• Israel and Iran Exchange Blows in Syria: A View From Israel

    The January 20 Israeli attack on an Iranian weapons shipment delivery near the Damascus airport in Syria led to a quick and exceptional succession of events that could have easily brought both sides to the brink of war. 

    Iran reacted with a missile launch at the Golan Heights. Israel then responded with an attack on Iranian military targets in the Damascus vicinity. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) spokesperson’s official statements and briefings that were given to journalists appeared to present a detailed picture of what had occurred on the northern front. However, in spite of the abundance of material published and the unusual openness on the part of Israel, there still remains information gaps and a number of unanswered questions. These require additional examination and interpretation. First and foremost, there is the need to distinguish the background noise from accurate signals. 

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  • Who Wanted Boris Nemtsov Dead? New Book Offers New Look at Evidence

    Boris Nemtsov was a good friend of mine. He was jollier and more outgoing than most. Unlike most of Russia’s reformers, he abstained from wealth, bravely choosing to live modestly as an opposition politician. He could work with anyone while maintaining good values. On February 27, 2015, he was murdered just off the Kremlin.

    John B. Dunlop, a renowned historian of Russia at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, has just published a book, The February 2015 Assassination of Boris Nemtsov and the Flawed Trial of His Alleged Killers. Dunlop meticulously describes and documents the investigation and the court proceedings over 191 pages.

    The book starts with a presentation of the murder and its investigation, followed by a chapter about the trial. The remaining seven chapters offer different versions of what really happened. This structure is reminiscent of The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. Dunlop lets all sides speak in their own voice in long quotes. The book starts slowly and gains momentum. Nothing is what it first seems. The book’s ultimate insight is that careful study of available evidence offers great opportunities to understand what goes on in Putin’s Russia. This is Kremlinology at its best.

    At first glance, the murder does not appear complicated.

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  • Ukraine Emerges from Isolation

    Transportation links provide advance warnings as to where a society is going physically and mentally.

    Until five years ago, all of Ukraine’s roads led to Moscow. Now they go west.

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  • Congress Should Explain How Dark Russian Money Infiltrates Western Democracies

    This is the second in a two-part series.


    One should expect a heated national debate about the political implications for US President Donald J. Trump once the key findings of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation become public. Few will stop at that point to ask what the evidence shows about how Russian meddling in the 2016 US election was possible, and what must be done now to protect American democracy and counter continued Russian hybrid warfare.

    Open hearings in Congress can help focus public attention on those important matters of national security policy with a particular focus on the vulnerabilities that are not yet well understood. If Americans were asked to identify Russia’s lines of attack in 2016, the answers would probably include the cyber hack-and-dump operations, the disinformation campaign on social media, and possibly some classic human espionage. Less appreciated is the extent to which foreign adversaries weaponize the dark corners of the US financial system to subvert democracy.

    Some financial influence operations target specific policies rather than political outcomes. Russian oligarchs spend considerable resources trying to get their names removed from the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list, injecting foreign money into a vast complex of influence peddlers formally employed as lobbyists, lawyers, public relations consultants, private investigators, and other professional service providers. A prime example is the multifaceted campaign against the Magnitsky Act (a US law freezing the assets of Kremlin cronies who stole $230 million in tax receipts and murdered the lawyer who uncovered the scheme).


    Russian efforts to oppose the Magnitsky Act were spearheaded by Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer who met Trump campaign officials in Trump Tower in 2016 and who was recently indicted in a case showing her Kremlin ties. The Veselnitskaya operation used a nonprofit incorporated in Delaware to conceal its sources of funding, which turned out to flow from a Moscow family with high-level government ties which allegedly used Manhattan real estate to launder money from the Magnitsky case.

    However, the methods of financial infiltration that most directly target the heart of democracy involve deploying foreign dark money to cultivate, support, and curry favor with politicians who would advance Russian interests.

    One notable example is the loan to French politician Marine Le Pen’s party from an obscure Russian bank that had managed to get a European banking license despite its reputation for doing business with Russian organized crime and Iranian entities amid sanctions. The loan flowed through a decentralized illicit financial network involving co-opted politicians, the Russian Orthodox Church, money launderers, and a Moscow-based aircraft contractor tied to Russian military intelligence. Some of these agents are sanctioned by the US Treasury for supporting Moscow’s wars in Ukraine and Syria, using their skills, connections, and positions to enrich themselves while also aiming to impress Russian President Vladimir Putin by helping to pursue his foreign policy objectives.

