Russia detains American diplomats for traveling to top-secret military site

SeverodvinskRussian authorities detained three American diplomats because they allegedly tried to enter a highly secret weapons testing site in northern Russia, according to reports. The site in question is located near the northern Russian city of Severodvinsk. The city is home to a number of military shipyards and is thus restricted for non-Russians. The latter require a special permit to enter it.

In August of this year, Western media reported on a mysterious explosion that took place in a weapons research site located near Severodvinsk. The explosion allegedly happened during testing of a top-secret prototype rocket engine. Russian authorities revealed that five workers died as a result of the explosion, but denied media reports that the explosion had caused a radiation leak that had affected Severodvinsk. The Russian Ministry of Defense also denied allegations that a large-scale nuclear clean-up operation had been conducted in and around Severodvinsk. At the same time, Russian authorities restricted maritime traffic in the White Sea, on the shores of which Severodvinsk is situated.

On Wednesday, the Russian news agency Interfax reported that three American diplomats had been detained by authorities near Severodvinsk, allegedly because they tried to enter the city without the necessary permits. The diplomats were not named but are believed to be military attachés that serve in the United States embassy in Moscow. Interfax said the three were detained on Monday while onboard a passenger train. They were removed from the train, questioned and eventually released. However, they might still face charges of trying to enter a restricted area without permission.

The United States Department of State issued a statement claiming that the three diplomats “were on official travel and had properly notified Russian authorities of their travel”. A State Department spokesman said on Wednesday that the three diplomats’ travel plans had been authorized by the Russian Ministry of Defense. But authorities in Russia said that the three military attachés had been authorized to travel to the city of Arkhangelsk, which is located approximately 30 miles east of Severodvinsk. “We are quite willing to provide the United States embassy with a map of the Russian Federation”, the Russian statement concluded.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 17 October 2019 | Permalink

Iran arrests Russian journalist for espionage in rare spat with key ally Moscow

Yulia YuzikIn a surprising move last week, Iranian authorities arrested a Russian journalist and expert on the Caucasus region, whom they accused of spying for Israel. They later agreed to release her following significant diplomatic pressure from Russia. But the move surprised observers, because Iran rarely acts in ways that have the potential to damage its close relations with Moscow.

The journalist in question is Yulia Yuzik, a 38-year-old reporter with considerable expertise on Russia’s Caucasus region. Her articles on the security situation in the Caucasus have been published in several Russian and Western outlets, including Foreign Policy and GQ. She has also authored a number of books on Islamist militancy in the Russian Caucasus, which have been translated into several foreign languages, such as German, Italian and French.

In 2017, Yuzik spent several months in Iran while working on a number of stories. She returned to Russia before returning to Iran on September 29 of this year, reportedly “on a private trip”. Media reports stated that Yuzik intending to meet a number of Iranian journalists that she worked with back in 2017. However, upon landing at Iran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport, Yuzik had her passport confiscated without explanation, and was forced to enter the country without identity and travel documents. Then, last Thursday she was arrested at her hotel in downtown Tehran by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), who apparently broke down the door of her hotel room before arresting her.

There were no news of Yuzik’s whereabouts until the following day, when staff at the Russian embassy in the Iranian capital were contacted by her family. Yuzik’s family said that the IRGC had charged her with collecting intelligence for the Mossad, Israel’s spy service. Russian media reports said that the accusations against Yuzik took Russian diplomats by the surprise, given that Yuzik has no apparent connection to Israel, nor does she have a travel visa to enter that country. She reportedly spent a few days there in 2004 while writing a story about the Israel Defense Forces for Russian newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Yuzik’s family told the Russian embassy that she had been scheduled to appear in a Tehran court on Saturday. The Russian embassy gave a press briefing to reporters on Friday, saying that the Russian Foreign Ministry had summoned the Iranian ambassador to Moscow to complain about Yuzik’s arrest. Then early on Saturday, Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow, announced that Yuzik would be released soon and would be allowed to return home to Russia.

