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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2217

For Russians, U.S. visits get tougher;
Russia sanctions, reconsidered

Edited by Ilan Berman and Margot Van Loon
May 31, 2018

April 21:

Recent Western airstrikes in Syria may have given Russia political cover to press forward with a controversial arms sale to the Assad regime,
Asharq Al-Awsat reports. The sale under discussion concerns advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems, the batteries for which are already in place after Russia deployed them in late 2016. In March, President Vladimir Putin raised the possibility of transferring control of the already-deployed S-300s to the Syrian regime via a formal sale – a prospect that met with outrage from the West and Israel – but no official agreement was reached at the time. Now, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has announced that recent Western airstrikes voided all "moral obligations" that had previously prohibited Russia from disturbing the regional balance of power through such a sale. Israeli officials have confirmed the likelihood of the sale, while vowing to "eliminate the threat" it poses to regional stability.

Renova Group tycoon Viktor Vekselberg is among the oligarchs hit hardest by the latest round of American sanctions.
According to Reuters, $1.5-2 billion of Renova Group's dollar denominated assets have been frozen in retaliation for Russia's 2016 election interference. Since European banks are reluctant to engage at all with sanctioned entities, Renova's numerous relationships with European firms have further amplified the financial pain of the measure. These companies have lost business, struggled to obtain financing, and in some cases have even been forced to buy back all shares in their firm previously owned by Vekselberg and his conglomerate.

April 22:

Russians citizens wanting to travel or study in the West are finding their plans disrupted by geopolitical drama. The 240,000 Russians who visited the United States last year only had to wait one week to receive a visa. Now, after a year of heightened diplomatic tensions and the fallout from the recent Skripal poisonings, that number has risen dramatically.
According to the Washington Post, Russians seeking American visas currently face a minimum eight-month wait time, since no visa appointments are available at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow for at least 250 days. Allegations from the Russian government of an American "visa wall" grew more heated last week after the denial of consular appointments to Aeroflot crew members and the last-minute rejection of visas for two Bolshoi dancers en route to a performance in New York. "Such things did not happen even during the Cold War," the Foreign Ministry has complained.

However, the Post notes, the Kremlin would be happy to see Russians vacation closer to home in Soviet-era hotspots like the Crimean Peninsula and abandon studies abroad in "unfriendly countries." Yet despite their frustrations, would-be Russian travelers are getting creative, even journeying to neighboring countries like Latvia, Georgia, or Ukraine in search of American embassies with shorter wait times.

Authorities in the Russian region of Dagestan have killed nine insurgents who were allegedly plotting terrorist acts,
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports. Two groups of suspects were found in hiding in the unstable region's second-largest city, Derbent, while another lone Islamic State supporter reportedly had plans to carry out an attack in Stavropol. Russia's Counterterrorism Committee published news of the operations, saying that the suspects died in a firefight after refusing to surrender peacefully.

April 23:

One of Russia's main mining cities is slowly dying.
The Voice of America details that Vorkuta, a coal town in Russia's Komi Republic, near the Arctic circle, has lost more than a third of its population over the past three decades. Since the 1990s, when more than half of the town's thirteen coal mines closed, Vorkuta has seen a veritable exodus of citizenry, and just 70,000 people now remain, leaving it with an "unclear future."

Is the Trump administration beginning to walk back its recent sanctions on Russia?
According to The Hill, the Treasury Department is considering rolling back at least some of the economic sanctions it applied earlier in April on leading institutions and personalities in Russia. Of particular concern is RUSAL, the aluminum empire owned by billionaire oligarch Oleg Deripaska and responsible for nearly a tenth of all production of the metal globally. The extent of the economic dislocation caused by Treasury's targeting of RUSAL has caused Administration officials to reconsider at least some of the penalties leveled against the firm. "The U.S. government is not targeting the hardworking people who depend on RUSAL and its subsidiaries," Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin has made clear. "Given the impact on our partners and allies, we are issuing a general license extending the maintenance and wind-down period while we consider RUSAL's petition."

Related Categories: Russia; Russia and Eurasia Program; Ukraine

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