Russia funds and manages conflict in Ukraine, leaks show

Aric Toler and Melinda Haring report: Hacked emails show that the Kremlin directs and funds the ostensibly independent republics in eastern Ukraine and runs military operations there. In late 2016, Ukrainian hacker groups released emails purportedly taken from the office of Kremlin official Vladislav Surkov, who oversees Ukraine policy for Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Surkov leaks confirm what many have long suspected: the Kremlin has orchestrated and funded the supposedly independent governments in the Donbas, and seeks to disrupt internal Ukrainian politics, making the task of rebuilding modern Ukraine impossible. Russia has consistently denied accusations from Kyiv and the West that it is providing the separatists with troops, weapons, and other material support or meddling in Ukrainian affairs. The emails from Surkov’s office betray the official Kremlin line, revealing the extent of Russian involvement in the seizure of Ukrainian territory, the creation of puppet “people’s republics,” and the funding to ensure their survival.

There have been three tranches of information from Surkov’s account: a PDF document detailing plans to destabilize Ukraine, a dump of 2,337 emails, and a final dump of 1,000 emails. While the plot to destabilize Ukraine with its detailed plan to use energy tariffs to foment revolution has garnered attention, its veracity is disputed. The trove of 2,337 emails, released by the hacker group Cyber Hunta, covers the period from September 2013 to November 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and deployed separatist proxies in eastern Ukraine to start a war. The final dump dates from September 2014 to September 2016. We have analyzed the overlooked second and third troves. Here’s what we found. [Continue reading…]

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Is Julian Assange an idiot who has outlived his usefulness?

Michael Weiss writes: There is no one more zealous than a convert.

CIA Director Mike Pompeo previously welcomed WikiLeaks’ disclosures about Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee when these proved helpful to the Republican nominee. Now he has experienced a road-to-Damascus moment.

“WikiLeaks,” Pompeo said at a think tank event last week, “walks like a hostile intelligence service and talks like a hostile intelligence service.” Pompeo also regards Julian Assange, the publisher of WikiLeaks and the lonely maintainer of its hyper-active Twitter account, as a “fraud.”

In a rather folksy fly-over metaphor, the former Kansas representative likened the albinoid antipodean anarchist to the Wizard of Oz, perhaps forgetting that the man behind the curtain turned out to be an all-right guy in the end rather than a helpmeet of European dictatorship and a purveyor of conspiracy theories about the Rothschilds.

Pompeo isn’t the only one who’s changed his mind about the man holed up for five long years at the Ecuador embassy in London. The U.S. Justice Department, headed by Jeff Sessions—a man who conveniently forgot while testifying before Congress that he twice met with the Russian ambassador to the United States—now considers arresting Assange a “priority.” [Continue reading…]

Arresting Assange is a “priority” of an undisclosed magnitude — I’m doubtful that it can be particularly high.

No doubt at a time when this administration is going out of its way to create the appearance that it has no ties to Russia, a tough-on-Wikileaks stance might seem desirable.

But let’s not forget that Assange himself has repeatedly claimed that he is willing to accept extradition to the United States.

So is it just a matter of time before the cable news networks will be able to feast on 24/7 coverage of the trial of the century?

Probably not.

Ignoring the question of whether the Justice Department can actually construct a legal case against Assange, I seriously doubt that the White House would welcome seeing him testifying in court. Indeed he might not even make it to his own trial if he sought and received immunity as an FBI witness.

The message that the U.S. wants to get its hands on Assange may have had less to do with challenging his ability to remain in refuge than it has with making sure he remains where he is. Likewise, he will probably remain a problem Moscow doesn’t need to solve so long as he stays put.

The irony is that if Assange had complied with Sweden’s request to question him in 2010, whatever the outcome of that interrogation, it is quite likely that by now he would be a free man. Instead he endures a self-imposed prison sentence for which there is no end in sight.

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UN documents Syrian war crimes, but prosecution moves slowly

The New York Times reports: The chairman of a United Nations commission investigating possible war crimes in Syria has met that country’s ambassador only once, he said. It happened during a chance encounter in a hallway after he had given a briefing to the General Assembly in New York.

“Then for 15 minutes, he gave me a lecture,” the commission chairman, Paulo Sérgio Pinheiro, said of his exchange with the Syrian envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari. “We don’t have any hope that the Syrians will cooperate with us.”

