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  • State Department Reaffirms ‘Crimea Is Ukraine’
    March 15, 2018 10:06 am

    The State Department reaffirmed on Wednesday that the United States views the Crimean peninsula as a part of Ukraine, not Russia.

    Acting Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and spokesperson Heather Nauert condemned a political rally Russian President Vladimir Putin held in Crimea on Wednesday where he claimed Crimea to be a part of Russia. Nauert blasted the 2014 referendum in Crimea as to whether the region should join Russia. The "staged referendum," as Nauert put it, remains controversial as Russian troops were occupying the peninsula at the time and few international observers were present.

    "In light of Putin’s remarks, it is important to call attention to the illegitimacy of the staged ‘referendum,’ but also to the tremendous human costs the Russian government has imposed on the people of Crimea," Nauert said in a statement.

    "Over the past four years, Russia has engaged in a campaign of coercion and violence, targeting anyone opposed to its attempted annexation," Nauert's statement said. "Russian occupation authorities have subjected Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, pro-Ukrainian activists, civil society members, and independent journalists to politically motivated prosecution and ongoing repression, while methodically suppressing nongovernmental organizations and independent media outlets."

    Nauert also stated the Trump administration's support for Ukraine, which continues to deal with Russian troops and Russian-backed rebels in its eastern territory.

    "We stand behind those courageous individuals who continue to speak out about these abuses and we call on Russia to cease its attempts to quell fundamental freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association, and religion or belief," Nauert's statement said. "We reaffirm our commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders. Crimea is part of Ukraine and our Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control of the peninsula to Ukraine." State Department Reaffirms 'Crimea Is Ukraine'

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    • U.S. sanctions Russian "troll factory", 19 individuals for election meddling 19:50, 15 March 2018 World 15
      The sanctions are the first use of the powers that Congress passed last year in retaliation for Moscow's meddling.
      UNIAN (REUTERS) 19:50, 15 March 2018

      The Trump administration on Thursday imposed sanctions on 19 Russians for alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, including 13 indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his Russia-related investigation.

      Also targeted were five Russian companies, including the Internet Research Agency, which is accused of orchestrating a mass online disinformation campaign to affect the election that Donald Trump won over Hillary Clinton, according to CTV News.

      The sanctions are the first use of the powers that Congress passed last year in retaliation for Moscow's meddling. The targets include officials working for the Russian military intelligence agency, GRU. Thursday's action freezes any assets the individuals and entities may have in the United States and bar Americans from doing business with them.

      The department said in a statement that the GRU and Russia's military interfered in the 2016 election and were "directly responsible" for the NotPetya cyberattack that hit businesses across Europe in June 2017.

      Among those penalized was Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is known as Russian President Vladimir Putin's "chef" and who ran the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, also known as the "troll factory", and 12 of the agency's employees. They were included in Mueller's indictment last month.

      The Internet Research Agency "tampered with, altered, or caused a misappropriation of information with the purpose or effect of interfering with or undermining election processes and institutions," specifically the 2016 U.S. presidential race, the department said.

      "The IRA created and managed a vast number of fake online personas that posed as legitimate U.S. persons to include grassroots organizations, interest groups, and a state political party on social media," the Treasury Department statement said. "Through this activity, the IRA posted thousands of ads that reached millions of people online."

      The sanctions also affect the Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, and six of its employees, for cyberattacks more broadly, including those targeting Russian journalists, opposition figures, foreign politicians and U.S. officials. The Americans members of the diplomatic corps, the military and White House staffers.


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      • Russia warns UK it will retaliate soon for expulsion of diplomats over nerve attack – media
        Lavrov said Russia's response would come "very soon".
        UNIAN 14:45, 15 March 2018

        Russia warned on Thursday that it would retaliate very soon for Britain's expulsion of 23 diplomats over a nerve toxin attack on a Russian former double agent.

        Britain says Russia is responsible for using the Novichok nerve agent against Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the English city of Salisbury. They have been critically ill in hospital since they were found on March 4, Reuters wrote.

        Russia denies any involvement and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused London of behaving in a "boorish" way, adding that this was partly due to the problems Britain faces over its planned exit from the European Union next year.

        Lavrov said Russia's response would come "very soon" but be conveyed to British officials first, an apparent contradiction of an earlier report by state news agency RIA that said Lavrov had promised to expel British diplomats.

        In the biggest expulsion of Russian diplomats from London since the Cold War, Prime Minister Theresa May on Wednesday gave 23 Russians who she said were spies working under diplomatic cover a week to leave London.

        "These are all signs of a provocation against our country. The position of the British side seems absolutely irresponsible to us," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

        "We insist that Russia has no connection to what happened in Great Britain," Peskov told a conference call.

        In London, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson ratcheted up the rhetoric against Russia, accusing it of glorying in the attack on Skripal, which he described as a way of scaring anyone who stood up to President Vladimir Putin.

        Johnson said the evidence of Russian guilt was "overwhelming" because only Moscow had access to the poison used and a motive for harming Skripal.

        "There is something in the kind of smug, sarcastic response that we've heard from the Russians that to me betokens their fundamental guilt," he told the BBC.

        "They want to simultaneously deny it and yet at the same time to glory in it."

        Johnson said the attack was a way for Putin to send a message to anyone considering taking a stand against it that 'You do that, you are going to die'.

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        • Differences on North Korea key to Trump's Tillerson decision:
          Trump and Kim have committed to meeting at a time and place to be determined before the end of May to discuss North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
          UNIAN (Reuters) 13:50, 15 March 2018

          Differences over how to deal with North Korea's nuclear challenge were a key factor in President Donald Trump's decision to replace Rex Tillerson as U.S. secretary of state, according to sources familiar with the internal deliberations.

          Tillerson had been an early advocate of talks with North Korea to the annoyance of Trump, who wanted to keep applying maximum pressure on Pyongyang before responding to an invitation to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the sources said, as reported by Reuters.

          That had led to fear that Tillerson might be too willing to make concessions to North Korea, the sources said.

          "He's got to have somebody in there that he totally trusts," said a senior U.S. official.

          In recent weeks Trump spent time putting in place a succession plan, lining up Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Pompeo to take over at the State Department and CIA deputy director Gina Haspel to replace Pompeo as the head of the spy agency, the source said.

          A key aim was to get the team in place prior to moving ahead with North Korea.

          Trump and Kim have committed to meeting at a time and place to be determined before the end of May to discuss North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

          In a snub, Tillerson was left out of the loop regarding the North Korean invitation and was on his first trip to Africa when Trump sat down at the White House with a visiting delegation from South Korea last Thursday and agreed to meet Kim.

          The next day, Friday, Trump told White House Chief of Staff John Kelly to tell Tillerson he needed to resign, White House officials said.

          One source said Kelly had been trying to protect Tillerson as long as he could, but that Trump had grown weary of Tillerson's tendency to contradict the president on a variety of issues and had been telling friends he was about to dump him.

          Tillerson, who was in Nairobi at the time and still had two stops to go – Chad and Nigeria – asked that he first return to the United States before it was announced.

