UK ministers are tempting Russian hackers to strike again by using shoddy email security, former natsec official warns

vladimir putin russia
Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia March 17, 2021.

  • UK ministers using private emails are vulnerable to email hacking, a former security official said.
  • At least 2 former ministers recently admitted to using private emails for government business.
  • Suspected Russian hackers stole the entire inbox of a former UK cabinet minister in 2019.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Poor email security among senior UK ministers is making them prime targets for hackers, a former national security official has warned.

The official suggested that ministers had not adequately protected themselves in the two years since suspected Russian cyber-attackers stole the entire contents of a former Cabinet minister’s email account.

Secretive trade documents leaked on Reddit were used during the 2019 general election campaign by former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn as evidence the ruling Conservative party was plotting to sell off Britain’s much-loved National Health Service.

The National Crime Agency launched a criminal investigation into the hack and Reuters reported that the documents were stolen by a “phishing attack” from an email account belonging to Liam Fox, the former trade secretary, who confirmed the documents were genuine.

More than a year after the National Crime Agency launched a criminal investigation into the suspected Russian hacking, however, a spokesperson for the organization told Insider that the inquiry was still “ongoing.”

Sources told Reuters that the operation bore the hallmarks of a state-backed cyberattack, but that remains unconfirmed.

Some ministers have also continued to use private emails accounts to conduct government business, with former Health Secretary Matt Hancock and former junior health minister James Bethell both confirmed to have used personal email addresses to conduct government business relating to sensitive issues including vaccine contracts.

Hancock has been ordered to hand over his personal emails and WhatsApp communications as part of a court case by the Good Law Project into contracts awarded during the pandemic.

A former senior UK national security official, who asked not to be named in order to speak candidly, told Insider that poor email security from ministers remained a concern. The official said that using private accounts increases the risk of hacking by foreign intelligence services.

“On more sensitive issues that might be of interest to foreign intelligence services – vaccines and so forth – forwarding things to your personal email address is most unwise,” the former official said.

“It takes you off departmental protection. Prominent politicians, unlike the rest of us, will have their personal emails targeted. Gmail, for example, is reasonably secure. But it’s not secure if the phone or laptop you’re working off has been compromised.

“For most people, that’s not an issue. The Russians don’t target most people. But they are interested in Cabinet ministers.”

Jack Stubbs, director of investigations at social media analytics firm Graphika, said the hack of Fox’s emails showed the danger of Russian hacking.

It was, he said, the closest a suspected Russian cyber-attack had actually come to influencing the outcome of a UK general election.

“The United Kingdom dodged a bullet in 2019,” he told Insider.

“The hack-and-leak operation targeting that year’s general election is one of the most direct examples of suspected Russian attempts to meddle in British politics.

“If the vote had been more closely contested, or even gone the other way, there would have been serious and difficult questions to answer about the impact those leaked documents had on the final election result.”

The former security official said that it was unsurprising that the investigation into Fox’s hacking had “dragged on” for over a year because the purpose of announcing an investigation was to embarrass Russia, rather than to bring criminal charges against individuals.

The official said the practice of high-profile investigations was inspired by the US, where a more politicized Justice Department made it easier to bring high-profile indictments against Russian actors.

Asked by Insider if the government was confident that private communications were secure, the Prime Minister’s spokesperson said ministers “use a range of modern forms of communication for discussions, obviously sensitive discussions would be done in the way that is set out under protocol.”

The spokesperson declined to expand on the specifics of the protocols.

“We don’t get into specifics of security matters but there are appropriate arrangements and guidance in place for the management of electronic communication and Ministers are given advice on their security,” he said.

He did not address instances, like with Hancock and Bethell, where ministers ignored the guidance to use private emails anyway.

The most recent document published by the government on ministers’ use of private emails was issued by the Cabinet Office in June 2013. It makes almost no mention of security.

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Patrick Byrne, the pro-Trump former Overstock CEO admits funneling cash to his ex-lover Maria Butina, the glamorous spy expected to be elected to Russia’s parliament

Former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne (L) and Russian agent Maria Butina (R)
Former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne (L) and Russian agent Maria Butina (R)

  • Former Russian agent Maria Butina stood for a seat in Russia’s parliamentary elections, last week.
  • In 2018 Butina was jailed for acting as an unregistered foreign agent in the US.
  • Butina recently received large sums of money from her ex-boyfriend Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of online retailer Overstock.com and Donald Trump supporter.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Maria Butina, the Russian agent convicted and jailed for trying to infiltrate political organizations in the United States, is expected to be elected to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament in Russia, this week.

The 32-year-old stood for President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party as a list candidate in the rural region of Kirov Oblast, in last week’s elections.

United Russia is predicted to have a significant majority in the legislature following allegations of massive fraud by opponents, according to Reuters. With 99.9% of ballots counted, United Russia had won nearly 50% of the vote Central Election Commission, the news agency reported.

It is the latest chapter in a political thriller of a life for the young Russian. She has played the role of the girlfriend to powerful men on the US Right and grabbed the headlines when she was arrested for spying. She was imprisoned before being deported to her homeland to a hero’s welcome.

The Russian agent arrived in the US in the guise of a guns-rights activist and focussed on the leadership of the National Rifle Association (NRA) to meet high-profile Republican politicians and set up a “back-channel” of communications with the Kremlin, according to reports.

But Butina was arrested in July 2018 in Washington DC and accused by federal prosecutors of infiltrating powerful political circles at the direction of Russian officials.

She pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent and was jailed for 18 months. Putin called the sentencing “an outrage.” After her release in October 2019, she was deported back to Russia.

‘I have one weakness as a woman – I really like smart men’

maria butina
Maria Butina appears in a police booking photograph released by the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. August 18, 2018.

Insider can reveal that Butina has not severed all her connections with the US. She has received large sums of money in the last year from Patrick Byrne, 59, the former CEO of online furniture retailer Overstock.com and Donald Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist.

When asked about the monetary gifts, Byrne told Insider, in an email: “I made a gift to Maria out of a desire to let her land on her feet and restart her life in Russia.”

Byrne and Butina had been in a romantic relationship, and Byrne later claimed that he had been passing information on his lover to the FBI.

Federal prosecutors said that Butina traded sex-for-favors while networking in political circles in Washington DC.

Butina formed a romantic relationship with Paul Erickson, 59, a longtime Republican strategist and guns-rights activist, who she met in Moscow in 2013 and with who she also lived for some time.

In 2015, Butina emailed him about her plan to influence US policy towards Russia by making inroads with the GOP through the NRA, and Erickson responded with advice.

Around this time, Butina also began a romantic relationship with Byrne.

Butina said of Byrne, according to The New York Post: “I have one weakness as a woman – I really like smart men. That’s my biggest weakness, and that I guess gets me in trouble all the time.”

Byrne later said he continued his relationship with Butina at the direction of the FBI. Butina once claimed that he tried to poison her in order to interrogate her while under the influence.

Despite the apparent betrayal, a video made by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s team revealed that Byrne gifted Butina tens of millions of Russian rubles in the last year, according to her asset disclosures.

Recalling their unique relationship, Byrne told Insider the money he recently sent her was to make amends: “Because I felt badly for Maria, for the role I had played in helping the FBI set her up, and in the way I had misused her in my own designs.”

But, he added, the couple will never be reunited.

“Maria and I know that we will never meet again, but it seemed like the right thing to do. When I performed this act of generosity I made sure it was done with full legality and notification to the proper authorities.”

Last month Russia’s Communist Party called on election officials to reject Butina’s candidacy on the grounds that she is the recipient of “foreign funding,” specifically referring to Byrne’s gifts.

Insider could not reach Butina for comment.

Butina was photographed with top GOP politicians at NRA events

Maria Butina poses for a photo at a shooting range in Moscow, Russia on April 22, 2012.
Maria Butina poses for a photo at a shooting range in Moscow, Russia on April 22, 2012.

Butina’s foray into politics began in 2011, when she founded a Russian gun-rights group called Right to Bear Arms, and started working as a special assistant for former senator and current Central Bank official Alexander Torshin.

Butina and Torshin formed close relationships with the NRA, regularly flying to the US to attend conferences and being named “life members” by the organization.

In 2014 and 2015 Butina was photographed with senior Republican politicians at NRA events, including Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

She also met Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA convention and asked Donald Trump a question about relations with Russia at an event.

In 2016 she moved to the US on a student visa, at which point the FBI supposedly started monitoring her and eventually snared her as a spy.

After serving her jail sentence, Butina returned to Moscow and took a job at the Russian state-funded television channel RT.

In April 2021 Butina filmed a segment in which she visited Alexei Navalny in prison to report on the “exemplary” jail conditions and to counter the opposition leader’s protests that he was being poorly treated.

At the time Navalny was on a hunger strike after being denied medical treatment.

This weekend’s parliamentary elections in Russia have been widely described as lacking transparency and fairness after the Kremlin cracked down on political opposition and limited press freedom.

Alexei Navalny had encouraged voters to vote tactically in order to beat United Russia candidates, as part of a movement called “smart voting.”

It remains to be seen what kind of politician the reinvented Butina will be, and what this next chapter will hold.

In a recent campaign video Butina said she felt indebted to her country and her people after “everyone from the President to residents in the depths of Russia fought for my release.”

“I will be very glad to be useful to the Kirov region,” she said.

Correction: In the published article it originally stated that Maria Butina had been elected to the Russian Duma. It should have said she was a candidate.

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The Taliban wants to speak at the UN General Assembly in New York as the official government of Afghanistan

Taliban spokesman
Suhail Shaheen of the Taliban’s political office has been earmarked by the regime to be their UN representative.

  • The Taliban’s foreign minister has asked for the regime’s envoy to speak at the UN General Assembly.
  • He’s contesting Afghanistan’s seat, which has been given to the ambassador representing the former government.
  • When the Taliban previously ruled Afghanistan, they were not given a seat by the UN.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The Taliban have thrown in their bid to speak at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, several news outlets reported, creating a dilemma over who the UN will choose to recognize as the government of Afghanistan.

Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi sent a letter to UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday requesting that one of its envoys speak at the General Assembly, reported Reuters.

At the same time, Ghulam Isaczai, the UN ambassador representing Afghanistan’s ousted former government, also sent in his delegation list to the secretary-general, a UN spokesperson confirmed per the AP.

The Taliban said in its letter that Isaczai no longer represents Afghanistan because the former president Ashraf Ghani is not recognized as the country’s leader anymore, the UN spokesperson added.

Both parties are jockeying to speak during Afghanistan’s slated spot as the final speech of September 27, the last day of this year’s General Assembly.

Officials will now have to decide whether to accept the Taliban’s request, or let Isaczai continue as Afghanistan’s ambassador under UN protocol. The nine members of the General Assembly’s credentials commission – the US, Russia, China, Sweden, the Bahamas, Bhutan, Chile, Namibia, and Sierra Leone – must meet to rule on the seat dispute. Russia and China have been developing relations with the Taliban since its takeover in August.

A senior US state department official told the AP that the committee “would take some time to deliberate,” suggesting that the Taliban’s representative might not be able to speak at this current session.

When the Taliban previously ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, the hardline Islamist group was not given a seat at the UN, and instead recognized the former government that controlled the country before them.

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China is eyeing Russian attack helicopters to give its ‘mini aircraft carriers’ more punch

Russia Ka-52K attack helicopter
A visitor poses with a Ka-52K attack helicopter at the MAKS-2021 airshow outside Moscow, July 25, 2021.

  • China has struggled to develop its own combat choppers for its new amphibious assault ships.
  • A deal for Ka-52K helicopters would signal closer Sino-Russian defense ties amid tensions with the US.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

China is considering buying three dozen Russian naval attack helicopters, a purchase that would “give wings” to the Chinese military’s new generation of amphibious assault ships.

Military analysts said the deal for the Russian Ka-52Ks would be the third biggest for China and would signal a closer defence partnership between the two countries in the face of US hostility.

“The People’s Liberation Army has studied the possibility of buying Russian Ka-52Ks for quite a long time. The Type 075 landing helicopter dock needs a heavy attack helicopter,” said Zhou Chenming, a researcher from the Yuan Wang military science and technology institute in Beijing.

Russian news agency Avia.Pro reported on Thursday that the PLA was very interested in the Ka-52K and a Chinese delegation had visited the production line in Primorye Krai in Russia’s Far East.

“It’s likely that a contract between Moscow and Beijing will be concluded on the supply of at least 36 Ka-52K helicopters to the PLA Navy,” Avia.Pro reported.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reported earlier that one of their camera crews had been invited to visit the plant.

The Ka-52K, or “Black Shark,” was developed for the Russian Navy by the Kamov Design Bureau, a Russian rotorcraft manufacturing company.

It is a ship variant of the Ka-52 Alligator combat helicopter, with modern avionics for navigation at sea, according to its manufacturer.

Type 075 (rendering)
A rendering of China’s Type 075 amphibious assault ship.

“The Ka-52K is the Russian Navy’s first ship-borne attack helicopter with folding blades and wings with higher take-off weights, which can save space and fulfill the needs of the PLA’s Type 075 LHDs,” Zhou said.

It is designed to resist corrosion at sea, and can lift off with a weight of 12.2 tonnes, about 1.4 tonnes more than the original Ka-52.

“Another trait of the Ka-52K is its ejection seat. It’s the only heavy helicopter in the world to have one,” former PLA instructor Song Zhongping said.

“If the two countries seal the deal over the Ka-52Ks, it might also encourage more cooperation between the two countries’ defence industries.”

Such an agreement would also be third in value only to China’s purchases of Su-35 fighter jets and S-400 surface-to-air missile systems.

Beijing launched its third Type 075 LHD in January, and hopes to use the amphibious platforms as “mini aircraft carriers.”

The platforms would play an important role in island landings and defending what Beijing says are its maritime interests, particularly in the South China Sea. But one major element has been missing.

“The key problem is, Chinese aircraft manufacturers still can’t produce a heavy armed helicopter that can meet the combat needs of the Type 075,” a source close to the PLA said on condition of anonymity.

China is developing ship-borne versions of the Z-8, Z-9 and Z-20 helicopters for both the Type 075 and the less advanced Type 071, but it will take time to reach the goals, according to the source.

“The Ka-52K deal would be a win-win for Beijing and Moscow – Russia needs money to support its defence industry, while China needs to buy time,” the source said.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Former Rand Paul aide, pardoned by Trump, charged with funneling Russian money into 2016 election

Jesse Benton speaking to a reporter.
Jesse Benton, spokesman for the Ron Paul campaign, speaking to reporters in the spin room after the CNN Debate on January 1, 2012.

