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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2248

Toward a more political Russian military;
Isolating Russians anew

Edited by Ilan Berman and Margot Van Loon
September 4, 2018


July 30:

The Kremlin has figured out how to harness the U.S. justice system against Russian dissidents.
Writing for The Atlantic, Natasha Bertrand identifies a growing trend of Russian governmental requests for Interpol "red notices” – international warrants – against many individuals residing in the United States whose politically motivated and fabricated persecutions in Russia prompted them to seek asylum abroad in the first place.

Several high-profile enemies of Vladimir Putin have been subjected to this treatment: opposition leader Aleksey Navalny, American businessman Bill Browder, and former oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky chief among them. But Bertrand writes that the judicial exploitation is growing increasingly pervasive and the consequences more severe thanks to the Trump administration's crackdown on expired visas. Individuals detained on a "red notice” – which does not alone constitute evidence of guilt – are frequently found to have overstayed their visas and are then extradited back to Russia on that basis alone, thwarting their attempts to escape the abuses of the Russian system. When interviewed by Bertrand, Heritage Foundation senior research fellow Ted Bromund remarked that the disturbing extradition pattern has essentially meant that the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice have acquiesced to "doing Vladimir Putin's dirty work for him.”

July 31:

Amid a growing focus on military affairs in Russia, Vladimir Putin is moving to ensure the loyalty of the armed forces.
The Moscow Times reports that the Russian president has signed a decree establishing a new military directorate responsible for "military-patriotic work” as well as the activities of a major military youth organization. The move recalls the political commissar positions installed in the Soviet Army by the Bolsheviks to guarantee its loyalty to the cause and interests of the Communist Party Central Committee. According to the Times, this dubious historical legacy has prompted analysts to question whose strategic interests the directorate will truly serve, and whether its creation foreshadows increasing Kremlin demands for ideological conformity across Russian society.

August 1:

Is the Kremlin rebuilding the Iron Curtain?
According to the Daily Beast, two million Russians have been placed on government "stop lists” that prohibit them from traveling abroad, ostensibly due to unpaid debts. Several million more are banned from visiting the United States because of the "changed geopolitical situation”– a practice reminiscent of Soviet days that the Kremlin revived after the start of the Ukrainian conflict in 2014. Reportedly, government employees, even those in the security services that authored the regulations, are also expected to commit to "voluntary agreements” that force them to forego most travel. Only thirteen countries are now designated as "friendly and safe enough” for official travel, most of which are former Soviet states or historical allies like Cuba and Vietnam.

Former KGB officer Gennady Gudkov called the travel controls "a sign of increasingly extreme paranoia” driven by the Kremlin's fears of encroachment on Russia's resources and sovereignty as well as the brain drain of its skilled workers to the West. Opposition groups are criticizing the hypocrisy that would permit these restrictions to remain in place while members of the Russian elite frequently travel and invest their fortunes abroad. However, even the country's elites may not be immune to the changes. The State Duma recently proposed legislation to shut down the visa centers used by the wealthy to circumvent travel bureaucracy. The legislation was ultimately withdrawn, but only after a vehement social media backlash.

Three Russian journalists have been murdered under mysterious circumstances in the Central African Republic (CAR), where their investigative work may have caused them to run afoul of the Kremlin's interests.
The Washington Post reports that Orkhan Dzhemal, Kirill Radchenko, and Alexander Rastorguyev traveled undercover to the frontlines of the CAR's civil war to film a documentary on the activities of the Wagner Group, a private military contractor owned by Putin ally Yevgeniy Prigozhin that has fought in Syria and now appears to be helping cement Russian power in sub-Saharan Africa as well. The documentary was funded by Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of Vladimir Putin's main political enemies and a staunch proponent of independent Russian media outlets. The former oil tycoon has vowed to learn the truth behind the men's deaths, and to continue his inquiries into the "nontransparent military structures” employed by the Russian government in conflicts abroad.

The Kremlin, for its part, has been quick to deny any link to the killings, disparaging the journalists for traveling without proper security vetting and accreditation. Meanwhile, Russian tabloids are calling the killings a false flag operation by Western intelligence agencies. However, the Post writes, the three men's deaths are a disturbing illustration of the dangers faced by Russian journalists who dare to criticize their government.