          Hours after Tillerson landed in Washington on Tuesday, Trump announced on Twitter that he was being dismissed and replaced by Pompeo.

          State Department officials said Tillerson did not know why he was being pushed out. One of them, Steve Goldstein, was fired later on Tuesday after he contradicted the White House's version.

          Tillerson, whose tenure ends on March 31, returned to the State Department on Wednesday to hand over responsibilities to John Sullivan, his deputy, and to meet with senior officials, a State Department official said.

          The official said Tillerson's chief of staff, Margaret Peterlin, and deputy chief of staff, Christine Ciccone, had resigned.

          It was not immediately clear whether Tillerson's policy chief, Brian Hook, would stay on beyond March 31. The department announced on Wednesday that Hook would travel to Vienna to participate in a meeting on Friday on the Iran nuclear deal.

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          • Russian plane loses almost nine tonnes of gold amid incident in Yakutsk (Photos)
            Immediately after the plane took off, one of its back doors fell off.
            UNIAN 11:57, 15 March 2018

            A Russian An-12 transport plane, which was loaded with nine tonnes of gold, lost most of its freight on March 15 in an aviation incident, which was close to a plane crash.

            The gold is being collected on the runway and in the nearby areas of the Yakutsk airfield in east Siberia, Russia, the Telegram Channel Mash said.

            Immediately after the plane took off, its left back door fell off.

            Several parts of the aircraft fuselage have already been found on the ground. The search for the gold is still under way across the entire surrounding area in the vicinity of the Yakutsk airfield.

            Some 172 gold bars have already been found. Each of them weighs 20 kg.

            The press service of JSC Yakutsk Airport said in an official statement on the incident that the plane belongs to Nimbus Airlines. According to the statement, the plane successfully landed at Magan Airport in the village of Magan, a few kilometers at the west of Yakutsk. An investigation into the incident is under way.


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            • ATLANTIC COUNCIL Alexander Vershbow March 15, 2018
              Sorry, Putin. Crimea Still Isn’t Yours

              Four years ago, Russia illegally annexed Crimea.

              Those who hoped the situation there would improve after Russia took control were wrong. There has been no economic miracle in Crimea, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s promises. The rights of the Ukrainian minority and of Crimean Tatars are constantly violated, the economy is stagnating, and hundreds of thousands of residents are voting with their feet.

              Russia is militarizing the peninsula, threatening NATO’s freedom to move forces through the region. And the construction of the Kerch bridge could cut off the Azov Sea from the Black Sea and choke off Ukrainian ports. This is happening at the same time as the Kremlin continues to sponsor its undeclared war in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

              The West has already unequivocally stated that it will never accept the illegal annexation of Crimea, but we need to go beyond declarations and focus on concrete steps that could end Russia’s aggression in both Crimea and the Donbas.

              There are two key areas where we need to double down our efforts. First, our Crimea non-recognition policy needs to be beefed up and enforced for the long haul.

              In 1940, in the aftermath of the USSR’s invasion of the Baltic states, the United States condemned the invasion and refused to recognize the annexation—a policy upheld for five decades. The Trump administration should issue a similar declaration regarding Crimea.

              Congress should make its own declaration, perhaps in the form of an updated version of the 1959 Captive Nations Resolution. It could affirm US support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and the other former Soviet states—Georgia and Moldova—with portions of their territory under Russian occupation, while upholding the right of all states to chart their own course, including NATO and EU membership if they so choose.

              EU members should also strengthen their Crimean non-recognition policy and enforce it, upholding sanctions and punishing those who violate them, including politicians who visit the occupied peninsula without Kyiv’s consent.

              As part of a long-term non-recognition policy, the West needs to continue raising the Crimea issue in its interactions with Moscow. Russia treats it as a fait accompli and refuses to discuss it, hoping that in time we will acquiesce. We must not let them get away with this.

              We should more forcefully debunk the Russians’ bogus historical narrative about the events of 2013-2014, and we should refute the specious legal arguments they have advanced to justify the annexation and the sham referendum that preceded it.

              Especially outrageous is Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s recent misrepresentation of the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity in return for its renunciation of nuclear weapons. Lavrov claimed that Russia only pledged not to use nuclear weapons against Ukraine, whereas the text states that Russia promised not to use military force of any kind against Ukraine.

              We should support Ukrainian legal claims for compensation for the theft and illegal exploitation of Ukrainian economic assets in Crimea, including offshore energy deposits. And we should not recognize the results of the voting in Crimea during Russia’s upcoming presidential “election.”

              And given the disturbing reports about human rights abuses, we need to push for greater humanitarian access by the UN or OSCE to occupied Crimea. We need to monitor human rights violations, bring them to the attention of the world, and apply pressure on Moscow to end the abuses.

              Second, as a step toward the return of Crimea, we need to get the Russians out of the Donbas—and quickly, before the occupied Donbas becomes another protracted, unresolved conflict.

              Moscow’s main goal in launching its undeclared war in eastern Ukraine was to destabilize Ukraine and bring to power leaders willing to accommodate Russian interests. Thanks to the courage of thousands of Ukrainian men and women who fought the Russians and their proxies in the Donbas, along with the pressure of US and EU sanctions, Russia’s maximum objectives have been thwarted.

              But Russia is still using the war in the Donbas as a diversionary tactic—to keep our focus on eastern Ukraine and not talk about Crimea. Putin may also hope to cut a deal in which, in return for a solution in the Donbas, the West would agree to legitimize the illegal annexation of Crimea. That is the opposite of what we should do.

              The Donbas and Crimea are not identical cases. But if we can get the Russians out of the Donbas first, we can at least show that it is possible to bring Ukraine’s occupied territory back under Kyiv’s control. In that sense, a genuine political solution in the Donbas would set a precedent for getting the Russians out of Crimea as well, even if it takes years.

              To get to a deal in the Donbas, both the United States and its European partners need to breathe new life into the Minsk process. While the Minsk accords define an adequate end state as the reintegration of the occupied territories under Ukrainian sovereignty, diplomatic efforts are not delivering on the intended goal.

              Contrary to those who describe it as a “frozen conflict,” the fighting in the east has intensified. In 2017, there were more casualties compared to 2016, as Russian-led forces have employed more accurate weapons. This is dangerous, since it leaves open the possibility that the conflict could fully re-erupt at any moment.

              New thinking is needed. The recent US decision to provide Ukraine with Javelin anti-tank weapons and other defensive capabilities is welcome: it can deter new Russian offensives, show Putin that time is not on his side, and increase pressure on Moscow to negotiate.

              In order to secure the full implementation of the Minsk agreements, we need to push for a UN peacekeeping force and interim civilian administration in the Donbas. This should be a real peacekeeping force with a robust mandate, not the limited version proposed by Putin.

              A genuine UN peacekeeping force would need to cover the entire territory of the occupied Donbas region, with the goal of protecting the population and implementing all aspects of the Minsk agreements.

              The force would ensure that both sides honored the ceasefire, pulled back their heavy weapons from the contact line and, in Russia’s case, removed its regular forces, the “little green men,” and the equipment it has provided to rebel forces in the Donbas.

