The Early Edition: July 16, 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.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT

President Trump will hold one-on-one talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Finnish capital of Helsinki today. The meeting follows Trump’s attendance at the tense N.A.T.O. summit in Brussels last week; his trip to the U.K., during which he met with the British Prime Minister Theresa May; and also comes a few days after 12 Russian intelligence agents were indicted as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, the New York Times reports in rolling coverage of the day’s developments.

“Our relationship with Russia has NEVER been worse thanks to many years of U.S. foolishness and stupidity and now, the Rigged Witch Hunt!” President Trump said in a message on Twitter today, blaming previous administrations for poor relations, referring to the special counsel investigation, and making the comments a few hours ahead of his planned meeting with Putin. The BBC reports.

Trump sought to lower expectations ahead of the meeting, saying that he thought the meeting would go “fine” and also attacking the media and the Democratic Party for their criticism of his approach to the summit. Jonathan Lemire, Jill Colvin and Vladimir Isachenkov report at the AP.

“The world wants to see us get along,” Trump said at the start of the summit, adding that he thinks he and Putin can have an “extraordinary relationship.” The U.S. president explained that their discussions will involve trade, the military, missiles, nuclear weapons and China, the AP reports.

The talks between Trump and Putin will be “unstructured,” the White House national security adviser John Bolton said in an interview yesterday, explaining that the U.S. would not be looking for “deliverables.” James Oliphant reports at Reuters.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman said yesterday that it is “highly unlikely” that Trump would recognize Russia’s annexation of the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, saying that Russia’s action “was a violation of international law. We all recognize that. That’s U.S. policy.” Max Greenwood reports at the Hill.

“It isn’t a summit. I’ve heard it called a summit. This is a meeting.” Huntsman said yesterday, seeking to play down expectations surrounding the talks. Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

“I think the European Union is a foe, what they do to us in trade. … Russia is foe in certain respects …,” Trump said in an interview on Saturday, taking aim at the E.U. – which contains traditional U.S. allies – days after lashing out at N.A.T.O. allies for their lack of defense spending and making the comments ahead of his meeting with Putin. CBS News reports.

“America and the E.U. are best friends. Whoever says we are foes is spreading fake news,” the European Council President Donald Tusk said in a message on Twitter yesterday, responding to Trump’s comments. Avery Anapol reports at the Hill.

“We can no longer completely rely on the White House,” the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said today, responding to Trump’s comments on the European Union. Reuters reports.

The Russia hawk, retired Army Col. Richard Hooker, has left the Trump administration’s National Security Council. Details surrounding the departure of the senior official – who is a strong defender of N.A.T.O. and views Russia as a strategic threat – are in dispute. Kate Brennan and Spencer Ackerman report at Just Security in conjunction with The Daily Beast.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made no mention of President Trump when speaking to reporters during his tour of Europe and has taken a hardline against Russia and Putin – in stark contrast to Trump’s comments. Mattis also mocked an NBC News report that said the Pentagon had embarked on a “damage-control” operation following Trump’s attacks on the N.A.T.O. alliance, Greg Jaffe and Missy Ryan report a the Washington Post.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he discussed Syria and Iran with Trump on Saturday, speaking to the U.S. president ahead of his meeting with Putin. Reuters reports.

Some analysts and former U.S. officials have expressed concern that Trump will grant Putin concessions on the issue of the Crimea. Amy Mackinnon reports at Foreign Policy.

“I’m really hopeful that the two state leaders will show enough … responsibility for global stability and the trans-Atlantic relationship” the Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said yesterday in an interview, speaking shortly after meeting with Putin at the Kremlin. Angela Charlton and Amer Cohadzic report at the AP.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT: OPINION & ANALYSIS

Putin has achieved everything he could have hoped for by the very fact of the summit occurring, and all he needs to do now is avoid any friction, Andrew Higins and Neil McFarquhar comment at the New York Times.

Trump’s admission that he “hadn’t thought of” asking Putin to take action against those accused of tampering with U.S. elections signals that Putin will have the upper hand in negotiations, Amanda Erikson writes at the Washington Post.

The key issue at the summit is Putin’s aggression, and Trump should not strike deals that legitimize it, David Satter argues at the Wall Street Journal.

