Russia / Afghanistan

*       According to a new NYT article (pasted below), U.S. intelligence

thinks a Russian military intel unit offered Taliban-linked militants

bounties to kill U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan. Twenty U.S.

soldiers died in Afghanistan last year-mostly at the hands of the

Taliban-but it's not clear how many of those killings may have been Russian


Russia / Libya

*       In other news of Russian mischief, Libya's National Oil Corporation

reported that Russian and "other foreign" mercenaries entered Al Sharara

oilfield-Libya's largest-and met with representatives of the

Haftar-controlled Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG) that secures the area.

*       The GNA's National Oil Corporation (NOC) complained loudly that the

mercenaries and PFG were jointly trying to block the resumption of oil

production (again), and the NOC's chairman even pointed out that Russia-as

an oil producer-stands to benefit from weakened Libyan production.


*       Satellite images show that China has built new bunkers, tents, and

storage units near where its troops clashed with Indian forces a few weeks

ago, suggesting Beijing intends to maintain pressure on India (and perhaps

Pakistan too) in the region.

*       The U.S. announced new visa sanctions on members of China's

Communist Party who contributed to Hong Kong's new security law. In

announcing the new sanctions, SecState Pompeo accused the banned officials

of "eviscerating Hong Kong's freedoms."


*       A new report by the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Organization

notes a rise in illegal police detentions in Venezuela-and says those

detentions have become longer since coronavirus reached the country because

courts and government offices are closed.


*       Mexico City's police chief was targeted in a brazen assassination

attempt in a posh district of the capital yesterday morning. The police

chief, García Harfuch, was shot three times but survived; two of his

bodyguards and a civilian passerby were killed. Harfuch blamed the Jalisco


Other News

*       Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are close to an agreement on the enormous

Blue Nile dam that affects all three countries. They've been arguing over

water supplies for a decade, and the dam-which is in Ethiopia-still hasn't

been filled. Ethiopia's downstream neighbors worry about losing already

precious water.

Russia Secretly Offered Afghan Militants Bounties to Kill U.S. Troops,

Intelligence Says (NYT)

The Trump administration has been deliberating for months about what to do

about a stunning intelligence assessment.

American intelligence officials have concluded that a Russian military

intelligence unit secretly offered bounties to Taliban-linked militants for

killing coalition forces in Afghanistan - including targeting American

troops - amid the peace talks to end the long-running war there, according

to officials briefed on the matter.

The United States concluded months ago that the Russian unit, which has been

linked to assassination attempts and other covert operations in Europe

intended to destabilize the West or take revenge on turncoats, had covertly

offered rewards for successful attacks last year.

Islamist militants, or armed criminal elements closely associated with them,

are believed to have collected some bounty money, the officials said. Twenty

Americans were killed in combat in Afghanistan in 2019, but it was not clear

which killings were under suspicion.

The intelligence finding was briefed to President Trump, and the White

House's National Security Council discussed the problem at an interagency

meeting in late March, the officials said. Officials developed a menu of

potential options - starting with making a diplomatic complaint to Moscow

and a demand that it stop, along with an escalating series of sanctions and

other possible responses, but the White House has yet to authorize any step,

the officials said.

An operation to incentivize the killing of American and other NATO troops

would be a significant and provocative escalation of what American and

Afghan officials have said is Russian support for the Taliban, and it would

be the first time the Russian spy unit was known to have orchestrated

attacks on Western troops.

Any involvement with the Taliban that resulted in the deaths of American

troops would also be a huge escalation of Russia's so-called hybrid war

against the United States, a strategy of destabilizing adversaries through a

combination of such tactics as cyberattacks, the spread of fake news and

covert and deniable military operations.

The Kremlin had not been made aware of the accusations, said Dmitry Peskov,

the press secretary for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. "If someone

makes them, we'll respond," Mr. Peskov said.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Taliban, denied that the insurgents

have "any such relations with any intelligence agency" and called the report

an attempt to defame them.

"These kinds of deals with the Russian intelligence agency are baseless -

our target killings and assassinations were ongoing in years before, and we

did it on our own resources," he said. "That changed after our deal with the

Americans, and their lives are secure and we don't attack them."

Spokespeople at the National Security Council, the Pentagon, the State

Department and the C.I.A. declined to comment.

The officials familiar with the intelligence did not explain the White House

delay in deciding how to respond to the intelligence about Russia.

While some of his closest advisers, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,

have counseled more hawkish policies toward Russia, Mr. Trump has adopted an

accommodating stance toward Moscow.

