‘Gaps of trust’ with Russia bar a Syrian truce, Obama says

The New York Times reports: The Obama administration’s latest effort to broker a cease-fire in Syria’s civil war fell short on Monday, after a 90-minute meeting between President Obama and President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia failed to resolve problems between them.

“Given the gaps of trust that exist, that’s a tough negotiation, and we haven’t yet closed the gaps in a way where we think it would actually work,” Mr. Obama declared at a news conference at the end of a Group of 20 summit meeting in Hangzhou, China.

He did not describe the points of contention. Other officials have said they involve technical issues like how to staff checkpoints in combat areas. But the checkered history of Syrian cease-fires — the United States agreed to one with Russia in February, only to watch it unravel weeks later — has left the president deeply leery. [Continue reading…]

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Russian independent pollster is declared a ‘foreign agent’ before elections

The New York Times reports: Russian officials declared the Levada Center, the country’s only major independent pollster, a “foreign agent” on Monday, two weeks before nationwide parliamentary elections and days after a poll showed sliding support for the governing party, United Russia.

The decision, announced by the Justice Ministry, means the Levada Center will probably shut down its polling operations, which it has been conducting since the late 1980s.

“This manifests the increase in internal repressions carried out by the country’s leadership,” the center’s chief, Lev D. Gudkov, said in an interview broadcast by Dozhd, Russia’s only liberal independent news station. “If they won’t cancel this decision, it will mean that the Levada Center will have to stop working, because you cannot conduct polls with such a stigma put on you.”

A law signed by President Vladimir V. Putin in 2012 requires all nonprofit organizations that receive foreign funding and are engaged in loosely defined political activity to register and declare themselves as foreign agents, a term widely associated with spying in Russia. Rights activists have criticized the law as an instrument to marginalize independent civil society groups. [Continue reading…]

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Obama lets Kerry spin diplomatic wheels with Russia since U.S. has no ‘plan B’ for Syria

The New York Times reports: The image of a 5-year-old Syrian boy, dazed and bloodied after being rescued from an airstrike on rebel-held Aleppo, reverberated around the world last month, a harrowing reminder that five years after civil war broke out there, Syria remains a charnel house.

But the reaction was more muted in Washington, where Syria has become a distant disaster rather than an urgent crisis. President Obama’s policy toward Syria has barely budged in the last year and shows no sign of change for the remainder of his term. The White House has faced little pressure over the issue, in part because Syria is getting scant attention on the campaign trail from either Donald J. Trump or Hillary Clinton.

That frustrates many analysts because they believe that a shift in policy will come only when Mr. Obama has left office. “Given the tone of this campaign, I doubt the electorate will be presented with realistic and intelligible options, with respect to Syria,” said Frederic C. Hof, a former adviser on Syria in the administration.

The lack of substantive political debate about Syria is all the more striking given that the Obama administration is engaged in an increasingly desperate effort to broker a deal with Russia for a cease-fire that would halt the rain of bombs on Aleppo.

Those negotiations moved on Sunday to China, where Secretary of State John Kerry met for two hours with the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, at a Group of 20 meeting. At one point, the State Department was confident enough to schedule a news conference, at which the two were supposed to announce a deal.

But Mr. Kerry turned up alone, acknowledging that “a couple of tough issues” were still dividing them.

“We’re not going to rush,” he said, “and we’re not going to do something that we think has less than a legitimate opportunity to get the job done.”

Mr. Kerry said he would stay in China another day to keep trying. But his boss, Mr. Obama, voiced skepticism.

“If we do not get some buy-in from the Russians on reducing the violence and easing the humanitarian crisis, then it’s difficult to see how we get to the next phase,” the president said after a meeting with the British prime minister, Theresa May, in Hangzhou.

