Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has drafted a three-point guide for the Trump administration's relations with Russia, BuzzFeed News reports. The classified document details these three points as: convey to Russian President Vladimir Putin "that aggressive actions against the United States are a losing proposition that will be counterproductive for both sides;" engage Russia "on issues that are of strategic interest to the United States"; and emphasize "the importance of 'strategic stability' with Russia," including "mutual geopolitical goals," BuzzFeed News writes based on conversations with a U.S. official.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer called the strategy "a mixture of pushing back and also engaging on issues where there might be convergence," but added, "If we've learned anything over the last four months, it's that the president could throw it out at any moment."
Tensions are high between the U.S. and Russia. On Monday, Russia criticized the United States for shooting down a Syrian government plane, announcing that any U.S.-led coalition planes that flew west of the Euphrates river would be considered enemy targets. Russia has been backing the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country's civil war.
Russia has also insisted that it be returned suspected intelligence compounds that were seized under former President Barack Obama after news of the country's meddling in last year's presidential election increasingly came to light. The U.S. wants Russia's cooperation in the war against terrorism in the Middle East as well as to put pressure on North Korea to end its nuclear weapons program; the State Department additionally wants permits to open a U.S. consular office in St. Petersburg.
As one State Department official put it to BuzzFeed News: "Right now, U.S.-Russia relations are in the gutter. We want to make sure it doesn't flush into the sewer." Jeva Lange
Russia is talking with the Trump administration 'each and every day' about restoring compounds seized by Obama
Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak told BuzzFeed News that Russia is talking with the Trump administration "each and every day" about restoring two compounds seized by the U.S. under former President Barack Obama. "We insist that [the property] needs to be returned," Kislyak said. "It's a violation of the Vienna Convention. It belongs to Russia. … It was seized unlawfully."
The properties, in New York and Maryland, were seized in December when Obama expelled 35 Russian "intelligence operatives" following early reports that the Kremlin had tried to influence the U.S. presidential election. The property is used for "recreation for embassy and U.N. diplomats," BuzzFeed News writes. "But for decades, U.S. officials have suspected that it's also been used for espionage based on information from aerial surveillance."
The optics of turning the compounds back to the Russians are not good for the Trump administration, especially amid mounting allegations about the Trump campaign's possible collusion with Kremlin operatives. "Returning the compounds to Russian control is unjustifiable," a bipartisan group of senators told the Trump administration in a letter sent Wednesday.
Russia, though, has threatened to give American diplomatic properties the same treatment if immunity is not restored. Jeva Lange
Russia reportedly believed it could 'influence the Trump administration' with 'derogatory information'
American intelligence reportedly discovered that Russia was confident it "had the ability to influence the [Trump] administration through ... derogatory information," people familiar with the intelligence told CNN. The Russian conversations, intercepted during the 2016 campaign, reportedly referred to incriminating financial information that could have been used to sway Trump or his close inner circle, CNN adds.
But the sources, privy to the descriptions of the communications written by U.S. intelligence, cautioned the Russian claims to one another "could have been exaggerated or even made up" as part of a disinformation campaign that the Russians did during the election.
The details of the communication shed new light on information U.S. intelligence received about Russian claims of influence. The contents of the conversations made clear to U.S. officials that Russia was considering ways to influence the election — even if their claims turned out to be false. [CNN]
"This is yet another round of false and unverified claims made by anonymous sources to smear the president," the White House said in a statement. "The reality is, a review of the president's income from the last ten years showed he had virtually no financial ties at all."
The review of Trump's income was done by his paid lawyers, and is not transparent or verifiable because Trump has refused to release his tax returns. An unverified dossier composed by former British spy Christopher Steele also echoed beliefs that Russia held incriminating information about Trump and his inner circle, and could use it to blackmail the administration. Jeva Lange
Last Thursday, Denis Voronenkov, a former Russian lawmaker who had fled to Ukraine and become a strident critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was shot dead on a Kiev sidewalk in broad daylight. A few days earlier, Voronenkov had told The Washington Post that he and his wife knew they were in danger. "For our personal safety, we can't let them know where we are," he said. "The system has lost its mind. They say we are traitors in Russia."
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called the attack an "act of state terrorism by Russia," a charge Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed as a "fabrication."
Voronenkov is one of a handful of Putin critics and Russian diplomats who have died suddenly and sometimes mysteriously in the past few months. "I have an impression — I hope it's only an impression — that the practice of killing political opponents has started spreading in Russia," Gennady Gudkov, a former Russian lawmaker and security services officer, told The Moscow Times.
Two days before Voronenkov's murder, Nikolai Gorokhov, a lawyer for the family of Sergei Magnitsky — himself killed in police custody after uncovering $230 million in Russian government fraud — fell from his apartment window. Russian authorities say Gorokhov, who survived the fall, was trying to hoist a bathtub up to his apartment when he fell; Bill Browder, a financier who had hired Magnitsky, alleges that somebody pushed Gorokhov. In another apparent near-miss, Putin critic Vladimir Kara-Murza narrowly survived what appears to be a second poison attack.
On Dec. 26, Oleg Erovinkin, a former top Russian intelligence official and the chief-of-staff to Igor Sechin, the president of state-owned oil firm Rosneft, was found dead in his car on the streets of Moscow; no official cause of death has been given. There has been speculation that Erovinkin was the main source of the dossier on President Trump and Russia compiled by former British MI6 agent Christopher Steele.
Stranger still, since November, at least six Russian diplomats have died, some from gunshot wounds and others of apparent natural causes. Among these is Andrey Karlov, 62, the Russian ambassador to Turkey who was shot in an Ankara art gallery, and Vitaly Churkin, 64, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations who died in New York City. The New York Chief Medical Examiner's office said in mid-March that it would "not publicly disclose the cause and manner of death of Ambassador Vitaly Churkin" due to diplomatic protocols.
