Moscow, Dec 21 (AP/UNB) — Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a chilling warning Thursday about the rising threat of a nuclear war, putting the blame squarely on the U.S., which he accused of irresponsibly pulling out of arms control treaties.
Speaking at his annual news conference, Putin warned that "it could lead to the destruction of civilization as a whole and maybe even our planet."
He pointed at Washington's intention to walk away from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, and its reluctance to negotiate the extension of the 2010 New START agreement, which expires in 2021 unless the two countries agree to extend it. "We are witnessing the breakup of the arms control system," he said.
Moscow and Washington have been at loggerheads over the INF, which bans an entire class of weapons — all nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles of intermediate range. U.S. officials say Washington's withdrawal from the pact was prompted by Russian violations of the treaty, which Moscow vehemently denies.
Earlier this month NATO, at U.S. request formally declared Russia to be in violation of the INF and demanded that it halt activity that breaches it. The move put the full weight of the alliance behind the U.S., which has given Russia until February to come into compliance or trigger Washington's withdrawal from the treaty."
Officials in both Russia and the U.S. have given mixed signals about the future of the New START treaty, signed by President Barack Obama and then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev amid a brief thaw in Russia-U.S. ties. U.S.-Russian strategic nuclear weapons — those capable of striking each other's territory — are governed by New Start.
During the nearly four-hour news conference, Putin maintained Russia was not interested in "gaining unilateral advantages. We aren't seeking advantages, we are trying to preserve the balance and ensure our security."
Russia-U.S. ties have sunk to their lowest levels since the Cold war times over the Ukrainian crisis, the war in Syria and the allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, among other disputes.
The U.S. and European nations have repeatedly called out Russia and imposed sanctions on it for its support of separatists in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea in 2014. At the same time the West has harshly criticized Russia for its military and political support for Syrian President Bashar Assad, which U.S. officials say has prolonged the war in Syria and the suffering of its people.
The Russian leader scoffed at the allegations, rejecting them as part of a smear campaign driven by domestic policy in the U.S. and elsewhere in the West.
He dismissed claims that Russia is interfering abroad, from a nerve agent poisoning in Britain to an alleged effort to infiltrate the U.S. National Rifle Association, charging that those accusations are part of U.S.-led efforts to malign Russia to strengthen the Western allies' unity.
"They need an external threat to cement NATO unity," Putin said, accusing the U.S. and its allies of exploiting "phobias of the past" to achieve domestic political goals.
"As for ruling the world, we know where the headquarters trying to do that are located, and the place isn't Moscow," he said, noting that the Pentagon's annual budget of over $700 billion dwarfs Russia's defense spending of $46 billion.
Russia's hopes for repairing ties with the U.S. under President Donald Trump have fizzled amid the allegations of Russian meddling in the 2016 election — charges Putin has denied.
He noted that he's still keeping the door open for a meeting with Trump, but added that the prospect for that looks increasingly dim in view of the Democrats winning control of the House.
"You can predict new attacks on the president with 100-percent probability," Putin said. "I don't know if he could engage in a direct dialogue with Russia in such conditions."
He charged that that the continuing U.S. political infighting reflects a "lack of respect for the voters" who elected Trump. "They don't want to acknowledge his victory and do everything to delegitimize the president," Putin added.
He insisted that a Russian woman in U.S. custody has not carried out any mission for the Russian government, even though she pleaded guilty this month to acting as a covert agent of the government. Putin claimed that Maria Butina — accused of trying to infiltrate the NRA and American conservative circles around the time of Trump's election — entered the guilty plea because of the threat of a long prison sentence in the case, which Putin described as fabricated.
Amid a litany of complaints over Washington's policies, Putin had one positive thing to say about the United States: He welcomed Trump's decision to withdraw the U.S. military from Syria.
The U.S. "has done the right thing," Putin said, reaffirming the long-held Russian argument that the U.S. presence in Syria is illegitimate because it wasn't vetted by the U.N. Security Council or approved by Syrian President Bashar Assad's government. The pullout is also likely to strengthen Russia's role in Syria's future.
