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Rival US and Russian resolutions defeated on Syria weapons

November 17, 2017

UNITED NATIONS (AP) — Rival U.S. and Russian resolutions to extend the mandate of experts trying to determine who was responsible for chemical attacks in Syria were defeated Thursday at a heated Security Council meeting that reflected the deteriorating relations between Washington and Moscow.

The result of the two votes means that the expert body — the Joint Investigative Mechanism known as the JIM — will cease operations when its current mandate expires at midnight Thursday. The U.S., its allies and human rights groups called it a serious blow to efforts to hold accountable those responsible for carrying out chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

During a three-hour drama, Russia first vetoed the U.S. draft resolution which was supported by 11 of the 15 Security Council members. Bolivia joined Russia in voting “no” and China and Egypt abstained.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia withdrew the Russian resolution over Moscow’s insistence that it be voted on second not first as required under council rules. But using another council rule, Bolivia then resubmitted and called for a vote on that resolution.

It failed to receive the minimum nine “yes” votes required for adoption. Only Russia, China, Bolivia and Kazakhstan voted in favor while seven council members voted against and four abstained. Japan late Thursday proposed a 30-day extension of the JIM and the Security Council was expected to discuss it on Friday.

At the heart of the dispute was the demand by Russia, Syria’s most important ally, for major changes in the way the JIM operates and the U.S. insistence that the JIM’s current mandate and independence be preserved.

After the votes, the United States and Russia blamed each other for ending the JIM’s operations, both insisting they wanted it to continue. “To my Russian friends, the next chemical weapons attack is on your head,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said. “By not having a JIM, you are basically telling the entire world that chemical weapons are OK to use. That’s what we should be embarrassed about today.”

Russia’s Nebenzia shot back saying: “Today it became absolutely clear we need a robust professional mechanism that will help to prevent the threat of chemical terrorism in the region, and you need a puppet-like structure to manipulate public opinion — which on the basis of false information will time after time accuse the Syrian government of violating international norms.”

Those who voted against the Russian resolution put forward by Bolivia “bear the full brunt of responsibility for the cessation of the operations of the JIM,” Nebenzia said. Russia has been highly critical of the JIM’s findings that the Syrian government used chlorine gas in at least two attacks in 2014 and 2015, and used sarin in an aerial attack on Khan Sheikhoun last April 4 that killed about 100 people and affected about 200 others who survived the nerve agent.

Syria repeated its denial of using chemical weapons. The JIM has also accused the Islamic State extremist group of using mustard gas in 2015 adsnd again in September 2016 in Um Hosh in Aleppo. Nebenzia accused the JIM of “fundamental flaws” in blaming President Bashar Assad’s government for the attacks.

He cited its use of “remote working methods” and failure to visit Khan Sheikhoun, “focusing solely on dubious testimony from opposition and even terrorist groups, the disregard for the whole range of rules and methods provided for under the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

Haley countered that Russia and its allies “want a JIM that doesn’t have independence.” “They want a JIM that doesn’t have reporting,” she said. “They want a JIM that they can micromanage, or that any member can micromanage.”

Haley noted that this was the 10th veto by Russia to support Syria. “You have to realize when a country is playing games with people’s lives,” she said. “That’s exactly what is happening here. And it’s been happening for 10 times.”

The vote took place against the backdrop of the military and political situation in Syria, where Assad’s forces have gained the upper hand. A new round of U.N.-hosted Syrian peace talks is scheduled to start in Geneva on Nov. 28.

Haley said: “The only thing that today has proved is that Russia cannot be trusted in the political process with Syria.” “Russia will not be a good and trusted actor because they want to control who’s at fault,” she said. “They want to control what happens. They want to control that area because they want to work with Iran and Syria to make sure that they have it all under control.”

Nebenia said Haley “betrayed what was trying to be hidden all the time, but in fact the whole thing was envisaged and invented to show that Russia should not be trusted in the Syrian political process.”

“It’s not coincidental,” he said, “because the political process in Syria is … slowly gaining momentum and Russia is very instrumental in it. And so this is the very opportune moment to tell that Russia should not play the role here.”

Nebenzia said he didn’t think Thursday’s votes would affect the Geneva talks which Russia supports.

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Russia drafts legislation targeting foreign media

November 14, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian lawmakers submitted legal amendments Tuesday that would allow the government to register international media outlets as foreign agents, a retaliatory move to a demand the U.S. made to a Russian TV channel.

The amendments, which are set to be voted on Wednesday, came after the Russian state-funded RT registered with the U.S. Justice Department as a foreign agent following pressure from the U.S. government.