              The UN would then take control of the international border and create the stable conditions needed for elections and implementation of the other political aspects of Minsk. At the end of the internationally-supervised transition period, Ukraine would assume control of its border with Russia as the UN presence was drawn down.

              Solving the Donbas would not only be good for the people of eastern Ukraine; it would be a major step toward reducing tensions between the West and Moscow. It wouldn’t directly change the situation surrounding Crimea. But an internationally-supervised transition back to Ukrainian sovereignty in the Donbas could serve as a model for Crimea at some point in the future.

              Several states, including Sweden and Finland, have made public their willingness to participate in a peacekeeping force if the right mandate and authorities can be agreed upon. So the mission is feasible. The ball is in Russia’s court, and following the Russian presidential election on March 18, Russia’s intentions will become clearer.

              Right now, it’s apparent that Moscow has not yet made the political decision to leave the Donbas, and may well be digging in for the long haul. If so, the West must keep the pressure on by holding the line on sanctions, tightening them further if Moscow remains intransigent, and providing the wherewithal for Ukraine to defend itself against any new Russian escalation.

              We must make clear to Moscow that any return to “business as usual” in the West’s relations with Moscow cannot begin without the return of the Donbas, and that no improvement in relations can be complete without the return of Crimea.

              Finally, the West must continue to do all we can to support Ukraine and encourage it on the path of reform, including rooting out corruption. The best answer to Russia’s aggression is a successful, secure, economically prosperous, and militarily strong Ukraine.

              Alexander Vershbow is a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. Vershbow was the Deputy Secretary General of NATO from 2012 to 2016 and is a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and US Ambassador to Russia and NATO. Sorry, Putin. Crimea Still Isn’t Yours

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              • ATLANTC COUNCIL Anders Åslund March 15, 2018
                One Overlooked and Easy Way the Trump Administration Can Help Ukraine

                Diplomatic relations between the United States and Ukraine are eminent. As former US Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer writes in his new book, The Eagle and the Trident, they have almost always been good. Ukraine’s outstanding sacrifice was to give up the third largest nuclear force in the world.

                An unfortunate consequence was that Russia started a war of aggression against Ukraine in 2014, annexing its southern peninsula of Crimea and occupying part of eastern Ukraine with irregular Russian troops. The United States responded with limited military supplies and eventually lethal weapons.

                But the United States should do more for Ukraine. Now is the time to launch negotiations on a US-Ukraine Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Ukraine needs to enter new markets. It has suffered tremendously from Russian trade sanctions, which have slashed trade between Russia, its main trade partner, and Ukraine by no less than 80 percent from 2012-16.

                Currently, Ukraine is going through a fast restructuring, boosting its trade with Europe to 40 percent of its total trade last year. Still, the Ukrainian economy is small—only 0.5 percent of the US economy and its total exports are just 1.9 percent of US exports. Therefore, the United States need not fear any trade shock from Ukraine.

                Ukraine is most interested in new bilateral FTAs and would welcome one with the United States. Recently, it has concluded two big FTAs. In 2014, it did so with the European Union. It came into force on September 1, 2017. In July 2016, Canada and Ukraine concluded their FTA (CUFTA), and after their parliaments had ratified it, it came into force on August 1, 2017.

                Barack Obama’s administration was not interested in bilateral FTAs. Toward its end, it nurtured two major regional FTAs, the Transpacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which have both been abandoned by Donald Trump’s administration. Instead, the Trump administration favors FTAs with individual countries.

                The case for a bilateral US-Ukraine FTA appears obvious. The countries are friends, and both appreciate bilateral FTAs. Their bilateral trade is tiny but the United States enjoys a large surplus. The US Trade Representative reports: “Ukraine is currently our 81st largest goods trading partner with $1.7 billion in total (two way) goods trade during 2016. Goods exports totaled $1.1 billion; goods imports totaled $578 million. The US goods trade surplus with Ukraine was $499 million in 2016.” This tiny trade can develop to the benefit of both nations but hardly to the irritation of anybody. Most of all, a US-Ukraine FTA would be a gesture of friendship and solidarity against Russian aggression.

                USTR continues: “The top export 2016 were: mineral fuels ($210 million), vehicles ($176 million), machinery ($175 million), aircraft ($91 million), and iron and steel products ($55 million). US total exports of agricultural products to Ukraine totaled $37 million in 2016.”

                On the US import side: “The top import 2016 were: iron and steel ($258 million), electrical machinery ($39 million), inorganic chemicals ($27 million), iron and steel products ($27 million), and dairy, eggs, honey ($24 million). US total imports of agricultural products from Ukraine totaled $77 million in 2016.” These small volumes can hardly scare any protectionist. US foreign direct investment in Ukraine was $618 million in 2016, while Ukrainian investment in the United States was minuscule.

                Canada’s free trade agreement suggests the kind of agreement the United States would like to have with Ukraine. Unlike Ukraine’s EU agreement, CUFTA is newly negotiated and fully modern. It contains rules of origin and trade facilitation, as well as rules for e-commerce, intellectual property rights, labor standards, and environment. Energy, agriculture, infrastructure, and technology are covered, while services and investment are excluded. Canada claims to have opened up 98 percent of its market to Ukraine. Tariffs are to be phased out gradually within 3-7 years.

                Canada has set a useful example, though it might be advantageous if a US-Ukraine FTA included investment, given potentially large US investment in Ukraine. The United States and Ukraine already have a bilateral investment treaty of 1994, though it is rather rhapsodic and could benefit from an update, in particular, to include intellectual property rights.

                The EU free trade agreement with Ukraine appears less applicable. It is not only an FTA but also an Association Agreement with broader political implications. While the negotiations of the CUFTA started in 2015, the EU Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement was negotiated from 2007, making it less up to date.

                This is a propitious time for the United States and Ukraine to start negotiations about a bilateral free trade agreement.
                One Overlooked and Easy Way the Trump Administration Can Help Ukraine

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                • ATLANTIC COUNCIL Ashish Kumar Sen March 15, 2018
                  US Imposes Sanctions on Russia Over Election Meddling

                  US President Donald J. Trump’s administration on March 15 announced new sanctions on Russian individuals and organizations in response to Russian meddling in the 2016 US election and cyberattacks, including attempts to the hack the US energy grid.

                  This is the most significant action by the Trump administration against Russia to date.

                  The sanctions target many of the same individuals and entities indicted by special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III in February.

                  Atlantic Council analysts share their assessment here.

                  Michael Carpenter, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He is also senior director of the Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania. Carpenter is a former deputy assistant secretary of defense with responsibility for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia, the Balkans, and Conventional Arms Control.

                  “These new sanctions are totally inconsequential. The previous administration had already sanctioned most of the entities and individuals designated today, so there's really nothing new here.

                  “Furthermore, such narrowly targeted sanctions have little to no impact on the operations of Russia's intelligence services or its proxies, since these organizations don't transact (at least overtly) through the US financial system.

                  “Finally, they have no impact on Russia's economy at all.

                  “I suspect the Trump administration will cite these designations as evidence that it is getting ‘tough’ on Russia, but in this case it's all smoke and mirrors.”

