Russia in Review

This Week’s Highlights:

  • The groups behind attacks on U.S. energy targets are allegedly linked to Russian intelligence agencies, but they are different from the two hacking groups that were reported to have been involved in the election interference. This suggests that at least three separate Russian cyberoperations could have been underway in U.S. simultaneously.
  • British intelligence services believe the nerve agent that poisoned Sergei Skripal could have been planted in his daughter’s suitcase before she left Moscow.
  • In spite of the U.K.’s efforts to retaliate against Russia over what London sees as Moscow’s complicity in the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, investors from Europe account for most of the demand for Gazprom’s $927 million bond that was so oversubscribed that the energy giant was able to cut its borrowing costs by knocking about 38 basis points off its yield.
  • Russia would retaliate against both U.S. missiles and their delivery vehicles if the U.S. launched strikes on Damascus, Valery Gerasimov, head of the General Staff of the Russian Federation’s armed forces, said.
  • Special counsel Robert Mueller has subpoenaed the Trump Organization in recent weeks to turn over documents, including some related to Russia. Trump said last July that Muller would be crossing a red line if he looked into his family’s finances beyond any relationship with Russia
  • Year-on-year number of U.S. tourists visiting Russia grew by 25 percent from January 2017 to September 2017.
  • Merkel has indulged Putin’s craving for quality German beer while the Russian leader—who says his paternal grandfather cooked for Lenin and Stalin—has repaid the German chancellor with her favorite smoked fish.

I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda

Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:

  • Saudi Arabia's crown prince asserted on March 15 that the kingdom will develop nuclear weapons if Iran does, in a television interview immediately denounced by Tehran. (RFE/RL, 03.16.18)
  • U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel said he shares the views of U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joe Dunford that the Iran deal is still in the best interests of the United States. (RFE/RL, 03.14.18)
  • Mike Pompeo, whom U.S. President Donald Trump has picked as his new Secretary of State, was among the harshest critics of the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. (New York Times, 03.14.18)
  • Iran has signed a $742 million deal with Russian state-owned energy firm Zarubezhneft to boost production at two oil fields in the country's west. (RFE/RL, 03.15.18)

Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent speech highlighting nuclear weapons that he claimed could be used to attack the U.S. was “disappointing but unsurprising” and does not alter the Pentagon’s strategic plan to counter Moscow, according to U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. While still CIA director, Mike Pompeo shared a similar assessment: “Americans should rest assured that we have a very good understanding of the Russian program and how to make sure that Americans continue to be kept safe from threats from Vladimir Putin.” (The Washington Post, 03.11.18)
  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says the West is not looking to start a new Cold War or an arms race with Russia, but he reiterated that the military alliance will defend “all allies against any threat.” Stoltenberg also said alliance members increased their defense spending in 2017 for the third consecutive year, amid complaints from U.S. President Donald Trump that only a handful of NATO allies met their pledges. Overall, NATO countries—not including the U.S.—spent an estimated 1.45 percent of their annual economic output on defense spending last year. (RFE/RL, 03.15.18, The Washington Post, 03.15.18)
  • Estonia says a Russian military cargo plane has violated its airspace near Vaindloo Island in the Baltic Sea. (RFE/RL, 03.12.18)

Missile defense:

  • U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is adamant that Russia’s recently unveiled nuclear weapons delivery vehicles will not change the strategic balance between Washington and Moscow. Moreover, Mattis said that he believes that Russia is wasting its money in developing weapons to overcome American missile defenses because those systems are simply not capable of taking on the Kremlin’s nuclear arsenal. (The National Interest, 03.12.18)


