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The Flynn Charge: Implications and Exposure

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At 10.30am on December 1st, Former National Security Advisor Lt. General Mike Flynn pleaded guilty to a single charge of providing false statements to FBI officials (violation U.S.C. 1001) filed by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. Flynn’s guilty plea was part of a specific, public plea agreement entered into with the special counsel, tasked with investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s possible collusion. The Lieutenant General promised to fully cooperate in all matters of relevance, including turning over “all evidence of crimes about which your client is aware”, “providing sworn written statements” and testifying “before any and all Grand Juries.” For a relatively narrow charge, it was a wide-reaching agreement. It was, moreover, a political and legal bombshell that continues to ricochet within the White House and, quite possibly, the Oval Office. It is best to separate the damage into two distinct categories: exposure to the crime Flynn pleaded guilty to, and those he is possibly relaying to Robert Mueller.

Let’s start with the latter. In the past few days, two main schools of thought have emerged among leading US legal scholars over the significance of Flynn’s plea deal for Mueller’s collusion probe. The first is what we might call the ‘big fish school’, expressed in the analysis of many reputable media and legal commentaries. As stated in Lawfare’s ‘Quick and Dirty Analysis’ of the matter, “if a tenth of the allegations against Flynn are true and provable, he has gotten a very good deal from Mueller” — Flynn was reportedly on the payroll of the Turkish government and companies linked to Russian intelligence, to name a few of the litany of detailed allegations against him. According to this analysis, “prosecutors do not give generous deals in major public integrity cases to big-fish defendants without good reason” and, as such, “for Mueller to give Flynn a deal of this sort, the prosecutor must believe he is building a case against a bigger fish still.” What this case involves would relate to the proffer Flynn made to Mueller: explicit information of crimes of interest that cannot be withdrawn upon entry into the plea agreement. What this information reveals is anyone’s guess.

Preet Bharara, former US attorney for the Southern District of New York and famously fired by Donald Trump, as well as Andrew McCarthy, the conservative former federal prosecutor for the same district, have poured cold water on this view. For these attorneys, Flynn’s plea deal reflects Mueller’s weak hand: how damaging could Flynn’s information be if his plea agreement does not protect him from future prosecution, and would Mueller really wipe a dirty slate clean in exchange for it? Writing in Foreign Policy magazine, Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes and Susan Hennessey do not dismiss this argument out of hand, arguing instead that it only adds to the “unsolved mystery” of Flynn’s plea agreement. Either Flynn is only minimally exposed in the information he is relaying to Mueller, or there is something not publicly disclosed in the agreement submitted to court. But then again, Flynn testified that there exists no secret side agreement. Hence the mystery.

Turning to Flynn’s actual testimony, his statement of offence makes clear he was not acting as a ‘rogue agent’ during the transition but consulted with a “senior official” over his phone call with Russian Ambassador Kislyak, debriefed “senior members” of the transition team over the nature of that call and was directed by a “very senior member” concerning an additional conversation with the ambassador. The White House’s explanation for Flynn’s firing — that he lied to Vice President Mike Pence (who led the transition team) over the nature of those calls — now looks very precarious, implicating not only the Vice President but all White House staff involved in forming the explanation. Moreover, if a CNN report in November is true — that Mueller interviewed Jared Kushner over whether he possessed information that could exonerate Flynn, Kushner’s exposure is noteworthy, especially in light of US media widely sourcing the “very senior official” as Kushner himself. Given the breadth of Kushner’s reported contacts with Russian officials, it is not unreasonable to suppose Mueller is working his way up the food chain.

Flynn’s statement of offence also appears to expose President Trump in Mueller’s obstruction of justice investigation. By linking Flynn’s crime to senior administration officials, President Trump has additional motive for allegedly telling FBI Director James Comey, “I hope you can see your way to letting this go, to letting Flynn go” (as testified by Comey). President Trump’s response to the Flynn charge also did little to help his cause: by tweeting on 2nd December that he fired Flynn for “lying to the FBI”, he only added credibility to this alleged motive.

This review has separated the implications of Mike Flynn’s plea agreement into those related and unrelated to his charge, but the most significant implication might in fact be in the blurring of the two. Unless one counts the 18th century Logan Act, yet to be prosecuted in a court of law, Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador were arguably not illegal. The questions going forward are likely to be why Flynn, Kushner, Pence and the White House misled their audiences. Could the answer be found in Mike Flynn’s recent cooperation?

The Irish Border: The Latest Roadblock

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When Theresa May signed Article 50 at the end of March the countdown started. Deciding to leave the EU is the easy part, now the UK has to negotiate a thousand different details to ensure that its citizens are able to have the same rights and freedoms that they are used to. The most recent hurdle to the Brexit negotiations is Ireland threatening to veto the Brexit deal if Britain doesn’t state in writing that there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. One of the advantages of Brexit is greater control over the borders making this request difficult for the government to agree without a fight. During the negotiation Britain needs to be able to retain control of the border while making sure that we don’t reopen old wounds, hurt the economy of Northern Ireland, or lead to a vote of no confidence triggering an election.

The Troubles was a 30 year long fight between Protestant and Catholic Irish over where Northern Ireland should become part of England or part of Ireland. Ireland is historically a Catholic country and the Protestants mostly came from England and settled in Ireland this lead to the division of Northern Ireland from the rest. It was difficult for people to know which side people were on so bombers attacked the English who had troops in the area and maintained a hard border to try to stop weapons from entering northern Ireland. This border had a large impact on the day to day lives of many Irish who worked in Northern Ireland but lived in Ireland, as well as those who had family there. So for many Irish a hard border is a reminder of the days of violence and uncertainty.

A hard border may be desirable for England as control over the borders is not only useful to keep out illegal immigrants but also stop drug shipments into the country but the downside for England is that it then makes moving legal shipments across the border more time consuming and therefore expensive. According to the Financial Times it will affect 9 out of 10 small companies in Northern Ireland as they are reliant on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Northern Ireland is the second poorest area in the UK and is dependent on agriculture for jobs, this industry that will be negatively affected by a hard border as it also relies on moving livestock between the two countries.

After the election the conservatives didn’t have enough MP’s to form a government. They formed a coalition with the DUP the party is from Northern Ireland and they are a pro Brexit party. One possible solution to the border issue it was suggested that Northern Ireland is allowed to stay in the single market but the DUP have stated that they will dissolve the coalition if this is agreed.

The conservatives face a difficult negotiation as many people have leverage over them. The DUP holds the future of the current government in its hands. They face splitting a country that has taken great strides to recover from its large divisions. They face the possibility of crippling an already poor area. And if they get it wrong they face a veto on the Brexit deal and have to walk away with nothing.

Hariri’s Resignation – Lebanon Towards a Quagmire of Uncertainty

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On the 4th November, Saad Hariri announced from Riyadh that he is stepping down as Lebanon’s prime minister. His abrupt resignation shocked not only Lebanon but the whole world- with politicians and analysts concerned for a new crisis in fragile Lebanon. Hariri, during his resignation speech from the Saudi capital, accused Iran and Hezbollah of interfering and sowing conflict in Lebanon. He also admitted that he feared suffering the same fate as his father- Rafiq Hariri, Lebanon’s former leader who was killed by a car bomb in 2005, with Hezbollah members indicted for his assassination.

The mystery over his decision to resign had people speculating that he was in fact forced to resign by the Saudi royal family and that his script was written by Saudi officials.
Sources close to Hariri reported that his phone was confiscated when he arrived in Riyadh and the next day he was forced to resign. President Michael Aoun refused to accept Hariri’s resignation until he was back in Beirut, while he also said that Hariri was detained in Saudi Arabia against his will- sparking diplomatic tensions. However, both Hariri and Saudi Arabia denied these allegations, while Saudi Arabia accused Beirut of declaring war against it.

After his two-week visit in the Saudi capital, Hariri left for Paris, invited by French President Emmanuel Macron where they discussed Lebanon’s stability and possible mediations to a solution- even if that meant Hariri rolling back his resignation. Hariri on his way back to Lebanon also visited Cyprus and Egypt for further consultation with their leaders. While, fears over a new crisis in Lebanon were mounting and with Lebanon trying to reassure markets amid the drop of the dollar bond prices, Hariri with his arrival in Beirut, announced that he is suspending his resignation- easing the tensions. After being urged by President Aoun to take more time for consultations Hariri stated in his decision to hold off his decision to step down, hoping “to form a serious basis for a responsible dialogue” while he said it is required to “protect Lebanon from any confronting dangers”.

Hariri’s second term has brought stability in the country over the past year, however Reuters reports argue that Saudi Arabia was unpleased with Hariri’s willingness to compromise with Hezbollah. Nevertheless, if he steps down, Lebanon could be facing a great danger of political unrest. Deciding on a new prime minister could exacerbate sectarian tensions between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims- paralysing the government. Lebanon has only just recovered in the past decade from its 1975-1990 civil war, whereas the region has spent the last years tackling its economic problems after a two-year period without a president or a functional government. Political uncertainty right now could cripple Lebanon’s economy as it has already been evident with the fall of the bond prices after Hariri withdrew from his post as prime minister, whereas companies that have showed interest in exploring the oil and gas sectors in the area, require a functional government, guaranteed regional stability. Moreover, Lebanon has been trying to stay side-lines with the turmoil of the Syrian war and has accepted more refugees than any other country. Analysts are concerned that the political volatility could aggravate the refugee crisis or even allow militant groups to expand their influence. Furthermore, concern is growing over the tensions between Hezbollah and Israel and although there are no signs of war preparations from Israel’s side, an accidental war is a possible scenario- miscalculations resulted in war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006. However, it is more than that and just as simple; a regional paralysis will leave Lebanon weak, frail into a proxy- war; on one side Iran-backed Hezbollah and Iran itself which has been trying to gain control over the region, and on the other side Saudi Arabia that has been working against Iran and Hezbollah- while talks over a Saudi-Israeli allegiance, are increasing.

Hariri’s return to Lebanon and his announcement of suspending his resignation has inspired hope, with people expressing their support towards him and with the Lebanese dollar bonds gaining again. Nevertheless, Hariri’s decision to resign, whether it is Saudi Arabia that is behind it or not, has caused plenty of concern, with Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain urging their citizens to leave the country. As diplomatic tensions are rising with Iran and Saudi Arabia accusing each other of fuelling instability in the region, Lebanon is heading towards a quagmire of uncertainty.

Ukraine/Russia Assassinations

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Since March 2017, various news outlets have reported that in the last three years approximately 38 high-profile Russians have died under suspicious circumstances both in Russia and abroad. Since the publication of these various articles in early 2017, that number has since grown with a number of new assassinations, and assassination attempts in Ukraine that have suspected links to the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin, or his allies. The most recent assassination attempt occurred in late October of this year.

On 30 October 2017 Adam Osmayev, and his wife Amina Okuyeva were attacked while driving back to their home outside of Kiev, Ukraine. It has been reported that the couple was attacked at a rail crossing where the two were gunned down by an assailant who was using a Kalashnikov rifle. Okuyeva was struck in the head twice and died at the scene. Osmayev survived the attack. This was the second attempt on Osmayev’s life. The first attempt occurred on 1 June 2017 when Artur Denisultanov-Kurmakayev, a Chechen assassin posing as a French Journalist shot Osmayez during a fake interview in Kiev. Osmayev survived the shooting. The Ukrainian government linked the failed assassination attempt to the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation (FSB). Osmayev was accused of plotting to assassinate Putin in 2012 and was imprisoned by Ukrainian authorities. Ukraine refused to extradite Osmayev to Russia until the European Court of Human Rights considered his appeal against the extradition. Osmayev was released after serving two-and-a-half years in prison. Recently, both Osmayev and Okuyeva served in leadership roles within the Dzhokhar Dudayev battalion, a paramilitary organization composed of pro-Ukrainian Islamic fighters from Chechnya, who have been fighting in Crimea and Donbass regions of Ukraine against both Russian supported rebels and Russian military forces.

On 25 October 2017 Ihor Mosiychuk, a Ukranian journalist, and far-right politician, was injured in a scooter based bomb attack as he left a television station in Kiev following an interview. Mosiychuck’s bodyguard Ruslan Kushnir and Mikhailo Mormil, a former lieutenant colonel in the Ukrainian Interior Ministry, were killed in the attack.   Mosiychuk has been an outspoken critic of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine since the conflicts in Crimea and Donbass regions began. Mosiychuk also, via a youtube video, threatened to kill Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed Head of the Chechen Republic.

On 23 March 2017 Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian MP who had fled to Ukraine after speaking out against Vladimir Putin was shot three or four times in the head and neck on the street as he left the Premier Palace hotel in Kiev. Voronenkov’s bodyguard was injured during the shooting but was able to kill the assassin. Voronenkov reportedly told another Russian MP that had escaped from Russia that he had been receiving death threats from the FSB. It was reported in the media that Voronenkov was planning to turn over evidence to be used in a legal case against Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia after his removal from office in 2014.

These successful assassinations and assassination attempts are evidence that the Russian government is potentially running a shadow campaign within Ukraine to destabilize the country by showing that any enemy, critic, or dissident of Russia is not safe within the sovereign territory of Ukraine. Consequently using that fear of death to silence any future opponents to the Russian agenda in the region.

Venezuela Ruled to be in ‘Selective Default’ over Failed Debt Payments

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On November 13th, Venezuela was ruled to be in ‘selective default’ by two major ratings agencies after the countries failure to carry out debt payments on sovereign bonds as well as PDVSA bonds that were due in October. Venezuela is already suffering with a serious humanitarian crisis, struggling to provide citizens with adequate food and medicine, and this default holds the capability to exacerbate this humanitarian crisis even further. If Venezuelan bond holders were to demand full and immediate repayment they are legally entitled to seize the countries assets. In the case of Venezuela these assets would be its oil barrels from the state owned oil company PDVSA. Oil exportation is Venezuela’s main source of income outside its borders, and the seizure of these assets would have huge economic repercussions. Given 93% of the countries exportations are crude oil, which in turn makes up 50% of the country’s GDP, the seizure of oil assets by Venezuelan bond holders would lead to further shortages of food and medicine for citizens in an already dire situation by taking away their primary source of income. The regime has, up until now, managed to honor its interest payments to foreign investors by sacrificing the importation of basic goods, food and medicines at the cost of its citizens.

On the 15th November, the Venezuelan government signed a 10-year restructuring deal with Russia for just over $3 Billion, allowing minimal payments to be made to Russia over the next 6 years. Experts expect this deal to help the struggling nation in the short-term by reliving them of some payments, in the hopes this will free up some money to help develop its struggling economy. It is reported that this deal with Russia does not include any PDVSA debt as no corporate debt was covered in the deal.

A further blow has since hit the struggling nation as the ISDA committee has as of the 16th of November ruled that the PDVSA has also defaulted on its debt, after the committee stated that a “failure to pay Credit Event” had occurred. This decision will result in the triggering of payments to investors through default insurance, but how this will be settled is to be decided in a meeting on Monday 20th.

Venezuelan officials blame their financial crisis on financial sanctions imposed by the Trump administration. These sanctions were put in place due to accusations of human rights abuses by President Maduro, and the declaration by the US that the Venezuelan leader was a Dictator. These sanctions prevent US banks from trading and/or investing in any recently issued Venezuelan debt, with Maduro accusing the US of carrying out an ‘economic war’ against them with the imposition of these sanctions. These financial sanctions are particularly problematic as the buying of new Venezuelan bonds is a requirement for any debt resolution. This leaves Venezuela in a catch-22 situation. It must refinance its debt in the form of new bonds, and with 70% of current bond holders being from North America the inability to sell more bonds to the US makes the debt resolution process that much harder.

Despite Venezuela laying the brunt of the blame on the US, experts argue the blame should instead be put on the Venezuelan socialist regime that has been in power since 1999. In a desperate attempt to make goods more affordable to citizens the freezing of prices on goods in the country was imposed, alongside the fixing of the exchange rate for the Bolivar (Venezuela’s currency). This freezing of prices lead to large numbers of farmers going out of business which has had a huge part to play regarding the food shortages. Alongside this mismanagement by the government, the price of oil during this time was continuing to drop, leaving the oil rich and cash-poor country in economic and humanitarian crisis. With Venezuela boasting the largest global oil reserves, the country should, in theory, be a wealthy and prosperous nation. Instead its citizens are living through poverty after its Governments decision to prioritise its creditors over its own people, with the economic future of Venezuela remaining unclear.