Members of the commission, created by the United Nations Human Rights Council in August 2011, have never been permitted to visit Syria by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which appears to view them as accomplices of Mr. Assad’s enemies.

The commission, with a support staff of about 25 people, has collected an enormous volume of material, which could be used in courts, about the atrocities committed in the six-year-old civil war by both Mr. Assad’s side and the groups arrayed against him. [Continue reading…]

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Decree 66: The blueprint for Assad’s reconstruction of Syria?

Tom Rollins reports: It might not look like much now – patches of turf and half-finished dust roads bulldozed through orchards and farmhouses – but a three-square-kilometre plot of land in the neighbourhood of Basateen al-Razi is fast becoming ground zero for the reconstruction of Syria. Critics say it is also the urban planning blueprint President Bashar al-Assad intends to use to consolidate his post-war power.

Back in September 2012, al-Assad signed legislative decree (66/2012) to “redevelop areas of unauthorised housing and informal settlements [slums]”. Decree 66 has since provided the legal and financial foundation for reconstruction in several areas returned to Syrian government control, including Basateen al-Razi.

Al-Assad inaugurated the multi-million-dollar urban redevelopment project in March 2016, promising grand designs and a scintillating future for the capital. Armed with planning documents full of futuristic tower blocks, park boulevards, and row upon row of modern-fronted housing, the Damascus Governorate says the 2.15-million-square-metre development will provide 12,000 housing units for an estimated 60,000 residents. There will be schools and restaurants, places of worship, even a multi-storey car park and a shopping mall.

Not everyone shares the government’s vision for the future. Opposition activists and independent analysts, as well as former residents, argue that Decree 66 is not only being used to forcibly dispossess Basateen al-Razi civilians but also to engineer demographic change. [Continue reading…]

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Entire U.S. Senate to go to White House for North Korea briefing

Reuters reports: Top Trump administration officials will hold a rare briefing on Wednesday at the White House for the entire U.S. Senate on the situation in North Korea, senior Senate aides said on Monday.

All 100 senators have been asked to the White House for the briefing by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the aides said.

While top administration officials routinely travel to Capitol Hill to address members of Congress on foreign policy and national security matters, it is unusual for the entire 100-member Senate to go to such an event at the White House, and for those four top officials to be involved. [Continue reading…]

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Egypt’s dictatorship: A war of Sisi’s own making

In an editorial, The Guardian says: The news that Egypt’s army shot dead up to eight unarmed detainees, including a minor, in the Sinai peninsula and tried to cover up the extrajudicial killings by claiming they had happened in combat should alarm all those interested in the cause of democracy in the Arab world. Back in December the Egyptian army posted on its Facebook page that the military had raided a militant outpost, killing eight and arresting four others. But a three-minute video that emerged this weekend raises serious questions over the army’s version of events. It shows no firefight but does record the cold-blooded murder of prisoners. In one instance a soldier casually shoots a man in the head. In another, soldiers escort a blindfolded man into a field, place him on his knees and shoot him repeatedly. Predictably, Cairo’s military dictatorship calls this propaganda by its opponents. Just as predictable is that there’s to be no investigation into alleged war crimes.

The video was leaked on the day the US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, sat down with Egypt’s ruler, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who seized power in a bloody coup in 2013. Possibly the most authoritarian leader in the Middle East, a title for which there is some competition, Mr Sisi bears responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of Egyptians, jailing thousands of others and running his country’s economy into the ground.

Instead of treating the Egyptian leader as a pariah, this month Donald Trump welcomed him to the White House after he had been cold-shouldered by Barack Obama for years. Cairo’s pro-Sisi press proclaimed human rights in Egypt were no longer an issue. This may be true. While Egypt remains a human rights “priority country” for Britain, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, did not focus on them when he visited the country in February. Perhaps Britain cannot afford such moral positions. British companies have extensive offshore gas interests in Egypt. The hypocrisy is not just ours. Following the coup, an EU arms embargo was brought in but it is honoured more in the breach. About £120m in British arms have been sold since the coup. [Continue reading…]

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The benefits of solitude

Michael Harris writes: On April 14, 1934, Richard Byrd went out for his daily walk. The air was the usual temperature: minus 57 degrees Fahrenheit. He stepped steadily through the drifts of snow, making his rounds. And then he paused to listen. Nothing.

