Trump’s relations with Putin warm unlike those with European leaders

The New York Times reports: President Trump began a new era of diplomacy with Russia on Saturday as he and President Vladimir V. Putin conducted an hourlong telephone call, and vowed to repair relations between the countries after nearly three years of conflict that threatened a new Cold War between East and West.

The two leaders discussed fighting terrorism and expanding economic ties, but barely mentioned the wedge that has been driven between Washington and Moscow since Russia annexed Crimea and sponsored a separatist war in eastern Ukraine in 2014. Still, although Mr. Trump had previously expressed a willingness to lift sanctions against Russia, the issue did not come up, according to officials on both sides.

The tone of the conversation was reported to be warm, indicating a drastic shift after relations had broken down between Mr. Putin and former President Barack Obama. “The positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship between the United States and Russia that is in need of repair,” the Trump administration said in a statement. “Both President Trump and President Putin are hopeful that after today’s call, the two sides can move quickly to tackle terrorism and other important issues of mutual concern.”

In its statement, the Kremlin said: “Donald Trump asked to convey a desire for happiness and prosperity for the Russian people, noting that the people in America relate with sympathy to Russia and its citizens.” Mr. Putin answered that Russians feel the same way about Americans, the statement said. Neither side mentioned the Russian hacking of the American election in their statements.

Over the past two days, Mr. Trump has also had a series of conversations with the United States’ traditional European allies, but those calls were seemingly not as congenial. After a meeting on Friday with Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain, in which she warned against removing sanctions on Russia, Mr. Trump had on Saturday what appeared to be a businesslike call with Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and a testier call with President François Hollande of France.

Mr. Hollande’s office said the French president pressed Mr. Trump not to lift sanctions against Russia and to respect the nuclear agreement with Iran. He asserted the importance of the Paris climate change pact, warned of the consequences of protectionism, and added that democratic values included welcoming refugees — all in reaction to Mr. Trump’s first week of policy moves. Mr. Hollande also emphasized the importance of NATO and the United Nations, both of which Mr. Trump has disparaged. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Russia is targetting French, Dutch and German elections with fake news, EU task force warns

The Telegraph reports: Russia is seeking to influence the outcome of several key elections in European countries this year with fake news, a special task force set up by the European Union has warned.

The EU is reportedly allocating more funds to its East StratCom task force to counter the disinformation, amid fears Russia will target elections in France, Germany and the Netherlands

“There is an enormous, far-reaching, at least partly organized, disinformation campaign against the EU, its politicians and its principles,” a source close to the task force told Germany’s Spiegel magazine.

It is “highly likely” Russia will try to influence European elections “as it did in the US”, the source said.

The number one target is Angela Merkel, who has been subjected to a “bombardment” of fake news over her refugee policy and support for economic sanctions against Russia.

Disinformation is “part of state policy” and a “military tool” for the Kremlin”. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Europe’s far-right leaders unite at dawn of the Trump era

Time reports: After a few weeks of reading online about Donald Trump’s transition to the presidency, Marco Kopping, a 36-year-old apprentice at a car-parts supplier near Frankfurt, decided to get involved in German politics. He had never sympathized with a political party before, let alone joined one. But in December he received his glossy membership card from Alternative for Germany (AfD), one of the far-right movements now riding the updraft from Trump’s ascent. What drove him, Kopping says, “was the feeling of a revolution.” He didn’t want to be left behind.

Across the European Union, politicians on the right-wing fringe have been invigorated by Trump’s victory, which has given them a chance to attract new supporters, build coalitions and argue that, despite the often-glaring differences between them, they are all part of a movement with seemingly unstoppable momentum.

The most striking proof yet of that movement came on Saturday in the cross-section of far-right populists who met for the first time, at the AfD’s invitation, at a convention in the German city of Koblenz. A day after Trump’s Inauguration, the stars of the European right drew a direct line between Trump’s success at the ballot box and their own looming electoral battles. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Donald Trump threatens the existence of the Western alliance

Alex Massie writes: It is, remarkably, no exaggeration to say that almost everyone in Europe awaits the presidency of Donald Trump with a sense of dread. Almost everyone, that is, save for the resurgent parties of the populist far-right who see, in Trump, an example they dearly wish to emulate.

The European mainstream, however, shrinks from Trump as it has never shrunk from any previous American president. No, not Ronald Reagan and no, not even George W Bush either. Trump has not even taken office and he is already the most dangerous U.S. president in living memory. Perhaps, even, of all time.

