The Early Edition: July 20, 2018

Signup to receive the Early Edition in your inbox here.

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been invited to Washington this fall, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced yesterday, saying in a message on Twitter that national security adviser John Bolton had extended the invitation and “discussions are already underway.” The announcement follows the controversial summit meeting between President Trump and Putin in the Finnish capital of Helsinki earlier this week and intense criticism of Trump’s comments about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, Shane Harris, Felicia Sonmez and John Wagner report at the Washington Post.

Russia is prepared to discuss a meeting between Putin and Trump, the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov was quoted as saying be the Interfax news agency today. Reuters reports.

“Say that again,” the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in an interview with Andrea Mitchell of NBC, who broke the news to him of Trump’s plan to invite Putin to Washington at a security event in Aspen, then adding “that’s going to be special.” Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

“I don’t know what happened at that meeting [in Helsinki],” Coats said at the Aspen forum, adding that he did not believe it was correct for Trump to have met Putin for one-on-one talks and defending his statement made after the Helsinki summit that contradicted the president on Russian election interference. Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

There is a risk that Putin recorded the meeting with Trump without Trump’s knowledge, Coats acknowledged at the Aspen forum yesterday. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

“Until we know what happened at that two-hour meeting in Helsinki, the president should have no more one-on-one interactions with Putin,” the Senate Minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement, responding to the White House announcement. The BBC reports.

The German Chancellor Angela Merkel today welcomed announcement of another meeting between Trump and Putin, saying she thinks “it should become normal again for Russia and American presidents to meet.” Reuters reports.

Many Republican senators have been urging Trump not to rush to hold another meeting with Putin. Alexander Bolton reports at the Hill.

“Getting along with President Putin, getting along with Russia, is positive, not a negative,” Trump said in an interview with CNBC broadcast today, also criticizing President Barack Obama as being “a total patsy” for Russia. John Wagner reports at the Washington Post.

The Helsinki summit was a success and “forces” in the U.S. have been seeking to prevent improvements in U.S.-Russia relations by “putting narrow party interests above the national interest,” Putin said yesterday. The Russian president also praised Trump’s efforts on the Korean Peninsula, but criticized the U.S. president for pulling out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, the AP reports.

Putin proposed a referendum to help resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine when he met with Trump in Helsinki, according to two people who attended a private speech made by Putin to Russian diplomats yesterday, who added that Putin agreed not to publicly disclose the plan so Trump could consider it properly. Ilya Arkhipov reports at Bloomberg.

Russia yesterday broadcast a series of videos demonstrating new advanced weapon systems, coming a few days after Trump and Putin met in Helsinki. Brad Lendon reports at CNN.

The State Department interpreter who attended the one-on-one Trump-Putin meeting has been thrust into the spotlight due to confusion over what was discussed between the two leaders. Democratic lawmakers attempted to subpoena the interpreter, Marina Gross, yesterday to seek more information, but their efforts were blocked by Republican legislators in the House Intelligence Committee, Robbie Gramer reports at Foreign Policy.

Democrats and some Republicans have been pushing for further details regarding talks between Trump and Putin, following comments by Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, stating that the two leaders had made “important verbal agreements” relating to the new START and I.N.F. arms control treaties, and cooperation on Syria. Edward Helmore reports at the Guardian.

Putin’s proposal to allow Russian investigators to question former U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul, U.S. financier Bill Browder was “made in sincerity …, but President Trump disagrees with it,” Sanders announced yesterday, adding that the White House hopes that the 12 Russian G.R.U. intelligence officers charged for carrying out cyberattacks on the U.S. in 2016 would “come to the United States to prove their innocence or guilt.” Sanders’ statement follows Trump’s response at the Helsinki summit to Putin’s proposal to exchange persons of interest, calling it “an incredible offer,” Philip Ewing reports at NPR.

The Senate voted 98-0 in favor of a resolution stating that the U.S. should refuse to allow Russian investigators to question any current or former U.S. official, indicating bipartisan distaste of the Trump administration’s consideration of Putin’s proposal. Elana Schor reports at POLITICO.

Democratic lawmakers yesterday unveiled a package of measures aimed at curbing Russian election interference and aggression. Mike Lillis reports at the Hill.