  • Jesse Benton worked as a campaign staffer for former Rep. Ron Paul, as well as Sens. Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell.
  • In 2016, he was convicted of campaign finance crimes related to his role on the Ron Paul campaign.
  • Trump pardoned him before leaving office.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A former campaign staffer for US Sen. Rand Paul has been charged with channeling money from Russia into the 2016 presidential election, the US Department of Justice said Monday.

In an unsealed indictment, dated September 9, prosecutors allege Jesse Benton “conspired to illegally funnel thousands of dollars of foreign money from a Russian foreign national” into the campaign.

In October 2016, Benton received a $100,000 wire transfer from the unnamed Russian national, the indictment states, promising him that he would get to “meet a celebrity” at a fundraiser in Philadelphia on September 22, 2016.

Prosecutors do not name the candidate, but former President Donald Trump was hosting a fundraiser that night at the Ritz-Carlton in Center City, Philadelphia.

The Russian national attended the fundraiser, according to the indictment, his travel to the United States facilitated by an alleged co-conspirator, Roy Douglas Wead, a conservative author. All three “had official photographs taken with Political Candidate 1,” prosecutors say.

The two are accused of falsely portraying the contribution as payment for “consulting work.” Benton kept most of it himself – $75,000, according to the indictment. The rest was donated to the politician in Benton’s name.

Around the same time, Benton – who managed Paul’s 2010 run for office, as well as the 2014 campaign of another Kentucky Republican, Sen. Mitch McConnell – was convicted of campaign finance fraud over his role in the 2012 Ron Paul presidential campaign. He was sentenced days before the Philadelphia fundraiser to two years probation and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.

Before leaving office, Trump pardoned Benton for that crime.

If convicted in this case, Benton and Wead could face significant prison time, with each of the six counts against them carrying a sentence of five t0 20 years behind bars.

Have a news tip? Email this reporter: cdavis@insider.com

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Patrick Byrne, the pro-Trump former Overstock CEO admits funneling cash to his ex-lover Maria Butina, the glamorous spy elected to Russia’s parliament this week

Former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne (L) and Russian agent Maria Butina (R)
Former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne (L) and Russian agent Maria Butina (R)

  • Former Russian agent Maria Butina has won a seat in Russia’s parliamentary elections.
  • In 2018 Butina was jailed for acting as an unregistered foreign agent in the US.
  • Butina recently received large sums of money from her ex-boyfriend Patrick Byrne, the former CEO of online retailer Overstock.com and Donald Trump supporter.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Maria Butina, the Russian agent convicted and jailed for trying to infiltrate political organizations in the United States, has been elected to the State Duma, the lower house of parliament in Russia, this week.

The 32-year-old won the seat for President Vladimir Putin’s ruling United Russia party as a candidate in the rural region of Kirov Oblast.

It is the latest chapter in a political thriller of a life for the young Russian. She has played the role of the girlfriend to powerful men on the US Right and grabbed the headlines when she was arrested for spying. She was imprisoned before being deported to her homeland to a hero’s welcome.

The Russian agent arrived in the US in the guise of a guns-rights activist and focussed on the leadership of the National Rifle Association (NRA) to meet high-profile Republican politicians and set up a “back-channel” of communications with the Kremlin, according to reports.

But Butina was arrested in July 2018 in Washington DC and accused by federal prosecutors of infiltrating powerful political circles at the direction of Russian officials.

She pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent and was jailed for 18 months. Putin called the sentencing “an outrage.” After her release in October 2019, she was deported back to Russia.

‘I have one weakness as a woman – I really like smart men’

maria butina
Maria Butina appears in a police booking photograph released by the Alexandria Sheriff’s Office in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S. August 18, 2018.

Insider can reveal that Butina has not severed all her connections with the US. She has received large sums of money in the last year from Patrick Byrne, 59, the former CEO of online furniture retailer Overstock.com and Donald Trump supporter and conspiracy theorist.

When asked about the monetary gifts, Byrne told Insider, in an email: “I made a gift to Maria out of a desire to let her land on her feet and restart her life in Russia.”

Byrne and Butina had been in a romantic relationship, and Byrne later claimed that he had been passing information on his lover to the FBI.

Federal prosecutors said that Butina traded sex-for-favors while networking in political circles in Washington DC.

Butina formed a romantic relationship with Paul Erickson, 59, a longtime Republican strategist and guns-rights activist, who she met in Moscow in 2013 and with who she also lived for some time.

In 2015, Butina emailed him about her plan to influence US policy towards Russia by making inroads with the GOP through the NRA, and Erickson responded with advice.

Around this time, Butina also began a romantic relationship with Byrne.

Butina said of Byrne, according to The New York Post: “I have one weakness as a woman – I really like smart men. That’s my biggest weakness, and that I guess gets me in trouble all the time.”

Byrne later said he continued his relationship with Butina at the direction of the FBI. Butina once claimed that he tried to poison her in order to interrogate her while under the influence.

Despite the apparent betrayal, a video made by jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s team revealed that Byrne gifted Butina tens of millions of Russian rubles in the last year, according to her asset disclosures.

Recalling their unique relationship, Byrne told Insider the money he recently sent her was to make amends: “Because I felt badly for Maria, for the role I had played in helping the FBI set her up, and in the way I had misused her in my own designs.”

But, he added, the couple will never be reunited.

“Maria and I know that we will never meet again, but it seemed like the right thing to do. When I performed this act of generosity I made sure it was done with full legality and notification to the proper authorities.”

Last month Russia’s Communist Party called on election officials to reject Butina’s candidacy on the grounds that she is the recipient of “foreign funding,” specifically referring to Byrne’s gifts.

Insider could not reach Butina for comment.

Butina was photographed with top GOP politicians at NRA events

Maria Butina poses for a photo at a shooting range in Moscow, Russia on April 22, 2012.
Maria Butina poses for a photo at a shooting range in Moscow, Russia on April 22, 2012.

Butina’s foray into politics began in 2011, when she founded a Russian gun-rights group called Right to Bear Arms, and started working as a special assistant for former senator and current Central Bank official Alexander Torshin.

Butina and Torshin formed close relationships with the NRA, regularly flying to the US to attend conferences and being named “life members” by the organization.

In 2014 and 2015 Butina was photographed with senior Republican politicians at NRA events, including Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, former senator and presidential candidate Rick Santorum, and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

She also met Donald Trump Jr. at an NRA convention and asked Donald Trump a question about relations with Russia at an event.

In 2016 she moved to the US on a student visa, at which point the FBI supposedly started monitoring her and eventually snared her as a spy.

After serving her jail sentence, Butina returned to Moscow and took a job at the Russian state-funded television channel RT.

In April 2021 Butina filmed a segment in which she visited Alexei Navalny in prison to report on the “exemplary” jail conditions and to counter the opposition leader’s protests that he was being poorly treated.

At the time Navalny was on a hunger strike after being denied medical treatment.

This weekend’s parliamentary elections in Russia have been widely described as lacking transparency and fairness after the Kremlin cracked down on political opposition and limited press freedom.

Alexei Navalny had encouraged voters to vote tactically in order to beat United Russia candidates, as part of a movement called “smart voting.”

It remains to be seen what kind of politician the reinvented Butina will be, and what this next chapter will hold.

In a recent campaign video Butina said she delt indebted to her country and her people after “everyone from the President to residents in the depths of Russia fought for my release.”

“I will be very glad to be useful to the Kirov region,” she said.

Read the original article on Business Insider

Trump claimed without evidence that China and Russia are examining helicopters the US abandoned in Afghanistan to steal their secrets

Donald trump on full measure
Former President Donald Trump.

  • The US left aircraft, vehicles, guns, and other equipment in Afghanistan during the troop pullout.
  • Trump claimed on Sunday that China and Russia were studying abandoned US helicopter.
  • “They’re taking them apart so they can make the exact same equipment,” he said without providing evidence.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Former President Donald Trump has claimed, without providing evidence, that China and Russia were seizing helicopters abandoned by the US military in Afghanistan and plundering their secrets.

During its swift pullout from Afghanistan, the US military left behind aircraft, land vehicles, guns, and scores of other equipment.

“I guarantee that China, Russia already have our Apache helicopters, and they’re taking them apart to find out exactly how they’re made. They’re the best in the world by far,” Trump said during an interview with “Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson” aired Sunday.

“And they’re taking them apart so they can make the exact same equipment. They’re very good at that. It’s a disgrace.”

The Department of Defense did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.

Speaking from his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, Trump offered no evidence for his remarks, but when asked if he still received US intelligence briefings, he said: “I get if I want. I get what I want. I hear what’s going on.”

“By the way, you don’t need intel briefings. All you have to do is read the news or turn on the television,” he said.

Trump went on to slam the Biden administration’s handing of the Afghanistan pullout.

“It’s the most incompetently handled withdrawal in history. There’s never been anything like this, where we gave them $85 billion worth of brand new, beautiful equipment,” he said.

Trump’s reference to the $85 billion worth of equipment is inflated: As The Washington Post previously reported, that figure appears to be a high estimate for all spending appropriated for Afghanistan since 2001, and only a fraction of that went to equipment. The value of the equipment left behind in Afghanistan and seized by the Taliban is also unclear.

The US military said last month that it had permanently disabled more than 150 vehicles and aircraft before it left so they could “never be used again,” though Taliban fighters have been able to capture other arsenal.

Earlier this month a Times of London journalist reported that the Taliban used US-made weapons and handcuffs in their battle for Panjshir, the last Afghan province resisting their rule.

Republicans, including Trump, have blamed President Joe Biden for the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, while Biden officials have blamed Trump and Afghan forces.

