The Early Edition: August 10, 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.

U.S.-RUSSIA RELATIONS 

Fresh U.S. sanctions against Russia are “absolutely illegal” under international law, a spokesperson for the Kremlin said yesterday after news of the penalties sent the rouble plummeting. The new raft of sanctions are in response to an investigation into Russia’s alleged use of the illegal nerve agent Novichok in an assassination attempt against ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in the U.K. in March, Stephanie Murray reports at POLITICO.

The rouble shed as much as 5% against the dollar yesterday and stocks plunged as much as 9%, led by state banks and national airline P.J.S.C. Aeroflot-Russian Airlines, which risks losing access to U.S. markets should sanctions escalate. Anatoly Kurmanaev and Courtney McBride report at the Wall Street Journal.

Russia yesterday sought to characterize the U.S. as an erratic and volatile actor that had betrayed “constructive” talks between the two countries’ presidents. Spokesperson for the Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov commented that “anything can be expected from Washington now … [the U.S.] is quite an unpredictable participant in international affairs,” Henry Foy and Kathrin Hille report at the Financial Times.

“Once again we totally reject any allegations of possible Russian government involvement over what happened in Salisbury,” Peskov added, arguing that “Russia did not have and does not have anything to do with the use of chemical weapons.” Emma Burrows and Judith Vonberg report at CNN.

“If some ban on banks’ operations or on their use of one or another currency follows, it would be possible to clearly call it a declaration of economic war,” Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said today, adding that in such a situation “it would be needed to react to this war economically, politically, or, if needed, by other means…and our American friends need to understand this,” Reuters reports.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said yesterday that Moscow is starting to work on retaliatory measures, telling reporters at a briefing that no evidence had been presented to prove Russia’s blame, and that the pretext for the new round of sanctions had been made up. Reuters reports.

The new U.S. sanctions on Russia will target exports of national security-related goods, a senior U.S. State Department official said yesterday. The official commented that “the categories covered by this could include things such as electronic, computers, sensors and lasers, telecommunications, specialized oil and gas production equipment and information and security technologies, just to name a few,” Reuters reports.

Russia and China yesterday objected to a U.S. proposal to add a Russian bank, a Moscow-based North Korean banker and two other entities to a U.N. Security Council blacklist, according to diplomats. The list of proposed designations mirrors sanctions announced by the U.S. Treasury last week, imposed on Moscow-based Agrosoyuz Commercial Bank, North Korean banker Ri Jong Won, China-based Dandong Zhongsheng Industry & Trade Co Ltd and North Korea-based Korea Ungum Corporation, Reuters reports.

Top congressional Republicans are trying to shut down conversations surrounding the invitation of a Russian delegation to the Capitol, despite the fact that Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pitched the idea during his trip to Moscow this week. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis) have neither issued an invitation nor are discussing it, according to a spokesperson for the most senior Republican leaders, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

Trump’s silence over the fresh round of sanctions has “intensified what may be the biggest question in U.S. politics – what has Putin got on Trump?” Simon Tisdall argues at the Guardian.

Russia’s reaction to new U.S. sanctions will likely put the U.S.’ access to space at risk, David Axe comments at The Daily Beast.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

U.S. District Judge T.S. Ellis – currently sitting in the trial of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort – has granted a request by special counsel Robert Mueller to seal portions of a sidebar conversation between the judge and attorneys during the testimony of Manafort’s associate Richard Gates this week. “Sealing a limited portion of the sidebar conference is necessary because it would reveal substantive evidence pertaining to an ongoing government investigation,” Mueller’s team wrote in the motion to seal portions of the transcript yesterday, Jaqueline Thomsen reports at the Hill.

Mueller is set to issue a subpoena requesting a formal interview with an associate of informal Trump campaign adviser Roger Stone – Randy Credico, who was Stone’s alleged connection to Wikileaks during the 2016 presidential election. Mueller is investigating alleged Russian interference in that election, John Bowden reports at the Hill.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is “seriously considering” a request to testify in person before the U.S. Senate intelligence committee about Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to a statement from his lawyer Jennifer Robinson. Assange has been living at the Ecuadorian embassy in London since 2012, over fears that he could be extradited to the U.S., Merrit Kennedy reports at NPR.

Top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.) has hit out at Republicans on the panel, accusing them of attempting to block witnesses from answering certain questions in an attempt to protect the president. “As you know, they would frequently interject with the witness when we were asking them questions, ‘you know you don’t have to answer that question,’” Schiff said in an interview, adding “that’s how you obstruct an investigation, not how you conduct one,” Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) claimed this week that Florida’s election systems had been “penetrated” by Russian hackers ahead of the 2018 midterms; comments that have led Florida officials to seek answers from the Senate Intelligence Committee. Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner (R.) sent a letter yesterday to committee chairman Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) asking for details about remarks Nelson made the previous day in which he claimed that hackers had “already penetrated certain counties in the state.” John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) is preparing subpoenas for Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, his wife Nellie Ohr and Fusion G.P.S. co-founder Glenn Simpson, according to two congressional sources familiar with the matter. The subpoenas relate to the controversial dossier produced by former British Intelligence officer Christopher Steele that made a series of salacious allegations about Trump’s links to Russia, Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Accused Russian agent Mariia Butina went to a Kremlin-linked public relations power player named Igor Pisarsky for cash, in a detail missed by prosecutors, Betsy Woodruff and Allison Quinn report at The Daily Beast.

