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Avril Haines takes over as intelligence chief at ‘A Challenging Time’

Greg Myre

As the top U.S. intelligence official for just over a month, Avril Haines has an overflowing inbox.

A massive computer hack blamed on Russia is still under investigation. President Biden has raised the possibility of rejoining a nuclear agreement with Iran. And right before Haines sat down Friday with a team from NPR, for her first interview in office, aides handed out a report she’d just declassified: it said Saudi Arabia’s crown prince was responsible for the brutal 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Haines has taken over after a turbulent time. Former President Donald Trump was frequently at odds with his handpicked national security team when its assessments did not fit his preferred narrative. During his one-term presidency, he had five directors of national intelligence.

“I think it has been a challenging time, particularly for the office of the director of national intelligence,” Haines told NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly, co-host of All Things Considered. “There was a lot of turnover during the last administration and I think, more generally, that intelligence analysis wasn’t necessarily being appreciated in the same way that it normally had been in the past.”

“It looked to me from the outside as if there were political pressures being put on the intelligence community,” she added.

Asked if that was something that could be easily fixed, she said, “Clearly not. I think this is one of those things where it’s so much about the culture of the institution that gets damaged in those moments. And it’s one of the hardest things to course correct.”

Haines did not criticize members of the Trump administration by name, and described her immediate predecessor, John Ratcliffe, as “very good to me, very civil” during the transition in January.

Haines wore a navy blue mask throughout the interview at the Office for the Director of National Intelli-gence, part of a compound that’s hidden away ever-so-slightly from the highways and shopping malls of suburban Washington.

Ties with Biden

She’s had a longstanding working relationship with Biden. Haines became a lawyer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2007, when Biden was a Delaware senator and committee chairman. She followed Biden to the White House, working on the National Security Council when he was vice president. She also served in the No. 2 position at the CIA from 2013-15.

Now she’s going to the White House on weekday mornings to oversee the president’s daily intelligence briefing. She says she’ll be joined by William Burns, the nominee to head the CIA, when he’s confir-med by the Senate, which appears likely within days.

“You have now a president who very much wants to hear what you have to say, regardless of whether or not it’s consistent with his particular policy views or any of those things,” said Haines.

The Biden administration is still formulating its approach on several big questions, such as how to deal with a more assertive China, and how to respond to provocative moves blamed on Russia, like the Solar Winds hack that breached U.S. government and private company computers.

In her first high-profile move, Haines on Friday released a declassified report that said the intelligence community assessed that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “approved an operation in Istanbul, Turkey, to capture or kill Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

The intelligence community reached that conclusion shortly after the 2018 killing of Khashoggi, 59, a columnist for The Washin-gton Post who at the time was based in northern Vir-ginia, not far from Haines’ office. But the Trump adm-inistration refused to rel-ease a report despite legislation requiring it to do so.

Saudi Arabia rejected the finding as “negative, false and unacceptable.” But Biden has made clear he’s taking a more critical line toward the long-time ally.

The State Department announced a “Khashoggi ban” that placed visa restrictions on 76 Saudis “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas.”

However, the punitive U.S. measures did not directly target the crown prince, who is age 35 and the heir apparent to his father, King Salman, who is 85 and in poor health.

Integrating intelligence

In her new job, Haines oversees all 18 U.S. intelligence agencies. The challenge has been, and remains, synthesizing mounds of intelligence when agencies have such a wide range of missions.

For the past two decades, many national security agencies have focused heavily on foreign terrorist groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State. But the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol dramatically elevated the threat of domestic extremism.

Asked which one now poses the bigger danger, H-aines replied: “I try to resist comparing them, but I think there is no question that the domestic terrorism threat continues to be an increasing challenge for us.”

The ODNI shares its compound with the National Counterterrorism Center. CIA headquarters is just a couple miles down the road. All are focused on foreign threats.

Haines stressed that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security would take the lead on domestic threats. But she added: “We work with (the FBI and DHS) and we pull from them in order to provide the broader picture. The reality is almost every threat that we’re facing today is transnational. It comprises domestic issues and international issues, and terrorism is no different.”

In her previous government jobs, Haines operated behind the scenes. Now that she’s in the top intelligence post, she expects to have some public presence. That will include open testimony in before Congress, a tradition among intelligence officials that withered during the last administration.

“I do want people to know more about the intelligence community, and get used to it, and understand what we do,” she said. But there are limits, she added. “I think it’s a balance. I don’t think it makes sense for the intelligence community to be the voice of the U.S. government.”

Greg Myre is an NPR national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

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What will Biden do if Israel, UAE back MBS in Saudi Arabia?

Taha Kilinc

During an assignment I took on back then, I had joined the Islamic Hajj pilgrimage in 2016 as an official guest of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. After performing the basics of the pilgrimage, a feast was organized on the second day of Eid al-Adha, bringing together all foreign guests at King Salman’s palace in Mina. Following certain security procedures involving intense security checks, our hands constantly being sanitized, and cellphones and cameras being forbidden, we were taken into the high-rise hall where the king would individually shake hands with his guests. When it was our turn – in alphabetical order of each guest’s respective country– we stood up and were guided by officials. Once we reached the end of a corridor of flesh formed by unfriendly-looking soldiers clad in uniforms, we shook hands with King Salman. We also shook hands with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, and finally Second Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who was standing to his left. We then moved into to the side hall where the sumptuous tables were waiting for guests.