U.S. intelligence agencies have alleged that RT served as a tool for the Kremlin to meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Russia has denied any interference. The amendments under consideration in Russia were proposed by lawmakers in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian legislature. Deputy Speaker Pyotr Tolstoy said the revisions would give the Justice Ministry authority to register foreign media outlets as foreign agents.

Following the registration, the news outlets would be subject to requirements that already apply to foreign-funded non-governmental organization under a 2012 law on foreign agents. The law requests all groups that receive foreign funding and engage in vaguely defined political activities to register as foreign agents. Critics of the law have said the definition of political activity is so loose that it could be used against almost any non-governmental organization.

The law was approved after a slew of massive anti-Kremlin protests in Moscow in 2011-2012. President Vladimir Putin accused the U.S. of instigating them. At the same time, Putin has harshly criticized the U.S. demand regarding the RT channel as an attack on freedom of speech. He said Russia would retaliate.

The amendments to cover non-Russian media outlets are on a rapid course. The State Duma is set to approve them on Wednesday. They would then go pass quickly to the upper house and then to Putin for signing.

It wasn’t immediately clear how the proposed amendments would be applied. They are broadly phrased to allow the government to declare practically any foreign media outlet as a foreign agent. But Russian officials and lawmakers emphasized Tuesday that they would take a measured approach, one strictly proportionate to the U.S. action.

Leonid Levin, head of the Duma’s committee for information, emphasized that the amendments were a framework intended to provide a legal basis for government action. “It will up to the Justice Ministry to decide whom to list as foreign agents,” Levin said. “I expect the amendments to be applied strictly quid pro quo in response to the moves against Russian media.”

Andrei Klimov, the head of a panel established by the upper house of the Russian parliament to investigate alleged foreign interference in Russian affairs, also said the Russian government’s application of the foreign media rules would be selective and mirror actions by the United States.

At the same time, Klimov kept the door open for broader restrictions in the future, saying lawmakers will ponder prospective legislation to restrict foreign nationals’ involvement in Russia’s affairs.

Legislation to be drafted next year could define the status of foreigners involved in “undesirable activities” in Russia, as well as Russians engaging in “undesirable cooperation” with them, Klimov said.

The Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based independent press freedom watchdog, criticized the U.S. Department of Justice order for the RT to register as a foreign agent as a “bad idea.” “This is a shift in how the law has been applied in recent decades, so we have little information about how its reporting requirements might affect individual journalists,” CPJ North America Program Coordinator Alexandra Ellerbeck said. “We’re uncomfortable with governments deciding what constitutes journalism or propaganda.”

At the same time, the Committee to Protect Journalists urged Russia not to take retaliatory steps. “It’s outrageous that the Russian government, which has attacked, undermined, and stifled independent media, and failed to properly investigate the murders of leading independent journalists in the country, is now threatening measures to curtail the work of international media organizations,” CPJ Europe and Central Asia Program Coordinator Nina Ognianova said in a statement.

Ognianova added that while the U.S. move on RT was “ill-advised,” Russia also would be amiss “to use it as a pretext to justify punitive action.”

Russia hackers pursued Putin foes, not just US Democrats

November 02, 2017

WASHINGTON (AP) — It wasn’t just Hillary Clinton’s emails they went after. The hackers who disrupted the U.S. presidential election last year had ambitions that stretched across the globe, targeting the emails of Ukrainian officers, Russian opposition figures, U.S. defense contractors and thousands of others of interest to the Kremlin, according to a previously unpublished digital hit list obtained by The Associated Press.

The list provides the most detailed forensic evidence yet of the close alignment between the hackers and the Russian government, exposing an operation that went back years and tried to break into the inboxes of 4,700 Gmail users — from the pope’s representative in Kiev to the punk band Pussy Riot in Moscow. The targets were spread among 116 countries.

“It’s a wish list of who you’d want to target to further Russian interests,” said Keir Giles, director of the Conflict Studies Research Center in Cambridge, England, and one of five outside experts who reviewed the AP’s findings. He said the data was “a master list of individuals whom Russia would like to spy on, embarrass, discredit or silence.”

The AP findings draw on a database of 19,000 malicious links collected by cybersecurity firm Secureworks, dozens of rogue emails, and interviews with more than 100 hacking targets. Secureworks stumbled upon the data after a hacking group known as Fancy Bear accidentally exposed part of its phishing operation to the internet. The list revealed a direct line between the hackers and the leaks that rocked the presidential contest in its final stages, most notably the private emails of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.