                  Evelyn Farkas, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative, Eurasia Center, and Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. She served from 2012 to 2015 as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia, responsible for policy toward Russia, the Black Sea, Balkans, and Caucasus regions and conventional arms control.

                  “This is a great first step, and the timing and reference to the Russian chemical attacks on the United Kingdom are also positive. However, this is not sufficient in response to the Kremlin's attack on our elections, various assaults on NATO nations and other democracies, use of chemical weapons in the United Kingdom, and targeted bombing of civilians in Syria (and attempts to paper over Assad’s use of chemical warfare).

                  “It is also insufficient to stop the Kremlin in its attacks on the United States and our allies. We should join with the UK and call for Article 4 consultations at NATO and we should draw up more sanctions against Russia in coordination with the European Union.

                  “I agree with the US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley—if we don't take immediate concrete action, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his government will not stop.”

                  Brian O’Toole, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program. He worked at the US Department of the Treasury from 2009 to 2017. As a senior adviser to the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) he played a central role in designing the US sanctions regime in response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and negotiating the multilateral sanctions imposed by the European Union and G7 in coordination with the United States.

                  “As the first action targeting Russian election interference and hacking under this administration, today’s sanctions are significant. Furthermore, they are technically competent and well-executed. But by not hitting Putin closer to his power structures and not being coordinated with allies, especially the UK, they feel like they're missing the real force needed to get Putin's attention and cause him to think twice about interfering in November.

                  “The most notable piece of today's action are the sanctions imposed for the ‘Not Petya’ cyber attack, which caused significant financial damage. The others were sanctions cleanup: targeting those indicted by the special counsel or redesignating targets that had been sanctioned under the Obama administration. Under normal circumstances, especially as an implicit acknowledgment of Russian electoral hacking, this would be a very solid action.

                  “But I can't help but feel as if the United States has missed an opportunity to either have more significant sanctions targeting Putin's soft spots (the Kremlin report names) and/or coordinated action with our allies; after all, Not Petya's primary harm was to the UK. Coordinated action with the UK, especially in the wake of the Skripal assassination attempt, would have sent a much stronger message to Moscow.

                  “This was a perfectly fine sanctions action, but with the threat from Russia only increasing as we get closer to November, it seems like perfectly fine does not provide the powerful impact necessary to deter Putin and his regime.”

                  John E. Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He served as the US ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006.

                  “The sanctions are a step in the right direction, but not a large step. The measure adds CAATSA [Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act] sanctions to people already under sanction and applies sanctions to those indicted by Robert Mueller. My sense is that Congress was looking for more robust sanctions.”

                  Anders Åslund, resident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He is a leading specialist on economic policy in Russia, Ukraine, and Eastern Europe.

                  “The new round of US sanctions on Russia consists of two batches. The first one contains fourteen names, which correspond to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recent indictment of the St. Petersburg troll farm and its leading staff.

                  “The second batch sanctions the two Russian intelligence agencies FSB and GRU for their hacking of the US elections together with four leading hackers. These were already sanctioned and this is only a legal change to sanction them under the new CAATSA of August 2, 2017. Nobody has been sanctioned as yet from the classified Kremlin List (CAATSA Section 241), as Under Secretary of Treasury Sigal Mandelker indicated would happen when speaking at the Atlantic Council on March 9.

                  “It is noteworthy that the United States issues these new sanctions four days before the Russian presidential elections.”
                  US Imposes Sanctions on Russia Over Election Meddling

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                  • ATLANTIC COUNCIL Peter Dickinson March 13, 2018
                    From Crimea to Salisbury: Time to Acknowledge Putin’s Global Hybrid War

                    Since Russian troops began seizing government buildings in Crimea four years ago, the international community has become accustomed to encountering new acts of Russian aggression on an almost daily basis. Whether it is masked men in eastern Ukraine, a chemical weapons attack in the English countryside, or an attempted coup in the Balkans, the process is more or less the same—faced by a fresh round of accusations, the Kremlin denies everything and declares, “You can’t prove it was us.” If the evidence pointing toward Russia is particularly damning, Moscow then insists that those involved were non-state actors operating entirely independently of the government. Vladimir Putin opted for this position during his recent NBC News interview, dismissing indictments against thirteen named Russians for meddling in the 2016 US presidential election by saying, “So what if they’re Russians? They do not represent the interests of the Russian state.” It was a similar story when an undisclosed but apparently large number of Russian troops died during an attack on US forces in eastern Syria in early February 2018. As news of the debacle began to leak, Kremlin officials downplayed the scale of the Russian losses while stressing that those involved were private citizens and in no way connected to the Russian armed forces. Even in such apparently open-and-shut cases as the recent assassination attempt in Salisbury, England, Moscow denies everything and then plays the Russophobia card.

                    This is how Putin’s Russia wages war, by attacking in a myriad of different directions while carefully maintaining a semblance of plausible deniability that leaves its victims partially paralyzed and unable to respond effectively to an enemy they cannot conclusively unmask. Few doubt that Russia is behind each new act of aggression, but it is often difficult to differentiate between Putin’s many proxies and the hand of the Kremlin itself. The result is a slow boil conflict in which Russia is able to punch well above its weight against an array of ostensibly more powerful opponents who fail to recognize they are engaged in hostilities at all.

                    One of the reasons Putin’s strategy of plausible deniability is so effective is because virtually nobody in the West seems to appreciate the scale of Russian hostility toward the post-Cold War world or the Kremlin’s readiness to resort to acts of aggression. They cannot comprehend why any rational nation would seek to dismantle the international security system, and remain trapped by the post-history delusion that Great Powers do not attack one another anymore. This wishful thinking makes it difficult for many in the West to view Russia’s individual offenses as component parts of a single coordinated global campaign. Instead, the tendency is to treat each incident in isolation without connecting the dots and drawing the obvious conclusions. Americans clamor for sanctions over Russian election meddling, while frontline states in Eastern Europe impose bans on the Russian media and British tabloids call for Russian oligarchs to have their London assets frozen. At the same time, we are still no closer to the kind of united international response that Russia’s actions warrant if taken collectively. This compartmentalization extends to the Kremlin war in Ukraine, with international sanctions for Russia’s military intervention remaining neatly divided into separate Crimean and Donbas elements. Above all, nobody wants to acknowledge the dire reality that a state of war—albeit hybrid war—already exists between Russia and the entire democratic world.

                    There is no such reticence inside Russia itself. The idea of an adversarial Western world is one of the mainstays of modern Kremlin media messaging, while large swathes of the Russian population simply take this hostility for granted. The worldview promoted by the Putin regime is unashamedly revisionist and resentful, with the Soviet collapse depicted as a tragedy and the accompanying loss of Russian influence an injustice. In this toxic environment, the inherent deceit underpinning Putin’s brand of hybrid warfare requires no further explanation or justification. It is merely payback for the sins of the West. This greatly reduces the risk of any domestic backlash against the Kremlin’s geopolitical adventurism, while helping Moscow to keep its shadow armies and troll factories fully staffed.

                    Nor is there anything to suggest Russia will change tack anytime soon unless forced to do so. To the contrary, each unchecked act of aggression leads to a new escalation as the campaign that began in Ukraine four years ago continues to expand across Europe and North America. Every societal weakness and vulnerability throughout the West is now fair game for Kremlin information offensives. Ethnic, religious, political, and separatist tensions will be fanned and enflamed at every opportunity. The threat of “little green men” appearing in either the Baltic or the Balkans remains all too real. It is only a matter of time before the Kremlin targets EU member states with the kind of massive cyberattacks deployed with such devastating effect against Ukraine’s infrastructure in recent years. Meanwhile, recent events in England offer a grim and timely reminder of Russia’s apparent readiness to unleash chemical weapons on civilian populations.

                    The only way to stop this hybrid war is to win it. The Western world already has all the necessary tools to tame Russia but currently lacks the requisite unity and political will to do so. The first step toward changing this would be establishing an international consensus on the need to unite against Russia’s global hybrid war campaign rather than reacting piecemeal to each individual outrage. Nobody is going to declare war on Russia, but the cost of the Kremlin’s aggressive actions needs to rise dramatically. This means exploring ways to progressively cut Russia off from the architecture of international finance while targeting Russian assets in the West in a manner that reflects the Kremlin’s own blurring of the lines between state and non-state actors. It means expanding international initiatives like the Magnitsky Act while at the same time working to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas, even if this brings significant economic costs of its own. It means limiting Russia’s ability to poison the media environment with deliberate disinformation. It most certainly means boycotting propaganda circuses like the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

                    These measures will be both painful and unpopular. One of the key tasks facing Western governments will be convincing the public that the gravity of the situation warrants the sacrifices asked of them. Anything less would be courting disaster in the not-too-distant future. For the past four years, much of the outside world has remained in denial over the scale of the challenge emanating from Moscow. We have now reached the stage where Russian claims of plausible deniability are completely implausible. From Crimea to Salisbury, Putin is waging a hybrid war against the West. The sooner EU and US leaders collectively acknowledge this, the closer we will be to a solution.
                    From Crimea to Salisbury: Time to Acknowledge Putin’s Global Hybrid War

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                    • ATLANTIC COUNCIL Stephen Blank March 13, 2018
                      From Russia With Hate

                      The poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal, his daughter, and twenty-one other British citizens in Salisbury is the most recent of too many such examples.

                      On March 12, days after the attempted assassination of Skripal, Nikolai Glushkov, a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was found dead under mysterious circumstances in his home in London.

                      British Prime Minister Theresa May has accused Russia of using military-grade Novichok nerve agent in the attack on Skripal. She has also demanded an accounting by the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom as to whether this was a state-sponsored effort (which it almost certainly was) or worse, if Putin has lost control of his own agents.

                      However May ultimately decides to respond to the attempted assassination of Skripal, this attack represents an unlawful use of force against the United Kingdom and its citizens. It also means that Russia attacked a member of NATO and the European Union (EU).

                      Russia has poisoned “enemies of the state” in the United Kingdom before. Alexander Litvinenko, a former Russian spy, was murdered in London in November 2006. The radioactive polonium-210 that caused his was death was reportedly added to his cup of tea. A public inquiry concluded that Putin probably approved the assassination.

                      The United Kingdom has now reopened investigations into fourteen other mysterious deaths, including those of Russian tycoon Boris Berezovsky and whistleblower Alexander Perepilichny. Glushkov, who was found dead in London on March 12, was close friends with Berezovsky.

                      The apparent murder of Mikhail Lesin, Putin’s former media czar, in Washington in 2016 is another example of Russia silencing “traitors.” Former KGB agent, Boris Karpichkov, has claimed that he and at least eight other people have also been targets of Russian attacks and are on a Russian “hit list.”

                      Teaching ‘traitors’ a deadly lesson

                      The attempted assassination of Skripal and the fact that twenty-one other British civilians were exposed to a nerve agent that was procured from a military facility represents an example of chemical warfare and terrorism perpetrated by Russia in the United Kingdom.

                      Skripal, a former Russian military intelligence officer, served as a double agent for the United Kingdom’s intelligence services in the 1990s and early 2000s. He was arrested in Russia in 2004 and imprisoned after a conviction for high treason. He eventually got to the United Kingdom in a prisoner swap.

                      Analysts apparently still cannot understand why Russia would try to kill Skripal. This failure to understand underscores the continuing Western incapacity to grasp Putin’s and Russia’s modus operandi and motives.

                      As James Sherr and John Lough of Chatham House observe, Moscow need not have a formal reason to make such an attack even if it wanted to teach “traitors” a lesson they will never forget, but it always has its own self-generated incentive and legal authorization to kill enemies abroad.

                      The scale of the attack on Skripal and the fact that it apparently occurred at one or more restaurants in Salisbury suggests that this was also what Russian security services call a “Razvedka Boem”—a military intelligence probe. The probe was to ascertain, if not demonstrate, just how weak the United Kingdom’s response will be to Russian aggression. Moscow intends to send a message to the West that it can strike in its territory with impunity.

                      Moscow has seen nothing but British weakness in the face of its provocations going back over a decade to Litvinenko’s murder. At least twenty other deaths or attempted murders in the United Kingdom have hitherto evoked no visible retribution for Russia.

                      An aggressive Russia

                      We have seen heightened aggression from Russia. Norway recently reported three military probes against it near the Arctic in 2017—a region that is supposedly a model of Russo-Western political dialogue not military threats.

                      In Syria, Moscow uses terror tactics against civilians in its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It sent a private army to exploit Syrian energy assets and abet its military campaign for Assad. It then authorized this private army—the so-called Wagner army—to attack US forces which it knew to be in the area and who had apparently warned Moscow of their presence. The result was a “turkey shoot” with possibly 300 or more Russian fatalities. Typically, Moscow remained silent until enterprising foreign journalists broke the story.

                      Meanwhile, Russian diplomats smuggled twelve suitcases of cocaine through the diplomatic pouch from Argentina in Russian Security Council Director Nikolai Patrushev’s airplane.

                      In Ukraine, Russian forces have attempted to conduct terror bombings in Kyiv as they have already done in Odessa and Khar’kiv. Moscow is also steadily upgrading its forces that have invaded Ukraine. It has fully assimilated the so-called separatists into the Russian army, created two whole new armies on Ukraine’s border, deployed nuclear-capable missiles in Crimea, and deployed nuclear missile versions of its sea-launched Kalibr cruise missile to the Black Sea.

                      Russia has also intervened in elections in the United States and Europe over the past two years and continues to attack the integrity of the US political system.

                      It has replied to a Stockholm arbitration court decision in favor of Ukraine by unilaterally terminating all energy contracts with Kyiv, in mid-winter, confirming that Russia still views energy as a political weapon.

                      Meanwhile, Russia continues its overflights of the United States’ European allies and Japan, and it is concurrently building a network of naval bases and facilities across the Mediterranean Sea and into the Sahel and Persian Gulf.

