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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2250

Revealed: Russia's desired arms control agenda;
How Russian hacking imperils American security

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


August 4:

Russian public outreach to America has just gained a new face.
According to The Hill, the Kremlin has appointed American martial artist and action movie star Steven Seagal to serve as a "special representative for Russian-American humanitarian relations." In its announcement of the news, the Russian Foreign Ministry compared the position to that of a United Nations goodwill ambassador, with accompanying duties to promote cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries – duties that Seagal, a confidante of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is ostensibly well-positioned to advance. However, the 1980s action star is himself a controversial figure, who is currently fending off renewed charges of rape and sexual assault in the United States.

August 6:

Notwithstanding the Trump administration's May decision to pull out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and the looming reimposition of U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic, commercial ties between Moscow and Tehran are going strong.
Iran's Financial Tribune reports that the Export-Import Bank of Iran has signed an agreement with the Moscow-based Mir Business Bank to "finance the export of essential goods to Russia." The 10 million Euro contract reportedly covers "the import of medicines, medical equipment and raw materials, among other Russian products," at a low interest rate. Russian officials have also floated the possibility of a barter mechanism, in which Iran-bound Russian goods are exchanged for Iranian oil - an arrangement that would run counter to U.S. efforts to reimpose economic pressure against Iran.

The recent attempted poisoning of ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England earlier this year continues to profoundly roil UK-Russian ties.
According to Newsweek, prosecutors in England are preparing extradition requests for two suspects believed to have carried out the March attack that rendered Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, ill. British authorities believe that the attempted poisoning was carried out by Russian government agents as part of an operation directly approved by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

August 7:

Georgia's drift toward formal membership in NATO continues to cause tempers in Moscow to flare.
Iran's PressTV reports that, in recent comments to a Russian newspaper, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev warned that an Alliance decision to formally accept Tbilisi into its fold would trigger a "terrible conflict." Beyond the problems associated with the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which the Kremlin sees as independent states, the possibility of NATO's further eastward expansion represents a serious threat to Russia's territorial sovereignty and security, Medvedev said. "[T]his is not only about strategic nuclear weapons but tactical nuclear weapons [which become closer to Russia and], which gain the quality of strategic weapons by moving closer toward the Russian border; and also conventional weapons, which can cause colossal damage because of their high-precision characteristics," Medvedev noted. "In other words, NATO expansion is by no doubt a threat to the Russian Federation."

August 8:

After weeks of uncertainty about what exactly transpired between Presidents Putin and Trump at their summit in Helsinki, Finland, details of the private conversation between the two leaders have begun to leak out.
Politico has obtained a leaked copy of a bilateral arms control agenda purportedly presented by Putin to Trump and intended to promote strategic cooperation. The paper identifies a "surprising normalcy" in some of the agenda's suggested topics, including a proposed five-year extension of the New START Treaty. Other items are more controversial, such as the prospect of a new treaty banning the weaponization of space and a pitch to "reaffirm commitment" to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty – a 1987 agreement whose future has been imperiled by Russia's repeated and flagrant violations.

Publicly, at least, neither side has confirmed the veracity of the document. The Russian Foreign Ministry has criticized the leak, and the White House refused to comment. Yet in retrospect, Politico writes, the public statements made by both leaders after the summit appear to confirm its accuracy, with references made to the "special responsibilities" of being nuclear powers and "ensuring the non-placement of weapons in space." The document has drawn mixed reactions from senior U.S. lawmakers and analysts. While the Russian desire for engagement is seen as an important opportunity for those in Congress and the State and Defense Departments who support continued arms control negotiations, others perceive the Russian offers as a trap to derail American military modernization and "emasculate" Trump's proposal for the creation of a Space Force.

Russian hackers are mapping America's electrical infrastructure - foreshadowing a potentially catastrophic vulnerability should the United States and Russia come into conflict in the future. Recent hearings by the Department of Homeland Security have conclusively demonstrated that "Russian hackers are already practicing how to throw the switch and cause a blackout in the United States,"
writes foreign policy analyst Betsy McCaughey in the New York Sun. "Russians have invaded more than 100 American electric-power companies in the past four years," and according to the DHS "'got to the point where they could have thrown switches' and shut off power, but didn't."

Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen has equated the danger posed by potential Russian cyber disruption to the U.S. electrical grid to a "Cat 5 Hurricane." Yet, notes McCaughey, the issue is one that has been largely ignored by politicians in Washington. The latest draft Congressional action, known as the Defending American Security from Kremlin Aggression Act, has threatened "crushing sanctions" against Russia for its role in election interference, but remains silent on the threat posed by Russian hackers to the U.S. electrical grid.