He attended, a little startled, to the cloud-high and over-powering silence he had stepped into. For miles around the only other life belonged to a few stubborn microbes that clung to sheltering shelves of ice. It was only 4 p.m., but the land quavered in a perpetual twilight. There was—was there?—some play on the chilled horizon, some crack in the bruised Antarctic sky. And then, unaccountably, Richard Byrd’s universe began to expand.

Later, back in his hut, huddled by a makeshift furnace, Byrd wrote in his diary:

Here were imponderable processes and forces of the cosmos, harmonious and soundless. Harmony, that was it! That was what came out of the silence—a gentle rhythm, the strain of a perfect chord, the music of the spheres, perhaps.

It was enough to catch that rhythm, momentarily to be myself a part of it. In that instant I could feel no doubt of man’s oneness with the universe.

Admiral Byrd had volunteered to staff a weather base near the South Pole for five winter months. But the reason he was there alone was far less concrete. Struggling to explain his reasons, Byrd admitted that he wanted “to know that kind of experience to the full . . . to taste peace and quiet and solitude long enough to find out how good they really are.” He was also after a kind of personal liberty, for he believed that “no man can hope to be completely free who lingers within reach of familiar habits.” [Continue reading…]

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Music: LABtrio — ‘Goldberg Variations (BWV 988)’

 

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The French elections showed the strength of the European far-right — and its limits

Zack Beauchamp writes: To understand what France’s election means, and what it tells us about the rise of far-right movements around Europe, you need to understand two fundamental truths about the results.

The first is that it’s a historic victory for the far-right Marine Le Pen and her Front National party. Le Pen was one of two candidates who qualified for the second round, soundly beating the standard-bearers both of France’s traditional establishment parties — the center-right Republicans and center-left Socialists. The once-reviled Front has clearly entered the mainstream of French politics.

At the same time, the election seemed to demonstrate the very clear limits of Le Pen’s popularity — and, potentially, European far-right politics more broadly.

Le Pen came in second in Sunday’s election, with 21.7 percent of the vote. The plurality winner, upstart centrist Emmanuel Macron, won with 23.9 percent. He’s her polar opposite in virtually every respect. She wants to restrict immigration to France and pull France out of the EU; he supports keeping the borders open and proudly waved the EU flag at his final campaign rally. And when these two face each other one-on-one in a runoff in two weeks, he’s very likely to win — every poll that’s been taken so far has him up by massive margins:


The tolerant center, in France, appears likely to hold.

What we’re seeing in France mirrors what’s happening in much of Europe. After the twin shocks of Brexit and Trump, the far-right has seen a series of setbacks. From elections in Austria and the Netherlands to polls in all-important Germany, the far-right is performing far less well than many have expected.

What these numbers suggest is that the far-right has a political ceiling: That while its supporters may be hard-core, the majority of Europeans still recoil from its vision — at least for now. [Continue reading…]

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Senate Trump-Russia probe has no full-time staff, no key witnesses

The Daily Beast reports: The Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe into Russia’s election interference is supposedly the best hope for getting the public credible answers about whether there was any coordination between the Kremlin and Trump Tower.

But there are serious reasons to doubt that it can accomplish this task, as currently configured.

More than three months after the committee announced that it had agreed on the scope of the investigation, the panel has not begun substantially investigating possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, three individuals with ties to the committee told The Daily Beast.

The investigation does not have a single staffer dedicated to it full-time, and those staff members working on it part-time do not have significant investigative experience. The probe currently appears to be moving at a pace slower than prior Senate Intelligence Committee investigations, such as the CIA torture inquiry, which took years to accomplish.

No interviews have been conducted with key individuals suspected of being in the Trump-Russia orbit: not Michael Flynn, not Roger Stone, not Carter Page, not Paul Manafort, and not Jared Kushner, according to two sources familiar with the committee’s procedures. [Continue reading…]

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China’s leader urges restraint on North Korea in call with Trump

The New York Times reports: China’s president, Xi Jinping, has urged President Trump to show restraint toward North Korea despite signs that the North may be preparing a nuclear test. Mr. Xi made the appeal in a phone call with Mr. Trump on Monday that reflected growing alarm over North Korea’s plans, which could tip the region into crisis.

The phone conversation, on Monday morning in Beijing, came after Mr. Trump had already used a meeting with Mr. Xi in Florida, a follow-up phone call, interviews and Twitter messages to press Mr. Xi to do more to deter North Korea from holding additional nuclear and missile tests. The United States and its allies have been on alert for another atomic test by the North.

