The Cable

Security Brief: Britain Accuses Russia of Stockpiling Deadly Nerve Agent

Relations between Britain and Russia plunge to a new low.

President Vladimir Putin meets with the media at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on March 18, 2018. SERGEI CHIRIKOV/AFP/Getty Images
President Vladimir Putin meets with the media at his campaign headquarters in Moscow on March 18, 2018. SERGEI CHIRIKOV/AFP/Getty Images

The new guy. British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson accused Russia over the weekend of stockpiling the deadly nerve agent Novichok believed to have been used in the attempted assassination of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter.

“We actually have evidence within the last 10 years that Russia has not only been investigating the delivery of nerve agents for the purposes of assassination, but has also been creating and stockpiling Novichok,” Johnson told the BBC.

Stockpiling the nerve agent would represent a violation of the Chemical Weapons Convention, and the the Kremlin quickly denied Johnson’s accusation. Moscow finds itself on the defensive amid intensifying criticism from European states over the use of a highly toxic nerve agent on the European soil. Britain has expelled 23 Russian diplomats from the United Kingdom over the incident.

More details about the attempted assassination are beginning to trickle out. Intelligence sources speaking to ABC News claim that Skripal and his daughter may have been exposed to the toxin through the ventilation system of their car.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is meanwhile dismissing claims that Russia was responsible for the attack. “We destroyed all our chemical weapons under the supervision of international organizations, and we did it first, unlike some of our partners who promised to do it, but unfortunately did not keep their promises,” Putin said on Sunday.

But according to a new Washington Post report, there appears to be good reason to doubt those claims. “Since the start of Putin’s second term, a construction boom has been underway at more than two dozen institutes that were once part of the Soviet Union’s biological and chemical weapons establishment, according to Russian documents and photos compiled by independent researchers. That expansion, which includes multiple new testing facilities, is particularly apparent at secret Defense Ministry laboratories that have long drawn the suspicions of U.S. officials over possible arms-treaty violations,” the Post reports.

And in no surprise whatsoever, Putin comfortably crossed the finish line as the comfortable victor in Sunday’s presidential election, putting him on track to be the longest serving Russian leader since Stalin. The Guardian has the details on the election results.  

Good Monday morning and welcome to this edition of Security Brief. As always, please send questions, tips, and the odd complaint to elias.groll@foreignpolicy.com.

Life comes at you fast. A week ago, Rex Tillerson was winding down a multi-country tour of Africa, preparing for budget briefings on Capitol Hill the next week. But then came the humiliating sacking-via-Twitter, followed by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly rubbing salt in the wounds.

Last week represented an astounding fall from grace for Tillerson, who was a legend in the corporate world before he joined the Trump cabinet. On Monday, he meets his presumed successor, CIA Director Mike Pompeo, in Foggy Bottom for a two-hour hand-off meeting, CNN reports.

Some of his top aides have handed in their resignations with him. But Policy Planning Director Brian Hook, one of his closest aides and confidantes, is staying on, at least for now. Meanwhile, the media is churning out autopsies on his controversial tenure and legacy as secretary of state, and predictions for what Pompeo will bring to the State Department, if confirmed.

The best Rexit post-game analysis. Derek Chollet and Julie Smith argue Mike Pompeo corrects for his predecessor’s weaknesses — but will soon face the same problems. Michael Allen breaks down how Tillerson failed to play the Washington game. Elizabeth Shackelford isn’t shedding any tears over Tillerson’s departure. Kylie Atwood describes Tillerson’s failed year courting Trump.

Meet the new boss. President Donald Trump’s pick to lead to CIA, longtime agency operative Gina Haspel, is getting a rare bit of good press as a slew of news organizations are correcting stories about her role in overseeing a CIA black site in Thailand, BuzzFeed reports. Haspel was thought to have run the prison during the August 2002 torture of suspected al Qaeda operative Abu Zubaydah. Now it turns out she arrived after Zubaydah’s torture, a fact news organizations including the New York Times, have had to correct in recent days.

