US and Russia spar over vetoed Syria sanctions

Anger as Moscow blocks UN sanctions over regime's use of chemical weapons

US ambassador Nikki Haley at the UN Security Council
US ambassador Nikki Haley at the UN Security Council
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Barack Obama vows action over Russian hacks

16 December 2016

Barack Obama has vowed to "take action" against Russia in retaliation for its alleged interference in the US presidential election campaign.

"I think there is no doubt that when any foreign government tries to impact the integrity of our elections... we need to take action," he said. "And we will - at a time and place of our own choosing. Some of it may be explicit and publicised, some of it may not be."

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In an interview with NPR, Obama spoke openly about Russia's involvement in hacking and distributing emails from the Democratic National Committee and several senior members of former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's campaign team.

Three US intelligence officials have concluded that not only was Russia behind the hacks, but also that Russian President Vladimir Putin supervised his intelligence agencies' work.

"Mr Putin is well aware of my feelings about this because I spoke to him directly about it," said Obama.

Moscow strenuously denies the allegations. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said he was "dumbstruck" by the accusations, adding: "I think this is just silly and the futility of the attempt to convince somebody of this is absolutely obvious."

Donald Trump has also questioned the accusations, after the Obama administration "went its furthest yet in joining the dots" between the US president-elect and Putin, The Guardian says.

"If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?" he tweeted.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said the US intelligence community had issued a statement about the attacks on 7 October, well before the election was held.

He added: "It was obvious to everyone who was paying attention, including the gentleman whose thumbs authored that tweet, that the impact of that malicious activity benefited the Trump campaign and hurt the Clinton campaign. That is, after all, why the president-elect called on Russia to hack Secretary Clinton's email."

Last week, the Washington Post reported that "the CIA has concluded with high confidence that Russia intervened in the election specifically to help Donald Trump win the White House", while The Times today says Putin was "personally involved" in the campaign "as part of a vendetta against Hillary Clinton".

What Russia's US election intervention means for the world

12 December

President Barack Obama has ordered a full review into Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election after intelligence agencies reportedly found Moscow interfered to help Donald Trump win.

Obama, who had adopted a cautious approach to reports of Russian interference because of concerns about being seen to be meddling in the presidential campaign, finally ordered a review of all election-related malicious cyber activity going back to 2008.

The review comes after evidence is said to have emerged of Moscow's "unprecedented" interference in the US electoral process. Here's a breakdown of the current situation:

What did intelligence agencies reportedly find?

The CIA has concluded that Russia intervened in the election to help Trump win, the Washington Post reports.

The newspaper says people connected to the Russian government gave hacked Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks in order to damage Hillary Clinton's election chances.

As well as the CIA's "high confidence" in its findings, the New York Times separately reports that Russians also hacked the Republican National Committee's computer systems – but did not release any information they found.

Before the election, the US government publicly blamed its Russian counterparts for cyber-attacks aimed at influencing the presidential race.

"The latest revelations are not entirely new," The Guardian says. "What is fresh is the bald assertion that Moscow was working for Trump."

Why would Russia intervene?

"It's not hard to see why Russia would have been tempted to tip the scales in America’s presidential election," says the New York Times. Clinton made her anti-Russia stance clear during the electoral race, saying in one presidential debate that she had "taken Putin on" as secretary of state and would continue to do so in the White House.

By contrast, the Russians "had reason to see a malleable political novice" in Trump, who has bragged that President Vladimir Putin had once called him "brilliant" and in July said that he wished Russia would keep hacking the Clinton camp's emails.

What has Trump said?

The president-elect has laid the ground for open warfare with his own intelligence agencies by casting doubt on their findings. In a Time magazine interview, Trump said: "I don't believe they interfered. That became a laughing point, not a talking point, a laughing point. Any time I do something, they say 'oh, Russia interfered. It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.'"

The transition team released a terse statement on Friday, also deriding the findings: "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It's now time to move on and 'Make America Great Again'."

What does all this mean for Trump's presidency?

Trump's apparent willingness to ignore the findings of the CIA has alarmed not only intelligence officials but also members of his own party, who fear a tolerance for Russian interference in the election could herald a regime deaf to concerns about Moscow.

Top of Putin's list for any meaningful reset in Washington relations would be the lifting of US sanctions on Russia and de facto recognition of its 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Trump's pro-Russia stance could also influence his pick of secretary of state. He is said to be strongly considering Exxon Mobil chief executive Rex Tillerson, who has spoken out against US sanctions on Russia. And his new national security adviser, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, appeared at a gala attended by Putin last year and has appeared on the state-run broadcaster Russia Today.