The scene I witnessed at Mina Place that day, the intensity of security measures surely contained lessons learned from when King Faisal was assassinated by his own nephew during a similar event at his palace in Riyadh on March 25, 1975. While 1975 might seem like ancient history, Faisal was Salman’s brother after all; neither he nor the Saudi state mind forgot this assassination. One other point that did not go unnoticed during the event was the confidence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. Back then, he was the most important figure in Saudi Arabia after King Salman.

Mohammed bin Nayef was the son of King Salman’s brother, Prince Nayef. Prince Nayef, who served as interior minister from 1975 to his death in 2012, had stood out with his fight against dissident organizations in the country, and especially against al Qaida. Following the death of Nayef, who also served as crown prince for a few months between 2011 and 2012, his son Prince Mohammed became interior minister. As the prince worked for many years as his father’s right-hand man during his term as minister, he developed close relations with the American intelligence in particular. Thus, in the spring of 2015, King Salman designating Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as crown prince was received on a positive note in Washington and other global capitals. However, one person was not happy: Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed. Bin Zayed hated Bin Nayef so much, that according to a 2003 WikiLeaks document, he had even said in reference to the Saudi prince and his father, “Darwin was right!” (about humans descending from apes). Of course, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef was aware of this animosity, and he had already started planning the measures he would be taking when he would one day assume the throne. However, he was the one who lost. King Salman dismissed his own nephew on June 21, 2017, replacing him with his son Mohammed bin Salman. Mohammed bin Nayef has been under house arrest since then.

United Arab Emirates (UAE) Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed had always wanted Mohammed bin Salman to become crown prince. With Donald Trump winning the U.S. presidential election, the foundation was laid for the operation that would be conducted against the Saudi throne. The necessary changes in Riyadh were made through the aid of the White House connections provided by UAE Ambassador to Washington Yousef al Otaibah. Once the process – which also involved Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner – was complete, the Middle East had a new political player: Mohammed bin Salman. Had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 elections, we probably would have seen Mohammed bin Nayef at King Salman’s side – or perhaps, even on the throne. Of course, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi would have also been alive. He would not have been murdered at Saudi Arabia’s consulate building in Istanbul, with his body dissected and burned in the furnace.

It is a known fact that the new U.S. administration prefers Mohammed bin Nayef or King Salman’s brother Prince Ahmad as crown prince. However, there is now one other obstacle preventing them from escaping Mohammed bin Salman: Israel. In order to pick up the pieces and put them back together after the “wreck left behind by Trump,” Joe Biden and his team will require the support and cooperation of Israel, which has become Saudi Arabia’s strategic partner in recent years. If a defense line is built for Mohammed bin Salman, including Egypt, in addition to the UAE and Israel, the Biden administration’s area of maneuver would be quite restricted. We will watch and see together what steps they will take.

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New dynamic in the Middle East: Gulf Arab states want to be more independent of US

Ekaterina Blinova

The Biden administration has begun reshuffling Washington’s foreign policy priorities in the Middle East, but the power dynamic in the region has dramatically changed over the past few years, with Gulf Arab states diversifying their strategic partnerships, seeking more equal relations with the US, according to Middle Eastern observers.

Riyadh has completely rejected the “negative, false, and unacceptable assessment” of the American intelligence report released by the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) on 26 February 2021. The document alleged that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman “approved” the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, something the Saudi royal family has resolutely denied.

“The Kingdom rejects any measure that infringes upon its leadership, sovereignty, and the independence of the judicial system”, the Saudi Foreign Ministry said in an official statement, stressing that the monarchy had conducted a thorough investigation into the heinous crime, and tried and convicted the culprits.

Biden’s Two-Fold Goal in Pressuring Saudi Crown Prince

In the wake of the Khashoggi report’s publication, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the America would change its approach to the Saudi kingdom, specifying that Washington does not seek to “rupture the relationship”, but rather to “recalibrate” it.

On Friday, Washington announced sanctions and visa bans targeting 76 Saudi Arabian citizens as part of the country’s new human rights policy. Despite targeting the Saudi crown prince in its intelligence report, Washington did not impose any sanctions against Mohammed bin Salman.

“The preference not to sanction Bin Salman suggests that the administration is attempting to strike a balance between presenting itself publicly as committed to human rights without compromising its relationship with Riyadh and alienating regional allies which the US still need in its pursuit of its interests”, believes Sami Hamdi, an Arab political analyst and head of International Interest, a political risk analysis group.

The primary goal of Biden in pressuring Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is two-fold, according to Hamdi:

· first, “Biden wants to mark a permanent break from the Trump administration and present an image of his administration as a more responsible authority”;

· second, Washington wants “to make an example of Bin Salman to send a wider message to US allies that the new administration expects a return to ‘discipline’ in the region in the pursuit of US interests”.

In short, Biden is sending a signal to Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that Washington is back to fill the power vacuum left in the region by Donald Trump and will seek specific foreign policy goals such as a nuclear deal with Iran, and a negotiated settlement in Yemen, according to the political analyst.

“The Biden administration will more likely be an Obama Act 2”, Hamdi suggests. “While the priorities of Washington will prioritise Asia (and more specifically China), Biden will seek to balance the power dynamics in the Middle East to ensure there is no dominant regional power [there]”.

‘A Whole New Dynamic in the Middle East’

The Biden administration is about to face a whole new dynamic in relations with Gulf Arab players who “want to be more independent of Washington these days”, says Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, professor of Political Science at Emirates University and author of several books, including “The Gulf Moment”.

The Arab Gulf states are trying to diversify their strategic partnerships, going to Asia, to Europe, and to Russia, the professor highlights, adding this is a new pattern that completely differs from what the region used to be some 20, 30 years ago. “I’m not sure that Washington really understands the new realities in this part of the Arab world”, Abdulla remarks.

Thus, Riyadh is maintaining strong trade ties with China, who is the biggest importer of Saudi oil, and developing multi-level working relations with Russia regardless of the US calling the two countries its major geopolitical rivals. The Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah has recently alleged that the Biden administration’s change in tone towards Riyadh may push Saudi Arabia closer to Russia, “at a time in which the kingdom is less confident in the US as a security guarantor”.

“The lesson learned by various Arab regimes, including Saudi Arabia’s, [during the civil war in Syria] was that Russia stands by its allies and partners in the region unlike the US, which more Gulf states began seeing as increasingly unreliable”, the newspaper suggests.

Recalibrating is Common Goal for US and Saudi Arabia

While Washington has signalled its intent to “recalibrate” its relations with Saudi Arabia, Riyadh is also seeking clarity from the US about its foreign policy objectives in the region, notes Dr Hesham Alghannam, Saudi political scientist, Fulbright scholar, and a senior research fellow at the Gulf Research Centre, Cambridge.

“Recalibrating/redefining is a common goal, the Saudis want a responsible America, not a security contractor”, he says. “A clear US policy toward the region as a whole and a clear purpose would help the Saudis to positively engage with [the US]. The Saudis will work with a policy if it’s clear, there will be at least understanding from both sides of/on the differences”.

The Saudi political scientist stresses that Riyadh would also “support a complete solution to the Iranian issue, not to divide it into small chunks”.

“The kingdom is not against positive engagement in any negotiations and talks, however we are against legitimising the actions of Iran across the region”, he points out.

The Biden administration is seeking to return to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal, triggering concerns among Washington’s Gulf and Israeli allies, who earlier hailed Donald Trump’s May 2018 decision to tear the accord apart.

On 25 February, i24NEWS, an Israeli international news channel, reported that the Jewish state is in talks to establish a four-nation defence alliance with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain, citing unnamed Israeli officials. According to the broadcaster, the alleged talks likely came in response to the “growing Iranian threat”. While Israel does not have official diplomatic relations with Riyadh, it earlier signed peace deals with the UAE and Bahrain within the framework of the Trump-brokered Abraham Accords.

“So, the next stage in our relationship [with the US] is not necessarily going to be the same as it was in the old days when America was the absolute super partner and whereby the Gulf states were the junior partners”, suggests Dr Abdulkhaleq Abdulla.

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Fake news, A numb world and A The horizon beyond

Helene Sejlert

In the end of October last year, Internet frothed in rumours that a new war just started in Pakistan. Twitter blasted with imagines alleged to be Karachiites out fighting in the hazardous streets. The hashtag #CivilWarInPakistan spread to a puzzled Pakistani public, seeing burned tyres, tanks rolling into the city and newsflashes stating countless casualties. Even more perplexed were the people sitting at restaurants in the middle of Karachi, munching burgers, while disaster pictures of the street right outside flooded their timelines. It was like watching a prime-time TV-show, with the addition of a thousand funny memes and if it wasn’t such a serious issue to instigate unrest in a nuclear packed area, it would have been opted for as the best entertainment of 2020. The event didn’t stick as truthful this time though and even international media read between the lines and dissected the bogus it turned out to be.

A few weeks later, Pakistan pulled out a Red Line Card from the sleeves and presented a dossier with evidence of Indian supported terrorism on Pakistani soil.

“We are now presenting irrefutable evidence to the world to demonstrate the Indian state’s direct sponsorship of terrorism in Pakistan that has resulted in the deaths of innocent Pakistanis. The international community can no longer turn a blind eye to this rogue behaviour” FM Qureshi

Right after the dossier, the next bombshell hit the headlines. A massive report on the Indian fake news machinery, gobsmacked Pakistan as well as parts of the international community. This report made all other occasions of disinformation suddenly fit into the bigger scheme, and the origins of the “civil war” couldn’t be clearer. It revealed that for almost a generation, India had been waging a hybrid war against Pakistan to intensify its attempts to isolate the latter regionally as well as internationally. In many ways, it was a fruitful war.

According to the report, more than 700 Indian sponsored websites, dispersed across 119 countries, were set up to influence the European Union and the United Nations, with the key objective to destabilise Pakistan. The report exposed a disinformation operation, led by Srivastava Group, that had been in play the last 15 years, with no objections from countries, officials or partners it involved.

The operation’s mission is to discredit nations in conflict with India in Asia, in particular Pakistan but also China to a lesser extent. Its long-term objectives are:

In India, to reinforce pro-Indian and anti-Pakistan (and anti-Chinese) feelings.

Internationally, to consolidate the power and improve the perception of India, to damage the reputation of other countries and ultimately benefit from more support from international institutions such as the EU and the UN. (https://www.disinfo.eu/publications/indian-chronicles-deep-dive-into-a-15-year-operation-targeting-the-eu-and-un-to-serve-indian-interests)

What cracked open and now is under the radar, is not distortion at the usual “troll factory” level. It’s a massive, damaging and continuous attack against Pakistan and a security breech by international institutions, that allowed fake news to dig deep into the heart of their own organisations. The large web of fake NGO’s, phoney news-sites and resurrected people, have all assisted New Delhi, ruled by India’s ultra-nationalist Narendra Modi, in its quest to adjust the narrative. They have operated with no international scrutiny or warning bells ringing.

Fifteen years of disinformation leaves deep scars for the target and Pakistan has paid a high price for being projected as a villain, beggar and of course a vile terrorist nation. It has put Pakistan in a vicious limbo, with a place on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) grey list and in the position of being habitually depicted through a tainted Delhi lens in international media. It also tilted the global attention of the situation in Indian occupied Kashmir, where false news facilitated India’s refusal to comply to international law and enabled rejection of all proposals to hold negotiations.

False flag operations have been launched and used to divert public attention from an endless list of Human Rights violations in Kashmir. “News-anchor” Arnab Goswami’s leaked correspondence before the Pulwama attack, where he bragged about Modi being about to take a big step against Pakistan, is just one example of these staged attacks.

As unpleasant as all these revelations are, they have also opened new windows of possibilities for Pakistan to reshape a planted narrative, with some actions already initiated:

The European Parliament and European institutions have been alerted.

The chair of the NGO committee in ECOSOC has been asked to de-register 10 fake NGOs identified in the Indian chronicles.

The UN human rights apparatus has been notified.

Authorities in Switzerland and Belgium have been “urged to investigate the finances and transparency of the relevant NGOs registered within their jurisdiction”.

Internally, Pakistan is of course not one homogenous entity, but a large country with numerous political associations and people with various aspirations. Some have been scrutinised for their clear anti-Pakistan stance before, but the Indian Chronicles has provided a deep dive into how interconnected they are and also where their loyalty is located. Criticism against policies is of course legit and it contributes to development, but a line needs to be drawn when the dissatisfaction is funded by the same malevolent network that now has been revealed.

“Treason against the US, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid & Comfort”.

Someone that receives money, takes orders from or is given guidelines by an enemy or affiliate that wants destabilisation or even regime change (in his homeland), is not a “political dissident”, but a traitor in most country’s constitution. This distinction needs to be stressed internally as well as to a world that has been saturated by incorrect news and desensitised to whom they entrust to convey news. The risks are tightly intertwined with the chances here, since Pakistan is battling to clear its image on multiple levels. If Pakistan can capitalise on the now laid bare connections and legally and morally expose the harmful activities, it can reduce the internal dispute and offer a better framework for a free and unbiased information provision.

Time is dire and with the irrefutable evidences of Indian sponsored terrorism on Pakistani soil, as well as strong proofs about false flag operations conducted to damage Pakistan and a busted giant fake news conglomerate, there’s more than enough material to influence international bodies. This work has begun and can be emphasised by a bottom-up approach to raise public awareness with the help of a broader network of educated voices inside Pakistan and in the large diaspora.

Externally, not only Pakistan but also the international institutions and governments have been embarrassingly exploited by the disinformation operation. The Indian Chronicles has unveiled glitches in prominent organisations and opened a Pandora’s box of questions. Because, how can the institutions and countries flaunting their supremacy in fields like Human Rights, Equality and International law, be hoodwinked into trusting completely false news, for the staggering period of 15 years? How can an expose like this not shake the very foundations of these institutions, when all they officially stand for has been compromised and harmed? Pakistan has briefed many of these organisations about the magnitude, but much work remains. Change of perceptions come into effect gradually, where right and wrong is weighed during the process. In the example of colonialism, the view of its legitimacy was challenged with an increasingly convincing discourse that displayed the abnormal and illegitimate reality of colonial exercises. As with colonialism, the roots of distortion are deep and don’t end by the mere destruction of a word, but requires a revaluation of the used terminology and eventually the narrative i.e., the roots need to be dealt with.

The recent news that FATF will keep Pakistan on its Grey list at least until June, while many other countries are not even mentioned by the organisation, gives a hint about just how uphill the battle to change a narrative is, but it also leaves an open space to challenge these organisations. This has nothing to do with Pakistan’s prerequisite to solve the tasks imposed by FATF, which are among the toughest conditions any country needed to meet, but everything to do with mentioned organisation’s lack of applying same rules for all nations.

In December, The European Commission’s Vice President, Vera Jourova, said that “EU’s executive arm will propose sanctioning entities who spread disinformation – especially “foreign actors” and suggested to impose a cost on countries engaged in spreading fake news. Her remarks were mainly directed at Russia and China, but then again: – If the EU wants to honour its own guidelines, there has to be an open dialogue about how the EU could be used as a mere tool by this vast entanglement and above all: What can be done to vindicate a victim of propaganda and what arrangements will be done to stop further activities of the sort?

The Indian chronicles has given Pakistan a chance of amendment. As significantly, it has given international organisations and countries an opportunity to scrutinise their own bodies and include India on the watchlists when it comes to terrorism financing and fake news. That is possibly utopian, considering the track record of double standards and bias, but nevertheless it’s what should be asked for. An accountability deficit in International Organisations is not beneficial for anyone.

India has sponsored media, puppet NGO’s, foreign anti-Pakistan groups, people (parliamentarians, “dissidents”, anchors and human rights groups) and staged false flag operations to damage Pakistan’s national interests and reputation abroad. The network has been operational in the core of the UN and EU and managed to bolster a false and harmful discourse, that even escalated the tension between two nuclear powers. That is not a small felony, but a long-term erosion of trust, options and rights for the affected. And it’s a time to bring the matter to a head.

For Pakistan, who needs to work hard to reclaim its image, expose collaborators and build a new narrative. And for the international organisations, the EU, UN and other groups, that were caught red-handed believing and circulating news from shady sources, without any verification, and during 15 long years. Because, it indeed provokes uncomfortable questions when the victim is forced to find ways to exculpate himself and the culprits are still roaming the corridors of power in the EU and UN.