Whatever progress Mr. Kerry has made, officials said, could easily be unraveled by external events, whether a new offensive by Turkey or the Nusra Front — which until recently had publicly aligned itself with Al Qaeda — or intensified bombing raids by the government of President Bashar al-Assad. And it is clearer than ever that if Mr. Kerry’s latest attempt at diplomacy falls short, there is no Plan B. [Continue reading…]

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In northern Syria, outside powers have exploited Arab-Kurdish tensions to consolidate counter-revolutionary interests

Michael Karadjis writes: A week after the United States rushed to defend its Kurdish allies, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), against the Assad regime in Hassakeh, Washington supported the intervention of the Kurds’ Turkish nemesis to expel IS from the border town of Jarabulus.

These events suggest the outlines of a regional understanding over a reactionary solution in northern Syria.

It follows the recent diplomatic back-flips by Turkey’s Erdogan government – including Ankara’s reconciliation with Russia and Israel (who themselves have formed a very close alliance over the past year), the further strengthening of relations with Iran (which have remained strong despite Tehran’s backing of Assad), and the declaration by Prime Minister Yildirim that Turkey was no longer opposed to a role for Assad in a “transitional” government consisting of elements drawn from both the regime and opposition.

The YPG – connected to the Democratic Union Party (PYD) – has had a long-term, pragmatic non-aggression pact with Assad, sometimes leading to minor conflict, while at other times collaborating more closely – including during the recent siege of rebel-held Aleppo.

However, Hassakeh was the first time Assad launched his airforce against the YPG, possibly in response to Turkey’s feelers. An official from Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) recently noted that Assad “does not support Kurdish autonomy… we’re backing the same policy”. Despite YPG pragmatism, Assad has forcefully rejected Kurdish autonomy, while the rise in the Kurdish struggle in Iran suggests recent Turkish-Iranian meetings are likely anti-Kurdish in content.

Both Russia and the US have been key backers of the YPG. Russian airstrikes helped the Afrin YPG in February seize Arab-majority towns from the rebels in northern Aleppo, including Tal Rifaat. But Putin’s reconciliation with Erdogan suggests that Russia has dropped the YPG. [Continue reading…]

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Putin vs. Putin

Brian Whitmore writes: The emperor is at war with his inner godfather. The autocrat is battling his inner kleptocrat. The commissar is struggling with his inner crime kingpin.

The most consequential political battle in Russia today is not another skirmish among the Kremlin clans; it’s not a showdown between the siloviki and the technocrats; and it’s not a standoff between the regime and the opposition.

No, the battle defining Russia’s next political season is one that appears to be going on between Vladimir Putin and Vladimir Putin.

As the Kremlin leader culls his inner circle, purges the elite, and tries to enforce some limits on the massive graft that pervades Russian politics, he’s also fighting with himself.

And that is because Putin is something of a hybrid.

As veteran Russia-watcher James Sherr has noted, genealogically Putin is a product of the KGB, but sociologically he is a product of the Darwinian chaos and gangster capitalism that marked Russia’s first post-Soviet decade.

Putin’s political DNA may have been formed in Lubyanka, in Yury Andropov’s KGB, where order, hierarchy, discipline, and Soviet great-power ideology were paramount.

But his political socialization took place as vice mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s, where, as Karen Dawisha notes in her book Putin’s Kleptocracy, one of his key roles was acting as a liaison between the political and criminal authorities. [Continue reading…]

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Assad regime to besieged Aleppo: Surrender or starve

Roy Gutman reports:  Aleppo is under siege again. Once again, some 300,000 civilians in the rebel-held eastern part of the city must eke out their survival with no fresh produce and a dwindling food supply, in addition to the other perils of life for those in the Assad regime’s political opposition.

That means barrel bombs that destroy houses and bury their children, and missiles that destroy their schools, mosques, and hospitals.

The siege crept up almost without notice over the past 10 days, as the regime closed the Alramousa road, the sole supply route into the old town, first by intense bombing and then by targeted missile attacks just weeks after a surprise rebel offensive had opened it.

State television on August 27 showed a missile attack against vehicles traversing the road that it said were carrying “mercenaries and armed elements.” Two days later, rebel media activists reached the scene, where they found the body of driver Abdo Rawas splayed out on the road, alongside his destroyed truck and its cargo of fruits and vegetables. The activists couldn’t find the body of Adnan, Rawas’s 12-year-old son, who was driving with him. They fear he was incinerated in the attack, leaving no remains.

