Sanctions, cyberattack among possible UK moves on Russia

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on Tuesday after attending the weekly meeting of the Cabinet. (AFP)
Updated 14 March 2018

Sanctions, cyberattack among possible UK moves on Russia

LONDON: Britain has given Moscow until midnight Tuesday to explain how a Russian-made nerve agent came to poison a former spy in Britain. If no explanation is given, Prime Minister Theresa May says Russia will be hit by “extensive” retaliatory measures.
Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said UK officials are speaking to allies in the EU and beyond to draw up a “commensurate but robust” response to the attack, which has left Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in a critical condition.
Britain has faced a similar crisis before. After former Russian agent Alexander Litvinenko was killed in London with radioactive poison in 2006, London expelled several Russian diplomats, imposed visa restrictions, broke off intelligence cooperation and froze assets of the two prime suspects.
Critics say that response was too weak, and claim Britain was reluctant to act because London’s property market and financial sector are magnets for billions in Russian money.
What are Britain’s options now?

Expel diplomats
Britain is highly likely to expel some Russian diplomats, possibly including Ambassador Alexander Yakovenko. That would almost certainly result in the tit-for-tat expulsion of British envoys in Moscow. While that will further fray already strained diplomatic relations, it would have a limited effect on Russia.

Hit their pockets
London is a magnet for wealthy Russians, and Britain could seek to stop those suspected of involvement, or close to President Vladimir Putin, from enjoying their money and property in the UK
“Russian oligarchs over the last few months have been moving money and liquid assets back to Russia from various places around the world, but you can’t move fixed assets,” said historian Martin McCauley, a former senior lecturer on Russian affairs at the University of London. “So therefore if they’ve got property — and they have a lot of property in London and elsewhere — (May) could in fact impose a freeze or even say confiscate those assets.”
Britain has recently introduced new powers to seize money and property whose origins are suspicious, and is considering adopting a version of the US Magnitsky Act, which allows authorities to ban or seize the assets of individuals guilty of human rights abuses.
The EU — of which Britain remains a member until 2019 — has already imposed sanctions on Russian banks, businesses and officials over Moscow’s invasion of Crimea. Britain is likely to urge the bloc to toughen those measures. But several leading EU nations, including Germany, are wary of antagonizing Russia.

Sports boycott
Russia is due to host one of world sport’s biggest events, the World Cup of soccer, in June and July. Johnson has said the UK may downgrade its participation by not sending politicians or Prince William, who is president of England’s Football Association.
Some are urging a British boycott of the event, at which England is one of 32 teams competing for the trophy. But that is likely a step too far.

Military moves
Britain could seek to bolster NATO forces in the Baltic states, where Western troops have been deployed to counter an increasingly assertive Russia.
But Britain will probably stop short of invoking NATO’s principle of collective defense, under which an attack on one is considered an attack on all.
British Housing Minister Dominic Raab said May chose her words carefully when she called the attack “an unlawful use of force” against the U.K.
“The words ‘unlawful use of force’ are different and have a different meaning in international law from ‘armed attack,’” he told the BBC.

Cyber strikeback
UK intelligence officials have warned that Russian hackers are targeting the country’s telecommunications systems, media and energy networks.
So far, Britain has concentrated on strengthening its cyber defenses — but it could take offensive action of its own, possibly targeting Russian websites that generate “fake news.” That would mark an escalation in international cyber-conflict, with unknown consequences.
Britain is also under pressure to revoke the license of state-owned Russian broadcaster RT, which has been repeatedly censured by the UK broadcast regulator for a lack of impartiality.
The regulator, Ofcom, said it would wait until May outlines Britain’s response to Russia on Wednesday and then “consider the implications for RT’s broadcast licenses.”

Afghan Taliban frown at militants’ Eid cease-fire selfies

Updated 14 min 57 sec ago

Afghan Taliban frown at militants’ Eid cease-fire selfies

  • Both the Afghan government and the militants declared temporary cease-fires for the end-of-Ramadan Eid Al-Fitr holiday
  • The Taliban cease-fire ended on Sunday. The government extended its cease-fire with the Taliban, which had been due to end on Wednesday, June 20, by 10 days

PESHAWAR, Pakistan: The Afghan Taliban are angry at their members swapping selfies with soldiers and government officials during their three-day cease-fire, a senior Taliban official said on Monday, after the militants roamed at will through cities before the truce ended.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the Taliban official also said Pakistan had wanted the Taliban to include US and other foreign troops in the cease-fire, but the Taliban’s leadership and supreme commander, ‎Sheikh Haibatullah Akhunzada, did not agree.
“Last night, an emergency meeting was called and all the commanders were informed and directed to take strict disciplinary action against all those Taliban members who visited citizens and took pictures with the Afghan authorities,” he told Reuters.
Some Taliban seen taking selfies w‎ith Afghan government forces and officials had been warned, the Taliban official said.
Both the Afghan government and the militants declared temporary cease-fires for the end-of-Ramadan Eid Al-Fitr holiday, leading to fraternization between the two sides as militants emerged from their hideouts to enter towns and cities.
The government cease-fire did not include the Islamic State militant group and the Taliban did not include US-led foreign forces in theirs.
The Taliban cease-fire ended on Sunday. The government extended its cease-fire with the Taliban, which had been due to end on Wednesday, June 20, by 10 days.
Another Taliban commander, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said that some attacks had been planned in the southern Afghan province of Helmand where short clashes were reported, according to the spokesman for the Helmand governor.
Anti-war activists set off on a peace march last month, spending the fasting month crossing harsh, sun-baked countryside en route to Kabul where they arrived on Monday, their numbers swelling and ebbing at different points along the route.
Abdul Rahman Mangal, spokesman for the Maidan Wardak provincial government, next to Kabul, said the Taliban attacked two security checkpoints in the Saidabad district in the early hours of Monday which “left casualties.”
Clashes were also reported in Faryab in the northwest and Laghman, to the east of Kabul, and Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan and the scene of two bomb blasts over the weekend, one of which was claimed by Islamic State.
While many war-weary Afghans welcomed the cease-fires and the fraternization between the combatants, some have criticized the government cease-fire, which allowed the Taliban to flow into cities, though the militants said they were withdrawing.
The Taliban are fighting US-led NATO forces combined under the Resolute Support mission, and Ghani’s US-backed government to restore sharia, or Islamic law, after their ouster by US-led forces in 2001.
But Afghanistan has been at war for four decades, ever since the Soviet invasion in 1979.