Last week, the Democratic Party in the United States brought an unprecedented lawsuit against a foreign country, Russia, and persons connected to the Kremlin. Predictably, this has received condemnation from Republicans and the Trump campaign.
The Russian government – the primary target of the case – has not responded publicly.
The recent filings provide important insights for Australian politicians.
The case has several defendants. These include Russia, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation (GRU), the Trump campaign, senior Trump advisor (and First Son-in-law) Jared Kushner, former campaign advisor Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., Wikileaks, and several Russian individuals.
The case will be heard in the US District Court for the Southern District of NY. The legal action is brought under provisions of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), the Stored Communications Act, and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Essentially, Russia is alleged to have hacked into the Democratic National Committee’s (DNC) computers. The government and related entities are accused of accessing the party’s telecommunications and obtaining tens of thousands of documents and emails.
This “stolen information” was allegedly used to advance Russia’s own interests, destabilise the US political environment and denigrate Hillary Clinton. Russia is also accused of supporting Trump’s campaign because his “policies would benefit the Kremlin”.
The Trump campaign is also alleged to have engaged in a conspiracy with the Russians to ensure the election of Trump.
Chronology of events
Shortly after Trump announced his candidacy for president in June 2015, European intelligence agencies intercepted communications between his campaign and Russian operatives.
By July 27 2015, Russia had conducted cyber attacks on Democratic National Convention (DNC) systems, which contained “some of the DNC’s most sensitive strategic and operational data”.
This deal was brokered by real estate developer Felix Sater, who claimed in a November 3 email:
I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.
The DNC complaint alleges that in 2016, Kremlin operatives:
notified the Trump campaign that Russia intended to interfere and expressed their government’s backing of Trump via meetings, emails, and other communications.
This included a willingness on Russia’s part “to use stolen emails and other information to damage” Hillary Clinton.
The Russians hacked into the DNC’s servers for the second time in April 2016. GRU agents hacked the DNC’s research, IT, and other departments, and document repositories.
On April 26, then foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, George Papadopoulos, met with a Russian agent who told him that the Russians had dirt on Clinton in “thousands of emails”. Papadopoulos only reported this to his employers and not law enforcement.
He also confided in an Australian diplomat, who reported this to US officials, prompting an FBI inquiry into connections between Russia and the Trump campaign.
But for this crucial error by Papadopoulos, Trump may not have been in his current predicament.
Russia continued its presence on DNC servers. By May, it had hacked data including donor information, opposition research and plans for political activities, as well as thousands of confidential emails.
Donald Trump Jr. was contacted on June 3 with an offer of damaging information about Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump”. Soon after, Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner had the now infamous meeting with Russians in Trump Tower.
A GRU operative publicly disseminated illegally obtained documents on June 15.
On July 22, prior to the DNC Convention, Wikileaks publicly disseminated DNC emails and other documents.
The complaint documents contact between Rick Gates (Trump Campaign Deputy Chair), Assange, and a GRU Operative.
What the DNC claims
After learning of the hacking, the DNC commissioned a forensic analysis by IT firm Crowdstrike, which confirmed hacking by two Russian state-sponsored entities.
The analysis found that user credentials were used to access information that was then posted online by the GRU operative. Hackers also accessed phone calls and voicemail.
The DNC claims the motivations for the conspiracy were twofold. First, Putin’s intense dislike of Clinton, stemming from his belief that she was behind massive protests in Russia in December 2011. Putin is quoted in the complaint, accusing Clinton of setting “the tone for some of our actors in the country”.
Second, Trump’s admiration of Putin made him valuable to Russia.
Lessons for Australia
This case provides the most detailed view of Russia’s tactics in election manipulation – providing a roadmap for other countries where it might try similar methods.
Australia may be vulnerable because of tensions with Russia and North Korea in recent times. With a federal election on the horizon, it would be sensible for Australian political parties to upgrade their cyber security and protect IT equipment in close consultation with intelligence agencies.