The indictment of 12 Russian intelligence agents by special counsel Robert Mueller demonstrates how Trump is “almost wholly untethered from his administration,” when it comes to dealings with Moscow, Mark Landler and Julie Hirscheld Davis comment at the New York Times.  

Trump’s inner circle is attached to his method of diplomacy and is warming to the idea of a détente with Putin, Michael Crowley and Annie Karni comment at POLITICO.

There will be five themes to watch out for at the summit: election interference, Syria, Crimea, arms control, and stagecraft, Jordan Fabian and Rebecca Kheel comment at the Hill.

Trump’s aides are scrambling to keep Syria off the agenda in Helsinki, Spencer Akerman comments at The Daily Beast.

An explainer of what Trump and Putin hope to achieve at the Helsinki summit is provided by Jonathan Lemire and Vladimir Isachenkov at the AP.

A guide to the “key questions” surrounding the summit is provided by the BBC.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Special counsel Robert Mueller charged 12 Russian intelligence officers Friday with hacking the computers of Democratic organizations, with the 29-page indictment identifying the alleged operatives by name and rank. Mueller has been leading the investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections, Aruna Viswanatha, Sadie Gurman and Del Quentin Wilber report at the Wall Street Journal.

The indictment came a mere three days before President Trump’s planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and marks the most detailed accusation by a U.S. government to date of the Russian administration’s interference in the 2016 election, highlighting a host of brazen Russian subterfuge operations Mark Mazzetti and Katie Benner report at the New York Times.

Highlights from the indictment and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s announcement of the charges are provided at the New York Times.

Leading Democrats called Friday for Trump to cancel the summit meeting with Putin in light of the indictment. Republicans were mostly silent, although a minority including John McCain (Ariz.) urged the President to take a tougher stance toward Russia in light of the indictment, Sheryl Gay Stolberg and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

“Any attempt to interfere in our elections—successful or unsuccessful—is a direct attack on our democracy and is unacceptable,” warned Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen Saturday, pointing to the indictment to illustrate that such interference would have consequences. Dustin Volz and Alexa Corse report at the Wall Street Journal.

“The stories you heard about the 12 Russians yesterday took place during the Obama Administration, not the Trump Administrations,” Trump commented in a message on Twitter Saturday, adding “why didn’t they do something about it, especially when it was reported that President Obama was informed by the F.B.I. in September, before the Election? …. where is the D.N.C. Server, and why didn’t the F.B.I. take possession of it? Deep State?” Reuters reports.

Social networking site Twitter suspended two accounts Saturday, with the accounts allegedly linked to the Russian spies charged on the indictment. Reuters reports

A guide to the five revelations arising from Mueller’s indictment is provided by Jacqueline Thomsen at the Hill.

The Mueller probe is not a “witch hunt”, former General Counsel of the White House Office of Administration Nelson W. Cunningham comments at the Washington Post.

N.A.T.O.

“Received many calls from leaders of N.A.T.O countries thanking me for helping to bring them together and to get them focused on financial obligations, both present & future,” President Trump said in a message on Twitter today, adding that the much of the media had “inaccurately covered” what he felt was “a truly great Summit.” Reuters reports.

Norway recommitted itself on Saturday to meeting the N.A.T.O. target of two percent of its G.D.P. on defense spending, however Norwegian leaders appeared to stop short of setting out a timetable for the increase. Phil Stewart and Alistair Doyle report at Reuters.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that Russian and other security services have foiled nearly 25 million cyber-attacks, claiming in remarks released today by the Kremlin that the attempted attacks targeted “information infrastructure” linked to the World Cup. The AP reports.

With signs of malign cyber activities increasing ahead of the midterm elections this November, many Americans are wondering whether the Kremlin is trying yet again to disrupt a U.S. election. Naira Davlashyan and Angela Charlton report at the AP

Senior F.B.I. official Jeffrey Tricoli has left the government for a job in the private sector, quitting the F.B.I foreign influence task force – an organization addressing Russian attempts to meddle in U.S. elections – for a senior vice president job at Charles Schwab Corp.  Dustin Volz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

An analysis of the influence of Romanian hacker Guccifer 2.0 in the 2016 presidential election is provided by David E. Sanger, Jim Rutenberg and Eric Lipton at the New York Times.

