In Other News: Potential Lifting of Sanctions on Iran, China Flexing Maritime Muscle & More – April 9, 2021

April 9, 2021

The U.S. has announced that it is prepared to lift some sanctions on Iran in coordination with steps by Tehran to come back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal’s stipulations on uranium enrichment. The announcements are the result of bilateral communications, carried out via intermediaries, at meetings this week in Vienna between Iran and the UK, France, Germany, Russia, and China, with a U.S. delegation working nearby. The Biden administration has publicly committed to reengaging in the nuclear deal, which promised Iran economic benefits in exchange for limitations on further development of its nuclear program. With the U.S. departure from the deal in 2018 – and the imposition of hundreds of punitive economic sanctions on Iran – other signatories, including the EU, were unable to deliver on their economic commitments, and Iran embarked on highly visible efforts to violate its own commitments on uranium enrichment. The U.S. has estimated that at this point, Iran is only a few months away from having sufficient enriched uranium to build a nuclear weapon. While these announcements hint at progress on a revived nuclear deal, the two sides remain far from agreement on a number of issues, including which comes first – the U.S. lifting sanctions or Iran putting the brakes on uranium enrichment. Tehran has proved over and over again that it is a tough and demanding negotiator and may seek to exploit the U.S.’s commitment to returning to the nuclear deal as a means to extract greater concessions. However, its regime should bear in mind that the U.S. is not the only country that will take issue with a nuclear-armed Iran – concern about Tehran as a source of regional instability has created some strange bedfellows, helping to spur the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and some of its long-hostile neighbors. Iran has more to lose by going nuclear and triggering a forceful, multilateral response than by reengaging with the international community and reestablishing its trade links.

Hundreds of Chinese commercial fishing boats dropped anchor off the Spratly Islands in late March, ostensibly to shelter from a coming storm, but in what is a transparent ploy to press its claims to South China Sea territory that both Vietnam and the Philippines also claim as their own. While many of the boats departed, roughly 40 remained in the area. This overt display of maritime muscle – it is the largest fleet of nominally civilian boats that Beijing has used thus far to intimidate its neighbors in the region –puts the U.S. and its Asian and Western allies under pressure to craft a response, and may have been intended partly as a test for the Biden administration. The administration has publicly criticized China’s actions and affirmed that the U.S.’s bilateral defense treaty with the Philippines includes attacks in the South China Sea, and the U.S. (and allies like the UK and Australia) will likely ratchet up freedom-of-navigation operations in the area as it has done in the past. However, its options beyond these are otherwise limited. While too sedate a response sends a signal to Beijing that its regional aggressions will be met with little more than harsh words, too strong a response risks maritime escalation in the South China Sea involving the world’s two largest navies. None of the major players in the South China Sea has an interest in escalation – on the contrary, the U.S. and its allies’ responses to each new incident are carefully calibrated to avoid such an outcome. However, future aggressions by Beijing (which are a near-certainty) and continued failure of these careful responses to elicit a change in behavior will elevate the risk that a misstep by one party will trigger a larger confrontation.

Jordanian Prince Hamzeh, the younger half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah, was detained along with more than a dozen others in what has been widely described as a coup attempt backed by foreign interests. Without going into specifics, Jordan’s foreign minister publicly accused Prince Hamzeh of working with a former finance minister and another royal family member to damage the country’s security and stability. Prince Hamzeh has since released a letter affirming his allegiance to the king, though not before making a public statement that appeared to hold him responsible for governmental incompetence and corruption. Also making the rounds on social media is a recording of the head of the Jordanian Army warning Prince Hamzeh to cease social media use that criticizes the king (criticizing the king is illegal in Jordan). The events in Jordan would appear to be strictly an internal, albeit dishy matter. However, the threat of disruption would have broader implications. Jordan is a U.S. ally – the U.S. has troops and aircraft stationed there – and a partner in combating terrorism. Amman provided U.S. forces overland access to Iraq during the Iraq War, provided support to the U.S. in its campaign against ISIS, has long-established diplomatic ties with Israel, and stands in alignment with other Sunni-majority neighbors in opposition to Iran. The crisis appears to have passed, and that is good news. Jordan is a bastion of stability in a volatile region, and powers with strong interests there – such as the U.S. and Israel – want to make sure that remains the case.

In Other News: China’s Lack of Transparency, Brazil’s Bolsonaro & More – April 2, 2021