Whatever else they were, Reagan and Bush were both men of some political experience. Trump, as he told the Times of London and Germany’s Bild, is “not a politician” and that is precisely the point. The generous assessment of the president-elect’s potential allows that his less than conventional approach to international affairs ensures that America’s foes will not easily be able to fathom or predict his intentions. [Continue reading…]

The Associated Press reports: With eager anticipation, the Kremlin is counting the days to Donald Trump’s inauguration and venting its anger at Barack Obama’s outgoing administration, no holds barred.

Careful not to hurt chances for a thaw in U.S.-Russia relations, President Vladimir Putin and other Russian officials have deferred questions about their plans for future contacts with Trump and any agenda for those talks until he takes office on Friday.

Trump’s open admiration of Putin has brought wide expectations of improved Moscow-Washington relations, but Trump has not articulated a clear Russia policy. His Cabinet nominees include both a retired general with a hawkish stance on Russia and an oil executive who has done extensive business in Russia.

At the same time, Russian officials are blasting the outgoing U.S. administration in distinctly undiplomatic language, dropping all decorum after Obama hit Moscow with more sanctions in his final weeks in office.

Moscow calls Obama’s team a “bunch of geopolitical losers” engaged in a last-ditch effort to inflict the maximum possible damage to U.S.-Russia ties to make it more difficult for Trump to mend the rift. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

‘Europe’s fate is in our hands’: Angela Merkel’s defiant reply to Trump

The Guardian reports: Angela Merkel has responded curtly but defiantly after Donald Trump cast further doubt on his commitment to Nato and gave strong hints that he would not support EU cohesion once in office.

“We Europeans have our fate in our own hands,” the German chancellor said after the publication of the US president-elect’s interviews with The Times and Bild. “He has presented his positions once more. They have been known for a while. My positions are also known.”

In the Times interview, Trump complained that Nato had become “obsolete” because it “hadn’t taken care of terror” – a comment later welcomed by the Kremlin. He also suggested that other European countries would follow in Britain’s footsteps and leave the EU.

Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said the criticism of Nato had caused concern in the political and military alliance. “I’ve spoken today not only with EU foreign ministers but Nato foreign ministers as well and can report that the signals are that there’s been no easing of tensions,” he said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Germany hits back at Trump criticism of refugee policy and BMW tariff threat

The Guardian reports: Berlin has mounted a staunch defence of its policies after Donald Trump criticised the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, for her stance during the refugee crisis and threatened a 35% tariff on BMW cars imported into the US.

Germany’s deputy chancellor and minister for the economy, Sigmar Gabriel, said on Monday morning that a tax on German imports would lead to a “bad awakening” among US carmakers since they were reliant on transatlantic supply chains.

“I believe BMW’s biggest factory is already in the US, in Spartanburg [South Carolina],” Gabriel, leader of the centre-left Social Democratic party, told the Bild newspaper in a video interview.

“The US car industry would have a bad awakening if all the supply parts that aren’t being built in the US were to suddenly come with a 35% tariff. I believe it would make the US car industry weaker, worse and above all more expensive. I would wait and see what the Congress has to say about that, which is mostly full of people who want the opposite of Trump.” [Continue reading…]

In 2014, Automotive News reported from Spartanburg: BMW will invest $1 billion in its factory here by 2016 to expand capacity by 100,000 units and add production of a fifth crossover, the X7 — making the plant its biggest worldwide.

Norbert Reithofer, CEO of BMW AG, said Spartanburg’s annual production will top that of BMW’s Dingolfing, Germany, plant, which can build 350,000 vehicles a year.

BMW’s current capacity has just been boosted to 350,000 units. Last year, the plant produced 297,326 vehicles.

Reithofer said building 450,000 vehicles a year will mean the equivalent of “a whole new plant” of output beyond last year’s total.

“This is the fifth expansion since production began 20 years ago and represents another major investment,” said Manfred Erlacher, president of BMW Manufacturing Co.

The plant has begun building the new X4 crossover, which is to go on sale in June in the United States. Spartanburg also produces the X3, X5 and X6.

Harald Krueger, BMW board member for production, said the group has 28 factories in 13 countries. More than 70 percent of the plant’s production is exported to more than 140 countries worldwide, he said.

“And we are really proud that this plant annually exports vehicles valuing over $7.5 billion — which, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, makes BMW the largest U.S. vehicle exporter by value to non-NAFTA countries. ‘Freude am Fahren’ — made in America,” Krueger said. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Watch out, Europe. Germany is top of Russian hackers’ list

Natalie Nougayrède writes: One year ago in Berlin, Lisa F, a 13-year-old German-Russian girl, disappeared for 30 hours. When she returned to her parents, she claimed she had been kidnapped and raped by “Arab” men. This was a lie – as she later admitted. She had fallen out with her parents and invented the whole story. But that did little to stop the episode from becoming the centrepiece of a whirlwind Russian disinformation campaign aimed at destabilising Angela Merkel and German institutions.