He showed no sign of backing down from Russia's stance on Ukraine, accusing his Ukrainian counterpart of provoking a naval standoff with Russia to boost his electoral prospects. The Russian coast guard fired upon and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels and 24 seamen when they tried to sail from the Black Sea into the Sea of Azov in what the U.S. and its NATO allies condemned as unjustified use of force by Russia.
Turning to nuclear weapons, Putin warned that if the U.S. puts intermediate-range missiles in Europe after its planned exit from the INF Treaty banning them, Russia will be forced to take countermeasures.
As for what he described as U.S. reluctance to extend the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, he said: "You aren't interested? You don't need it? OK, we will survive. ... But it will be very bad for the whole of humankind, because it would take us to a very dangerous area."
Moscow, Dec 20 (AP/UNB) — Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a chilling warning Thursday about the rising threat of a nuclear war, saying "it could lead to the destruction of civilization as a whole and maybe even our planet."
Speaking at his annual news conference, Putin pointed at the U.S. intention to withdraw from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty. He said that if the U.S. puts intermediate-range missiles in Europe, Russia will be forced to take countermeasures.
"We are witnessing the breakup of the arms control system," Putin said, noting the U.S. plan to opt out of the INF Treaty and its reluctance to negotiate the extension of the New START agreement.
He also noted that Western analysts are talking about the possibility of using low-yield nuclear weapons.
"There is a trend of lowering the threshold" of using nuclear weapons, Putin said. "Lowering the threshold could lead to a global nuclear catastrophe."
"We will have to ensure our security," he said. "And they shouldn't squeak later about us gaining unilateral advantages. We aren't seeking advantages, we are trying to preserve the balance and ensure our security."
Putin also emphasized that the U.S. is pondering the use of ballistic missiles with conventional warheads, saying that the launch of such a missile could be mistaken for the launch of a nuclear-tipped one and trigger a global catastrophe.
"If that happens, it could lead to the destruction of the entire civilization and may be even our planet," he said.
Putin also noted that the U.S. appears to show little interest in extending the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, which expires in 2021.
"You aren't interested, you don't need it? OK, we know how to ensure our security," he said.
On the economy, Putin hailed another year of Russian growth after a previous period of stagnation.
Russia's gross domestic product is set to grow by 1.8 percent this year, while industrial output has grown faster at 3 percent, he said.
The Russian president noted that the nation's hard currency reserves have increased from $432 billion at the start of the year to $464 billion now.
The positive statistics follow a difficult period in recent years when Russia's economy has suffered a combined blow of low oil prices and Western sanctions.
Russia's economy registered 1.5-percent growth last year following the two-year stagnation.
Putin pledged that the government will create incentives to speed up growth.
London, Dec 19 (AP/UNB) — Britain's five leading business groups are pleading with the government to act to prevent the country's departure from the European Union without a deal.
In an unusual expression of unity, the groups that represent hundreds of thousands of businesses employing millions told the nation's leaders to put their political party affiliations aside and prevent a so-called "no deal" Brexit.
The statement says "businesses have been watching in horror as politicians have focused on factional disputes rather than practical steps that business needs to move forward. The lack of progress ... means that the risk of a 'no-deal' Brexit is rising."
The statement was signed by the British Chambers of Commerce, the Confederation of British Industry, the manufacturers' organization called EEF, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Institute of Directors
Washington, Dec 18 (AP/UNB) — The fight over President Donald Trump's $5 billion wall funds has deepened, threatening a partial government shutdown in a standoff that has become increasingly common in Washington.
It wasn't always like this, with Congress and the White House at a crisis over government funding. The House and Senate used to pass annual appropriation bills, and the president signed them into law. But in recent years the shutdown scenario has become so routine that it raises the question: Have shutdowns as a negotiating tool lost their punch?
Monday brought few signs of progress. A partial shutdown that could occur at midnight Friday risks disrupting government operations and leaving hundreds of thousands of federal employees furloughed or working without pay over the holiday season. Costs would be likely in the billions of dollars.
Trump was meeting with his team and getting regular updates, said White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Trump was also tweeting Monday to keep up the pressure.
Exiting a Senate Republican leadership meeting late Monday, Sen. John Thune of South Dakota said, "It looks like it probably is going to have to build for a few days here before there's a solution."