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Biden admin call on Putin pipeline provokes GOP anger

Jonathan Swan

A briefing between t-he State Depart-ment and congressional staff over Vladimir Putin’s Russia-Germany gas pipeline got tense this week, with Biden officials deflecting questions about why they hadn’t moved faster and more aggressively with sanctions to stop its completion.

The Biden officials also denied negotiating with the Germans over a potential side deal to allow the pipeline to be finished.

Why it matters: As we reported earlier this week, some allies are worried that Biden is shaky on Putin’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, and the fight is a significant test of whether the new president’s tough rhetoric against Russia will be matched by action.

Russian opponents, including top officials in the Ukrainian and Polish governments, worry that Biden doesn’t want to antagonize Angela Merkel and won’t inflict serious costs on the Germans.

And members of Congress — both Republicans and Democrats — were underwhelmed by a report that the Biden State Department recently sent to Congress, which only targeted one Russian ship for sanctions. The Trump administration had already sanctioned that ship, the Fortuna.

Behind the scenes: The first call between the senior State Department officials and Republican and Democratic national security staffers from the House and Senate happened on Tuesday.

The Tuesday call was classified and took place from a secure room. A source on the call, and two other sources briefed on that conversation, said the questioning focused on why the Biden administration hadn’t targeted a larger number of ships for sanctions — given, the aides argued, that maritime tracking clearly shows a number of additional ships are working on the pipeline.

The call continued for around half an hour until the line suddenly fell dead from the State Department’s end. While some Republicans on the call initially thought they’d been hung up on, the State Department said this was a technical issue.

Then, on Thursday at 2 p.m., the State Department officials regrouped for a second briefing call, this time non-classified, with senior staff from House and Senate offices.

This call was more contentious, according to three sources who participated. Rising hostility was coming from Republican officials who weren’t satisfied with the responses. The Biden officials seemed to be trying to politely avoid conflict.

At one point during the call, a Republican Senate staffer asked the Biden officials why they hadn’t sanctioned Nord Stream 2 AG — the company in charge of building the pipeline.

The State Department officials responded that they weren’t going to discuss specific entities and that they were still investigating the facts and compiling the evidence.

“We’re talking about the company that owns Nord Stream 2,” the Republican official said sharply, according to the three sources on the call. “I’m on their web page right now and they identify themselves as the company that’s in charge of the planning, construction and operation of the pipeline.”

“You have determined that sanctionable activity was occurring related to the pipeline,” the official continued. “What is the sort of information that you would need to get to confirm for yourself that the company that runs the operation that you just sanctioned is engaged in sanctionable activity?”

State Department officials disputed that the overall tone of the call was hostile, and contended that they had later heard from congressional staffers who described the briefing as useful.

They argued it can take a long time to determine which entities are sanctionable and reiterated that the Biden administration plans to use all available tools to stop the completion of the pipeline.

During the call, Molly Montgomery, the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, denied that the U.S. is negotiating with Germany on a potential side deal to allow the pipeline to proceed.

Reuters reported Friday, citing a German government spokeswoman, that there “is an exchange between the U.S. government and Germany regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to take Russian gas to Europe.” The report did not provide any further details.

State Department officials contended that the word “exchange” shouldn’t be construed as a negotiation and that the Biden administration, in the course of normal diplomatic conversations, had registered its concerns about the pipeline with the Germans.

A senior Senate aide on the call also defended the Biden administration against charges of moving slowly and softly, saying there was bipartisan opposition to the pipeline but the administration “needs to make sure that any sanction meets an evidentiary standard that can stand up in court.”

“Time is short and they are under the gun,” the aide said, “but I think they are trying to avoid the clown car approach by the last administration which did things like sanction the Russian company Rusal, but had to walk it back after they almost collapsed the world aluminum market.”

“Measuring twice to cut once is always sound policy,” the aide added, “especially when there is a sense of urgency to get this right.”

Yes, but: The Trump administration only removed Rusal from its sanctions list after a blacklisted oligarch and Putin pal, Oleg Deripaska, followed through on a commitment to divest his majority ownership stake in the company.

GOP congressional staffers asked the Biden officials to commit to updating the report they’d already delivered Congress with new entities that ought to be sanctioned, but the State Department officials did not commit to doing so.

One of the Biden officials told the congressional staffers that if they had more information about entities involved in the pipeline, they should say what it is.

Earlier this month, bipartisan members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken naming these suspected vessels.

In the recently passed defense bill, Congress mandated that the administration sanction a broad array of activities involved in the pipeline.

The big picture: Pipeline construction halted during the Trump administration after Congress mandated sanctions in a 2019 bill and top Trump officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, issued aggressive threats.

But the Russians resumed major construction on Nord Stream 2 after Biden took office.

The bottom line: The pipeline is more than 90% complete, and could be finished by the summer without a major intervention to stop it.

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Don’t believe the US energy independence hype

Julian Lee

The U.S. is energy independent, right? Well, that’s what some politicians would have you believe, but it’s not really true in any meaningful sense of the word “independent.”

In its broadest sense, energy independence can be taken to mean that the country produces more energy than the country consumes. That is the basis on which politicians make the claim, but it conceals a whole host of mutual dependencies with foreign states that cannot be ignored. I would argue that the situation is more accurately described as self-sufficiency rather than true independence.

In 2019, the U.S. produced more primary energy (principally oil, natural gas, coal, biofuels and some electricity) than it consumed. It was the first time the country had done so since the 1950s, and it’s on that fact that claims of energy independence hang.

The swing has been huge. In 2019, energy production exceeded consumption by the equivalent of 412,000 barrels of oil a day, according to figures from the Energy Information Administration. A decade earlier, consumption outstripped production by the equivalent of 10 million barrels a day. In 2005 the gap was more than 14.5 million barrels.

