The Early Edition: September 14, 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

House Republicans yesterday rejected an attempt by Democrats to get hold of documents from the administration regarding President Trump’s one-on-one summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July. Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee pushed forward a resolution of inquiry, directing the executive to provide Congress “copies of all documents, records, communications, transcripts, summaries, notes, memoranda, and read-aheads” relating to the summit, but lawmakers voted along party lines to reject the measure, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

“When they went into a room together — no staff, no advisors — just the two of them and interpreters — alarm bells went off all over Washington, DC and around the world,” commented top Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), adding that “now, two months later, the alarm is still going off because the American people still have no idea what was discussed in that meeting. We need to know.” Kyle Cheney reports at POLITICO.

The U.S. yesterday accused Russia of putting pressure on an independent panel of U.N. experts to omit sections of a report on sanctions against North Korea – which had included allegations of sanctions violations “implicating Russian actors.” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley criticized the panel “for caving to Russian pressure and making changes to what should have been an independent report,” describing the interference as “a stain” on the experts’ work, Edith M. Lederer reports at the AP.

“Russia can’t be allowed to edit and obstruct independent U.N. reports on North Korea sanctions just because they don’t like what they say …. period,” Haley said in a statement, adding that “the full implementation of U.N. Security Council resolutions remains mandatory for all member states – including Russia.” Reuters reports.

U.S. lawmakers yesterday maintained calls for the Trump administration to take a tougher line against Russia’s “nefarious activities.” House Foreign Affairs Committee. Chairman (R-Calif) opened a hearing on “Oversight of U.S. Sanctions Policy” by stating that “we should be doing more to hold Putin accountable for his aggressive acts, including attacks on our democracy,” while Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) quizzed officials on whether any sanctions had been implemented under the 2016 Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, James Wellemeyer reports at the Hill.

Assistant Secretary of State Manisha Singh reiterated to the congressional hearing that Washington would stand by its August pledge to impose “very severe” sanctions on Russia following revelations surrounding nerve agent attacks in the U.K., telling lawmakers that “we are looking at [the] November deadline as absolutely, we plan to impose a very severe second round of sanctions.” She added, however, that Moscow will not be subject to sanctions if it meets the set conditions by November, which include facilitating inspections and offering a “verifiable” assurance that they will not use nerve agents against their own people again, Reuters reports

U.S. fighter jets intercepted two Russian bombers west of Alaska on Tuesday, according to a statement from North American Aerospace Defense Command (N.O.R.A.D.). The nuclear-capable TU-95 bombers, accompanied by two Russian fighter jet escorts, turned away before entering U.S. airspace, Zacahry Cohen and Ryan Browne report at CNN.

N.A.S.A. and Russian space agency Roscosmos released a joint statement yesterday stating that a leak in a Russian spacecraft docked to the International Space Station was under investigation and that they would refrain from further comment. The leak had provoked rumors in Russia that a N.A.S.A. astronaut had deliberately drilled a hole in the Russian craft, Kenneth Chang reports at the New York Times.

RUSSIA: NOVICHOK POISONINGS

The interview with the two Russian men charged with carrying out nerve agent poisonings on British soil was “an insult to the public’s intelligence” and “deeply offensive” to the victims of the attack, said a spokesperson for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday. Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, “who appeared acutely ill at ease,” claimed in the interview broadcast yesterday that they had innocently traveled to the U.K. as tourists, Reuters reports.

“Time to stop the fake TV shows – the world has found Russia out on this,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt commented in a message on Twitter. Reuters reports.

U.S. intelligence officials have started to reassess the risk facing former Russian spies living in America, following the revelations surrounding the Novichok poisonings in the U.K. Adam Goldman, Julian E. Barnes, Michael S. Schmidt and Matt Apuzzo report at the New York Times.

RUSSIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe today reiterated his country’s position that the conflict with Russia over islands captured by Russian troops in the final days of World War II must be resolved before a peace treaty can be signed to formally end enmity between the two nations. Putin appeared to surprise Abe on Wednesday when he stated that the two countries should sign a peace treaty by the end of this year; “I cannot talk about it because we are in the middle of negotiations … what I can say is that I believe a summit meeting in November or December will be an important one” Abe commented in a televised debate today, Reuters reports.

Two Russian agents suspected of attempting to spy on a Swiss laboratory were arrested in the Netherlands and expelled earlier this year, Swiss newspaper Tages Anzeiger reported today. The Spiez labatory – near Bern – has analyzed suspected poison gas deployed in Syria and samples of the Novichok nerve agent believed to have been used by Russian agents in the U.K., Reuters reports.

