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Russia asked to come clean on novichok after Navalny poisoning – The Guardian

Russia is under pressure to reveal details of its novichok chemical weapons programme after Nato called for an impartial international investigation into the “appalling” poisoning of Alexei Navalny.

Nato’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, convened a meeting of member states to discuss the latest findings from Germany on the Russian opposition leader, who collapsed last month on a flight from Siberia to Moscow.

German doctors treating Navalny in Berlin announced on Wednesday he had been poisoned with novichok, a lethal Russian-made nerve agent.

Speaking after the meeting, the Nato spokesperson Piers Cazelet said Moscow had “serious questions” to answer. The attempted assassination of Russia’s leading opposition politician was a breach of international law, he said, adding: “Those responsible [must] be brought to justice.”

He continued: “The use of such a weapon is horrific. Nato allies are united in condemning this attack. It shows a total disrespect for human life. Time and again we have seen critics of the [Vladimir Putin] regime attacked and threatened. Some have been killed.”

Born in 1976 just outside Moscow, Alexei Navalny is a lawyer-turned-campaigner whose Anti-Corruption Foundation investigates the wealth of Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. 

He started out as a Russian nationalist, but emerged as the main leader of Russia’s democratic opposition during the wave of protests that led up to the 2012 presidential election, and has since been a thorn in the Kremlin’s side. 

Navalny is barred from appearing on state television, but has used social media to his advantage. A 2017 documentary accusing the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, of corruption received more than 30m views on YouTube within two months. 

He has been repeatedly arrested and jailed. The European court of human rights ruled that Russia violated Navalny’s rights by holding him under house arrest in 2014. Election officials barred him from running for president in 2018 due to an embezzlement conviction that he claims was politically motivated. Navalny told the commission its decision would be a vote ‘not against me, but against 16,000 people who have nominated me; against 200,000 volunteers who have been canvassing for me‘. 

There has also been a physical price to pay. In April 2017, he was attacked with green dye that nearly blinded him in one eye, and in July 2019 he was taken from jail to hospital with symptoms that one of his doctors said could indicate poisoning. In 2020, he was again hospitalised after a suspected poisoning, and taken to Germany for treatment. The German government later said toxicology results showed Navalny was poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent.


Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/AP

However, the transatlantic alliance stopped short of announcing concrete measures such as sanctions or the expulsion of diplomats. In 2018, it expelled seven Russians attached to Nato following the novichok attack by two Kremlin military intelligence hitmen on Sergei and Yulia Skripal in Salisbury, UK.

Instead, Nato urged Russia to cooperate in an investigation being led by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Cazelet said Moscow should give the OPCW “complete disclosure” of its novichok programme, which Soviet scientists developed in secret laboratories late in the cold war.

There is little prospect of that. Soon after the Skripals’ poisoning, a team of Russian state operatives were arrested after they flew to the Netherlands and tried to hack into the OPCW’s building in The Hague. They were apparently seeking evidence that might be used to discredit the OPCW’s Skripal investigation.

Russia on Friday continued to offer alternative theories for why Navalny fell ill two weeks ago after drinking a cup of tea in Tomsk airport. Alexander Sabayev, the chief toxicologist in Omsk, where Navalny was treated in hospital, said no traces of poison were discovered.

Instead, Sabayev suggested Navalny’s condition might have been caused by dieting, excessive drinking, stress, fatigue, or a “simple lack of breakfast”. Navalny’s press aide, Kira Yarmysh, derided his diagnosis. Sabayev was the “lousiest” toxicologist in Siberia, she tweeted.

The claim is completely at odds with the findings of German experts. According to Der Spiegel, toxicology tests carried out in Munich found traces of novichok in Navalny’s blood, urine and skin as well as on a bottle he had with him when he collapsed on the flight back to Moscow. He was most likely already poisoned when he drank from the bottle, which his relatives kept and passed on to German doctors, it reported.

Novichok refers to a group of nerve agents developed by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s to elude international restrictions on chemical weapons. Like other nerve agents, they are organophosphate compounds, but the chemicals used to make them, and their final structures, are considered classified in the UK, the US and other countries.