Talking about “energy” broadly allows politicians to make some tub-thumping statements, but it doesn’t really help our understanding of what this means and, perhaps more importantly, what it doesn’t mean.

Not all energies are the same. Sure there are many things that you can do with any form of primary energy. Coal, oil, natural gas, nuclear power, water, wind and sunlight can all be used to generate electricity with varying degrees of efficiency. But for the most part, you drive your car or pick-up, or fly an airplane, on fuels derived from oil. The British traveler Robert Byron did attempt to cross Persia and Afghanistan in the 1930s with two charcoal-power Rolls Royces — they were not a success.

These differences are important.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the U.S. was still a net importer of oil, including both crude and refined products. The shale boom had already made deep inroads into the country’s need for foreign oil and the slump in demand that followed on the heels of the virus tipped the scales. Last year, for the first time since 1952, the U.S. exported more oil than it imported.

But while the balance had shifted, it didn’t necessarily mean the country has become self-sufficient. The U.S. imported close to 6 million barrels a day of crude last year, more than half as much as it pumped out of the ground at home.

While outbound shipments of refined products stand at about 5 million barrels a day, the country imports about 2 million barrels a day from overseas. And there are some surprising trade partners. Russia is the second-biggest foreign supplier of refined products to the U.S., just behind Canada, and accounted for almost a quarter of the imports in the first 11 months of last year.

Even though the energy statistics from the EIA may indicate that U.S. oil exp-orts have frequently excee-ded imports since the begi-nning of last year, it really isn’t self-sufficient yet.

True independence is even further off.

Events in the Middle East may no longer be as critical for U.S. energy security as they once were, but they remain far from irrelevant. What’s more, the U.S. can play into tensions. With President Joe Biden taking a tougher line than his predecessor toward Persian Gulf ally Saudi Arabia, some people are worried he may put U.S. energy independence at risk.

Physical flows of crude from the Persian Gulf to U.S. shores have dwindled to a trickle, suggesting that a total halt wouldn’t have a dramatic impact and could be offset by increasing purchases form elsewhere or slowly drawing down stra-tegic stockpiles. But events in the region that still pumps close a third of the world’s crude can still roil markets, generating huge swings in oil prices that affect everyone from shale frackers to car drivers.

Until the U.S. can isolate itself from those types of effects, it will never be truly energy independent.

Bloomberg

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Is New Delhi ready to meet Beijing halfway and move ties forward?

Lan Jianxue

Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke with Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on the phone on Thursday. During the conversation, Wang mentioned that India has vacillated and even moved backward over its policy on China, which has affected and disrupted bilateral pragmatic cooperation and is in the interest of neither side.

He also said that mutual trust and cooperation between China and India is the right path for both countries. Jaishankar said the Indian side hopes to strengthen dialogues and consultations with China, and that India would act in a view of the long-term development and the panorama of relations with China.

Recently, it seems that both China and India have released some positive signals to improve bilateral relations.

For example, China and India have achieved a smooth completion of disengagement of frontline troops in the Pangong Lake area.

After the intense standoff, there is bound to be a gradual de-escalation in China-India relations. However, the signal of détente from New Delhi is rather weak, and we need to make an accurate judgment of what this could mean.

During the border skirmish, Beijing displayed firm confidence and strength to safeguard its territorial sovereignty, and New Delhi realized that the confrontation with China on the border area put India in a very dangerous situation. Thus, disengagement could be seen as India taking advantage of this chance to extricate itself from this tense situation.

Yet only when the Indian side truly recognizes its own mistakes in the border standoff, and when the Indian side is truly willing to meet the Chinese side halfway, then such a signal could be a starting point for the two sides to restore their strategic mutual trust.

At present, there are some uncertainties between India and China that could affect bilateral relations. To begin with, whether restraint can be exercised along the border to avoid a repeat of last year’s violent clash.

If it happens again, China-India relations will suffer a heavy blow.

Moreover, whether India will continue its confrontational posture and actions with China remains unknown.

India’s foreign policy has undergone some substantial changes in the past years.

The country has ganged up with some Western countries to contain and interfere with China’s development. These actions have already caused a considerable impact on China-India relations.

China’s attitude toward China-India relations has always been very clear. “We hope the Indian side will work with us to properly manage differences, promote practical cooperation, and get the bilateral relations back on the right track,” said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on January 29.

However, India’s attitude, along with its China policy, keeps changing. This makes it difficult to understand what India plans to do with China-India relations.

Whereas a Cold War mentality pervades India’s strategic circles, some Indian strategists constantly urge the country to seek external enemies to achieve its own interests.

The strategic community in New Delhi, in general, shares an aversion toward Beijing. On Wednesday, Indian Chief of Army Staff MM Naravane has described China as “having been in the habit of creeping forward, making small incremental changes.” Words from politicians like this have undoubtedly increased uncertainties between the two countries.

Since the 2017 Doklam standoff, China-India strategic mutual trust has been severely damaged. It is hard to reestablish high-quality mutual trust between the two.

China and India are neighboring countries, and history tells that there tend to be disputes between big countries.

Whereas India’s policy toward China is currently set on a wrong course, it requires New Delhi to profoundly change its strategy against Beijing before high-quality mutual trust can be regained. But this can hardly be realized in the short term.

Regardless of whether India wants to rebuild mutual trust with China, or to what extent it is willing to do so, China should take the lead to initiate better China-India relations.

We shouldn’t pin much hope on India, but instead we must accept the situation. We should try to improve the China-India relationship when there is an opportunity. But if there is no chance can be seen for now, we should keep calm and wait.

From this perspective, there are two pragmatic choices.

First, differences should be well managed in order to avoid escalating the situation to a risky state like last year. Second, cooperation should be maintained in any area possible while interrupting or hurting each other should be avoided.

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Which scenario in Armenia is best for Turkey, Azerbaijan?

Mehmet Acet

Aman carrying a backpack, wearing a navy coat, a “khaki” colored t-shirt underneath, with an “Adidas” cap on his head, may be thought to be coming from an evening gym session, but instead, on that fateful day, he was attending the most important appointment of his life.

Prime Minister Serzh Sargsyan, then the most prominent figure in the Armenian administration, finally accepted to sit down with him. The two came together at a hotel room, and most importantly, this meeting was broadcast live on television; it was his chance to shine. The man in question was nobody other than the current Armenian prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan.

Though Sargsyan was trying to make it seem like he is ready to reconcile, adopting an attitude that seemed to be saying “I will be the bigger person”, he was no longer able to tolerate Pashinyan’s provocative tone, he stood up and left the meeting saying, “You see, he is blackmailing me.”

This “striking” 2018 event served the interests of the man who put on a show on live broadcast. The era of Sargsyan, the leader of the “Karabakh Clan,” which is used in reference to those who belong to Karabakh, but have established sovereignty in Yerevan, was over. A new era had begun with Pashinyan.

News that arrived from Yerevan on Thursday morning drew our attention once again in curiosity to the South Caucasus and Armenia. The country’s chief of General Staff was calling onto the country’s prime minister to “resign.” As we live in a country whose history is filled with coups, coup attempts, memorandums, and thus we react immediately whenever one of these take place even in places that people would have difficulty locating on the map, hence it’s no surprise that the first reactions to the developments in Yerevan came from Turkey.

Turkey’s indiscriminate rejection of all coup attempts was rapidly activated. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put that on display yesterday by saying, “We are against all sorts of coups. The military taking action, attempting such a coup, is unacceptable.”

Pashinyan, who spoke the day before about his arch-rival Sargsyan’s comment with respect to the need to use Alexandria in the Nagorno Karabakh war, said, “Sargsyan should know the answer to many questions and must not ask questions to which he has the answers. Sargsyan should ask ‘Why is Alexandria not exploding or why is only 10 percent of the missiles exploding?’” He set off a bigger political bomb in place of the non-exploding Alexandria missiles.

The demand for resignation from the military a day later revealed that this memorandum is directly related to this statement. Of course, as the Alexandria missiles are made in Russia, it is only natural to expect that Moscow would “take offense” to such information. The Russian Defense Ministry’s PR efforts the next day by broadcasting images of the same type missiles used in Syria in 2016 (one of which targeted a hospital in Azaz, killing 14 people) was the clearest proof that Russia had taken offense. As this is the case, similar to all other matters concerning Armenia, the first question that springs to mind here is, “Where is Moscow in all this?”

The statement from the Kremlin adopted a “neutral” tone, however, its sincerity is questionable. If a prime ministerial-level statement is made in relation to Russia-made missiles “not exploding,” and if a memorandum is presented the following day, would it not be extra foolish to think there is no Russian involvement?

ARMENIA EXPERT: PASHINYAN REMAINING IN OFFICE MOST IDEAL FOR TURKEY, AZERBAIJAN

Following the developments on Thursday, We called Armenia experts that have in-depth knowledge.

One such expert is Togrul Ismayil, head of Sütçü Imam University Department of Political Sciences and International Relations, who follows Russia and Eurasia, has intriguing answers to what may be the “most ideal” scenario for Armenia’s internal dynamics as well as for both Turkey and Azerbaijan. When we spoke on the day the memorandum was presented, he had the following to say on the matter:

“Pashinyan is a more ideal person compared to the Karabakh Clan. He is the most harmless among Armenian politicians. He is the most decent one at those standards. He was not busy with massacres. Furthermore, supporting West-inclined governments in Armenia and Georgia instead of Russia is better for both Turkey and Azerbaijan.”

Of course, these words do not whitewash Pashinyan. It simply means that if we were to choose from among all evils, he is the lesser evil. We need to think of Pashinyan remaining in office as better than the others alternative that might come to power.

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Will Biden save Pashinian from trouble?

Burhanettin Duran

Armenia’s Prime Minister Nikol Pashinian is in trouble. The country’s military just issued a memorandum urging his government to step down. Describing the ultimatum as a “coup attempt,” Pashinian dismissed the military’s top commander and took to the streets with his supporters. That former President Robert Kocharian and former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukyan endorsed the military’s statement shows that Armenia’s politics are out of control.

Hardly anyone finds it surprising that Armenia, which suffered a humiliating defeat in the second Karabakh war, is experiencing turmoil. Tensions had been building up, as Armenians attempted to find someone to hold responsible for their defeat.

Under heavy pressure, Pashinian infuriated Moscow by claiming that Armenia’s Russian-made ballistic missiles did not work. The military, in turn, blames what happened on the prime minister’s misguided foreign policy.

To be fair, all of those claims are partly true.

Pashinian, a pro-American politician, could not strike a healthy balance between the Russian influence over his country and his government’s policy of closer cooperation with the Western alliance.

Failing to appreciate Azerbaijan’s military preparedness, support from Turkey and active diplomacy with Russia, he ended up making futile calls to Western capitals.

