The Russians call it “kombinatsiya”

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Over at the Observer, former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer John Schindler breaks down for the layman the Russian terms for the espionage operation that has engulfed President Trump and his inner circle.

As he writes, the fallout from Moscow’s spy-game shows no signs of letting up, and so it behooves us to learn a little bit about what it looks like and to understand how it works.

As the Trump administration’s Russia problem shows no sign of going away, protesting presidential tweets notwithstanding, it’s time to think about it properly. Understanding what the Kremlin’s up to helps to see the big picture. This means learning a bit of spy lingo. Espionage, like everything else, has its own culture—including special verbiage—which varies from country to country.

N7J0179 - Duckies Awards Web Badges-2Russia’s espionage culture is unique and in key ways markedly different from how Western countries approach the spy-game. It’s a product of the Soviet secret police, that brutal and cunning force, and it’s no accident that Vladimir Putin’s spies proudly call themselves Chekists today to commemorate them—just as they did in the days of the KGB. “There are no ‘former’ Chekists,” as the KGB veteran Putin has stated, and this attitude permeates his Kremlin.

From provokatsiya (provocation) to dezinformatsiya (disinformation) and aktivniyye meropriyatiya (active measures), Schindler explains the kombinatsiya (combination of techniques) that makes up the tangled ties between the 2016 election, TeamTrump, and the Kremlin.

With a former National Security Advisor (Mike Flynn), a former Trump campaign manager (Paul Manafort),  a long-time Trump confidant, personal advisor, and notorious political dirty-trickster (Roger Stone), a former Trump campaign national security aide (Carter Page), the current Attorney General (Jeff Sessions), and now a top White House advisor (Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner) all implicated in questionable contacts with and connections to Russian figures tied to the Kremlin and/or Russian intelligence agencies, Schindler’s piece is a must-read.

From Russia with love

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And now it’s Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He’s the latest member of Trump’s inner circle to be to caught having lied about contacts with the Russian government during the presidential campaign.

The Washington Post reported late last night that Sessions met twice with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak while Sessions was a top foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign and frequent surrogate.

NPR has confirmed the Post’s report, and Sessions’ spokesperson has acknowledged the meetings but denies that he had done anything improper.

But let’s be clear here. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Sessions denied under oath knowing about any contacts between anyone connected to the Trump campaign and the Russian government, including himself. Watch his exchange with Sen. Al Franken here:

Lying to Congress, while under oath, is a criminal offense. Democrats have been quick to point this out.

So the Russia-related hits keep coming. First National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was forced to resign after it was revealed that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his own contacts with the Russian ambassador. Now the heat is on Sessions.

At what point will Trump himself be personally implicated? That’s still unclear.

But, if you want to know why Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential election, what they hoped to accomplish and the motivations behind it, there’s no better place to start than this brilliant cover story from The New Yorker

Meanwhile, remember this?

Who’s the puppet?

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Who can forget this unforgettable moment from the third presidential debate:

So now, with a little more than a month before Donald Trump takes the oath of office as the 45th president of the United States, lets review just how many strings connect Trump to Russia.

Starting with his three top diplomatic and national security picks, a group described by officials close to Russian President Vladimir Putin as “a fantastic team” from Russia’s perspective:

  • National Security Advisor appointee Michael Flynn has given a series of paid speeches at events in Moscow, including a speech at the anniversary party for RT, an English-language propaganda arm of the Russian government. He was photographed sitting with Putin following his remarks.
  • Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil was announced this morning as Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State. Tillerson was Exxon’s man in Russia in the 1990s, forging close ties with Putin and Russia’s state-owned oil industry. He has lobbied hard against US economic sanctions against Russia following Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea. Those sanctions have cost his company billions in lost deals and contracts. Tillerson’s close personal relationship with Putin dates to 2011 when his company signed a multi-billion deal with the Russian oil giant Rosneft. In 2013 Putin himself awarded Tillerson the Order of Friendship, an honor given to foreigners by the Russian government.
  • Retired Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Defense, while taking a tougher line on Russia than his potential boss, is considered by the Russians as more pragmatic than his predecessors, and combined with the other two rounds out a US national security team thought by Moscow to be highly favorable to Russian interests.

During the campaign it was clear and publicly known that Trump had loaded the highest levels of his advisory team with individuals with close ties to Russia. From campaign adviser Paul Manafort, who had spent most of the prior 14 years working for the corrupt pro-Russian Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych, to the aforementioned Flynn, to foreign policy adviser Carter Page. Page, an unknown among the circle of American Russia-policy experts, has direct financial ties to the Russian government and the state-controlled energy giant Gazprom. During the campaign he was investigated by the FBI for his ties to Russia, and is now back in Moscow for meetings with “business leaders and thought leaders.”

Finally, we learned over the weekend that the CIA has concluded that Russia intervened in the presidential election in an effort to tip the scales in Trump’s favor, an intelligence operation ordered at the “senior-most levels” of the Russian state. The president-elect of course denies the charge, dismissing it as sour grapes from embarrassed Democrats who thought the election was in the bag.

I think we know who the puppet is here. But don’t take my word for it, follow the links above and judge for yourself.

Syria solved!

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After five years of brutal civil war in Syria, an agreement has finally been reached on peace talks with the aim of establishing a nationwide ceasefire. The United Nations will oversee the rewriting of Syria’s constitution and then new elections that will presumably mark the end of the Assad family’s dictatorial rule.

There’s only one problem.

None of the parties doing the actual fighting were part of the negotiations in Vienna.

Assad wasn’t invited, and, as the New York Times reports, it is “unclear” whether either he or any of the constellation of rebel groups will agree to the deal.  The uncertainties don’t end there:

There was no target date or deadline for either the cease-fire or a new constitution and election that would follow.

Even the language used to describe what was decided after the final seven hours of heated talks between the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, along with additional European, Arab, and Gulf states, 17 countries in all, was obscure and vague. As Secretary of State John Kerry explained, the parties have agreed to “explore the modalities of a nationwide cease-fire” on the way to a new political arrangement for Syria.

So what was the point of all this? A couple of things come to mind.

First, the ceasefire plan specifically does not apply to combat against ISIS. This suggests that the US and Russia might finally end up on the same side here rather than working at cross purposes. With Obama’s announcement today that the US will deploy Special Operations forces into Kurdish-controlled territories in northern Syria, that Russia and the US might finally be fighting the same enemy is particularly welcome news.

Second, the agreement to seek a new constitution and elections for Syria signals that Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, are willing to see him go, which further suggests that they can see a way to secure their own separate interests in any post-Assad dispensation. This is important because, as I noted in a post several weeks ago, Russian military intervention to date can be seen to be creating conditions on the ground in which the US (and everyone) else would be forced to choose between a Syria under Assad and a Syria which falls to ISIS.

Third, it offers some semblance of hope that with both Iran and Saudi Arabia at the table together, the proxy war aspect of the Syrian situation may start to ratchet down in intensity.

Whether any of this bears actual fruit remains to be seen. The negotiations will reconvene in a few weeks to try to iron out details. And at some point someone will have to try and bring the forces on the ground into the discussions as well. That will be challenging enough.

Until then, this is the first sign of progress on the political front in a very long time. That’s worth something. Exactly how much it means we will have to wait to find out.