‘Huge mistake’: Fears of arms race as US, Russia suspend INF pact

The US suspended the INF Treaty after accusing Russia of violating the pact with its 9M729 missile system [Yuri Kochetkov/EPA]
The US suspended the INF Treaty after accusing Russia of violating the pact with its 9M729 missile system [Yuri Kochetkov/EPA]

In an escalating standoff over nuclear weapons, Russia and the United States have suspended compliance with the Cold War-era Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, prompting fears of a new arms race that analysts and politicians say could push the world “much closer” to a nuclear war.

The long-running dispute between Washington and Moscow came to a head on Friday when US President Donald Trump accused Russia of violating the 1987 bilateral treaty with “impunity”, and announced his government was suspending its obligations under the landmark pact.

Pledging to “move forward” with its own military response options, Trump said the US will withdraw from the accord  in six months unless Moscow destroyed land-based missiles allegedly deployed in violation of the treaty.

In a tit-for-tat move on Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was also suspending Moscow’s participation in the agreement.

“Our American partners have announced they were suspending their participation in the treaty and we will do the same,” he said in a televised meeting with his defence and foreign ministers.

“They have announced they will conduct research and development, and we will act accordingly.”

Russia will start work on creating new missiles, including hypersonic weapons, he said, adding that Moscow will not deploy such weapons in the European part of the country or elsewhere unless the US does so.

‘Huge mistake’

The reciprocal moves effectively terminate a pact regarded as one of the most important safeguards against nuclear war.

They come amid strained relations between Washington and Moscow over issues including Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and its alleged interference in the 2016 US presidential elections.

Analysts said Trump’s decision to scrap the pact leaves Russia free to shape the military balance in Europe.

The strategic advantages for the US, however, were less clear, they said.

“Nothing good will come out of the US withdrawal,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, executive director of the non-proliferation programme at the Washington-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

“The Trump administration has made a huge mistake – it’s a breakdown of arms control. It’s a breakdown of trust between US and Russia. The US will have problems with its European allies, and it will engage in a new arms race with China as well.”

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The INF Treaty was signed following the Euromissile crisis in the late 1970s and 1980s, when the Soviet Union’s mobilising of cruise missiles that could hit most of Europe prompted the US to deploy to the region ballistic missiles that could reach Moscow in 10 minutes.

The pact banned all ground-based missiles with ranges between 500km and 5,500km, ridding Europe of an entire category of destabilising weapons – nearly 3,000 ground-launched intermediate ballistic and cruise missiles were destroyed.

The treaty does not cover air- or sea-launched weapons, and did not include other powers such as China, North KoreaIran and Israel, allowing these countries to grow their stockpile of weapons.

Strategic benefits

Since 2014, US officials have accused Russia of breaching the treaty with its 9M729 missile. Moscow rejects the allegation, saying the missile’s range does not exceed 500km. It also accused the US of violating the treaty with its missile defence systems in Romania and Poland – a claim the US denies.

“Let’s be clear – the Russians were cheating,” said Tom Nichols, a US-based defence analyst. “It was a provocation to menace the Europeans and to see if they could bait the Americans into walking away.”

The US response only showed how “confused” Washington’s nuclear arms policy was, he said.

Observers said most European and NATO countries were unlikely to host any land-based intermediate-range missiles that the US might develop, meaning Washington was pulling out of the deal without any real strategic benefit.

Poland and Romania, scarred by past Soviet occupation, may be more enthusiastic to host such weapons, according to Leo Hoffman at the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, but such a move could divide the NATO alliance.

“This is also completely the wrong approach to take,” the Brussels-based campaigner said, “because by arming yourself to the teeth, you make yourself a target”.

The US’ unilateral decision was “jeopardising” Europe’s security, he added.

Carl Bildt, a co-chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations, agreed. The INF Treaty’s demise will allow Russia to deploy its Kalibr cruise missiles with a range of 1,500km from ground launchers, he said in a Twitter post on Friday.

“This would quickly cover all of Europe with an additional threat,” he said.

Carl Bildt

@carlbildt

After demise of INF Treaty Russia can now also deploy its Kaliber cruise missiles with ranges around 1.500 km from ground launchers. This would quickly cover all of Europe with an additional threat. https://twitter.com/Liveuamap/status/1091637014431182848 

Liveuamap

@Liveuamap

Replying to @Liveuamap

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu: After the US withdrawal from the treaty, I propose to use Kaliber missiles with land-based launchers https://russia.liveuamap.com/en/2019/2-february-russian-defense-minister-sergei-shoigu-after-the #Russia

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China’s nuclear missile arsenal

The “real reason” for the US pullout, according to Fitzpatrick, was Washington’s concern over China’s buildup of intermediate-range missiles in the Western Pacific.

China’s inventory contains more than 2,000 ballistic and cruise missiles, approximately 95 percent of which would violate the INF Treaty if Beijing were a signatory, according to US officials. But the INF Treaty prevents the US from placing short and intermediate range missiles on land near China as a deterrent.

However, it was unclear how willing US allies in Asia, such as Japan or South Korea, maybe to host such weapons. So while the US move “sends a signal of concern about China, it comes without any plan or response in place,” said Fitzpatrick. “And I think that’s a big danger.”

For its part, China has appealed to the US and Russia to preserve the treaty, saying the US move “may trigger a series of adverse consequences”.

OPINION

The end of INF: Another nuclear treaty bites the dust

Alexander Gillespie
by Alexander Gillespie

In Moscow, Pavel Felgenhauer, a Russian military analyst, said he was concerned about Putin’s order to develop hypersonic ballistic missiles.

“Such a weapon would avoid missile defence systems in Europe and the Middle East. That brings the situation into a higher level, more dangerous … and that would bring nuclear war much closer,” he said.

In Washington, Trump’s political opponents have labelled the president’s INF Treaty move a “disaster” and submitted legislation to bar the US from using a nuclear weapon unless attacked with one first.

Elizabeth Warren, a Democrat senator and presidential hopeful who introduced the No First Use Act, urged the country’s Congress to pass her bill and prevent Trump “from unilaterally starting a nuclear war”.

Elizabeth Warren

@SenWarren

We can hold Russia accountable without tearing up the INF Treaty. Withdrawing won’t make America any safer – it just increases the potential for a new arms race that would make the world even more dangerous.

Elizabeth Warren

@SenWarren

.@realDonaldTrump wants to upgrade our nuclear arsenal AND end decades-old arms control agreements. That’s a recipe for disaster. Congress must immediately pass my bill to prevent him (or any president) from unilaterally starting a nuclear war. https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/30/politics/warren-adam-smith-nuclear-weapons/index.html 

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With the INF Treaty all but gone, all eyes are on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), a 2010 pact that limits the US and Russia to no more than 700 deployed strategic missiles and bombers and no more than 1,550 deployed strategic warheads.

The treaty expires in two years, but can be extended by up to five years.

“If New START lapses in 2021, no treaties will constrain US and Russian nuclear forces, a break from some 50 years of nuclear arms control between Washington and Moscow,” Steven Pifer, a fellow at Brookings Institute, said in a post on Axios, a US-based news and information website.

“That world invariably will be less stable, less predictable and less secure,” he wrote.

Zaheena Rasheed contributed reporting to this article.

SOURCE: AL JAZEERA NEWS

Russia used all major social media platforms to aid Trump (especially Instagram)

Two new reports say Russian disinformation campaign on US social media is much more far-reaching than initially thought.

This May 21, 2013 file photo shows an iPhone in Washington with Twitter, Facebook, and other apps [File: Evan Vucci/AP Photo] [Daylife]

Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election on social media was more widespread than previously thought and included attempts to divide Americans by race and extreme ideology, according to reports by private experts released on Monday by US senators from both parties.

The Russian government’s Internet Research Agency, based in St Petersburg, Russia, tried to manipulate US politics, said the reports, one by social media analysts New Knowledge and the other by an Oxford University team working with analytical firm Graphika.

The twin reports largely verified earlier findings by US intelligence agencies, but offered much more detail about Russian activity going back years that continues even now.

For instance, one Russian troll farm tried to encourage US “secessionist movements” in California and Texas, the New Knowledge report said.

“What they tried to do is divide US public opinion by the existing divisions that were there,” Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher said, reporting from Washington, DC.

Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the US Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement that the new “data demonstrates how aggressively Russia sought to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology”.

REPORTER’S NOTEBOOK

Facebook, Russian trolls and the new era of information warfare

Bob Abeshouse
by Bob Abeshouse

The Russian agency worked to erode trust in US democratic institutions and its activities have not stopped, he said. The committee collected data from social media companies that was used by the private analysts in their analysis.

Senator Mark Warner, the committee’s top Democrat, said, “These reports demonstrate the extent to which the Russians exploited the fault lines of our society to divide Americans in an attempt to undermine and manipulate our democracy.

“These attacks … were much more comprehensive, calculating and widespread than previously revealed,” he said.

Targeted African Americans

Oxford/Graphika said the Russians spread “sensationalist, conspiratorialist, and other forms of junk political news and misinformation to voters across the political spectrum.”

The group said Russian trolls urged African Americans to boycott the election or to follow wrong voting procedures, while also encouraging right-wing voters to be more confrontational.

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Since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, it said, Russian trolls have put out messages urging Mexican-American and other Hispanic voters to mistrust US institutions.

The report from New Knowledge said the Russians ran “comprehensive Anti-Hillary Clinton operations,” such as efforts to organize Muslims to stage a pro-Clinton demonstration.

The report said Russian hackers also targeted Republican senators Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham and the late John McCain, as well as former FBI chief James Comey, special prosecutor Robert Mueller, and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

The matter is being investigated by Special Counsel Mueller, whose long-running inquiry has clouded the Trump presidency and netted guilty pleas and indictments against former close Trump associates.

Social media, games, apps

Another major takeaway from both studies is the breadth of Russian interference that appeared on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook and was not frequently mentioned when its parent company testified on Capitol Hill. The study says that as attention was focused on Facebook and Twitter in 2017, the Russians shifted much of their activity to Instagram.

The New Knowledge study says that there were 187 million engagements with users on Instagram, while there were 77 million on Facebook.

“Instagram was a significant front in the IRA’s influence operation, something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in congressional testimony,” the researchers wrote. They added that “our assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis.”

The Russian activity went far beyond the three tech companies that provided information, reaching many smaller sites as well. The New Knowledge report details sophisticated attempts to infiltrate internet games, browser extensions and music apps. The Russians even used social media to encourage users of the game Pokemon Go – which was at peak popularity in the months before the 2016 presidential election – to use politically divisive usernames, for example.

The report discusses even more unconventional ways that the Russian accounts attempted to connect with Americans and recruit assets, such as merchandise with certain messages, specific follower requests, job offers and even help lines that could encourage people to unknowingly disclose sensitive information to Russia that could later be used against them.

The Russians’ attempts to influence Americans on social media first became widely public in the fall of 2017. Several months later, Mueller’s indictment laid out a vast, organised Russian effort to sway political opinion. While the social media companies had already detailed some of the efforts, the indictment tied actual people to the operation and named 13 Russians responsible.

The Kremlin has denied the allegations of meddling. Trump has denied any collusion between Russia and his campaign.

Trump Cancels G20 Meeting with Putin

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Trump-Russia: Five big things Mueller is looking at

Robert Mueller walks through the halls of Congress.

After a lull around the mid-term elections, Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation is accelerating again. But where does it go from here?

Former Trump personal lawyer Michael Cohen’s plea deal was the exclamation point at the end of a week that gave numerous hints and indications of where the special counsel’s office may be focusing its efforts in the days to come.

Here are five potential lines of inquiry Mr Mueller could be pursuing and why.

Trump tower meeting

It’s been more than 16 months since the first public disclosure of the 9 June, 2016, Trump Tower meeting between a Russian team lead by lawyer Natalya Veselnitskaya and Donald Trump Jr, Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner – three of the top members of the Trump campaign.

The meeting has continued to loom in the background as either a smoking gun of collusion in plain view or campaign business as usual, depending on who’s doing the talking.

Although Mr Mueller reportedly learned about the meeting at the same time as the rest of America, it’s now clearly a point of interest in the special counsel’s larger investigation into possible co-operation or co-ordination between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign.

Donald Trump Jr speaks at a mid-term campaign event in Texas.Donald Trump Jr was told the Russian government supported his father’s presidential campaign

According to multiple media outlets, the special counsel’s office asked the president about whether he had advanced knowledge of the meeting in written questions that Mr Trump answered last week.

The president supposedly denied – as he has in public – any prior knowledge of the Trump tower get-together, which was presented to his son as both part of an effort by the Russian government to help the Trump campaign and an opportunity to gain “incriminating information” about Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

If the Trump Tower meeting is evidence of the Trump campaign team’s interest in gaining information from Russia, the big question becomes what – if anything – happened next.

Ms Veselnitskaya is reported to have ties to senior members of the Russian government. It would not require a significant leap of faith to conclude that the Trump team’s openness to Russian help eventually made it back to those government officials.

Trump Jr responded to word that Russia had dirt on Mrs Clinton with: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer”. A few months later, according to Mr Mueller, Russians were disseminating damaging information about Mrs Clinton and the Democrats.

Now Mr Mueller is asking questions about the meeting. He’s also had an on-again, off-again co-operation agreement with Mr Manafort, who was in the room for that Trump Tower meeting.

It could be a sign the special counsel knows more than he’s letting on. Or it could mean there’s more he wants to learn. Either way, the Trump Tower meeting is at the centre of it all.

Short presentational grey line

The WikiLeaks connection

One of this week’s big reveals, in the form of a leaked draft plea agreement, was how closely the special counsel team is looking at possible ties between WikiLeaks and those connected with the Trump presidential campaign.

In previous court filings, Mr Mueller identified WikiLeaks as the chosen means by which Russian hackers distributed politically damaging documents and emails it had purloined from Democratic Party and Clinton campaign sources.

Now, per the draft agreement offered to conservative author and conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, the special counsel’s office is looking into efforts by long-time Trump associate Roger Stone to reach out to WikiLeaks and its founder, Julian Assange.

Julian Assange stands on the balcony of the Ecuadorian embassy in London.Image copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionA special counsel indictment says Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks was the outlet chosen by Russia to distribute hacked documents

The agreement, in which Mr Corsi would have admitted to lying to investigators, included reference to multiple Stone emails, as well as a Corsi reply that told of WikiLeaks document dumps to come.

There have also been multiple news reports of contacts during the 2016 campaign between the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, and WikiLeaks.

There is still no concrete evidence that Mr Stone, Trump Jr or anyone else with ties to the Trump campaign knew about the hacked Democratic emails before they were publicly released. But the Corsi information shows Mr Mueller is digging in that direction.

Short presentational grey line

The Moscow deal

Mr Trump has insisted, accurately, that there’s no law or rule against exploring foreign business dealings while running for president. It’s not an issue that comes up very frequently, of course, but then-candidate Trump was clear that he wasn’t putting his financial interests on hold while seeking the Republican presidential nomination.

In fact, his claims of business acumen were a central part of his presidential campaign.

Michael Cohen’s plea deal, however, indicates that Mr Mueller and his team are keenly interested in the details of the Trump Organization’s ties to Russia, which the president’s former personal lawyer is now saying stretched well into the heart of the 2016 campaign season.

That Mr Cohen felt compelled to lie to Congress about the extent of these ties – out of what he says was loyalty to Mr Trump and a desire to be consistent with his “political messaging” – could be an indication that there is more to Mr Trump’s Russian business dealings than are currently known by the public.

The president calls his ex-lawyer and fixer a liar and “weak person”.

At the very least it makes clear that Mr Cohen communicated directly with an assistant to Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov – opening yet another potential line of communication between the Trump team and Russia. In addition a Cohen associate, Felix Sater, was relaying messages from Mr Peskov, who until now had denied any such contacts.

Again, there’s no clear evidence that Mr Trump or those close to him engaged in any misconduct. But it also is clear that as recently as June 2016 Mr Trump’s organisation was seeking to profit from Russian business dealings and reportedly considered offering Mr Putin a $50m penthouse in the planned Moscow Trump Tower.

The Cohen revelations aren’t the first indication that Mr Mueller has been “zeroing in” on Mr Trump’s business empire – something the president once said would be a red line the special counsel shouldn’t cross.

Taken with other reports, however – including that US attorneys in Manhattan have given immunity to long-time Trump Organization accountant Allen Weisselberg – it’s clear evidence that the Trump business empire is directly under the microscope.

Short presentational grey line

James Comey’s firing

One area that hasn’t come up in any of Mr Mueller’s court filings to date are allegations that Mr Trump or those close to him in the White House engaged in efforts to obstruct the Russia investigation.

Exhibit A in this case, according to the president’s critics, is his April 2017 firing of James Comey after what Mr Comey said were his efforts to pressure the FBI director to pledge his loyalty and back off an investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.

They point to a comment in an interview Mr Trump made shortly after the firing that the move was made with “the Russia thing” in mind and the remark to Russian officials in the Oval Office that removing Mr Comey relieved “great pressure” on him.

James Comey and Donald Trump shake hands in 2017.Robert Mueller could view Donald Trump’s decision to fire James Comey as an effort to obstruct the Russia investigation

Other bits and pieces of evidence include Mr Trump’s very public criticism of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, whose recusal from the Russia investigation he views as leading to Mr Mueller’s appointment, and the president’s reported effort to fire Mr Mueller last June.

It’s an open question as to whether a president can be charged with obstruction of justice – or if adjudicating such a matter rests solely in the hands of Congress through the impeachment and removal process. Mr Mueller is said to be looking into the matter, however, although a denouement may have to wait until a final, comprehensive report at the conclusion of the investigation.

Short presentational grey line

Russian cyber-warfare

Overlooked in the flurry of revelations of the past few weeks and the “Sturm und Drang” arising from Mr Trump’s repeated criticisms of the special counsel investigation is the fact that Mr Mueller has already laid out extensive details about the nature and extent of Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election.

In a one-two punch of indictments, Mr Mueller detailed Russian use of social media to create false narratives and sow discord in the political process, on-the-ground activities that included information-gathering by Russian operatives and financial support for rallies and protestors during the election season, and the targeted efforts to hack computer systems and emails of Democratic Party and Clinton campaign officials.

The crimes alleged by the special counsel’s office are nothing short of cyber-warfare waged against US institutions at the direction of a foreign government. There’s always the chance that more charges will be filed.

Trump voter: ‘They all break the law’

A total of 25 Russian nationals and three Russian organisations have been indicted so far. And given that none of the individuals are in US custody, chances are slim that they will ever face a day in court.

One of the indicted companies, Concord Management and Consult, is contesting the charges in US court, however. At the moment, it is engaged in a legal battle to gain access to information the US government considers “sensitive,” which it lawyers say could aid in their defence.

According to some national security experts, the move could be a Russian effort to bog down the special counsel office or even gather valuable information about the inner workings of Mr Mueller’s investigation.

If this case ever makes it to trial, it could become the source of some unexpected drama that lasts well beyond the main fireworks of the Russia probe.