Read the original article on Business Insider

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a test for Russia’s plans in Central Asia

Afghanistan
  • Russia has gloated about the failure of the US’s two-decade campaign to reshape Afghanistan.
  • But the collapse of Afghanistan’s US-backed government has put Russia in a challenging position.
  • The potential for violence on its borders has given Russia greater responsibility for regional security at a time when Moscow faces mounting domestic difficulties.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

While the failure of the United States’ two-decade campaign to reshape Afghanistan was a source of no little schadenfreude in Moscow, the collapse of Ashraf Ghani’s US-backed government has thrust Russia into a challenging position.

Even as President Vladimir Putin confirmed that Russia has no intention of deploying troops to Afghanistan itself, the potential for radicalization and violence around Russia’s borders is foisting greater responsibility for regional security on Moscow at a time of mounting domestic difficulties.

The Ghani government’s collapse and the departure of US forces from central Eurasia, seemingly for good, also offers Russia a window of opportunity to bolster its role as a powerbroker both within and around Afghanistan, advance a vision of regional connectivity that boosts its own interests, and consolidate its political-military influence in neighboring Central Asia.

All of these steps, however, would require more resources than Russia’s leadership has thus far been willing to invest, and greater risk than it has been willing to take on.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at video conference
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a virtual meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization council at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, December 2, 2020.

Russia’s interest in Afghanistan centers above all on its concerns about the impact on neighboring Central Asia. Since the Soviet collapse, Moscow has looked to Central Asia as a strategic buffer against instability further south, and Russia remains the region’s dominant security provider – notwithstanding the enormous growth of Chinese trade and investment in recent years.

The Central Asian states today are on the whole more stable and effective than they were in the 1990s, which is one reason Moscow has been more sanguine about the Taliban returning to power. But Central Asia’s mostly Soviet-trained elites still see Russia as the region’s principal security guarantor and are turning to Moscow for help as Afghanistan’s future descends further into uncertainty.

Russia has long demanded recognition of its “privileged interests” throughout the post-Soviet region. Now that Washington has ceded the field in Afghanistan and central Eurasia more broadly, it remains to be seen whether Moscow can actually play the role of regional pivot to which it has long aspired, securing itself and its neighbors without provoking a backlash, while simultaneously managing the impacts on its wider competition with the United States.

Moscow’s immediate aims center on ensuring that any instability and chaos from Afghanistan does not spread north.

According to National Security Council Chair Nikolay Patrushev, Russia is focused on “securing control over migration flows,” particularly when it comes to “defending the region from terrorists’ crossing borders under the guise of refugees.” Moscow also seeks to prevent “the spread of radical ideology, contraband weapons, and drug trafficking.”

Because Russia maintains a visa-free regime with most of its Central Asian neighbors, it worries that terrorists or traffickers who cross from Afghanistan could easily make their way to Russia. Perhaps more concerning is the potential for refugee flows to destabilize the Central Asian states themselves, touching off a cascade of Central Asians fleeing to Russia and forcing Moscow to intervene more directly in the region.

For that reason, Russian and Central Asian authorities worry about the breakdown of order, especially in northern Afghanistan, where most of the ethnic Tajik and Uzbek population lives.

Tajikistan soldiers
Tajik troops before the start of joint military drills with Russia and Uzbekistan at Tajikistan’s Harb-Maidon firing range about about 12 miles north of the border with Afghanistan, August 10, 2021.

Tajik and Uzbek militias formed the nucleus of the Northern Alliance that fought against the Pashtun-dominated Taliban in the 1990s. After the Taliban takeover of Kabul in mid-August, the Tajik commander Ahmad Massoud and Ghani’s former vice president, the Tajik Amrullah Saleh, organized anti-Taliban forces in the northern Panjshir Valley; although the Taliban now claim to have defeated them and taken control of the valley, there is still the potential for continued unrest and fighting there.

Abdul Rashid Dostum, another former Afghan vice president and ethnic Uzbek, heads an Uzbek militia that is currently in negotiations with the Taliban, and could also play an important role in Afghanistan’s political future.

Both Moscow and the Central Asian governments have long maintained ties to northern Afghanistan’s Tajiks and Uzbeks and to figures like Dostum.

In the absence of a unified opposition platform like the Northern Alliance, however, Russian officials fear that today, anti-Taliban fighters in the north could also turn to more extreme groups like al-Qaida; the Islamic State, whose regional affiliate, the Islamic State Khorasan or IS-K, claimed responsibility for the Aug. 26 bombing outside the Kabul airport; or Jamaat Ansarullah, whose founder has called for establishing an Islamic emirate in Tajikistan.

The jihadists’ ranks could also be supplemented by some of the several thousand Russians and Russian-speaking Central Asians who went to Syria to fight for the Islamic State, who could be galvanized to return to Afghanistan by the US departure and worsening conditions in Syria.

