VIF News Digest: USA, Europe, Eurasia, Russia & CARs (Vol 2 Issue II)

February 1-28, 2018

Contents

Bill to end US aid to Pakistan moved in House of Representatives
US tells India to cut tariffs as trade friction heats up
Deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida
Australia, US, India and Japan in talks to establish Belt and Road alternative: Report
Donald Trump aide Rick Gates to plead guilty in Mueller probe
This time, it's Trump Administration personnel
Pence: The United States is ready to talk with North Korea
Kushner Loses Access to Top-Secret Intelligence
Moscow says it has ‘tangible evidence’ of Western Involvement in its Domestic Affairs
Russia to begin mass production of MC-21-300 mainline aircraft in 2019
Moscow views mending relations with Washington as primary task
EU envoy warns situation may spiral into something more dangerous than Cold War
Russia can deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad without informing NATO
Russian diplomat warns those on Mueller’s list against travelling abroad
US training Europe to use tactical nukes against Russia is threat to non-proliferation
India agrees to buy 4 cutting-edge frigates from Russia
India Joins Ashgabat Agreement
Uzbek Foreign Minister Visits New Delhi
Jeenbekov Visits Dushanbe
Prime Ministers of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) Countries Meet in Almaty
Uzbekistan Simplifies its Visa Regime

USA

Bill to end US aid to Pakistan moved in House of Representatives

On 7 Feb, the US House of Representatives joined the Senate in seeking to end US economic aid to Pakistan while the Trump administration has already suspended military aid. A bill introduced in the House said that non-defence aid to Pakistan should also end and the money set aside for this purpose should be invested in infrastructure projects in the United States.

The movers say they are seeking the ban because Pakistan “provides military aid and intelligence” to terrorists, a charge Islamabad strongly denies. Pakistani officials say that the US administration blames their country to hide their failure in Afghanistan where they have failed to subdue an ever-increasing insurgency. [Back to Contents ]

US tells India to cut tariffs as trade friction heats up

According to industry and government sources, US businesses and diplomats are pressing India to cut tariffs, after New Delhi's move to increase customs duties on dozens of products to help its flagship Make-in-India drive aggravated differences over trade.

Ford, which has two plants in India, has sought a reversal of the new tariffs on auto components, while Apple Inc is concerned its iPhones have become even more expensive in the price-conscious $10 billion smartphone market.

India and the United States have built close political ties and Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Washington last summer, bear-hugging President Donald Trump in his personalised style of diplomacy. But trade friction is casting a shadow. A US State Department spokesperson told Reuters India must lower trade barriers, which were holding back economic ties. Trump has already called out India for its duties on Harley-Davidson motorbikes, and PM Modi ordered them cut to 50 per cent from 75 per cent for high-end bikes. But that has not satisfied Trump, who pointed to zero duties for Indian bikes sold in the United States, saying he would push for a "reciprocal tax" against countries, including US allies, that levy tariffs on American products. [Back to Contents ]

Deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida

On 14 February a mass shooting occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland in which 17 people were killed. It was one of the deadliest school shootings in US history. The suspected perpetrator, 19-year-old Nikolas Jacob Cruz, was identified by witnesses and arrested shortly afterward. He confessed and according to Broward County Sherrif’s Office, Cruz was charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder. Following the tragedy, President Trump claimed on Twitter that the FBI’s work on the Russian collusion case had caused the agency to miss the shooter’s violent potential. In her column for Fairfax Media, honorary associate Nicole Hemmer wrote that moments like Parkland call for national leadership, which Trump proved by his comments that he could not provide. [Back to Contents ]

Australia, US, India and Japan in talks to establish Belt and Road alternative: Report
Australia, the United States, India and Japan are talking about establishing a joint regional infrastructure scheme as an alternative to China's multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative in an attempt to counter Beijing's spreading influence, the Australian Financial Review reported citing a senior U.S. official. The unnamed official was quoted, as saying the plan involving the four regional partners was still “nascent” and “won’t be ripe enough to be announced. [Back to Contents ]

Donald Trump aide Rick Gates to plead guilty in Mueller probe

Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates has reportedly agreed to plead guilty to fraud-related charges and to testify against former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. According to US media reports, Gates will change his plea in the next few days and is expected to spend only 18 months in prison if he cooperates with Robert Mueller probe into the Kremlin’s possible interference in the 2016 presidential election.