The most potent of the novichok substances are considered to be more lethal than VX, the most deadly of the familiar nerve agents, which include sarin, tabun and soman.

Novichok agents work in a similar way, by massively over-stimulating muscles and glands. Treatment for novichok exposure would be the same as for other nerve agents, namely with atropine, diazepam and potentially drugs called oximes.

The chemical structures of novichok agents were made public in 2008 by Vil Mirzayanov, a former Russian scientist living in the US, but the structures have never been publicly confirmed. It is thought they can be made in different forms, including as a dust aerosol.

The novichoks are known as binary agents because they only become lethal  after mixing two otherwise harmless components. According to Mirzayanov, they are 10 to 100 times more toxic than conventional nerve agents.


Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images Europe

The magazine said the finding delivered to Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, and her cabinet on Wednesday was a “political bomb”.

Western leaders have to decide what, if any, punitive steps to take. While there are clear parallels with the Skripal case there are also differences: the attack against Navalny was against a Russian citizen inside Russia. Proof of state involvement is likely to have been destroyed.

The EU says it is considering sanctions against Russia, while Merkel has condemned Moscow in unusually blunt terms, calling the case a crime. On Friday, the UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, spoke to his German counterpart, Heiko Maas. They agreed to work together, including with the OPCW, and to bring Russia to account.

Merkel is under growing domestic pressure to reconsider her support for the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. Critics include politicians from the German Greens, the Free Democratic party and prominent figures in Merkel’s own Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

They argue that a moratorium on the nearly completed twin pipelines would be one of the few ways Berlin can exert pressure on the Kremlin. However, Bavaria’s premier, Markus Söder, insisted the multibillion-euro infrastructure project should not be directly tied to diplomacy. Its completion was a matter for private businesses, he said.

Roderich Kiesewetter, a CDU member on the foreign affairs committee, argued that while Nord Stream 2 was a “massive mistake” Merkel had inherited from her Social Democrat predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, it could not be reversed while Germany also tries to phase out nuclear and coal, and condemns fracking.

“We’ve boxed ourselves in,” he told Berliner Zeitung.

Moscow is unlikely to offer the international community any help over Navalny. Russia’s foreign ministry insists the country does not have a novichok programme and claims it ended its chemical weapons activities in 1992, shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

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Coronavirus Russia

Russia says coronavirus vaccine trials to move forward with 40,000 people – CNN

(CNN)Russia announced on Thursday that it will begin post-registration clinical trials for its Covid-19 vaccine candidate next week — and 40,000 people will participate.

Kirill Dmitriev, CEO of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, said during a telebriefing with journalists that the trials will take place in several countries.
“We’re going to do clinical trials not just in Russia but also the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Philippines, probably in Brazil or in India,” Dmitriev said. He also said that a delegation from the Saudi Ministry of Health would be traveling to Moscow next week.
Experts are skeptical about how quickly the vaccine, named Sputnik V, was registered and how few details about the research have been released.
Dmitriev said on Thursday that Russia would try to answer Western criticism over the lack of information about its vaccine candidate by publishing a detailed science paper in a “major publication” in August. He declined to name the publication where the study would publish.
He also refused to give an exact number for how many people have tested the vaccine already.
So far, Russia hasn’t released any scientific data on its testing and CNN is unable to verify the vaccine’s claims of safety or effectiveness.
The forthcoming clinical trials are to assess the “epidemic efficacy” of the vaccine, Denis Logunov, deputy director for scientific work at the Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, who is developing the Russian Covid-19 vaccine candidate, said on Thursday.
Developed by the Moscow-based Gamaleya Institute, the vaccine was approved by the Russian government before beginning crucial Phase 3 trials in which it would be administered to thousands of people.
Alexander Ginsburg, director of Gamaleya Research Institute of Epidemiology and Microbiology, described on Thursday how the vaccine is given in two doses and involves using uses a different adenovirus for each of the two doses.
Dmitriev said that “Russia is open to international cooperation” and “we do believe that there will be other vaccines coming up and the more vaccines we get the better.”
There are now 30 candidate vaccines in clinical evaluation around the world, according to the World Health Organization. The WHO list classifies the Russian vaccine as being in Phase 1 trials.

