VIF Digest: USA, Russia & European Union (Vol 1 Issue II)

Nov 1-15, 2017

USA

Mueller Makes his First Moves

Special prosecutor Robert Mueller made his first significant moves with the release of his first indictments and a surprise plea deal in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election. Legal experts said the court filings indicate Mueller is running a serious, deliberative, and far-sighted inquiry.

Robert Muller's charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and two other aides marked a new phase in his sprawling investigation into Russia and President Donald Trump, underscoring the ongoing threat Mueller poses to the president. Trump immediately sought to distance himself after Manafort and Rick Gates pleaded not guilty to a 12-count indictment alleging money laundering, conspiracy and other offenses and as another former aide was revealed to be cooperating with authorities after entering a guilty plea for lying to the FBI. White House officials were publicly optimistic about Mueller's investigation wrapping up swiftly, but the probe is far from over and its outcome still uncertain.

Trump has become increasingly concerned that the Mueller probe could be moving beyond Russia to an investigation into his personal dealings, two people familiar with the president's thinking said. Trump expressed irritation that he was being tarnished by his former aides. In the hours after the indictment, the president angrily told one confidant that Manafort had been a campaign "part-timer" who had only helped steer the convention and got too much credit for Trump's ability to hold onto the nomination. According to reports, Trump dismissed the money-laundering charges against Manafort as typical political corruption that did not reflect on his campaign. The president also insisted that the charges predated Manafort's time on the campaign and that he should not be held responsible for any prior misdeeds by Manafort.

Interestingly, Trump's attempts to discredit the investigation by Mueller, a former FBI director, threaten to alienate him from Republican lawmakers, who have supported the inquiry. Trump has at times chafed at his legal team's advice to be deferential to Mueller's investigation, toying with the notion of going on the offensive. Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon has encouraged the more aggressive approach, according to a person familiar with his thinking but not authorized to discuss it by name.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders responded to the news by saying: "Today's announcement has nothing to do with the president. Has nothing to do with the president's campaign or campaign activity."

In a related development, representatives from Facebook, Twitter and Google testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about what they know about specific attempts by Russians to disseminate disinformation during the 2016 presidential election. All three companies have admitted that Russian entities bought ads on their sites in an effort to skew the vote. The companies have also testified before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.

Russia

The decision of the US Congress to approve the draft of the national defense budget that authorizes $350 million to provide security aid to Ukraine, including defensive lethal assistance, and an allocation of $100 million in military aid to the Baltic countries, has evoked sharp reaction in Russia. Senior Russian lawmakers have stated that the US decision to provide Kiev with lethal defensive weapons was a crucial blow to the Minsk accords and a threat to the security of the whole of Europe.

The head of the lower house Committee for Defense and former commander of the Russian Airborne Troops, Vladimir Shamanov, told Interfax that in his view the move was proof of US intentions to destabilize the situation near Russia’s western borders. Shamanov also stated that the increase in the size and intensity of training of US tactical groups in Europe was contributing to higher tensions in the region. Deputy head of the upper house Committee for Defense and Security, Frants Klintsevich, called the US steps aimed at boosting the capabilities of its own and allied military contingents in Europe a reaction to Russia’s success in Syria.

In comments to RIA Novosti, Klintsevich also stated that by providing military aid to Kiev the US was greatly increasing the risk of a new round of military conflict in Ukraine. “Of course the [US] Congress members must understand that the supplies of lethal weapons to Ukraine would destroy the Minsk agreements at the very second they start. Extending $350 million in military aid to Kiev is a direct call for them to start a full-scale war in Donbass [in eastern Ukraine],” the senator said.

European Union

The European Union (EU) faces manifold challenges from migration to Brexit, but the stars are aligning to create the conditions for a much-needed revamp of the bloc. Against this backdrop, the Centre for European Reform (CER) think-tank has produced 'Relaunching the EU' a blue-print for how the EU can reconnect with voters, improve its economic performance, and modernize its institutions. The key proposals include developing a more flexible 'multi-track' Union in which member-states need not all sign up to the same policies and objectives, such as adopting the euro. The CER argues that the EU must also do more to enforce the rule of law, fight corruption, stamp out corporate tax avoidance, and encourage internal mobility.

According to the report, “For the past several years, the EU has suffered from weak and insipid leadership, as it has lurched from one crisis to another. But now, against the background of a somewhat improved economic situation, the combination of President Emmanuel Macron’s enthusiasm and intellectual creativity, and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s authority and experience, bodes well for the cause of EU reform. The Union’s critics have often argued that it is too inflexible to adapt and flourish. Macron, Merkel and other leaders, including those running the EU institutions, must move quickly to prove the critics wrong and demonstrate that a relaunch is viable.”

The CER’s proposals include:-

• Developing a flexible 'multi-track’ Union where member-states don’t all have to sign up for the same objectives – an arrangement that could one day see the UK seek to join an 'outer circle' or produce forms of associate membership that could be attractive to Turkey.
• Removing barriers to mobility within the bloc, and developing a more muscular approach to controlling migration.
• Greater integration of banking and capital market policies in the eurozone and broadening the European Central Bank's mandate.
• Strengthening procedures for clamping down on corruption and member-states that flout the bloc’s commitment to democratic values.
• Creating a fairer multinational tax system.