The issue of who hacked the Democrats is back in the national spotlight following the revelation Monday that a Donald Trump campaign official, George Papadopoulos, was briefed early last year that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton, including “thousands of emails.”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the notion that Russia interfered “unfounded.” But the list examined by AP provides powerful evidence that the Kremlin did just that. “This is the Kremlin and the general staff,” said Andras Racz, a specialist in Russian security policy at Pazmany Peter Catholic University in Hungary, as he examined the data.

“I have no doubts.”

THE NEW EVIDENCE

Secureworks’ list covers the period between March 2015 and May 2016. Most of the identified targets were in the United States, Ukraine, Russia, Georgia and Syria.

In the United States, which was Russia’s Cold War rival, Fancy Bear tried to pry open at least 573 inboxes belonging to those in the top echelons of the country’s diplomatic and security services: then-Secretary of State John Kerry, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, then-NATO Supreme Commander, U.S. Air Force Gen. Philip Breedlove, and one of his predecessors, U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark.

The list skewed toward workers for defense contractors such as Boeing, Raytheon and Lockheed Martin or senior intelligence figures, prominent Russia watchers and — especially — Democrats. More than 130 party workers, campaign staffers and supporters of the party were targeted, including Podesta and other members of Clinton’s inner circle.

The AP also found a handful of Republican targets.

Podesta, Powell, Breedlove and more than a dozen Democratic targets besides Podesta would soon find their private correspondence dumped to the web. The AP has determined that all had been targeted by Fancy Bear, most of them three to seven months before the leaks.

“They got two years of email,” Powell recently told AP. He said that while he couldn’t know for sure who was responsible, “I always suspected some Russian connection.”

In Ukraine, which is fighting a grinding war against Russia-backed separatists, Fancy Bear attempted to break into at least 545 accounts, including those of President Petro Poroshenko and his son Alexei, half a dozen current and former ministers such as Interior Minister Arsen Avakov and as many as two dozen current and former lawmakers.

The list includes Serhiy Leshchenko, an opposition parliamentarian who helped uncover the off-the-books payments allegedly made to Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort — whose indictment was unsealed Monday in Washington.

In Russia, Fancy Bear focused on government opponents and dozens of journalists. Among the targets were oil tycoon-turned-Kremlin foe Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who spent a decade in prison and now lives in exile, and Pussy Riot’s Maria Alekhina. Along with them were 100 more civil society figures, including anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny and his lieutenants.

“Everything on this list fits,” said Vasily Gatov, a Russian media analyst who was himself among the targets. He said Russian authorities would have been particularly interested in Navalny, one of the few opposition leaders with a national following.

Many of the targets have little in common except that they would have been crossing the Kremlin’s radar: an environmental activist in the remote Russian port city of Murmansk; a small political magazine in Armenia; the Vatican’s representative in Kiev; an adult education organization in Kazakhstan.

“It’s simply hard to see how any other country would be particularly interested in their activities,” said Michael Kofman, an expert on Russian military affairs at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington. He was also on the list.

“If you’re not Russia,” he said, “hacking these people is a colossal waste of time.”

WORKING 9 TO 6 MOSCOW TIME

Allegations that Fancy Bear works for Russia aren’t new. But raw data has been hard to come by.

Researchers have been documenting the group’s activities for more than a decade and many have accused it of being an extension of Russia’s intelligence services. The “Fancy Bear” nickname is a none-too-subtle reference to Russia’s national symbol.

In the wake of the 2016 election, U.S. intelligence agencies publicly endorsed the consensus view, saying what American spooks had long alleged privately: Fancy Bear is a creature of the Kremlin.

But the U.S. intelligence community provided little proof, and even media-friendly cybersecurity companies typically publish only summaries of their data.

That makes the Secureworks’ database a key piece of public evidence — all the more remarkable because it’s the result of a careless mistake.

Secureworks effectively stumbled across it when a researcher began working backward from a server tied to one of Fancy Bear’s signature pieces of malicious software.

He found a hyperactive Bitly account that Fancy Bear (which Secureworks calls “Iron Twilight”) was using to sneak thousands of malicious links past Google’s spam filter. Because Fancy Bear forgot to set the account to private, Secureworks spent the next few months hovering over the group’s shoulder, quietly copying down the details of the thousands of emails it was targeting.

The AP obtained the data recently, boiling it down to 4,700 individual email addresses, and then connecting roughly half to account holders. The AP validated the list by running it against a sample of phishing emails obtained from people targeted and comparing it to similar rosters gathered independently by other cybersecurity companies, such as Tokyo-based Trend Micro and the Slovakian firm ESET .

