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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2171

A new nuclear disaster?;
Ceding the initiative on Syria

Edited by Ilan Berman
December 7, 2017

November 8:

A new - and surprising - contender has dipped his toe into Russia's upcoming presidential contest.
The New York Times reports that controversial real estate tycoon Sergei Polonsky has announced via intermediaries that he plans to challenge Vladimir Putin for the country's top post next Fall. Polonsky, who was convicted this summer of large-scale corruption and embezzlement, "has confirmed that he is running for president of Russia" in what promises to be a "bone-rattling election campaign," his campaign manager, former parliamentarian Maxim Shingarkin, has posted on Twitter. It is not at all certain that Polonsky's candidacy is a real one, however, because his conviction may "disqualify him from running for the presidency," notes the Times.

The Kremlin is keeping mum regarding the political flight of a nonprofit leader.
RBC reports that Olga Romanova, the head of civic organization "Jailed Russia," which provides assistance to prisoners and their families, fled the country earlier this Fall in the wake of governmental raids on her group's offices. The organization had been locked in an escalating bureaucratic battle with the Kremlin since earlier this year, when it was accused by the government of "embezzlement." Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has declined to comment on Romanova's case, other than to note that the activist - now residing in Germany - is conducting herself in a guilty manner.

November 9:

Could the Kremlin be covering up a new nuclear catastrophe? That's the suspicion of IRSN, a French nuclear safety institute, which has stated that it believes a nuclear-related accident took place on the territory of Russia or Kazakhstan in the last week of September. "Russian authorities have said they are not aware of an accident on their territory," IRSN director Jean-Marc Peres
has told the Reuters news agency. However, the data collected by IRSN and other research institutes in recent weeks indicates high levels of radioactive substance ruthenium 106, which "is the product of splitting atoms in a nuclear reactor and which does not occur naturally."

Observers say that the levels of ruthenium released by the incident were "major" - so much so that "if an accident of this magnitude had happened in France it would have required the evacuation or sheltering of people in a radius of a few kilometers around the accident site," the news agency reports. Elevated levels of the radioactive substance have been registered in a number of European countries.

If the United States moves forward with plans to develop a new intermediate-range ballistic missile, the Kremlin will respond in kind, a leading Russian legislator has warned. "If the missile announced by Congress indeed makes it into the American arsenal, we will have to develop and adopt the same thing. Russia has the military and technical capacities for that," Viktor Bondarev, head of the Defense and Security Committee of the Federal Council, has told reporters in comments
carried by RT. The legislative proposal in question is part of the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which allocates some $58 billion for a "research and development program on a ground-launched intermediate-range missile" as part of America's response to persistent Russian infractions of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.

November 10:

The informational war between Moscow and Washington is heating up.
Estonian news platform Meduza reports that Russia's government has signaled it is planning "retaliatory measures" in response to moves by the U.S. government to force state television channel RT to register as a foreign agent in the United States. Among other things, the Kremlin's response will include the establishment of "a special procedure" by government censor ROSKOMNADZOR for "suspending and terminating the activities" of foreign media outlets.

President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin have conducted a brief informal meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam,
CNN reports. Ahead of the encounter, the President had signaled that he was eager to enlist Russia's help in forging a strategy to contain and deter North Korea - a topic that was a major focus of his 13-day trip through Asia.

In the wake of their short discussions in Da Nang, the two leaders issued a joint statement reiterating their shared commitment to de-escalating and resolving the Syrian civil war. That communique, observers say, reflects a progressive ceding by the White House of the strategic initiative in Syria to Russia and Russian interests. "Russia has waged a violent and indiscriminate air campaign against civilian infrastructure in opposition-held regions of Western Syria as well as areas governed by ISIS in Eastern Syria,"
writes analyst Christopher Kozak for the Institute for the Study of War. "The U.S. risks legitimizing current and future crimes against humanity conducted by Russia and Iran on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad - thereby fulfilling the narratives of global oppression promulgated by ISIS and Al-Qaeda across Iraq and Syria."

Nor, notes Kozak, does Russia intend to deliver a meaningful political settlement in Syria. Russia has attempted "to subvert and co-opt the Geneva Process through the rival Astana Talks hosted by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, as well as its plans for an upcoming 'Syrian Congress on National Dialogue,'" he stresses. Likewise, "Russia and Assad remain unlikely to concede to free and fair elections or reforms that meaningfully constrain the power of the regime."

Related Categories: Russia; Russia and Eurasia Program; Ukraine

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