Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2249

Are Russians warming toward the West?;
Congress turns up the heat


September 5, 2018


August 2:

The news that a Russian spy infiltrated the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and operated there for over a decade is almost as alarming as the fact that the government agency that hired her appears relatively unconcerned by the discovery.
The Guardian reports that last year, U.S. counterintelligence investigators learned that a Russian woman employed by the U.S. Secret Service at the Embassy for over a decade and with access to "highly confidential" information was holding frequent unauthorized meetings with Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB). The Secret Service, for its part, claims that the woman was "at no time...provided or placed in a position to obtain national security information." But the Service also appears to have downplayed the situation: masking the woman's firing among last summer's mass diplomatic expulsion, failing to launch an inquiry into the breach, and choosing not to disclose the situation to Congress. Consequently, anonymous sources told The Guardian that the situation merited a formal investigation of the Secret Service to determine the full consequences of the alleged spy's activities, speculating that they may even be tied to Russia's successful hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016.

Now that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is on the brink of victory in southwestern Syria, Russia has deployed its military police to secure the country's border with Israel along the Golan Heights.
According to Reuters, the Russian Defense ministry announced plans for the deployment, and for the construction of eight new observation posts are designed to support the return of UN peacekeepers – a mission that has been suspended since 2012 due to safety concerns – and to prevent "possible provocations against UN posts." The Russian military police will reportedly remain until the Syrian government has full control of the territory and the situation has "stabilized." Reuters writes that this outcome remains complicated by the presence in Syria of Iranian forces, who are currently maintaining a distance of 85 miles from the Israeli border. Israel considers any Iranian presence in Syria intolerable and has continued launching airstrikes on militant positions in the disputed territory.

Moscow's Levada Center has released new polling data appearing to indicate that Russians' perceptions of the West are warming.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that the percentage of respondents with "mainly good" impressions of the United States rose from 18 percent in May to 39 percent by the end of July, while the percentage of those with "very bad" impressions fell from 29 percent to 12 percent during the same period. Perceptions of the European Union followed a similar trend, with the share of positive respondents increasing from 28 percent to 42 percent. Moreover, nearly 70 percent of the country now supports the idea of a "dramatic improvement" in Russian-Western relations.

[EDITORS' NOTE: Given the effect of Russia's increasingly authoritarian political climate on pollsters and respondents alike, the results of public opinion surveys in Russia should be viewed with some caution.]

August 3:

A bipartisan group of senior senators is pushing new legislation designed to punish Russia for its malign activities abroad.
Newsweek reports that the measures in the proposed legislation, formally titled the "Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act of 2018," include formal inquiries into Russian interference abroad, the potential designation of Moscow as a "state sponsor of terrorism," and a ban on both the purchase of Russian sovereign debt and investment in Russian energy projects. The legislation also ramps up the pressure directly on the Russian president and his inner circle by proposing investigations into Russian investments in foreign luxury real estate, new sanctions on all individuals that "facilitate illicit and corrupt activities" on Vladimir Putin's behalf, and the public disclosure of Putin's net worth. This last measure is particularly personal, according to Newsweek, given long-standing accusations that the Russian president has exploited his power to amass an illicit multi-billion dollar fortune during his time in office – a charge that the Kremlin continues to staunchly deny.

Russia wants American help in rebuilding Syria, and is resorting to private top military channels to obtain it.
According to a U.S. government memo seen by Reuters, General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, received a letter from his Russian counterpart, General Valery Gerasimov, at the end of July proposing avenues for cooperation in Syria. Specifically, Gerasimov's letter requested U.S. assistance in reconstructing areas under control of the Assad regime in order to facilitate the return of Syrian refugees from neighboring countries – a project requiring a massive renovation of infrastructure to the tune of at least $250 billion, according to UN estimates.

While neither general's office has agreed to comment on the exchange, Reuters notes that the issues Gerasimov raised fall outside the bounds of traditional military-to-military communications. Reportedly, the memo emphasizes that Gerasimov's request was not an outcome of the Helsinki summit, despite Russian attempts to portray it that way in the media and in other diplomatic engagements. The memo also reaffirms current policy that the United States will only support joint rebuilding efforts with Russia if such efforts are part of a UN-supervised political process to conduct a peaceful, election-based political transition, and if refugee returns are "safe, voluntary, and dignified."

Related Categories: Middle East; Russia; Democracy & Governance; Human Rights; Russia and Eurasia Program

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