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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2231

Putin's cult of personality;
A quiet campaign of digital intrusion

Edited by Ilan Berman and Margot Van Loon
July 11, 2018

June 11:

Pro-Putin propaganda has become so pervasive that it has even proliferated among Russia's youngest citizens.
According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a kindergarten in the Siberian town of Nizhnevartovsk recently staged a children's concert featuring a performance of "Uncle Vova [President Vladimir Putin], We Are With You" – a controversial song produced by Putin's "United Russia" party, with lyrics extolling Russia's campaigns in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine and pledging to fight in "the final battle" should Putin command it. The concert took place in late May, but debate over the incident has continued to inflame the small town, with more than two-thirds of Nizhnevartovsk respondents agreeing that the performance should be viewed negatively. RFE/RL reports that local television station N1 fired journalist Aleksandra Terikova for criticizing the concert in an interview with another news outlet. Despite losing her job, Terikova has doubled down on her opposition to the performance, calling it "pure Hitler youth."

With World Cup security demands overwhelming local law enforcement, the Russian police union fears that criminals will take advantage of the resulting vacuum. Reuters has reported that between 10 and 25 percent of officers in towns near the major host cities have been transferred to tournament venues. "Regions have been stripped bare," one anonymous police source complained. Consequently,
The Moscow Times writes that police morale is sinking as patrols are reduced, response times to reported crimes approach an hour, and rank-and-file cops work 14-hour shifts to cover the shortfall. Outside of work, the police remain on mandatory constant call yet receive only a small additional per diem (roughly $3.23) for their efforts. Nevertheless, a top World cup security official contradicts the complaints, asserting that "the whole situation is being completely controlled throughout the country." For its part, FIFA has expressed its complete confidence in Russian law enforcement to provide effective security during the tournament.

June 12:

Following the latest tranche of U.S. sanctions,
the Washington Free Beacon delves into the motivation behind the measure and the vulnerable systems that the designated entities are accused of helping Russian security services target: U.S. critical energy infrastructure and underwater communication cables. The paper recounts Russian intrusions into the U.S. energy grid and how the now-sanctioned Digital Security and its subsidiaries helped the FSB develop the capabilities to carry out those attacks.

Just as pressing is the threat against the cross-Atlantic system of fiber-optic communication cables, which has neither formal state ownership nor international legal protection. The Beacon reports that the cables are the target of a Russian reconnaissance campaign that has increased in aggressiveness in recent years. During the same period, sanctioned entity Divetechnoservices and its key executives worked with the FSB, receiving multi-million dollar contracts to procure underwater surveillance equipment and an intelligence submersible outfitted with cable cutters.

Given specific Russian surveillance on cables with links to the Department of Defense Information Network, the Beacon reports that defense and intelligence officials fear Russia will attempt to destroy or overload the cables in the event of a conflict – a setback that would be catastrophic for network-dependent NATO militaries, as well as for economic productivity and day-to-day civilian life. Moreover, former DoD official Mark Schneider points out that the threat is asymmetric, since the bulk of Russia's own information network is internal, and therefore not susceptible to subversion in the same way.

June 13:

Moscow has launched a naval show-of-force in the Barents Sea.
The Barents Observer reports that the surprise military maneuvers, involving "a total of 36 ships and support vessels," as well as 20 aircraft, mark the largest drill carried out by Russia's Northern Fleet in the past decade.

According to the Washington Examiner, President Trump has clarified his comments regarding the need to readmit Russia into the G7 - styling his suggestion as a way to increase communication with, and leverage over, the Kremlin. "We spend probably 25 percent of our time talking about Russia,"" the President explained in an interview with Fox News. "I said to myself, wouldn't it be better if they were here? I'm not for Russia, I'm for the United States, but as an example, if Vladimir Putin were sitting next to me today instead of one of the others, and we were having dinner the other night in Canada, I could say, 'would you do me a favor? Would you get out of Syria? Would you do me a favor, would you get out of the Ukraine.'"