Morning Brief

New Details Emerge of Afghan Middleman In Russian Bounty Case

As more information comes to light on the Russian bounty case, the White House provides its version of events.

Afghan security forces stand guard at an Afghan National Army (ANA) outposts after an attack by  Taliban militants, in Kunduz Province on March 4, 2020.
Afghan security forces stand guard at an Afghan National Army (ANA) outposts after an attack by Taliban militants, in Kunduz Province on March 4, 2020. STR/AFP

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Fresh details shed light on alleged Russian bounty program, the United States records over 50,000 new coronavirus cases in one day, and Russians approve new constitutional changes.

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White House Downplays Russia Bounty Story As Afghan Middleman Named

A new report pinpoints a key figure in the alleged Russian-backed bounty program to further incentivize Taliban-linked forces to kill U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, the New York Times named Rahmatullah Azizi as a central player in attempts to launder money from Russia into Afghanistan in order to make payments to militant groups.

Efforts to detain Azizi were made at least six months ago, although authorities assume he had already fled to Russia. Security forces instead found roughly $500,000 in cash in one of his Kabul properties.

In an echo of America’s historical missteps in Afghanistan and its doomed relationship with the mujahideen, Azizi was also once a beneficiary of U.S. largess only to later turn elsewhere. Azizi was a former recipient of U.S. contractor cash for road building in the early days of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, until he allegedly found more lucrative options.

Much is still unknown about some aspects of the program, including how exactly the bounty money changed hands, and at what levels of the Taliban attacks were coordinated. There’s also a question of motivation, as Foreign Policy’s Amy Mackinnon writes, as to “why the Taliban would need a financial incentive from Russian intelligence services to kill U.S. troops, whom they’ve fought for decades.”

What the White House is saying.
The White House continues to dismiss the story as a case of thinly-sourced intelligence. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien said on Thursday that the CIA official in charge of verbally presenting the daily intelligence brief to President Donald Trump had refrained from bringing up the Russian bounty story as she was not confident in it. He also said U.S. and coalition forces took protective measures at the time of receiving the intelligence.

What is this Russian intel unit? FP’s Amy Mackinnon breaks down who exactly Unit 29155 of the Main Intelligence Directorate (GRU)—the group allegedly responsibly for orchestrating the bounty program—are. She also explores why, from an attempted coup in Montenegro to a botched effort to assassinate former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England, the no-longer-secret group continues to make headlines.

What’s in it for Russia? Writing in Foreign Policy, Sajjan M. Gohel and Allison Bailey chart Russia’s interests in Afghanistan—from failure in Soviet times to the present day. “Putin’s focus on Afghanistan is an essential aspect of how Russia seeks to reevaluate its past while furthering its future strategic interests,” they write. “As Syria demonstrates, the Kremlin is rewriting history to retrospectively justify intervention abroad as it seeks to regain its status as a global power.”


What We’re Following Today

U.S. leads world with record number of new COVID-19 cases. The United States recorded its highest number of new coronavirus cases in one day on Wednesday, with over 51,000 new cases reported. Brazil is not far behind, as it recorded roughly 44,000 new cases. Together the two countries accounted for almost half of all new coronavirus cases reported worldwide yesterday. When President Trump was asked by Fox Business whether he still believed the virus would eventually go away on its own, the president replied “I do.”

Russians approve new constitutional amendments. Changes to Russia’ constitution—including an amendment to allow President Vladimir Putin to remain in office until 2036—appear to have been accepted by a referendum with near landslide approval, according to the country’s Central Election Commission. The commission reported 77 percent support for changing the constitution after roughly 87 percent of ballots were counted. The amendments also included increases to state pensions and an effective ban on same-sex marriage.

Israeli annexation in “weeks.” Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank will happen “in the coming weeks or months,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said yesterday, before adding that he is not “versed in the details” as a July 1 date for a vote on annexation came and went without any government action. As international pressure builds against the move, the Vatican made the rare decision to summon the ambassadors of both Israel and the United States to express “the concern of the Holy See regarding possible unilateral actions that may further jeopardize the search for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as the delicate situation in the Middle East.”


Keep an Eye On

Khashoggi trial begins on Friday. On Friday, a Turkish court will begin the trial of 20 Saudi nationals charged in connection with the killing of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. All of the defendants are expected to be tried in absentia. Khashoggi’s fiancee Hatice Cengiz said she hopes the trial shed light on new evidence in the murder as well as possible the whereabouts of Khashoggi’s remains. Saudi Arabia conducted its own trial in December, sentencing five people to death and three to prison. Those sentenced to death were eventually granted a reprieve after a declaration of forgiveness from the Khashoggi family. Cengiz has called the Saudi trial illegitimate.

Germans bemoan slow progress on Brexit trade deal. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said progress on post-Brexit trade talks with the United Kingdom had been “very limited” and that the European Union should prepare “for the possibility that a deal doesn’t materialize.” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also said talks between the two sides were moving “very sluggishly and slowly,” and criticized the Westminster government, saying the delay was “partly because we don’t know if the British want an agreement or not.” A “restricted” round of talks between the EU and U.K. continues this week, before full negotiations are scheduled to resume the week of July 20.

Taiwan cements ties with Somaliland. Taiwan has set up a diplomatic office in Somaliland, a self-declared but internationally-unrecognized state within the borders of Somalia that is located on the strategically significant Horn of Africa. The move gives Taiwan another ally as it begins to lose others under Chinese pressure. It also gives Taiwan an opening in an area where the United States and China are jockeying for influence: both countries have established military bases in neighboring Djibouti.


Odds and Ends

Seventy years after the Nazis were defeated in World War II, one European military branch has quietly decided to ditch the swastika from its emblem. Finland’s Air Force Command had used a swastika with a pair of wings since 1918, long before its popularization in the West following Hitler’s rise, after the unit was gifted a plane by Swedish Count Eric von Rosen with the Sanskrit symbol emblazoned on the side. Teivo Teivainen, the Finnish academic who noticed the change, which began in 2017 without an announcement, welcomed the move. Teivainen told the BBC that the Finnish military’s job “is to defend the nation—not to defend an old symbol given by a Swedish count in 1918.”


That’s it for today.

For more from FP, visit foreignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to morningbrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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