  • Russian President Vladimir Putin said that in 2014, he ordered a passenger aircraft reportedly carrying a bomb targeting the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi to be shot down. The threat turned out to be a false alarm and the plane was not shot down. (The Moscow Times, 03.11.18, CNN, 03.12.18.)
  • Russia’s Federal Security Service has said that it arrested dozens of members of an “ethnic criminal group” in Moscow suspected of smuggling Islamic State fighters from Russia to Iraq and Syria. (The Moscow Times, 03.14.18)
  • Russia’s Federal Security Service says its units have foiled "terrorists" who were planning to carry out an attack near the city of Saratov, killing an undisclosed number of “criminals.” (RFE/RL, 03.12.18)

Conflict in Syria:

  • Syrian government and Russian airstrikes killed at least 46 people in the besieged town of Ghouta outside Damascus on March 16, while Turkish shelling and attacks on a Kurdish-held town in northern Syria left at least 22 dead there. Syrian government forces earlier divided the eastern Ghouta enclave outside Damascus into two, dealing a major setback to rebels and threatening to exacerbate an already dire humanitarian situation. (AP, 03.16.18, AP, 03.11.18)
    • U.S. President Donald Trump's national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster on March 15 warned Russia and Iran that the U.S. wouldn't stand by while America's rivals cement their hold on power in Syria. McMaster's position appeared increasingly precarious. Trump has decided to oust McMaster and has conveyed that decision to John Kelly, his chief of staff. (Wall Street Journal, 03.15.18, Wall Street Journal, 03.15.18)
    • Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has warned that Syrian rebels under siege in eastern Ghouta will be given no relief, saying a 30-day cease-fire approved by the U.N. does not include “terrorists.” (RFE/RL, 03.14.18)
    • Reports from Syria say thousands of civilians are fleeing eastern Ghouta into government-held territory, as government forces continue to advance. (RFE/RL, 03.15.18)
  • Valery Gerasimov, head of the General Staff of the Russian Federation’s armed forces, said Russia would retaliate if the U.S. launched strikes on Damascus. “In case the lives of our soldiers are under threat, the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation will take retaliatory measures both against missiles and against the delivery vehicles used,” he was quoted as saying. (Financial Times, 03.13.18)
  • U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warned Syria on March 11 it would be “very unwise” for government forces to use weaponized gas, as he cited unconfirmed reports of chlorine attacks in eastern Ghouta and slammed Russian support for Damascus. (Reuters, 03.11.18)
  • U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley has said it is ready to act in Syria to end chemical attacks and "inhuman suffering" if Russia, Iran and Syria continue to allegedly ignore a 30-day cease-fire approved by the U.N. (RFE/RL, 03.12.18)
  • While still CIA director, Mike Pompeo accused both Russia and Iran of threatening U.S. interests as they pursue long-term roles in Syria. “The president asks me nearly every day what it is the intelligence community knows about the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons and who else, the Russians or the Iranians, who might be responsible for them.” (Bloomberg, 03.13.18)
  • An investigative report by Russian media outlet Znak suggests more Wagner Group mercenaries—at least 150 fighters—are being prepared to deploy in Syria within the next couple of weeks. (Al Monitor, 03.09.18)

Cyber security:

  • The Trump administration accused Russia on March 15 of engineering a series of cyberattacks targeting American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, and could have sabotaged or shut off power plants at will. The strikes accelerated in late 2015, and the groups behind the energy attacks, which are linked to Russian intelligence agencies, appear to be different from the two hacking groups involved in the election interference, suggesting that at least three separate Russian cyberoperations were underway simultaneously. A report released by the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI on March 15 also described sophisticated Russian government attempts to target American and European airports and other critical infrastructure via cyberattacks. (New York Times, 03.15.18, The Washington Post, 03.15.18)
  • Russia-linked Twitter accounts sought to spur racial and political discord in Wisconsin after a police officer's fatal shooting of a black man sparked riots. (AP, 03.15.18)
  • German public prosecutors have opened an investigation into a suspected cyberattack in December 2016 on the German Institute for International and Security Affairs carried out by a Russian hacking group. Authorities suspect the group known as "Fancy Bear" or "APT28" was behind the attack. (RFE/RL, 03.09.18)
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