The incident has surprised observers, because Russia is one of Iran’s closest international allies. It is therefore highly unusual for Tehran to take any action that might potentially provoke Moscow or otherwise damage its diplomatic relations with the Kremlin.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 07 October 2019 | Permalink

‘Sonic attacks’ may have shrunk brains of US diplomats in Cuba, study finds

US embassy in CubaA series of alleged “sonic attacks” by a mysterious weapon may have caused the brains of American diplomats who served at the United States embassy in Cuba to shrink, according to a new scientific study. In 2017 Washington recalled the majority of its personnel from the US embassy in Havana and at least two more diplomats from the US consulate in the Chinese city of Guangzhou. The evacuees reported experiencing “unusual acute auditory or sensory phenomena” and “unusual sounds or piercing noises”. Subsequent tests showed that they suffered from sudden and unexplained loss of hearing, and possibly from various forms of brain injuries. In April of this year the Canadian embassy evacuated all family members of its personnel stationed in the Cuban capital over similar health concerns. Subsequently, the US issued a travel warning advising its citizens to stay away from the island and accused Cuba of neglecting to ensure the safety of US diplomatic personnel stationed there.

The theory that a sonic weapon caused the diplomats’ ailments is not universally held, with some scientists doubting the validity of such claims. But now a new study may have provided a tangible and measurable link that connects the physiological symptoms suffered by the diplomats. The study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association,The study, published in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is based on a detailed examination of data from magnetic resonance imaging studies that assessed both structural and functional endpoints of the brains of the victims of the alleged sonic attacks. Scientists at the University of Pennsylvania took these images of the brains of 40 individuals who complained of acute auditory and other sensory disturbances while in Cuba, and compared them with those of healthy participants. The latter were matched with the patients for age, lifestyle and general background. According to the study, the comparison revealed statistically significant differences in various structures of the subjects’ brains. The differences were most pronounced in the white matter of their brains. The white matter is important because it is comprised of the myelin-protected nerve fibers that are responsible for transmitting the electrical signals from one brain cell (neuron) to another. Damage to these regions would result in a reduction of the brain’s ability to process information as rapidly as the brains of non-affected individuals. According to the study, the volume of white matter in the brains of the alleged sonic attack victims was approximately five percent smaller than that in the brains of healthy adults.

One of the scientists behind the study told the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph that his team of researchers have not seen “anything like it before”. But he added that he and his colleagues are “not sure […] what it is”, though “there does appear to be something there”. Another expert told the paper that the findings of the University of Pennsylvania study supported the validity of the symptoms reported by the American diplomats. However, they do not help answer the question of whether they suffered actual brain injuries. A spokesman from the United States Department of State told The Telegraph that the Department is “aware of the study and welcomes the medical community’s discussion of this incredibly complex issue”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 25 July 2019 | Permalink

Italy rebukes France for blocking EU resolution calling for end to Libyan war

khalifa haftarSeveral European Union member states, led by Italy, have criticized France for blocking a joint resolution calling on all warring factions in Libya to cease all hostilities and return to the negotiations table. The latest round of hostilities was sparked by an all-out attack by a group calling itself the Libyan National Army (LNA). The commander of the LNA is Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, an old adversary of the Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, who lived in the United States under Washington’s protection for several decades. In 2011, following an uprising that toppled Gaddafi, Haftar returned to Libya and launch a military campaign from the eastern city of Tobruk. Since that time, he has led the LNA in a war of attrition against the United Nations-backed Government of National Accord (GNA), which is based in the Libyan capital Tripoli.

Last week, Haftar launched an all-out attack to defeat the GNA and take Tripoli —a move that many observers have been expecting for several months. With the LNA receiving substantial military assistance from Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, among other countries, most observers expected that Haftar would be the ruler of Tripoli within days. But his troops were unexpectedly pushed back by GNA troops on Monday, and have been unable to enter Tripoli from the south, as was their initial plan. Meanwhile the EU attempted on Wednesday to issue a joint statement calling on all warring sides to put down their weapons and enter into negotiations. But France blocked the draft statement, prompting heavy criticism.