                      Lastly, there is Putin’s speech of March 1 to the Federal Assembly. In that address, the Russian president unveiled six new nuclear weapons, including weapons whose sole purpose is to inflict maximum civilian casualties. The purpose here, in classic mafia style, was to intimidate foreign audiences. But Putin omitted the almost twenty other Russian nuclear programs currently underway that violate virtually every existing arms control treaty. The video that accompanied his speech showed Russian capabilities that openly violate the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. If these actions do not constitute a war against the West and international order as such then it is difficult to imagine what would represent such a war.

                      Incontrovertibly, Russia is not only at war with the West, it is a state sponsor of terrorism in Ukraine and in the Middle East where it is the principal supplier of weapons to Hezbollah and supports Hamas—both groups that have ties to Iran.

                      Russia is an outlaw state whose modes of governance resemble those of the mafia. This is not a new development. Putin’s KGB used to joke that its initials did not stand for Committee on State Security but rather meant the Office of Wild Bandits (Kontora Grubykh Banditov). Clearly not much has changed for them.

                      In the late 1980s, Giulietto Chiesa, the Moscow correspondent of the Italian Communist Party newspaper L'Unità, observed that the USSR was governed according to the rules of the Italian Mafia. This clearly continues to be the case in Putin’s Russia.

                      The fact that Moscow arrogates to itself the right not only to kill its self-anointed traitors abroad but also to wage chemical war on foreigners confirms the fact that its diplomats and officials respect neither sovereignty nor territorial integrity of other states.

                      Spanish prosecutor José Grinda, in his monumental investigation of Russian organized crime, found that those crime syndicates are essentially extensions of the Russian state.

                      Consequently, Moscow needs no real motive for attacks like those undertaken in Salisbury. The real question is not why Moscow did it, but what it will take for the West to recognize what we are up against? The West must take resolute, but relatively easily available, actions that are necessary to defend democracy, the rule of law, and legal order in the face of this unrelenting attack by what amounts to a criminal syndicate that has morphed into a state. From Russia With Hate

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                      • Despite Ukraine’s protest Bulgaria hires Russian company to repair its MiG-29 fighters
                        UAWIRE ORG March 15, 2018 3:00:42 PM

                        According to the documents provided by the Bulgarian Ministry of Defense, Bulgaria has picked Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG to overhaul 15 soviet-era MiG-29 fighters before 2020, Reuters reports.

                        It’s reported that, as a member of the European Union and NATO, Bulgaria believes that only the Russian company can provide high-quality repairs. That is why Bulgarian officials did not invite any other bidders for the project.

                        The Ministry of Defense of Bulgaria planned to sign a four-year contract worth USD 51.45 million with the MiG group but suspended the deal following an appeal by the Ukrinmash company (Ukraine), part of the UkrOboronProm state-run concern.

                        Later, the Bulgarian anti-monopoly commission rejected Ukraine's appeal and on March 6, an ad-hoc commission of the Ministry of Defense of Bulgaria approved the Russian proposal.

                        As earlier reported, some Bulgarian military pilots refuse to fly Russian MiG-29 fighters because of the potential danger of piloting such antiquated aircraft.
                        UAWire - Despite Ukraine’s protest Bulgaria hires Russian company to repair its MiG-29 fighters

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                        • Kyiv: Austria invested $1.3 billion into Ukraine’s economy last year
                          UAWIRE ORG March 15, 2018 4:00:43 PM

                          In 2017, Austria invested $1.35 billion in the economy of Ukraine that accounted for 3.4% of the total amount of foreign direct investment made into Ukraine’s economy, as reported by the service of the Cabinet of Ministers following the meeting of Prime Minister of Ukraine Volodymyr Groysman with the President of Austria, Alexander van der Bellen.

                          According to Groysman, European integration is Ukraine's irreversible foreign policy choice. That is why Kyiv is looking to further intensify the dialogue on a wide range of issues, considering Austria's chairmanship of the EU in the second half of the year.

                          The parties paid special attention to the situation in the Donbas. "The annexation of the Crimea and the occupation of the Donbas are illegal. This is a notable violation of international law. Russia has the impression that this will all go unpunished but we must prevent the existence of such an opinion," the press service of the Cabinet of Ministers quotes the Austrian president as saying.

                          Earlier, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said that Ukrainian exports to Austria have grown by 48%. UAWire - Kyiv: Austria invested $1.3 billion into Ukraine’s economy last year

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                          • Russian disinformation distorts American and European democracy
                            The Mueller indictment reveals some of the Kremlin’s tactics
                            THE ECONOMIST AMSTERDAM, ROME, STOCKHOLM & WASHINGTON, DC Feb 22nd 2018

                            HAD Barack Obama looked out of the right window in the White House on May 29th 2016, he might have seen someone holding up a sign that read “Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss”. The felicitations were not for Mr Obama (whose birthday is in August); they were for Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian businessman known as “Putin’s chef”. The sign-carrying well-wisher did not know Mr Prigozhin. But over the course of 2016, many people who were strangers to Putin’s cook nonetheless did what he wanted them to do, both in America and elsewhere.

                            This bizarre story is one of the details which make the grand-jury indictment filed in Washington, DC, on February 16th so fascinating, as well as deeply troubling. The indictment was filed by Robert Mueller, a former director of the FBI who is now the special counsel charged, as part of his investigation into Russian efforts to interfere with America’s election in 2016, with finding any links between Donald Trump’s election campaign and the Russian government. It charges three companies Mr Prigozhin controlled, including the Internet Research Agency (IRA, see article), and 12 other named Russians with identity theft, conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud and conspiracy to defraud America by “impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the United States”.

                            Using fake social-media personas, the Russians tried to depress turnout among blacks and Muslims, encourage third-party voting and convince people of widespread voter fraud; their actions were designed to benefit Bernie Sanders, who lost the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton, and Mr Trump. “Many” of the social- media groups created as part of the operation, Mr Mueller says, had more than 100,000 followers. The Russians organised and co-ordinated rallies in several states, such as a “Florida Goes Trump” day on August 20th. They were in touch with “US activists” (perhaps it was one of them who sent those birthday greetings from Lafayette Park). These included “unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump campaign”.

                            The indictment says nothing about the degree to which witting parts of Mr Trump’s campaign may have encouraged these actions, though it does refer to co-conspirators “ the Grand Jury”. Nor does it delve into the question of Russian responsibility for hacking the Democratic National Committee. But it is an unprecedentedly thorough, forensic account of a scheme that was of a piece with the covert propaganda and influence operations Mr Putin now wages against democracies around the world. Sometimes, these interventions seek to advance immediate foreign-policy goals. They also have a broader, long-term aim: weakening Western democracies by undermining trust in institutions and dividing their citizens against each other.

                            In this, they are working with the grain of the times. Social media are designed to hijack their users’ attention. That makes them excellent conduits for the dissemination of lies and for the encouragement of animosity. Russia’s manipulations make use of these features (from the point of view of those who would make money from social media) or bugs (from the point of view of people who would like political lying to be kept to a minimum) in much the same way as unscrupulous political campaigns that are not subject to malign outside influence. This makes the effects of Russia’s actions hard to gauge. In many cases they may be minor. But that does not make their intent less hostile, or their evolving threat less disturbing. Nor does it make them easier to counter. Indeed, the public acknowledgment of such conspiracies’ existence can help foment the divisions they seek to exploit.

