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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2216

NATO, Moscow edge toward modus vivendi;
Tackling Telegram is tougher than it seems

Edited by Ilan Berman and Margot Van Loon
May 29, 2018

April 19:

As online platforms struggle to regulate Russia's internet propaganda, the Kremlin's evasive maneuvers are becoming increasingly creative. In one recent example,
NBC News uncovered RT's hidden ownership of ICYMI, a popular Buzzfeed-like platform that targets English-speaking millennials on multiple social media channels. ICYMI mixes news briefs and pop culture stories with the Russian government's talking points on controversial issues like the Syrian conflict or the Skripal poisonings – all on the Kremlin's dime.

Newly implemented YouTube regulations require channels receiving Russian state funds to display video banners disclosing their government affiliation. However, the difficulty of monitoring funding sources means that ICYMI has dodged these new regulations and continues to broadcast misleading claims while keeping the Kremlin's hand in its narrative hidden. According to former Sputnik reporter Andrew Feinberg, this strategy is designed to win trust and followers while masquerading as an innocent alternative to the mainstream news.

For the first time since the annexation of Crimea, Russia and NATO's most senior military leaders are sitting down together to discuss deconfliction.
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports that Azerbaijan hosted a rare meeting between Russia's General Staff Chief Valery Gerasimov and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Curtis Scaparrotti in which the two generals discussed confidence-building measures, transparency, and posture in potential hotspots. Azeri President Ilham Aliyev later met with Gerasimov separately regarding bilateral military cooperation between Moscow and Baku.

Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, Russia has increasingly wielded state-owned oil giant Rosneft as a weapon to advance its foreign policy agenda.
A recent Reuters expose based on information from seven high-level sources outlines the way in which Russia purposefully played the Iraqi government against the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) over oil exports in order to consolidate its influence in other political realms. During the turmoil of last year's failed Kurdish independence referendum, Rosneft paid the KRG $1.8 billion for ownership rights of the Kurdistan-Turkey export pipeline. The transaction strengthened relations between Erbil and Moscow despite the Kurds' long-standing partnership with Western powers. Moscow can now expect to play a larger role in ongoing negotiations between the KRG and Baghdad, since the Kurds are threatening to cut off oil flows unless Iraq pays Rosneft's pipeline transit fees - despite Baghdad's vehement rejection of the deal's legitimacy.

Rosneft's Iraqi play, Reuters writes, mirrors the company's machinations in other foreign locales where Russia seeks to increase its political clout, including Venezuela and India. One of the sources cited by the news agency describes Rosneft CEO and longtime Putin ally Igor Sechin as a "second foreign minister... [who] represents the economic might behind Russian foreign policies."

April 20:

The Kremlin has failed in its attempts to ban popular messaging platform Telegram,
Medium reports. In accordance with last week's ruling against the company for refusing to turn over encrypted user data to state security services, government regulator ROSKOMNADZOR blocked 19 million IP addresses used by the platform. Telegram responded by jumping to new addresses it had prepared in advance, keeping its services running and rendering the ban futile. Throughout the skirmish, public support for the government's efforts was scant, since the shutdown affected access to sites like Google, Amazon, and Viber. According to Medium, even government officials and RT refused to stop using Telegram, and publicity over the incident led to record growth in new subscribers and generated investment potential for the company's upcoming ICO.

Is there a hint of post-election buyer's remorse among Russian voters? Based on polling data from a weekly inquiry conducted by the Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM) regarding which politicians can be trusted with "important government questions,"
The Moscow Times reports that Putin's ranking has fallen ten percentage points – from 58.9 percent in late January to 48.4 percent in mid-April. Despite this slip, Putin's numbers still remain higher than those of the second and third top-ranked officials, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (19 percent) and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (18 percent). Meanwhile, the politicians most distrusted by the Russian public include LDPR faction leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky, failed presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, and Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev.

[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.]

Related Categories: Russia; Russia and Eurasia Program; Ukraine

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