U.S. SPACE FORCE

“The time has come to establish the United States Space Force,” Vice President Mike Pence said yesterday, announcing the plans for Trump’s proposed sixth branch of the armed forces at the Pentagon. Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

“Just as we’ve done in ages past, the United States will meet the emerging threats on this new battlefield,” warning of the advances adversaries have made in space and the challenges they pose to U.S. assets. Christian Davenport and Dan Lamothe report at the Washington Post.

The Space Force should be in operation by 2020; however, its establishment requires legislation to be passed by Congress, which is divided on the issue. Helene Cooper reports at the New York Times.

The plan to establish the Space Force has prompted the U.S. Air Force to “justify its manpower and funding,” leading some to propose ill-conceived ideas. David Axe explains at The Daily Beast.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The U.S. has responded to North Korea’s practical denuclearization steps by “inciting international sanctions and pressure against [Pyongyang],” North Korea’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued yesterday, blaming “some high-levels within the U.S. administration” for going against the president’s will and undermining he spirit of dialogue established at June’s summit meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. James Griffiths, Richard Roth and Will Ripley report at CNN.

There can be no expectation of progress “as long as the U.S. denies even the basic decorum for its dialogue partner and clings to the outdated acting script which the previous administration have all tried and failed,” the statement said, highlighting measures it has taken, including stopping nuclear missile testing, dismantling a nuclear test ground and repatriating the remains of some U.S. soldiers killed in the 1950-53 Korean War. Haejin Choi and David Brunnstrom report at Reuters.

“Expecting any result, while insulting the dialogue partner” is a “foolish act that amounts to waiting to see a boiled egg hatch out,” the statement also said. The BBC reports.

“We will preserve our nuclear science as we know that the Americans will not abandon their hostility toward us,” North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho was quoted as saying by Iran’s Mehr news agency, saying during his visit to Tehran that “dealing with the Americans is difficult.” Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times.

Senior North and South Korean officials will meet next week to discuss a possible third summit meeting between Kim and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s Unification Ministry said yesterday. The two leaders reached a broad agreement on easing military tensions and improving bilateral relations at the truce village of Panmunjom when they met in April, Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A ceasefire between the Palestinian Hamas militant group and the Israeli military appears to be holding up, with the Israeli military saying that no rockets were fired from the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip into Israel overnight and it conducted no airstrikes in Gaza against Hamas targets. The ceasefire was brokered by Egypt and comes after two days of escalating violence which saw Gazan militants fire around 200 rockets at Israel, leading the Israeli military to carry out a similar number of airstrikes in response. Ian Deitch reports at the AP.

The ceasefire was reached by Israel and Hamas late last night, according to a foreign diplomat, adding that the truce is not part of the wider U.N.- and Egypt-proposed agreement between the two parties. Jack Khoury, Yaniv Kubovich and Noa Landau report at Haaretz.

The ceasefire will be tested later today as Palestinians in Gaza plan on resuming weekly border protests. The protests have been held since March 30, and have frequently turned violent, Reuters reports.

The latest round of violence “left many wondering if these were the final shots ushering in a new, if fragile, cease-fire, or the opening shots of the next war,” Isabel Kershner explains at the New York Times, providing an overview of the violence within the context of the ongoing negotiations on an Egypt- and U.N.-proposed plan to broker a long-term agreement to de-escalate tensions and improve conditions in Gaza.

President Trump’s close advisers hold views on Israel that are “well to the right of the American mainstream,” including their position on the U.N.’s Palestinian refugee agency’s (U.N.R.W.A.) designation of who constitutes a Palestinian refugee. Colum Lynch explains at Foreign Policy.  

SYRIA

Syrian military helicopters yesterday dropped leaflets over parts of the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, calling on residents to reconcile with the government even as warplanes bombard the region, according to opposition activists. The leaflet drop came as a top humanitarian adviser to the U.N. Jan Egeland cautioned that “war cannot be allowed to go to Idlib. The AP reports.

Northwestern Syria is the final significant area still in the hands of rebel fighters, following the recapturing of the area around Damascus and the southwest earlier this year by the government. The U.N. is concerned that an offensive in the area could force 2.5 million people towards the Turkish border. Reuters reports.

“Hopefully, we are seeing the beginning of the end to the big war,” Egeland said, adding that “there are signs” that the U.N. and humanitarian partners might finally get access to civilians that they have been trying to reach “for a very long time … and that some of the cruel practices of the war are coming to an end.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

The U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (E.S.C.W.A.) has found that Syria’s seven-year-long civil war has cost the country $388 billion in economic damage. The agency convened a two-day conference in Beirut on Tuesday and Wednesday, at which Syrian and international experts discussed Syria’s reconstruction. The AP reports.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov will visit the Turkish capital of Ankara on August 13-14 to discuss the situation in Syria with his Turkish counterpart, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said yesterday. Reuters reports.

