The Early Edition: March 27, 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

The U.S. and other U.K. allies yesterday expelled scores of Russian officials in response to the nerve agent attack on the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the English city of Salisbury earlier this month, with Western countries saying that Moscow was likely responsible for the poisoning. Felicia Schwartz, James Marson and Laurence Norman report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. announced that it would expel 60 Russian diplomats as part of a coordinated measure, escalating tensions between Western countries and Russia which have already been strained by Russian actions, such as the annexation of the Crimea in 2014 and meddling in foreign elections. Katie Rogers and Peter Baker report at the New York Times.

“We already stated and reconfirm that Russia has never had any relation to this [poisoning]. We will be guided by the principle of reciprocity as before,” the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said, according to the state Tass news agency. Separately the Russia’s U.N. ambassador Vasily Nebenzia said that the U.S. was “abusing its rights and obligations” as the host of the U.N. General Assembly, Ben Westcott and Jeremy Diamond report at CNN.

“What the United States of America do today is they are destroying the little that is left from the Russian-American relations,” Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, said in response to the U.S. decision to expel diplomats. Mariya Petkova reports at Al Jazeera.

Every large N.A.T.O. country made an announcement on expelling Russian diplomats, including France, Germany, Italy, Poland and Canada, several non-N.A.T.O. countries also made announcements, including Ukraine, Finland and Sweden. Katrina Manson and Michael Peel report at the Financial Times.

President Trump “spoke with many foreign leaders, European allies and others and encouraged them to join with the United States in this announcement,” the White House spokesperson Raj Shah told reporters yesterday. Julian Borger, Patrick Wintour and Heather Stewart report at the Guardian.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson praised the international response, calling it “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers ever and will help defend our shared security,” the Prime Minister Theresa May said the action sent the “strongest signal to Russia that it cannot continue to flout international law.” Michael Holden and Roberta Rampton report at Reuters.

An explanation of how the British Prime Minister worked with European Union leaders to coordinate a response to Russia is provided by Steven Erlanger at the New York Times.

The foundations for the U.S. decision has been taking shape for months, despite the president’s conciliatory tone toward Russia, the Trump administration has taken steps over the past year that have been confrontational, such as an announcement to provide anti-tank missiles to Ukraine, a clash between Russian mercenaries and U.S. and U.S.-backed forces in Syria, and tough rhetoric in top policy documents. Phil Stewart and Matt Spetalnick provide an analysis at Reuters.

The coordinated response to Russia marks a shift in tone, however President Putin is happy to engage a narrative that pits Russia against the West and he may draw some advantage from this situation. Ishaan Tharoor provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

The response constitutes a “collective pushback” against Russia’s hybrid warfare and is not just a show of solidarity. Patrick Wintour writes at the Guardian.

The possibility of a further escalation of tensions has been raised by yesterday’s action, Robin Wright provides an analysis at the New Yorker, noting that the coordinated announcement was different to previous Western responses to Russian aggression.

The Russian President Vladimir Putin “won’t be impressed until the West goes after Russian money abroad,” the Wall Street Journal editorial board writes, saying that the international response should be praised, but is insufficient.  

Trump’s decision to expel diplomats is welcome but long overdue, the president should take stronger action in response to Russia’s activities in the 2016 U.S. election and the threat that Russia poses now. The New York Times editorial board writes.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

There is a “strong possibility” that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is in China’s capital of Beijing for a surprise visit, according to an official with knowledge of North Korea. Speculation about a visit by a top North Korean official to China began last night after images were shared online, Joshua Berlinger, Will Ripley and James Griffiths report at CNN.

The visitor to Beijing is Kim, according to three sources with knowledge of the matter, Bloomberg reports.

Neither China nor North Korea have made an official announcement about a trip. If the reports are true, a meeting between the North Korean leader – or a North Korean delegation – with China would be taking place ahead of Kim’s planned meetings with Trump and the South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Chris Buckley and Choe Sang-Hun report at the New York Times.

“We have not yet confirmed yet who has travelled to Beijing,” an official in South Korea’s presidential office has said, adding “we are carefully watching the situation … with all possibilities in mind.” The BBC reports.

If Kim is the visitor, it would mark his first known trip abroad since becoming North Korean leader in 2011, Charles Clover and Bryan Harris report at Financial Times.

