Anna Borshchevskaya writes: On June 7, Russian president Vladimir Putin signed controversial anti-terrorism legislation known in Russia as the “Yarovaya law,” named after its leading co-author, prominent member of Putin’s United Russia party Irina Yarovaya.
The law is reminiscent of Soviet-era surveillance. It will also likely contribute to crippling the Russian economy. According to Russian and Western sources, it allows for jailing children as young as 14 for a variety of vaguely-worded reasons, and significantly raises the costs of internet and telecommunications. Russia’s human rights activists and opposition politicians described the law as “unconstitutional.” Russia’s Presidential Council on Civil Society and Human Rights urged Putin not to sign the law.
“Hello, brave new world with expensive Internet, with jails for children, with global surveillance and prison terms for non-snitching,” wrote politician Dmitry Gudkov in his Facebook page after Putin signed the law. Gudkov, one of Russia’s few real opposition parliamentarians, was outspoken in June and urged his colleagues to vote against the law last month. The Duma (lower house of parliament) began the discussion of the bill in May of this year and both the upper and lower houses of parliament approved the bill in late June without genuine debate on the issue.
Among other things, reportedly, the law requires Internet and telecom providers to store recordings of all of their customers’ data and communications for six months. In addition, the law requires them to store all metadata for three years. Russia’s Federal Security Services (FSB) would have access to this information and, as Gudkov pointed out in June, it may easily leak into the black market. This requirement, according to Russia’s cellphone providers, for example, will increase costs for consumers at least two- to three-fold.
The law also introduces criminal liability for “failure to report a crime” that someone “has been planning, is perpetrating, or has perpetrated.” Moreover, under the new law, children as young as 14 can face up to a year in prison for such a “failure” and for other reasons related to extremism, terrorism and participation in massive riots (all of which can be virtually anything in Russia, since the law is vague). As Tanya Lokshina, Russia program director Human Rights Watch Russia program director pointed out in June before Putin signed the law, “it’s not clear what ‘planning’ stands for or what level of knowledge needs to be proved to hold a person liable.” Such ambiguity is the hallmark of Russia’s laws in the last several years when Putin began a massive crackdown on Russia’s civil society when he returned to his third presidential term in 2012 amidst the largest protests since the break-up of the Soviet Union. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Polish leaders have been waiting for years for a NATO summit meeting that would recognize what, to them, is a self-evident reality: that the proper way to respond to an increasingly pugnacious Russia is to plant more alliance troops and weaponry along the eastern front.
But now that this is actually expected to happen during NATO’s two-day gathering here this week, the question is whether — with Britain’s startling exit from the European Union sucking up all the political oxygen — anyone will even notice.
“Militarily, this summit will be about strengthening forces along the eastern front,” said Michal Baranowski, director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund. “Politically, it’s a Brexit summit.”
The gathering here on Friday and Saturday — drawing every major leader in the trans-Atlantic alliance, including President Obama, Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany — will be the largest NATO summit meeting in history, with 28 delegations from European Union countries, 26 from other nations, and representatives from the United Nations and the World Bank.
Much of what is expected to be adopted has already been agreed upon in earlier meetings of foreign and defense ministers — “It is pre-cooked,” as Mr. Baranowski put it — so attention is likely to focus instead on how alliance members, including Britain, make an ostentatious show of Western unity despite the shadow of “Brexit” and the weakening of the European Union. [Continue reading…]
Alexander Baunov writes: There are two chief complaints about the EU among Russian diplomats and foreign policy professionals. First, they argue that it is not an entirely independent political entity or sovereign body because the United States dictates its most important decisions.
Second, they argue that the EU has changed for the worse in recent times. Enlargement to the east means that Brussels now heeds too much the small Eastern European countries, which have a generally hostile attitude toward Russia. Great Britain is the most pro-American EU country and is prone to listen to Eastern European countries’ concerns about Russia. In contrast to Italy, France, or Germany, the Brits have never talked about lifting sanctions against Russia.
