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Russia charges space chief's aide Ivan Safronov with treason

The former journalist is accused of passing military secrets to an unnamed NATO power.

Russian security forces have arrested a former journalist who works as an aide to the head of Russia’s space agency on treason charges, accusing him of passing military secrets to an unnamed NATO power.

Footage released by the FSB security service on Tuesday showed Ivan Safronov being arrested outside his Moscow flat by armed plain-clothes agents who searched him before putting him into a van.

Safronov, who has covered military affairs for two national newspapers, faces up to 20 years in jail if found guilty.

His trial is expected to be held behind closed doors because of its sensitive nature.

Roscosmos, Russia’s space agency, said the case against Safronov was not linked to his work as a media adviser to Dmitry Rogozin, the agency’s director-general. Safronov started work there in May.

Rogozin told the TASS news agency Safronov did not have access to secret information.

The FSB Security Service accused Safronov of working for an unnamed foreign intelligence service.

“Safronov, carrying out tasks for one of the NATO countries’ intelligence services, gathered and handed over to its representative state secrets and information about military-technical cooperation and about the defence and security of the Russian Federation,” the FSB said in a statement.

Lawyer Oleg Eliseyev said Safronov was at the FSB’s detention facility, but he had not yet been given any access to his client.

Safronov previously worked as a journalist for the daily newspapers Kommersant and Vedomosti, and former colleagues took to social media to decry his detention.

Remarks from the Kremlin

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he did not believe the charges against Safronov were related to his previous work as a journalist, which he praised.

“But, unfortunately, such accusations have been made. We know that our counter-intelligence service has a lot of work, many concerns, and they are doing a very good job,” said Peskov.

Citing a legal source, TASS reported last year that prosecutors wanted to bring a civil case against Kommersant for disclosing an unspecified state secret.

The Russian online news portal the Bell said at the time that an article which Safronov had worked on had subsequently disappeared from Kommersant’s site.

The article, which remains unavailable, said Egypt had signed a deal with Russia to buy more than 20 Sukhoi SU-35 fighter jets.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo subsequently threatened Egypt with sanctions if it went ahead with the purchase.

Safronov said he was forced to quit Kommersant last year after the newspaper’s publishing house took issue with an article which suggested that the chairwoman of the upper house of parliament might leave her post.

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Britain imposes sanctions on Russians, including top investigator, Saudis over rights

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain imposed sanctions on 25 Russians and 20 Saudis on Monday as part of post-Brexit measures foreign minister Dominic Raab said were aimed at stopping the laundering of “blood money”.

After leaving the European Union in January, Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to forge a new independent role for Britain in foreign and trade affairs and this was the first time London could impose asset freezes and visa bans independently.

Raab has pressed for tough sanctions and set out the first names in parliament, including Russian nationals Britain says were involved in the mistreatment and death of lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and Saudis held to be involved in the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Russia said it would respond to the new measures. The Saudi government media office and Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“If you’re a kleptocrat or an organised criminal, you will not be able to launder your blood money in this country,” Raab told parliament.

“Today this government…sends a very clear message on behalf of the British people that those with blood on their hands, the thugs and despots, the henchmen and dictators, will not be free to waltz into this country to buy up property on the King’s Road, to do their Christmas shopping in Knightsbridge, or frankly to siphon dirty money through British banks or other financial institutions.”

Investors from Russia, China and the Middle East have poured billions into London, buying everything from luxury properties to entire companies, but the source of some of the wealth has been questioned by transparency campaigners.

The biggest Russian name on the list is Alexander Bastrykin, whose Investigative Committee reports directly to President Vladimir Putin.

He has also been blacklisted by the United States and Canada over the death of Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer arrested in 2008 after alleging that Russian officials were involved in large-scale tax fraud. Magnitsky died in a Moscow prison in 2009 after complaining of mistreatment.

“It is particularly outrageous that the senior representatives of the General Prosecution and the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation as well as judges were included in the sanctions list,” RIA news agency cited a Russian embassy spokesman in London as saying.

Raab also announced sanctions on 20 Saudis who Britain says were involved in the death of Khashoggi, following other western countries who have put sanctions on officials there.

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  • Russia says it reserves right to respond to UK sanctions – RIA

Saud al-Qahtani, a former Saudi royal adviser, and Ahmed al-Asiri, a former deputy intelligence chief, both had charges against them dropped by a Saudi court. Eleven suspects were put on trial in December over the killing, with five sentenced to death.

Bill Browder, a client of Magnitsky who has led a campaign to expose corruption and punish Russian officials whom he blames for the lawyer’s death, welcomed the move as “a huge milestone in our campaign for justice for Sergei Magnitsky”.

“The door’s now been opened … This is the beginning of a new trend in rights advocacy,” he told Reuters.

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Russia finds journalist guilty of justifying 'terrorism'

Svetlana Prokopyeva avoids a six-year jail term over a radio discussion as a court lets her off with a $6,970 fine.

A Russian court has found journalist Svetlana Prokopyeva guilty of justifying “terrorism”, but unexpectedly let her off with a fine, ending a trial her supporters said illustrated growing censorship.

Her supporters in the courtroom shouted “shame” and “she is not guilty” as the judge read out the verdict on Monday.

The state prosecutor had asked the court in the western city of Pskov to jail Prokopyeva for six years and to ban her from journalism for four years.

Prokopyeva, who works for the Russian service of the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) as a freelance contributor, denied the charge and said she had been put on trial for doing her job.

Authorities moved to prosecute Prokopyeva after she used a radio programme in late 2018 to discuss the case of a 17-year-old anarchist who blew himself up at the office of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB, in the city of Arkhangelsk.

The young man died and three others were injured in the bombing, which officials labelled an act of “terrorism”.

During the radio programme, Prokopyeva criticised the state for its handling of dissenting opinions and she said the approach could lead to radical acts of protest similar to the one in Arkhangelsk.

Before the trial, dozens of journalists and human rights advocates had called for her to be fully acquitted.

An open letter signed by rights advocates said the case was politically motivated and aimed to scare Russian journalists.

Monday’s verdict

On Monday, the court stopped short of jailing Prokopyeva and handed down a fine of 500,000 roubles ($6,970).

Prokopyeva, who arrived at the court wearing a T-shirt bearing the words “We will not shut up”, said she would appeal against the decision.

In her final words to the court before the verdict, Prokopyeva said she was “not afraid of criticising the state” and “telling security officials they are sometimes wrong”.

“Because I know it really will become scary if I don’t speak out, if no one speaks out,” she added.

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Putin mocks U.S. embassy for flying rainbow flag

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin on Friday mocked the U.S. embassy in Moscow for flying a rainbow flag to celebrate LGBT rights, suggesting it reflected the sexual orientation of its staff.

His comments followed a nationwide vote on constitutional reforms that included an amendment enshrining the definition of marriage specifically as a union between a man and a woman.

Putin said the U.S. embassy’s move to raise the LGBT pride flag “revealed something about the people that work there”.

“It’s no big deal though. We have spoken about this many times, and our position is clear,” said Putin, who has sought to distance Russia from liberal Western values and aligned himself with the Russian Orthodox Church.

“Yes, we passed a law banning the propaganda of homosexuality among minors. So what? Let people grow up, become adults and then decide their own destinies.”

The legislation has been used to stop gay pride marches and detain gay rights activists.

Putin said during the campaign to change the constitution that he would not let the traditional notion of a mother and father be subverted by what he called “parent number 1” and “parent number 2”.

On Friday, the head of the Women’s Union of Russia, Ekaterina Lakhova, told Putin that she feared an ice cream with the brand name ‘Rainbow’, as well as other multi-coloured advertising, could constitute propaganda for non-traditional values and have a harmful effect on children, the RIA news agency reported.

“Even indirectly, such things make our children accustomed to that … flag, the one that was hung up by the embassy,” Lakhova was cited as saying.

“It would be very good to have a commission to make sure that those values that we enshrined in our constitution are upheld,” she said.

Other countries have also flown rainbow flags outside their embassies in Moscow, including Britain.

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A polling station that was observed records low turnout in Russian vote

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Some voters who took part in a referendum that paves the way for President Vladimir Putin to extend his rule over Russia said they had been asked by their employers to do so, and to provide evidence to bosses to show they did.

