The Early Edition: January 22, 2019

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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-RUSSIA

President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani yesterday rowed back on the timeline he had suggested a day earlier regarding the completion of negotiations with Russian officials about a proposed Trump Tower in Moscow, describing his earlier comments as “hypothetical.” A day earlier, Giuliani had made comments to the New York Times and in a series of T.V. interviews, in which he quoted President Trump telling him the negotiations over the skyscraper continued through “the day I won,” Maggie Haberman reports at the New York Times.

“So anytime during that period they could’ve talked about it … but the President’s recollection of it is that the – the thing had petered out quite a bit,” Giuliani had said of the Trump Tower project Sunday, adding that “they sent a letter of intent in … they didn’t even know where to send it they knew so little about it … and then they abandoned the project … and that’s about as much as he can remember of it.” Pamela Brown, Marshall Cohen and Eli Watkins report at CNN.

Giuliani yesterday aimed to clarify the position, telling reporters “my recent statements about discussions during the 2016 campaign between Michael Cohen and then-candidate Donald Trump about a potential Trump Moscow ‘project’ were hypothetical and not based on conversations I had with the president.” The president’s attorney added: “my comments did not represent the actual timing or circumstances of any such discussions … the point is that the proposal was in the earliest stage and did not advance beyond a free non-binding letter of intent,” Quint Forgey reports at POLITICO.

Russian pop star Emin Agalarov said yesterday that he has been forced to cancel his tour of the U.S. and Canada “due to circumstances beyond [his] control.” Aglarov is said to have helped arrange the June 2016 Trump Tower meting that involved president’s son Donald Trump Jr. and Russian government lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, and is now seen as a figure in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian election interference; Agalarov’s lawyer Scott Balber confirmed in a phone interview yesterday that the cancellation is “most definitely” linked to the Mueller probe, Anna Schecter and Keir Simmons report at NBC.

“I’m skeptical that we can flip a switch when the Mueller report is issued … what could the report contain that is any more damning or fantastical than the things already reported or bandied about?” Matt Lewis asks at The Daily Beast, arguing that nonetheless it is incumbent on Trump’s Department of Justice to release the report in full. “If Trump chooses to stonewall, it would be a big mistake,” Lewis comments.

Following Trump’s claim that he has been “FAR tougher” on Russia than other U.S. presidents, an explainer on five key ways in which Trump has been at odds with his own administration over Russia in the past year is provided by Noah Weiland at the New York Times.

RUSSIA: OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Russia has acknowledged the existence of a cruise missile system that has prompted Washington to say it will withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Force treaty (I.N.F.,) but has denied that the system violates the pact, U.S. officials and N.A.T.O. diplomats said yesterday. U.S. Disarmament Ambassador Robert Wood earlier yesterday called on Moscow to destroy the missile at the U.N.-sponsored Conference on Disarmament, describing the Russian weapon as a “potent and direct threat to Europe and Asia,” and adding “unfortunately, the U.S. increasingly finds that Russia cannot be trusted to comply with its arms control obligations and that its coercive and malign actions around the globe have increased tensions,” Reuters reports.

A Russian diplomat has commented that Moscow will not “yield to any ultimatums like to liquidate or to eliminate a missile that doesn’t fall within the range of the treaty protections,” Jessie Hellman reports at the Hill.

The European Union (E.U.) yesterday leveled sanctions on the two most senior officers in Russian military intelligence and identified the two agents accused by the U.K. of carrying out a chemical attack. The E.U. accused the head and deputy head of the G.R.U. intelligence agency –  Igor Olegovich Kostyukov and Vladimir Stepanovich Alexseyev – along with the two agents – Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov – of orchestrating the “possession, transport and use” of the novichok nerve agent used in the English town of Salisbury last March, in a failed attempt to assassinate former intelligence agent and defector Sergei Skripal. AFP reports.

“They are suspected groundlessly,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov commented in a conference call with reporters, rejecting the E.U.’s decision. “We have still not heard any evidence,” Peskov added, Reuters reports.

Detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan – accused of spying in Russia – was found in possession of classified material when he was arrested in Moscow, his state-appointed lawyer Vladimir Zherebenkov told CNN today. Whelan was found on Dec. 28 with “evidence that constitutes state secrets” when he was detained, Zherebenkov told reporters ahead of a pretrial hearing in Moscow, adding that before his arrest, Whelan had been given a thumb drive which he believed contained vacation photographs; Whelan’s bail was denied at the hearing and he remain in Lefortovo detention center in Moscow until at least Feb. 28, Mary Ilyushina and Kara Fox report at CNN.

