Russia in Review
This Week’s Highlights:
- When planning the April 13 airstrikes on Syria, Trump pressed his team to also consider strikes on Russian and Iranian targets in that country, but ended up focusing on Assad’s suspected chemical facilities only. The strikes did not cross Russia’s red lines in Syria, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Following the strikes, the Pentagon has concluded that the barrage of missiles by U.S., U.K. and French missiles most likely will not stop Assad's chemical weapons program.
- Trump invited Putin to the U.S. during a phone call last month and said he would be glad to see Putin in the White House and then would be happy to meet again in a reciprocal visit to Russia.
- The dismantling of nuclear warheads at America’s Pantex facility has grown increasingly urgent to keep the U.S. from exceeding a limit of 1,550 warheads permitted under the New START treaty with Russia.
- The U.N. predicts a 36 percent and a 51 percent decline in the population of Ukraine and Moldova by the end of the century, respectively. Russia, meanwhile, is expected to lose 13 percent by 2100.
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
Nuclear security and safety:
- There are 54 metric tons of surplus plutonium in U.S. Energy Department facilities. Pantex, a plant near Amarillo, holds so much plutonium that it has exceeded the 20,000 cores, called “pits,” regulations allow it to hold in its temporary storage facility. The dismantling of nuclear warheads at Pantex has grown increasingly urgent to keep the U.S. from exceeding a limit of 1,550 warheads permitted under the New START treaty with Russia. (Reuters, 04.20.18)
North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs:
- Russian will not offer to host a meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said April 20. The meeting is to take place by the end of May. Mike Pompeo, the C.I.A. director and secretary of state nominee, traveled to North Korea and met with Kim, the strongest indicator to date that plans for direct talks between Kim and Trump are moving ahead. (Reuters, 06.20.18, New York Times, 04.17.18)
Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said North Korea is waiting to see whether the U.S. walks out of the Iranian nuclear deal in May. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will visit the White House next week, hoping to persuade U.S. President Donald Trump against pulling the U.S. out of the agreement at his self-imposed May 12 deadline. Iran, Britain, Germany and France failed on April 16 to convince EU states to impose new sanctions on Iran as the bloc’s members argue over how to prevent the U.S. pulling out of the nuclear deal. (Financial Times, 04.17.18, Russia Matters, 04.20.18, Wall Street Journal, 04.18.19)
Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:
- The Russian Defense Ministry and NATO said Valery Gerasimov, the chief of Russia's military general staff, and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Curtis Scaparrotti met in Baku on April 19. NATO said the Baku meeting "focused on issues related to military posture and exercises" and ways to avoid actions that could lead to war. The Russian ministry said the two officers discussed confidence-building measures and incident prevention. (RFE/RL, 04.19.18)
- Russia regards U.S. statements on possible sanctions against Turkey for the purchase of S-400 air defense missile systems as blackmail in favor of American companies, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. (TASS, 04.20.18)
- Milo Djukanovic, who defied Russia to take Montenegro into NATO, won his country’s April 15 presidential election on a pledge to stay on course for EU membership. (Bloomberg, 04.16.18)
Nuclear arms control:
- The U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals could soon be unconstrained by any binding arms control agreements for the first time since 1972, triggering an expensive and dangerous new arms race, a group of former officials and experts from the U.S., Europe and Russia has warned. In a statement, the signatories point out that the 2010 New START treaty will expire in February 2021, unless urgent steps are taken to extend it. (Guardian, 04.17.18)
- A terror suspect has reportedly killed himself with an explosive device during a raid launched by security forces against an Islamic State terror cell in southern Russia’s Rostov region. (The Moscow Times, 04.17.18)
Conflict in Syria:
- The U.S. has credible information that Russia and Syria are trying to “sanitize” the site of a suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria while denying access to the area by international inspectors, the U.S. State Department said on April 19. Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the team of inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had not been given access to the site of the alleged April 7 attack in the town of Douma. Kenneth Ward, U.S. ambassador to the OPCW, said the U.S. was concerned Russian officials may have tampered with the site. Director-General of the OPCW Ahmet Uzumcu said the two suspected attack sites were under the control of the Russian military police. The Kremlin has earlier said that allegations that chemical weapons inspectors were not being allowed access to Douma were groundless, and one of its ambassadors claimed there was no evidence that the attack had ever actually happened. (Reuters, 04.19.18, RFE/RL, 04.18.18, Wall Street Journal, 04.17.18. The Moscow Times, 04.16.18, Irish Times, 04.17.18)
- U.S. President Donald Trump declared victory April 14 in the largest application of military force he has ordered. ''A perfectly executed strike last night,'' Trump wrote on Twitter. “Mission Accomplished!” Trump tweeted a day after the allied assault on Syrian facilities that the U.S., Britain and France say are part of a large chemical weapons program. “Could not have had a better result.'' When announcing the April 13 strikes, Trump said the main purpose of the attacks was to establish "a strong deterrent" against chemical weapons use. Trump called on both Russia and Iran to stop supporting Assad's "murderous" and "terrible regime." (The Washington Post, 04.15.18, New York Times, 04.14.18, RFE/RL, 04.14.18)
- Trump spoke to British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron after the April 13 strikes. The White House said the leaders agreed the air strikes in Syria "were successful and necessary to deter" the future use of chemical weapons. Macron and May also spoke in addresses to their nations. "A red line has been crossed," said Macron. "We cannot tolerate the normalization of the use of chemical weapons." Macron said April 15 he convinced Trump to not disengage from Syria and to limit airstrikes to chemical-weapons targets. White House press secretary Sarah Sanders didn't address Macron's comments directly, but said Trump "wants U.S. forces to come home as quickly as possible." (RFE/RL, 04.16.18, Wall Street Journal, 04.16.18)