An account of maneuvers made by the air forces of European N.A.T.O. members as a means of presenting a united front against Russia is provided by Robin Emmott at Reuters.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort reportedly reached a “tentative” plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller yesterday, with the deal expected to be announced in court today.  Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, although Manafort faces charges that do not relate directly to Russian electoral influence, Morgan Chalfant and Avery Anapol report at the Hill.

“There’s no fear that Paul Manafort would cooperate against the president because there’s nothing to cooperate about and we long ago evaluated him as an honorable man,” President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani told reporters, adding that “from our perspective, we want him to do the right thing for himself,” However, a plea deal might put Manafort in a position where he might “more easily be compelled to testify” about the Trump campaign’s links to Moscow, Darren Samuelsohn and Josh Gerstein write at POLITICO

Manafort’s case has led to renewed scrutiny of the law governing foreign lobbying activities. Sharon LaFraniere provides an analysis at the New York Times.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) stated yesterday that he would renew calls for an independent counsel to investigate Republican allegations of bias at the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) and F.B.I. The allegations focus on communications between former F.B.I. agent Peter Strzok and former F.B.I. lawyer Lisa Page uncovered by the D.O.J. inspector general investigation in June, which were critical of the president and which Republicans claim serve as evidence of systemic bias within the organization during the concurrent F.B.I. investigation into Russian electoral interference, Morgan Chalfant reports at the Hill.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

The two Koreas today opened their first joint liaison office. The facility in the North Korean border town of Kaesong establishes the inaugural channel for full-time, in-person contact between the North and South – and will be staffed by personnel from both nations, marking another advance in the historic enemies’ rapidly improving relationship, Choe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

“A new chapter in history is open here today,” South Korean Unification Minister Cho Myoung-gyon stated at the opening ceremony, describing the office as “another symbol of peace jointly created by the South and the North.” The North’s chief delegate Ri Son Gwon responded by describing the facility as a “substantial fruit nourished by the people of the north and south,” AFP reports.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry spokesperson Baik Tae-hyun commented that “we hope that this will also help the progress of denuclearization talks between North Korea and the U.S.,” Reuters reports.

The U.S. Treasury Department yesterday sanctioned two Russian and Chinese technology firms that Washington alleges are front companies for North Korea. The Treasury stated that China-based Yanbian Silverstar Network Technology Co. Ltd. and Russia-based sister company Volasys Silver Star are managed and controlled by North Koreans, and are engaged in making millions of dollars for Kim Jong-un’s weapons programs in violation of international sanctions, Ian Talley reports at the Wall Street Journal.

The two companies and their principal have been banned the U.S. financial system, and U.S individuals and firms are now prohibited from conducting businesses with them. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin said in a statement that the sanctions “are intended to stop the flow of illicit revenue to North Korea from overseas information technology workers disguising their true identities and hiding behind front companies, aliases, and third-party nationals,” Sylvan Lane reports at the Hill.

North Korea said today that U.S. accusations regarding Pyongyang’s role in 2014 and 2017 cyber attacks were a “smear campaign” and that the man sanctioned by Washington in relation to the attacks – Pak Jin Hyok – does not exist. Bryan Harris reports at the Financial Times.

The U.S. State Department has approved potential military sales worth $2.6 billion to South Korea, including six P-8A Poseidon maritime reconnaissance aircraft and 64 Patriot anti-ballistic missile weapons, the Pentagon announced yesterday. Reuters reports.

Next week’s scheduled summit between the two Koreas will test whether South Korean President Moon Jae-in can pull off his role as a mediator and rescue the stalled negotiations between Washington and Pyongynag. Hyonhee Shin provides an analysis at Reuters.

An analysis of Trump’s role as “dealmaker” in the negotiations with the North is provided by Rebecca Kheel at the Hill.

SYRIA

Senior U.N. humanitarian aid official Panos Moumtzis has said that the U.S., Russia and other powers have expressed a “common agreement” on the need for a peaceful solution for the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib. Moumtzis commented that the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (O.C.H.A.) and its partners intend to be prepared for up to 900,000 people fleeing Idlib, making comments to reporters after a U.N.-backed humanitarian task force meeting yesterday chaired by the U.S. and Russia, the AP reports.

Moutzamis said that U.N. officials have notified Russia, Turkey and the U.S. of the G.P.S. coordinates of 235 schools, hospitals and other civilian sites in Idlib, in a move will intended to protect these sites from attack. “We share these coordinates so there is no doubt that a hospital is a hospital,” Moumtzis told a press briefing, adding that “we would like to see civilians not targeted, hospitals not bombed, people not displaced,” Reuters reports.