NOVICHOK POISONINGS

The same Russian military intelligence service now accused of interfering in the 2016 presidential election in America may also be responsible for the nerve agent attack in the U.K., British investigators have indicated, pointing the finger at the service known as the G.R.U. for the death of former spy Sergei Skripal. Ellen Barry, Michael Schwirtz and Eric Schitt report at the New York Times.

U.K. counter-terrorism police said Saturday that they have recovered more than 400 items as part of their investigation into the killing of Dawn Sturgess, who died after having been exposed to the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok. Reuters reports.

“We need to get justice for my mom,” Sturgess’ 19-year old son Ewan Hope told reporters. Hope called on President Trump to discuss his mother with Russian President Vladimir Putin at today’s summit in Helsinki, the AP reports.

TRUMP’S U.K. VISIT

Trump advised British Prime Minister Theresa May to “sue” the European Union rather than negotiate with them over the U.K.’s exit from the bloc, May revealed yesterday, making the comments after meeting with the president while on his first official visit to Britain. Linda Givetash and the AP report at NBC News.

The U.S. Ambassador for International Religious Freedom, Sam Brownback, raised the case of the far-right English activist known as Tommy Robinson during a meeting with the Britain’s Ambassador to the U.S. in June, according to sources familiar with the matter. Mark Hosenball reports at Reuters.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel and Gaza established an anxious truce yesterday after the weekend saw the parties’ most intense fighting since the 2014. The Israel Defense Force (I.D.F) struck dozens of Hamas targets in Gaza during an air campaign Saturday that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed was “the hardest blow” dealt to Hamas since the ground war four years ago, Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Netanyahu said today that the “exchange of blows” with Hamas was not over, making comments during a visit to the southern city of Sderot. “It does not end with a single blow,” Netanyahu said, adding that “there is no such thing as a cease-fire for us that excludes the flaming kites and the balloons … for a hundred years we have been fighting terrorism, fighting it with force. In this place at the moment, this is the line of friction between Islamic terror and the Jewish state, and we are determined to win.” Almog Ben Zikri reports at Haaretz.

The I.D.F. lifted its restrictions along the Gaza border yesterday, suggesting it had accepted an Egypt-mediated cease-fire that ended a 24-hour bout of fighting that looked set to evolve into all-out war. Aron Heller reports at the AP.

The ceasefire largely held throughout yesterday, but Israel remained on high alert and boosted its air defences in preparation for further hostilities. Reuters reports.

The violence on Saturday saw two Palestinians killed in an Israeli airstrike and four Israelis wounded by mortar fire from Gaza. Hamas and allied Islamic militant groups fired close to 100 projectiles at Israeli territory throughout the day, David M. Halfbinger reports at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Israeli airstrikes hit a Syrian military post in Aleppo province last night, according to the Syrian state-run S.A.N.A. news agency, saying that only material damage resulted from the strike. However, the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said nine “pro-regime fighters” were killed at the post being used by Iran – a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Al Jazeera reports.

Hundreds of Syrian rebels and their relatives yesterday began preparations to evacuate the southern city of Deraa for the northwestern opposition-held province of Idlib as part of a deal following an intensive assault by pro-Syrian government forces on Deraa province. The AFP reports.

Pro-Assad forces yesterday widened their offensive in southwestern Syria, advancing on Quneitra province – which neighbors Deraa and borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Reuters reports.

Assad said yesterday that his forces’ success in Deraa demonstrated the will of his army and allied forces to “liberate all Syrian territories” of “terrorism,” making the comments as his army launched hundreds of missiles on rebel-held positions near the Golan Heights. Sarah El Deeb reports at the AP.

New details on the suspected Israeli airstrike in June against Iranian and Iran-backed militias in Syria have emerged, with a security official explaining that the attack was intended to send a signal that Israel would not tolerate Iranian attempts to establish a secure land route for weapons through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Sune Engel Rasmussen and Felicia Schwartz report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish Y.P.G. militia have fully withdrawn from the strategic town of Manbij in northern Syria, the Kurdish-led Manbij Military Council said yesterday. The withdrawal follows an agreement between Turkey and the U.S. last month as Ankara considers the Y.P.G. to be a terrorist organization with links to the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (P.K.K.). The AP reports.

The Turkish foreign ministry said today that reports of Y.P.G. complete withdrawal from Manbij are “exaggerated,” adding that “the process is still continuing,” Reuters reports.