Parties should be wary of approaches by unknown entities with promises of assistance and carefully vet any foreign commercial contacts or deals. They should also assume that sensitive information is likely to be leaked and dirty tricks against the opposition could backfire. Individual politicians should be careful not to become pawns of foreign governments.
Finally, Australian political operatives should carefully scrutinise social media information trends for manipulation and invest in human monitors, and of course, report anything suspicious immediately to law enforcement.
The mainstream media have broadly accepted the justifications from the United States, France and Britain of humanitarian motivation for the retaliatory strikes against Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime.
Journalist Adam Johnson analysed US mainstream coverage and reported that:
major publications take the bulk of the premises for war for granted — namely the US’s legal and moral right to wage it — and simply parse over the details.
The air strike proceeded without publication of proof that Syria was responsible for the alleged atrocity in Douma. Reports are emerging that cast doubt on the official narrative.
Regardless, swift action was demanded and taken. Inspectors from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons are only now gaining access “to establish facts around the allegations of chemical weapons use in Douma”.
Strikes illegal under international law
Alongside claims for justification from the Trump administration, similar rhetoric featured in statements from French and British leaders. French President Emmanuel Macron claimed there was no doubt Syria was responsible for a chemical attack on civilians, in gross violation of international law. He said:
We cannot tolerate the trivialisation of chemical weapons, which is an immediate danger for the Syrian people and our collective security.
British Prime Minister Theresa May agreed, saying “we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these weapons”. May identified the lack of consensus in the UN Security Council as a driving factor in the joint military action.
Even this week the Russians vetoed a resolution at the UN Security Council which would have established an independent investigation into the Douma attack. So there is no practicable alternative to the use of force to degrade and deter the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.
The United Nations Charter contains a prohibition on the threat or use of force against another state. Exceptions to this rule of international law are tightly constrained:
Under Article 51 of the Charter, states retain a right to individual and collective self-defence in the case of an armed attack.
Under Chapter VII of the Charter, the Security Council may authorise military force to restore international peace and security, if non-forceful measures have failed.
The British government has published a brief asserting the legality of the air strike on Syria as an exercise of “humanitarian intervention” (effectively invoking the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, without explicitly mentioning it).
The argument is that the UK and its allies were entitled to use force against Syria because:
- there was convincing evidence of large-scale and extreme humanitarian distress;
- there was no practicable alternative to using force in order to save lives; and
- the use of force in response was proportionate and time-limited to relieve humanitarian suffering.
Yet the R2P doctrine does not establish a new legal basis for the use of force. It allows for the use of force as “humanitarian intervention” only within the provisions of Chapter VII of the Charter, in the case of grave international crimes.
The Labour opposition in the UK has released its own legal opinion, sharply contradicting the government and asserting that the strikes were illegal.
Illegal but legitimate?
The allies responsible for this week’s air strike have not claimed explicit authorisation under the Charter. Instead, their aim has been to establish the legitimacy of the strike. This approach was endorsed by the European Union and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.
According to President Trump:
The nations of Britain, France, and the United States of America have marshalled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality.
The Assad regime cannot be absolved of its brutality. Indeed, it is a fundamental objective of the post-second world war international legal order to save humanity from the “scourge of war” and promote human rights.
And there can be little doubt that the international legal system is far from perfect, having failed to protect populations around the world from gross violations of humanitarian and human rights law.
In Syria, hundreds of thousands have been killed over seven years of civil war, and millions are now refugees or internally displaced. The complexity of the conflict has seen monitors cease to estimate a death toll.
However, efforts to establish an alternative foundation for military action, beyond what is currently legal, pose risks that must be grappled with.
If states are permitted to determine when force is warranted, outside the existing legal framework, the legitimacy of that framework may be fatally undermined. How could any consistency of response be ensured? By what standard will states distinguish between benevolent and “rogue” regimes?
