Europe/Americas update: June 19-20 2017


This is still sort of breaking so it goes first:

Belgian soldiers have shot a man suspected of being a would-be suicide bomber at Brussels Central Station, officials say.

He was shot after reportedly setting off a small explosion and no-one else is believed to have been injured.

Prosecutors later said the man had died. They are treating the incident as a terrorist attack.

This seems like it might be a lone wolf case, in part due to how inept the attempt seems to have been. In that case it will be interesting to see if ISIS claims credit for a bust. If this attempt was directed by ISIS, however, there’s a decent likelihood of some kind of follow-on attack in fairly short order.



Maybe money can’t buy you love, but apparently it can buy you some useful friends:

Greece has blocked a European Union statement at the United Nations criticising China’s human rights record, a decision EU diplomats said undermined efforts to confront Beijing’s crackdown on activists and dissidents.

The EU, which seeks to promote free speech and end capital punishment around the world, was due to make its statement last week at the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, but failed to win the necessary agreement from all 28 EU states.

It marked the first time the EU had failed to make its statement at the U.N.’s top rights body, rights groups Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch said.

Greece called the statement “unconstructive,” but it seems likely that Athens was more motivated by the fact that China’s COSCO shipping firm bought 51 percent of Greece’s Piraeus port last year.


A new Pew Research poll finds that Russians are increasingly skeptical that President Vladimir Putin is going to do anything about corruption, but they’re maybe OK with that because they think he’s kicking ass all over the world. A whopping 87 percent have some or a lot of confidence in Putin’s foreign policy, and 59 percent say Russia is playing a greater role in the world today than it did 10 years ago. That must be what’s fueling Russians’ feeling of confidence about the country’s direction (58 percent are happy with it, a figure that’s been relatively consistent since Pew’s 2014 survey), because on many other issues Putin’s support is dropping:

On other foreign relations matters, approval has dropped similarly. Putin’s handling of relations with the U.S. dropped from 85% in 2015, when Barack Obama was still U.S. president, to 73% in the first months of the Donald Trump administration. His handling of relations with the European Union dropped 15 points in two years, to 67%. And the share that approves of the Russian president’s handling of relations with Ukraine has dropped by 20 points since the annexation of Crimea three years ago (83% in 2015, 63% in 2017).

On domestic issues, Putin’s ratings have slipped in the areas of energy policy (from 73% approval in 2015 to 60% today) and the economy (from 70% to 55%). Putin’s marks for reducing corruption have also fallen over the past two years, from 62% to 49%. A 57% majority approves of Putin’s approach to civil society (the question was asked for the first time this year).

There’s a lot of interesting information in that survey, but from this blog’s usual perspective, I think the way Russians approach Putin’s intervention in Syria is of most value:

With regard to Syria, a plurality (46%) of Russians want their country’s military involvement to remain unchanged. This compares with roughly a third (34%) who would prefer that Russia curtail its involvement and just 11% who would like to see their military become more engaged in the Syrian conflict.

The Kremlin has publicly asserted that regime change in Syria is out of the question. But among the Russian public, views of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are lukewarm at best (45% favorable vs. 21% unfavorable), with many claiming not to recognize his name or refusing to provide an opinion about him (34%).

Keeping Assad in power is a relatively low priority for the Russian public: Just a quarter (25%) believe this should be a top priority. In contrast, clear majorities say limiting civilian casualties (72%) and defeating extremist groups (64%) should be top priorities.

We know Russian public opinion clearly isn’t informing its Syria policy (limiting civilian casualties, yeah sure thing), but it certainly might suggest some give in Russia’s willingness to keep propping Assad up. That’s not groundbreaking, and there have been other signals from Moscow over the past couple of years that its fondness for the Syrian leader might have limits, but it’s still useful information.

In other news, Russian and American planes reportedly flew within five feet of one another over the Baltic Sea near Kaliningrad on Monday. Each country naturally accused the other’s plane of behaving dangerously, but in light of recent events in Syria it seems likely that this was Russia sending a bit of a message to the US.


