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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2257

A renaissance in Russo-Pakistani ties;
Carrots and sticks in Syria

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

August 29:

After weeks of domestic controversy, Russian President Vladimir Putin has finally unveiled the details of his pension reform plan.
According to news website Meduza, the initiative - outlined during a lengthy national address - includes the following particulars: the retirement age for Russian men will be hiked to 65, and for Russian women to age 60, mothers with multiple children will be allowed to retire at a younger age (between 50 and 57), while employers will be prohibited from firing workers approaching retirement age. Workers now close to the age of retirement, meanwhile, will receive doubled benefits as an offset for having to work for longer.

[EDITORS' NOTE: The plan put forth by Putin differs significantly from the original one formulated by the State Duma earlier this year, and includes provisions designed to respond to - and mute - criticisms that have emerged across a wide swathe of Russian society.]

As Russia prepares to host Chinese troops in its upcoming "Vostok-18" military exercise, Moscow is seizing every chance to coordinate with Beijing.
The Diplomat reports that General Valeriy Gerasimov – Russia's Chief of General Staff – will meet with his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, on the sidelines of a major Shanghai Cooperation Organization counterterrorism exercise currently taking place in Chelyabinsk. The "Peace Mission 2018" exercise provides an opportunity for both joint training and for high-level engagement among the SCO's eight member states, and is particularly notable this year thanks to the participation of the group's two newest members: India and Pakistan.

August 30:

Russia is supporting Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad's forces in their preparation for an assault on the last remaining rebel stronghold in that country, and the UN's representative on the conflict fears that a humanitarian catastrophe will result.
According to London's Guardian, Special Envoy Steffan de Mistura has offered to travel to the Idlib region in order to negotiate a ceasefire that will last long enough to establish humanitarian corridors and allow civilians to evacuate before the offensive begins. Without such measures, he predicts a "perfect storm" reminiscent of the slaughter last year in Aleppo that would likely involve the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime. "The lives of 2.9 million people are at stake," de Mistura warned. For its part, Moscow plans to deter any U.S. intervention in the offensive by hosting a major naval maneuver in the Mediterranean during the first week of September involving anti-aircraft and anti-submarine exercises.

August 31:

Russia's strategic relationship with Pakistan is undergoing a renaissance, worrying officials in New Delhi in the process. "Russia is building military, diplomatic, and economic ties with Pakistan that could upend historic alliances in the South Asian region,"
writes Vinay Kaura of India's Sardar Patel University in a policy analysis for Israel's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. "Ties between India and Russia date back to the Cold War, but relations between Cold War adversaries Russia and Pakistan are now being developed on the basis of a convergence of interests."

A growing commonality of strategic outlook is not the only thing nudging Moscow and Islamabad closer together, Kaura notes. So, too, is the growing distance between Pakistan and the United States, where the Trump administration has adopted a harsher tone toward the Pakistani government. "With Washington suspending or curtailing military aid to Pakistan, collaboration with Moscow is going to be pivotal for Islamabad," Kaura stresses.

September 1:

With the last opposition stronghold in Syria bracing itself for a Russian onslaught, Moscow is now offering rebel groups an alternative to further violence.
The Wall Street Journal writes that the Russian Defense Ministry's Center for Reconciliation is engaged in negotiations to convince different Syrian rebel forces to surrender, offering amnesty and safe transport in exchange for a pledge of loyalty to President Assad. The outreach strategy, reportedly derived from lessons learned in the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the Soviet campaign in Afghanistan, has met with great success, and the opposition increasingly sees the Russians as "reliable arbiters," thanks in part to vanishing international support for their cause.

Center for New American Security fellow Nicholas Heras commented that "the Russians are achieving an almost mythical status among the ranks of the rebels for their ability to entice defections through the reconciliation process." Meanwhile, U.S. officials remain alarmed by both the prospect of a Russian military campaign in Idlib and the motives behind Moscow's new charm offensive, believing it to be a manipulative way to attract international funding for reconstruction without addressing the West's demands for a political transition in the war-torn country.