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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2224

Russia's parliament mulls "counter-sanctions";
The benefits of military service in Syria

Edited by Ilan Berman and Margot Van Loon
June 15, 2018

May 15:

A recent study by the IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center (JTIC) confirms that Russia's engagement directly shifted the course of the Syrian conflict in favor of the Assad regime.
VOA News details the study's findings: while anti-rebel air strikes increased 150 percent after Russia entered the conflict – from 2,735 in September 2015 to 6,833 in March 2018 – only 14 percent of these operations targeted the Islamic State, while the vast remainder took place in rebel-held areas where the government sought to regain power. The JTIC study found that during this period, government forces tripled the area under their control, recapturing crucial rebel strongholds like Aleppo and Homs while securing the border with Lebanon. JTIC analysts pinpointed the direct causal effect of Russian air strikes in these victories, commenting that "opposition forces [were] largely unable to defend against, let alone replicate, the threat posed by airpower."

The sanctions tit-for-tat between Moscow and Washington continues.
VOA News reports that lawmakers in the State Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, have unanimously approved a first draft of new legislation designed to retaliate against the United States for recent economic pressure levied on the Kremlin by the Trump administration. The legislation includes provisions authorizing the government of Vladimir Putin to impose sweeping "counter-sanctions" against the U.S., as well as to make it a criminal offense domestically for anyone to adhere to new U.S. and European sanctions. "The U.S. sanctions are of an absolutely unfriendly type," Duma Speaker Vyacheslav Volodin has confirmed. "They affected over 400 Russian companies and about 200 citizens of our country. We are granting broad powers to our president and government to protect our country, our economy and workplaces."

The controversial bridge project linking Russia's newest territory, the Crimean Peninsula, to the rest of the country has officially opened. Russian President Vladimir Putin personally inaugurated the 12-mile bridge over the Kerch Strait by leading a truck convoy across it,
NPR reports. Thereafter, Putin lauded completion of the project as a historic achievement - one which confirms Russia's claim to the territory of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014 after a stage-managed referendum there.

The bridge’s inauguration has drawn protests and condemnation from abroad. The U.S. State Department issued a formal statement condemning the construction. "The bridge represents not only an attempt by Russia to solidify its unlawful seizure and its occupation of Crimea, but also impedes navigation by limiting the size of ships that can transit the Kerch Strait, the only path to reach Ukraine's territorial waters in the Sea of Azov," it said.

May 16:

Russian soldiers are living the high life in battle-torn Syria, local sources say.
According to the Syrian Observer, Russian military personnel have become a ubiquitous presence in coastal cities like Tartous, Latakia and Jabla, where they live and operate in relative luxury. "Russian soldiers in Latakia live in luxurious buildings in the nicest districts of the city for free, including buildings that were previously only allocated to Syrian officers," one resident of Latakia has told an opposition television channel. "They are deployed along the al-Thawra highway area near the al-Zira'a district and on the seafronts, where many are present with their families." He said: "They visit the markets, restaurants and shops and walk in the city streets without weapons. They are welcomed by regime loyalists — who are the overwhelming majority — and so they fear nothing."

May 17:

China's expanding territorial claims in the South China Sea could create new friction with Russia.
Reuters reports that the Chinese government has issued a formal warning to Russia's state oil concern, Rosneft, after the company engaged in recent drilling off the coast of Vietnam, in an area of the South China Sea that China claims as part of its sovereign territory. "We urge relevant parties to earnestly respect China's sovereign and jurisdictional rights and not do anything that could impact bilateral relations or this region's peace and stability," China's foreign ministry declared in a strongly worded statement directed at the Kremlin.

Russia's government has launched a new crackdown on the Jehovah's Witnesses,
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports. Officials with the religious organization say that Russian security forces have carried out "mass searches" of the homes of members in the city of Birobidzhan, the capital of Russia's Jewish Autonomous Region. The raids follow the detention and questioning of nearly two dozen Witnesses in Russia's Orenburg region.

[EDITORS' NOTE: Russian authorities today have the power to persecute Jehovah's Witnesses with impunity, following a July 2017 ruling by Russia's Supreme Court which dubbed the religious organization "extremist."]

Related Categories: Russia; Democracy & Governance; Russia and Eurasia Program; Ukraine

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