Russia has ability to shut off power in the U.S.

The New York Times reports:

The Trump administration accused Russia on Thursday of engineering a series of cyberattacks that targeted American and European nuclear power plants and water and electric systems, and could have sabotaged or shut power plants off at will.

United States officials and private security firms saw the attacks as a signal by Moscow that it could disrupt the West’s critical facilities in the event of a conflict.

They said the strikes accelerated in late 2015, at the same time the Russian interference in the American election was underway. The attackers had successfully compromised some operators in North America and Europe by spring 2017, after President Trump was inaugurated.

In the following months, according to a Department of Homeland Security report issued on Thursday, Russian hackers made their way to machines with access to critical control systems at power plants that were not identified. The hackers never went so far as to sabotage or shut down the computer systems that guide the operations of the plants.

Still, new computer screenshots released by the Department of Homeland Security on Thursday made clear that Russian state hackers had the foothold they would have needed to manipulate or shut down power plants.

“We now have evidence they’re sitting on the machines, connected to industrial control infrastructure, that allow them to effectively turn the power off or effect sabotage,” said Eric Chien, a security technology director at Symantec, a digital security firm.

“From what we can see, they were there. They have the ability to shut the power off. All that’s missing is some political motivation,” Mr. Chien said.

American intelligence agencies were aware of the attacks for the past year and a half, and the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. first issued urgent warnings to utility companies in June. On Thursday, both agencies offered new details as the Trump administration imposed sanctions against Russian individuals and organizations it accused of election meddling and “malicious cyberattacks.”

It was the first time the administration officially named Russia as the perpetrator of the assaults. And it marked the third time in recent months that the White House, departing from its usual reluctance to publicly reveal intelligence, blamed foreign government forces for attacks on infrastructure in the United States. [Continue reading…]

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Novichok chemical attack near Porton Down fed catnip to conspiracy theorists

Vladimir Putin has long understood that Russia can easily exploit the cynicism that permeates political perceptions across the West.

The use of the Soviet chemical weapon, Novichok, in close proximity to the UK’s Defence Science and Technology Laboratory at Porton Down, hardly seems coincidental. It accomplished two things:

1. By deploying this agent so close to the lab, operatives could be fairly confident that British authorities with the required expertise would be able to positively identify the chemical, i.e. Russia’s calling card would be relatively easy to decipher.

2. Carrying out an attack so close to such a controversial facility would instantly provide fodder for conspiracy theories promoting the idea that Porton Down itself was the origin of the Novichok used in the attack. Russia did not hesitate to seed such speculation:

Predictably, Craig Murray and others (with the support of the Russian government and media) were swift to hoist “false flag” claims of one kind or another.

Initially, Putin’s chief asset in Washington responded to Britain’s allegations in a way that pleased Russia:

Today, Trump has inched towards Britain’s assessment while allowing himself wiggle room to question this conclusion, using language (“Russia or whoever it may be”) similar to his equivocations on Russian interference in the U.S. presidential elections.

As for the conspiracy theories on the attack, their intrinsic weakness is counterbalanced by their abundance.

As easy as each might be to shoot down, they can instantly be replaced by another. Their function is not to persuade anyone of anything but on the contrary to raise doubts and suspicions and thereby immobilize public opinion. The more often people say, “I don’t know who to believe,” “the media and politicians are always lying,” etc. the clearer it becomes that Russia’s disinformation campaign has been effective.

Russian media analyst, Julia Davis, has diligently been tracking Russian state media conspiracy theories on the attack, starting with:

#1 Accidental exposure
#2 Suicide
#3 Untrustworthy or complicit lab (Porton Down)
#4 Accidental overdose
#5 Stoking Russophobia
#6 Attempted assassination to frame Russia
#7 Cui bono? The British!
#8 It was the Americans

Davis notes that when Russian media is not busy promoting its conspiracy theories on the attack, it gladly asserts that Sergei Skripal got what he deserved.

Russia’s social media manipulation promotes political divisions, confusion, and endless distraction, thereby undermining serious discussion about Putin’s role on the world stage.