The president is insisting on $5 billion for the wall along the southern border with Mexico, but he does not have the votes from the Republican-led Congress to support it. Democrats are offering to continue funding at current levels, $1.3 billion, not for the wall but for fencing and other border security.
It's unclear how many House Republicans, with just a few weeks left in the majority before relinquishing power to House Democrats, will even show up midweek for possible votes. Speaker Paul Ryan's office had no update. Many Republicans say it's up to Trump and Democrats to cut a deal.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Trump talk most days, but the senator's spokesman would not confirm if they spoke Monday about a plan. McConnell opened the chamber hoping for a "bipartisan collaborative spirit" that would enable Congress to finish its work.
"We need to make a substantial investment in the integrity of our border," McConnell said. "And we need to close out the year's appropriation process."
Meanwhile more than 800,000 government workers are preparing for the uncertainty ahead.
The dispute could affect nine of 15 Cabinet-level departments and dozens of agencies, including the departments of Homeland Security, Transportation, Interior, Agriculture, State and Justice, as well as national parks and forests.
About half the workers would be forced to continue working without immediate pay. Others would be sent home. Congress often approves their pay retroactively, even if they were ordered to stay home.
"Our members are asking how they are supposed to pay for rent, food, and gas if they are required to work without a paycheck," said a statement from J. David Cox, Sr., president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the large federal worker union. "The holiday season makes these inquiries especially heart-wrenching."
Many agencies, including the Pentagon and the departments of Veterans Affairs and Health and Human Services, are already funded for the year and will continue to operate as usual, regardless of whether Congress and the president reach agreement this week.
Congress already approved funding this year for about 75 percent of the government's discretionary account for the budget year that began Oct. 1.
The U.S. Postal Service, busy delivering packages for the holiday season, wouldn't be affected by any government shutdown because it's an independent agency.
Trump said last week he would be "proud" to have a shutdown to get Congress to approve a $5 billion down payment to fulfill his campaign promise to build a border wall.
During his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump promised that Mexico would pay for the wall. Mexico has refused.
Democratic leaders Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, in a meeting last week at the White House, suggested keeping funding at its current level, $1.3 billion, for improved fencing. Trump had neither accepted nor rejected the Democrats' offer, telling them he would take a look.
Schumer said Monday he had yet to hear from Trump. Speaking on the Senate floor, Schumer warned that "going along with the Trump shutdown is a futile act" because House Democrats would quickly approve government funding in January.
"President Trump still doesn't have a plan to keep the government open," Schumer said Monday. "No treat or temper tantrum will get the president his wall."
One option for lawmakers would be to provide stopgap funding for a few weeks, until the new Congress convenes Jan. 3, when Pelosi is poised to become House speaker.
Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, who is in line to become the No. 3 Republican in the Senate, suggested a stopgap bill could be one way to resolve the issue or a longer-term bill that includes money for border security.
GOP leaders, though, were frustrated as the clock ticked away. Leaving the weekly leadership meeting, Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said any planning was a "very closely held thing. That's why we should never let this happen. We should pass the bills the way we're supposed to pass them."
Washington, Dec 18 (AP/UNB) — Russia's sweeping political disinformation campaign on U.S. social media was more far-reaching than originally thought, with troll farms working to discourage black voters and "blur the lines between reality and fiction" to help elect Donald Trump in 2016, according to reports released Monday by the Senate intelligence committee.
And the campaign didn't end with Trump's ascent to the White House. Troll farms are still working to stoke racial and political passions in America at a time of high political discord.
The two studies are the most comprehensive picture yet of the Russian interference campaigns on American social media. They add to the portrait investigators have been building since 2017 on Russia's influence — though Trump has equivocated on whether the interference actually happened.
Facebook, Google and Twitter declined to comment on the specifics of the reports.
The reports were compiled by the cybersecurity firm New Knowledge and by the Computational Propaganda Research Project, a study by researchers at the University of Oxford and Graphika, a social media analysis firm.
The Oxford report details how Russians broke down their messages to different groups, including discouraging black voters from going to the polls and stoking anger on the right.
"These campaigns pushed a message that the best way to advance the cause of the African-American community was to boycott the election and focus on other issues instead," the researchers wrote.
