The Early Edition: March 2, 2018

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

RUSSIA

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his country has developed a range of nuclear weapons in a speech yesterday, most of the systems demonstrated appeared to be designed to evade or penetrate limited U.S. antimissile defenses. Thomas Grove, Michael Gordon and James Marson report at the Wall Street Journal.

Putin said that the Russian military had tested a hypersonic air-launched missile capable of carrying a nuclear or conventional warhead, the speed would defeat any operational N.A.T.O. antimissile system. Putin also said that “efforts to contain Russia have failed … I hope that all that was said today will sober up any potential aggressor.” Kathrin Hille and Henry Foy report at the Financial Times.

“Every single weapons system that I have discussed today easily surpasses and avoids a missile defense system,” Putin said in an interview with the host of NBC’s “Megyn Kelly Today,” adding that “each of these weapons systems are at a different stage of readiness” when asked whether Russia had successfully tested a nuclear-powered intercontinental ballistic missile (I.C.B.M.). Alex Johnson reports at NBC News.

“We’re not surprised by the statement, and the American people should rest assured that we are fully prepared,” the Pentagon spokesperson Dana White said in response to Putin’s speech. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Putin’s speech outlining “invincible” weapons has further heightened U.S.-Russia tensions, the Trump administration has increasingly focused on countering Russia and China’s military buildup and Putin’s threats “evoked the bombast of the Cold War.” Neil MacFarquhar and David E. Sanger observe at the New York Times.

The State Department has approved the possible sale of anti-tank missiles and related equipment to Ukraine, the Pentagon announced yesterday, the approval coming amid the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine between government forces and pro-Russian separatists – which began after Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014. Reuters reports.

The heightened rhetoric is significant despite the fact that few experts believe that the new weapons would change the balance of power between the U.S. and Russia. Karen DeYoung provides an analysis at the Washington Post, offering an overview of the various sticking points in U.S.-Russia relations, including Ukraine, Syria, cybersecurity, and respective military buildup.

SYRIA

“The U.N. here has not and will not give up in asking for the full implementation of [Security Council resolution] 2401 [calling for a 30-day Syria-wide ceasefire],” the U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters yesterday, saying that the situation in the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Ghouta, near the capital Damascus, is at risk of becoming the “copycat of Aleppo” – referring to the shelling that took place there in 2016. The U.N. News Centre reports.

A Russia-ordered five-hour humanitarian pause has begun in Eastern Ghouta today, an official at Russia’s ceasefire monitoring center in Syria was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency. Reuters reports.

President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed that resolution 2401 must be immediately implemented in a phone call yesterday, Merkel’s spokesperson said today. Reuters reports.

“The idea that Russia is calling for a so-called humanitarian corridor, I want to be clear, is a joke,” the State Department spokesperson said yesterday of the Russia proposal to evacuate civilians from Eastern Ghouta, adding that residents fear using the corridor because it could lead them to being conscripted to join Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army, to be exiled or killed. Reuters reports.

The U.N. Human Rights Council is expected to vote today whether to hold an “urgent debate” on the violence in Eastern Ghouta after a request by the U.K., the debate at the Human Rights Council would be followed by a separate vote today at the Security Council on a British-circulated draft resolution expressing support for resolution 2401. The AP reports.

The U.S. has proposed a new U.N. Security Council mechanism to establish responsibility for chemical weapons attacks in Syria, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said yesterday that the U.S. draft resolution has “taken into account certain things that [the Russians] thought were an issue, but if they want no mechanism at all they’ll veto it.” Michelle Nichols reports at Reuters.

“As we have clearly said several times, our republic does not develop, produce and stockpile chemical weapons and opposes chemical weapons themselves,” a spokesperson for North Korea’s foreign ministry’s research institute of American studies said yesterday as cited by the state-run K.C.N.A. news agency, making the comments amid reports that North Korea has cooperated with the Syrian government on chemical weapons. Reuters reports.

Fighting between Turkish forces and the Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia in the northern Afrin region led to the deaths of eight Turkish soldiers yesterday, Turkey began an operation against the Y.P.G. in January as it believes the militia to be an extension of the outlawed Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.). The BBC reports.

Turkish airstrikes have hit two pro-Syrian government forces positions, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the strikes took place late last night against members of the group known as the “Popular Forces.” Bassem Mroue reports at the AP.

Russian businesses have been discussing reconstruction of the Syrian economy once the conflict ends, Moscow has been keen to ensure its companies enter the country first. Kathrin Hille, Henry Foy and Max Seddon report at the Financial Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 41 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between February 16 and February 22. [Central Command]

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Special counsel Robert Mueller has been preparing a possible new indictment against Russians who hacked the Democrats’ computers during the 2016 election campaign, according to current and former government officials, the potential charges could include conspiracy, violation of election law and violations under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act – though it is not yet clear when any charges will be issued. Ken Dilanian, William M. Arkin and Julia Ainsley report at NBC News.