The deaths and near-deaths may well be totally unconnected. But it's sure a lot of coincidences. Peter Weber
The Senate Intelligence Committee will question President Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, over his meetings with Russian officials as part of its ongoing investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election, The New York Times reports. Kushner met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December and later, at Kislyak's request, with Sergey N. Gorkov, the chief of Russian bank Vnesheconombank, which suffered sanctions from the Obama administration after the annexation of Crimea.
Kushner was a member of Trump's transition team and on the surface there are no red flags about his meetings with foreign officials. A government official told the Times that the Senate plans to ask if Kushner "discussed ways to secure additional financing for [the Kushner Companies' office tower on Fifth Avenue] during his meeting with the Russian banker." Kushner had not yet stepped down as chief executive of the company when he met with Gorkov.
White House spokeswoman Hope Hicks confirmed Kushner's meetings, and said Kushner spoke with Kislyak about improving relations between the U.S. and Russia and cooperating on the Middle East. Kislyak later asked for a second meeting with Kushner to "deliver a message," and Kushner sent a deputy in his place. Kislyak told the deputy that he wanted Kushner to meet with the banker, Gorkov. In that meeting, Gorkov discussed the desire for an open dialogue, but Kushner's building and American sanctions did not arise as topics, Hicks said. "It really wasn't much of a conversation," Hicks added.
Notably, "the Senate panel's decision to question Mr. Kushner would make him the closest person to the president to be called upon in any of the investigations, and the only one currently serving in the White House," the Times reports. Earlier revelations about the Trump administration's conversations with Kislyak have led to former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn's resignation and Attorney General Jeff Sessions' recusal from Russian inquiries.
Kushner "isn't trying to hide anything," Hicks said. Jeva Lange
Russians turned out on Sunday for anti-corruption demonstrations in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and about 100 other cities throughout Russia, in the biggest show of force since a wave of anti-government demonstrations in 2011 and 2012. Anti-corruption crusader Alexei Navalny, whose Foundation for Fighting Corruption called for the protests after publishing information about Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev's allegedly ill-gotten luxury lifestyle and properties, was one of the 500-800 people arrested in Moscow alone. There were no overall numbers of arrests or official estimates of how many protesters turned out across Russia, and Russian state news TV channel Rossiya-24 ignored the protests completely on the evening news.
On Sunday evening, the U.S. State Department condemned the crackdown on the peaceful, unsanctioned protests. "The Russian people, like people everywhere, deserve a government that supports an open marketplace of ideas, transparent and accountable governance, equal treatment under the law, and the ability to exercise their rights without fear of retribution," said State Department spokesman Mark Toner. The department also tweeted that it "condemns detention of 100s of peaceful protesters" in Russia, calling it "an affront to democratic values."
U.S. condemns detention of 100s of peaceful protesters in #Russia today. Detaining peaceful protesters is an affront to democratic values.
— Department of State (@StateDept) March 27, 2017
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer retweeted the State Department's condemnation, but so far President Trump has remained silent. Protests and arrests were reported in Siberian towns, the far-east port of Vladivostok, Dagestan, and large cities like Novosibirsk, Tomsk, and Krasnoyarsk. You can watch CNN's report of the Moscow protest below. Peter Weber
Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.) seemed to break with President-elect Donald Trump on Russia during her Senate confirmation hearing Wednesday for the role of U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Haley was straightforward in saying Russia committed war crimes in its bombing of Aleppo, Syria, and also acknowledged that Crimea, the Ukrainian territory annexed by Russia, is part of Ukraine. "We need to let [Russia] know we are not okay with what happened in Ukraine and Crimea, and what is happening in Syria," Haley said. Trump, on the other hand, suggested in July he "might recognize Crimea as Russian," Reuters noted.
Haley, noting Russia will likely always be "at the forefront" of issues the U.S. is facing, said that she believes Russia is "trying to show their muscle" right now. "I think we always have to be cautious," she said. "I don't think we can trust them."
Catch Haley's take on Russia below. Becca Stanek
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) January 18, 2017
Three hours before President-elect Donald Trump was due to meet Friday with top U.S. intelligence officials about the Russian hacks during last year's presidential election, he slammed the entire scandal as "a political witch hunt" in a telephone interview with The New York Times.
The FBI and CIA have accused Russia of interfering in the U.S. election in a way that benefited Trump. Trump has dismissed their reports, citing WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and blamed the intense scrutiny around his election on bitter rivals. "They got beaten very badly in the election. I won more counties in the election than Ronald Reagan," Trump told the Times. "They are very embarrassed about it. To some extent, it's a witch hunt. They just focus on this."
Trump additionally complained that the U.S. has been hacked before, and that those attacks didn't receive the same uproar as the attacks on the DNC and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta. He cited one example, from late 2014 and early 2015, when China hacked the computers of the Office of Personnel Management. "With all that being said, I don't want countries to be hacking our country," Trump went on. "They've hacked the White House. They've hacked Congress. We're like the hacking capital of the world."
The president-elect also tweeted Friday that he is asking "the chairs of the House and Senate committees to investigate top secret intelligence shared with NBC prior to me seeing it." The tweet was apparently a reference to a "senior U.S. intelligence official" who told NBC about information in the classified intelligence report delivered to President Barack Obama on Thursday, the same report Trump will be briefed on this afternoon; the official revealed that senior Russian officials celebrated Trump's win as their own victory. An unclassified version of the report will be released to the public Friday afternoon, the official said. Jeva Lange