Haspel’s nomination has led to calls on Capitol Hill for the CIA to declassify records related to her three-decade career at the agency. But at least four senators say they will oppose her nomination, and Sen. Rand Paul said on Sunday that he would block her nomination, including by filibustering her selection. Paul said he would also filibuster Mike Pompeo’s nomination to lead the State Department.

The future is here. The U.S. Army is set to roll out its new Futures Command, which is charged with prototyping new weapons and getting them into the hands of troops faster, the New York Times reports. The new command is an attempt to improve the way the Army tackles innovation and has been prominently floated as one possible landing spot for embattled National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

Next stop for MBS. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman will huddle with Trump administration officials on Tuesday, before departing on a somewhat unusual itinerary. “After meetings with the Trump administration, he will embark on a two-week, coast-to-coast tour of U.S. business and technology centers, hoping to woo new investment and convince Americans that he and his country are modern, worthy partners,” the Washington Post reports.

Saudi war room. With Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman set to arrive in Washington on Monday, Saudi officials granted the Wall Street Journal access to the war rooms where they run their war in Yemen — with American help — and claim they are doing all they can to prevent civilian deaths.  

Meanwhile on Capitol Hill. The Trump administration is trying to kill a Senate measure that would block some American military aid to Saudi Arabia, the New York Times reports.

Afrin. Turkish-backed Syrian rebels seized control of the Syrian city of Afrin on Sunday, dealing a major blow to Kurdish hopes of self-governance and handing a major victory to Ankara. Turkish troops crossed the Syrian border two months ago in an effort to oust Kurdish rebels from the city.  

America first. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley is proposing a radical overhaul to how the United States provides foreign assistance with a view toward punishing poor countries that vote against the United States at the U.N., according to an internal memo obtained by FP’s Colum Lynch.

The pre-summit meetings. National security advisers for the United States, South Korea, and Japan huddled over the weekend to discuss North Korea in preparation of a possible summit meeting between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Reuters reports.

Meanwhile in Stockholm. Sweden and North Korea’s foreign ministers met in Stockholm for three days of meetings discussing security issues on the Korean peninsula. Sweden serves as the United States’ protectorate power in North Korea, and, according to CNN, is heavily engaged in negotiating the release of Americans held prisoner in North Korea.  

….and meanwhile in Finland. U.S. and North Korean officials are meeting for 1.5 track talks in Finland, CNN reports.

Apaches for Seoul. Amid this flurry of diplomacy on the Korean peninsula, Korean defense officials are likely to order additional Apache attack helicopters, which would likely play a key role in any military conflict with North Korea, Defense News reports.   

…and bunker busters: The South Korean military has also signed contracts for an additional 90 bunker-busting German cruise missiles, the Diplomat reports.  

Budget hearings: A slew of Pentagon officials return to Capitol Hill this week for another jam packed week of budgetary hearings, including presentations from the head of U.S. Strategic Command and the chief of the National Nuclear Security Administration. Defense News has the full rundown on what’s in store.  

Fast track. A year ago, Heather Nauert was a breaking news anchor on Fox & Friends. Now, she’s the fourth senior-most ranking State Department official, emerging from last week’s Rexit shake-up as dual-hatted acting Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs and State Department spokeswoman. AP profiles Nauert and her rise to the (near) top as the public face of U.S. diplomacy in the Trump era.

Mattis in Kabul.  Defense Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Kabul last week for a surprise visit that included discussions on possible peace talks with the Taliban and “peeling off” members of the militant group, the Washington Post reports. “All wars come to an end,” Mattis told reporters en route to Kabul. “You don’t want to miss an opportunity because you weren’t alert to the opportunity. So, you need to have that door open, even if you embrace the military pressure.”

Security in Kabul. Even as American officials are pushing efforts to pursue peace talks, the top American commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. John Nicholson, says American forces are stepping up their efforts to secure Kabul by launching special operations raids in Kabul to oust the Taliban from the city, according to the Washington Post.