The Secureworks data allowed reporters to determine that more than 95 percent of the malicious links were generated during Moscow office hours — between 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday to Friday.

The AP’s findings also track with a report that first brought Fancy Bear to the attention of American voters. In 2016, a cybersecurity company known as CrowdStrike said the Democratic National Committee had been compromised by Russian hackers, including Fancy Bear.

Secureworks’ roster shows Fancy Bear making aggressive attempts to hack into DNC technical staffers’ emails in early April 2016 — exactly when CrowdStrike says the hackers broke in.

And the raw data enabled the AP to speak directly to the people who were targeted, many of whom pointed the finger at the Kremlin.

“We have no doubts about who is behind these attacks,” said Artem Torchinskiy, a project coordinator with Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Fund who was targeted three times in 2015. “I am sure these are hackers controlled by Russian secret services.”

THE MYTH OF THE 400-POUND MAN

Even if only a small fraction of the 4,700 Gmail accounts targeted by Fancy Bear were hacked successfully, the data drawn from them could run into terabytes — easily rivaling the biggest known leaks in journalistic history.

For the hackers to have made sense of that mountain of messages — in English, Ukrainian, Russian, Georgian, Arabic and many other languages — they would have needed a substantial team of analysts and translators. Merely identifying and sorting the targets took six AP reporters eight weeks of work.

The AP’s effort offers “a little feel for how much labor went into this,” said Thomas Rid, a professor of strategic studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.

In response to the AP’s investigation, the DNC issued a statement saying the evidence that Russia had interfered in the election was “irrefutable.”

Rid said the investigation should put to rest any theories like the one then-candidate Donald Trump floated last year that the hacks could be the work of “someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”

“The notion that it’s just a lone hacker somewhere is utterly absurd,” Rid said.

Donn reported from Plymouth, Massachusetts. Myers reported from Chicago. Chad Day, Desmond Butler and Ted Bridis in Washington, Frank Bajak in Houston, Lori Hinnant in Paris, Maggie Michael in Cairo and Erika Kinetz in Shanghai contributed to this report. Novaya Gazeta reporters Nikolay Voroshilov, Yana Surinskaya and Roman Anin in Moscow also contributed.

Russia’s security agency detains 6 Crimean Tatar activists

October 11, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s domestic security agency said Wednesday it detained six people in Crimea accused of involvement in an extremist organization, a move described by one of the suspects’ lawyer as part of Moscow’s crackdown on the Crimean Tatars.

Emil Kurbedinov, a lawyer for one of the six detainees, said that police also rounded up nine other Crimean Tatars who protested the detentions in the Crimean town of Bakhchisarai. The Federal Security Service or FSB, the main KGB successor agency, said it has stopped the activities of a local cell of Hizb-ut-Tahrir, a radical Islamist group which Russia and several other ex-Soviet nations banned as a “terrorist” organization.

The FSB said in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that it has opened a criminal probe against six people suspected of involvement in the group. Kurbedinov, a lawyer for Suleiman Asanov, whom the FSB accused of organizing the cell, described the charges as “absurd.” He said all six detainees were local Crimean Tatar activists who opposed Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

Russia has faced criticism for infringing on the ethnic group’s rights since the annexation. “It’s yet another attempt to intimidate people with ‘terrorism’ and ‘extremism’ labels,” Kurbedinov said by phone from Bakhchisarai.

Kurbedinov said nine other Crimean Tatars who were protesting the detentions were taken into custody for holding an unsanctioned demonstration and were set to face court hearings Thursday. Zair Smedlyayev, who heads an association of Crimean Tatars, also said the move was part of a continuing crackdown on the Turkic ethnic group.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who was visiting the Ukrainian capital, said Turkey was monitoring the situation of Crimean Tatars and thanked Ukraine for defending their rights.

Court jails Russian opposition leader Navalny for 20 days

October 02, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — A Moscow court on Monday sent Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny to jail for 20 days for calling for an unsanctioned protest, which would keep him away from a major rally this weekend.

Police detained Navalny on Friday, preventing him from traveling to a rally in a major Russian city that had given its official permission to hold the gathering. Charges brought against the Kremlin’s top rival relate to the upcoming rally in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city and President Vladimir Putin’s hometown, which has not been sanctioned.

After he announced his presidential bid last year, Navalny, arguably Russia’s most popular opposition politician, inspired a grassroots campaign in Russian regions to support his nomination. “20 days in jail. Old man Putin got so scared of our rallies in the regions and decided to make himself a little present for himself for his birthday,” Navalny tweeted shortly after the ruling Monday evening.