SYRIA

A car bombing targeting a joint U.S.-Kurdish patrol in Syria yesterday injured a number of fighters from the U.S.-backed Kurdish-led force. Islamic State group (I.S.I.S.) claimed responsibility for the attack, which has come just five days after at least 15 people, including four U.S. citizens were killed in a suicide bombing carried out by the insurgent group in the town of Manbij, Vivian Yee and Rukmini Callimachi report at the New York Times.

Yesterday’s attack saw a suicide bomber drive a car laden with explosives into a convoy of U.S. troops and local fighters at a checkpoint in Hasakeh province, I.S.I.S. claimed in a statement carried by the group’s media arm Amaq. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) reported on its website there were no deaths or injuries in the suicide attack; however, U.K.-based monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that the attack killed five S.D.F. fighters and injured two U.S. soldiers, Raja Abdulrahim and  Nazih Osseiran report at the Wall Street Journal.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 575 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Dec. 30 and Jan. 12. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban have launched a major attack on an Afghan military compound in central Maidan Wardak province, according to officials, with some putting the death toll at more than 100 people. Afghan authorities said the attack started yesterday morning, when a U.S.-made armored Humvee vehicle was driven into a compound at the campus of the National Directorate of Security (N.D.S.) and blown up, Kevin Rawlinson and Akhtar Mohammed Makoii report at the Guardian.

“We took about 65 bodies out of the rubble yesterday,” Deputy Head of the Wardak provincial council Mohammad Sardar Bakhyari announced, while a senior security official speaking on condition of anonymity gave an even higher toll of at least 70 killed. “It is a big loss,” Council Head Akhtar Mohammad Tahiri commented, adding “the N.D.S. forces are better trained and equipped than the Afghan police and army soldiers who have been dying in record numbers.” AFP reports.

The Taliban met U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad in Qatar yesterday, the militant group announced, days after threatening to pull out of Afghan peace talks and just hours after the deadly attack in Wardak. “Talks between Taliban leaders and U.S. officials have started today in Qatar,” Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid said in a statement, Reuters reports.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

An Israeli soldier fatally shot a Palestinian man who tried to stab a fellow soldier in the occupied West Bank yesterday, according to the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.). “The assailant arrived by vehicle from the city of Nablus, exited the vehicle and attempted to stab an I.D.F. soldier who was at a nearby check post … another soldier responded by firing towards the terrorist and neutralised him,” the I.D.F. said; the Palestinian health ministry confirmed the man was killed and there has been no further comment from Palestinian officials, Reuters reports.

A political alliance between Israel’s left wing and Arab parties could topple current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mikhael Manekin and Ameer Fakhoury explain at Foreign Policy.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

Diplomats from the two Koreas have held meetings with U.S. envoys in Sweden, amid efforts to set up a follow-up summit between U.S. President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. “Constructive talks have been held covering issues concerning developments on the Korean Peninsula, including confidence building, economic development and long-term engagement,” Sweden’s foreign ministry stated; Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom added that she hopes the current talks “will serve as a good preparation for an upcoming summit,” Al Jazeera reports.

Researchers have discovered a secret ballistic missile base in North Korea. The so-called Sino-ri Missile Operating Base may be one amongst up to 20 undisclosed missile sites in the country, according to the new report from Beyond Parallel, a project sponsored by the defense thinktank Center for Strategic and International Studies (C.S.I.S.,) Courtney Kube and Carol E. Lee report at NBC.

According to the report – the base is likely not part of denuclearization talks between Washington and Pyongyang as it is undeclared. The site reportedly serves as the headquarters for the Strategic Force’s Nodong missile brigade, Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

U.S. intelligence officials have met with North Korean counterparts secretly for a decade, through a covert channel that facilitated communications during tense periods and helped lay the ground for Trump’s landmark Singapore summit with Kim last June.  Michael R. Gordon and Warren P. Strobel provide an account of the revelations at the Wall Street Journal.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

U.N. special envoy to Yemen Martin Griffiths arrived in the capital Sanaa on an unannounced visit yesterday to discuss the situation in and around the key coastal city of Hodeidah, where Yemen’s warring parties agreed to a cease-fire in December. Forces loyal to the Saudi-backed Yemeni government in exile and the Iran-aligned Houthi rebels also agreed to a prisoner exchange last month that is yet to materialize, Ahmed Al-Haj reports at the AP.

An analysis of “how the rise of the far right threatens democracy worldwide” is provided by Pallavi Gogoi at NPR, with Hungary, Brazil, India and Turkey cited as examples. 

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).