There is also the issue that the Russian leadership feels personally offended by Britain. Vladimir Putin and Tony Blair started off as firm friends and built a relationship. Putin’s first visit to the West was to London. Then, the British started supporting Putin’s enemies, they believe, and giving refuge to men like Boris Berezovsky and Alexander Litvinenko. So, with the separation of Britain from the rest of Europe, it will become easier to deal with the other countries of the EU.
One of Russian diplomacy’s most cherished dreams is to build relationships with every European country individually. Brexit makes this dream much more attainable. Russia dreams of a Europe of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when European Entente meant that nations could negotiate with, support, or restrain each other. A Britain apart from the European Union is a return to a Europe of the past that Russian politicians hope will also be a future Europe.
This dream is unlikely to be realized, however, and it’s worth remembering what this bygone international system led to: two world wars in which Russia suffered more than any other country. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: The three suicide bombers who killed 44 people at Istanbul’s main international airport this week have been identified as citizens of Russia, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, Turkish officials said Thursday.
Turkey, which has blamed the Islamic State for the attack, carried out raids across the country on Thursday, detaining 13 people, including three foreigners, in connection with the attack at Istanbul Ataturk Airport on Tuesday night.
There were 238 people wounded in the attack, and 94 of them were still in the hospital, the governor of Istanbul, Vasip Sahin, said Thursday.
No group has claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack.
Although Russian-speaking units of the Islamic State have played an important role on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria, if the preliminary identifications of the Istanbul attackers are confirmed it will signify the first time that such fighters have taken part in a major external operation on a Western target. [Continue reading…]
Josh Rogin writes: The Obama administration has proposed a new agreement on Syria to the Russian government that would deepen military cooperation between the two countries against some terrorists in exchange for Russia getting the Assad regime to stop bombing U.S.-supported rebels.
The United States transmitted the text of the proposed agreement to the Russian government on Monday after weeks of negotiations and internal Obama administration deliberations, an administration official told me. The crux of the deal is a U.S. promise to join forces with the Russian air force to share targeting and coordinate an expanded bombing campaign against Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, which is primarily fighting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Under the proposal, which was personally approved by President Obama and heavily supported by Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the American and Russian militaries would cooperate at an unprecedented level, something the Russians have sought for a long time.
In exchange, the Russians would agree to pressure the Assad regime to stop bombing certain Syrian rebel groups the United States does not consider terrorists. The United States would not give Russia the exact locations of these groups, under the proposal, but would specify geographic zones that would be safe from the Assad regime’s aerial assaults.
Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter was opposed to this plan, officials said, but was ultimately compelled to go along with the president’s decision. For many inside and outside the administration who are frustrated with the White House’s decision-making on Syria, the new plan is fatally flawed for several reasons. [Continue reading…]
Reuters reports: Russia will countenance Syrian President Bashar al-Assad leaving office, but only when it is confident a change of leader will not trigger a collapse of the Syrian government, sources familiar with the Kremlin’s thinking say.
Getting to that point could take years, and in the meantime Russia is prepared to keep backing Assad, regardless of international pressure to jettison him, those sources said.
Such steadfast support is likely to further complicate already stalled peace talks with Assad’s opponents and sour relations with Washington which wants the Syrian leader gone.
“Russia is not going to part company with Assad until two things happen,” Sir Tony Brenton, Britain’s former ambassador to Russia, told Reuters.
“Firstly, until they are confident he won’t be replaced with some sort of Islamist takeover, and secondly until it can be guaranteed that their own position in Syria, their alliance and their military base, are sustainable going forward.” [Continue reading…]
CNN reports: Russian warplanes bombed U.S. backed Syrian rebels near the Jordanian border, Pentagon officials say, causing the U.S. to divert armed aircraft to the scene of the strike.
The strikes, which the U.S. says killed some New Syrian Army troops, occurred about six miles from the Jordanian border, according to a U.S. defense official. The U.S. diverted armed FA-18s to the area after the first round of two strikes, and the pilots then tried to call the Russians on a previously agreed-upon pilot-to-pilot communications channel but did not receive an answer.