The siege of Aleppo, like any siege, will come to an end at some point, but the question is on what terms. If the other sieges against other rebel-held towns in Syria are any guide, the terms will be take it or leave it: Surrender or starve. [Continue reading…]

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Putin says DNC hack was a public service, Russia didn’t do it

Bloomberg reports: “There’s no need to distract the public’s attention from the essence of the problem by raising some minor issues connected with the search for who did it,” Putin said of the DNC breach. “But I want to tell you again, I don’t know anything about it, and on a state level Russia has never done this.”

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has high confidence that the government in Moscow was behind the theft at the DNC and other Democratic Party organizations seeking to propel Clinton to victory over Republican Donald Trump in November, a person familiar with the findings has said. Trump has praised Putin as a great leader and the billionaire’s former campaign chairman spent years working for the Kremlin ally who was ousted from Ukraine’s presidency in 2014.

In a two-hour conversation near Russia’s eastern fringe, Putin touched on subjects ranging from the war in Syria to oil prices and trade with China. It came just two days before Putin, Barack Obama and other world leaders gather at a Group of 20 meeting in Hangzhou.

An internal DNC probe by CrowdStrike Inc., a cybersecurity company, traced the DNC break-in to two groups it says are linked to Russian intelligence services. One, Cozy Bear, it says is affiliated with the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB, while the other, Fancy Bear, it says is tied to the Main Intelligence Directorate, a branch of the Defense Ministry.
James Lewis, a cybersecurity expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Russia’s “track record” of state hacking goes back at least a decade, so Putin’s denials aren’t credible.

“Nice try, but no goal,” Lewis said.

The digital net cast by the hackers has widened almost weekly — security experts say it now includes congressional staffers, NATO generals, Washington think tanks and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — adding another unpredictable element to a highly unusual election. The subsequent leaks have included the mobile number of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who said she was barraged with “obscene” calls within hours.

Putin also took a dig at the U.S. campaign and what he saw as an obvious party bias in favor of Clinton, saying he “couldn’t imagine” that the information leaked from the DNC would be newsworthy for “American society — specifically that the campaign headquarters worked in the interest of one of the candidates, in this case Mrs. Clinton, rather than equally for all of the Democratic party candidates. ”

Alexander Gostev, the chief expert at Kaspersky Lab, a Moscow-based software security firm, said of all the Russian-speaking hacking groups targeting governments, Fancy Bear “is the most notable.”

Malware linked to Fancy Bear was widely detected in Ukrainian government computers during the elections that were held after the country’s Kremlin-backed leader, Viktor Yanukovych, was deposed, Gostev said, adding that “six or seven” groups may be tied to the Russian government.

At the same time, Russia has come under attack by viruses linked to U.S. and U.K. intelligence services, Gostev said, adding that hacking efforts from China against Russian defense and nuclear agencies have intensified in the past year. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey’s intervention in Syria, with tacit Russian backing, has raised tensions with Washington

The Daily Beast reports: Russia and Iran have raised no serious objections to Turkey’s intervention. The Political Directorate of the Syrian Arab Army now speaks of the Kurdish guerrilla force [the YPG] as the “PKK.”

As Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment’s Middle East Center observes, “Over the past five years, Damascus has more often referred to the pro-PKK factions in Syria by simply using their official names (such as YPG, Asayish, and so on) or by some quaintly patriotic workaround, such as ‘loyal Kurdish citizens.’ It is rare for them to employ the ‘PKK’ term and even rarer to blast it across state media.” The shift is obviously meant as much for Turkish ears as for Syrian ones.

Also remarkable is how Russia’s English-language propaganda outlet Sputnik has unblinkingly about-faced on who’s who in this war.

This week, it took the unprecedented step of referring to the Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army as having “liberated” villages in Aleppo from “terrorists,” citing the Turkish General Staff’s press release. As for the terrorists, Sputnik left it an open question as to whether or not these were ISIS militants or the YPG.

