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Michael Filitis recently earned an MA in History and Political Science from the University of Chicago. Helen Herring just completed an international gap year. Both are finalists for SRAS's Home and Abraod Scholarship.

 Russian Foreign Affairs in the News
October 2016
By Michael Filitis, Helen Herring, and Josh Wilson

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Russian foreign policy and foreign policies concerning Russia have been of particular interest to those following world affairs lately. With Russia's more assertive stance on the world stage, Russia's absorption of Crimea, and resulting sanctions, arms buildups, and global geopolitical restructuring and repositioning, keeping a close eye on this part of the world is especially important to understanding global security and international politics.

This resource from SRAS serves to track and analyze these issues as they develop in Eurasia.

For more on all these issues, see our coverage of How the News is Reported in Russia.


Russian/Turkish Relations, NATO, Syria, and the US

After a meeting of Turkey's and Russia's foreign ministers, a possibility of a Russian/Turkish alliance in Syria has opened. Although Russian/Turkish relations hit a low point after Turkey's 2015 downing of a Russian jet, relations are now rapidly warming. Analysts point, in part, to the Turkish economy, including the need to lift sanctions imposed by Russia on Turkey after the incident – which were made worse on Turkey's lucrative tourism sector after a recent ISIS attack at Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul. Perhaps of more importance may be Turkey's fears of an emboldened Kurdish independence movement inside the country. Kurdish forces have a positive relations with the US, which may be helping to drive Turkey’s search for new allies.

NATO may have cause to be concerned regarding potential Russian/Turkish cooperation as Turkey has offered Russia use of the Incirlik Air Base in southern Turkey. In a televised statement, Cavusoglu said, “[W]e opened Incirlik Air Base for those who want to join the active fight against Daesh [ISIS]…Why not cooperate with Russia as well on these terms?” However a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington DC has claimed that Russian use of the base is not strategically useful. Russia has, however, also stated that Turkey may be considering purchasing Russian missiles, which would be a first for a NATO member state.

Nonetheless, disagreements between Russia and Turkey remain regarding the continuation of Assad’s rule in Syria may prevent the new relationship between the two countries from developing to maturity.


Yearly Commemoration of Stalin’s Victims 

At an annual event held in front of the former headquarters of the KGB (now the headquarters of the FSB, its successor organization), ordinary Russians gathered to recite the names of the victims of Stalin’s purges (1937-1938) in a ceremony dubbed, Returning the Names. The ceremony has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years due to its affiliation with the human rights group Memorial, which has been labeled a foreign agent for allegedly receiving funds from the US and EU while engaging in "political activity" in Russia. Last year, a similar event in St. Petersburg was disrupted by ultra-right nationalists who carried pictures of Nazi leaders in a sardonic attempt to indicate that not all of “Stalin’s victims” should be lamented.


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Policy and Conflict Post Soviet

Russian Fears Regarding the Syrian Conflict

The Levada Center conducted a poll recently regarding Russian attitudes towards the on-going Syrian conflict. Accumulating responses from 1600 individuals across 48 regions, the center discovered both strong support for Russia’s air campaign in the region (52 percent), and increasing anxiety (48 percent) that the “breakdown in relations between Russia and the West” might lead to a major conflict.


The Levada Center Controversy

The Levada Center, the only independent, non-governmental, polling entity in Russia, has come under increasing scrutiny from the Russian government after a poll they conducted prior to this year’s parliamentary elections in September, which reported a reduction in support for the ruling party, United Russia“from 39 percent in July to 31 percent in August”. Following the release of the polling information, the Levada Center was officially labeled a “foreign agent” in accordance with an earlier 2012 law that sought to label organizations that participate in politics and receive foreign funding. Lev D. Gudkov, the director of Levada, subsequently lamented that the stigma surrounding the label could lead to the Levada Center's closure.


Russian Warships en Route to Syria, Tensions Rise with NATO

Russian warships en route to Syria and scheduled to refuel in a Spanish port were rerouted to a North African port recently. Concerns were raised by both the Spanish government and its NATO allies that the warships—and especially the presence of Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov—would be utilized to increase the strategic bombing of Aleppo. 250000 civilians remain trapped within the city due to the fighting between Russia-backed Syrian forces and US-backed rebel groups.