On Thursday, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini criticized France for blocking the EU statement “for economic and commercial reasons” and warned that he would “not stand by and watch” France continue to support “a party that is fighting” in the Libyan Civil War. Salvini expressed the view that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s military intervention in Libya in 2011, which was strongly supported by France, was “triggered more by economic and commercial interests than by humanitarian concerns”. Unlike France, which has been a strong supporter of Haftar, Italy backs the UN-supported GNA and Libya’s legitimate Prime Minister, Fayez al-Sarraj.

In 2017, two leading international legal scholars accused Haftar of having ordered his troops to commit war crimes. Ryan Goodman, a professor and former special counsel to the general counsel of the United States Department of Defense, and Alex Whiting, a Harvard University law professor who served as an international criminal prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, said that in September of 2015, Haftar openly urged his troops to “to take no prisoners” in battle. The Libyan warlord denies these charges against him.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 12 April 2019 | Permalink

Moscow confirms arrival of Russian troops in Venezuela

Russian planes CaracasRussian media reports have confirmed that an airplane carrying 100 Russian troops arrived in Caracas on Saturday, causing tensions to rise between Washington and Moscow over the deepening crisis in Venezuela. The arrival of the Russian troops in the Venezuelan capital was first reported on Saturday morning by Venezuelan reporter Javier Mayorca, who said on Twitter that two Russian military airplanes had landed in Caracas. The reporter said that an Antonov An-124 Ruslan cargo plane belonging to the Russian Air Force could be seen on the tarmac of the Simón Bolívar International Airport in the Venezuelan capital. Another, smaller aircraft, also bearing the Russian flag on its fuselage, landed shortly afterwards, said Mayorca.

Within hours, several Venezuelan media reports appeared to confirm Mayorca’s claims, some even posting photographs of the two Russian planes surrounded by what appeared to be uniformed Russian soldiers. The BBC reported that the Russian cargo plane had delivered 100 Russian troops and 35 tons of military equipment. The force was led by General Vasily Tonkoshkurov, commander of the General Staff of Russia’s Armed Forces, according to the BBC. Later on Saturday, the Russian government-owned news agency Sputnik confirmed that Russian troops had arrived in Caracas. Citing anonymous “diplomatic sources”, Sputnik said the Russian troops had been sent to Caracas in order “to fulfil technical military contracts” and “to take part in consultations […] on defense industry cooperation” with Venezuelan officials. It added that there was “nothing mysterious” about the visit and that it was “related to [military] contracts that had been signed by the two countries years ago”.

Russia has supported Venezuela militarily, economically and diplomatically ever since 1999, when Hugo Chávez became president. The recent political crisis in the Latin American country, which has prompted a direct diplomatic intervention by Washington, has brought Caracas and Moscow closer together, as Russia has strongly opposed efforts by the United States to bring down the government of Nicolás Maduro. Earlier this year, Russia sent two Tu-160 long-range bomber aircraft to take part in a military exercise organized by the Venezuelan government.

On Monday, Washington said that the United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had a telephone conversation with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. Pompeo told his Russian counterpart that Moscow should “cease its unconstructive behavior” and warned him that the United States would “not stand idly by as Russia exacerbated tensions” in Venezuela. Late on Monday, Sputnik quoted a “diplomatic source” as saying that that the “visit of Russian military personnel to Venezuela [was] in no way connected to the statements of the United States on potential intervention in Venezuela”.

Author: Joseph Fitsanakis | Date: 26 March 2019 | Permalink

China seeks clarification over alleged spy equipment ordered by US embassies

US embassy Berlin GermanyThe Chinese government says it is seeking explanations from Washington after a leaked procurement database showed that American embassies purchased data forensics software and various tactical spy equipment. The purported database was published on December 21 by the international anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks, founded by Julian Assange, who is accused by some in the United States of having violated its espionage laws. WikiLeaks has dubbed the database the “US Embassy Shopping List” and says that it contains over 16,000 procurement requests from officials at American embassies located all over the world.

