The Early Edition: August 9, 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.

SKRIPAL POISONING

The Trump administration will impose further sanctions on Russia following the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia in the U.K. earlier this year, the State Department announced yesterday. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said the U.S. made the decision Monday and accused Russia of violating international law, Eli Watkins and Nicole Gaouette report at CNN.

The sanctions were triggered by a U.S. intelligence finding that Russia had used a nerve agent in the poisoning, State Department officials said. U.K. authorities claim it was highly likely that Moscow was responsible for the attack, Jessica Donati and Courtney McBride report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Skripals were found slumped unconscious on a bench in the southern English city of Salisbury in March, after a liquid form of the Soviet-era nerve agent Novichok was applied to the front door of Sergei’s front door. Reuters reports.

The attack on the Skripals was followed by the poisoning of 44-year-old Dawn Sturgess, who died from exposure from Novichok in July. Her partner Charlie Rowley was also left seriously ill although he has now been discharged from hospital, Courtney Weaver, Demetri Sevastopulo and David Bond report at the Financial Times.

The sanctions highlight the gulf between President Trump’s conciliatory language toward Russia and the robust position taken by many in Congress and within the administration. Trump had little room to maneuver under the 1991 Chemical and Biological Weapons Control and Warfare Elimination Act, which “requires the President to make a determination with respect to whether a country has used chemical or biological weapons in violation of international law or has used lethal chemical or biological weapons against its own nationals,” Karen DeYoung and Carol Morello report at the Washington Post.

Under the terms of the sanctions any attempt by a U.S. company to obtain an export license to sell anything with a potential national security purpose will be automatically declined. An administration official described the list of prohibited items as “enormously elaborate,” but the actual amount of exports involved looks to be fairly small as the Obama administration already banned exports to Russia with potential military purposes. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times.

The State Department said it would exempt from sanctions aid to civil society and humanitarian groups, and additionally allow exports needed for continued U.S.-Russia cooperation in space. Scott Neuman reports at NPR.

The new sanctions will come into effect Aug. 22 and will be followed by much more sweeping measures – including the suspension of diplomatic relations and revoking Aeroflot landing rights – if Russia does not take “remedial” action within 90 days. Moscow is not expected to accede to the response required by U.S. legislation, which includes opening up of scientific and security facilities to international inspections to assess whether it is producing chemical and biological weapons in violation of international law, Julian Borger reports at the Guardian.

Russia today condemned the new round of sanctions as draconian, after news of the measures sent the rouble tumbling to two-year lows and sparked a wider asset sell-off over anxieties that Moscow is locked in a spiral of perpetual sanctions. Reuters reports.

Russia has consistently denied a role in the Skripal incident, reiterating its stance as recently as yesterday, with one Russian embassy official in London commenting “our approach is absolutely clear — we seek the truth and wish to know what happened to the Russian nationals in Salisbury and where they are now.” Trump has not yet commented on Twitter about the latest Russia sanctions, Rebecca Morin reports at POLITICO.

“Collective West in the so-called #Novichok drama acts as a prosecutor, judge and hangman at the same time,” the Russian delegation to Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons wrote on its official Twitter account, adding “Why should [Russia] prove its innocence and not the other way round?” Reuters reports.

“The U.K. welcomes this further action by our U.S. allies,” a U.K. Foreign Office spokesperson said in a statement, adding “the strong international response to the use of a chemical weapon on the streets of Salisbury sends an unequivocal message to Russia that its provocative, reckless behavior will not go unchallenged.” Reuters reports.

“If we are going to stop chemical and biological weapons – including nerve agents – becoming a new and horrific 21st [century] norm, states like Russia that use or condone their use need to know there is a price to pay” U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt commented in a message on Twitter, adding “thank you U.S.A. for standing firm with us on this.” Reuters reports.

Moscow’s disregard for the norms of spycraft warrants U.S. support, the Wall Street Journal editorial board comments, arguing that the new sanctions are a “useful message to Moscow that reckless behavior has costs.”

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has delivered a letter from President Trump to Russian President Vladimir Putin, Putin’s spokesperson said yesterday. Paul, who defended Trump in the aftermath of his one-on-one summit with Putin last month in Helsinki, has been on a visit to Russia with a delegation for several days, the AP reports.

“I was honored to deliver a letter from President Trump to President Vladimir Putin’s administration,” Paul wrote in a message on Twitter, adding that “the letter emphasized the importance of further engagement in various areas including countering terrorism, enhancing legislative dialogue and resuming cultural exchanges.” Reuters reports.

