Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Russia in Review: August 7-13, 2018

Russia in Review is a weekly intelligence summary (INTSUM) produced by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW). This ISW INTSUM series sheds light on key trends and developments related to the Russian government’s objectives and its efforts to secure them

Reporting Period: August 7-13, 2018

Authors: Catherine Harris and Jack Ulses

Contributors: Molly Adler, Mason Clark, Nicole Geis, Chase Johnson, Maxim Yulis

Key Takeaway: The Kremlin is maneuvering from a position of internal weakness as it seeks to compromise U.S. interests and strengthen Russia as a leading global power. A proposed pension reform bill has fueled large-scale protests across Russia, prompting Russian President Vladimir Putin to backpedal and creating tension within the Kremlin. The protest movement will not likely affect Putin’s grip on power but will require his attention. Meanwhile Israel and the UN de facto advanced Russia’s objective to supplant the U.S. and UN as the principal peace brokers in conflicts in which it is an active belligerent. Russia also persuaded several European states to support its reconstruction efforts in Syria - part of its wider campaign to access international funds and drive a wedge between the U.S. and its allies in the EU and NATO.

The Kremlin failed to anticipate the scale of public backlash against a controversial pension reform bill and is adjusting its approach to quell discontent. Protests against the bill began earlier this summer but expanded to their largest scale thus far on July 28, prompting a legislative recalibration by the Kremlin. The proposed bill would save the Kremlin around $27.3 billion per year by raising the retirement age from 60 to 65 for men and 55 to 63 for women. These ages are very close to average life expectancy in Russia, which is 67 for men and 77 for women. Life expectancy is even lower for Russians in most regions outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg. The new law means that more men will die before they are eligible to collect their pensions. Russia’s Central Electoral Commission approved opposition-led efforts to attempt to hold a referendum on the bill.[1] The Kremlin may be using the promise of an upcoming vote to disincentivize future protests. Opposition parties must nonetheless meet strict requirements to advance the referendum. The Kremlin likely will not rig the results as public polling shows that the current bill is opposed by 89% of Russians.[2] The Kremlin may alternatively be able to delay or amend the legislation because the current and forecasted price of oil is higher than expected in its federal budget. The budget assumes $44 barrel per day (bpd) and breaks even at $60 bpd. Oil prices are currently holding near $72 bpd and not expected to significantly fluctuate in the near-term. The Kremlin may still hold the referendum and subsequently water-down or cancel the bill in order to reinforce the perception that it engages in democratic processes and remains responsive to ordinary Russians.

Russia has acquired support for its reconstruction initiatives in Syria from some member-states of the EU and NATO despite opposition from the U.S. Russia launched a large-scale diplomatic campaign to generate support for its reconstruction efforts in Syria. The Kremlin has attempted to link reconstruction to refugee resettlement - a key concern of the EU. France and Russia conducted joint humanitarian aid deliveries outside Damascus on July 21. Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov met German Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss humanitarian efforts in Syria on July 24. Russian officials claimed that Japan expressed interest in supporting reconstruction efforts in Damascus and Homs City on August 3.[3] Russian media also claimed that Belgium may coordinate air support for refugee resettlement to Syria on August 7.[4] The Kremlin may seek to either draw the U.S. into this initiative or leverage its lack of participation to drive a wedge between the U.S. and EU over Syria. Turkey also announced a summit on Syria with Russia, Germany, and France on September 7. Turkey is likely attempting to redirect financial aid from the EU totaling three billion euros towards its own efforts to resettle Syrians in enclaves held by Turkey in Northern Syria. Russia may be attempting to gain access to a portion of these funds through its reconstruction initiative in Syria.

Israel and the UN tacitly endorsed peacekeeping operations by Russia in Syria, setting a dangerous precedent for similar engagement by Russia in Ukraine. Russian Military Police began joint patrols with the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) on the Golan Heights Border on August 2.[5] Russia will reportedly occupy eight temporary observation posts along the Golan Heights ahead of their eventual transfer to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Russia does not intend to perform a true peacekeeping function but rather intends to posture as a peacekeeper in order to garner international legitimacy and shape post-conflict negotiations over Syria. The Kremlin likely used this influence to convince Israel to quietly acquiesce to a tactical deal that relies upon Russia to enforce an eighty-five kilometer exclusion zone for Iran along the Golan Heights, though Israel continues to publicly reaffirm its strong stance against any military presence for Iran in Syria. Iran and its proxies likely will nonetheless accompany the return of regime security forces to the Golan Heights, escalating tensions between Israel and Iran. Joint peacekeeping operations between Russia and the UN along the Golan Heights may strengthen the Kremlin’s ongoing effort to subordinate the UN-led Geneva Talks on the Syrian Civil War to the rival Astana Talks led by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The Kremlin could execute a similar diplomatic maneuver in Ukraine. Russia is actively attempting to coopt a possible peacekeeping mission by the UN in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. Russia is a belligerent actor in both conflicts but simultaneously aims to lead peacebuilding efforts that will ultimately advance its strategic objectives.

What to Watch

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko is tightening his control over the media in Belarus. Belarusian authorities in recent weeks intensified a campaign of fines and arrests targeting independent journalists critical of Lukashenko. Belarus amended its media laws - citing the alleged need to block fake news - in June 2018. The amendments provide the government wide latitude to prosecute individuals it deems are spreading false information. Lukashenko may be implementing tighter control over the media at this time to strengthen his monopoly over the information space ahead of possible discussions to alter the Belarusian Constitution.

The Kremlin created a new organization intended to increase its influence over Kurds in the Middle East. Russia established the International Federation of Kurdish Communities in Moscow on August 4. Russian Envoy to the Middle East and North Africa Mikhail Bogdanov later met a delegation from the group on August 6 to discuss key issues in the Middle East with a focus on Iraq and Syria.[6] The Kremlin may intend to leverage this group to posture as a regional ally of the Kurds and create a diplomatic avenue through which to increase its long-term influence in the Middle East.

[1] Elizabeth Antonovna, [“Questions for the referendum: what did the CEC allow to ask about the retirement age,”] RBC, August 8, 2018, https://www(.)

[2] [“Pension Reform,”] Levada Center, May 7, 2018, https://www(.)

[3] “Japan ready to build schools and hospitals in Syria — Russian Defense Ministry,” TASS, August 3, 2018, https://tass(.)com/defense/1015969

[4] “Belgium may organize air service for returning Syrian refugees,” TASS, August 7, 2018, https://tass(.)com/world/1016329

[5] Charles Bybelezer, “Russia: Israel Agrees To Removal Of Iranian Forces 85 Kilometers From Golan Heights Border,” The Media Line, August 2, 2018, http://www(.)

[6] “Press release on Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov’s meeting with a delegation from the International Federation of Kurdish Communities,” Russian MFA, August 6, 2018, http://www(.)