“If [Gates] were to plead guilty to criminal charges connected to his earlier work as a lobbyist for a pro-Kremlin party in Ukraine, including allegations of money laundering, it would set off a chain of events that could bring Mueller’s investigation deep into the White House,” says The Guardian. He would be the third Trump aide to make a plea deal with investigators, after George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn.
Trump has repeatedly denied that his campaign colluded with the Kremlin. Earlier, 13 Russians living in the US were charged with allegedly interfering in the election with a multipronged effort to support Trump’s campaign and disparage his rival Hillary Clinton. [Back to Contents ]

This time, it's Trump Administration personnel
Two key Trump administration personnel resigned in the space of a week over domestic abuse allegations. David Sorensen, a member of Trump's speechwriting team, and Rob Porter, a top White House staffer, resigned just days apart.

The White House remains under scrutiny over its handling of Porter's departure. West Wing staff – including chief of staff John Kelly – initially defended Porter despite the allegations of abuse by both of his ex-wives. Experts on the security clearance process used for White House staffers said that Porter's hiring – despite both ex-wives having notified the FBI about the alleged abuse during his vetting – also raises serious questions. John Kelly defended his handling of the situation, telling the Wall Street Journal, "it was all done right".

Trump said that he was "surprised" by the claims against Porter, but he praised him for his work during the time he was with the administration. The president also said he has “full faith” in John Kelly and is “not actively searching for replacements”. [Back to Contents ]

Pence: The United States is ready to talk with North Korea

Despite the mutual chill between U.S. and North Korean officials that was witnessed on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics in South Korea, apparently behind the scenes real progress was made toward a new diplomatic opening that could result in direct talks without preconditions between Washington and Pyongyang. This window of opportunity was born out of a new understanding reached between the White House and the president of South Korea.

Vice President Pence, in an interview aboard Air Force Two on the way home from the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, told accompanying reporters that in his two substantive conversations with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during his trip, the United States and South Korea agreed on terms for further engagement with North Korea — first by the South Koreans and potentially with the United States soon thereafter.
The frame for the still-nascent diplomatic path forward is this: The United States and its allies will not stop imposing steep and escalating costs on the Kim Jong-un regime until it takes clear steps toward denuclearization. But the Trump administration is now willing to sit down and talk with the regime while that pressure campaign is ongoing.

Pence called it “maximum pressure and engagement at the same time.” That’s an important change from the previous U.S. position, which was to build maximum pressure until Pyongyang made real concessions and only then to engage directly with the regime. [Back to Contents ]

Kushner Loses Access to Top-Secret Intelligence

President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner has had his security clearance downgraded — a move that will prevent him from viewing many of the sensitive documents to which he once had unfettered access. Kushner is not alone. All White House aides working on the highest-level interim clearances — at the Top Secret/SCI-level — were informed in a memo sent Friday that their clearances would be downgraded to the Secret level, according to three people with knowledge of the situation.

The SCI acronym stands for sensitive compartmented information, a category of information that comes from sensitive intelligence sources and must be walled off.

The memo was not signed by Chief of Staff John Kelly, but it comes as the retired Marine General and other top White House aides are grappling with the fallout of a scandal involving former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, which revealed that dozens of White House aides had yet to receive permanent clearances but nonetheless had access to some of the country’s deepest secrets.
White House Chief of Staff General John Kelly said earlier this month that he would be limiting the number of people with top-level security clearance. It emerged that the president's former staff secretary, Rob Porter, had been able to work with interim security clearance despite allegations of domestic abuse. Four US Commerce Department political appointees working on interim security clearances also lost their jobs Tuesday because of problems in their background checks. [Back to Contents ]

Russia

Moscow says it has ‘tangible evidence’ of Western Involvement in its Domestic Affairs
Russia has turned the tables on the governments and security agencies that accuse it of meddling in foreign elections, claiming it has evidence of western interference in its forthcoming presidential vote. The allegation was made by Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who said Russia had proof of “the destructive interference of some Western countries” in the run-up to March’s election, Reuters reports.
She said Russia had told European countries that “such activity should stop” and threatened “tough countermeasures” if it did not. Her claims were backed by Russian Prosecutor-General Yuri Chaika, who said foreign agencies’ attempts “to interfere in our country’s domestic affairs require a harsh reaction from our prosecutors”.

