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Russia Reform Monitor - No. 2255

Flashpoint: Syria;
Russian hackers target the Ukrainian Church

Edited by Ilan Berman and Margot Van Loon
October 1, 2018

August 24:

The Trump administration has publicly warned Russia that it is prepared to strike Syria militarily if the Assad regime, a major Kremlin ally, again uses chemical weapons.
The Washington Examiner reports that the warning was conveyed by National Security Advisor John Bolton to his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, during an extended meeting between the two officials in Geneva.

The warning has drawn a harsh reaction from the Kremlin. "We caution Washington against another military escapade," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in comments
carried by Bloomberg. He also suggested that the U.S. threat reflects mounting U.S. frustration with the course of events in Syria, where the Assad regime (with Russian and Iranian assistance) is now consolidating power. "When things don't turn out the way the U.S. and its allies want, then new provocations are prepared," Ryabkov observed.

August 25:

The United States is doubling down on its support for Ukraine,
the Kyiv Post reports. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, on a state visit to the country coinciding with its 27th Independence Day, has told Ukrainian officials that the U.S. "can help Ukraine defend its next presidential elections from Russian cyberattacks and Ukraine is now closer to NATO membership than ever before," according to the paper. Bolton's public remarks included an offer to cooperate more closely with Kyiv through "law enforcement channels and through other mechanisms" in order to "prevent Russia's election meddling here." Bolton also suggested that the Trump administration was giving serious thought to the possibility of Ukraine's membership in NATO, although he stressed that "[a] lot depends on Ukraine, and fulfilling the requirements necessary to meet... to be a NATO member."

Russia is continuing to push back against the Trump administration on Syria.
Reuters reports Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as warning the United States and its allies "against taking new reckless steps in Syria." "We are hearing ultimatums from Washington," Ryabkov said, "and it does not affect our determination to continue our policy for the total elimination of terrorist epicenters in Syria and the return of this country to a normal life."

August 27:

The discovery of an ongoing Russian cyber campaign against Ukraine's religious leaders has further eroded the already frayed bilateral relations between the two countries.
According to the Associated Press, Russian hackers linked to the state-sponsored cyber unit known as Fancy Bear attempted to gain access to email accounts belonging to high-ranking members and aides of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. A Dell Technologies subsidiary originally provided a "hit list" of 4,700 email addresses targeted in 2015 and 2016, but AP journalists have uncovered a subsequent spearphishing email campaign last year against the Ukrainian religious community as well.

The motive of the attackers was likely tied to an ongoing Ukrainian bid for ecclesiastical independence, as Ukrainian Patriarch Bartholomew I is considering a proposal to cut ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. The AP writes that such an outcome would be unacceptable to the Kremlin, and representatives of Russian Patriarch Kirill have warned that the split would result in the biggest Christian schism of the last thousand years.

The United States will find itself sidelined next week as Russia, Turkey, and Iran meet to chart the course for a post-conflict Syria.
Newsweek reports that Presidents Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Hassan Rouhani will convene at a summit in Iran, mirroring the format of their trilateral talks on the conflict earlier this year. All three countries share increasingly antagonistic relations with the United States, as well as a vested interest in shaping the post-conflict environment in Syria. Brookings Middle East expert Chris Meserole predicts that, down the road, the negotiations set to unfold next week will be perceived as a "lost opportunity" for the United States, while Baker Center Fellow Harrison Akins commented that "the fact that Turkey, Iran, and Russia are meeting without the increasingly unpredictable U.S. under the Trump administration is perhaps evidence that they are working for a future arrangement in Syria with these regional powers possessing their own spheres of influence."

Related Categories: Middle East; Russia; Russia and Eurasia Program; Ukraine

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