About those unpaid bills. NATO General Secretary Jens Stoltenberg revealed last week that defense spending among alliance members ticked up for the third straight year in 2017, likely welcome news in the White House where President Donald Trump has railed against the alliance for freeloading off the American military. Eight countries are expected to meet the 2 percent of GDP goal for military spending this year: Britain, Estonia, Greece, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania and the United States.

In space, no one can hear you scream. President Trump blindsided the Pentagon last week by announcing he supports a move adamantly opposed by the Defense Department, the creation of an independent Space Corps. Congressional backers are absolutely giddy to have the president’s support and administration officials signaled the president is genuinely interested in the plan, Space News reports.  

Trump’s NSA pick on cyber retaliation. At his confirmation hearing before the Senate intelligence committee last week, Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the head of Army Cyber Command tapped as the next NSA director, said that he will come up with a list of possible military responses in the case of a cyber attack — but emphasized that military response are likely to be “less effective” than non-military options such as sanctions or diplomatic measures.

The butcherer makes an appearance. President Bashar al Assad visited troops on the frontlines of a bloody siege on eastern Ghouta, where Syrian government troops are getting close to expelling rebel forces after one of the most brutal assaults in the history of the seven-year civil war, Reuters reports.  

Tech smuggling. U.S. officials and outside experts believe the smuggling of high tech U.S. goods have reached a level not seen since the Cold War, the New York Times reports. China, Iran, and North Korea are seen as the prime destinations for the illicit export of high tech American products that can be used in military applications.  

More cash for AI. French military officials say they are plowing more than $100 million into a artificial intelligence to support artificial intelligence applications for combat aircraft, Defense News reports.  

The Zuck backlash. Facebook finds itself in a world of controversy this week after a blockbuster New York Times report that Cambridge Analytica acquired a trove of Facebook user data and then used that data for electioneering purposes. Facebook says it has banned the company after it violated its terms of services, but lawmakers in both the United States and Europe are calling for increased scrutiny of the Silicon Valley giant.  

Cambodia embraces China. China and Cambodia are holding joint military drills, including counterterrorism and rescue ops. In the past few years, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has slowly chipped away at the country’s democratic institutions, culminating late last year in a total ban on the opposition party. While the West has condemned the move, China has cozied up to Cambodia, offering investment, infrastructure projects, and closer military ties.

Helo crash. The Pentagon over the weekend revealed the identities of seven airmen killed when their chopper crashed near the Iraq Syria border. USA Today has the full details.

F-18 crash. The Navy identified two aviators killed in an F-18 crash in Florida as as Lt. Cmdr. James Brice Johnson and Lt. Caleb Nathaniel King.

Yet another hacking group. The security sleuths at FireEye report that a Chinese hacking group dubbed TEMP.Periscope, or by the more mellifluous name Leviathan, is going after maritime and engineering firms, especially those connected to work in the South China Sea.   

Russian hypersonics. Amid big claims that Russia is taking major strides forward in the development of hypersonic weapons, Moscow claims to have test-fired one of its new hypersonic missiles, the Aviationist reports.  

Russian war robots. Russia appears to be making major strides forward in human machine teaming in the use of autonomous war robots, War Is Boring reports.  

American war robots. With Russia making major strides in the fielding of robotic ground vehicles, the Army says its next generation combat vehicle will have a prototype ready for troops to test in 2020.  

Taiwan wants the F-35. Facing a rapidly modernizing Chinese military, Taiwanese defense officials say they want to purchase the F-35 fighter, the Taipei Times reports.  

I hear Taiwan is beautiful this time of year. After President Trump signed the Taiwan Travel Act into law last week, making two-way travel between the United States and Taiwan easier for government officials, retired Chinese military officials and other hardliners have warned that China would be within its rights to use military means to discourage Taiwan from participating in the new travel freedoms. China lodged a protest after the act was passed, according to a Chinese ministry of foreign affairs spokesperson.

Drones, everywhere. The Federal Aviation Administration expects the number of commercial drones operating in the United States to quadruple in the next few years, hitting 450,000 by 2022.

– By Elias Groll, with Robbie Gramer and Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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