Having come of age in an era when, by virtue of its nuclear arsenal and military might the USSR could credibly present itself as America’s equal, Putin must now see such strength, when perpetually held in reserve, as yielding very limited power.

For someone who wants to present himself as a man of action, deterrence has less appeal than intimidation.

Just as a mafia boss cannot maintain his power by simply promoting fear of what he might do, he also feels compelled to demonstrate his capacity to unleash violence.

It’s no coincidence that Russia’s most significant military intervention outside the former Soviet Union since the invasion of Afghanistan has been in support of a regime that has repeatedly engaged in chemical warfare, including the use of Russian-sourced weapons.

The international response to the Ghouta chemical attack of 2013, demonstrated to Bashar al-Assad, Russia, and Iran, that the U.S. and its allies have no enforceable red lines on the use of chemical weapons.

Whether used in Syria or Salisbury, such weapons now signal the ability of rogue states to provoke swift expressions of international outrage followed by limited repercussions. Images of the use of brutal power serve to amplify a sense of global paralysis.

Following the British government’s accusation of Russia’s role in the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter, the White House conspicuously declined to call out Russia. At the same time, Rex Tillerson issued a statement, saying:

There is never a justification for this type of attack – the attempted murder of a private citizen on the soil of a sovereign nation – and we are outraged that Russia appears to have again engaged in such behavior. From Ukraine to Syria – and now the UK – Russia continues to be an irresponsible force of instability in the world, acting with open disregard for the sovereignty of other states and the life of their citizens.

Putin’s puppet in the Oval Office has responded by firing Tillerson.

Meanwhile, another of Putin’s critics, Nikolai Glushkov, has been found dead at his home in London.

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Russia’s new trove of bizarre doomsday devices

Jeffrey Lewis writes:

The U.S. developed a nuclear-powered cruise missile in the 1960s, but it was canceled it because, well, it was insane. The nuclear-powered ramjet was literally deafening to people on the ground and left a trail of radioactivity from the unshielded reactor. The United States couldn’t even find a suitable place to fight-test this monster. Officials worried that if it went off course from the Nevada nuclear test site, it might crash into Las Vegas.

Putin says Russia has already tested its version. The U.S. intelligence community, in return, says the Russian missile crashed in testing. Maybe the Russians have developed a new nuclear-powered turbofan engine that poses fewer problems than the United States’ ramjet. Or maybe, if you find yourself visiting Russia, you might want to consider lead underwear.

All of these Russian systems predated Donald Trump and his dumb Nuclear Posture Review. In fact, all of these systems were known to the Barack Obama administration — even the cruise missile, which I now realize in retrospect some U.S. officials had been hinting at for some time.

The real genesis of Russia’s new generation of bizarre nuclear weapons lies not in the most recent Nuclear Posture Review, but in the George W. Bush administration’s decision in 2001 to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the bipartisan failure by both the Bush and Obama administrations to engage meaningfully with the Russians over their concerns about American missile defenses. [Continue reading…]

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Syria’s long war has reached its Srebrenica moment

Roy Gutman writes:

The Assad regime and Russia are poised to destroy totally the East Ghouta region just outside Damascus or expel its population of some 400,000, and nothing but the empty words of the United Nations, the United States, and Europe stand in their way.

So, too, 23 years ago, the world sat mostly mute, watching events unfold in and around the small village of Srebrenica in a remote corner of eastern Bosnia. No government was ready to lift a finger to save the population of some 27,000, at least half of them displaced from other areas.

At a critical moment, the United Nations Protection Force decided not to bomb Bosnian Serb forces marching on the town. That was taken as the all-clear for Gen. Radko Mladic to capture Srebrenica, expel the women and children, and exterminate the male population of some 8,000.

The discovery of mass graves just a month after the July 1995 massacre, coming on top of the genocide in Rwanda one year earlier, provoked soul searching in the world community and a chorus of declarations of “Never again.”