“I have great confidence that the Russians will try and undermine western democracy in 2017, 2018, 2019 and for an awfully long time,” U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday, making the comments days after Trump cast doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election. Joshua Berlinger reports at CNN,

Some staffers in the White House have been considering leaving the administration following the Helsinki summit. Eliana Johnson reports at POLITICO.

TRUMP-PUTIN SUMMIT: OPINION & ANALYSIS

“The real scandal of Helsinki may be only just emerging,” Susan B. Glasser writes at the New Yorker, pointing out that we are yet to learn of any agreements made between the two leaders – which could have significant implications for U.S. foreign policy and international relations.

Trump has been trying to move on from the Helsinki summit without consequences by introducing new stories and incendiary comments into the news cycle. Katie Rogers and Maggie Haberman write at the New York Times.

The U.S. intelligence community has found itself in an unprecedented position following the Helsinki summit, David Ignatius writes at the Washington Post, describing the president’s comments on Russian election interference and what this means for U.S. intelligence agencies.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coat’s bemused reaction to the announcement that Trump has invited Putin to Washington “exemplified the way Trump has tipped American foreign policy and presidential convention on its head since his controversial summit,” Stephen Collinson writes at CNN, highlighting how the meeting has provoked debate in Washington over the intelligence and influence that Russia may have over the U.S. president.

An analysis of the damage caused by Trump’s Helsinki summit, his comments on N.A.T.O. and Russian election interference is provided by Will Inboden at Foreign Policy.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said yesterday that the Justice Department will crack down on those working to advance foreign agendas in the U.S., telling an audience at Aspen Security Forum that influence campaigns “are a form of information warfare” and that “the Russian effort to influence the 2016 presidential election is just one tree in a growing forest.” Katie Benner reports at the New York Times.

“Exposing schemes to the public is an important way to neutralize them,” Rosenstein commented, adding that “the American people have a right to know if foreign governments are targeting them with propaganda.” Ellen Nakashima reports at the Washington Post.

U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said yesterday that the U.S. must be prepared for Russian attempts to interfere in upcoming elections, adding that there can be no doubt that Moscow meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential contest. Reuters reports.

“I haven’t seen any evidence that the attempts to interfere in our election infrastructure was to favor a particular political party,” Nielsen added. Linda Qiu provides a fact-checker at the New York Times to explain why Nielsen’s assertion is misleading.

Former C.I.A. Director John Brennan is due for belated scrutiny, Kimberley A. Strassel comments at the Wall Street Journal,  arguing that Brennan’s “role in the 2016 scandal is in some ways more concerning than the F.B.I.’s.”

SYRIA

Syrian rebels agreed to surrender their final remaining strongholds in the southwestern Quneitra province, state media reported yesterday, allowing the Syrian government to re-establish control along frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The deal will see the Damascus administration share a border with Israel for the first time since the civil war began in 2014, Philip Issa reports at the AP.

The governor of Quneitra province has said he expects the evacuation of insurgents to start today, adding “we are ready to move the militants out of the area, and if it is completed, we will immediately provide the necessary services to residents, including electricity and water.” Reuters reports.

The United Nations refugee agency (U.N.H.C.R.) today appealed to all sides in Syria to provide safe passage for 140,000 civilians displaced by fighting in the southwest so that they can receive aid and shelter. The agency also said it was ready to discuss with Syria and Russia its plan to set up centres for returning Syrian refugees, Reuters reports.

After nearly three years of siege 6,900 civilians were able to leave the mostly Shi’ite towns of Foah and Kafraya in rebel-held Idlib province over the past few days, following a local agreement between the warring parties. The civilians were escorted by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to the Al-Eiss crossing in southern rural Aleppo Governorate, with 17 among them taken to hospitals in Aleppo city for urgent medical care, The U.N. News Centre reports.