“At Senator Paul’s request, President Trump provided a letter of introduction,” Deputy White House press secretary Hogan Gidley commented in a statement, adding that “in the letter, the President mentioned topics of interest that Senator Paul wanted to discuss with President Putin.” Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The White House is drafting an executive order that would authorize President Trump to sanction foreigners who interfere in U.S. elections. The move represents the administration’s latest effort to demonstrate that it is serious about combating Russian electoral meddling and hacking, Shane Harris, Josh Dawsey and Ellen Nakashima report at the Washington Post.

The eight-page draft order would allow the president to impose sanctions on “10 of the 30 largest businesses” in any country whose government has interfered in U.S. electoral processes. The penalties would only be imposed mandatorily if foreigners were found to have meddled, Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

The President’s outreach to Putin has left the Republican Party divided and it unclear which faction of the G.O.P. will prevail: those such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) who advocate a tough approach toward the Kremlin, or those such as Paul endorsing Trump’s efforts to establish more friendly relations – despite the warnings of the national security community. Karoun Demirjian provides an analysis at the Washington Post.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Trump’s legal team yesterday submitted a counter-offer to special counsel Robert Mueller’s proposal for an interview with President Trump as part of Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, with the lead lawyer Rudy Giualiani saying: “We’re restating what we have been saying for months: It is time for the Office of Special Counsel to conclude its inquiry without further delay.” Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman report at the New York Times.

Trump lawyers Jay Sekulow and Giuliani did not detail the counter-offer, but the discussion between Mueller’s office and Trump’s legal team suggests that there is still a possibility that the president will sit down for a formal interview with the special counsel. Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

The counter-offer may by Mueller’s “last, best chance” to secure an interview with the president, Giuliani said yesterday, adding that he senses that the negotiations between his legal team and Mueller’s office are “kind of near the end” and may conclude before Sept. 1. Tamara Keith and Ryan Lucas report at NPR.

The Senate Intelligence has sought an interview with the WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who is currently living in the Ecuadorean embassy in London as an asylum seeker. WikiLeaks published emails and documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee’s Servers in 2016 that were provided to it by Guccifer 2.0 – an online persona that, according to Mueller’s office and The Daily Beast, was a fictitious entity created by Russia’s G.R.U. military intelligence agency. Spencer Ackerman reports at The Daily Beast.

WikiLeaks posted a letter on its Twitter account dated Aug. 1 that purports to come from committee leaders Sens. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.) requesting that Assange participates in a “closed door interview with bipartisan Committee staff at a mutually agreeable time and location.” Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

In a secret recording, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said that the Republican Party must maintain control of Congress to protect the Mueller’s investigation, explaining that Attorney General Jeff Sessions will not “unrecuse” himself from overseeing the investigation and Mueller “won’t clear the president.” The Rachel Maddow Show reveals at MSNBC.

With the midterm elections less than three months away, special counsel Robert Mueller is running out of time to issue further indictments or announce other major developments in his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, Morgan Chalfant explains at the Hill.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel’s military said today that it had struck 150 targets in the Palestinian Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in response to the firing of around 180 rockets overnight into southern Israel. The Palestinian factions in Gaza have now declared that they consider the latest round of hostilities to be over and that the maintaining of peace depends on Israel, Yaniv Kubovivh and Jack Khoury report at Haaretz.

The Israeli strikes killed three Palestinians including a pregnant woman and a toddler, according to Gazan health officials. Israeli media said several civilians were injured by Hamas rocket fire, the BBC reports.

The U.N. envoy for the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov said this morning that he was “deeply alarmed” by the escalation and called for the situation to the be “contained immediately.” Oren Liebermann reports at CNN.

The exchange of fire took place in spite of talks aimed at securing a long-term ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas militant group who control Gaza. Egypt and the U.N. have put forward a proposal of a ceasefire in exchange for an easing of the blockade on Gaza, Isabel Kershner reports at the New York Times.

YEMEN

Air strikes have killed dozens of people in Yemen’s Saada region, Yemeni medical sources and the International Committee of the Red Cross (I.C.R.C.) said today. The I.C.R.C. said that one attack hit a bus driving children in Dahyan market, northern Saada, and added that hospitals in the area received dozens of dead and wounded, though exact numbers of killed and wounded remain unknown, Reuters reports.

Saada province is a stronghold of the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels. There has been no immediate comment from the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition, fighting to restore Yemen’s internationally recognized government to power. Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

Fragments of a missile fired by Yemen’s rebels into Saudi Arabia’s south have killed one civilian and wounded 11, according to the coalition. The official Saudi Press Agency carried a coalition statement saying that the missile – launched “deliberately to target residential and populated areas” – was intercepted and destroyed, the AP reports.