Leader of the UK opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, challenged Prime Minister May on these grounds:
Does the humanitarian crisis in Yemen entitle other countries to arrogate to themselves the right to bomb Saudi positions in Yemen, given their use of cluster bombs and white phosphorous?
It is relevant in this context that Saudi Arabia is a highly valued client of the British arms industry. According to War Child UK, total sales to the kingdom have topped £6 billion since the conflict in Yemen began. The UK has refused to support a proposed UN inquiry into allegations of Saudi war crimes in Yemen.
Meanwhile, crimes against humanity and gross human rights violations are alleged against Myanmar, the Philippines and Israel, among other states, without attracting the kind of “humanitarian intervention” undertaken in Syria.
Humanitarian intervention or regime change
Jeremy Corbyn has made the case for diplomacy as the only reasonable way forward. Syria should not be a war theatre in which the agendas of external actors take precedence, he argues.
The US has long envisaged regime change in Syria, and stepped up sponsorship of opposition groups since 2009.
Robert Kennedy Jr. traced the history of US intervention in Syria from the first CIA involvement in 1949. He argues that this is another oil war, and says of broader interventionism in the Middle East:
The only winners have been the military contractors and oil companies that have pocketed historic profits, the intelligence agencies that have grown exponentially in power and influence to the detriment of our freedoms and the jihadists who invariably used our interventions as their most effective recruiting tool.
Central to US strategic thinking is the relationship between Syria and Iran. US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, seemed to say that a condition for US withdrawal is that Iran cease to function as an ally of Syria.
With the US gaze so firmly fixed on Iran and Russia, the rationale for “humanitarian intervention” can and should be more firmly critiqued.
A head-spinning series of events in the past few weeks have taken us from the United States pulling out of Syria, to analysts predicting the beginning of a third world war.
What has really happened in Syria, what are the ramifications of the joint strike from the US, France and Britain, and what can we expect from the key players?
Certainly, the mess in Syria and heightened tensions in the Middle East make us all fear an impending world war, especially when both the Russian and US presidents engage in a round of chest-thumping. Despite this, there is no certainty that a world war will be triggered from the Syrian conflict.
The latest chemical attack, allegedly perpetrated by the Syrian government, followed by the US, British, French retaliation, is really about aligning an unpredictable Trump with the Syria policy of the state and military establishment in Washington.
Why the strikes?
A world power like the US is seldom reactive. It often uses events as key moments to implement new policies or shift policies. An apparent correlation of events with policy implementation justifies the policy in the eyes of internal constituents and the wider international community.
Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Russia has followed an open and consistent policy: declare Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime the legitimate government of Syria, always support his regime to ensure it doesn’t collapse, and morally justify its involvement as a struggle against terrorism. The unspoken policy is to build up a challenge to Western dominance over not only the Middle East, but geopolitical world order.
Yet, the US, and by extension Western policy on Syria, was tentative, unclear and seemed to change course over the seven-year conflict.
Under Barack Obama’s administration, the US consistently stayed out of direct involvement in the Syrian conflict. Busy with the Iraq exit, Obama missed the window of diplomatic opportunity in the crucial early months of the Syrian uprising in 2011. When violence started, Obama elected to provide limited military support to opposition groups, hoping they could muster enough power to dismantle Assad.
The Obama administration shifted its policy after a chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta in 2013 prompted it to push for a United Nations resolution demanding the destruction of chemical stockpiles. This in turn gave impetus to peace talks in Geneva. Apparently, the stockpiles were not destroyed, as we have seen more chemical attacks.
Obama admitted his strategy failed, as the “US was muscled out of Syria” by an increasingly bold Russian President Vladimir Putin. His support allowed Assad to gain the upper hand in Syria with the fall of Aleppo in December 2016. Efforts to make progress in the Geneva talks were continually stalled. The parties failed to make any meaningful progress even as late as 2017.