Russia and the Assad regime are suspected of coordinating with Islamic State group in a massacre of the Druze the minority group last month. Anne Speckhard and Adrian Shajkovci provide an analysis at The Daily Beast.

The Czech Foreign Ministry has said that Czech diplomats have negotiated the release of two humanitarian workers for a German non-governmental organization who were arrested in Syria. The AP reports.

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]

YEMEN

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has called for an “independent and prompt investigation” into an airstrike carried out by the U.S.-backed Saudi-led coalition in Yemen that left dozens of children dead. A U.N. spokesperson has said that yesterday’s airstrike hit a bus carrying children from a summer camp in a busy market area in the northern Majz District, CNN reports.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (I.C.R.C.) said medics in the city of Saada had received the bodies of the 29 killed, all of them younger than 15, alongside 48 wounded people. The health ministry controlled by Yemen’s Houthi rebels put the death toll higher last night, at 50 killed and 77 wounded, Asa Fitch and Mohammed al-Kibsi report at the Wall Street Journal.

Senior Yemeni rebel leader Mohammed Ali al-Houthi said the rebels welcome the U.N. call for an independent investigation, and are willing to co-operate. Ahmed Al-Haj and Menna Zaki report at the AP.

“[The airstrikes] conformed to international and humanitarian laws,” a statement quoting coalition spokesperson Col. Turki al-Malki said, but one Yemeni journalist based in Sana’a has said that there no Houthi fighters in the vicinity of the market where the strike took place. Al Jazeera reports.

“The Coalition will take all necessary measures against the terrorist, criminal acts of the terrorist Iranian-Houthi militia, such as recruiting child soldiers, throwing them in battlefields and using them as tools and covers to their terrorist acts,” al-Malki said in a statement. Colin Dwyer reports at NPR.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said that U.S. officials cannot confirm all the details about the attack, but said that “we call on the Saudi-led coalition to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation into the incident … we take all credible accounts of civilian casualties very seriously.” Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

“Attacks on children are absolutely unacceptable,” U.N.I.C.E.F. Executive Director Henrietta Fore commented in a message on Twitter, adding “I’m horrified by the reported airstrike on innocent children, some with U.N.I.C.E.F. backpacks. Enough is enough.” The U.N. News Centre reports.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban attempted to overrun the provincial capital of Ghazni in Afghanistan’s southeastern Ghazni province in an overnight attack, killing at least 14 police officers. Akhtar Mohammad Makoii and agencies report at the Guardian.

The U.S. military launched airstrikes today to counter the Taliban assault on Ghazni, with officials saying that Afghan Special Forces were deployed to the city. A spokesperson for U.S. forces in Afghanistan said the fighting had “ceased” this morning, the AFP reports.

The Taliban’s assault on the strategic city of Ghazni was ambitious and imperils the chance of a potential ceasefire between the government and the Taliban before the Muslim Eid al-Adha festival in less than two weeks’ time. Ehsan Popalzai, Euan McKirdy and Tim Lister explain at CNN.

The bodies of dozens of Afghan soldiers have been found at a military base in the southern province of Uruzgan, officials said yesterday. The discovery follows an attack by Taliban on the base last week, Reuters reports.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Senior U.S. national security officials worked behind the scenes to complete a formal policy agreement at the N.A.T.O. summit in July. European diplomats and U.S. officials have said the efforts were pursued to shield the military alliance from President Trump’s unpredictable antipathy and to allow N.A.T.O. diplomats to push through key initiatives, including improving allied defenses against Russia. Helene Cooper and Julian E. Barnes reveal at the New York Times.

An analysis of the Chinese government’s rapidly expanding militarization of the South China Sea is provided by Brad Lendon, Ivan Watson and Ben Westcott at CNN.

Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are appealing to its chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) to subpoena the State Department, for documents related to former Secretary Rex Tillerson’s decision to close an office responsible for advancing U.S. interests in cyberspace. Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will leave Sunday for his first trip to South America, where he will highlight the Pentagon’s “strong defense ties” with Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia. The Pentagon said in a statement yesterday that “these relationships are critical to a collaborative, prosperous and secure Western hemisphere,” Ellen Mitchell reports at the Hill.

Air Force Col. Shelly W. Schools has been assigned to preside in the U.S.S. Cole case at the Guantánamo war court, replacing retired chief trial judge Vance Spath. Carol Rosenberg reports at the Miami Herald.

The replacement of Jordanian Prince Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein by former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet as United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights, should “prompt a searching reassessment of the role … and a commitment to steps that will make the position more viable and effective going forward,” Suzanne Nossel argues at Foreign Policy.

We can expect to see further drone assassination attempts following the effort to kill Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro last week, Jeremy Kryt comments at The Daily Beast. 

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).