- While Donald Trump pressed his team last week to consider strikes on Russian and Iranian targets in Syria if necessary to get at the Assad regime's military equipment, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis pushed back. Mattis also urged Trump to get congressional approval before the strikes, but was overruled by Trump, who wanted a rapid and dramatic response, military and administration officials said. After the strikes, Mattis said they were a “one-time shot" aimed at dissuading Assad from deploying chemical weapons. (Wall Street Journal, 04.16.18, RFE/RL, 04.16.18, New York Times, 04.17.18)
- At a Pentagon briefing on April 14, Lt. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said three sites that are "fundamental components of the regime's chemical weapons infrastructure" were struck by the U.S., U.K. and French missiles. The three sites included the Barzah chemical weapons research and development center near Damascus that was hit by 76 missiles and "destroyed." McKenzie said the Him Shinshar chemical weapons storage facility near Homs was hit by 22 missiles. He said 105 missiles were launched by the U.S., U.K. and France, while Syrian forces fired only 40 surface-to-air missiles in response. (RFE/RL, 04.14.18, RFE/RL, 04.15.18)
- U.S. Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Russians had not been notified before the strikes, but normal “de-confliction channels” had been used for “airspace issues.” "Before we took action, the United States communicated with the Russian Federation to reduce the danger of any Russian or civilian casualties," the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Jon Huntsman Jr., said. French Defense Minister Florence Parly said Russia was "warned beforehand." (RFE/RL, 04.16.18. RFE/RL, 04.14.18, The Washington Post, 04.14.18)
- U.S. Defense Department officials said that American-led strikes against Syria had taken out the ''heart'' of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's chemical weapons program, but acknowledged that the Syrian government most likely retained some ability to again attack its own people with chemical agents. The barrage of missiles by American, French and British forces on April 13 most likely will not stop Assad's chemical weapons program, a Pentagon assessment has concluded, despite Trump's ''Mission Accomplished!'' declaration hours after the strikes. (New York Times, 04.14.18, New York Times, 04.19,.18)
- NATO said all 29 of its members in the alliance back the air strikes on Syria as a consequence of the Syrian government conducting a suspected chemical attack against civilians. (RFE/RL, 04.16.18)
- Russia alleges that Syria’s largely antiquated collection of S-125, S-200, Buk, Kvadrat and Osa air defense systems shot down the majority of the incoming air strike. "According to available information, a total of 103 cruise missiles were fired,” Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoi, head of the Russian General Staff’s Main Operations Department said. “A total of 71 missiles were intercepted." (The National Interest, 04.16.18)
- Two cruise missiles found unexploded by the Syrian military after the April 13 U.S. missile strike have been handed over to Russia. (TASS, 04.19.18)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned that any additional strikes by Western powers against Syria will "inevitably lead to chaos in international relations." Putin made the remark in an April 15 telephone conversation with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. "The current escalation of the situation around Syria is destructive for the entire system of international relations," Putin said in a statement read by Russia's U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia. (The Washington Post, 04.14.18, RFE/RL, 04.15.18)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have discussed the situation in Syria in a telephone conversation, the Kremlin says. According to the Kremlin, Putin and Merkel both stressed the importance of an "objective investigation" into the suspected attack in Douma by inspectors from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. Putin and Merkel also discussed the Nord Stream 2 project, a pipeline running from Russia through the Baltic Sea to Germany. (RFE/RL, 04.17.18)
- Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said April 20 that the U.S. military and its allies had avoided Russian “red lines” when conducting airstrikes against Syria last week. “They were notified about where our ‘red lines’ are located, including ‘red lines’ ‘on the ground,’” Lavrov was cited as saying. “The results [of the U.S. air strikes] show that they did not cross these lines,” he added. (The Moscow Times, 04.20.18)
- Russian ambassador to Washington Anatoly Antonov strongly denounced the air strikes, saying in a statement that "we have warned that such actions will not remain without consequences." Antonov added that "insulting the Russian president was inadmissible," in an apparent reaction to some of Trump's comments. “The United States, a country that has the largest arsenal of chemical weapons, has no moral right to accuse other countries," Antonov said. (RFE/RL, 04.16.18)
- The U.N. Security Council rejected a Russian-backed resolution to condemn U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria. Only Russia, China and Bolivia voted for the resolution, which called the airstrikes an aggression against Syria. Eight members opposed the resolution, including the U.S. and European allies. (New York Times, 04.14.18)
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has suggested that Moscow might supply high-precision S-300 air-defense missiles to its Bashar al-Assad in the wake of Western air strikes. Senior Russian Defense Ministry official Sergei Rudskoi also said that following the air strikes, Moscow could examine providing S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Syria and other nations. Rudskoi said preliminary information showed that no Syrian civilians or military personnel were killed in the bombardment. (RFE/RL, 04.14.18, RFE/RL, 04.20.18)
- The Pentagon has said that the number of Russian bots active on social media had increased by 2,000 percent in the wake of the Syria strikes. (Financial Times, 04.17.18)
- Syrian military sources denied April 16 reports of an early morning missile attack targeting Shayrat air base and said that the defense systems were activated, but that it turned out to be a false alarm. (Haaretz, 04.17.18)
- “We recognize that the divide between Assad and large parts of the opposition looks almost insurmountable,” a Russian diplomat with experience in three Middle Eastern countries said. “But we do not see an alternative figure that could guarantee stability and territorial integrity.” (Financial Times, 03.16.18)
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