The claims appear to relate to foreign media coverage. “The US public propaganda outlets, which have already been recognized as foreign agents, usually act as instigators,” said Andrei Klimov, head of Russia’s Commission for the Protection of State Sovereignty, according to the state-controlled Sputnik website. Last year, the Russian parliament unanimously passed a bill designating all international media outlets “foreign agents”, a retaliatory response to similar action taken by the US Congress against Russia’s state-funded news channel, RT. [Back to Contents ]

Russia to begin mass production of MC-21-300 mainline aircraft in 2019

Russia will reportedly begin mass production of a mainline aircraft surpassing Boeing products in quality in 2019, Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin said on February 6. "We will begin mass production of the MC-21-300 mainline aircraft and its entire family in 2019," Rogozin said at a meeting of the Investigative Committee's board. "Surprising as it may seem, the technical properties of this plane are better than those of the latest products of Boeing and Airbus," he said. Rogozin added that trials of the Ilyushin Il-114-300 short-haul aircraft will begin in 2019 and that the Zvezda shipyard is building ships and oilrigs for Arctic hydrocarbon-extraction projects. [Back to Contents ]

Moscow views mending relations with Washington as primary task

Russia’s ambassador to the US has stated the importance of overcoming the negative tendencies in mutual relations and called proper cooperation between the two nations crucial to overcoming global threats, such as terrorism. “It is important to guide our American partners to understanding of the objective necessity of repairing the bilateral dialogue. Russian-American cooperation remains a decisive factor that influences all key global processes. Only together can we defeat the plague that has stricken the humanity – terrorism. After we unite we can reinforce the foundations of strategic stability and settle regional conflicts,” Ambassador Anatoly Antonov said in a speech dedicated to Russia’s ‘Day of the Diplomatic Worker’ on 13 February.

Diplomatic ties between Russia and the US have been gradually deteriorating over recent years, with the situation becoming especially acute in 2016 as Washington accused Moscow of meddling in the US presidential elections. In 2017, the two nations exchanged a series of tit-for-tat steps targeting diplomatic staff and property, which further strained relations. [Back to Contents ]

EU envoy warns situation may spiral into something more dangerous than Cold War

Contacts between Russian officials and the European Union have become more frequent recently. Three high-ranking EU officials visited Moscow in the last fortnight of February alone, while two Russian senior diplomats have travelled to Brussels. This, however, cannot be seen as a sign that full-fledged relations between Moscow and the EU have been restored, EU Ambassador to Russia Markus Ederer told Kommersant. It’s absolutely clear that no one wants the Cold War to return, the ambassador stressed. He noted that he is critical about all the talk about a new Cold War. In his view, such speculations elicit erroneous associations and can bring about incorrect political action.

The ambassador drew attention to the fact that some very important arms control agreements had been inked during the Cold War era, such as the Treaty on Open Skies, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). Today the parties are unable to strike new agreements. Moreover, they jeopardize the existing ones. If we do not try to minimize the threats posed by the present situation, the current period can become more dangerous than the Cold War, he warned.

Referring to Russia-EU relations, the ambassador said there are no permanent top-level political contacts today. Dialogue has been basically maintained at an expert level. There were a few exceptions though, he added. EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini held talks with Russia’s top diplomat Sergey Lavrov in Moscow last April, with the two parties agreeing that it is necessary to continue cooperation on international issues. [Back to Contents ]

Russia can deploy Iskander missiles in Kaliningrad without informing NATO

Russia will not report to NATO about the deployment of its Iskander ballistic missile systems in its western most exclave region of Kaliningrad as there is no reason for that, Vladimir Shamanov, the head of the Russian lower house’s defense committee, said in a media interaction on 15 February.
"Why? This is our legitimate territory, we can do what we want," Shamanov said, when asked whether Russia would report to the alliance about the deployment of Iskanders. This comes as a day earlier, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said that the alliance urged Russia to be transparent concerning the deployment of Iskander missile systems in Kaliningrad, located on the Baltic Sea.

Shamanov confirmed on February 5 that Russia had deployed the Iskander ballistic missile systems in the Kaliningrad Region. The information was initially announced by Raimundas Karoblis, the defense minister of neighboring Lithuania, in an interview with the BNS news agency published the same day. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, commenting on the issue, that Moscow was not threatening anyone, but has the sovereign right to place weapons anywhere on its territory. [Back to Contents ]