Most procurement requests included in the WikiLeaks database appear to be for commonplace items or services, such as passenger transportation, heating oil, outdoor freezers, or garage gates maintenance and repair. But there are some requests for so-called “tactical spy equipment”, such as those ordered by the US embassies in Colombia and El Salvador. These appear to be for miniature surveillance cameras hidden into everyday objects, such as buttons, baseball caps, watches and ties. Nearly 100 such items were requested for procurement by the US embassy in San Salvador. Several embassies ordered hardware and software for forensic examination of mobile phones. For example, the US embassy in Yerevan, Armenia, ordered a “Cell Phone Analyzer”, which allows users to access data from cell phones while bypassing security measures such as passwords. Similar devices were ordered by the US embassies in Berlin (pictured), and Kiev, capital of Ukraine, where fears were expressed on Monday about a possible military action by Russian troops during the holidays.

On Monday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was seeking “clarifications” from Washington about the documents made public by WikiLeaks. Speaking to reporters in Beijing, Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said that the US owed “the rest of the world an explanation […] for what has recently been revealed by WikiLeaks”. Chunying also spoke about prior WikiLeaks revelations, including the so-called “PRISM-gate” in 2013, which revealed extensive intelligence-collection activities by the US on numerous countries, including some if its allies, such as Germany and France. She went on to ask, “why do American embassies buy so much secret surveillance equipment?”. Authorities in Washington had made no comment on the WikiLeaks revelation as of Tuesday morning.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 25 December 2018 | Permalink

Cyber spies accessed thousands of European Union diplomatic cables

European Commission buildingA group of hackers, allegedly working for the Chinese military, accessed thousands of classified diplomatic cables from the European Union during a protracted cyber-espionage operation, a report has revealed. Over 100 organizations are believed to have been targeted in the multi-year cyber-espionage campaign, including the United Nations, international labor groups, as well as government ministries from dozens of countries. The operation was revealed on Tuesday by Area 1, a cyber-security company founded by former officials of the United States National Security Agency, and reported by The New York Times.

The compromised cables come primarily from the European Union’s COREU communication network, a Telex-based network that uses teleprinters to exchange text-based messages. The European Union uses the COREU network to transmit information that is classified “limited” or “restricted” between officials representing the executive governments of the European Union’s member states, members of the European Commission, foreign-ministry officials, and other approved parties. Top-secret information (“tres secret” in European Union parlance) is typically not shared on the COREU network. Consequently, the hacked cables contain mostly low-level information. That does not mean, however, that their access by at least one adversary power does not represent a serious security breach. Area 1 said that its forensic examination of the method used by the hackers reveals a set of cyber-espionage techniques that are closely associated with the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). These clues, in association with the PLA’s long history of attacking Western diplomatic targets, point to Beijing as a very likely culprit behind the attacks, according to Area 1.

The American cyber-security firm said it was able to access the compromised European Union cables and made over 1,100 of them available to The New York Times. The paper reported on Tuesday that the cables reflect increasing tension between Brussels and Washington, as European Union diplomats attempt to get a handle on the unpredictability of United States President Donald Trump. A series of diplomatic cables discusses the whether the European Union should bypass the White House and work directly with the Republican-controlled US Congress, which is viewed as more reliable and responsible. Another set of diplomatic exchanges describes the frustration of the Beijing’s leadership with Trump, which Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have described to European Union officials as “a bully [engaged in a] no-rules freestyle boxing match”.

The Times said that it notified the European Union of the breach of its diplomatic cables and was told that officials were “aware of allegations regarding a potential leak of sensitive information and [were] actively investigating the issue”. The paper also contacted the White House National Security Council but did not get a response.

Author: Ian Allen | Date: 20 December 2018 | Permalink