                            The use of disinformation—“active measures”, in the KGB jargon of Mr Putin’s professional past—to weaken the West was a constant of Soviet policy, one that the would-be victims fought back against with similar weaponry. In the 1960s the KGB-funded Liberty Book Club published the first title alleging that John F. Kennedy’s assassination was a conspiracy. Later the KGB forged a letter from Lee Harvey Oswald in an attempt to connect the plot to the CIA. Mostly this had little effect. In the 1970s forged pamphlets designed to start a war between the Black Panthers and the Jewish Defence League failed to do so. But some worked. The CIA did not invent HIV in a biological-weapons lab, but the KGB did invent the story, and many people still believe it.

                            After the collapse of the Soviet Union the use of active measures against the West went into hiatus, though they still found use against some countries of the former Soviet Union. Then, in December 2011, people took to the streets in protest against Mr Putin. Mr Putin blamed Mrs Clinton, then America’s Secretary of State.

                            The Maidan uprising in Ukraine in February 2014, the subsequent Russian-backed fighting in the east of the country and the annexation of Crimea moved things up a gear. Kremlin-controlled media claimed that Ukraine’s government was dominated by fascists and that its armed forces were committing atrocities. Russian trolls spread the stories on Twitter, Facebook and the Russian social-media platform VKontakte.

                            In July of that year 298 people were killed when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by a Russian missile over eastern Ukraine. The Kremlin responded with a barrage of disinformation blaming Ukraine. Its defence ministry hosted a press conference at which it presented fake data on the plane’s flight path, as well as a tampered video which made it appear that the lorry carrying the missile had passed through Ukrainian-controlled territory. As European public opinion turned sharply anti-Russian, the Kremlin stepped up efforts at covert influence well beyond Ukraine proper.

                            The cyber elements of such activities get the most attention, but much of Russia’s activity consists of techniques from the pre-digital Soviet manual: marshalling human assets, be they active spies or sympathetic activists; funding organisations that may be helpful; and attempting to influence the media agenda.

                            Tried and not true

                            Anton Shekhovtsov, a Ukrainian political scientist, has studied the links Russia has cultivated with an array of European parties. Some are tiny outfits like Italy’s neo-fascist Forza Nuova. Others are much larger, such as the right-wing Northern League. Last year its leader, Matteo Salvini, signed a co-operation agreement with Mr Putin’s party, United Russia. Austria’s hard-right FPÖ, which now controls the foreign, interior and defence ministries, has a similar pact. In Germany Russia maintains ties with Die Linke, a far-left group descended from East Germany’s Communist Party, but has also cultivated the hard-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party. The AfD does especially well with the million or so Germans of Russian descent; last year it published its manifesto in Russian.

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                            • Russian disinformation Pt 2

                              Sponsored visits to Russia have bolstered relationships with politicians including Nick Griffin, once the leader of the fascist British National Party; Frank Creyelman, a member of the Flemish parliament for the far-right Vlaams Belang party; and Marton Gyongyosi, a leader of Hungary’s far-right Jobbik party. Last September an MP from the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), Pavel Gamov, managed to get kicked off one of these junkets by demanding that his hosts pay his bar tab and other untoward expenses. (The SD expelled him, too.)

                              Direct funding of sympathetic parties is often rumoured but rarely proven, in part because many European countries have strikingly lax election-finance laws. The Czech Republic’s pro-Russian president, Milos Zeman, pulled off a narrow re-election victory last month with the help of a massive advertising campaign financed by a group known simply as “Friends of Zeman”; the source of some of that money is not known. A British investigation into the source of £8.4m ($12m) in loans and donations provided to the Leave.EU campaign in the run-up to the Brexit referendum by Arron Banks, a prominent campaigner, have yet to reach a conclusion.

                              Broadcasters like RT and Sputnik spread disinformation that furthers Mr Putin’s ends and slant news stories in ways that play up their divisiveness. Plenty of news outlets with greater reach do the latter; but one area where Russian active measures go further is in the use of straight-up forgery. Martin Kragh, a Swedish security expert, describes more than 20 forgeries that have made news in recent years. One was a fake letter supposedly written by Sweden’s defence minister, offering to sell artillery to Ukraine. A second purported to contain evidence of a conspiracy to install Carl Bildt, a former Swedish foreign minister, as Ukraine’s prime minister. The forgeries often appeared first on Russian-language websites, or were placed on social media by a pro-Russian account. As Mr Kragh notes, such fakes often continue to circulate on social media long after they are debunked.

                              It is in assuring such continued circulation that outfits like the IRA play a role, setting up automated accounts—“bots”—that promulgate messages to specific groups and individuals. Last November NATO’s Stratcom Centre of Excellence in Riga, which studies disinformation, found that 70% of Russian-language social-media communication about NATO in the Baltic states seemed to be generated by bots. A study of social media during the Brexit campaign by 89Up, a consultancy, found that Russian bots delivered 10m potential Twitter impressions—about a third of the number generated by the Vote Leave campaign’s Twitter account. Such echoing amplifies the effect of RT and Sputnik stories, which are in general not much watched.

                              Their all-or-nothing nature makes referendums particularly juicy prizes. At least one in the Netherlands has been targeted. Javier Lesaca, a political scientist at George Washington University, found that RT and Sputnik stories on Catalonia’s independence referendum last year—which took the pro-independence side, as Russia would wish—were retweeted on a vast scale by “Chavista bots” which normally spent their time tweeting messages sympathetic to the Venezuelan government.

                              Estimating how many bots are out there is hard. Primitive bots give themselves away by tweeting hundreds of times per hour, but newer ones are more sophisticated. Some generate passable natural-language tweets, thus appearing more human; others are hybrids with a human curator who occasionally posts or responds on the account, says Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. It is not always easy to distinguish bots from humans. “Journalists spend a lot of time talking on social media. Sometimes they look almost automated,” she says.

                              Discovering who controls such accounts is even harder. In America the main work of identifying which bots and troll accounts were run by the IRA has been done by Twitter and Facebook themselves. Independent analysts can try to identify Twitter bots based on their activity patterns, but for Facebook accounts, which are mainly private and post only to their own friends, it can be impossible for anyone outside the company.

                              “We don’t have a list of Russian troll accounts in Europe, similar to what we have for the US,” acknowledges Ben Nimmo of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), which studies online influence operations. In Germany Mr Nimmo identified a Russian botnet—in this context, a network of mutually reinforcing bots—that amplified right-wing messaging in the week before the German election in September, promoting #Wahlbetrug (“election fraud”) as a hashtag. Beforehand the botnet had spent its time promoting pornography and commercial products. It may have been a freelance rent-a-botnet also available for far-right messaging; it may have been a Russian operation. The difference can be hard to see.