Four years later, in 1999, the U.S. led NATO to intervene decisively in Kosovo, averting another bloodbath, and in 2005, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a principle that governments have a “Responsibility to Protect” their citizens from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

But “Never Again” has turned into “Ever Again.” [Continue reading…]

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Pentagon examines plans for a war against North Korea — ‘the brutality of this will be beyond the experience of any living soldier’

“A classified military exercise last week examined how American troops would mobilize and strike if ordered into a potential war on the Korean Peninsula,” reports the New York Times:

A war with North Korea, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said, would be “catastrophic.” He and Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have argued forcefully for using diplomacy to address Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

Commanders who attended the exercise in Hawaii were told that roughly 10,000 Americans could be wounded in combat in the opening days alone. And the number of civilian casualties, the generals were told, would likely be in the thousands or even hundreds of thousands.

The potential human costs of a war were so high that, at one point during the exercise, General Milley remarked that “the brutality of this will be beyond the experience of any living soldier,” according to officials who were involved.

So, too, would be the sheer logistical enterprise of moving thousands of American soldiers and equipment to the Korean Peninsula. Moreover, senior military officials worry that after 17 years in Afghanistan and Iraq, American troops have become far more used to counterinsurgency fighting than a land war against a state, as an attack on North Korea would likely bring.

But Mr. Mattis also has ordered top Pentagon leaders to be ready for any possible military action against North Korea. Already, ammunition has been pre-staged in the Pacific region for ground units. [Continue reading…]

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In Syria’s war economy the worst of enemies are also partners in business

Century Foundation Fellow, Aron Lund, writes:

After the October 2017 fall of Raqqa to U.S.-backed Kurdish and Arab guerrillas, the extremist group known as the Islamic State is finally crumbling. But victory came a cost: Raqqa lies in ruins, and so does much of northern Syria.

At least one of the tools for reconstruction is within reach. An hour and a half’s drive from Raqqa lies one of the largest and most modern cement plants in the entire Middle East, opened less than a year before the war by the multinational construction giant LafargeHolcim. If production were to be resumed, the factory would be perfectly positioned to help rebuild bombed-out cities like Raqqa and Aleppo.

However, although the factory may well hold one of the keys to Syria’s future, it also has an unseemly past.

In December 2017, French prosecutors charged LafargeHolcim’s former CEO with terrorism financing, having learned that its forerunner Lafarge was reported to have paid millions of dollars to Syrian armed groups, including the terrorist-designated Islamic State.

The strange story of how the world’s most hated extremist group allegedly ended up receiving payments from the world’s largest cement company is worth a closer look, not just for what it tells us about the way money fuels conflict, but also for what it can teach us about Syria’s war economy—a vast ecosystem of illicit profiteering, where the worst of enemies are also partners in business.

This work was supported, in part, by a research grant from The Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation, and by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It draws on interviews with Syrian and international experts, diplomats, fighters, and people involved with Lafarge’s operations in Syria, as well as on a wide range of written sources in English, Arabic, French, and Norwegian, including press coverage, company reports, memoirs, and social media.

Lafarge’s behavior, which is now under investigation in France and could result in criminal convictions, was far from exceptional for companies operating in civil-war Syria—or perhaps in any similar war zone. The need to consider opportunistic compromises, dubious deals, and under-the-table payoffs to criminal and violent actors to keep Lafarge’s factory in operation will therefore also be difficult to avoid for others hoping to operate in Syria’s fragmented politico-economic landscape.

The fact that President Bashar al-Assad’s government is now clearly dominant and the Syrian war seem to be moving toward a reconstruction stage will only exacerbate the problem.5 The fighting is far from over and the country remains divided, with rival armed actors ruling several peripheral areas. The most important one is the northern, Kurdish-controlled region propped up by the United States.

As long as these divisions remain in place, many humanitarian and commercial actors will be forced to work under two or more rival regimes, negotiating a path among militant actors who routinely prey on industry, trade, and relief operations. During the war, a new class of conflict traders has emerged to facilitate cross-line connections of this type. Though they hail from different backgrounds and areas, most retain strong links to Assad’s government. As reconstruction money starts pouring in, it will be near-impossible to avoid some level of dependence on these regime-connected fixers and war profiteers—the new kings of Syria’s economy, whose power grows as the Syrian army advances. [Continue reading…]