The U.S. and its Western allies have been discussing the evacuation of volunteer rescuers in Syria, known as the White Helmets, with diplomats expressing concern about the group who have been labeled terrorists by Syria and Russia. Michelle Kosinski and Elise Labott report at CNN.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 31 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 2 and July 8. [Central Command]

IRAN

Israeli Mossad agents secretly extracted documents illustrating Iran’s nuclear program in a 6½-hour operation in Tehran in January, according to Israeli intelligence officials. The materials reportedly include partial designs for a nuclear warhead, Gerald F. Seib reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. has rejected pleas from the European Union to grant exemptions to European companies from its sanctions against Iran, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo explaining in a letter that the U.S.’ position will remain firm as it wants to “provide unprecedented financial pressure on the Iranian regime” and that exemptions will only be made if they benefit U.S. national security. The BBC reports.

The Iranian administration has said that if President Trump wants to negotiate he will have to make the first move, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Ghasemi claiming today that “maybe someday he will call Tehran and ask for negotiations — this is more likely.” Ghasemi’s remarks follow Trump’s assertion last week that in the wake of increased U.S. sanctions, “at a certain point they’re [Iran] going to call me and say ‘let’s make a deal,’” the AP reports.

Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei yesterday urged state bodies to support President Hassan Rouhani’s administration in fighting impending U.S. economic sanctions, commenting on his official website that America’s “conspiracy” could be defeated. Reuters reports.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban stormed a police checkpoint in the eastern province of Nangarhar and killed seven policemen last night, a provincial official said today, adding that five Taliban fighters were killed in the attack. The official also claimed that a government airstrike last night killed 20 Taliban fighters, although the Taliban have not released a statement on either event, the AP reports.

A suicide bomber detonated an explosives-laden vest in Kabul yesterday outside the Rural Rehabilitation and Development Ministry, killing 7 people and wounding 15. The AP reports.

The number of civilians killed in Afghanistan in the first half of 2018 has increased by 1 per cent, compared with the same period last year, according to a report released yesterday by the United Nations. The figure — 1,692 killed in violence — marks the highest 6-month death toll since the systematic documentation of civilian casualties began in 2009, Rahim Faiez reports at the AP.

The Trump government has instructed its top diplomats to push for direct talks with the Taliban, the move marking a notable shift in U.S. policy in Afghanistan. The Taliban have long said they will first discuss peace with the U.S. alone, but the U.S. has continually insisted in the past that the Afghan government must take part, Mujib Mashal and Eric Schmidt report at the New York Times.

CHINA

 “The U.S. Pacific Fleet has been monitoring a Chinese navy surveillance ship operating in the vicinity of Hawaii outside US territorial seas,” according to spokesperson for U.S. Pacific Fleet – Navy Capt. Charles Brown – who added that “we expect this ship will remain outside of U.S. territorial seas and not operate in a manner that disrupts the ongoing Rim of the Pacific maritime exercise.” The Chinese ship is allegedly spying on a major U.S.-led military drill– a drill that China was disinvited from due to U.S. opposition to Beijing’s militarization in the South China Sea, Ryan Browne reports at CNN.

China is expanding its navy at an unmatched speed, with the People’s Liberation Army Navy launching two 13,000-ton Type 055 guided-missile destroyers earlier this month. Brad Lendon reports at CNN.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

At least 149 people were killed and 186 were injured by a suicide attack in Pakistan’s Balochistan region on Friday, marking the second deadliest terror attack in Pakistan’s history. Syed Ali Shah, Sophie Saifi and Judith Vonberg report at CNN.

Senior U.S. and North Korean officials held “productive” talks yesterday on the repatriation of the remains of U.S. service members who died in the 1950-53 Korean War, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement, explaining that the meeting “was aimed at fulfilling one of the commitments” made by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un when he met with President Trump in Singapore last month. The AP reports.

A projectile fired by the Iran-aligned Yemeni Houthi rebels at Saudi Arabia’s southwestern Jizan region has killed three civilians, Saudi Arabia said today. The AP reports.

The E.U. foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini has visited the Libyan capital of Tripoli to reopen the E.U.’s diplomatic presence in Libya. Al Jazeera reports. 

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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

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).