    Elsewhere in Europe, Russia has allegedly provided financial support to favored political candidates, parties, or movements in Ukraine, the United Kingdom, Lithuania, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Poland, Albania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, and Republika Srpska.

    In the United States, Mueller is investigating whether the history of Russian investments in properties affiliated with the Trump Organization is a case of dark foreign money interfering in American democracy.

    In addition to aiming to install friendly politicians, such financial assistance could also offer Moscow a source of blackmail since it is secret and would be politically toxic if made public. Moreover, even after the debts become publicly known (and thus less useful as blackmail per se), their unpaid status could offer Russia a direct form of financial leverage. For example, there is mounting evidence that Russians closely linked to Putin were talking to Paul Manafort in 2016 about using his position as Trump’s campaign chairman to “get whole” on his significant unpaid debts owed to the Russians.

    Congress will have to resist the temptation to focus exclusively on the political implications of these cases, as lawmakers also have a duty to raise public awareness around Russia’s hybrid warfare toolkit. For example, if Senate Republicans are hesitant about including steps to reform campaign finance in broader anti-money laundering reforms, the House should use open hearings to highlight the central role financial support plays in Russian political interference.

    Ultimately, the renewed geopolitical contest between liberal democracy and authoritarianism must be won by understanding our adversaries and taking them seriously, and then fighting back in ways that are consistent with our values. That can start with transparency and facts about the nature of the threat, as well as open debate about how to reform our financial and political systems to preserve, protect, and defend the free world against foreign dark money.

    Josh Rudolph is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council's Global Business and Economics Program. He formerly served at the International Monetary Fund, the National Security Council, the US Treasury, and J.P. Morgan. Follow him on Twitter @JoshRudes.

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  • O'Toole Quoted in Newsweek on House Republicans voting against Trump Administration lifting sanctions on oligarchs

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  • Trump Doesn’t Have to Quit NATO to Undermine It, Expert Warns

    On January 14, the New York Times confirmed that President Donald Trump talked about pulling out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization more than once in 2018.

    But can the president quit NATO unilaterally?

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  • Putin’s Dream Scenario for Ukraine

    Ukraine’s problem is not that it hasn’t changed enough. It’s that it’s changed too much too fast, thereby raising popular expectations, undermining long-existing patterns of behavior, creating uncertainty, and thereby increasing the popularity of populists who argue that a return to the good old days is imperative.

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  • How Will Ukraine’s Next President View the World? A Look at the Top 5 Candidates

    Ukraine’s presidential election season is in full-swing. After the holiday recess, the campaign is getting even more dynamic with about forty candidates who have already declared. While the ratings fluctuate almost daily, the top five remain steady, so it’s time to dig in and start evaluating their various views. Below we’ve analyzed their foreign policy platforms. 

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  • The Best Ukraine Can Hope for with Russia in 2019

    Donald Trump has been president of the United States for two years, but it remains uncertain whether he has a Ukraine policy. His administration does, but Trump is famously superficial in his knowledge.

    Trump has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, hardly said anything negative about Russia, and insisted on the need to cut sanctions to improve relations with Russia. Trump has had numerous phone calls with Putin that have not been reported and two scandalous private meetings with Putin from which nothing has become known.

    In practice, US policy on Russia has been tough.

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  • Memo to Congress: Treasury’s Plan to Lift Sanctions on Russian Oligarch’s Companies is a Good One

    US lawmakers must not allow understandable concerns about US President Donald J. Trump’s views of Russia to overshadow the technical merits of the administration’s divestiture plan to remove sanctions on aluminum giant Rusal and two other companies—EN+ and EuroSibEnergo, or ESE—sanctioned for their ties to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. After months of negotiations, Treasury officials have arrived at a delisting arrangement worthy of careful consideration and approval.

    US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s January 10 congressional briefing on the details of the administration’s divestiture plan,  and the ongoing attention to this issue, sharpens the debate on whether the Rusal delisting is the appropriate action and whether Congress ought to exercise its authority under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) to prohibit the delisting.

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