Adding to concerns is Trump's apparent tendency to listen to his gut feelings more than his security advisers. CNN reports that Trump is getting intelligence briefings only once a week, while the Guardian cites Washington insiders who say he doesn't bother to read the daily national intelligence briefs prepared for the president.

Some senators have also said there is a need for intelligence officials to be on guard for any attempted purges once Trump takes office.

What is being done?

As well as Obama's review of Russian interference, calls for a bipartisan investigation are growing, with senior Democrats and Republicans saying the parties should work together over the reports, which they say "should alarm every American".

Trump's continued resistance to the idea of Russian meddling has baffled Senator John McCain. "I don't know what to make of it because it's clear the Russians interfered," he said on CBS.

What does it mean for other elections around the world?

International security agencies' alarm over the extent of Russia's meddling were glimpsed in a speech by MI6 head Alex Younger.

Without mentioning the country directly, Younger said there was a "fundamental threat" from hostile states employing cyber-attacks, propaganda and "subversion of the democratic process".

The Guardian says Younger's statements could hint at suspicions of meddling in Britain's EU referendum vote. The paper also says that Russian involvement in the US vote raises security concerns over the upcoming elections in France and Germany.

CIA director warns Donald Trump to be wary of Russia's promises

30 November

The outgoing director of the CIA has warned Donald Trump not to trust promises made by Russia under the leadership of Vladimir Putin.

John Brennan, who leaves office with the rest of Barack Obama's administration in January, also told the tycoon that ripping up a nuclear accord with Iran would be "folly" and that his team must moderate their rhetoric on extremism.

Speaking to the BBC in the first interview given to the British media by a CIA head, he added the agency would be reluctant to "get back into" waterboarding terror suspects.

The BBC interview may well be part of Brennan's "last word" before yielding his post - Trump has said he will nominate Kansas Congressman Mike Pompeo, a Tea Party Republican from Kansas, for CIA director.

Here's what the outgoing chief had to say.

Russia and Syria

The slaughter of civilians by Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, backed by Russian air strikes, was "outrageous" and the US should not accept it, said Brennan.

Trump has said he will stop pursuing regime change in Syria and work more closely with Russia. But Moscow is not to be trusted, warned the CIA boss. "I think President Trump and the new administration need to be wary of Russian promises," he added.

Iran nuclear deal

During his campaign, Trump said he would tear up the groundbreaking deal the Obama administration signed with Iran to limit its nuclear ambitions in return for lifting sanctions.

That would be "disastrous", said Brennan. "For one administration to tear up an agreement that a previous administration made would be unprecedented. I think it would be the height of folly."

Scrapping the deal would not only prompt Iran to renew its weapons programme, but also encourage other nations with nuclear ambitions worldwide, he added.


Trump also told supporters he would restart waterboarding and other forms of torture for suspected terrorists. Brennan told the BBC: "Without a doubt the CIA really took some body blows as a result of its experiences [with waterboarding]. I think the overwhelming majority of CIA officers would not want to get back into that business."

Islamism and the word 'war'

Asked about some of the rhetoric used by Trump's appointees to discuss Islamic extremism - General Michael Flynn, who will be a national security adviser to Trump, has spoken of a "world war" on militants - Brennan warned the incoming administration needed to be "disciplined in the language that they use [and] the messages they send".

He said: "If they are not disciplined, their language will be exploited by the terrorist and extremist organisations as a way to portray the US and the government as being anti-Islamic - and we are not."

The handover to Trump's team

Brennan said he had not yet briefed Trump's incoming team on the CIA's activities but is ready to do so - and he seemed to imply that they might be in need of elucidation.

"There are a lot of people out there who read the papers and listened to a news broadcasts where the facts may be a bit - you know – off," he said. "I want to make sure the new team understands what the reality is. It ultimately will be up to them to decide how to carry out their responsibilities."

Russia quits ICC: What is Vladimir Putin's end game?

17 November

Russia is to pull out of the International Criminal Court (ICC) following a directive by Vladimir Putin.

The Russian Foreign Ministry described the ICC as "ineffective" and said that "during the 14 years of the court's work it passed only four sentences having spent over a billion dollars".

"The court has not justified the hopes attached to it and has not become a genuinely independent authoritative organ of international justice," said the ministry.

Russia Today, the news service with close links to the Kremlin, also highlighted "a number of contradictions" that exist between parts of the statute and the Russian constitution, including the mandatory transfer of investigated persons to the ICC and the application of the statute to heads of state and government figures.