Washington, meanwhile, appears to have been outflanked. The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that the U.S. and Turkey had been discussing a joint intervention in Syria but that President Obama had delayed approving Pentagon plans.[Continue reading…]

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Edward Snowden’s long, strange journey to Hollywood

Irina Aleksander writes: The summer light was fading to gold near Red Square as Oliver Stone maneuvered through the lobby bar of a five-star Moscow hotel last year. He walked past the marble staircase and the grand piano to a table in the back. A group of businessmen in suits lingered nearby. Stone grimaced.

“I think we should move,” he said. His producer, Moritz Borman, led the way to another corner. “How’s this?” Borman asked.

Stone didn’t answer. He eyed an older couple slurping soup and kept moving. A moment later, Stone finally settled in by a window, comfortably beyond earshot of the other patrons.

Such security precautions had become routine. Ever since Stone decided to make a biopic about Edward Snowden, the American whistle-­blower currently holed up in Moscow somewhere, the director — who became a Buddhist while making “Heaven & Earth” and sampled a buffet of psychedelic drugs for “The Doors” — had gone all method again. On “Snowden,” he and Borman became so preoccupied with American government surveillance that they had their Los Angeles offices swept for bugs more than once.

The director hadn’t been sleeping well. Principal photography wrapped a month earlier, and now Stone had come to Moscow to film Snowden for the movie’s grand finale. He ordered a decaf coffee and began to lay out the events that led him and Borman to be hanging out in Russian hotels, on the lookout for potential spies. “Last January, Moritz calls me,” Stone said. “He says: ‘You got a call from this fella who represents Mr. Snowden. You’re invited to Moscow.’ ”

The call had come from Anatoly Kucherena, Snowden’s Russian lawyer. In the course of his career, Kucherena has represented Russian oligarchs, film directors, a few pop singers and a state minister. In 2012, he campaigned for Vladimir V. Putin, and soon after Snowden landed in Moscow, Kucherena showed up at Sheremetyevo Airport and offered his services. Then Kucherena wrote a novel about his new client. Titled “Time of the Octopus,” it follows a National Security Agency leaker named Joshua Cold who is marooned in the airport and the Russian advocate who liberates him. In January 2014, months before the book was published, Kucherena called Borman to see if Stone might like to make it into a Hollywood movie.

“And I know you from working on, what, three films?” Stone said at the bar.

“Five,” Borman said.

At the time, Stone and Borman were barely speaking after a falling-­out during the making of “Savages,” a beachy Blake Lively thriller. “We’ve had our fights,” Stone said. “You know, he’s German; I’m American.” He didn’t elaborate.

“He calls, and I go: ‘Oh, [expletive]. Not again,’ ” Stone continued. It wasn’t just about Borman. Stone wanted nothing to do with another political docudrama. He spent two decades trying to get a biopic about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. off the ground, only to see “Selma” get made to critical acclaim. Then there was the My Lai massacre film. Merrill Lynch put up cash, Bruce Willis was set to star and Stone built an entire village in Thailand. As the economy collapsed in 2008, the financing evaporated. “You get these scars, and they don’t go away,” Stone said.

So Stone was skeptical. But this was Snowden, who single-­handedly exposed the colossal scale on which the United States had been surveilling its citizens. Plus, the director needed a hit. After early successes like “Platoon” and “Wall Street,” his more recent films didn’t receive the attention he hoped. The Snowden story had all the ingredients of an epic Stone picture: politics, government conspiracy and, at the center of it all, an American patriot who had lost faith. If it panned out, it could be Stone’s millennial follow-­up to “Born on the Fourth of July,” the Ron Kovic biopic that won him an Oscar in 1990.

But first Stone and Borman had to make sure Kucherena was for real. Borman asked the lawyer to send the book and two first-class tickets to Moscow. Both arrived the next day. In case they still had doubts, Kucherena’s office gave Borman a number to call. On the other end was an employee of the Russian consulate in San Francisco, who turned out to be a big fan of “The Life of David Gale,” a film Borman produced. They were issued visas that same week. (Kucherena denies buying first-class tickets for Stone and Borman or helping expedite their visas.)