Russian state media and pro-Russian websites in Germany immediately swirled with reports. Merkel was already under pressure for her open-door policy on refugees. Now German far-right groups and representatives of Germany’s ethnic Russian community held demonstrations. The Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, described Lisa (a dual German-Russian citizen) as “our girl” and accused German authorities of a cover-up and “whitewashing reality to make it politically correct”.

A diplomatic spat ensued, with the German foreign minister accusing Russia of “political propaganda”. Berlin officials struggled to counter the Russian campaign. But Moscow’s overt meddling in Germany’s domestic politics seeped into the public consciousness – for a while, at least.

Fast-forward to January 2017. The fallout from the Trump-Russia dossier has now placed Vladimir Putin and his power structure at the centre of American politics. For Europeans, a question arises: what could this all mean for the old continent, as it approaches key elections? This year, voting will take place in France, the Netherlands and in Germany. Remembering the Lisa scandal is important, for it says something about what may lie ahead.

Now that Russia’s covert activities are being so intensely discussed in the US, it is high time Europe placed as much attention on what it might, in turn, be confronted with – and to prepare itself. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Germany investigating unprecedented spread of fake news online

The Guardian reports: German government officials have said they are investigating an unprecedented proliferation of fake news items amid reports of Russian efforts to influence the country’s election later this year.

The BfV domestic intelligence agency confirmed that a cyber-attack last December against the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) used the same “attack infrastructure” as a 2015 hack of the German parliament attributed to Russian hacking group APT28.

Last month, BfV said it had seen an “enormous use of financial resources” and the deployment of a wide variety of Russian propaganda tools to carry out disinformation campaigns aimed at destabilising the German government. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Germany accuses Russia of cyber attack on Ukraine peace monitors, as Kremlin dismisses U.S. intelligence claims as a ‘witch hunt’

The Telegraph reports: Russian hackers have targeted international peace monitors in Ukraine, according to German intelligence, as the Kremlin dismisses claims that it tried to influence the US election as a “witch hunt”.

Investigators have uncovered evidence that a notorious Russian hacking group believed to be linked to the Kremlin was behind an attack on computers of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) last month, Hans-Georg Maassen, the head of Germany’s BfV domestic intelligence service said.

He named the group responsible as APT28, another name for Fancy Bear, a group of hackers that has been implicated in the theft of emails from Democratic Party servers in the US.

German intelligence also believes the group was behind a series of cyber attacks on the German parliament in 2015. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The real German submarine scandal

Victor Gilinsky writes: Israel is absorbed with a “submarine scandal” that centers on improprieties in the award of a billion-dollar contract under which Israel would acquire three new advanced German submarines. (Germany has already delivered five of the subs, on a previous contract for six.) It came to light that the prime minister’s personal lawyer was on the payroll of the submarine builder, ThyssenKrupp. Then it turned out that Iran, which figures heavily in the motive for getting the submarines, owns 4.5 percent of ThyssenKrupp and so would gain a profit from their sale. On top of that, there is a Lebanese connection to the German builder, too. But the real scandal is that Germany supplies the submarines at all, and does so through a loophole in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Everyone who pays attention to the subject understands that the submarines are built to carry long-range Israeli cruise missiles armed with nuclear weapons.

The German news magazine Der Spiegel laid out the details in a six-part 2012 series. The missiles’ range is about 1,500 kilometers, which brings Tehran within reach from the Mediterranean. As if to erase any doubts, in greeting the arrival of the latest submarine, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it would be equipped with “advanced” Israeli systems that would be “used first and foremost to deter our enemies who strive to extinguish us. They must know that Israel is capable of hitting back hard against anyone who seeks to hurt us.” German government claims that they know nothing about the submarines’ nuclear role are more than a little ridiculous.

The United States has repeatedly insisted that it is committed to strengthening the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Here is a good place to begin. While the treaty prohibits nuclear weapon states (that is, the US, Russia, Britain, China, and France) from aiding any other state in obtaining nuclear weapons, and it prohibits the treaty’s non-nuclear weapon state members from receiving such aid, it does not specifically prohibit these other members from providing nuclear weapon-related assistance, including aid to non-members India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan, all of which now have nuclear weapons. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

German police quash Breitbart story of mob setting fire to Dortmund church

AFP reports: German media and politicians have warned against an election-year spike in fake news after the rightwing website Breitbart claimed a mob chanting “Allahu Akbar” had set fire to a church in the city of Dortmund on New Year’s Eve.

