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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2198

Russia's proxy fight in Syria;
Sobchak's electoral shenanigans

Edited by Ilan Berman and Zachary Popovich
March 28, 2018

February 14:

Just who, exactly, is waging Russia's war in Syria?
Israel's Ha'aretz newspaper reports that, according to the St. Petersburg-based Fontanka website, an estimated 3,000 Russian military contractors have been present in Syria since 2015 under the auspices of the Wagner paramilitary group, which maintains an open contract with the Russian government. Now, as the nature of the conflict in Syria changes, Russian-backed mercenaries will likely continue to be present there in a protective role, defending assets such as oil fields. Russia's support of military contractors in Syria is similar to its campaign in Eastern Ukraine, where Russian contractors or unofficial soldiers have been suspected of operating as proxy for the Russian military. While the actual number of such mercenaries now deployed in Syria is a closely-guarded Kremlin secret, it is estimated - based off absentee ballots in last year's Russian parliamentary elections - that that figure now tops 4,300 personnel.

[EDITORS' NOTE: The renewed scrutiny over the shape of Russia's military campaign in the Syrian theater comes in the wake of deadly clashes between Russian military contractors fighting alongside pro-Syrian regime forces and U.S.-led coalition forces in early February. Those skirmishes
are said to have left dozens of Russian soldiers, as well as over 100 Syrian troops, dead.]

February 15:

In the wake of an Iranian-Israeli skirmish in Israeli airspace, Russia has taken the unprecedented step of publicly taking sides in the tense relationship between the two countries. "In the case of aggression against Israel, not only will the United States stand by Israel's side - Russia, too, will be on Israel's side,"
the World Jewish Daily reports Leonid Frolov, Russia's ambassador to Israel, as saying. "Many of our countrymen live here in Israel, and Israel in general is a friendly nation, and therefore we won't allow any aggression against Israel."" Frolov's remarks follow the February 10th incursion of an Iranian-made drone into Israeli airspace from Syrian territory, and the concomitant shootdown of an Israeli fighter jet over Syrian soil - incidents that have heightened worries over the potential of a broader escalation of hostilities between Tehran and Jerusalem.

A major military engagement in Syria earlier in February left as many as 200 Russian contract soldiers dead,
reports Reuters. Sources interviewed by the news agency say that the battle, which took place near the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, resulted in the death or injury of "about 300 men" affiliated with Kremlin-linked private military firm Wagner - a far higher statistic than has been publicly acknowledged by the Russian government.

The White House has blamed Russia for carrying out a massive cyberattack on Ukraine last year.
According to Politico, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders ascribed the June 2017 "NotPetya" attack - which targeted a range of Ukrainian companies with malware masquerading as ransomware - to Russia. The attack "was part of the Kremlin's ongoing effort to destabilize Ukraine and demonstrates ever more clearly Russia's involvement in the ongoing conflict," Sanders said. "This was also a reckless and indiscriminate cyber-attack that will be met with international consequences."

February 16:

In preparation for the upcoming Russian presidential election on March 18th, 378 polling stations have been established in 145 countries,
the Itar-TASS news agency reports. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has said that there are over 487,000 Russian passport holders in Germany alone, with considerable numbers of Russian citizens throughout Eastern Europe, Israel, and the United States seeking to cast their vote. The shutdown of the Russian Consulate in San Francisco in August of 2017, as well as Latvia and Estonia's refusal to permit an increase in polling stations, has added to the worries of Russian polling officials and representatives, who see the ability to generate a robust turnout as a key indicator of the Kremlin's legitimacy.

Russia's Supreme Court has thrown out a petition by Russian socialite and Presidential contender Ksenia Sobchak,
Interfax reports. Sobchak was seeking to invalidate Russian President Vladimir Putin's registration as a candidate for the presidency on the grounds that, having already served two consecutive terms as president, he was ineligible to stand for the office again. In its judgement, the Court upheld the determination of the country's Central Election Commission that Putin, who famously swapped roles with current Premier Dmitry Medvedev for one term, was clear to stand for reelection. "This topic has long been studied and discussed by all, so it surprises that Ksenia Anatolyevna (Sobchak) has just reached the point of raising this issue again," Deputy Commissioner Nikolai Bulayev has said.

Related Categories: Middle East; Russia; Iran; Israel; Russia and Eurasia Program

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