As soon as the U.S. jets left the area to refuel, the Russians came back for another round of bombing, the defense official said.
“Russian aircraft conducted a series of airstrikes near al-Tanf against Syrian counter-ISIL forces that included individuals who have received U.S. support. Russian aircraft have not been active in this area of Southern Syria for some time, and there were no Syrian regime or Russian ground forces in the vicinity,” a senior defense official said. “Russia’s latest actions raise serious concern about Russian intentions. We will seek an explanation from Russia on why it took this action and assurances this will not happen again.” [Continue reading…]
The Washington Post reports: Russian government hackers penetrated the computer network of the Democratic National Committee and gained access to the entire database of opposition research on GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump, according to committee officials and security experts who responded to the breach.
The intruders so thoroughly compromised the DNC’s system that they also were able to read all email and chat traffic, said DNC officials and the security experts.
The intrusion into the DNC was one of several targeting American political organizations. The networks of presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump were also targeted by Russian spies, as were the computers of some GOP political action committees, U.S. officials said. But details on those cases were not available. [Continue reading…]
Mike Giglio reports: The rebel commander was nervous. He had changed phone numbers and been difficult to reach before finally agreeing to meet in Antakya, a city near the border with war-torn Syria that has long swarmed with rebels, refugees, and spies. On the road to an out-of-the-way hotel, he told the driver to avoid the main route through town. “It’s better not to drive among all the people,” he said.
It was an open secret that the commander had once received cash and weapons from the CIA, part of a covert U.S. program that backs rebel groups against both ISIS and the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad.
When his battalion was eventually driven from Syria by its jihadi rivals, like a number of U.S.-backed groups, he pleaded with his U.S. handlers for better support, but it wasn’t enough. So he was, he said, “out of the game.”
Now, he said, sitting at a quiet table at the hotel, he had received an offer that could bring him back in — and potentially make him even stronger than before.
He was being recruited, he said, to work for the U.S.’s rival in Syria: Russia.
“They told me, ‘We will support you forever. We won’t leave you on your own like your old friends did,’” he said. “Honestly, I’m still thinking about it.”
The commander said that five years into a war that has killed some 400,000 people and created nearly 5 million refugees, Russia is recruiting current and former U.S. allies to its side. His revelation was confirmed by four people who said they, too, had been approached with offers from Russia and by two Syrian middlemen who said they delivered them.
The moves come as Russia ratchets up its involvement in Syria with troops and airstrikes. Russia says its military campaign is designed to target ISIS — in reality it has targeted all rebels, including some who are still backed by the U.S., while also wreaking havoc on civilians.
The secret outreach shows that as it works to muscle the U.S. out of Syria, Russia isn’t just bombing the U.S.’s current and former rebel allies — it’s also working to co-opt them, launching a shadowy campaign that seeks to highlight U.S. weakness in Syria. Ultimately, Russia could be hoping to help Assad win the war by dividing the opposition, driving a wedge between rebel groups and their traditional backers, and getting them to turn their guns on his enemies. [Continue reading…]
Michele Kelemen reports: Syrian President Bashar Assad is sounding rather confident these days. In his first major address in the past two months, he promised that his troops will reclaim “every inch” of Syrian territory.
“We have no other choice but to be victorious,” Assad told Syria’s parliament on Tuesday. He also lashed out at rebels, blaming them for the failure of peace talks backed by the United Nations.
Assad’s speech is calling into question international diplomacy on Syria. One Syria-watcher at the Atlantic Council in Washington, Faysal Itani, says it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
“It is safe to say [the peace effort] has failed,” Itani tells NPR, saying he never thought the prospects for diplomacy were good.
The diplomatic plan relied on Russia and Iran using their influence with Assad to encourage him to agree on a transitional government and make peace with more moderate rebels.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, one of the key architects of this approach, was “trying to pull a rabbit out of his hat,” according to Itani. While Kerry was seeking concessions from Assad, the military balance of power was turning in favor of the Syrian regime.
