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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2151

The strange case of Mikhail Lesin;
Moscow digs in in Syria

Edited by Amanda Azinheira, Sarah Martin and Evelyn Johns
September 11, 2017

July 28:

News website Buzzfeed has filed suit for the prompt release of more information on the death of Mikhail Lesin, the former Putin media czar and founder of RT who was found dead in his DC hotel room in November 2015. The death, officially ruled an accident, occurred the night before Lesin was to meet with U.S. Department of Justice officials regarding the inner workings of RT and the Kremlin's larger media operations, according to two unnamed FBI agents. A U.S. intelligence official stated that Lesin feared for his life and had reached out to the DOJ and FBI through a third party, hoping to cooperate in return for security.

The official ruling rendered by federal prosecutors last Fall, after a lengthy investigation, was that Lesin's death had been an "accident" caused by self-sustained injuries. But some FBI officials refute this conclusion. "Lesin was beaten to death," an FBI agent involved in the case has told Buzzfeed, noting that the Russian official had sustained injuries inconsistent with the official cause of death. "I would implore you to say as much."

The New York Times reports that Russia has seized two U.S. diplomatic properties in Moscow and demanded that embassy staff downsize to 455 by September 1st, to match the number of Russian diplomats working in the U.S. The sudden move follows the Trump administration's decision to expand sanctions on Russia.

July 30:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ratified a long-term lease on an air base in Syria,
the Wall Street Journal reports. The Hmeymim Air Base stands near the town of Latakia and has been held by Russia since 2015. Housed at this base are a detachment of troops as well as S-300 air defense systems, which have the potential to threaten U.S. and NATO air missions. The 49-year contract signals that Moscow is prepared to stay in the region long after the projected defeat and dissolution of the Islamic State terrorist group.

President Putin has signed into law legislation which bans the use of devices that allow users to anonymously use the internet,
Reuters reports. These devices, like virtual private networks (VPNs), which were recently banned, are known as "anonymizers." According to Leonid Levin, the head of the Duma's information policy committee, the ban is intended block access to content the Russian state deems "unlawful."

July 31:

Despite the backlash from Washington for its interference in the 2016 presidential elections, Moscow's efforts to gather intelligence on the U.S. show little signs of slowing.
Reuters cites William Evanina, the National Counterintelligence Executive, as saying that, while the closure of two Russian diplomatic compounds by the Obama administration back in December represented a "significant blow" to Russia's espionage network, U.S. intelligence agencies have not noted a change in Russia's spying activity in the past year. This state of affairs, he suggests, has largely to do with a shift in Russian strategy over the past five years, with Moscow relying less on intelligence officers stationed in-country and more on using businessmen and other travelers as contractors gathering information in the West.

August 1:

Tensions between Russia and the U.S. continue to escalate. The Kremlin has ordered the United States to cut its diplomatic staff within the Federation by 755. The order comes in response to a new set of U.S. sanctions, themselves a response to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
The Moscow Times reports that while most of the Americans employed at the embassies and consulates will receive new postings, Russian contractors will be let go without compensation and with no legal standing to contest the edict. With this reduction in staff (which brings the number of U.S. diplomatic personnel down to 455, from 1,210), wait times for visa processing are expected to increase. But even this development could lead to Russian retaliation. Igor Morozov, a member of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, has told state-owned RIA that, should such slowdowns occur, "[t]he period for issuing Russian visas to Americans will also be increased."

Related Categories: Russia; Russia and Eurasia Program; Ukraine

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