Their accounts, to Reuters reporters who monitored polling station #2668 near Moscow throughout the seven days of voting, tally with Kremlin instructions to employers, seen by Reuters, asking them last month to ensure workers took part.

Despite that campaign, only 43% percent of eligible voters took part in the referendum at the polling station, below the national average of 68% and roughly half the percentage in the area where the station was located.

In fact turnout, an important measure for the Kremlin of support for Putin and the constitutional changes, was the lowest of all the 46 voting sites in the leafy town of Reutov, separated by an eight-lane highway from Moscow’s urban sprawl.

The average turnout in Reutov was 83%. At two polling stations in the same school building which Reuters did not observe, turnout was 85% and 87%.

Local election commission chief Olga Ukropova said the discrepancy may be because many of the residents in the four apartment blocks the polling station serves were not registered to vote there because they were migrants.

Historical data did not show distinct electoral results from the polling station in previous recent elections.

The Central Election Commission was not immediately available to comment. Kremlin officials did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

SHOW OF FORCE?

A woman who works in a nursery in the area said that she had voted in favour of the reforms.

“After this I will call my boss and tell her I voted, of course. That’s required,” she told Reuters, declining to give her name.

Another voter, who said she works for the tax service, said she had been advised by her employer to vote as early as possible. “They don’t tell you whether to vote ‘for’ or ‘against’. But they do ask you to report that you voted.”

The tax service did not respond to a request for comment.

Encouraging voting is not illegal, but the practice, which the Kremlin instructions called Project ‘Mobilisation in companies 2020’, suggests authorities wanted a strong turnout.

The Central Election Commission said 68% of the electorate took part nationwide and 78% voted for the reforms, which means an absolute majority – 58 million of Russia’s 109 million voters – supported the constitutional changes.

A woman at polling station #2668 said she needed to be photographed voting as proof for her boss and a man asked election officials for documented proof.

They declined to give their names and the polling station’s chairman, Rena Turayeva, declined to comment.

The Kremlin says the package of constitutional changes will strengthen the role of parliament and improve social policy and public administration.

Opposition activists have called the vote illegitimate and said it was designed to allow Putin to rule for life.

Golos, a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections, said it had recorded numerous irregularities during the vote, including ballot stuffing and widespread cases of employers forcing staff to cast a ballot.

Ella Pamfilova, head of the Central Election Commission, said on Friday the vote was “free, open, democratic to the maximum and fair.

“Its results are legitimate and indisputable.”

Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, said the emphatic nature of the result was a measure of how deeply Russians trusted Putin to run the country.

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Russia vote: President Putin could stay in power until 2036 as Russians approve constitutional reforms

A majority of Russians have voted to approve amendments to the country’s constitution which would allow President Vladimir Putin to stay in power until 2036, despite protests in Moscow and Saint Petersburg.

Election officials said that with 98% of all precincts counted, nearly 78% had voted for the constitutional amendments.

The results mean that Mr Putin, who has effectively been in power for more than two decades, has won the right to run for two more terms. This means he could be president for another 16 years.

Yet the referendum was tarnished with reports of pressure on voters and rallies to protest against the changes.

Polls were kept open for a week to bolster turnout – a first for Russia – which critics say was used as a tool to manipulate the outcome of the vote. Russian authorities said the week-long vote was to reduce crowds during the coronavirus pandemic.

Russians were also encouraged to vote with prize draws offering flats and an ad campaign highlighting other constitutional amendments to be made in the same bundle, including pensions protection and a ban on same-sex marriages.

Moscow resident Mikhail Volkov said he voted for the amendments, explaining: “We need radical changes and I’m for them.”

But others were less enthusiastic. Another voter, Lyudmila, said: “I didn’t read about the amendments if I’m honest.

“What’s the point of voting if they’ve already decided for you. It’s like that in our country – read something and vote. I voted.”

On Russia’s easternmost Chukchi Peninsula, full preliminary results showed 80% of voters supported the amendments, while over 70% of voters backed the changes in other parts of the Far East.

But some Kremlin critics and independent election observers are sceptical about the official figures.

Grigory Melkonyants, co-chairman of the independent election monitoring group Golos, said: “We look at neighbouring regions, and anomalies are obvious – there are regions where the turnout is artificially [boosted], there are regions where it is more or less real.”