April 2, 2021

China’s refusal to provide earlier, more transparent access to data to World Health Organization investigators appears to be strengthening suspicions that Covid-19 was the result of a leak from a Chinese lab, rather than transmission from animal to human in a market, as both China and the WHO have asserted. The Director of the World Health Organization, General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, along with more than a dozen governments (including the US), have taken Beijing to task for its failure to provide greater access to information surrounding the origins of a pandemic that has now infected more than 127 million worldwide and killed more than 2 million. A new WHO report released on Tuesday concluded that the market’s role in the initial jump from animal to human is not clear and was not conclusively found to be the source of the virus, even if it was the site of one of its earliest outbreaks. The report found no link between the earliest reported case, on December 8, and the market, and Tedros stated publicly this week that the investigation did not adequately assess the potential role of a laboratory incident as the pandemic’s origin. The US has criticized the Chinese government for denying investigators access to data and issued a joint statement with more than a dozen other countries – including Canada, the UK, South Korea, and Japan – voicing concern over the lack of transparency on the part of the Chinese. The WHO’s investigation team found it highly unlikely that Covid-19 was released accidentally from a lab. However, China’s lack of transparency in handling the issue, and what is commonly understood to be a lack of transparency by the Chinese government generally, has undermined any confidence the international community might have otherwise had in the findings. Paradoxically, it is this feature of Beijing’s methods that may be a contributing obstacle to its efforts to establish itself as a global leader in pandemic response, including vaccine diplomacy.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is facing increased criticism for his handling of the pandemic from the public and Brazil’s former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – who now seems likely to run against Bolsonaro in 2022. Bolsonaro has responded to the growing outcry over the pandemic with a cabinet shakeup this week, announcing the departure of six cabinet-level officials on Monday. The move came a week after Bolsonaro appointed his fourth health minister since the start of the pandemic. Following the announcement, the commanders of the armed forces resigned in protest on Tuesday, deepening the crisis currently engulfing the president. With Covid-19 deaths close to 4,000 a day and hospitals across Brazil running out of beds and oxygen, Bolsonaro’s popularity has fallen and his political adversaries are seeing an opportunity. Da Silva, the 75-year old leftist from the Workers Party popularly known as “Lula,” has urged Brazilians to get vaccinated and not listen to Bolsonaro’s “foolishness” anymore. Lula has said Brazil is experiencing “genocide” due to Bolsonaro’s lack of leadership during the crisis and called on the United States to convene the G20 to address global vaccine equity. Until last week, Lula had been fighting corruption charges, but on March 23, he finally won vindication when Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that former judge Sergio Moro was biased in his oversight of Lula’s trial and that his conviction should be overturned. The ruling has tarnished Moro’s record as an anti-corruption crusader, but more significantly, it has paved the way for Lula to run for president against Bolsonaro next year. Polling data out of Brazil suggests Lula defeating Bolsonaro in a presidential contest.

Italy has expelled two Russian diplomats over espionage charges, alleging that they paid an Italian defense official, Walter Biot, ~$5,800 for classified documents. Police separately recovered NATO documents that they believe Biot gave them on a previous occasion. This news comes just days after a series of headlines regarding a Russian spy ring that was broken up in Bulgaria. Six Bulgarians were arrested on suspicion of supplying Russia with Bulgarian state secrets, as well as information on NATO and the EU. Russia has grown increasingly alienated from the West following its invasion of Ukraine, the poisoning and arrest of Kremlin political opponent Alexey Navalny, and attempts to influence elections in the US and the UK among other countries. Though its military might is severely diminished from the Soviet era and its finances are suffering from low oil prices and international sanctions, Russia’s intelligence capabilities have remained robust and well-funded, and these incidents, while unsurprising, should serve as reminders that Russia’s intelligence apparatus is a persistent threat that should not be underestimated.

For more on Russia, listen to TAG President Jack Devine’s March 29 interview on Bloomberg Radio hosted by Paul Sweeney and Matt Miller. Jack Devine, former chief of CIA’s worldwide operations, talks about Russia as the number one threat to U.S. security and democracy and his new book, Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight Against Russian Aggression.

In Other News: US-China Bilateral Meeting, Suez Canal Traffic & More – March 26, 2021

March 26, 2021

A contentious start to a bilateral U.S.-China meeting in Alaska, in which senior diplomats from both sides exchanged heated words in full view of the press, has sparked concerns that Washington and Beijing are heading inexorably toward conflict. Just days later, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on NATO to join U.S. efforts to counter Beijing in an address to the organization in Brussels. These outward-facing statements suggest a new and more confrontational U.S. approach to China, one that emphasizes issues such as human rights (specifically as pertain to China’s Muslim Uighur minority) and Beijing’s continual buying of Iranian and Venezuelan oil in violation of U.S. sanctions. U.S. officials have reported that Beijing is actually upping oil purchases from the two countries and is expected to take around 1 million barrels per day from Iran alone this month. These are worrying signs of more trouble to come. At this stage, the U.S. and Chinese economies remain inextricably linked – the U.S. is the world’s largest buyer of Chinese exports and the source of specific goods with strategic value to China, namely products like natural gas and semiconductor technology. That link will likely stave off a bigger confrontation in the near term. However, over a longer time horizon, both countries are taking steps to reduce their reliance on the other, which may offer more wiggle room for riskier behavior, such as confrontation over Taiwan or the South China Sea. Neither the U.S. nor China has an interest in such a confrontation, which would undermine global stability, as well as the benefits of the trade relationship. That said, U.S. efforts to build a coalition against Chinese aggression are a prudent bit of contingency planning that will hopefully ensure that if Beijing crosses a red line, it does so at very high cost.

Suez Canal traffic ground to a halt this week when poor visibility caused by a sandstorm and high winds caused a 200,000-ton container ship to get stuck sideways in the channel, highlighting the risk of chokepoints to the smooth functioning of global trade. Roughly 12% of all global trade (including around a million barrels a day of oil and 8% of global liquefied natural gas shipping) transits the 120-mile canal, and the blockage has delayed passage of more than 100 ships. This in turn is affecting shipping times, extending them in some cases by more than a day, with knock-on effects in availability of goods as basic as food, clothing, and furniture. Threat analysis of chokepoints like the Suez Canal and the Strait of Hormuz often focuses on the potential for military action – around a fifth of the world’s oil flows through the Strait of Hormuz, which sits at the southern coast of Iran, whose regime has frequently threatened to block it amid disputes with oil-importing countries (including as the U.S.). However, this is the second time this year that weather has caused a major disruption to activity, with the first being a freeze in Texas that knocked out power to thousands for several days. While cyber and military threats to the functioning of critical infrastructure dominate headlines, everyday occurrences can prove just as disruptive if steps are not taken to develop plans and systems to ensure continuous, reliable operations under a host of circumstances. As we shift our national security focus to efforts to penetrate the cyber systems underpinning our critical infrastructure, we must also maintain a strong focus on ensuring physical system reliability, wide-ranging contingency planning, and redundancy.

North Korea launched four short-range ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan this week, in another provocation from Pyongyang. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga issued a statement condemning the action this week and noting that it “threatens the peace and security of Japan and the region.” The missiles landed in the sea between North Korea and Japan and were the first tests since March 2020 by the North Koreans and considered to be smaller than previous tests. Observers believe that North Korea is looking for concessions from the United States – as well as attention – while also fueling tensions ahead of the Tokyo Olympics scheduled for this summer in Japan. North Korea launched the missile tests this week after refusing recent overtures for dialogue with the Biden administration and citing “U.S. hostility.” It is noted that North Korea has a history of missile launches at the start of a new administration in the United States and South Korea. The international community condemned the action by North Korea as a violation of UN Security Council resolutions, but it is unclear what more the United States, South Korea, or Japan can do without assistance from China.

In Other News: Russia Threats, Mexico & More – March 19, 2021

March 19, 2021

A declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence identifies Russian President Vladimir Putin as having authorized a state-sponsored campaign to influence the outcome of U.S. presidential elections in November 2020. According to the assessment, Russia’s efforts included covert operations to influence people close to then-president Trump to spread damaging misinformation about then-candidate Biden, as well as campaigns designed to sow division and undermine public trust in the U.S. electoral system. According to the report, evidence found does not indicate that Russia’s attempts to sway the election included efforts to disrupt the physical voting process. The report also named Iran as having pursued a campaign, authorized by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to undermine Trump, notably by sending fraudulent emails to Democratic voters in Florida (the scheme was identified early on as a ruse). The assessment also found that China considered its own influence campaign but opted against it owing to low likelihood of success and the risk that it would backfire if discovered. Though other countries attempted to influence the U.S. election outcome to varying degrees, the report clearly conveys that Russia’s operations were the most aggressive and widest ranging. Furthermore, it details efforts that follow a tried-and-true, KGB-era playbook. Soviet Russia’s intelligence apparatus made frequent and very skilled use of disinformation in its decades-long efforts to undermine the U.S. and other western democracies, sometimes to devastating effect, and the rise of social media has given the Kremlin greater reach and greater capacity to pinpoint target audiences to push that misinformation into mainstream U.S. discourse. Developing tools to identify and combat these efforts will be a challenge, but the ODNI report signals that countering an increasingly aggressive Russia is a high priority for the U.S.

Mexico will receive Covid-19 vaccines from the United States, as the two countries also negotiate the handling of migrants on the U.S. southern border. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has been working with the Biden administration to address the surge in migrants on the U.S. southern border but has been resisting pressure to do more. The Biden team has urged López Obrador to take in more families turned away by U.S. authorities and, like the Trump administration, is leaning on him to secure Mexico’s southern border with Guatemala. López Obrador commented that Biden is seen as the “migrant president,” implying that Biden is responsible for the surge in migrants, at least in part due to his rejection of Trump’s hard line immigration policies and the perception that the United States is now “open” to migrants. U.S. officials have countered by saying that Biden has a “more humane” approach to immigration. As the United States is seeking help from Mexico to deal with the influx of migrants, Mexico is seeking help from the United States to deal with Covid-19. In the past year, Mexico has sustained approximately 200,000 Mexican deaths from Covid-19, a drop in GDP of 8.5%, about 3.25 million jobs lost. López Obrador clearly sees this as a quid pro quo: help with the migrants in exchange for help with the vaccinee. In a strategic response, the White House announced yesterday that the Biden administration will make 2.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine available to Mexico and 1.5 million doses to Canada. The AstraZeneca vaccine has not been approved yet for use in the United States but has in Mexico and Canada.

