in "satisfactory" health following the treatment. Sentsov embarked on the strike two weeks ago to shame the Kremlin into releasing all Ukrainian political prisoners currently detained in Russian jails, timing the strike strategically to coincide with the kick-off of the World Cup. Sentsov is currently serving a twenty-year sentence, and multiple human rights groups have championed his cause. He denies all charges leveled against him, saying "a trial by occupiers cannot be fair by definition."

May 30:

Human rights campaigner and Putin antagonist Bill Browder was arrested briefly in Spain this week in a perplexing episode that generated international backlash and embarrassment for Interpol.
The Daily Telegraph reports that Spanish authorities with a Russian Interpol warrant in hand took Browder into custody. Browder tweeted live updates as he was taken to a Madrid police station, where confusion ensued until the police released the financier two hours later – apparently after being advised to do so by Interpol's secretary general. Browder, who has been targeted by the Kremlin for his dogged anti-corruption campaign and role in the creation of the Magnitsky Act, described the incident as the "sixth time that Russia has abused Interpol in my case."

The Spanish police blamed Interpol for failing to delete an allegedly expired warrant for Browder from its system, but Browder maintains the warrant he was shown was active. Interpol, for its part, denied ever issuing a warrant for Browder in the first place. As the law enforcement entities traded blame, British and EU officials criticized the Spanish authorities for their brief role in assisting Russia's politically-driven persecution of Browder and failing to protect his rights.

What happened to Arkady Babchenko, exactly?
The Daily Beast reports that, after initial reports that the Russian journalist and Kremlin critic had been gunned down in Ukraine, Babchenko himself went public to disclose that the staged killing had been a ruse by Ukrainian authorities that was designed to entrap his would-be assassin. Apparently, no one except Babchenko and relevant Ukrainian officials - not even his wife - was aware of the deception.

Ukrainian officials are hailing the subterfuge as a success, and claiming that the sting - which was carried out by Ukraine's main security service, the SBU - had potentially saved "dozens" of Kremlin critics whose lives might otherwise have been at risk. Journalists and reporters, however, are crying foul over the deception, which they say calls the long-term credibility of the Ukrainian government into question.

June 1:

Is there a "secret Russian-Israeli deal" to mitigate Iranian influence in Syria? As the latest public comments by Russian officials appear to suggest a desire for Iranian forces to leave the war-torn country,
Al-Monitor reports increasing engagement between Russian and Israeli officials. Al-Monitor's Russia editor and political analyst Maxim Suchkov suggests that the engagement is part of the Kremlin's efforts to facilitate Russian forces accomplishing their key military objectives in southern Syria. Specifically, Russia seeks Israeli non-interference during a planned critical offensive against opposition forces in the province of Daraa. Israel, for its part, opposes the operation because it would strengthen the hand of Hezbollah and other Iranian-linked militias that maintain a presence in the territory. But if the Israelis receive a Russian guarantee that the proxies would withdraw or refrain from participating in the offensive – perhaps in exchange for increased deployments of Russian military police to the region – their tune might change.

Yet according to Suchkov, Russia continues to consider Iran a critical partner in Syria, and is more likely burnishing its role as regional mediator than trying to permanently sideline Tehran. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told audiences at the Primakov Readings conference on May 30th that "we disagree with assessments based on the thesis that Iran is the root of all problems in the region... When we look at the regional situation with our Israeli colleagues and we outline our approach, we stress a need to engage all parties in negotiations, instead of seeking to isolate them."