As the Russian scholar Andrey Kazantsev notes, even if the Taliban has pledged to deny sanctuary to such transnational groups, it has tended to leave them alone in the northern regions, because it sees non-Islamist rivals, including the militias that formerly comprised the Northern Alliance, as a greater threat.

Governments in Moscow and the Central Asian capitals fear that jihadists based in northern Afghanistan could carry out cross-border attacks, as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, did in the late 1990s. But they also worry that the instability these groups could cause in Afghanistan could touch off an influx of refugees and encourage the spread of jihadist ideology among Central Asians disillusioned with corruption, repression and lack of opportunity at home.

Russia, like Central Asia, is thus reluctant to take in Afghan refugees, fearing their ranks could include members of al-Qaida, IS-K or other extremist groups.

Uzbekistan troops at exercise in Tajikistan
Uzbek troops at joint military drills with Russia and Tajikistan at Harb-Maidon firing range about 20 kilometers (about 12 miles) north of the Tajik border with Afghanistan, August 10, 2021.

If the Central Asian states’ fears of disorder are pulling Russia into the region, Moscow’s own geopolitical ambitions are pushing it in the same direction.

The US departure gives Moscow an opportunity to boost its security presence and strengthen regional organizations, above all the Collective Security Treaty Organization, or CSTO, which would strengthen its claims to a sphere of “privileged interests.”

Doing so, however, would require Moscow to take on additional responsibilities that Russia’s leadership – never mind the Central Asian governments – may not be prepared to countenance.

Russia already maintains a significant troop presence in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, whose 1992-1997 civil war intersected with the conflict next door in Afghanistan.

Moscow is the driving force behind the CSTO, a regional security bloc aiming to secure “peace, international and regional security and stability, protection of [members’] independence on a collective basis, territorial integrity and sovereignty.” And Russia has also helped strengthen the region’s borders through training, equipment sales and deployments, some under CSTO auspices.

As Taliban forces began approaching Kabul, Russian troops conducted joint exercises with the military and security forces of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.

After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban, Moscow agreed to a request from Tajikistan’s government for an extraordinary meeting of the CSTO security council and authorized additional arms sales.

Afghanistan’s collapse will be a major test for the CSTO. In past crises, including last fall’s conflict between Azerbaijan and CSTO member Armenia, the organization has sought to minimize its involvement. Moscow favors a stronger CSTO as an element of regional integration but has been content to paper over the real differences between member states – and their concerns about ceding sovereignty to a Russian-dominated bloc.

The CSTO maintains a 5,000-person rapid response force focused on Central Asia, but deploying CSTO personnel operationally would be a major departure and could impose some difficult choices, given disagreements among member states – including Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, who fought a brief border war this spring – and concern about Russian power projection.

Destroyed armored vehicle on Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border
A Kyrgyz policeman next to a burnt armored personnel carrier near the Kyrgyzstan-Tajikistan border in southwestern Kyrgyzstan, May 5, 2021.

Particularly notable is Russia’s increasing security cooperation with regional heavyweight Uzbekistan, which withdrew from the CSTO in 2012 and has subsequently maintained balanced relations with Moscow, Washington and Beijing.

In April, Moscow and Tashkent signed a new strategic partnership agreement. Some Russian observers point to the current crisis as an opportunity to bring Uzbekistan back into the CSTO fold. Though Tashkent has firmly rejected this suggestion, the US withdrawal is forcing Uzbekistan, like its neighbors, to look more to Russia for support in an uncertain environment, strengthening Russia’s role as a security provider for the region.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has also confirmed that Russia is prepared to relaunch talks under the so-called Moscow Format, bringing together Afghanistan’s neighbors to seek a regional framework for ending the conflict there.

In the process, Moscow aims to position itself as a regional powerbroker, while advancing its interest in economic integration, including building new links among Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. As neighboring Uzbekistan and Tajikistan also support this approach, its success could benefit Russia not just in Afghanistan, but in the wider region.

As Moscow pursues greater regional responsibility, US President Joe Biden has justified the withdrawal of US forces by pointing to the need to focus Washington’s energy and resources on competition with “an increasingly assertive China and [a] destabilizing Russia.”

The US withdrawal, of course, will result in a larger Russian presence in and around Afghanistan. Whether this larger presence helps or hinders the US strategy of competition remains an open question.

The framing of US-Russian relations around the notion of great power competition suggests that Russia’s advance into central Eurasia will emphasize not only containing potential spillover from Afghanistan, but also further minimizing US and Western influence in the region – and rebuilding elements of Russian domination across post-Soviet Central Asia.

Of course, the more resources and attention Moscow devotes to a region Washington has determined to be a strategic backwater, the less it will be able to devote to more critical regions like Central and Eastern Europe. And in the unlikely event the Kremlin decides to wade back into Afghanistan militarily, it will almost certainly find itself just as frustrated and flustered as both the US and the Soviet Union, which occupied Afghanistan for a decade after 1979, were before it.