                              So can the impact of such interventions. Analysts are most confident of ascribing influence when they see a superhuman burst of bot activity followed by a deeper but more leisurely spread deemed to be “organic” (both in the sense of proceeding naturally and being done by flesh not circuits). This is what happened when material stolen from Emmanuel Macron’s campaign was posted shortly before the second round of last May’s French election. An analysis by DFRLab showed that the top ten accounts retweeting links to the material posted more than 1,300 times in the first three hours, with one account posting nearly 150 tweets per hour. Later, says Ms Neudert, the messages began to spread organically. On the other hand, Mr Lesaca’s figures suggest that the retweets of RT and Sputnik by Chavista bots were not taken up by living, breathing Catalans.


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                              • Russian disinformation Pt 3

                                ome European countries are trying to strengthen themselves against web-borne disinformation. On a sunny afternoon at the Alessandro Volta junior-middle school in Latina, 50km south of Rome, Massimo Alvisi, who teaches digital literacy, runs through some of the topics the rumbustious children in front of him have covered this year. A visitor asks the class: why do people make things up online, anyway?

                                “People put up false stories to earn money,” shouts a dark-haired wiseacre at the back. “To create panic!” says another. “To deceive people.” “Just to have fun!”

                                Mr Alvisi, a history teacher by training, has been leading the digital-literacy classes for two years. He developed his course partly on his own initiative. But the issue has been given a new push. Last year the president of Italy’s Chamber of Deputies, Laura Boldrini, announced a “Basta bufala” programme (fake news, for reasons which appear obscure, is known as “bufala” in Italy). She has herself been a target of online attacks; she has furiously denounced a Northern League senator who shared a baseless post alleging that she had obtained a government job for her brother, a well-known abstract painter.

                                Italy is an easy target for disinformation; fake news is rife, trust in the authorities low, and some parties like it like that. In last year’s German elections all parties swore off the use of bots (though the AfD dragged its feet). In Italy the Northern League positively encourages bottishness with an app that automatically embeds party postings in supporters’ timelines. The populist Five Star Movement is opposed to anything top-down, including efforts to block fake news (which can indeed, in government hands, look disturbingly like ministries of truth). Its websites and Facebook pages have become Petri dishes for conspiracy theories in the run up to the general election in March.

                                Sweden, too, is rolling out a national digital-literacy curriculum. Teachers there are particularly impressed by the effect of assignments that get the students to create fake-news campaigns themselves; they dramatically improve students’ awareness of how disinformation works, and how to recognise it. Sweden’s Civil Contingencies Agency (MSB), which is responsible for communications during emergencies and for combating disinformation, runs similar “red teaming” exercises for government agencies, in which staff brainstorm attacks to test their own vulnerabilities.

                                Its flow chart for handling information attacks looks at the emotions they seek to engender (fear, shock, discouragement) and the tools they employ (trolls, hacks). Identifying the aggressor is not a priority. “Intelligence agencies can handle that. We need to think about the effects,” says Dominik Swiecicki of the MSB. Indeed, in some cases attribution could be counter-productive; saying someone has struck you without having the will, or wherewithal, to strike back can, as America is learning, make you look hopeless.

                                Robust efforts by platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to monitor trolls, bots and aggressive disinformation campaigns would greatly help all such moves towards resilience. Facebook, for which Russian meddling poses a severe image problem (see article) has promised it will have 20,000 people monitoring abusive content by the end of the year. Twitter’s identification of IRA-linked bots has enabled independent groups to track their activities as they happen, observing them as they seized on topics such as the high-school massacre in Parkland, Florida on February 15th (see article). Governments are pressing them to do more. But, as Ms Neudert observes, “There are massive concerns about freedom of speech.” She says that because of German fines for online hate speech and fake news, “The platforms are ‘over-blocking’ all kinds of content that they are worried might be in any way problematic”. France, Italy and the Netherlands say they too are looking at laws and other measures to combat fake news.

                                Please tread on me
                                Such European efforts may backfire; but they are at least efforts. And some European leaders take the problem seriously. At his first meeting with Mr Putin, Mr Macron publicly accused RT and Sputnik of being state propaganda channels. Mrs Merkel is said to have explicitly warned him about interference in Germany’s elections at a meeting in Sochi. In America, by contrast, one of the most striking things about the Russian attacks is how little has been done about them.

                                When evidence of the conspiracy first surfaced in 2016, Congressional Republicans refused to agree to a bipartisan statement warning of Russian attempts to breach voting systems. Mr Obama responded to what the intelligence services were telling him with modest warnings and symbolic sanctions, aware that to do more in defence of the election without the support of Republicans might backfire with suspicious voters. After the election, but before Mr Trump’s inauguration, the director of national intelligence issued a report laying out much of the evidence he had seen and warning of its seriousness.

                                Then things got worse. Mr Trump appears to read allegations of Russian meddling not as national-security threats but as personal attacks—insinuations that without them he would not have won. He lies about the issue, as when he tweeted, “I NEVER said Russia did not meddle in the election” on February 18th, and he has undermined the FBI’s attempts to understand both the conspiracy and its links, if any, to his campaign. He fired James Comey, the FBI’s respected head, after Mr Comey refused to offer him a pledge of personal loyalty. He publicly attacked the bureau after the Florida shooting .

                                Some Republican representatives have taken up Mr Trump’s rhetoric about a “deep state” out to undermine his presidency, calling for a “purge” of the FBI and the sacking of Mr Mueller. So have media organisations such as Fox News—much more influential than Russian active measures could ever hope to be and similarly dedicated to division. Indeed, Mr Mueller may have released his indictment in part to make sacking him even less defensible than it would have been otherwise.

                                Mr Mueller still has a way to go. He has years of e-mail and social-media communication belonging to the 13 indicted Russian agents and, it appears, unnamed “co-conspirators”. Many expect him soon to indict those responsible for hacking into Democratic servers, and perhaps in doing so link them to organs of the Russian state, or members of Mr Putin’s inner circle. On February 20th Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer involved in Ukrainian politics and the son-in-law of a Russian oligarch, pleaded guilty to making false statements about his communications with a worker on the Trump campaign. But whatever Mr Mueller finds, the fate of the president will be political, not legal, determined by Congress and, ultimately, the voters.

                                Unfortunately, when it comes to voting, says Michael Sulmeyer, head of the Belfer Centre’s Cyber Security Project at Harvard, interference looks set to continue. Mr Trump’s intelligence chiefs also expect Russia to try to influence this autumn’s midterm elections—presumably to benefit Republicans, since congressional Democrats are more eager to investigate their meddling. Many states use voting machines vulnerable to hacking (some are turning back to paper to guard against it). The Department of Homeland Security found that Russian hackers tried to breach election systems in 21 states in 2016.

                                Mr Trump has given no instructions as to how to counter this threat. His refusal to take Russian interference seriously and dismissal of unfavourable reports as “fake news” have made America fertile ground for further disinformation campaigns. They let his supporters deny the facts. A poll published this January found that 49% of Republicans do not believe Russia tried to influence the election in 2016. It would be naive to expect that number now to fall to zero. “If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos,” Mr Trump tweeted on February 17th, “they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.” For once, he had it right.

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