Coalition-backed forces in northern Syria have captured U.S. citizen Ibraheem Musaibli – thought to have been fighting for the Islamic State group. Musaibili, 28, was seized by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces this month as he tried to flee the Middle Euphrates River Valley, and now faces prosecution in the U.S., Rukmini Callimachi, Eric Schmitt and Charlie Savage report at the New York Times.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said yesterday that he would consider granting the U.S. military a waiver to coordinate with Russian forces in Syria, although he commented that he would have to “have to think long and hard” about such a decision, adding “that will be an interesting exercise…I want to give our commanders what they need to deal with the battle space and keep our troops safe.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

U.S. Central Command head Gen. Joseph Votel said yesterday that he had received no new guidance on the approach toward the Russian military in Syria following President Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, commenting that “for us right now it’s kind of steady as she goes.” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 14 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 9 and July 15. [Central Command]

N.A.T.O.

Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday warned N.A.T.O. against fostering closer ties with Ukraine and Georgia, claiming that such a policy was irresponsible and would have consequences for the alliance. Putin added “we will respond appropriately to such aggressive steps, which pose a direct threat to Russia,” Reuters reports.

Macedonia’s parliament yesterday adopted a declaration supporting the country’s bid to join N.A.T.O., after the alliance formally invited it to join, on the condition that it fully implements a deal recently signed with Greece that will change the nation’s name to North Macedonia. Konstantin Testorides reports at the AP.

“The friendship and alliance of Montenegro and the United States of America is strong and permanent,” the Montenegrin government said in a statement yesterday, publishing the alongside a photo of Vice President Mike Pence in Montenegro last year. The statement follows President Trump’s description of Montenegro as a “very aggressive people,” earlier this week, following questions about the country’s membership of N.A.T.O, Siobhán O’Grady reports at the Washington Post.

“Montenegro is proud of its history and tradition and peaceful politics that led to the position of a stabilising state in the region” the statement claimed, pointing out that the country was the only state which did not experience conflict during the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia, and adding that “today as a new N.A.T.O. member and candidate for E.U. membership it contributes to peace and stability not only on the European continent but worldwide, along with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.” Reuters reports.

Trump’s most dangerous assertions are those that question “collective defense” – the most fundamental aspect  of N.A.T.O. – and as a result European allies are losing confidence in the U.S.’  willingness to help defend them from an increasingly aggressive Russian regime. David Axe and Christopher Dickey comment at The Daily Beast.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Peace will be achieved only by acknowledging that the existence of Israel is a permanent reality and acceptance that the Palestinian Hamas militant group “is fighting a morally bankrupt, decades-old war that has long been lost,” the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, the U.S. special representative Jason Greenblatt, and the U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman write at the Washington Post, arguing that another disastrous cycle of crisis in Gaza can only be avoided if the Hamas leadership recognizes that it is the root cause of the problems.

“Kushner and Greenblatt are adopting the Israeli narrative, and their aggression against Hamas points to the contempt of the American government,” a spokesperson for Hamas, Sami Abu Zahri, said today in response to the op-ed published in the Washington Post. Jack Khoury reports at Haaretz.

“Everybody, literally everybody, needs to step back from the brink,” the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nicholay Mladenov said today, warning of the rapidly deteriorating situation in Gaza. Loveday Morris and Hazem Balousha report at the Washington Post.

The passing of a controversial bill in Israel’s Parliament yesterday – that calls Israel the “nation-state of the Jewish people” – demonstrates the “ascendancy of ultranationalists in Israel’s government,” who have benefited from global nationalist and populist movements and an unprecedented level of support from the Trump administration. David M. Halbfinger and Isabel Kershner explain at the New York Times.

The European Union has criticized the bill passed by Israel’s parliament, with the foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini warning that “any step that would further complicate or prevent” the two-state solution between Israel and Palestine becoming a reality “should be avoided.” Peter Beaumont reports at the Guardian.

Turkey yesterday accused Israel of seeking to form “an apartheid state” by passing the controversial bill, with a presidential spokesperson calling for the international community to react to the injustice and reiterating Turkey’s long-standing objections to Israeli settlement expansion in occupied territory. Reuters reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has hit back against accusations that discussions over denuclearization with North Korea are not going to plan, telling Fox News yesterday that “no one’s been closer to that than I have….everyone else is simply speculating… I’ve been there.” Pompeo added that North Koreans “have consistently reaffirmed their commitment” to the deal struck between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un during their summit in Singapore last month, CNN reports.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said yesterday that it was unlikely that North Korea would eliminate its nuclear weapons program within a year, even though this might be technically possible. Coats told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum that denuclearization is “a much more complicated process than most people think …  [Pompeo] clearly said this is hard, this is going to take some time,” Reuters reports.