The Biden administration is reportedly mulling new sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to link Russian gas directly to the German market. The 1,230 km pipeline would run along the floor of the Baltic Sea from Ust-Luga, Russia to Lubmin in northern Germany, bypassing Ukraine, whose existing pipeline network linking Russia to European customers has long been a source of (mostly) stable transit revenues. Nord Stream 2 is a top Kremlin priority, as it would strengthen Russia’s market power in Europe as well as its ability to use gas transit as a means of applying pressure on Ukraine. (Russia has cut gas deliveries to Ukraine twice over pricing disputes, impacting supply to buyers further downstream). Existing sanctions targeting the pipeline have slowed its construction, but Russia has pressed ahead despite challenges related to financing and securing services and equipment. New sanctions could include designation of the project’s parent company, Nord Stream 2 AG, as well as companies that provide services (such as insurance) and support to undersea pipe-laying vessels involved in the construction. The US appears committed to preventing the pipeline’s completion and has made other efforts to chip away at Moscow’s market power in Europe, including promotion of US liquefied natural gas exports to the EU. However, its best efforts have yet to bring construction to a halt, and Germany – a key US ally and a key consumer of Russian gas – continues to support its completion. Germany has in the past floated the possibility of shutting off incoming flows in the event that Russia crosses a red line, but the precise placement of such a red line, and the impact on German customers, would both be tricky issues to navigate. If stopping the pipeline proves to be beyond the powers of sanctions, the US will have to develop new ways of supporting Ukrainian efforts to shore up its independence from Moscow.

For more on Russia and its efforts to undermine American security and democracy, listen to TAG President Jack Devine’s recent interview on Top of Mind with Julie Rose. Jack discusses his new book Spymaster’s Prism and the ongoing fight against Russian aggression.

In Other News: Cyberattacks, Latin American Unrest & More – March 11, 2021

March 11, 2021

Two high-profile cyberattacks on U.S. entities made headlines this week – one by China and one by “hacktivists – exposing widespread vulnerabilities in U.S. cyber infrastructure. News reports surfaced last weekend of a targeted Chinese cyberattack on tens of thousands of servers using Microsoft Exchange, as well as an indiscriminate, automated second wave of hacks that began on February 26 that installed backdoors vulnerable to future ransomware attacks. Days later, an international group of activist hackers announced it had accessed the feeds of nearly 150,000 security cameras through a breach of camera provider Verkada to call attention to the security vulnerabilities associated with widespread surveillance technologies. Among the more than 24,000 affected entities were facilities critical to daily life – schools, banks, offices, jails – as well as factories and warehouses belonging to electric automaker Tesla. Some of the security systems in question also use facial recognition technology, which has drawn criticism for its use or suspected use for the purposes of political and religious repression (including use by China to track members of the Muslim Uighur minority). Hackers said that in addition to live feeds, they were also able to access archived video, as well as Verkada customer lists and balance sheets. The security and privacy implications of a breach like this are staggering, and coming on the heels of high-profile, state-sponsored cyberattacks on U.S. entities, highlight the urgency of U.S. efforts to shore up our cyber defenses.

Latin America continues to face crisis and unrest due to the pandemic, economic losses, and inequitable distribution of the vaccine. Paraguay is the latest example of a country with surging Covid-19 cases and an inadequate government response. Over the last week, ordinary Paraguayans have protested against President Mario Abdo Benítez for his handling of the public health crisis. A shortage of drugs and doctors, medical supplies, and vaccines have pushed people to the streets in outrage. Most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, but some have included the use of teargas and rubber bullets by security forces. Meanwhile, health ministers across the region have been forced out of office in the midst of growing public criticism of the vaccination rollout in their countries. These include the health ministers of Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Peru – all ousted due to ineffective pandemic responses and VIP vaccinations that enable the rich and connected to jump the queue for shots in short supply. Unfortunately, the pandemic has brought many uncomfortable truths about Latin America to the fore, including the lack of economic diversification and opportunity, the yawning gap between the wealthy and the poor, the lack of capacity on the part of Latin American governments to provide basic healthcare, and the endemic corruption and graft which allows those in positions of power to advance at the expense of the public good.

The US has announced new sanctions on Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky for corruption, saying he poses an ongoing risk to Ukraine’s democratic process and institutions, as part of a broader anti-corruption policy agenda in the country. The sanctions bar Kolomoisky and his family from traveling to the U.S. but do not affect his financial assets. However, the Department of Justice has accused Kolomoisky of misappropriating funds from Ukraine’s PrivatBank and using them to purchase real estate properties in Kentucky, Texas, and Ohio in a loan scheme that ultimately defrauded PrivatBank of billions of dollars. Kolomoisky is a former owner of PrivatBank, which collapsed in 2016 and was rescued (and nationalized) with a $5.5 bailout package that included US and EU aid funding. Though Kolomoisky no longer serves as a government official in Ukraine, he is the former governor of Dnipropetrovsk Region (Oblast) and, as a leading figure in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s Servant of the People party and member of Ukraine’s powerful oligarch class, maintains a significant degree of influence at the highest levels of the Ukrainian political system. Zelensky responded to the U.S. move with a statement calling for weakening the oligarchs’ dominant position in the country’s markets, media, and politics, and it is clear he will have the U.S.’s backing for moving in that direction. However, Kolomoisky’s response to increased U.S. scrutiny was to seek closer relations to Moscow, a move that other oligarchs may emulate if and when they find themselves in the crosshairs. Should Zelensky press ahead with this U.S.-backed initiative, both Ukraine and the U.S. should be prepared for a Kremlin counteroffensive.

In Other News: US Sanctions Russia, US-Mexico Relations & More – March 4, 2021

March 4, 2021

The Biden administration has made good on threats of new sanctions on Russia over the poisoning and imprisonment of opposition leader Alexey Navalny, designating seven individual Russian officials and more than 12 government entities. These include the head of Russia’s federal security service, the head of the country’s prison system, the Russian prosecutor general, and other officials in the Kremlin and the Russian defense apparatus. The sanctions announced thus far were designed to work in coordination with EU sanctions, and the Biden administration is also planning new sanctions related to Russian hacking of U.S. government entities and private sector companies. Separately, the U.S. announced a $125 million military aid package for Ukraine, which will include two patrol boats for the defense of its territorial waters, radar equipment, satellite imagery and analysis, and military training. Another $150 million is congressionally approved for military aid to Kyiv for in 2021, conditional upon demonstrable progress on military reforms, including improved transparency in procurement. U.S. actions thus far this year address two of the major flashpoints in the U.S.-Russia relationship – cyberattacks on the U.S. and military aggression in Ukraine. These are and should continue to be top security priorities for the U.S. However, they are not the only instances of Kremlin aggression that merit U.S. and its European allies’ focus. Results of an investigation by U.S., Russian, German, and Estonian media and anti-corruption outfits suggest that Russia has mounted aggressive influence operations throughout the Baltics, Eastern Europe, and Africa. These operations, spearheaded by Kremlin-linked oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin (who is on the FBI Most Wanted list for conspiracy to defraud the U.S.), are serving to disseminate pro-Russian “expert opinion” and attempt to help bring about election outcomes seen as favorable to Russia. The U.S. and its allies in Europe should take note that Russia is not confining its grandiose influence ambitions to countries with the defense capabilities to detect and counter them, and that a broad, multilateral defense structure may prove essential to containing Kremlin aggression.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) this week marked a pivot on U.S. immigration policy, with Biden signaling a desire to return to full cross-border trade relations and openness to expanding pathways to legal immigration. However, despite Biden’s intention to reverse a number of the previous administration’s immigration policies, he has left in place a Trump-era policy that authorizes immigration enforcement agents to immediately deport persons found to have crossed the border illegally back to Mexico before providing them with a chance to request asylum, likely to prevent a flood of new entrants large enough to trigger a border crisis. In the days leading up to the meeting, AMLO expressed support for large increases in the number of work visas available to migrants from Mexico and Central America more broadly, though no concrete agreements were reached on that issue. Also conspicuously absent from the two countries’ official statement on the talks was any specific mention of Covid-19 vaccines, though AMLO had indicated interest beforehand in securing a U.S. commitment to share its supply or push U.S. pharmaceutical companies to sell more to Mexico. AMLO has been largely pragmatic in his dealings with the U.S. and will need to work with the new administration to tackle the pandemic, which has killed nearly 190,000 people in Mexico so far, to accelerate economic recovery following a staggering 8% GDP contraction last year.

A U.S. contractor was killed in a rocket attack yesterday on the Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province, which houses U.S., Coalition, and Iraqi troops. Official Iraqi sources report that ten rockets were fired at the base, while other sources put the number slightly higher, at more than a dozen. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the attack. However, it comes just a few days after a U.S. airstrike on facilities in Syria tied to the operations of Iran-backed militia groups (and just two days before Pope Francis is scheduled to land in Baghdad for his first official visit to Iraq). Ongoing, elevated U.S.-Iran tensions are continuing to erupt in proxy battles in Iraq and elsewhere in the region, even as the U.S. attempts to chart a new course in the relationship by pivoting from the confrontational approach of the Trump administration to a return to the negotiating table. Tehran rejected an offer this week by the U.S. and the EU to restart nuclear talks with the aim of the U.S returning to the multilateral agreement that it signed in 2015 and then exited in 2018. Tehran’s refusal is widely understood to be a bid for opening concessions, specifically a degree of certainty that restarting talks would trigger sanctions relief. This latest attack on U.S. forces – for which the White House has warned that a military response could be forthcoming – will make the Biden administration’s intended policy shift on Iran more difficult. But de-escalation is in Iran’s best interest, both as the clearest path forward for a relaxation of sanctions, and as its neighbors in the region have moved to set aside their historic animosities aside with the goal of more effectively countering the threat of destabilizing actions by Tehran.

Press Release: Jack Devine’s new book Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight Against Russian Aggression is available now!

March 1, 2021

Jack Devine’s new book Spymaster’s Prism: The Fight Against Russian Aggression is out TODAY! Order your copy now at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, and let Jack know what you think of the book!

SPYMASTER’S PRISM

The Fight Against Russian Aggression

by Jack Devine

In Spymaster’s Prism, the legendary former spymaster Jack Devine details the unending struggle with Russia and its intelligence agencies as it works against our national security. Devine tells this story through the unique perspective of a seasoned CIA professional who served more than three decades, some at the highest levels of the agency. He uses his gimlet‑eyed view to walk us through the fascinating spy cases and covert action activities of Russia, not only through the Cold War past but up to and including its interference in the Trump era. Devine also looks over the horizon to see what lies ahead in this struggle and provides prescriptions for the future.

Based on personal experience and exhaustive research, Devine builds a vivid and complex mosaic that illustrates how Russia’s intelligence activities have continued uninterrupted throughout modern history, using fundamentally identical policies and techniques to undermine our democracy. He shows in stark terms how intelligence has been modernized and weaponized through the power of the cyber world.

Devine presents his analysis using clear‑eyed vision and a repertoire of better‑than‑fiction spy stories, giving us an objective, riveting, and candid take on U.S.‑Russia relations. He offers key lessons from our intelligence successes and failures over the past seventy‑five years that will help us determine how to address our current strategic shortfall, emerge ahead of the Russians, and be prepared for what’s to come from any adversary.

Jack Devine is the president of The Arkin Group, an international risk consulting and intelligence firm. He formerly served as acting director and associate director of operations at the CIA and was in charge of the CIA’s

largest and most successful covert action operation which drove the Russians out of Afghanistan. He is the author of Good Hunting: An American Spymaster’s Story.

Twitter: @JackDevine_TAG

Website: www.thearkingroup.com

Advance Praise for

SPYMASTER’S PRISM

“Devine applies the lessons of the Cold War to today’s great power struggles as only an insider, spymaster, practitioner could do. Policymakers should act on Devine’s message: The threat is clear, the challenge unrelenting, and the resolve to counter it is paramount.”

—Jami Miscik, vice chairman of Kissinger Associates

“Just in time, a splendid intelligence perspective on thug Putin’s determination to get even with us for the Russian loss of the Cold War. . . . The spy history included here is necessary to illustrate that Russian leadership still employs nasty means, from murder to manipulation, to undermine democracy. Only the naïve and inept will fail to heed this message.”

—Tom Twetten, former CIA deputy director of operations and chief of the Near East division

Spymaster’s Prism is a must‑read, and the title says it all. The Cold War is not over. The actors may have changed, but the goal remains the same. Jack Devine is a real spymaster, beginning his career as a young CIA operations officer who rose to the highest ranks of the CIA. This book belongs on everyone’s shelf.”

—Sandra Grimes, CIA Russian operations specialist and coauthor of Circle of Treason: CIA Traitor Aldrich Ames and the Men He Betrayed

“Jack Devine’s comprehensive history of Russian intelligence efforts against the United States and the West could not be more timely. As amply noted in the book, election meddling, disinformation, and assassination attempts are all modern descendants of a long Russian tradition of espionage and subversion that has been renewed with a vengeance today. Devine’s highly readable style and insider experience in intelligence make this must‑read study a persuasive warning to implement the measures he suggests to thwart this threat to our national security.”

—Michael Sulick, former director of the U.S. National Clandestine Service

“Told with the immediacy of an eyewitness, Devine is a keen observer of the events and personalities that have shaped U.S. intelligence—from the treachery of spies such as Aldrich Ames and Robert Hanssen to the CIA’s Cold War covert operations in Afghanistan. It is a remarkable volume, told by one of America’s great spymasters, that will appeal to both the intelligence professional and the armchair operative alike.”

—Rollie Burans, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and former CIA senior executive official

“Devine’s extraordinary career rising to master spy gives the reader multiple glimpses across geographic boundaries into intelligence operations from the optic of a practitioner. From the armchair student of foreign policy to the professional spy wannabe, Devine’s narrative of Russia’s obsession with the West and the United States should be mandatory reading.”

—David R. Shedd, thirty-three-year CIA career case officer and former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency

In Other News: Sanctions on Russia, Brazil Shares Slide & More – February 25, 2021

February 25, 2021

The U.S. and EU are coordinating new sanctions on Russia for the poisoning and imprisonment of political dissident Alexey Navalny, and the U.S. is also planning sanctions related to the SolarWinds hack and other recent cyber incidents traced back to Moscow. The EU sanctions, set to take effect sometime next week, entail an asset freeze and travel ban on the heads of Russia’s national guard and its prison service – the organizations it says are responsible for Navalny’s detention and prosecution. U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken discussed the new sanctions with EU officials via teleconference, in which they also covered broader Russia and China issues and a possible revival of the Iran nuclear deal from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018. The U.S. plans to announce new sanctions on Russia in coming weeks for Navalny’s poisoning and imprisonment in coordination with the EU, but also as a broader response to various Russian activities, including the SolarWinds hack that targeted nine U.S. government agencies and ~100 private sector firms and efforts to influence U.S. electoral politics and steal vaccine research. The U.S. is simultaneously developing stronger defensive cyber measures to complicate Russian efforts to penetrate both public and private sector networks. Part of the U.S. approach is to label Russia’s hack of SolarWinds as “indiscriminate”, contrasting it with legitimate, state-vs-state cyberespionage activities. This classification also forms the basis of international limitations on certain classes of weaponry – like chemical and biological weapons – that do not distinguish between combatant and civilian targets. This approach provides clues to how the U.S. may seek to engage allies and other like-minded entities in establishing multilateral rules of the road for cyberwarfare.

Petrobras shares took a tumble following the sacking of the Brazilian oil and gas giant’s CEO by President Jair Bolsonaro. Last Friday, Bolsonaro fired Petrobras chief executive Roberto Castello Branco and has replaced him with an army general, Joaquim Silva e Luna, who has no experience in the oil and gas sector but is considered a loyalist to the president. The abrupt firing of the CEO came after a dispute over pricing and the company’s policy of setting fuel prices in accordance with international levels at a time when energy prices are increasing globally. The move resulted in a tumultuous week in trading for the São Paulo-listed company – its stock fell 20% on Monday – and the broader market, with the Bovespa index falling as well. Petrobras has recovered some ground in the days since, but investors have reacted negatively to the move by Bolsonaro, which they see as government interference in Petrobras specifically and free markets more generally. In what has become typical Bolsonaro style, he denied interfering and doubled down on his populist message by seemingly threatening government intervention in the electricity sector next, saying: “If the press is worried about yesterday’s switch [in CEO], next week there will be more.” Economists are now concerned that Bolsonaro could remove the finance minister, Paulo Guedes, who has been in favor of reducing the role of the state in the economy. At the same time, the Petrobras situation raises real concerns for Brazil’s economic recovery as it emerges from the pandemic.

India and Pakistan have announced their shared intentions to observe conditions of a cease-fire agreement reached in 2003 which, if upheld, would bring an end to regular skirmishes across the two countries’ shared border. The directors general of the Indian and Pakistani militaries held discussions over the phone this morning, and the two sides agreed to a cease fire along the Line of Control – the 460-mile de facto border between the two countries in the disputed region of Kashmir – and all other border areas from midnight tomorrow. While violence at the border is mostly limited to small-scale confrontations, these occur regularly and cause dozens of fatalities annually, including civilian deaths. There were more than 5,000 incidents last year involving the trading of fire across the Line of Control in Kashmir alone. Decades of simmering conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbors has long posed a major risk to regional stability, and if localized hostilities were to meaningfully escalate, they could trigger a larger conflict with global repercussions. This latest announcement should be regarded as a positive sign, but it is by no means a guarantee of a lasting peace. A definitive end to regular confrontations will require that both sides uphold their end of the bargain. Historical precedent offers plenty of reason for skepticism.

In Other News: US Charges North Koreans, US Accuses Russia of SolarWinds Hack & More – February 18, 2021

February 18, 2021


The Justice Department has charged three North Koreans in connection with some of the highest-profile cyberattacks in recent history, including the Sony hack, the theft of more than $80 million from Bangladesh’s central bank, and the WannaCry ransomware attack that impacted more than 200,000 computers worldwide. The indictment accuses the three men of attempted theft/extortion of more than $1 billion. Separately, South Korean officials have released information based on a briefing from the country’s intelligence apparatus that North Korean hackers targeted Pfizer and other leading pharmaceutical companies for information on Covid-19 treatments and vaccines (despite Pyongyang’s dubious claim that the country has had no Covid-19 cases). U.S. and international sanctions on North Korea have effectively cut it off from international financial systems and beggared the country in the process. However, this has not yet engendered policy shifts on Pyongyang’s part. The North Korean regime maintains its political and economic stranglehold on the country and is also continuing to advance its nuclear program. However, sanctions have forced the regime to employ any means at its disposal to finance that program – along with other government spending – including counterfeiting, smuggling drugs and other illicit goods, and now cybertheft. While North Korea’s embrace of hacking as a fundraising tool is no surprise, its capabilities and sophistication are noteworthy and concerning and strengthen the argument for multilaterally agreed rules-of-the-road on cyberespionage and cyberwarfare.

A White House statement indicates that the SolarWinds hack took place from inside the United States, though U.S. officials still see the attack as being perpetrated by the Russians. According to the White House, launching the attack from within the country added an extra layer of protection to the hackers by complicating efforts to detect and monitor their activity. Information about the SolarWinds hack, which was both highly sophisticated and wide-ranging (affecting multiple U.S. agencies and ~100 private sector companies), was first made public in December 2020 and continues to emerge as the attack’s scope and scale come into focus. Reporting from earlier this month indicates that Chinese hackers also discovered and exploited flaws in SolarWinds software, though their efforts were separate from the Russians’, which adds another dimension to the cybersecurity threat the U.S. is facing. The Biden administration’s appointment of former NSA cybersecurity director Anne Neuberger to lead the SolarWinds response is a positive sign that it considers the breach to be among its most pressing priorities. It is critical in the wake of this attack that the U.S. commit the resources necessary to bolstering both our defensive and offensive capabilities in this sphere and push for greater multilateral cooperation on holding bad national actors to account.

Below-normal temperatures in the southern U.S. triggered a broad swath of power outages and systems failures that have cut oil production by as much as 4 million barrels per day, the equivalent of ~40% of total U.S. output and ~4% of global output. Infrastructure in oil-producing states like Texas and New Mexico was not designed to withstand severe cold, which has forced the shutdown of wells, pipelines, and refineries and iced over roads used for trucking. U.S. natural gas production has also suffered severe disruptions to upstream and downstream facilities, prompting Texas’s Governor to shut off gas exports outside the state. The brunt of the impact is being felt domestically, both in terms of commodity prices (natural gas prices at the main U.S. Gulf Coast Hub briefly spiked to $30/million British thermal units from less than $3.25 a week prior) and impact on companies throughout the oil and gas value chains. However, the effect is also being felt internationally. Mexico, which relies heavily on U.S. pipeline gas, saw supply interruptions that suspended work at two auto manufacturing plants in the northern part of the country. Oil price benchmarks in both the US and Europe have reached levels not seen for over a year, driven in part by changing forecasts for the duration of the outages, which were initially expected to be short-lived. The discovery of methods for extracting oil and gas from tight rock formations at reasonable prices marked a dramatic change in the world energy order and moved the U.S. back into a position of being a major global supplier after many years of being at the mercy of global market conditions. And as weather patterns shift and startling weather events grow more common, they represent another shift – a growing threat to critical infrastructure designed specifically for the climactic conditions common in the locations where they were built, or built to withstand events that fit within previous patterns of “normal”. The U.S. military referred to climate change as a “threat multiplier” as far back as 2014. The real impact is now coming into focus, and plans to shore up our critical infrastructure against an evolving physical threat must be a priority.

In Other News: Cuba Expands Private Businesses, Russia-EU Tensions & WHO’s Covid-19 Investigation – February 12, 2021

February 12, 2021

Cuba announced this week that it will open up its economy to expand private businesses on the island. The economic reforms announced by the Communist government will allow for more Cubans to become “cuentapropistas” or entrepreneurs – a sign that the state recognizes the need to push for economic growth since the contraction seen as a result of the pandemic. Reportedly, the Cuban economy has shrunk by 11% since the start of 2020. The new reforms will expand the number of legal economic activities in Cuba from 127 to 2,000. Other reforms launched on January 1 include a “monetary reordering,” which effectively devalued the Cuban peso against the U.S. dollar and eliminated the use of the “convertible peso,” which was a secondary currency in circulation. The government has also removed subsidies on some goods. The reforms are seen as a positive and overdue step to reduce the state’s role in the economy and increase economic activity and opportunity, but there are still restrictions. For example, major industries like sugar and tobacco are left off the list, and the government will continue to control the healthcare, education, and communications sectors in Cuba. There is no indication that the economic reforms will lead to political opening, either. Still, they are a sign that the Cuban government is willing to reduce its role in the economy, and these will be welcome changes from Washington’s perspective as the Biden administration looks to revise U.S. policy toward Cuba.

Germany, Poland, and Sweden each expelled a Russian diplomat stationed in their respective countries following Moscow’s expulsion of their envoys for attending protests in support of Alexey Navalny, though spokespeople for Germany and Sweden noted that observing the demonstrations was part of their diplomats’ professional duties. German chancellor Angela Merkel also said the country reserves the right to impose sanctions on Russia and individuals involved in the poisoning and imprisonment of Navalny. President Biden called for Navalny’s immediate release in a speech last week, in which he said the days of the U.S. “rolling over” to Russian aggression are over. And while he moved quickly to extend the New START treaty limiting Russian and U.S. nuclear stockpiles, he has also sought to reverse the previous administration’s approaches to major flashpoints in the U.S.-Russia relationship, including withdrawal of troops from Germany and alignment with NATO more broadly. And Russia shows no signs of backing down – on the contrary, punitive sanctions under the Trump administration were met with increasingly aggressive and sophisticated cyberattacks, along with a continuation of efforts to wage disinformation warfare. Even now, Russia is employing its news outlets in a disinformation campaign promoting its own vaccine and disparaging U.S.- and European-made ones in Latin America. The stage is set for a prolonged and potentially escalating period of confrontation with Russia, one that ideally will end with a new set of rules of engagement that encompasses modern tools of warfare, particularly cyber and social media. Until then, we anticipate more diplomatic tit-for-tats, and as news continues to trickle out about the SolarWinds hack and/or continued political repression related to the Navalny case, some new sanctions against Russia, as well.

A WHO team investigating the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic in Wuhan, China has released a statement that effectively debunks theories that the virus was released – accidentally or otherwise – from a Chinese lab. The findings do not completely absolve Beijing of failing to act swiftly and transparently to prevent the virus from spreading globally. However, had they indicated that the deaths of more than 2 million people worldwide and a broad swath of economies in recession or depression were the result of carelessness by Chinese scientists, the geopolitical impact would have been severe and potentially destabilizing. Unfortunately, the WHO damaged its credibility early on in the battle against the pandemic by claiming that China had been cooperative and transparent when initial investigations were underway. Leaked audio from internal WHO meetings conducted early in the pandemic reveals that the organization’s officials were privately complaining about China’s lack of transparency, even while they publicly praised Beijing for its transparent cooperation. Until findings are made fully public, international observers are likely to maintain a healthy degree of skepticism regarding the actual origins of the virus and Beijing’s role in a cover-up. Reports of the first phone call between Presidents Xi and Biden suggest that the U.S. will put the focus squarely on cooperation in ongoing handling of the Covid-19 pandemic – and preventing a future one – though any concrete findings that political considerations in Beijing interfered with an effective response may complicate that approach.

For more on Russia, listen to TAG President Jack Devine’s recent interview with the president of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers (AFIO) James Hughes about Jack’s new book Spymaster’s Prism and Russia’s ongoing aggression against the West, including and especially the United States. Here is the link.