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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2152

A new twist to Russian information warfare;
Moscow moves to protect national payments

Edited by Amanda Azinheira, Sarah Martin and Evelyn Johns
September 19, 2017

August 2:

Russia's planned "Zapad 2017" war games are raising worries in the West.
According to NBC News, similar large-scale exercises preceded both the 2008 war in Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea, enabling Russia to move troops into strategic locations without much scrutiny. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has invited NATO officials to observe the drill in order to demonstrate Russia's transparency. Alliance officials, however, worry that the drills might be used to leave behind troops in Belarus and test NATO's resolve to defend Baltic member states.

Russian military deaths in Syria have risen significantly in 2017,
the Reuters news agency has estimated. Ten deaths have been officially reported since January, but evidence from local officials as well as families and friends of those killed puts the number closer to 40 - double the rate from the previous 15 months. Some critics have suggested that Russia's refusal to acknowledge private contractors fighting alongside the army may help explain the discrepancy, and true numbers may also be kept quiet ahead of upcoming elections. Positive coverage of the conflict in Syria is important for President Vladimir Putin, who decreed that military casualties would be a state secret before official involvement in the Syrian conflict began.

August 3:

Amid growing concern over the Russian government's use of information warfare,
Newsweek reports on a troubling new wrinkle to the Kremlin's strategy: blacklisting. According to the news magazine, suspected Kremlin affiliates have pressured professional networking site LinkedIn into suspending and banning accounts of critics of the Russian government. The targeting has damaged professional reputations and possibly resulted in real world intimidation and attacks.

The Kremlin has announced the latest recipients of its presidential grants and, in a surprise move, some of the funds will be going to groups that have been designated as "foreign agents." Just as significant,
notes the Washington Times, is who won't be receiving financial support from the Russian government. One such group is President Vladimir Putin's favorite motorcycle gang, the Night Wolves, which is known to have members involved in ongoing fighting in eastern Ukraine. In the past, the Night Wolves have used some of the presidential grant funds to stage children's shows portraying the U.S. as a force of evil trying to destroy Russia.

August 4:

The European Union has placed sanctions on Russian officials and firms involved in the transfer of Siemens gas turbines to Crimea. The deal,
notes the Wall Street Journal, was a violation of existing EU sanctions and “undermines the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine” by attempting to create an independent power supply for the contested Peninsula.

August 5:

The Kremlin has released footage of a shirtless President Putin vacationing in Siberia,
reports Reuters. The release of the promotional material appears designed to bolster Putin's strong-man image, which has garnered him significant popularity, ahead of upcoming elections.

August 7:

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Rybakov has stated that Russia will accelerate plans to expand its own national payment system, called Mir.
According to Reuters, Rybakov remarked that reducing Russia's dependence on the U.S. dollar and Western payment systems like Visa and MasterCard was "becoming a vital need." His comments come in the wake of new U.S. sanctions that target Russia's energy and defense sectors.

Thus far, 13.9 million Mir cards have been issued to nearly 10 percent of Russia's population, according to the Russian National System of Payment Cards (NSPK). Mir cards are accepted at most points of service within Russia, as well as in Russia's newest holding, Crimea, where - in accordance with European and U.S. sanctions - western banks are prohibited from operating.

Related Categories: Russia; Russia and Eurasia Program; Ukraine

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