Although the Russian/Syrian shelling of eastern Aleppo has been temporarily halted for humanitarian reasons, recent rebel-led ground attacks into government-held western Aleppo has raised the ire of the Russian government. Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, has blamed the attack on the West for its inability to manage its allies in the region and has called for a united front against terrorism—implicitly calling for all foreign governments in the region to fall behind the Russian strategy supporting the government of Bashar al-Assad.


Protests Outside Russian Embassy in London

On November 3, 2016, eight hundred mannequin limbs appeared outside of the Russian embassy in London. In addition to blocking the entrance, two protestors additionally chained themselves to the embassy gates. According to the protestors, the demonstration was a response to civilian deaths in Aleppo, Syria. The eight hundred mannequin limbs are approximately equal to the number of civilian deaths that have occurred since the last ceasefire, in September 2016.

UK police did not immediately shut down the protest when it occurred, a response that left the Russian embassy unsatisfied. An embassy statement  expressed deep concern about diplomat security and the that the UK government was unwilling to ensure unhindered operation by averting protests. The embassy also accused the UK government of an anti-Russian campaign in the media. This accusation cited Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s recent statement encouraging people to protest outside the Russian embassy. The embassy telephone line was also blocked by an overwhelming number of callers.


Death of Former Putin Advisor in Washington, DC Hotel

Mikhail Lesin, a former presidential aide to Vladimir Putin, was found dead in his hotel room in Washington DC on November 5, 2015. He had blunt-force injuries to his head, neck, torso and extremities. His death occurred when he was in the process of making a deal with US officials investigating property holdings in California, so foul play was initially suspected.  

Lesin was a presidential aide to Putin from 2004-2009. His work included advising on the creation of Russia Today, a news channel which shares Russian news in English. While working for the Russian government, Lesin accrued millions of dollars. His assets, spread across Europe and the US, included approximately $28 million in real estate holdings in Los Angeles.

As soon as Lesin’s death was reported by hotel employees, an investigation began by the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department and the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, with assistance from the FBI. This collective effort was criticized by Russian officials for poor communication, stating that they only learned the details of Lesin’s injuries when the medical examiner’s report was released to the public.

The investigation of Lesin’s death has now closed. Despite the initial suspicions of foul play and related conspiracy theories, his death has been deemed an accident. “Acute ethanol intoxication” was listed as a contributory cause, which caused Lesin to experience multiple falls that led to his various blunt-force injuries. The immediate cause of his death was a heart attack.


Air Defense Deal with India

On Saturday, October 15, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed a deal for India to purchase an advanced air defense system from Russia. The deal was made during talks held alongside the Brics summit, though the deal was not part of the summit. The Brics summit is an annual conference including Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. This year’s event, the eighth, was hosted in Goa, India.

The 5.8 billion USD deal agreed on a delivery of five regiments of Russian S-400 “Triumph” air defense systems. The S-400 is Russia’s newest and most advanced air defense system. Currently, the system is only available to China (which ordered six regiments in 2014), India, and Russia. Additionally, Russia has deployed S-400 surface-to-air missiles in Syria, where Russian forces have been supporting Syrian government forces. Delivery of the systems to India and China is expected to begin in 2020.  


Other Stories

Russian Orthodox Church backs Jesus Christ Superstar
Amid protests and petitions by Christian activists, multiple productions of the musical Jesus Christ Superstar have been cancelled in Russia, largely in Siberia. Vladimir Legoida, spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church, released a statement backing the musical.

Russia denies involvement in Windows hack
Fancy Bear is a cyber espionage group which has carried out attacks against government, military and security targets. Due to the group’s schedule, its targets and the types of attacks that it employs, the Russian government has been accused of sponsoring the group. However, the Kremlin has denied involvement.

Bulgakov Monument Approved
A monument to Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov was finally approved for installation at Patriarch Ponds in Moscow. The project had been stalled since the late 1990s due to accusations from conservative Orthodox Russians of Satanist tendencies in Bulgakov’s magnum opus, The Master and Margarita.

Estonian Defense League
Fearing the possibility of a Russian incursion into the Baltic States mimicking previous Russian action in Ukraine, the Estonian government has begun training a post-invasion insurgency force known as the Estonian Defense League. The League has encouraged Estonians to purchase firearms and supplies in preparation for a potential invasion.


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