In the early months of his presidency, the expectation was that Trump would change the US policy on Syria. It was uncertain what trajectory it would take, and when it would come to pass.
Not much happened until yet another chemical-gas attack by Assad in April 2017. The US responded with a massive missile attack, taking out 20% of Assad’s air force. The result was that the Trump administration committed to a more active involvement in Syria and the complete dismantling of the Islamic State presence in the country, but not necessarily the removal of Assad.
It is now apparent there was a fundamental difference between Trump and the key people in his administration in their understanding of the US’ Syria policy.
For Trump, it was always about eliminating IS. On April 3, he announced that the US’ primary mission in Syria was “getting rid of ISIS”. Since this had now been completed, he could bring the troops home.
Yet, in December 2017, Defence Secretary James Mattis said the US would continue its presence in Syria as a “stabilising force” beyond IS.
In January 2018, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed the US would stay in Syria beyond IS, adding that the continued US presence aimed to prevent Iranian and Assad forces regaining territory “liberated with help from the United States”.
So, Trump’s withdrawal intentions, or rather the public announcement, came as a surprise to his own administration as well as the international community. In response, the US special envoy for the global coalition against IS, Brett McGurk, said:
We are in Syria to fight ISIS. That is our mission, and our mission isn’t over, and we are going to complete that mission.
Other officials from the US administration and military made conflicting statements.
Trump’s withdrawal announcement opened the ground for other players to assert their plans. On April 4, Russia, Iran and Turkey held a summit in Turkey, at which Putin announced:
We have agreed to expand the entire range of our trilateral cooperation in Syria.
The trio’s plan included an intensified Turkish operation in northern Syria. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan vowed “to clear all terror groups from Syrian border, including the YPG,” the Kurdish military force that was backed by the US in its bid to eradicate IS from Syria.
It seemed Syria would be left to Russia, Iran, Turkey and Assad. Until, of course, the most recent chemical attack in Douma, a suburb near Damascus, on April 7. The attack was blamed on the Assad government even though it vehemently denied it, and there were allegations of rebel involvement.
Importantly, the chemical attack conveniently served the faction in the US administration advocating for a greater involvement in Syria. Their arguments pushed Trump towards retaliation. In a matter of days, Trump went from vowing withdrawal from Syria to saying they have a “big price to pay”.
A military response in the form of a missile attack was inevitable, and so it took place on April 13, when the US and its allies, Britain and France, made “precision missile strikes against the Syrian government”. The six-day delay was really to gain international support for the attack so that it did not appear to be a showdown between Russia and the US.
Where to from here?
The most recent events in Syria were really about aligning Trump’s understanding of Syrian policy with that of the state and military establishment. The policy is to stay in Syria beyond IS, preventing its revival and preventing Iranian and Assad forces from regaining territory.
It is unlikely there will be any other military strikes by the US and its allies anytime soon. There are two possible wild cards though – Trump’s unpredictability and a possible Russian retaliation.
Elements within the US administration in favour of continued US involvement in Syria will have to keep Trump calm – give him reasons why he should continue committing to Syria, while preventing a direct Russian-US confrontation. Building a coalition with France and Britain prior to the missile retaliation served this purpose. It gave Russia the impression that the matter was a concern with the international community, rather than just the US.
Trump’s exaggerating nature and bombastic language in his tweets run the risk of escalating the situation. But they also help contain Russia, which is always unsure what Trump may say and do next.
A Russian response beyond condemnation is unlikely. Putin recently won a landslide victory in the March presidential elections. He is in no hurry to thump his chest into an all-out brawl with the US due to internal politics.
Furthermore, Russia is already in a diplomatic crisis over the assassination attempt of a former spy and his daughter with a nerve agent in London.
The US, Britain and more than a dozen European countries expelled Russian diplomats in retaliation. Putin is already quite vulnerable in the international scene. He will not enter a fight he is not certain to win.
While the US and its allies may feel morally justified in attacking the Assad government targets, any such intervention is unlikely to help the people of Syria. They will continue to be collateral damage caught in the crossfire of geo-politics.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop have declared two Russian diplomats personas non grata – in other words, they are expelling them from Australia.
The decision to expel the pair is a show of solidarity with the UK over the assassination attempt on two Russian nationals, former Russian colonel Sergei Skripal (who was recruited by British intelligence) and his daughter Yulia, in the small city of Salisbury on March 4.
In a joint statement, Turnbull and Bishop said the two diplomats were identified as “undeclared intelligence officers”, and are now required to leave Australia within seven days.
This is a rare move. However, it is not the first time Australia has expelled Russian diplomats implicated in covert intelligence activities. In mid-1993, Australia secretly expelled six Russian diplomats on “suspicions of spying”.
Historically, Australia was of strong interest to Soviet and Russian intelligence.
There were several reasons for this, including Australia’s close security and defence ties to the US, the UK and other NATO countries, and its access to highly sensitive intelligence as part of the Five Eyes agreement.
Australia also has access to advanced military technology provided by its allies. It plays an important role in the US-led Asia-Pacific anti-ballistic missile defence.
In recent years, Australia’s intelligence community has expressed concern about the extent of Russian and Chinese intelligence-gathering activities in the country.
Posting a serving intelligence officer to work under a diplomatic cover is a common practice of various intelligence agencies, particularly those that do not have special agreements concerning the legal presence of intelligence personnel in a country of interest. Russian intelligence services, such as the Foreign Intelligence Service SVR (sluzhba vneshnei razvedki – political and economic intelligence) and the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU (glavnoe razvedyvatel’noe upravlenie – military intelligence), engage in such practices.
Diplomatic cover provides an intelligence operative not just with diplomatic immunity. It also gives an operative a legal right to engage with various groups of a targeted nation, from political and business elites to fellow diplomats, journalists, social activists, academics, and community groups.
Counterintelligence agencies have ways of identifying such operatives and tracking their activities, including contacts with key local stakeholders. Expelling identified, undeclared intelligence officers is common practice when a country wants to showcase a robust response and a clear political message to its political opponent. In this case, it is Russia.
Identifying the two diplomats as spies sends a powerful message to Russia and its intelligence services. But the world of intelligence is a never-ending game of shadows, with its own rules, codes of conduct and practices.
Australia expects that, in return, Russia will declare at least two Australian diplomats from its embassy in Moscow personas non grata. It is likely the Russians will use the same logic as Australia in choosing who to send home.
By keeping the pressure on Russia, the West is trying to alter Russia’s strategic behaviour, reducing the impact Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assertiveness has caused to the US-led rules-based order.
There is also a clear attempt to weaken Russia as a strategic competitor, as the world’s number-two military power, by making its economy bleed under sanctions. But what effect might this latest round of confrontation create?
Certainly, the expulsion of some 130 Russian diplomats/suspected intelligence operatives will curtail Russian intelligence operations across Europe, North America and Australia.
However, we should not underestimate the potential of Russian intelligence services. It is likely they will restore their intelligence-gathering capacity very quickly. Russia has a proven global intelligence-gathering capability, and the expulsion of some 130 agents will not undermine it in the long run.
Also, only 23 countries have followed the UK’s response against Russia. About half of EU member countries have not joined in the action so far. Some major powers in the Indo-Asia-Pacific, including China and India, have kept their distance. That makes this new round of Russia-West confrontation a war of yet another “coalition of the willing”.
Russia is unlikely to back down to pressure from the West, nor will it admit its alleged involvement in the assassination attempt on Skripal. The investigation into the attack continues, and no final conclusions have been drawn yet.
We should also recognise that the West has seriously underestimated the level of Russian resilience to sanctions as well as its ability to challenge the US-led rules-based order.