Turkey is continuing to reinforce troops and heavy weaponry to the Syrian border, in preparation for a major offensive by the Syrian government and its allies in Idlib. A Turkish military convoy arrived at a Turkish outpost near the northern Syrian town of Morek early yesterday, and a military plane military plane was observed unloading dozens of Turkish soldiers at the civilian airport in Hatay province, Al Jazeera reports.

Syria and Jordan held their first technical talks on Wednesday regarding the opening of the major Jaber border crossing in southern Syria that was recaptured from the opposition last July, a Jordanian official source said yesterday. Reuters reports.

Syrian rebel commander Col. Muhanad al Talaa said yesterday that rare joint military exercises with U.S. marines in southern Syria have sent a strong message to Russia and Iran that the rebels, along with their U.S. allies, plan to stay and resist threats to their presence. U.S. military spokesperson Col. Sean Ryan told reporters that the Pentagon had notified Moscow of the exercises through “deconfliction” channels to prevent “miscommunication or escalate tension,” Reuters reports.

“It’s time for Washington to assess who its real allies in the region are,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu writes in a letter to the New York Times, cautioning that the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party and recipient of U.S. aid – the Y.P.G – “has forged an alliance with Mr. Assad and is sending troops as part of a deal brokered in July to help him recapture Idlib from the rebels.”

The U.S must take a bolder interventionist stance in Syria if it is to curb Tehran’s influence in the region, Bret Stephens comments at the New York Times.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 16 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Sep. 3 and Sep. 9 [Central Command]

YEMEN

Intense violence has broke out around the Yemeni port city of Hodeidah, as Yemeni government forces alongside troops from the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition attempt to retake the strategic Red Sea port city from the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebels. Security officials said yesterday that at least 10 civilians have been killed and 19 wounded in the latest outbreak of fighting, Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

U.N. humanitarian coordinator Lise Grande commented yesterday that the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has worsened “dramatically” in the past week following the collapse of U.N.-sponsored peace talks, and that “hundreds of thousands of lives hang in the balance” in Hodeidah, where “families are absolutely terrified by the bombardment, shelling and air strikes.” Al Jazeera reports.

The Saudi-led coalition is taking steps to reduce civilian casualties, the U.S. State Department said yesterday, in defense of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s “certification” to Congress earlier in the week. “They are taking steps, in the view of the U.S. government and this administration, in the right direction,” State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told a briefing, adding that “we see them taking steps … Is it perfect? …no absolutely not … do we see them doing what they can to mitigate civilian casualties? absolutely we do,” Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Senior adviser to President Trump Jared Kushner yesterday defended the administration’s decision to close the Palestinian Liberation Authority’s (P.L.O.) mission in Washington, D.C., claiming that the U.S.’ stance has in fact improved the prospects for peace. Kushner made the comments in an interview falling on the 25th anniversary of the historic Oslo accords, in which he characterized his strategy as representing a radical break from the past, arguing that “there were too many false realities that were created — that people worship — that I think needed to be changed,” Mark Landler reports at the New York Times.

“We’re going to have to defend the plan to Israelis and Palestinians,” U.S. envoy to the Middle East Jason Greenblatt commented yesterday, telling reporters that U.S. negotiators had entered the “pre-launch phase” of the Trump administration’s long-promised Middle-Eastern plan, despite a boycott by Palestinian leaders. Greenblatt added that “we are ready for criticism from all sides, but we believe this is the best path forward for everyone,” Reuters reports.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

F.B.I. Director Christopher Wray yesterday assured U.S. voters that they could have confidence in the U.S. election system during the November midterm elections, despite efforts from the Russian government to undermine it. Jesus Rodriguez reports at POLITICO.

Some lawmakers and sanctions lawyers have cautioned that President Trump’s executive order authorizing sanctions against foreigners attempting to interfere in U.S. elections will not deter meddlers. Samuel Rubenfeld explains at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.S. national security adviser John Bolton’s attack on the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) earlier this week has been interpreted as a sign of encouragement to dictators and strongmen leaders around the world. Matt Apuzzo and Marlise Simons provide an analysis at the New York Times.

The U.S. is looking more closely at the repression of minority Muslims in the Xinjiang region by the Chinese administration, a senior U.S. economic official commented yesterday. Reuters reports.

The chief of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards Corps Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari said yesterday that Tehran’s missile attack on an Iranian Kurdish rebel base in northern Iraq last week serves as a warning to hostile powers. Reuters reports.

Cuban experts have insisted that there is no proof that attacks were carried out on U.S. diplomats in Havana. Gardiner Harris reports at the New York Times. 

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About the Author(s)

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).