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Russia offered help with coronavirus vaccine, US declined: report | TheHill – The Hill

Russia offered to help the U.S. with the coronavirus vaccine, but the U.S. declined, Russian officials told CNN Thursday. 

Russian officials told the network that they proposed “unprecedented cooperation” with the U.S.’s Operation Warp Speed, the initiative to develop a COVID-19 vaccine. But the Russian officials said the “U.S. is not currently open” to their assistance. 

“There is a general sense of mistrust of Russia on the American side and we believe that technologies — including vaccine, testing and treatments — are not being adopted in US because of that mistrust,” a senior Russian official told CNN.

U.S. officials told CNN that Russia’s vaccine is not considered to be well-developed, with one American public health official saying, “There’s no way in hell the US tries this (Russian vaccine) on monkeys, let alone people.”

The report comes after Russia announced Tuesday that it had created a COVID-19 vaccine and Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinRussia says coronavirus vaccine will be ready for doctors in two weeks Democrats ramp up warnings on Russian election meddling Fauci: ‘I seriously doubt’ Russia’s coronavirus vaccine is safe and effective MORE said his daughter had taken it.

Russian officials told CNN that the country remains willing to give information about the vaccine and permit U.S. pharmaceutical companies to develop it. Some American firms are interested in the vaccine, but their names have not been released, according to the news source.

The Russian officials said the U.S. should “seriously consider adopting” the vaccine named Sputnik V.

“If our vaccine proves to be one of the most effective, questions will be asked why the US did not explore this option any deeper, why politics got in way of access to a vaccine,” one senior Russian official told the network.

Experts have expressed doubts about the effectiveness of Russia’s vaccine as the country has not released its testing data and made the vaccine available before completing the third phase of testing, which was slated to begin Wednesday. 

Still, Russia reports at least 20 countries in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia have said they are interested in the vaccine. 

White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany said Thursday the president was briefed on the vaccine but said that U.S. vaccines go through “rigorous” testing.

A senior American official and adviser to the government told CNN the U.S. does not have any procured samples of the Russia vaccine.

“They have enough disease now in Russia that they could conduct clinical trials but they don’t appear to have done that at a large enough scale,” the adviser said. “There have been no trials of this vaccine. They’ve done too little work on humans to decide if it works on a larger scale. We’re talking totally inadequate safety data.”

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Russia unveils coronavirus vaccine ‘Sputnik V,’ claiming breakthrough in global race before final testing complete – The Washington Post

But Russia’s hard charge toward a potential vaccine has raised alarm among global health experts that the country is jumping dangerously ahead of critical, large-scale testing that is essential to determine if a possible protection against the coronavirus is safe and effective. Few details of the Gamaleya research have been made public or have undergone peer review.

Russia’s Health Ministry did not respond to requests for comment, and the Gamaleya Institute referred an interview request to the ministry.

Konstantin Chumakov, a member of the Global Virus Network, an international coalition working on viral threats, said “it is scientifically impossible to prove efficacy” without widespread trials, known as Phase 3.

“Using it in general population before the results of Phase 3 trials are fully studied is a gamble,” he said. “A Russian roulette, if you will.”

Cold War namesake

The vaccine is named Sputnik V, a reference to the first orbital satellite, which was launched by the Soviet Union in 1957 and set off the global space race. The name also evokes how Putin’s government has seen the vaccine race as a point of national pride and competition on a global scale, with labs in the United States, Europe, China and elsewhere also in the hunt for a potential vaccine.

“Of course, what counts most is for us to be able to ensure the unconditional safety of the use of this vaccine and its efficiency in the future. I hope that this will be accomplished,” Putin said at a meeting with government members Tuesday, adding that one of his two daughters had received the potential Gamaleya vaccine. He didn’t identify which daughter.