In the latest call, the third between the two leaders, Mr. Xi indicated to Mr. Trump that China opposed any such test by North Korea, but he also nudged Mr. Trump to avoid a tit-for-tat response to the North’s fiery threats, according to a report on Chinese television.

“China adamantly opposes any actions in contravention of the United Nations Security Council resolutions,” Mr. Xi said, according to the report, evidently referring to a series of decisions by the council to punish North Korea for its nuclear and missile programs.

“At the same time, it is hoped that all sides exercise restraint and avoid doing things that exacerbate tensions on the peninsula,” Mr. Xi said, referring to the Korean Peninsula. “Only if all sides live up to their responsibilities and come together from different directions can the nuclear issue on the peninsula be resolved as quickly as possible.”

The comments reflected growing Chinese fears that the tensions between North Korea and the United States and its Asian allies could spiral into outright military conflict. That widening rift is presenting China with confounding choices between its longstanding ties to North Korea and its hopes for steady relations with the United States. [Continue reading…]

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Instead of threatening North Korea, Trump should try this instead

John Delury writes: President Trump’s missile strike on Syria won plaudits from commentators on the left and right, with some of the enthusiasm spilling over into the debate about a “military solution” when it comes to North Korea. The comparison, like much of the administration’s rhetoric about Korea, is dangerously misleading. There is no way to hit North Korea without being hit back harder. There is no military means to “preempt” its capabilities — nuclear and otherwise — with a “surgical” strike. Any use of force to degrade its weapons program would start a war, the costs of which would be staggering.

Maybe in the era of America First, we don’t care about death and destruction being visited on the 10 million people who live in Seoul, within North Korean artillery and short-range missile range. Do we care about some 140,000 U.S. citizens residing in South Korea — including soldiers and military families at bases here, plus more in nearby Japan? Or South Korea’s globally integrated $1.4 trillion economy, including the United States’ $145 billion two-way trade with the country? Do we care about North Korean missiles raining down on Incheon International Airport, one of Asia’s busiest airports, or Busan, the sixth-largest container port in the world? What happens to the global economy when a conflagration erupts on China’s doorstep and engulfs Japan?

Surely the American public and Congress, regardless of party, can agree that these costs are unbearable and unthinkable. Given the presence of many sober-minded strategists and policymakers in the administration, it seems reasonable to conclude the military taunts are a bluff. If so, they are a distraction from the real, pressing question: How much longer should they wait on economic pressure generated by Chinese sanctions, rather than pursue diplomatic options opened up by direct dialogue and engagement? [Continue reading…]

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Libya’s warring sides reach diplomatic breakthrough in Rome

The Guardian reports: Rome has brokered a diplomatic breakthrough in Libya that has the potential to bring the two main warring sides together in a new political agreement after years of division, fighting and economic misery.

The scale of the breakthrough will be tested later this week, but Italy is hailing a compromise brokered between the presidents of the house of representatives, Ageela Saleh, and the state council, Abdulrahman Sewehli.

The meeting was overseen by the Italian foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, and the Italian ambassador to Libya.

According to a statement from the state council, “there was an atmosphere of friendliness and openness” at the meeting in Rome. The statement also said there would have to be further consultations between the two sides this week in order to bring about reconciliation “and stop the bleeding as well as [ensure] the return of displaced persons”. [Continue reading…]

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Marine Le Pen to face off against ‘France’s Justin Trudeau,’ Emmanuel Macron

Christopher Dickey writes: Two days after Donald Trump declared that anti-immigrant, anti-European Union, anti-NATO, pro-Russian, anti-American, pro-Steve-Bannon Marine Le Pen was the “strongest on borders, and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France,” she has made it through the first round of the country’s presidential elections and into the sudden-death runoff that will take place on May 7.

If she manages to win, her election will have stunning consequences domestically and internationally, multiplying the shocks that have followed on the Brexit vote and Trump’s ascent in the United States.

A Le Pen victory would also be welcomed by Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who recently received her at the Kremlin as if she already were a head of state.

Right now, however, it looks like Le Pen doesn’t have much of a prayer, and France may well position itself as a new bulwark against Trump-style xenophobia and populism.