At the same time, "Messaging to conservative and right-wing voters sought to do three things: repeat patriotic and anti-immigrant slogans; elicit outrage with posts about liberal appeasement of 'others' at the expense of US citizens, and encourage them to vote for Trump."
The report from New Knowledge says there are still some live accounts tied to the original Internet Research Agency, which was named in an indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller in February for an expansive social media campaign intended to influence the 2016 presidential election. Some of the accounts have a presence on smaller platforms as the major companies have tried to clean up after the Russian activity was discovered.
"With at least some of the Russian government's goals achieved in the face of little diplomatic or other pushback, it appears likely that the United States will continue to face Russian interference for the foreseeable future," the researchers wrote.
The New Knowledge report says that none of the social media companies turned over complete data sets to Congress and some of them "may have misrepresented or evaded" in testimony about the interference by either intentionally or unintentionally downplaying the scope of the problem.
The Senate panel has been investigating Russian interference on social media and beyond for almost two years. Intelligence committee Chairman Richard Burr said in a statement that the data shows how aggressively Russia tried to divide Americans by race, religion and ideology and erode trust in institutions.
"Most troublingly, it shows that these activities have not stopped," said Burr, a North Carolina Republican.
One major takeaway from both studies is the breadth of Russian interference that appeared on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook and was not frequently mentioned when its parent company testified on Capitol Hill. The study says that as attention was focused on Facebook and Twitter in 2017, the Russians shifted much of their activity to Instagram.
The New Knowledge study says that there were 187 million engagements with users on Instagram, while there were 77 million on Facebook.
"Instagram was a significant front in the IRA's influence operation, something that Facebook executives appear to have avoided mentioning in congressional testimony," the researchers wrote. They added that "our assessment is that Instagram is likely to be a key battleground on an ongoing basis."
The Russian activity went far beyond the three tech companies that provided information, reaching many smaller sites as well. The New Knowledge report details sophisticated attempts to infiltrate internet games, browser extensions and music apps. The Russians even used social media to encourage users of the game Pokemon Go — which was at peak popularity in the months before the 2016 presidential election — to use politically divisive usernames, for example.
The report discusses even more unconventional ways that the Russian accounts attempted to connect with Americans and recruit assets, such as merchandise with certain messages, specific follower requests, job offers and even help lines that could encourage people to unknowingly disclose sensitive information to Russia that could later be used against them.
The Russians' attempts to influence Americans on social media first became widely public in the fall of 2017. Several months later, Mueller's indictment laid out a vast, organized Russian effort to sway political opinion. While the social media companies had already detailed some of the efforts, the indictment tied actual people to the operation and named 13 Russians responsible.
Also notable is the study's finding that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was favorably treated in posts aimed at both left-leaning and right-leaning users. The New Knowledge report says there were a number of posts expressing support for Assange and Wikileaks, including several in October 2016 just before WikiLeaks released hacked emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign.
The Oxford study notes that peaks in Internet Research Agency advertising and organic activity — or posts, shares and comments by users — often corresponded with important dates on the U.S. calendar, crises and international events.
The researchers from Oxford said that organic postings were much more far reaching than advertisements, despite Facebook's sole focus on ads when the company first announced it had been compromised in 2017.
Other findings in the studies:
— During the week of the presidential election, posts directed to right-leaning users aimed to generate anger and suspicion and hinted at voter fraud, while posts targeted to African-Americans largely ignored mentions of the election until the last minute.
— Establishment figures of both parties, especially Clinton, were universally panned. Even a tag targeted to feminists criticized Clinton and promoted her primary opponent, independent Bernie Sanders;
— Several posts promoted the Russian agenda in Syria and Syrian President Bashar Assad.
— IRA's posts focused on the United States started on Twitter as far back as 2013, and eventually evolved into the multi-platform strategy.
— Russian activity on Twitter was less organized around themes like race or partisanship but more driven by local and current events and made use of occasional pop culture references.
— Facebook posts linked to the IRA "reveal a nuanced and deep knowledge of American culture, media, and influencers in each community the IRA targeted." Certain memes appeared on pages targeted to younger people but not older people. "The IRA was fluent in American trolling culture," the researchers say.