The aggressive strategy from a country eager to declare a victory amid one of the worst outbreaks in the world has been criticized by outside scientists who worry that shots could be harmful or give people a false sense of security about their immunity. China has already authorized one vaccine for use in its military, ahead of definitive data that it is safe and effective.

“This is changing the rules. This is cutting corners,” said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s a major development, and it starts with Putin. He needs a win.

“It’s hearkening [back to] the Sputnik moment,” he added. “It’s harking back to the glory days of Russian science; it’s putting the Russian propaganda machine into full gear. I think this could backfire.”

Race to be first

The international jockeying to find a vaccine has sharpened concerns about vaccine nationalism, in which countries’ need to declare victory over the pandemic could bypass long-standing safeguards to protect people from unproven medical products by ensuring that their benefits outweigh the risks.

For Russia, leading the vaccine race is an avenue for greater geopolitical clout. But the country is also looking to avoid appearing dependent on Western powers, with whom relations are historically poor, analysts said.

Last month, security officials from the United States, Britain and Canada accused hackers linked to a Russian intelligence service of trying to steal information from researchers working to produce coronavirus vaccines in those countries.

Russian officials denied that, and Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund that bankrolled the country’s vaccination effort, dismissed international scrutiny of Russia’s own vaccine efforts as political.

“For countries, it’s difficult to acknowledge that, ‘How is it possible that Russia, which has been always shown as this backward, authoritarian country, can do this?’ ” Dmitriev said last week.

Dmitriev said Russia has received preliminary applications for more than 1 billion doses of the vaccine from 20 countries and is prepared to manufacture more than 500 million doses of the vaccine per year in five countries.

Russia’s move could potentially increase political pressure on other countries to take a similar bet on an unproven vaccine.

That’s a huge concern because any adverse effects from the vaccine are far less likely to be transparently reported if it is given outside of a rigorous trial. There’s also concern, Morrison said, that people will be coerced to take an unproven and potentially dangerous vaccine to keep their jobs.

“We’re seeing, in all countries, the tension between the political need to demonstrate to the public you’re doing something useful and the scientific hesitancy to only act when a vaccine is shown to be safe and effective,” said Mark Poznansky, director of the Vaccine and Immunotherapy Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Limited testing

At a congressional hearing this month, Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, testified that it would be problematic if countries made a vaccine available before extensive testing.

“I do hope that the Chinese and the Russians are actually testing the vaccine before they are administering the vaccine to anyone, because claims of having a vaccine ready to distribute before you do testing, I think, is problematic at best,” Fauci said.

Driven by the urgency of the pandemic, countries around the world are placing massive advance orders for vaccines and spending billions of dollars to help companies scale up production before they are proven safe and effective.

The risk is mainly a financial one — if the vaccines do not succeed in large-scale clinical trials, they will not be used.

The leading Russian vaccine candidate has so far been tested in small, early clinical trials designed to find the right dose and assess any safety concerns. It was given to scientists who developed it, in self-experimentation that is unusual in modern science, as well as to 50 members of the Russian military and a handful of other volunteers.

Dmitriev said Russia will go ahead with Phase 3, a larger trial involving thousands of participants normally considered an essential precursor to receive regulatory approval. Parallel trials are planned in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and possibly Brazil and the Philippines, he said.

The southern Brazilian state of Paraná announced that it will begin producing the possible Russian vaccine in November.

Russia also intends to start using the potential vaccine on willing front-line medical workers and teachers, who will be asked to document how they’re feeling. But while Russian officials have repeatedly assured that the vaccine is safe, Dmitriev was unable to say if it was tested on someone already infected with the coronavirus. Some vaccines, like one developed for dengue fever and used in the Philippines, can make the disease more severe.

“We will have tens of thousands of people already vaccinated like this in August,” Dmitriev said.

The World Health Organization still lists the Gamaleya vaccine as being in Phase 1.

“We are in close contact with Russian health authorities and discussions are ongoing with respect to possible WHO prequalification of the vaccine,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said at a briefing in Geneva.

“But again,” he continued, “prequalification of any vaccine includes the rigorous review and assessment of all required safety and efficacy data.”