Her second-round rival is 39-year-old former banker and economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who is pretty much in favor of everything that Le Pen opposes. He was the only one of the four leading candidates who did not speak warmly of Putin. He embraces globalism; he has even waved the European Union flag at his election rallies. And while Trump rooted for Le Pen, former President Barack Obama called Macron to give him encouragement. [Continue reading…]

An editorial in The Guardian says: The contest on 7 May is a contest between openness and bigotry, internationalism and nationalism, optimism and hatred, reaction and reform, hope and fear. The fact that Ms Le Pen has reached the second round should not be underplayed simply because it was predicted for so long, or because, if the exit polling is confirmed, she finished second behind Mr Macron, not first. She took almost a quarter of French votes. Her projected 21.9% is significantly larger than her father’s 16.9% in 2002. Even if she loses in round two, the FN may still stand on the verge of a historic advance in June’s parliamentary elections.

It is tempting to see Ms Le Pen’s result as a defeat alongside that of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and to conclude that European liberal values have successfully rallied to stop another lurch to the racist right. Some of that is true, and it is a cause for immense relief. France stood up and was counted on Sunday. But the threat from the French extreme right is not over. Nor is the threat from kindred extreme-right parties in Europe. Both the AfD in Germany and Ukip in Britain have moved further to the right in the past week. The Front National remains a party of bigotry, hatred and nationalism of the worst kind.

Now France must stand up again in two weeks’ time and complete the job by electing Mr Macron. [Continue reading…]

Sonia Delesalle-Stolper writes: France had a choice. To be more or less open; more or less democratic; more or less European. With Emmanuel Macron, it has chosen openess, democracy and Europe.

The real work, the real battle begins in June, with the parliamentary elections. Macron will need to gather a big enough majority to be able to govern – and this with a political movement that did not even exist one year ago. He has promised to field candidates in all 577 constituencies, with at least half of them new recruits to politics. It will be difficult, but on the evening of the first round, nothing looks impossible for this extraordinary candidate. [Continue reading…]

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A rebuke of France’s political establishment

Krishnadev Calamur writes: [Emmanuel Macron] represents exactly the same values that voters in the West—following the victories of Brexit and Trump—are supposedly fed up with. He is business-friendly, favors globalization, and believes in allowing in more immigrants. Yet these positions haven’t hurt him as they have hurt politicians elsewhere in the West. “Macron’s great insight, which few initially recognized, was that the right-left divide was blocking progress, and that the presidential election amounted to a golden opportunity to move beyond it, without the help of an organized political movement,” [Zaki] Laïdi wrote in Project Syndicate. “At a time when the French people are increasingly rejecting the traditional party system, Macron’s initial weakness quickly became his strength.”

If Macron does, as polls predict, win the second round, it will undoubtedly be painted as a rejection of populism. But as my colleague Uri Friedman wrote in the aftermath of the Dutch elections, where a far-right candidate performed worse than expected, “the most significant trend in Western democracies at the moment might not be the rise and fall of populist nationalism. Instead, it is arguably the disintegration of political parties. The story here is less about which specific type of politician people want to be represented by than about a crisis of democratic representation altogether—less about the empowerment of populists than about the broader diffusion of political power.” Indeed, the exit polls in the French election show a similar dynamic at work. It’s the type of political fragmentation to be expected in a country where trust in government is low. [Continue reading…]

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The coming French revolution

Zaki Laïdi writes: To govern in France’s hybrid presidential-parliamentary system, Macron would need to secure a majority in the National Assembly. This opens the possibility of two scenarios.

In the first scenario, Macron quickly gains a parliamentary majority, as French voters seek to reinforce his mandate in June’s National Assembly election. This is conceivable, but not certain: it is here where the lack of an organized political movement on the ground remains a weakness for Macron.

That is why the June election could give rise to the second scenario: cohabitation with a parliamentary coalition comprising a small right-wing faction, a large centrist faction, and a hopelessly divided left-wing faction. Such a development would be familiar in many European countries. But in France, where republicanism gave rise to the left-right ideological spectrum that shapes politics throughout the West today, it would be a genuine revolution – one that could spell the end of the Socialist Party.

Given the symbolic power of the left-right divide, France’s voters and political leaders alike have long tended to frame virtually all of the country’s problems in ideological terms. The public and its politicians have little experience with government based on broad coalition agreements. This partly explains why the political system becomes gridlocked, sometimes making reforms difficult to implement, and why Macron’s message, which includes clear reform plans, is so unusual for France.

If Le Pen somehow comes out on top, French politics – not to mention the European Union – will be turned upside. But even the ostensibly moderate Macron represents, in his own way, a truly radical stance. With both candidates likely to make it to the second round, France is on the verge of a political revolution, regardless of who wins. [Continue reading…]

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