“The Russians are quite committed to ensuring it stays that way. No one has any incentive to give John Kerry what he’s asking for,” Itani says. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Bombs from airstrikes hit three hospitals on Wednesday in the rebel-held side of Aleppo, Syria, including a pediatrics center supported by the United Nations, in what aid providers and opposition activists called a new atrocity in the fighting that has ravaged the city.
The Middle East regional office of Unicef, the United Nations Children’s Fund, said in a statement that the attacks happened within a space of three hours on al-Bayan and al-Hakeem hospitals and the Abdulhadi Fares clinic.
Unicef provided no details on casualties, damage or who was responsible, but it said the attack was the second on al-Hakeem hospital, which it helps operate.
Others said that at least 10 civilians were killed in the bombings, including children, and that many others were wounded. Activist groups blamed Syrian military forces. Insurgents have no aircraft, which are used to conduct such bombings.
“This devastating pattern of warfare in Syria seems to have no checks and balances,” the Unicef regional director, Dr. Peter Salama, said in a statement posted on Twitter. “Surely this should shake the moral compass of the world. How long will we allow the children of Syria to suffer like this?” [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast reports: U.S.-backed opposition forces in Syria’s largest city are facing a ferocious Russian-led assault, raising fears that the rebels could be eliminated in a matter of weeks.
So how are the Pentagon and the intelligence community responding?
By catfighting among themselves.
Two Department of Defense officials told The Daily Beast that they are not eager to support the rebels in the city of Aleppo because they’re seen as being affiliated with al Qaeda in Syria, or Jabhat al Nusra. The CIA, which supports those rebel groups, rejects that claim, saying alliances of convenience in the face of a mounting Russian-led offensive have created marriages of battlefield necessity, not ideology.
“It is a strange thing that DoD hall chatter mimics Russian propaganda,” one U.S. official, who supports the intelligence community position, wryly noted to Pentagon claims that the opposition and Nusra are one in the same.
But even if the rebels were completely separated from Nusra, there would still be something of a strategic conflict with U.S. military goals. The rebels in Aleppo, these Pentagon officials note, are fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime; the American military effort, on the other hand, is primarily about defeating the self-proclaimed Islamic State. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: Syria’s president promised to retake “every inch” of the country from his foes on Tuesday in a defiant speech that appeared to reject the humanitarian relief effort and peaceful transition of power that the United States, Russia and more than a dozen other nations have pressed for since last fall.
The speech by President Bashar al-Assad was his first major address since the effort to mediate an end to the civil war broke down in Geneva in April. It reflected his sense that Russian intervention in the war has bolstered his position — and his ability to remain in power for the foreseeable future — as the war enters its sixth year.
Mr. Assad’s defiance was notable partly because of efforts in recent months by Secretary of State John Kerry and other leaders of a 17-nation collaboration, known as the International Syria Support Group, to set a series of deadlines and limits that Syria could not violate.
Every one of the directives has been broken. A cease-fire devised in Munich in February collapsed. Mr. Kerry’s demand at that time — that humanitarian access had to begin within weeks — was briefly observed in a few towns before access was again largely blocked. [Continue reading…]
Financial Times reports: An advance by Syrian troops into Raqqa province has raised the prospect of a race to the Isis stronghold between the US-backed opposition and regime forces supported by Moscow.
Supported by Russian air power, Syrian government troops have moved to within 65km to the south-west of the city after clashes with Isis fighters that began over the weekend, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The fighting comes two weeks after US-backed opposition forces, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), began an offensive north of Raqqa, the de facto capital of Isis in Syria, which has also been the centre of its self-styled caliphate since 2014.
Isis now finds itself battling on four different fronts at once: to the north and south-west of Raqqa; around Manbij near the Turkish border with Syria; and in Fallujah in Iraq, where government forces and allied militia are attempting to retake the city. [Continue reading…]