Lack of transparency

Most of what outside scientists know about the experimental vaccine is from secondhand sources and not from published medical studies. Dmitriev acknowledged that while that may be unusual elsewhere, Russia is traditionally secretive in its scientific endeavors.

The results from Phases 1 and 2 will be published by the end of this month, he said, adding that the delay came from waiting for formal registration.

“You have to think a little bit about the Russian system; after Sputnik was flying for five days, only on Day 5 did Russia acknowledge that there is a satellite flying,” he said.

Russia’s vaccine uses two doses to deliver different harmless cold viruses, or adenoviruses, that have been engineered to carry into cells the gene for the spiky protein that studs the outside of the coronavirus.

The approach was inspired by the Ebola vaccines Gamaleya developed in 2015 and 2018. But while Putin boasted earlier this year that Russia’s Ebola vaccine “proved to be the most effective in the world,” the WHO still lists it as a “candidate vaccine” on its website.

Adenoviruses are also being used by scientists at the pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson, the Chinese company CanSino Biologics and the University of Oxford in their vaccine candidates.

But those other efforts have published data on how vaccines perform in animals ranging from mice to monkeys, and also presented data from early human trials showing the severity of any reactions, ranging from soreness at the injection site to fevers.

The CanSino vaccine uses one of the same harmless viruses the Russians are using in its vaccine, and its results have been disappointing to some scientists.

Dmitriev said his personal confidence in Russia’s vaccine was so high that he, his wife and his parents, both over the age of 70, were test subjects. He said just his wife reported a mild fever the first night of the injection.

“It’s not some crazy Russians using some crazy not proven stuff,” Dmitriev said. “Adenovirus existed with humans for thousands of years, and we made a bet on this proven platform because we understand that it takes very little time to develop, given the challenges.”

Johnson reported from Washington. Terrence McCoy in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this report.

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U.S. intelligence says Russia seeking to boost Trump’s re-election bid – CBS News

U.S. intelligence says Russia seeking to boost Trump’s re-election bid – CBS News
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Coronavirus Russia

Coronavirus: Russia plans mass vaccination campaign in October – BBC News

A scientist prepares samples during development of a vaccine against the coronavirus at a laboratory of Biocad in Saint Petersburg, Russia June 11, 2src2src

Image copyright
Reuters

Image caption

More than 100 possible coronavirus vaccines are being developed around the world

Russian health authorities are preparing to start a mass vaccination campaign against coronavirus in October, the health minister has said.

Russian media quoted Mikhail Murashko as saying that doctors and teachers would be the first to receive the vaccine.

Reuters, citing anonymous sources, said Russia’s first potential vaccine would be approved by regulators this month.

However, some experts are concerned at Russia’s fast-track approach.

On Friday, the leading infectious disease expert in the US, Dr Anthony Fauci, said he hoped that Russia – and China – were “actually testing the vaccine” before administering them to anyone.

Dr Fauci has said that the US should have a “safe and effective” vaccine by the end of this year.

“I do not believe that there will be vaccines so far ahead of us that we will have to depend on other countries to get us vaccines,” he told US lawmakers.

Scores of possible coronavirus vaccines are being developed around the world and more than 20 are currently in clinical trials.

Mr Murashko, quoted by Interfax news agency, said that the Gamaleya Institute, a research facility in Moscow, had finished clinical trials of a vaccine and that paperwork was being prepared to register it.

“We plan wider vaccinations for October,” he said, adding that teachers and doctors would be the first to receive it.

Last month, Russian scientists said that early-stage trials of an adenovirus-based vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Institute had been completed and that the results were a success.

Image copyright
EPA

Image caption

On 15 July Russian scientists announced that early-stage trials of a vaccine developed by the Gamaleya Institute had been completed

Last month the UK, US and Canada security services said a Russian hacking group had targeted various organisations involved in Covid-19 vaccine development, with the likely intention of stealing information.

The UK’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) said it was more than 95% certain that the group called APT29 – also known as The Dukes or Cozy Bear – was part of Russian intelligence services.

Russia’s ambassador to the UK, Andrei Kelin, rejected the accusation, telling the BBC that there was “no sense in it”.