Mr Putin himself voted at a Moscow polling station, as several hundred people gathered in the city’s central square to demonstrate against the amendments – defying a ban on public gatherings due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Police did not intervene and instead handed out masks to the participants.

In Saint Petersburg, people displayed copies of the old version of the constitution before they were forced off the Palace Square by police and National Guard troops.

Mr Putin first proposed the constitutional changes in January.

He initially offered to broaden the powers of parliament and redistribute authority among the branches of government, but it later became clear the amendments could be used to allow Mr Putin to run two more times.

The Russian president has been in power longer than any other Kremlin leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, and has said he will decide later whether to run again in 2024.

He has argued that resetting the term count is necessary to keep officials focused on their work instead of “darting their eyes in search for possible successors”.

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Russia's Putin urges Turkey, Iran to help promote dialogue in Syria

MOSCOW/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin told his counterparts from Turkey and Iran on Wednesday that there was a need for peaceful dialogue between the opposing forces in Syria’s civil war.

Putin also told Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani in a televised video conference that hot spots of terrorism still remain in Syria’s Idlib and other regions.

“An inclusive inter-Syrian dialogue should be actively promoted within the framework of the constitutional committee in Geneva. I propose to support this process, to help the participants to meet and start a direct dialogue,” Putin said.

In Syria’s nine-year-old war, Russia and Iran are the main foreign supporters of President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, while Turkey backs opposition fighters. Under a diplomatic process dating back to 2017, they agreed to work to reduce fighting.

In a joint statement, Russia, Turkey and Iran “expressed the conviction” that Syria’s war had no military solution and has to be settled only via a political process.

They also welcomed a meeting of the Syrian constitutional committee in August, a gathering that is meant to be a step forward in what the United Nations says will be a long road to political rapprochement, followed by elections.

They agreed to hold the next trilateral summit on Syria in Iran, but gave no date, saying it would meet when possible.

Apart from the Syrian issue, the three countries agreed to promote their economic cooperation, the document said.

After worsening violence displaced nearly a million people, Turkey and Russia agreed in March to halt hostilities in northwest Syria’s Idlib region. This month military jets bombed villages in the rebel-held area.

Erdogan also told the video conference that the priority for Syria is a lasting solution to the conflict, “achievement of calm in the field and the protection of Syria’s political unity and territorial integrity”.

“We will continue to do all we can so that our neighbour Syria finds peace, security and stability soon,” he said.

Rouhani called the presence of U.S. forces in Syria “illegitimate”, urging them to quit immediately. He also pledged Iran’s support for the “legal government” of Bashar Al-Assad.

After saying last year all U.S. troops would leave northern Syria, Washington has left some behind for at some bases but rolled back most of their operations.

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Bolton, Democrats urge Russia sanctions if bounty reports are true

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Democrats and a leading Republican hawk on Tuesday called for U.S. President Donald Trump to consider imposing new economic sanctions on Russia if a reported Russian effort to pay the Taliban to kill U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan was confirmed.

Trump has been under pressure over a New York Times report on Friday that a Russian military intelligence unit had offered bounties for U.S. and allied soldiers and later reported that he received a written briefing on the matter in February.

After Trump initially said he was not briefed on the matter, the White House said Trump was not “personally” briefed but did not address whether he had received a written report, read it, and why he had not responded more aggressively if so.

The shifting statements have generated controversy among his fellow Republicans as well as Democrats and the suggestion that Trump may have ignored or not known about a threat to U.S. troops could damage him as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3.

House of Representatives Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, a Democrat, said Trump should be looking to impose costs on Moscow.

Related Coverage

  • Trump must have been aware of Russia bounty allegation, Democratic lawmaker says
  • Russia bounty reports, if true, should lead to U.S. sanctions, John Bolton says

“We should be considering what sanctions are appropriate to further deter Russia’s malign activities,” he told reporters after a briefing for House Democrats at the White House.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden called Trump’s handling of the matter a “dereliction of duty.”

And John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, told Reuters if the allegations were true it was “tantamount to an attack on Americans directly.”

“That requires a very serious response,” he said. “It could well be asymmetric economic sanctions.

The White House has sought to play down reports in the Times and the Washington Post that it knew of accusations that Russia paid the Taliban bounties to kill U.S. and coalition troops but had not briefed Trump or acted on the information.

Four U.S. government sources have confirmed to Reuters that credible U.S. intelligence suggested Russia offered such bounties.

A fifth person familiar with the matter said such intelligence was first brought to the White House’s attention around March 2019 but it was then uncorroborated and “could have been disinformation.”

The White House has said there was no consensus on the intelligence and it would not be elevated to the president until verified.

However, the New York Times cited two unnamed officials as saying officials gave Trump a written briefing in late February laying out their conclusion that Russia had offered and paid bounties.

The newspaper said it was in the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) document – the premier product of U.S. intelligence agencies that is prepared for him to read.

A U.S. government source declined to confirm or deny the threat information was in a PDB in February but told Reuters material is sometimes included in PDBs so that other senior officials can evaluate it and follow up.

In this case, the source said that the matter was raised at a high level earlier this year, the intelligence is regarded as credible, and steps were taken to formulate a response.

The source suggested a response was still under discussion and Trump arguably did not have to be involved while the information was checked out.

However, a Congressional source voiced skepticism that such information would be included in a PDB with an expectation the president would not read it and that others would deal with it.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that U.S. officials had intercepted data showing big financial transfers from an account controlled by Russia’s military intelligence agency to a Taliban-linked account. It said this eased disagreements in the U.S. intelligence community and undercut White House officials’ claim that the intelligence was too uncertain to brief Trump.

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Putin urges Russians to vote for changes that could extend his rule

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Vladimir Putin made a last-ditch appeal to Russians on Tuesday to vote for constitutional changes that would allow him to run again for president twice, potentially extending his rule until 2036.

Putin spoke at the scene of a series of bloody World War Two battles on the eve of the main and last day of a seven-day nationwide vote that would change the constitution for the first time since 1993, a move critics have likened to a legal coup.

“We are not just voting for amendments. We are voting for the country in which we want to live …for a country for whose sake we are working and want to pass onto our children,” said Putin in front of a monument of a Red Army soldier he had just unveiled on a hill in the town of Rzhev in western Russia.

Putin made no mention of how the changes could affect his own career. That is consistent with the official get-out-the-vote campaign which has stressed other amendments instead.

State exit polls suggest the changes will be backed by over two thirds of voters, allowing the 67-year-old former KGB officer – if he wishes – to run for another two six-year, back-to-back stints after his current term expires in 2024.

He has already led Russia for more than two decades.

At 60%, according to the Levada pollster, his approval rating remains high but well down on its peak of nearly 90%.

Putin has said he has yet to take a final decision on his future, though critics are convinced he will run again. However, some analysts believe he has yet to decide, and wants to keep his options open so as not to become a lame duck.

“WORLD CLASS LEADER”

Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed head of Chechnya, a mainly Muslim republic in Russia’s Caucasus region, told aides that Putin should be made president for life.

“Right now who can replace him?” said Kadyrov. “There’s no such world class leader and we should be proud of that.”

With Russia still reporting thousands of new COVID-19 cases every day, opponents have been unable to stage protests but they have mocked the vote online, saying it is a farce whose outcome has already been decided by the authorities.

Putin has said he wants a clean vote, something election officials have pledged to deliver.

Critics have shared photographs of makeshift polling stations set up in apartment stairwells, courtyards and in the boot of a parked car.

“We’ll fall ill and die – but we’ll deliver the votes for Putin,” joked allies of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny, posting a video of a vote being held in a stairwell in Siberia near a flat where a coronavirus case had been registered.

The Communist Party, which has advised supporters to vote “no” to the changes, complained of irregularities at two Moscow polling stations, where it said the number of registered home voters was 10 times higher than normal.

In one video shared on social media on Tuesday, two policemen were seen wrestling to the ground a journalist observing a polling station in St Petersburg. He screamed out in pain after his arm was pinned behind his back.

Golos, a non-governmental organisation that monitors elections, said it was already clear it would not be able to confirm the vote’s outcome as legitimate.

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What’s going on between Russia, US and Afghanistan?

What are we to make of the reports that have surfaced in the past few days that Russian military intelligence agents were offering money to Taliban fighters to kill US and possibly other Western service personnel? How true are these reports? Can they be substantiated? And what is their real significance?