Russia and China blocked the U.S. yesterday from mobilizing the U.N. to publicly accuse North Korea of smuggling in refined petroleum products beyond the annual quota of 500,000 barrels – the number currently permissible under U.N. sanctions. The U.S. last week had asked the Security Council committee monitoring sanctions against North Korea to send a letter to U.N. member states and the general public informing them that Pyongyang had breached the quota, but Russia reportedly put “a hold” on the U.S. request shortly before yesterday’s noon deadline for objections – a move backed by China and that will automatically delays action on the request for six months, Edith M. Lederer reports at AP.

North Korea said today that a planned August reunion of Korean families separated by war may not go ahead if Seoul does not immediately return the group of 12 female restaurant employees who arrived in the South in 2016. North Korea has accused the South of kidnapping the waitresses, while South Korea claims that they decided to resettle of their own accord, Hyung-Jin Kim reports at the AP.

North Korea struck out at South Korean President Moon Jae-in today for “needlessly kibitzing” on relations between Pyongyang and Washington, and brushed aside Moon’s pledge to a leadership role on the Korean Peninsula as “sophistry.” The comments were carried in North Korea’s official party newspaper Rodong Sinmun, Reuters reports.

North Korea’s economy shrank at the fastest rate in 20 years in 2017, according to estimates from Seoul’s central bank, as more stringent international sanctions imposed over Pyongyang’s nuclear programmes began to bite. Song Jung-a reports at the Financial Times.

AFGHANISTAN

An explosion in northern Kunduz province yesterday left 14 civilians dead, although it is unclear whether the deaths were caused by a ground assault or an airstrike. The Taliban claimed in a statement that 27 people were killed in the area yesterday, blaming the casualties on U.S. airstrikes; N.A.T.O. spokesperson Lt. Colonel Martin O’Donnell confirmed that the U.S. did carry out airstrikes in the area “in support of Afghan-led ground operations,” the AP reports.

“The Ministry of Defense is deeply saddened,” a spokesperson for the Afghan Defense Ministry commented, with high-ranking Afghan officials today traveling from Kabul to investigate the cause of the deaths. Sayed Sahaluddin and Antonio Olivo report at the Washington Post.

The civilian deaths add to a total that reached record levels in the first half of the year, according to a U.N. report this week that highlighted a marked increase in casualties from air strikes. Reuters reports.

NOVICHOK POISONINGS

A coroner yesterday opened an inquest into the death of British woman Dawn Sturgess, who died July 8 after having been exposed to Soviet-era military grade nerve agent Novichok in the U.K. town of Salisbury. Sylvia Hui reports at the AP.

U.K. Security Minister Ben Wallace yesterday dismissed news stories reporting that police had identified Russian individuals behind the Novichok attack on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in March.  Wallace sent a message on Twitter claiming that “I think this story belongs in the ‘ill informed and wild speculation folder,’” Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Pakistani authorities say they have identified the suicide bomber who killed 149 people at an election rally in Balochistan province last week, saying that the attacker and his brother were members of the Islamic State group-linked Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. The AP reports.

“Over the last past six years, I’ve … been struggling with this whole process and the whole military commission system is pretty stagnant,” confessed al-Qaeda member turned U.S. government informant Majid Khan complained to a new judge on his case Tuesday. Khan, who is awaiting sentencing at Guantánamo, added “I call it ‘cluster covfefe’” –a reference to a typo tweeted by Trump a year ago, Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

Three of the top cybersecurity officials at the F.B.I. are retiring from government service, according to people familiar with the matter. The departures of assistant director Scott Smith; his deputy Howard Marshall; and executive assistant director of the F.B.I.’s criminal, cyber, response and services branch David Resch, come at a time when cyberattacks pose a major concern for U.S. security agencies. Dustin Volz and Shelby Holliday report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump administration hawks should be careful about pushing for regime change in Iran, Mashoa Rouhi comments at Foreign Policy, as they risk helping commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force Qassem Soleimani rise to power. 

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).