In the UK, trials of a vaccine developed by Oxford University have shown that it can trigger an immune response and a deal has been signed with AstraZeneca to supply 100 million doses in Britain alone.

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Media captionCoronavirus vaccine: How close are we and who will get it?

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Russia report: UK considers tougher security laws after criticism by MPs – BBC News

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Media captionKeir Starmer questions Boris Johnson on the Russia report in parliament

Ministers are considering strengthening security laws after a report by MPs accused them of underestimating the threat of Russian interference.

Home Office Minister James Brokenshire said foreign agents could be required to register in the UK in future.

He told MPs that this and other “new offences and powers” for dealing with foreign spies were being looked at.

Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer accused the government of complacency and leaving a “serious gap in our defences”.

Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir said the government had “delayed” legislation to help counter Russian interference, despite acknowledging 18 months ago that existing powers were insufficient.

“The PM sat on this report for 10 months and failed to plug a gap in our law in national security,” he said.

“How is the PM going to address that gap and meet the threat with the joined-up, robust response it deserves?”

Boris Johnson said there was no other country in the Western world that was more “vigilant” about Russian interference, pointing to recent sanctions against Russian officials involved in human rights abuses and proposed laws to protect critical infrastructure and intellectual property.

“Let us be in no doubt about what this is all about,” he said.

“It is about pressure from the Islingtonian remainers who have seized on this report to try and give the impression that Russian interference was somehow responsible for Brexit.

“The people of this country did not vote to leave the EU because of pressure from Russia.”

The Intelligence and Security Committee report claimed the government made no effort to investigate claims of Russian interference in the EU referendum and criticised intelligence agencies for not prioritising the issue.

The government has said an inquiry is not necessary as it has “seen no evidence of successful interference”.

‘Additional powers’

But ministers are listening to calls from all parties to do more to counter Russian espionage and subversion after the UK was described the main target after the US and Nato.

Plans to make foreign agents register were mentioned in the government’s legislative agenda last December, and were previously announced by former home secretary Sajid Javid in May last year.

In response to an urgent question from Labour in the House of Commons, Mr Brokenshire said the UK would consider strengthening the Official Secrets Act and tightening rules on investment visas.

“Let there be no doubt, we are unafraid to act where necessary to protect the UK and our allies.”

If you do not seek, you do not find.

Whether deliberate or deficient, the Intelligence and Security Committee’s very long-awaited report outlines gaping holes in the UK’s handling of the threat from Russia.

For years, it seems a lack of priority, and a lack of curiosity, allowed the risks to go unmonitored, if not to go unchecked.

The UK government has now stiffened its attitude to Putin’s Russia.

Read Laura’s full blog

But shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the “conscious” decision not to consider whether they was any attempt to manipulate the Brexit vote spoke volumes.

Urging ministers to treat the issue with the “seriousness it deserves”, he added: “I thank the security services for the work they do but they need help. This report makes clear they have not received the strategic support, legislative tools or resources necessary to defend our interests.”

In its 50-page report, the ISC said the UK was “clearly a target” for disinformation campaigns around its elections, but that the issue was described as a “hot potato”, with no one organisation taking a lead to tackle it.

Image copyright
Reuters

Image caption

Russia has dismissed the report as Russophobia

The committee suggested a new Espionage Act could help prevent individuals acting on behalf of a foreign power from concealing their links with that country.

It said an obligation similar to that in the US – where agents are required to register with the Justice department – would “clearly be valuable in countering Russian influence in the UK”.

ISC member Kevan Jones said he was concerned that the Law Commission, which was asked last year to look at the legal issues regarding such a move, had yet to release its findings.

“Can I urge the minister to make sure we actually gets this legislation in place because it is needed,” he said. “Let’s hope it is not just some spin to get the headlines.”

Downing Street was accused of holding back the ISC report ahead of December’s UK election and for delaying its nominations to set up the new committee – both claims it has denied.