IRAN

Iran’s recent naval exercise in the Strait of Hormuz served a message to the U.S. – that “as we approach this period of the sanctions here that they had some capabilities” – the head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Joseph Votel said yesterday. Votel’s comments refer to sanctions reinstated against Iran Tuesday, in accordance with President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

The Trump’s administration stated aim of cutting Iranian oil exports to zero by November is “meaningless” and “impossible,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in an interview published yesterday. The BBC reports.

The U.S. “can’t think that Iran won’t export oil and others will export,” the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said yesterday, stating: “If the Americans want to keep this simplistic and impossible idea in their minds, they should also know its consequences.” Rouhani did not explain what he meant by consequences, but there have been previous threats by Iranian officials to block the Strait of Hormuz and disrupt all regional oil exports, Al Jazeera reports.

The U.S. should be considered “untrustworthy and unreliable,” Rouhani was quoted by the Islamic Republic News Agency as telling the North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho when they met in Tehran yesterday. Hyonhee Shin and Babak Dehghanpisheh report at Reuters.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Inter-Korean talks are scheduled for Monday to prepare for a summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s Unification Ministry announced today. It is not clear who will attend the talks; however, an official at the Unification Ministry said the two Koreas would discuss ways to progress agreements made between the leaders when they met in April, Youkyung Lee reports at the AP.

North Korea has consistently rejected the Trump administration’s timeline for denuclearization, according to two sources familiar with the discussions between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and North Korean negotiators lead by Kim Yong-chol. The U.S. plan proposes that North Korea hands over 60 to 70 percent of its nuclear arsenal within six to eight months, Alex Ward reports at Vox.

North Korea has to understand “that the international community still expects them to denuclearize and so we’re willing to wait if they want to wait, but we’re not willing to wait for too long,” the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley told reporters yesterday, adding “it’s going to be a long process, we knew this wasn’t going to happen overnight.” Julia Symmes Cobb reports at Reuters.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday restated his commitment to the implementation of Security Council resolutions on North Korea and expressed his full support for negotiations on denuclearization, making the comments at a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The U.N. News Centre reports.

SYRIA

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 20 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between July 30 and Aug. 5. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN

The Trump administration is doubling the bounty on two al-Qaeda leaders charged in connection with the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. The State Department announced yesterday – a day after the 20th anniversary of the attacks – that its Rewards for Justice Program is now offering $10 million for information leading to the location, arrest or conviction Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah or Sayf al-Adl, Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Hundreds of fighters from an Islamic State group affiliate who surrendered to authorities in northern Afghanistan last week are being treated as war prisoners by their Afghan captors – not as “honored guests” – according to head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan Gen. Joseph Votel. The comments follow an Aug. 4 article in the New York Times that questioned whether the surrendered fighters were prisoners, claiming that they were being held in guesthouses and allowed to keep their cellphones and give interviews, Courtney Kube reports at NBC.

Months of U.S. air strikes have failed to curb the Taliban’s opium trade, creating new challenges for the Trump administration’s attempts to weaken the insurgency as the parties embark on peace talks. The illegal drug trade provides the Taliban with hundreds of millions of dollars, according to figures provided by the U.S. military, Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Alongside ongoing destruction, Afghanistan is a country that is home to real and visible progress, Gayle Tzemach Lemmon comments at CNN, and a peace settlement must “take into account the gains Afghanistan has made alongside the bloodshed the Afghan government and the U.S. and N.A.T.O. allies seek to end.”

A feature on the new generation of U.S. soldiers fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq is provided by C. J. Chivers at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. yesterday failed to secure assurances from Turkey that it would free U.S. pastor Andrew Brunson from imprisonment, U.S. officials have said, deepening the growing rift between the two N.A.T.O. allies. During high-level talks in Washington, officials from both sides were unable to produce a breakthrough, with the Trump administration now poised to impose new sanctions on Turkey, Dion Nissenbaum reports at the Wall Street Journal.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has nominated former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet to be the organization’s next High Commissioner for Human Rights. The U.N. News Centre reports.

Venezuela has asked the U.S. to extradite a Miami resident it alleges may have been involved in the attempted assassination attempt on President Nicolás Maduro on Saturday, with the Venezuelan Attorney General Tarek William Saab saying he “expects full cooperation.” Jesus Rodriguez reports at the Hill.

It is “unrealistic” to try and set a timetable for creating a code of conduct for the disputed South China Sea, a senior Chinese diplomat said today. Reuters reports.

An overview of the diplomatic feud between Saudi Arabia and Canada over human rights issues, and an explanation of why Riyadh’s seemingly disproportionate reaction is unsurprising, is provided by Tamara Qiblawi at CNN. 

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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).