Jeffrey Mankoff is a distinguished research fellow at the US National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies and the author of the forthcoming book, “Empires of Eurasia: How Imperial Legacies Shape International Security.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

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Ukraine lured suspected Russian war criminals out of the country with fake, $5,000-a-month jobs to try and arrest them, report says

An Ukrainian solider patrols at Shyrokyne, Mariupol, v on April 26, 2021.
An Ukrainian solider patrols at Shyrokyne, Mariupol, on April 26, 2021.

  • Ukraine coaxed suspected Russian war criminals abroad so they could try and arrest them, per CNN.
  • Ukrainian spies offered them lucrative, fake jobs in Venezuela, which many applied for, the report said.
  • In one case, 32 Russians lured to Belarus under the guise of work were detained, per CNN.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Ukraine lured dozens of suspected Russian war criminals out of the country with offers of fake, $5,000-a-month jobs so that they could try and hold them accountable, according to a CNN investigation.

Ukrainian security services posed as a private Russian security company looking to hire Russian mercenaries for jobs guarding Venezuelan oil facilities, three former Ukrainian officials told CNN.

Many took up the job offers and proffered illuminating details about their past work for Russian agencies as part of the interview process, CNN said.

“They started to reveal things about themselves, sending us documents, military IDs and proof of where they’d fought,” a former military intelligence officers told CNN.

Two Russians even directly linked themselves to the 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight MH17, CNN reported.

The plane was struck by a missile and brought down over Ukraine, killing all 298 onboard. In May 2018, a Dutch-led joint investigation team blamed Russian entities for the attack and charged four men – including three Russians – with carrying it out.

“There were two who were present when the missile that downed MH17 was launched,” another former Ukrainian military intelligence official told CNN.

“Four others were members of a group responsible for shooting down our military aircraft and killing at least 70 of our best men.”

As a result of the operation, 32 Russians who were lured to Minsk, Belarus, under the guise of work ahead of the country’s 2020 presidential election were detained by Belarusian secret services, CNN reported.

The arrests took place during a raid on a resort the men had been staying, which they were told was a halfway house before they were to travel to Venezuela, CNN reported.

The US knew of the sting and supported it, the outlet added.

CNN did not say what became of the 32 detained in Minsk. Belarusian authorities said at the time that the detained men worked for the Wagner Group, a private Russian paramilitary or mercenary company with close ties to the Russian government.

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Cosmonauts have discovered cracks on a Russian module of the space station, and they could spread

soyuz spacecraft approaches zarya module cylinder with solar panels above blue earth oceans
A Soyuz spacecraft approaches a docking port on the space station’s Zarya module, December 22, 2009.

Russian cosmonauts have discovered cracks in a module on their side of the International Space Station.

“Superficial fissures have been found in some places on the Zarya module,” Vladimir Solovyov, flight director of the Russian segment of the ISS, told state-owned news agency RIA on Monday, according to a Reuters report translating his statement. “This is bad and suggests that the fissures will begin to spread over time.”

It’s not clear how extensive the new cracks are, or what might have caused them. Solovyov did not say whether the cracks were causing any air leaks, Reuters reported.

Insider was not able to independently confirm the Reuters report, and NASA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The 41-foot-long Zarya module was the first piece of the space station (ISS), and it launched into orbit in 1998. It’s mainly used for storage and propulsion.

This is the latest in a series of issues with Russian modules, since Russia’s side of the space station hosts some of its oldest components. Last year, a toilet on the segment went bust, temperatures mysteriously increased, and an oxygen-supply system broke down.

Russian media previously reported that Solovyov told the Russian Academy of Sciences: “There are already a number of elements that have been seriously damaged and are out of service. Many of them are not replaceable. After 2025, we predict an avalanche-like failure of numerous elements onboard the ISS.”

In September 2019, another space-station module, Zvezda, which provides living quarters for the cosmonauts, started leaking air. The leak wasn’t major and didn’t pose a danger to the station’s crew, so ISS managers left it alone until they noticed an increasing rate of leakage. When the astronauts and cosmonauts on the station finally discovered the source in September 2020, they did so by letting tea leaves float around, then following them. They patched the tiny hole with Kapton tape.

1990s astronauts in striped shirts inside cramped hallway of zarya space station module
Sergei Krikalev (left) and James H. Newman begin work on the Zarya module, December 11, 1998

In 2018, a mysterious drill hole was discovered on a Russian Soyuz spacecraft that was docked to the ISS. Cosmonauts filled it with epoxy before it could depressurize the station. Earlier this month, an anonymous Russian official blamed NASA astronaut Serena Auñón-Chancellor for the holes, claiming she had drilled them in an attempt to get an early trip home. NASA leadership firmly denied the accusations.

Even Russia’s newest module – a spacecraft called Nauka, which it launched to the ISS in July – has experienced serious issues. Shortly after docking to the station, Nauka began unexpectedly firing its thrusters. This caused the entire ISS to spin around 540 degrees and flip upside down before flight controllers regained control an hour later.

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