The Kremlin-linked deputy governor of the Bank of Russia, Alexander Torshin, has cultivated ties with the leaders of the National Rifle Association (N.R.A.) according to posts on his Twitter account, Tim Mak reports at N.P.R.. The findings come after McClatchy reported in January that the F.B.I. are investigating whether Torshin illegally funneled money to the N.R.A. to support Trump’s presidential campaign.

A leak of internal documents belonging to the Russian “troll factory,” the Internet Research Agency, has offered new details about its methods to spread disinformation, including the use of proxy American activists and social media platforms such as Reddit and Tumblr in addition to YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. Ben Collins, Gideon Resnick and Spencer Ackerman reveal at The Daily Beast.

Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark R. Warner (D-Va.) have raised concerns about apparent leaks from the House Intelligence Committee with Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), in particular the leak to conservative media of messages exchanged between Warner and the lobbyist Adam Waldman, in which Warner asked for help to arrange a meeting with the former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele who compiled a dossier alleging Trump-Russia ties. The incident further demonstrates the highly partisan nature of the congressional investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Karoun Demirjian reports at the Washington Post.

“I think the president has put her in a very precarious position,” a senior Trump administration official said of the departing White House communications director Hope Hicks and the conversations she had with Trump about the ongoing Russia investigations. Darren Samuelsohn and Eliana Johnson report at POLITICO.

The F.B.I. have been investigating the role the president’s daughter Ivanka Trump played in a business deal in Vancouver, according to two sources familiar with the matter, it is not yet clear whether Ivanka Trump’s business deals are of interest to Mueller, but it is known that Mueller is looking into the connections of her husband, the senior Trump adviser Jared Kushner, to foreign investors. Sara Murray, Shimon Prokupecz and Kara Scannell report at CNN.

The important detail that Russians “previewed” plans to disseminate emails stolen from Hillary Clinton to the former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos has been overlooked in the news stories reporting on the memo-authored by Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee. The revelation has legal importance and helps to explain why Mueller’s team have been focusing on what former Trump campaign associates knew about the hack and dissemination of stolen emails, the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security Ryan Goodman writes at Just Security.

The decision by the former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s defense team to potentially fight Mueller’s case against him in two separate trials may be part of a strategy, the jury in Virginia is likely to be more friendly to Manafort, while the jury in Washington D.C. is likely to be more friendly to Mueller. Josh Gerstein provides an analysis at POLITICO.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

South Korea plans to send a special envoy to North Korea soon, the South Korean President Moon Jae-in told President Trump in a phone call yesterday, according to Seoul’s presidential office. Benjamin Haas reports at the Guardian.

China has increased its efforts to enforce international sanctions against North Korea and the results have begun to show, Jeremy Page, Andrew Jeong and Ian Talley explain at the Wall Street Journal.

AFGHANISTAN

A suicide bomb attack has killed at least one person and injured 14 others in the Afghan capital of Kabul today, there has been no immediate claim of responsibility. Reuters reports.

The bomb did not hit its intended target, which was a N.A.T.O. military convoy. Sayed Salahuddin and Pamela Constable report at the Washington Post.

The TRUMP ADMINISTRATION

The U.S. ambassador to Mexico Roberta S. Jackson plans to leave her position soon, her replacement looks likely to be Edward Whitacre Jr. whose views more closely align with those of the president. Joshua Partlow and Philip Rucker report at the Washington Post.

The White House has pushed back at reports that the national security adviser H.R. McMaster could leave his poistion soon and be replaced as soon as this month, Trump and McMaster have had a series of public disagreements since he joined the administration. Jordan Fabian reports at the Hill.

The chaos within the White House was laid bare this week, Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman provide an overview of the dysfunction at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A majority of Iraqi parliamentarians yesterday voted in favor of a motion calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops, the vote puts pressure on Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and comes three months after he declared victory over the Islamic State group. Ghassan Adnan and Isabel Coles report at the Wall Street Journal.

A report by the Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz is expected to allege that former F.B.I. deputy director Andrew McCabe had improperly authorized the disclosure of information to the media, the disclosures were in relation to the F.B.I. and Justice Department’s investigation into the Clinton Foundation. Matt Zapotosky and Karoun Demirjian report at the Washington Post.

The European Commission published guidelines yesterday requiring social media platforms to remove terrorist-related material from their websites within one hour of being reported, Mehreen Khan and Aliya Ram report at the Financial Times.

The placing of Pakistan on a global terrorism-financing watchlist last week has caused concern in Islamabad, the measure went ahead after Saudi Arabia and China decided to no longer block the attempts to put it on the list. Maria Abi-Habib and Salman Masood explain at the New York Times. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK