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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2036

Russian arms for Hezbollah fighters;
In Moscow, new military investments... and pessimism about the future

Edited by Ilan Berman and Colleen Chiochetti
January 28, 2016

January 10: 

January 10: The trade war between Moscow and Kyiv continues to intensify. 
The Agence France Presse reports that Russia has blocked the transit of Ukrainian goods through its territory, in a move that is sure to further escalate economic tensions between the two countries. "The transit of Ukrainian goods," which has been blocked since the start of the year pursuant to a Russian embargo, "has not yet begun," a spokesperson for Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry has confirmed. 

The mystery surrounding the untimely death of President Putin's former media czar has deepened. Back in November, Mikhail Lesin - who served as the Kremlin's advisor on media relations from 2004 to 2009 - was found dead in a Washington, DC hotel. The cause of death was reported as a heart attack, but rumors of foul play ran rampant. 
The Daily Beast suggests that there might be some merit to the latter scenario. Although a billionaire, author Shane Harris writes, Lesin was staying at a mid-range DC hotel which is "in line with U.S. government budgets," and which "is known to host foreign government officials and visitors on exchange programs" - fueling speculation that Lesin, one of the founders of Russia's contemporary propaganda machine, was about to divulge its workings to the U.S. government, and was silenced to prevent that from happening. 

January 11:

Russia is partnering with Iran's premier terrorist proxy in Syria. 
According to The Daily Beast, field commanders with the Lebanese militia - which, like Moscow, is fighting to keep Syrian president Bashar al-Assad in power - have acknowledged that their forces are receiving heavy weapons directly from the Russian government. The Shi'a militia, in turn, is providing Russian forces with targeting information and other vital intelligence that is increasing the lethality of Russian airstrikes being carried out against the Islamic State terrorist group and other assorted opponents of the Syrian regime. 

In a recent interview with German newsmagazine Bild, Russia's president blamed rising tensions between his country and the West on U.S. and European attempts to isolate Russia. In his remarks, 
reported by Business Insider, Vladimir Putin pointed to NATO's planned expansion eastward as proof of the West's desire to have a "complete victory over the Soviet Union" and to "sit on the throne in Europe alone." The Russian president also defended his actions toward Crimea, which he annexed in 2014 after a stage-managed referendum, as being in the interests of the Russian people, and condemned Western sanctions that have been leveled on Russia since then as "not aimed at helping Ukraine, but at geo-politically pushing Russia back." 

January 12:

Despite the deepening economic crisis afflicting Russia, the majority of Russians believe the worst is yet to come. 
According to The Moscow Times, a recent poll by the Moscow-based VTsIOM center has found that 52% of respondents are convinced that the hardest times for the country still lie ahead - the highest percentage of people holding this view since 2009, when 30% of respondents believed that times would get worse. As telling, however, is the degree to which Russians are beginning to adapt to their country's current, diminished status; a staggering 60% of respondents in the VTsIOM poll declared that the current state of affairs in Russia was "normal." 

[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.] 

Russia is set to create three new military divisions and five new strategic nuclear missile regiments this year, according to Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. As part of the country's military modernization program, now underway, major efforts "should go into strengthening the potential of our strategic nuclear forces and of fulfilling the space defense program," 
Reuters reports Shoigu as saying. Work is also being carried out to improve the infrastructure supporting the country's nuclear forces, such as facilities where nuclear-armed submarines and bombers are based.

Related Categories: Russia; Russia and Eurasia Program

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