The solution was to hand over Azerbaijan’s sovereign territory, which was under Armenian occupation, to Baku. Instead, Pashinian, suffering from jingoism, started an unwinnable war.

Russian affairs

It is no secret that Armenia’s Russian-made defense equipment proved ineffective against the Turkish armed drones.

For three decades, Azer-baijan made preparations to liberate Nagorno-Kara-bakh, whereas the Armeni-ans planned its defense.

Let’s not underestimate Yerevan’s preparations involving Russian weapons. The Armenians built an impressive line of defense, circling hilltops in mountainous terrain, with tanks and artillery.

Indeed, the Armenian forces dealt heavy blows to Azerbaijan’s military in the early stages. Over the following days, however, armed drones devastated Yerevan’s line of defense and determined the outcome of the war.

Armenia, whose hopes were tied to Russian weapons and political support, is unmistakably disappointed in Moscow’s wartime policy.

Pashinian’s attempt to blame the defeat on Russia, however, disturbed the fragile balance.

Pro-Russian soldiers and politicians thus joined forces to remove the Armenian prime minister from power. Pashinian, who came to power on the back of popular protests in 2018, is unlikely to keep his seat after his humiliation in Nagorno-Karabakh.

He has to choose between resignation, early elections or the threat of a coup, in which the military and the opposition will be complicit – as was the case in Egypt.

Several questions now need answering: Is the Kremlin merely threatening the Armenian prime minister or intent on ending his rule? Or do the Russians want to finish what they started before Joe Biden, the White House’s new resident, takes action?

Will the Joe Biden administration rush to Pashinian’s aid, per its commitment to “defend” democracies? We will soon find out.

Turkey against coups

Whereas Moscow expressed concern and called for a peaceful resolution, Ankara condemned the coup attempt unequivocally. Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavusoglu said that Ankara was “opposed to coups and coup attempts wherever in the world they may take place.”

The Turkish government’s opposition to the coup attempt is, first and foremost, a matter of principle.

That policy is directly related to the fact that Turkey experienced a coup attempt just five years ago.

Moreover, Turks do not want Armenia to suffer from political turmoil or to set the stage for a civil war.

Turkey’s preference is to promote peace, cooperation and economic integration in the South Caucasus. Hence the proposed establishment of a six-party mechanism.

Stability in the Caucasus, the Caspian and Central Asia would facilitate the transportation of energy and trade – which serve Turkey’s interests. The creation of a land corridor between Turkey and the Turkic republics via Nakhchivan, too, is good news for Ankara.

Peace between Azerbaijan and Armenia, normalization between Turkey and Armenia, and Armenia’s reintegration to address its economic problems are key to stability in the Caucasus.

The rise to power of coup plotters, who will launch a new war against Azerbaijan, or Armenia’s deterioration into a failed state due to Russian-American competition, would create many problems, including irregular migration.

It would seem that the coup attempt in Armenia will test the Biden administration’s commitment to containing Russia and defending democracies.

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Greek maritime aggressiveness serves no one

Nagehan Alci

With the start of the diplomatic talks, hope for the end of the Eastern Mediterranean conflict has emerged; however, unfortunately, Greece seems insistent on maintaining its hostile position. Last week, Greece fired on a Turkish research vessel and furthered tensions once more.

The dispute between the two countries stems from three major points.

The first, obviously, is the unequal and unjust distribution of territorial waters. Greece claims huge territories are its own – an assertion that Turkey rejects.

There is also a dispute over certain islands in the Aegean. In addition, there are problems regarding the two countries’ exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the Eastern Mediterranean, while the Cyprus issue has remained unresolved for years. The recent remilitarization of certain previously demilitarized islands by the Greek side also represents the thawing of ties.

In summary, in terms of their own national sovereignty, both sides have many different claims.

A quick look at the map of territorial waters can help reveal the blatantly unjust picture.

Turkey’s territory includes kilometers of shoreline on the Aegean; however, the territorial waters claimed by Greece are much greater than those affiliated with Turkey.

In order to express itself, Turkey introduced the concept of “Blue Homeland,” in which it defends its rights regarding territorial waters according to the size of its territory.

However, Greece has continued with its unjust and aggressive claims.

Indeed, I should note that Greece and Turkey are very close neighbors, and there are no problems between the people of the two countries. The two nations are very similar in culture and share a common history and geography.

Social or political?

Therefore, all the current problems are between the states and politicians. Here, it is worth reiterating that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou are close friends, and overall relations have been good between the two countries during the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party) administration.

The good relations reinforce the fact that Erdogan’s recent reactions to Athens’ aggressive policy do not mean that he has adopted a stance against Greece.

Contrarily, Erdogan is known for his agenda to revive dialogue between the two neighbors.

The Greek harassment of the Turkish research ship has overshadowed the renewed talks for the two countries amid the ongoing maritime dispute.

Ankara said four Greek F-16 fighter jets approached the Turkish TCG Çesme research vessel near the island of Lemnos on Feb. 23. One fighter descended to 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) and dropped flares two nautical miles from the research vessel.

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said that Turkey responded “within the rules” to the provocation.

The Greek harassment was a big blow to the talks planned in early March ahead of the European Union summit.

Let me remind you that the Turkish vessel’s activities do not include ocean floor research, which is consistent with the 1976 Bern Agreement. Athens recently carried out similar activities as well.

Disputes in the region benefit neither Greece nor Turkey. The external powers might benefit from it; however, at the end of the day, it is Turkey and Greece, the two old neighbors, who have to live together. I invite the Greek side to appreciate the value of good dialogue and to drop its hostile attitude toward Ankara.