Its chair Julian Lewis, who was stripped of the Conservative whip after defying No 10 by standing for its leadership, sought reassurances that Downing Street special advisers would not be able to interfere with its work

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U.K. Ignored Russia’s Interference in Democratic System, Report Finds – The New York Times

Russian efforts to interfere in the British political system were widely ignored by successive governments, according to a long-awaited report by Parliament.

Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

Mark LandlerStephen Castle

LONDON — Russia has mounted a prolonged, sophisticated campaign to undermine Britain’s democracy and corrupt its politics, while successive British governments have looked the other way, according to a long-delayed report released on Tuesday by a British parliamentary committee.

From meddling in elections and spreading disinformation to funneling dirty money and employing members of the House of Lords, the Russians have tried to co-opt politicians and corrode institutions, often with little resistance from law enforcement or intelligence agencies that ignored years of warning signs.

The report, in many ways harder on British officials than the Russians, did not answer the question of whether Russia swayed one of the most consequential votes in modern British history: the 2016 referendum on leaving the European Union. But it was unforgiving about who is protecting British democracy.

“No one is,” the report’s authors said.

“The outrage isn’t if there is interference,” said Kevan Jones, a Labour Party member of Parliament who served on the intelligence committee that released the report. “The outrage is no one wanted to know if there was interference.”

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Credit…Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The report also landed in the heat of an American presidential election, shadowed by questions about ties between President Trump and Russia, as well as fears of renewed foreign tampering, not just by Russia, but also by China and Iran.

The committee’s account characterized Russia as a reckless country bent on recapturing its status as a “great power,” primarily by destabilizing those in the West. “The security threat posed by Russia is difficult for the West to manage as, in our view and that of many others, it appears fundamentally nihilistic,” the authors said.

Experts said the report showed parallels between Britain and the United States in the failure to pick up warning signs, but also important differences. The F.B.I. and other American agencies, they said, had investigated election interference more aggressively than their British counterparts, while the British were ahead of the United States in scrutinizing how Russian money had corrupted politics.

“This is one of the pieces that is not really well understood in the U.S.,” said Laura Rosenberger, director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which tracks Russian disinformation efforts in the United States. “Whether there is dirty Russian money that has flowed into our political system.”

The report described how British politicians had welcomed oligarchs to London, allowing them to launder their illicit money through what it called the London “laundromat.” A growth industry of “enablers” — lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, and public relations consultants — sprang up to serve their needs.

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Credit…Andrew Testa for The New York Times

These people, the report said, “played a role, wittingly or unwittingly, in the extension of Russian influence which is often linked to promoting the nefarious interests of the Russian state.”

Several members of the House of Lords, the report said, had business interests linked to Russia or worked for companies with Russian ties. It urged an investigation of them, though it did not name any names. That information, as well as the names of politicians who received donations, was redacted from the public report, along with other sensitive intelligence.

“The most disturbing thing is the recognition of what the Russian government has gotten away, under our eyes,” said William F. Browder, an American-born British financier who has worked extensively in Russia and provided evidence to the committee. “The government, and particularly law enforcement, has been toothless.”

The report painted a picture of years of Russian interference through disinformation spread by traditional media outlets, like the cable-TV channel RT, and by the use of internet bots and trolls. This activity dated back to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, but it was never confronted by the country’s political establishment or by an intelligence community with other priorities.

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Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times

Focused more on clandestine operations, the spy agencies were anxious to keep their distance from political campaigns, regarding them as a “hot potato,” the report said. Nor was it clear who in the government was in charge of countering the Russian threat to destabilize Britain’s political process. “It has been surprisingly difficult to establish who has responsibility for what,” the report said.

Despite pressing questions, the report said the government had shown little interest in investigating whether the Brexit referendum was targeted by Russia. The government responded that it had “seen no evidence of successful interference in the E.U. referendum” and dismissed the need for further investigation.

But the committee suggested that the reason no evidence had been uncovered was because nobody had looked for it.

“In response to our request for written evidence at the outset of the inquiry, MI5 initially provided just six lines of text,” the committee said. Had the intelligence agencies conducted a threat assessment before the vote, it added, it was “inconceivable” that they would not have concluded there was a Russian threat.