In terms of future steps, Australia might reconsider the level of its involvement in the upcoming football World Cup, which will be held in Russia in June-July this year. However, it is unlikely the Australian team will boycott the event.
More targeted sanctions may be imposed, but these actions are likely to trigger a counter-response from Russia. Already, Russia-Australia bilateral trade has gone down: the level of bilateral economic trade was A$687 million in 2016, down from A$1.837 billion in 2014. If Russia is to take further economic counter-sanctions against Australia, it may choose to target Australia’s agricultural exports.
Neither Australia nor Russia consider high-level political dialogue with one another a priority. Yet maintaining some form of a dialogue is important.
Russia is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It is a member of several key international organisations that are critical to Australia, including the G20 and APEC. Russia plays a critical role in the ongoing war in Syria and crisis in Ukraine, the war against Islamic State, in curtailing the nuclear ambitions of both North Korea and Iran, and in stabilising Afghanistan.
Cutting ties with Russia or suspending dialogue with it on some key international security issues such as combating terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, or North Korea would not contribute to global stability.
The Australian government decided to show decisiveness, determination and strong resolve. Australia has once again shown its strong support and solidarity with its key allies such as the UK. But let’s hope the government shows the same consistency, resolve and determination next time other major powers undertake reckless activities, such as China’s strategic gaming in South China Sea.
The Australian government is expelling two Russian spies as part of a broad international retaliatory action against the nerve agent attack on the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Britain earlier this month.
The diplomats have been “identified as undeclared intelligence officers”, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said in a statement on Tuesday morning. “Undeclared intelligence agents” are spies.
More than 20 Western countries, including the US, EU countries and Canada, are expelling more than 100 Russians, in a dramatic escalation of the push against Russia. British Prime Minister Theresa May told the UK parliament this was “the largest collective expulsion of Russian intelligence officers in history”.
Turnbull and Bishop said the Russians had to leave within a week “for actions inconsistent with their status”.
“This decision reflects the shocking nature of the attack – the first offensive use of chemical weapons in Europe since World War II, involving a highly lethal substance in a populated area, endangering countless other members of the community,” they said in a statement.
“It takes into account advice from the UK government that the substance used on 4 March was a military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia. Such an attack cannot be tolerated by any sovereign nation.
“We strongly support the call on Russia to disclose the full extent of its chemical weapons program in accordance with international law.
“This attack is part of a pattern of reckless and deliberate conduct by the Russian state that constitutes a growing threat to international security, global non-proliferation rules against the use of chemical weapons, the rights of other sovereign nations and the international rules-based order that underpins them,” the statement said.
Turnbull briefed Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who immediately backed the action.
“I have spoken to the security agencies. I am very supportive of this measure,” Shorten told reporters.
“These are undeclared agents and so therefore it is inappropriate that they be in Australia.”
Asked whether he believed it was beyond doubt that the Russians were involved in the nerve agent attack, Shorten said “our security agencies have that view and therefore I think this is a proportionate action today”.
Sergei and Yulia Skripal remain in a critical condition.
The Russian embassy issued a statement saying: “It is astonishing how easily the allies of Great Britain follow it blindly contrary to the norms of civilised bilateral dialogue and international relations, and against the common sense. The modern world is not in a stage when it is possible to dictate anything to anybody, regardless of the nostalgia for past grandeur in certain capitals.”
The statement said that “neither the Russian side, attempt on which citizens’ life was made, nor other states possess impartial exhaustive information about the ‘Skripal case’”.
“Such flagrant and primitive campaigns as the ‘Skripal case’ that are crudely orchestrated by London, could only trigger further erosion of international relations architecture on which peace and security in the whole world during the post-war period were rested.”
Russia’s ambassador in Canberra Grigory Logvinov dodged the question of whether the Russians expelled are spies. “No ambassador would give you an answer, and actually ask your authorities how they could judge who is a special agent or not. Within my embassy, there are only career diplomats,” he told the ABC.