The rally in St. Petersburg was scheduled for Saturday, which is also Putin’s birthday. Navalny’s campaign late Monday called for rallies to protest his arrest in other Russian cities this Saturday. A Russian law on public gatherings, which was hastily adopted following massive anti-government rallies in 2011-2012, carries 30 days in jail for repeated violations.

In another Moscow courthouse, a judge is expected to hand down a ruling later Monday in the case of Navalny’s campaign chief, Leonid Volkov, who faces similar charges. The Kremlin has dismissed Navalny, who has faced repeated jailings and criminal cases, as an urbanite out of touch with people living in Russia’s 11 time zones where Putin draws his support from.

Yet that began to change earlier this year when Navalny, a 41-year-old lawyer, opened campaign offices in 80 cities and towns. Most of those places had not seen a diverse political life for decades, and Navalny attracted thousands of supporters.

Moscow police keep opposition chief Navalny away from rally

September 29, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Police in Moscow detained Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny for most of the day Friday in an apparent bid to prevent him from joining a rally that he organized in another city, where several people were also detained.

Navalny had planned to travel to the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod where he was to lead a rally, the latest in a series of demonstrations he has organized across Russia, when he was detained early Friday. He was kept at a Moscow police station until late evening.

After he announced his presidential bid last year, Navalny, a top Kremlin foe and arguably Russia’s most popular opposition politician, inspired a grassroots campaign in Russian regions to support his nomination. The crackdown comes after he held rallies in six Russian cities, from Murmansk in the northwest to Khabarovsk on the border with China.

Navalny posted a video on his Instagram account early Friday of what he said were officers outside his home asking him to come to a police station. He said he was held there without charges or any explanation why he had been detained.

The Interior Ministry said in a statement Friday that Navalny was detained because of his calls for unsanctioned rallies. The rally in Nizhny Novgorod, however, had received City Hall approval. When several hundred people gathered for the rally Friday evening, police ordered them to disperse and detained several demonstrators.

After his release, Navalny tweeted that the authorities’ efforts to derail opposition rallies will fail. “A plan to block regional rallies won’t work,” Navalny said, adding that other demonstrations are set to be held in Orenburg in the Urals and Arkhangelsk in northwest.

Navalny has been summoned to attend a court hearing Monday on charges of violating the rules of organizing a rally. His campaign chief, Leonid Volkov, was kept in police custody in Nizhny Novgorod for most of the day Friday until being released and ordered to attend Monday’s court hearing on the same charges.

“The Kremlin views my meetings with voters as a huge threat and even an insult,” Navalny tweeted. “They were saying for so long that opposition has no support in the regions, and it now pains them to even look at our rallies.”

The Kremlin has dismissed Navalny, who has faced repeated jailings and criminal cases, as an urbanite out of touch with people living in Russia’s 11 time zones where President Vladimir Putin draws his support from.

That began to change earlier this year when Navalny opened campaign offices in 80 cities and towns, most of which had not seen a political life for decades, attracting thousands of supporters. In Germany, Ulrike Demmer, a spokeswoman for Chancellor Angela Merkel, told reporters Friday that the German government “views the arrests of activists including Navalny … with incomprehension and great concern.”

Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.

Russia’s Navalny detained ahead of rally

September 29, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Police on Friday detained Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny ahead of a rally in a major city. Navalny on posted a video on his Instagram account of what he said were officers outside his home asking him to come to a police station. He tweeted from the station later, saying he had not been told why he had been detained.

Navalny had planned to travel to the city of Nizhny Novgorod where he was to lead a rally later on Friday. After he announced his presidential bid last year, Navalny, a top Kremlin foe and arguably Russia’s most popular opposition politician, inspired a grassroots campaign in Russian regions to support his nomination.

The Tass news agency on Friday quoted police as saying that Navalny was detained because of his calls for unsanctioned rallies. The rally in Nizhny Novgorod, however, had received City Hall approval. Navalny’s associates, in the meantime, reported that police seized their equipment, which was already installed at a city square ahead of the rally.

“The Kremlin views my meetings with voters as a huge threat and even an insult,” Navalny tweeted. “They were saying for so long that opposition has no support in the regions, and it now pains them to even look at our rallies.”

He recorded and posted online a video from the police station, calling on his supporters in Nizhny Novgorod to come to the rally even if he does not make it there. The Kremlin has dismissed Navalny, who has faced repeated jailings and criminal cases, as an urbanite out of touch with people living in Russia’s 11 time zones where President Vladimir Putin draws his support from. That began to change earlier this year when Navalny opened campaign offices in 80 cities and towns, most of which had not seen a political life for decades, attracting thousands of supporters.

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