China has censored phrases related to North Korea on social media platforms following the speculation about a possible visit by Kim. The AP reports.

“Now is the high time to put an end to the U.S. anachronistic anti-D.P.R.K. hostile policy and its futile moves of sanctions and pressure,” the top North Korean official Ri Jong Hyok said yesterday, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name. Stephanie Nebehay reports at Reuters.

Whether Kim made the trip Beijing or not, a visit by a North Korean delegation shows that China still plays a key role in the crisis on the Korean Peninsula, Kim Yong-Hyung explains at the AP.

An explanation of the reasons behind Kim’s possible visit to China is provided by Steven Lee Myers and Choe Sang-Hun at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Thousands of rebel fighters and their families have been evacuated from the enclave of Eastern Ghouta near the Syrian capital of Damascus, Syrian state media said today that more than 13,000 have been evacuated. Philip Issa reports at the AP.

Rebels and their families have been evacuated as part of an agreement arranged with Russia to surrender Eastern Ghouta to the Syrian government and accept a safe passage to the northwestern province of Idlib. Reuters reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 14 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between March 16 and March 22. [Central Command]

YEMEN

The Houthi rebels in Yemen yesterday vowed to launch more missiles into Saudi Arabia unless it halts its bombing campaign in Yemen, the Houthi announcement came a day after the rebels fired ballistic missiles toward the Saudi capital of Riyadh, with the Saudi-led coalition saying that the missiles were made in Iran. Marwa Rashad, Sara Dadouch, Abdulrahman al-Ansi report at Reuters.

“Everyone knows that all routes to send arms to Yemen are blocked,” an official in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) said today according to the Tasnim news agency, denying that the missiles fired by the Houthis were Iranian-made. Reuters reports.

Analysts have cast doubt on Saudi Arabia’s claim that it intercepted all seven missiles that were fired from Yemen on Sunday, Al Jazeera reports.

Republican and Democrat lawmakers have expressed frustration with Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, the U.S. provides military support for the Saudi-led coalition and there have been criticisms about Riyadh’s approach to the war. Dan De Luce and Robbie Gramer explain at Foreign Policy.

The Houthi attack on Saudi Arabia on Sunday marks a significant escalation of the conflict, Nic Robertson provides an analysis at CNN.

A feature on the divisive atmosphere that has emerged within Yemen as a consequence of the conflict is provided by Kareem Fahim at the Washington Post.

CYBERSECURITY, PRIVACY AND TECHNOLOGY

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (F.T.C.) yesterday announced that it would investigate Facebook for its privacy practices, a separate letter by state attorneys general also demanded answers about the social media giant’s privacy policies. The pressure on Facebook has increased since it was revealed that the data research firm Cambridge Analytica harvested information from Facebook users to promote political campaigns, Georgia Wells and John D. McKinnon report at the Wall Street Journal.

The whistleblower Christopher Wylie said today that Cambridge Analytica worked with the Canadian company AggregateIQ to identify Republican voters ahead of the 2016 U.S. election. Reuters reports.

Facebook is also being investigated by regulators in the U.K. and the European Commission, the BBC reports.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

President Trump continues to face difficulty hiring lawyers to join the legal team representing him in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind S. Helderman report at the Washington Post.

Trump allies and lawyers have expressed concern about the plea deal struck between Mueller and the former Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates, noting that Gates was a key Trump campaign insider and can likely offer valuable insights. Darren Samuelsohn explains at POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A Chinese carrier group has entered a key waterway in the South China Sea, according to satellite images, with 40 ships and submarines part of the maneuver.  James Pearson and Greg Torode report at Reuters.

The Republican fundraiser and Trump ally Elliott Broidy has filed a lawsuit against the government of Qatar, accusing them of hacking into his emails and attempting to undermine his reputation. David D. Kirkpatrick report at the New York Times.

Trump’s decision to appoint John Bolton as his national security adviser and nominate Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State has prompted fears that the White House will ratchet up its rhetoric on Islam and Muslim immigrants. Nahal Toosi explains at POLITICO, providing an overview of the Trump administration’s attitude to Islam and what may be expected following the personnel changes.

China and Russia have successfully undermine efforts to promote human rights at the U.N., Colum Lynch explains at Foreign Policy. 

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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