After the report by the US site was widely shared on social media, the city’s police clarified that no “extraordinary or spectacular” incidents had marred the festivities.

The local newspaper, Ruhr Nachrichten, said elements of its online reporting on New Year’s Eve had been distorted by Breitbart to produce “fake news, hate and propaganda”.

The justice minister of Hesse state, Eva Kühne-Hörmann, said that “the danger is that these stories spread with incredible speed and take on lives of their own”.

The controversy highlights a deepening divide between backers of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s liberal stance toward refugees and a rightwing movement that opposes immigration, fears Islam and distrusts the government and media. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Angela Merkel, Russia’s next target

Jochen Bittner writes: It seems that Russia may be planning to do to Ms. Merkel and her allies in 2017 what it did to Hillary Clinton and other Democrats in the United States in 2016.

After all, last year the same hackers who broke into the Democratic Party’s computers, known online as Fancy Bear or Sofacy Group, attacked the German Parliament’s network; they are also accused of stealing documents from individual members of Parliament. Every revelation about how Russia interfered in the American elections gives Germany a foretaste of what is already looking to be the nastiest, toughest, most exhausting election campaign in modern German history.

That foretaste, though, is also Germany’s one advantage. We know something about Russians’ technical abilities and methods, and, even more important, we have a developing sense of where they’re coming from ideologically — and how that will guide their attacks.

Here, we can draw valuable lessons from the Cold War. What Russia does today is very much the digital version of what we Germans, before 1989, termed “Zersetzung.” The term is hard to translate, but it’s best described as the political equivalent of what happens when you pour acid on organic material: dissolution and disintegration.

The methods of Zersetzung are to cast doubt on the basic norms of the Western liberal order and its institutions; to distort and thereby discredit the purposes of the European Union, NATO and the free-market economy; to erode the credibility of the free press and free elections. The means of Zersetzung include character assassination and, through the spreading of lies and fake news, the creation of a gray zone of doubt in which facts struggle to survive.

We have seen all of this before, employed by the K.G.B. and the East German Stasi: psychological warfare, rumor-mongering, schemes to bribe politicians and then expose them as criminals. They used it both internally, against dissidents, and externally, against Western enemies. Mr. Putin and his former K.G.B. colleagues should know that, this time, we have a better sense of their dirty tricks, and how they have updated Zersetzung for the internet. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Drugs and terror: Berlin truck-attack suspect followed familiar pattern

The Wall Street Journal reports: The 24-year-old Tunisian migrant suspected of killing 12 people in an attack in Berlin this week typified a new wave of young jihadists in Europe who mix drug dealing and other illegal activities with Islamist terror.

Anis Amri, who was killed in a shootout with Italian police in Milan on Friday after days on the run, peddled cocaine in a hip neighborhood of the German capital, while becoming increasingly radicalized and declaring his allegiance to Islamic State.

It is a pattern that has become increasingly common. Two brothers involved in the November 2015 attacks in Paris sold hashish from a bar in the Belgian capital, Brussels. One — Salah Abdeslam, the main surviving suspect in that assault — served time in prison for breaking into a garage. The other had repeated brushes with the law for theft, drugs and weapons possession.

“You have a crossover between criminals and extremists,” said Magnus Ranstorp, a counterterrorism expert at the Swedish Defence University. “They are just as at ease with selling drugs, petty crime and dabbling in extremism.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

After Berlin attack, Germans reject talk of ‘war’

AFP reports: The Berlin attack may have rattled nerves but, mindful of their own dark history, Germans are resisting calls for a security overhaul and reject any talk of being at war — setting the country apart from other jihadist-hit nations.

Long-held fears of a major attack on German soil became reality on Monday when an extremist rammed a truck into a crowded Christmas market, killing 12 people and injuring dozens. The suspected attacker, 24-year-old Tunisian Anis Amri, was shot dead by police in Italy early Friday.

The attack, claimed by the Islamic State group, horrified Germany, which had until now escaped the type of jihadist carnage seen in neighbouring France and Belgium.

But while the shock and grief are the same, there are no cries for a state of emergency and there is no question of flooding the streets with armed soldiers.

Chancellor Angela Merkel herself on Thursday said she was “very proud of how calmly most people reacted to the situation”.

Experts attribute the sang-froid in part to Germany’s past as an instigator of two world wars, making its citizens today deeply suspicious of any kind of heavy-handed security response. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Blaming terrorist attacks on refugees isn’t going to make Europe safer

Alexander Görlach writes: It didn’t take long for Germany’s far-right party Alternative for Germany to exploit the Berlin terrorist attack for political gain. “These are Merkel’s dead,” tweeted AfD leader Marcus Pretzell on Monday.

However, Germany has been on the radar of Islamist terrorists for quite some time. So have Christmas markets: in 2000, four Algerians plotted to blow up the Christmas market in Strasbourg in France. In 2007, three terrorists were arrested in Germany for planned simultaneous car bomb attacks ― “the world will burn,” one reportedly said.

Terror arrived in Germany long before the Berlin incident. But it was the first in recent times that caused such significant casualties. This is very tragic, but to exclusively blame it on Syrian refugees defeats the purpose of trying to understand how to combat terrorism and prevent future attacks from happening. The suspect, Anis Amri, who was killed in a shootout with police near Milan today, was a Tunisian who came to Europe in 2011, entering through the Italian island of Lampedusa. This was back before the Syrian civil war had become the regional conflagration that it is today; it was also during the aftermath of the Arab Spring, when order in some countries in northern Africa was on the verge of collapsing. How many asylum seekers came to Europe then with bad intentions? How many of them were already eager and keen to become terrorists? The honest answer is: we don’t know.

But the right wing’s take on the Berlin attack is shortsighted. As a matter of fact, when southern Europe groaned under the pressure of refugees, the rest of the continent was indifferent about it. Europe’s refugee policy is flawed. The continent needs to get its act together: the regions around it may most likely remain in upheaval and turmoil for quite some time. Not having done so yet has nurtured the rise of anti-establishment activism, right-wing parties and xenophobic violence across the continent. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Suspect in Berlin market attack was radicalized in an Italian jail

The Washington Post reports: He was the man nobody wanted.

When Anis Amri washed up on European shores in a migrant boat in April 2011, he landed on the windswept Italian island of Lampedusa already a fugitive. Sought in his native Tunisia for hijacking a van with a gang of thieves, the frustrated Italians would jail him for arson and violent assault at his migrant reception center for minors on the isle of Sicily.

There, his family noted, the boy who once drank alcohol — and never went to mosque — suddenly got religion.

He began to pray, asking his family to send him religious books. The Italian Bureau of Prisons submitted a report to a government ­anti-terrorism commission on Amri’s rapid radicalization, warning that he was embracing dangerous ideas of Islamist ­extremism and had threatened Christian inmates, according to an Italian government official with knowledge of the situation. The dossier was first reported by ANSA, the Italian news service.

The Italians tried to deport Amri but couldn’t. They sent his fingerprints and photo to the Tunisian consulate, but the authorities there refused to recognize Amri as a citizen. The Italians, officials there say, could not even establish his true identity. Italy’s solution: After four years in jail, they released him anyway — giving him seven days to leave the country. [Continue reading…]

Der Spiegel reports: When Amri submitted an application for asylum with the [German] Federal Office of Migration and Refugees (BAMF) in April 2016, he claimed he was an Egyptian and that he was being persecuted in Egypt. When asked follow-up questions by the agency, however, he demonstrated almost no knowledge of the country.

Research into BAMF’s database showed that he had been registered in Germany using multiple identities and dates of birth. Within a matter of only weeks, officials rejected Amri’s asylum application, saying it was “obviously unfounded.” However, they were unable to deport him because he lacked the necessary identification papers. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Berlin truck attacker was no lone wolf, German authorities say

The Daily Beast reports: Germany’s most wanted jihadist will spend his 24th birthday on the run.

Anis Amri, who turns 24 on Thursday, was named on Wednesday as the lead suspect in Monday’s deadly attack on a Berlin Christmas Market. He was reportedly identified from official documents left behind in the truck’s cab.

But German authorities also say the Tunisian man had ties to a notorious group of local ISIS sympathizers led by a man named Abu Walaa, who was arrested in November alongside four others accused of operating an ISIS recruitment network.

Der Spiegel, citing local officials, said that Amri and Abu Walaa were in “regular contact.”

If that’s the case, what first was considered to be a “lone wolf” attack in Germany — the first successful terrorist operation there since the 9/11 attacks — could instead be the work of an ISIS cell.

Abu Walaa—whose real name is Ahmad Abdulaziz Abdullah—is an Iraqi-born preacher who serves a mosque in Hildesheim, about three hours from Berlin. The 32-year-old had styled himself as a sheikh who gives religious and marital advice, often in videos that never show his visage. iPhone and Android stores even offer an “Abu Walaa” app. A Facebook page devoted to the “sheikh,” featuring videos of him sermonizing in German and Arabic, has 25,000 followers. Only ever photographed or filmed from behind, and dressed in a hooded black cloak, he is known popularly as the “preacher without a face.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail