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Ukrainian Politician Savchenko Accused of Planning Large-scale Attack on Ukrainian Parliament

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On 15 March it was reported that General Prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s top prosecutor, accused Nadiya Savchenko, an ex-military helicopter navigator, who became a national hero after being held in a Russian jail, of planning an attack on parliament. Lutsenko said Savchenko, who became a member of parliament on her return from Russia, had planned an attack on parliament – which never happened – using grenades, mortars and automatic weapons.

The accusations mark a fall from grace for Savchenko, whose resolute defiance while on trial in Russia, including hunger strikes and showing a judge the middle finger live on TV, earned her the nickname of Ukraine’s “Joan of Arc”. She returned in May 2016 to great fanfare after a prisoner exchange with Russia but developed a reputation for being fiery and unpredictable. She was given a standing ovation when she first addressed parliament in 2016; she proceeded to berate her fellow lawmakers for being “lazy schoolchildren”. Since her return, she has held talks with the separatists without the government’s consent and published secret lists of people who were captured or are missing in the conflict.

After Lutsenko had accused Savchenko, the Ukrainian parliament proceeded to expel her from the national security committee and stripped her of immunity to begin criminal proceedings against her. On 22 March Savchenko, was arrested on suspicion of planning an assault on parliament and supporting a coup after MPs viewed evidence against her. It has been reported that audio and video excerpts depict conversations between Savchenko, Volodymyr Ruban, and military officers discussing surreal plans to topple the government with assassinations of high-ranking officials and civilian casualties and implying possible Russian invasion and mass repressions. Ruban is the Head of Ukraine’s Officer Corps Prisoner of War Exchange Center and was arrested by Ukrainian Authorities on 8 March on charges of “illegal arms possession” and “planning a terrorist attack.”

Prosecutors have claimed that Savchenko, since at least November 2017 has acted in collusion with Alexander Zaharchenko, the leader of the Donetsk People’s Republic, enticed several Ukrainian military officers to help stage the coup and that she asked Ruban to smuggle weapons into Ukraine. It was reported that before the release of evidence by the prosecutors that Savchenko had confessed her involvement in the conspiracy but claimed the plot was a charade aimed to scare and ridicule the regime and was never meant to take place. Savchenko has also claimed undercover agents had encouraged her to plan a coup in order to discredit her, and that she had pretended to go along with the scheme to raise public awareness about it.  On 23 March Savchenko began a hunger strike to protest her detention on charges of planning a coup against the government.

Venezuela Launches New Cryptocurrency

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Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro announced the launch of a new oil-backed cryptocurrency, known as the ‘Petro’, on 20 February 2018. The cryptocurrency is said to be an attempt to stabilize Venezuela’s struggling economy by increasing cash flow, with official sales of the cryptocurrency beginning on 23 March. Since Maduro’s announcement, the Petro has been released for pre-sale and has raised close to £527million ($735 million) in its first week alone. As of 10 March, Maduro claims the Petro has now generated $5 billion dollars during its pre-sale period, with reports of over 83,000 people from 123 countries having purchased the cryptocurrency. The figures provided by the Venezuelan government have been widely criticised across the globe, with claims they are nothing more than a farce due to no firm evidence to support the claims being provided. With mistrusted in the Maduro government at an all-time high, it is no wonder questions regarding the credibility of these claims are appearing. Off the back of the success of the Petro, the Venezuelan government have stated they are planning to prepare a second digital currency that would be known as ‘petro oro’. This second cryptocurrency they say will be backed by gold and other precious metals but little more has been said regarding the matter.

President Maduro announced in a televised speech 22 March that official sales of the Petro are to begin on 23 March, and that ” all citizens and companies will be able to purchase ‘petros’ on a specialized website with yuans, rubles, Turkish liras, and euros, as well as with cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, etherium and NEM,”. There were originally doubts as to whether common Venezuelans would be able to access the Petro, but given one Petro is priced based-on the cost of a barrel of oil which runs at $60 (6.4 million Bolivars as of December 2017), it is doubtful they could afford to do so despite being granted access.

The Petro has been widely perceived as being an attempt to get around the sanctions placed on Venezuela by the United States and the European Union, and if this is the case they have sadly failed. The Trump administration on 19 March announced a block on the cryptocurrency after issuing an executive order to ban the purchase of the Petro in the US. Within Tump’s letter to congress regarding the ban, he says “the Executive Order prohibits, as of its effective date, all transactions related to, provision of financing for, and other dealings in, by a United States person or within the United States, any digital currency, digital coin, or digital token, that was issued by, for, or on behalf of the Government of Venezuela on or after January 9, 2018.”

The Trump Administration is not the only issue that Maduro is facing. On 7 March, Venezuela’s Asamblea Nacional (National Assembly) declared it believes the Petro cryptocurrency is unconstitutional. Furthermore, the cryptocurrency has been opposed by opposition legislators with them saying the sales of the Petro are essentially issuing oil-backed debt, something that legally speaking cannot be done without approval from legislators. They argue that should Maduro fall out of power in the countries upcoming elections, or for any other reason, his successor would have full power to refuse to honor any sales of the cryptocurrency. It appears, however, that this has done nothing more than fall on deaf ears.

Will peace arrive to the Korean peninsula?

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After last year’s nuclear tests and the sabre rattling in recent months between North Korea and the US, it came as a surprise when Chung Eui-yong, the National Security advisor of South Korean president Moon Jae-in confirmed that Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un will meet in May. In previous months, several ships were reported violating the UN sanctions imposed on North Korea by moving products between ships to supply the closed Asian country. Japan was eager to press North Korea with new and even harder sanctions. Later, in February came the announcement, that North Korea will participate in the Winter Olympics, moreover the two Koreas marched together, and they had a joint female hockey team. During the Olympics, a North Korean orchestra performed several times in the South and a special delegation, including the sister of Kim Jong-un, also visited the Winter Games.

In early March a South Korean envoy visited its northern neighbour and met with prominent figures of the North, which was followed by a meeting of the southern delegation in Washington, where it was announced that the US President and North Korean leader are willing to meet each other.

If the summit happens, Kim Jong-un will overgrow his father, as it has never happened in North Korean history that a US President in office met with the Hermit Kingdom’s leader. Kim Jong-un said, North Korea will refrain from any further nuclear or missile tests and he is committed to denuclearisation with certain preconditions. Pyongyang wants guarantees for the regime’s survival and wants military threats against it removed. These conditions have to be clarified during the summit.

Most probably President Trump realised, there is no military solution to the Korean issue. Even if the US and its allies managed to neutralise the North Korean nuclear weapons, because of the proximity of Seoul, conventional weapons can easily kill millions of people in the South.

None of the participants offered a place for the summit yet. As Trump accepted Kim’s invitation, it is highly unlikely for Kim Jong-un to travel to Washington. Given President Trump’s personal characteristics, it is not likely he would volunteer to visit Pyongyang. The location of the summit will send a message. The best possible alternative would be South Korea. Seoul played a crucial role bringing the two leaders to a table, holding the summit in the South would mean that North Korea and the US acknowledge Seoul’s role.

Regional powers welcomed the announcement as well. Although Japan was one of the loudest on imposing stronger and stronger sanctions on North Korea, they offered $3 million to cover the costs of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspections of the nuclear facilities if Pyongyang agrees to them. Tokyo is also considering to offer even more if new facilities are revealed. China had a crucial role making Pyongyang recalculate the cost and benefit equation. Right after the introductions of the UN sanctions, the trade between China and North Korea dropped drastically. Not to push North Korea to the edge, Beijing voted against further sanctions and a special envoy was sent to Pyongyang to register China’s disapproval of Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile provocations. The delegation also tried to persuade them to join the negotiating table.

In the best-case scenario, the outcome of the summit could be a declaration of the end of the Korean War. The Korean peninsula is at a ceasefire with hostilities on pause. Denuclearisation is also on the table. Such a move could result in the lifting of sanctions and could initiate the slow process of North Korea joining the global economy.

The Mueller Indictment: The Beginning of the End or the End of the Beginning?

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On 16 February, Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed an indictment against thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian companies relating to an online influence campaign targeting the 2016 Presidential Election and the U.S. political system more generally. The filing was not surprising — the U.S. intelligence community published their ‘high confidence’ assessment of the operation in January 2017 — but the details were nonetheless dramatic. They include a global political interference campaign (‘Project Lakhta’), an organisation spearheading this campaign (the ‘Internet Research Agency’), a specialist unit focused on the 2016 election (‘the translator project’), hundreds of employees and, starting in 2014, the physical set-up of an intelligence collection team inside U.S. territory.

Whilst the indictment helped to dial down the divisiveness of the Russian threat, it was nevertheless also interpreted through the prism of the politically-charged ‘Special Counsel Watch’: daily speculation as to the direction and conclusion of the special counsel investigation. This was especially the case given Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s statement before the press that there is “No allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge” of Russia’s operation — an evident reference to the investigation into Trump campaign collusion. Sean Hannity carried the headline ‘Vindicated’ on his Fox News show on the evening of the indictment, whilst President Trump would tweet his “vindication” the following day. Such matters were not left to partisan noise-makers, however. Debate has ensued among legal commentators over whether, on the central questions of Russian interference and Trump-Russia collusion, the indictment signals an approaching conclusion to the special counsel investigation or the preliminary building blocks of a larger criminal conspiracy. Paul Rosenzweig, for instance, in a special edition Lawfare podcast, argued that the mass of detail within the document indicates it is a “speaking indictment” that tells a narrative “akin to a final report”, given the likely absence of a formal ‘Muller Report.’ For this reason, amongst others, Mr Rosenzweig argues, it is likely that “We’re closer to the end than to the beginning.”

What appears more likely, however, is the opposite. Importantly, the indictment describes only the ‘third prong’ of the Russian operation: its online disinformation campaign. The document does not touch upon the first prong: the direct tampering of U.S. election infrastructure, nor the hacking and dissemination of internal Democratic National Committee (DNC) communications (the second prong). All three were officially confirmed by the U.S. intelligence community in its January 2017 assessment of the Russian operation, with the second stated explicitly by the Director of National Intelligence on October 7, 2016. Mr Mueller could of course be without admissible evidence for these latter two prongs, but this seems doubtful given the ‘high confidence’ assessment of the January 2017 report. Thus, the charge that the indictment is a weak response to the Russian operation, levelled by those such as former U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, Andrew McCarthy, seems premature. Instead, it is reasonable to concur with Mr McCarthy’s successor, Preet Bharara, that Mr Mueller has more indictments in store.

It is also noteworthy that the document is silent on the question of political collusion, whether by the Trump campaign or the Russian government. In some quarters, the clear absence of Trump campaign collusion in relation to a detailed finding of Russian election interference has fuelled speculation that the indictment foreshadows Mr Muller’s more general conclusion: that Trump campaign involvement in the Russian operation was negligible. Yet the indictment does not refer to Russian intelligence, nor to Russian government supervision of the operation. Instead, the funder and director of the Internet Research Agency, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is charged as a private Russian citizen, and any ties he has to Vladimir Putin and the Russian government (there are many) are referred to only implicitly. This silence is again a departure from the U.S. intelligence community’s ‘high confidence’ 2017 assessment that referred to “Moscow’s influence campaign” directed by “Putin and the Russian government.” It is doubtful, therefore, that Mr Mueller believes the online influence operation was exclusively the work of private actors friendly to the Russian government. What appears more likely is that the indictment is intended to be distinctly apolitical: a building-block approach intended to minimise exposure of Russian government sources whilst maximising public disclosure of the operation. In recent weeks, two ways have been posited as to how charges against additional political actors might later be placed on-top of this preparatory block:

The first was floated in a Lawfare article by Emma Kohse and Benjamin Wittes, who argued that Mr Mueller’s unusual charge against thirteen Russian nationals — that they sought to “obstruct the lawful functions of the United States through fraud and deceit” (18 U.S.C. §371) — might in fact be preparatory ground for charges relating to collusion filed against additional actors. As Susan Hennesy and Wittes once argued in Foreign Policy magazine, collusion is a thin and problematic area in U.S. statute, consequently meaning, “in and of itself and to the extent it took place, [collusion] is a political problem, not a legal one.” However, returning to Kohse and Wittes’ argument, if additional actors did in fact aid these Russian nationals, 18 U.S.C. §371 may plausibly be expanded onto these persons. Such a charge would require a much less problematic burden of proof orientated around obstruction of U.S. government functions, rather than conspiracy to organise the influence campaign itself. Although it would be irresponsible to speculate as to how a prosecutor would evaluate a person’s conduct without knowledge of the details of the allegation, as Kohse and Wittes make clear, it is reasonable to conclude that Mr Mueller’s indictment does not draw the matter to a close.

The second means was floated by David Kris, former Assistant Attorney General for National Security. In a Lawfare article entitled ‘Law Enforcement as a Counterintelligence Tool’, Mr Kris argued that Mr Mueller’s indictment may have been partly designed to build public consensus for future prosecutorial and non-prosecutorial action against actors external to the indictment. Public exposure, Kris argues, can be a damaging means of disrupting influence operations where such action is designed to remain covert, whilst also providing a productive means for alerting public attention to the larger threat and generating debate as to how to deter future conduct. As such, the indictment may serve as a building-block approach with which Mr Mueller can recommend future measures against actors nominally external to the operation detailed in the document.

It is of course impossible to accurately speculate as to the direction of the Mueller investigation, given the success of its operational security. It is reasonable to assess, however, that suggestions that Mr Mueller has reached the final stages of his investigation into Russian interference and Trump campaign collusion are likely premature.

Italian Election

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Italy had its elections this Sunday the fourth of March. No single party won enough seats to be able to form a government and so the painful process of negotiating and forming a coalition government must take place. The election results show that the Italians are frustrated by the problems that immigration brings; they are not alone as Europe as a whole seems to be reacting to the status quo in a similar manner.

The political party Five Stars won the most seats with 32% of the vote. The group was started by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009 but he was replaced by the current leader Luigi Di Maio after an online election held on the group’s website in September 2017. The party cannot be pinned down to an ideology as they take ideas from all over the political spectrum. They are populist, environmentalist, anti establishment and have promised a universal income. Before the election they vowed not to conduct talks with the other parties, something they have back tracked on. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of the Democratic Party resigned as head of the party after they only got 19% of the vote. The party is split over the idea of joining Five Stars to form a government. In third place with 17% of the vote is the Northern League. The party was formally a regional power in the northern regions of Italy but gained ground in central Italy. The party is regarded as a far right populist. No one party has made any overt moves at the moment and negotiations are likely to be long and arduous.

Italy is one of the first entry points to the EU as such they receive a lot of immigrants from Northern Africa. The major incident where 6 African immigrants where shot in the city of Macerata on the 3rd of February this year by Luca Traini an unsuccessful candidate for the Northern League party caused a large counter protest and pushed the many issues of immigration to become a talking point the election. The effect on the sustained influx of immigrants on this election is not to be underestimated.

Anti Establishment parties have seen a lot of success across Europe causing the Euro to fluctuate and people to become uncertain about the future of the EU. Europeans seem frustrated with the status quo and are voting against it in significant elections. Many people who voted for Brexit did so as they felt that they were loosing out in the current situation and so lashed out against the establishment. Marine Le Pen in France got the final round of voting for the president in 2017 where she too portrayed herself and her party as anti-establishment. The German political party Alternative for Germany (AfD) took a surprising third place in the German election in September 2017. While they were unable to use there position to get into government it was a strong voice against Angela Merkel’s polices, in particular the open border police she followed and her acceptance Syrian refugees.