Among the report’s most politically salient conclusions might be about a Russian influence campaign during the Scottish independence referendum. Nationalist sentiment is surging again in Scotland, partly because many voters consider the Scottish authorities to have handled the coronavirus pandemic better than the government in England. Based on its previous behavior, some experts said, Russia would try again to encourage the fracturing of the United Kingdom.

“That obviously has implications for next year’s Scottish elections, and the polling on referendums,” said Bronwen Maddox, director of the Institute for Government, a research institute in London. “All this is very, very relevant.”

Concerns about Russian meddling and aggression stretch back more than a decade to the death in 2006 of Alexander V. Litvinenko, a former K.G.B. officer and critic of the Kremlin, who was killed in London using a radioactive poison, polonium-210, believed to have been administered in a cup of tea. An inquiry concluded that his killing “was probably approved” by President Vladimir V. Putin.

In 2018, another former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his 33-year-old daughter, Yulia, were found seriously ill on a bench in Salisbury, after a poisoning attack that left them hospitalized for weeks. Britain accused two Russians of using a rare nerve agent to try to kill Mr. Skripal, and expelled 23 Russian diplomats in retaliation.

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Although the report was approved by Downing Street in 2019, its release was held up before the election that gave Mr. Johnson his decisive parliamentary majority. Critics said he had been compromised by donations to his party from wealthy Russians living in Britain and they argued that the report was delayed unnecessarily.

After the election, there was a second delay while Downing Street agreed on the membership of a new Intelligence and Security Committee.

While the publicly available part of the report unearthed little new material, one expert said that it underscored the need to widen the focus and improve the coordination of Britain’s intelligence apparatus.

“We did know most of this,” said Martin Innes, director of the Crime and Security Research Institute at Cardiff University, “but people were not joining the dots and seeing that quite a serious situation was developing.”

“What Russia wants is to be able to play great power politics,” Professor Innes said. “And one of the ways of doing that is by destabilizing the U.K. and some of its close allies to create that space to maneuver.”

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Russia Is Trying to Beat the West to a Covid-19 Vaccine – Bloomberg

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NASA chief says Russia ties ‘solid’ as Moscow’s space chief rejects U.S.-led moon program – Reuters

FILE PHOTO: NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine talks to the media during a prelaunch briefing before the launch of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft on a Falcon 9 booster rocket from Pad39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S., May 29, 2020. REUTERS/Steve Nesius

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said Tuesday he still expected support from Russia’s space corporation in its Artemis moon program despite Moscow’s space chief slamming the U.S.-led lunar effort.

Bridenstine said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday “the relationship between NASA and Roscosmos is solid” and emphasized that international partners will play a key role in NASA’s plan to land humans on the lunar surface by 2024 and construct a space station orbiting the moon.

“I’ve got a good relationship with Dmitri Rogozin, so I’m hopeful that there are opportunities for us to continue to collaborate,” Bridenstine said, referring to the general director of Russia’s state space corporation Roscosmos. But Rogozin called the moon program in an interview with Komsomolskaya Pravda on Monday a “political project” and likened it to NATO, the Western military alliance Russia has long shunned.

“With the lunar project, we are witnessing the departure of our American partners from the principles of cooperation and mutual support that have developed with the ISS,” Rogozin said. “Frankly speaking, we are not interested in participating in such a project.”The Trump administration in May unveiled an international pact called the Artemis Accords, aiming to leverage its existing relationships on the International Space Station and welcoming agreements with “like-minded” countries to help build a long-term presence on the moon under current international space law.

NASA expects Russia to deliver its offer of an airlock for the Lunar Gateway, a planned outpost in lunar orbit to be built by a mix of private companies and countries and a key piece to the Artemis program.

For two decades the U.S. space relationship with Russia has been largely insulated from geopolitics on Earth, party due to NASA’s reliance on Soyuz launch vehicles for trips to the space station. NASA is now preparing to fly its astronauts on new space capsules from SpaceX and Boeing Co.

Reporting by Joey Roulette; editing by Bill Tarrant and Gerry Doyle

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