At a summit in 2018 in Helsinki, Finland, Mr. Trump strongly suggested that

he believed Mr. Putin's denial that the Kremlin interfered in the 2016

presidential election, despite broad agreement within the American

intelligence establishment that it did. Mr. Trump criticized a bill imposing

sanctions on Russia when he signed it into law after Congress passed it by

veto-proof majorities. And he has repeatedly made statements that undermined

the NATO alliance as a bulwark against Russian aggression in Europe.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the delicate

intelligence and internal deliberations. They said the intelligence had been

treated as a closely held secret, but the administration expanded briefings

about it this week - including sharing information about it with the British

government, whose forces are among those said to have been targeted.

The intelligence assessment is said to be based at least in part on

interrogations of captured Afghan militants and criminals. The officials did

not describe the mechanics of the Russian operation, such as how targets

were picked or how money changed hands. It is also not clear whether Russian

operatives had deployed inside Afghanistan or met with their Taliban

counterparts elsewhere.

The revelations came into focus inside the Trump administration at a

delicate and distracted time. Although officials collected the intelligence

earlier in the year, the interagency meeting at the White House took place

as the coronavirus pandemic was becoming a crisis and parts of the country

were shutting down.

Moreover, as Mr. Trump seeks re-election in November, he wants to strike a

peace deal with the Taliban to end the Afghanistan war.

Both American and Afghan officials have previously accused Russia of

providing small arms and other support to the Taliban that amounts to

destabilizing activity, although Russian government officials have dismissed

such claims as "idle gossip" and baseless.

"We share some interests with Russia in Afghanistan, and clearly they're

acting to undermine our interests as well," Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the

commander of American forces in Afghanistan at the time, said in a 2018

interview with the BBC.

Though coalition troops suffered a spate of combat casualties last summer

and early fall, only a few have since been killed. Four Americans were

killed in combat in early 2020, but the Taliban have not attacked American

positions since a February agreement.

American troops have also sharply reduced their movement outside military

bases because of the coronavirus, reducing their exposure to attack.

While officials were said to be confident about the intelligence that

Russian operatives offered and paid bounties to Afghan militants for killing

Americans, they have greater uncertainty about how high in the Russian

government the covert operation was authorized and what its aim may be.

Some officials have theorized that the Russians may be seeking revenge on

NATO forces for a 2018 battle in Syria in which the American military killed

several hundred pro-Syrian forces, including numerous Russian mercenaries,

as they advanced on an American outpost. Officials have also suggested that

the Russians may have been trying to derail peace talks to keep the United

States bogged down in Afghanistan. But the motivation remains murky.

The officials briefed on the matter said the government had assessed the

operation to be the handiwork of Unit 29155, an arm of Russia's military

intelligence agency, known widely as the G.R.U. The unit is linked to the

March 2018 nerve agent poisoning in Salisbury, England, of Sergei Skripal, a

former G.R.U. officer who had worked for British intelligence and then

defected, and his daughter.

Western intelligence officials say the unit, which has operated for more

than a decade, has been charged by the Kremlin with carrying out a campaign

to destabilize the West through subversion, sabotage and assassination. In

addition to the 2018 poisoning, the unit was behind an attempted coup in

Montenegro in 2016 and the poisoning of an arms manufacturer in Bulgaria a

year earlier.

American intelligence officials say the G.R.U. was at the center of Moscow's

covert efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. In the months

before that election, American officials say, two G.R.U. cyberunits, known

as 26165 and 74455, hacked into Democratic Party servers and then used

WikiLeaks to publish embarrassing internal communications.

In part because those efforts were aimed at helping tilt the election in Mr.

Trump's favor, his handling of issues related to Russia and Mr. Putin has

come under particular scrutiny. The special counsel investigation found that

the Trump campaign welcomed Russia's intervention and expected to benefit

from it, but found insufficient evidence to establish that his associates

had engaged in any criminal conspiracy with Moscow.

Operations involving Unit 29155 tend to be much more violent than those

involving the cyberunits. Its officers are often decorated military veterans

with years of service, in some cases dating to the Soviet Union's failed war

in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Never before has the unit been accused of

orchestrating attacks on Western soldiers, but officials briefed on its

operations say it has been active in Afghanistan for many years.

Though Russia declared the Taliban a terrorist organization in 2003,

relations between them have been warming in recent years. Taliban officials

have traveled to Moscow for peace talks with other prominent Afghans,

including the former president, Hamid Karzai. The talks have excluded

representatives from the current Afghan government as well as anyone from

the United States, and at times they have seemed to work at crosscurrents

with American efforts to bring an end to the conflict.

The disclosure comes at a time when Mr. Trump has said he would invite Mr.

Putin to an expanded meeting of the Group of 7 nations, but tensions between

American and Russian militaries are running high.

In several recent episodes, in international territory and airspace from off

the coast of Alaska to the Black and Mediterranean Seas, combat planes from

each country have scrambled to intercept military aircraft from the other.

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