“When that happened,” Borman said, “I thought, O.K., I guess Kucherena can pull the strings.” [Continue reading…]

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How Russia often benefits when Julian Assange reveals the West’s secrets

The New York Times reports: Has WikiLeaks become a laundering machine for compromising material gathered by Russian spies? And more broadly, what precisely is the relationship between Mr. Assange and Mr. Putin’s Kremlin?

Those questions are made all the more pointed by Russia’s prominent place in the American presidential election campaign. Mr. Putin, who clashed repeatedly with Mrs. Clinton when she was secretary of state, has publicly praised Mr. Trump, who has returned the compliment, calling for closer ties to Russia and speaking favorably of Mr. Putin’s annexation of Crimea.

From the outset of WikiLeaks, Mr. Assange said he was motivated by a desire to use “cryptography to protect human rights,” and would focus on authoritarian governments like Russia’s.

But a New York Times examination of WikiLeaks’ activities during Mr. Assange’s years in exile found a different pattern: Whether by conviction, convenience or coincidence, WikiLeaks’ document releases, along with many of Mr. Assange’s statements, have often benefited Russia, at the expense of the West.

Among United States officials, the emerging consensus is that Mr. Assange and WikiLeaks probably have no direct ties to Russian intelligence services. But they say that, at least in the case of the Democrats’ emails, Moscow knew it had a sympathetic outlet in WikiLeaks, where intermediaries could drop pilfered documents in the group’s anonymized digital inbox. [Continue reading…]

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In Putin’s Russia, the neo-Stalinist tipping point

Anna Nemtsova writes: For the first time in his adult life, Russian author and journalist Arkady Babchenko is planning to escape from his Moscow life, to take his family away from his home country to Europe.

Babchenko has been one of the sharpest, most irrepressible critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s politics. In 2012, prosecutors opened a criminal investigation over one of his articles, but Babchenko was not one to be intimidated. He is a journalist veteran of two Chechen wars. So it is not a threat to his own life that is pushing him out of his country today. Babchenko is terrified about the future of his 9-year-old daughter, his only child, if she stays in Russia.

“In two to three years, Russia is going to be like Iraq under Saddam Hussein,” Babchenko told The Daily Beast. “It will be full of miserable people, of children receiving poor education, facing street violence, and police at checkpoints—not a good place for my daughter,” the writer said.

A few months ago Babchenko was upset to see his daughter, a 3rd grader at a Moscow school, marching in a semi-military uniform and singing patriotic songs at a school event.

“We see examples of obscurantism all over the place: Communists running around with Stalin flags, Orthodox priests attending state events; but I still did not expect the appointment of an Orthodox fanatic and a Stalinist as the minister of education and science.” [Continue reading…]

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Iran deploys S-300 air defense around nuclear site

The Associated Press reports: Iran has deployed a Russian-made S-300 air defense system around its underground Fordo nuclear facility, state TV reported.

Video footage posted late Sunday on state TV’s website showed trucks arriving at the site and missile launchers being aimed skyward. It did not say whether the system was fully operational.

Gen. Farzad Esmaili, Iran’s head of air defense, declined to comment on the report in an interview with another website affiliated with state news. “Maybe if you go to Fordo now, the system is not there,” he was quoted as saying Monday. He added that the S-300 is a mobile system that should be relocated often.

Russia began delivering the S-300 system to Iran earlier this year under a contract signed in 2007. The delivery had been held up by international sanctions over Iran’s nuclear program, which were lifted this year under an agreement with world powers. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Iran said on Sunday that a person close to the government team that negotiated its nuclear agreement with foreign powers had been arrested on accusations of espionage and released on bail.

The disclosure, reported in the state news media, appeared to be the latest sign of the Iranian leadership’s frustration over the agreement, which has failed so far to yield the significant economic benefits for the country that its advocates had promised. Iranian officials have blamed the United States for that problem.

Despite the relaxations of many sanctions under the accord, which took effect in January, Iran faces enormous obstacles in attracting new investments and moving its own money through the global financial system.

The Iranians are still blocked from using American banks, an important transit point for international capital, because of non-nuclear-related sanctions imposed by the United States. [Continue reading…]

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