The Kremlin's decision to rescind the 2002 Rome Statute, which established the ICC's status and powers, comes the day after the court said it was examining allegations of war crimes committed by Russian forces during the war with Georgia in 2008.

At the same time, the UN General Assembly's human rights committee approved a resolution condemning Russia's "temporary occupation of Crimea".

Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said those attempting to withdraw from the ICC were seeking to "desert victims of the most abominable international crimes".

"We are not convinced their position is based entirely on principle. Quite the opposite: it appears to aim more at protecting their leaders from prosecution," he said.

Russia's withdrawal from the tribunal, though symbolic, "is a fresh blow to efforts to establish a global legal order for pursuing genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity", says The Guardian.

The ICC is battling with an "escalating crisis" as it struggles to stop more African nations from withdrawing over accusations that prosecutions focus excessively on their continent, says the Daily Telegraph.

Three African countries - South Africa, Burundi and Gambia - have already signalled their intention to leave the ICC, and Kenya, Namibia and Uganda are threatening to pull out. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has also said he might follow Russia's lead.

While the majority of the 124 states who signed up to the Rome Treaty continue to support the court, "many expect it to face increased diplomatic pressure from the United States under president-elect Donald Trump, who has promised a less internationalist foreign policy stance", says Reuters.

The US and Russia are among a number of countries, including Egypt, Iran and Israel who signed but failed to ratify the agreement, "making it unlikely their governments could ever be prosecuted by the court", says The Independent.

Writing in the Daily Mail, The Economist's Kremlin expert Edward Lucas warns that "the restoration of the Soviet empire is under way - and America is not going to stop it".

Trump's "blustering, cynical and short-sighted outlook" is a "gift" for Putin, whose goal is "the end of the West as a coherent cultural and political entity".

"With Putin holding most of the cards, the outlook for the democracies of Europe and North America ranges from bleak to terrifying," concludes Lucas. "Without the weight of America to hold it together, the West - squabbling, weak-willed and ill-led - is now easy prey for the Kremlin."

World War III: Will Trump spark a new world order?

9 November

Donald Trump warned there would be "World War III over Syria" if Hillary Clinton ended up in the White House, but now he has been elected as president, will the United States's foreign relations get better or worse?

The president-elect has pledged to "achieve a stable, peaceful world with less conflict and more common ground". However, he also wants to rebuild the US military and has characterised his foreign policy as "America First".

During his campaigning, Trump promised to increase the US active-duty army from around 475,000 to 540,000 and build a navy approaching 350 surface ships and submarines. "That's more than the Navy’s goal of restoring the fleet to 308 vessels," said Bloomberg.

In the Huffington Post in March, Matthew D Taylor warned a Trump presidency would be "a perfect recipe for World War III" as the world is "awash with percolating volatility".

He wrote: "Just imagine President Trump offhandedly picking a fight with Vladimir Putin via Twitter. Imagine President Trump insulting the Prophet Muhammad on a lark. Imagine President Trump burning down 75 years of post-World War II international agreements and collaboration because the UN is too much a part of the establishment."

So far, however, relations with Russia are expected to thaw. Trump has said the two countries "could find common ground" in the fight against Islamic State in Syria and has described Vladimir Putin as a "big hero" in his home country. In return, the Russian President believes he will "get along very well" with the Republican.

The relationship now has "global consequences," said the International Business Times: "As Russia asserts itself as a world power, having Trump as an ally would be invaluable."

Norbert Rottgen, the chairman of the German parliamentary committee for foreign policy, told the New York Times that Trump's election could lead to "the worst estrangement between America and Europe since the Vietnam War".

Trump has shown "little interest in the institutions painstakingly set up after World War Two and spoken blithely of ripping up trade agreements and undermining western alliances", throwing into doubt the US's future support for Nato allies, said Dominic Waghorn, the diplomatic editor at Sky News.

He added: "From Moscow to Beijing, despots, gangster governments and unelected elites have been rubbing their hands in glee."

Martin Wolf, writing in the Financial Times, said Trump as president would "mark the end of a US-led west as the central force in global affairs" and the result would "not be a new order - it would be perilous disorder".

The businessman's "unpredictability and transactional approach to partnerships" would "irreparably" damage the US's global alliances, while the democratic system itself would "lose much of its credibility as a model for the organisation of a civilised political life", he wrote.

Wolf added: "Far from making America great, his presidency might unravel the world."

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