For a start, we have a triple denial from all of the main parties involved. The Russian government has dismissed the story out of hand. So too have the Taliban.

And US President Donald Trump has vehemently denied any knowledge of the matter – with White House sources telling the US press that the subject never reached as high as the president or vice-president because there was no consensus in the intelligence community about the veracity of the reports.

However, serious US news outlets are carrying a range of reports quoting a variety of sources, suggesting that an intelligence assessment that Russian agents were offering bounties to the Taliban for the killing of US or coalition troops had been around since March; that significant amounts of cash had been seized in US raids; and that some US personnel may indeed have been killed as a result.

These sources also indicate that the intelligence assessment was indeed briefed at the highest levels, including mention at the president’s own daily intelligence briefing.

Mr Trump’s critics – not least the Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden – have seized upon these reports to highlight once again their view that Mr Trump is not up to defending US interests.

But perhaps more interestingly, even some key Republicans are raising questions – Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming asking the inevitable question of who did know about the assessment and when did they know it?

Payback?

Why, though, might Russia promote such action? Potentially, it has multiple motives.

Russia maintains close links with the Taliban for good reason. It sees the US involvement in Afghanistan winding down. It is deeply concerned about the rise of Islamist fundamentalism in the region spreading in its direction. And it sees the Taliban as one potential bulwark against this.

Moscow is believed to have supported key Taliban leaders with arms and money. And while it also maintains links with the Afghan government and in broad terms supports the putative Afghan peace deal, it is effectively hedging its bets, fearful of future Afghan instability.

But Russia is also waging a “grey” or undeclared war against the West. This has many elements: cyber-attacks; disinformation campaigns; electoral interference; the funding of extremists in Western countries and so on.

At times, this has even resulted in direct action: for example the use of nerve agent in the bungled assassination attempt on a former Russian intelligence officer in the British cathedral town of Salisbury, and a full-scale assault by Russian military contractors on a US position in Syria during which US air strikes are reported to have killed significant numbers of Russians.

Russia under President Vladimir Putin has smarted from every perceived indignity suffered since the fall of the Soviet Union. It was, of course, US support for Afghan irregular fighters that contributed to Moscow’s forced withdrawal from Afghanistan in the 1980s.

And there are suggestions that some in the Russian hierarchy might not be averse to paying the Americans back for both past and more recent setbacks.

Ambiguity

This episode also throws a stark light on the current state of US-Russia relations. US policy towards Moscow is suffering from a kind of schizophrenia.

On the one hand, the US is wary of Russian nuclear modernisation and suspicious of its broader plans in the Middle East and elsewhere; but on the other, this administration is strangely accepting of Russian denials, for example concerning its alleged intrusion into the US election campaign.

Much of this ambiguity is down to the person of President Trump himself, whom many see as rather admiring of strong, dictatorial leaders.

And to this extent, the handling of this intelligence report casts another light on the whole foreign policy process within the Trump administration.

It will add weight to those critics from both the Democratic side of politics and more hardline Republicans, like the former National Security Adviser John Bolton, who argue in their different ways that there is no strategic direction, no joined up thinking, and no leadership from the top.

This is a delicate story at the best of times and it is not going to go away. If even partly true and if any deaths can be ascribed to the paying of bounties by the Russians, it would mark a new low point in US-Russia relations since the Cold War ended.

The fact that it comes in the midst of a re-election campaign where Mr Trump is having to deal with plunging popularity amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations gives it an added edge.

For there is a factor here that Washington’s friends and enemies alike have to contend with: there is at least the possibility now that President Trump could lose his re-election bid. Even beyond the dramatic medical, social and economic impact of the pandemic, there is a lot going on now.

The Russians and the Chinese are seeking to assert themselves as regional powers, though Beijing’s ambitions may go further. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering the possible annexation of territory in the West Bank.

The UK’s government is seeking to realise what it sees as the benefits of Brexit and to rebrand its foreign policy under the banner of “Global Britain”.

For the next few months, all of these actors are going to have to factor into their plans the likely response of two US administrations: the one that is there now, and another which may take over in January.

And a Biden administration will be much more likely to call out Russia if the Afghan bounties story is ultimately revealed to be true.

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