Russian diplomat warns those on Mueller’s list against travelling abroad

Travelling abroad could be dangerous for Russian citizens included in the so-called Mueller’s list, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov said on 21 February. "The recently published list makes one wonder if it would be wise for those Russian citizens who may face charges from the US law enforcement agencies, to leave the country," Ryabkov said in response to a TASS question. Ryabkov pointed out that the list of countries that had extradition agreements with the United States was available at the US State Department’s website, while a link to it was also published on the Russian Foreign Ministry’s website. "However, even there is no such an agreement, it is no security guarantee for Russian citizens," the senior diplomat noted. "Many times we have seen that US agencies do not hesitate to abduct our fellow citizens in case they have questions to ask them," he said. "This is why it is a very serious matter and everyone should assess the situation for themselves before travelling abroad," he added.
On February 16, the US Department of Justice indicted 13 individuals and three organizations from Russia for allegedly interfering in the US presidential election in 2016. Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed charges that implicate businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin and 12 staff members of the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, which Washington claims to have taken part in efforts "to defraud" the United States. [Back to Contents ]

US training Europe to use tactical nukes against Russia is threat to non-proliferation

According to Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, US programs that train non-nuclear powers on how to use American tactical nuclear weapons violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Lavrov’s comments reiterate Russia’s critical stance regarding the US and its training of NATO allies. The US is training European states who do not possess nuclear arsenals of their own on how to use American nuclear weapons stationed there. Moscow considers it a breach of the NPT, the cornerstone of the current non-proliferation regime. Lavrov criticized the US deployment of tactical nuclear weapons on European soil as well as the involvement of non-nuclear states in training programs, at a session of the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva on Wednesday. “Everybody should understand that the US military are preparing the militaries of European states to use tactical nuclear weapons against Russia,” he stressed. [Back to Contents ]

India agrees to buy 4 cutting-edge frigates from Russia

New Delhi and Moscow have concluded negotiations over the contract for purchase of four cutting-edge Russian frigates; the contract cost reported by the media is USD 3 billion. According to the contract the first two frigates will be built at the Yantar shipyard in Kaliningrad and two more in India at the Goa Shipyard, which is going to receive technologies from Russia. Delivery is expected to start within four years after signing the contract – reports the Business Standard. It is also reported that the Indian company will have to modify carry out major modifications of its shipyard for building the frigates. The ships will be armed with BRAHMOS missiles. [Back to Contents ]

Central Asian Republics (CAR)

India Joins Ashgabat Agreement

India has recently joined the Ashgabat Agreement, which envisages creation of an International Corridor connecting Central Asia with the Persian Gulf. This corridor is set to facilitate connectivity, trade and transportation of goods between the Central Asian Republics (CARs) and the Gulf countries. With accession to the Agreement, India has taken a step forward in its efforts in enhancing connectivity with Eurasia. India's accession to the Ashgabat Agreement entered into force on 3 February 2018. This was conveyed by the depository state Turkmenistan. [Back to Contents ]

Uzbek Foreign Minister Visits New Delhi

Uzbek Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov paid a working visit to India on 10-11 February. He was hosted by the Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj. The two also held a bilateral meeting and exchanged views on expanding bilateral and multilateral cooperation. Along with India, the foreign minister also paid working visits to Pakistan and Iran. In this month, he also visited China and Russia. He held bilateral meetings with the Foreign Ministers of these countries. [Back to Contents ]

Jeenbekov Visits Dushanbe

President of the Kyrgyz Republic Sooronbai Jeenbekov paid an official visit to Tajikistan on 1-2 February. This was his first visit to the neighboring state after coming to power in October 2017. During visit he held bilateral meetings with his Tajik counterpart Emomaly Rahmon in narrow as well as extended format. The two heads of states signed a Joint Statement and number of agreements, including a Program of Trade and Economic Cooperation. The Presidents of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan also discussed the issue of delimitation of border.

Prime Ministers of Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) Countries Meet in Almaty

A meeting of the Eurasian Intergovernmental Council (EIC) took place on 2 February in Almaty, Kazakhstan. Prime Ministers of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Armenia and Belarus took part in this meeting, which resulted in the adoption of 14 documents, including an agreement on labeling goods and a treaty on pensions. A forum themed “Digital Agenda in the Globalisation” that was initiated by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev also took place the same day. Apart from member-states, Prime Ministers of Azerbaijan and Tajikistan also participated in this forum that discussed topical issues related to digitization of all sectors of economy. [Back to Contents ]

Uzbekistan Simplifies its Visa Regime

Uzbekistan has introduced a visa-free regime for the period of 30 days, for citizens of seven countries, namely Israel, Indonesia, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Turkey and Japan. It has also simplified the visa procedures for tourist visas for citizens of 39 states, which includes India. A decree to this effect was signed by President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, titled “On additional organizational measures to create favorable conditions for development of tourism potential of the Republic of Uzbekistan”. [Back to Contents ]