Screen Shot 2017-06-20 at 11.37.03 PM
President Trump meets with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at the White House on June 20 (YouTube)

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko popped on down to the White House on Tuesday and met with President Donald Trump even though Trump apparently didn’t really want to meet with him. Technically Poroshenko met with Vice President Mike Pence and “dropped in” on Trump, which is diplomatic talk for “I don’t want to actually meet with you because it’ll make the Russians mad but you’re here so we might as well say hi to each other or whatever.” It’s a pretty big snub for the Ukrainian president, made bigger by the fact that Trump went on to butcher his country’s name in perhaps the most insulting manner possible. Nonetheless, Poroshenko said that Trump expressed “strong support” for Ukraine during their chat, so he’s got that going for him. Which is nice.


Romania’s Social Democratic Party, which brought a no confidence motion against its own government in parliament at the end of last week, now may be in danger of losing that vote, which would leave Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu and his cabinet in place. The SDP, which together with its coalition partner controls 247 seats in parliament, was negotiating with the Union of Democratic Hungarians in Romania to get their support for the no confidence vote (the SDP would need 233 votes to remove Grindeanu’s government so it clearly could use some extra cushion to allow for defectors), but those talks collapsed on Tuesday so now it’s not clear they have the votes to oust their own PM. Which is a bit of a weird situation. Grindeanu’s unpopularity is messing with the SDP’s legislative agenda, but he refuses to step down, hence the party’s decision to try to oust him.


Italy’s 5-Star Movement, which is leading in public opinion polls leading to parliamentary elections that have to happen by next May at the latest, seems to be trying to shed its Euroskeptic populist image and move closer to the political mainstream. In particular, it seems to be looking for a way to back off of a promise to hold a referendum on Italy’s continued use of the euro, which doesn’t do much for the party’s international image and may not even be much help domestically in a fairly pro-Europe country like Italy, and instead seems to want to wave the possibility of a referendum around as a tool to leverage Eurozone reforms. 5-Star has been hard to pin down ideologically, as its roots are in environmentalism and direct democracy but it adopted a hardline anti-immigrant position in the past couple of years. Apart from immigration, though, it’s not really clear just how Euroskeptic the party really is.


Yesterday, another apparent lone wolf attacker who had sworn allegiance to ISIS rammed a French police van on the Champs-Élysées and apparently killed himself in the process. The man, who was on a French watchlist, had weapons in his car so it’s safe to say he had planned for his attack to continue beyond ramming the van. Four members of his family have subsequently been arrested.


Brexit talks officially began on Monday with UK Brexit Secretary David Davis confidently demanding that Brussels bow to the whim of the almighty British crown meekly agreeing that the European Union is right and that negotiations must make substantial progress on the UK’s separation from the EU before they can then incorporate, talks about a new long-term trade relationship, even though Davis’s boss has spent months insisting that those two things be negotiated simultaneously. Seriously, it’s been Theresa May’s stance for months that the UK would refuse to negotiate an orderly exit from the EU without also negotiating the new relationship, and her chief negotiator just rolled over on it literally on the first day. If things keep going at this pace Boris Johnson will have to clean toilets at the Louvre by the time the talks are concluded. Then there was this rhetorical wake up call from lead EU negotiator Michel Barnier:

“The UK has asked to leave the EU, not the other way around, so we each have to assume the consequences of our decisions and the consequences are substantial,” he replied, when asked if the EU was making any concessions of its own. “Please do not underestimate those consequences.

“We need to remain calm,” added the former French diplomat. “We are talking about orderly withdrawal first and that makes sense. It’s not something we are asking for in order to get concessions, it’s just a direct consequence of the UK decision.

“I am not in a frame of mind to make concessions or ask for concessions,” he said. “We are looking to unravel 43 years of patiently built relations.”

I wonder if May, Johnson, Michael Gove, et al still believe that the UK can dictate the terms of its EU departure.

Davis’s negotiating position in Brussels is no doubt significantly handicapped by the fact that, while May debased the Conservative Party by crawling to the fringe-of-a-fringe Democratic Unionist Party to save its majority nearly two weeks ago, the DUP is apparently still stringing her along. It would be hard to have scripted a more hilarious way for this all to turn out, but DUP leaders are apparently unhappy with how they’ve been treated in negotiations–really, they seem put out by the fact that there hasn’t been much in the way of negotiations, as I guess May is still trying to maintain some last shreds of dignity by treating DUP as a very junior partner.

As a result, though, parliament will now open with the Queen’s Speech on Wednesday with May as the leader of a minority government., and with possibly with a major protest outside over the Grenfell Park fire. Parliament will vote on Thursday to approve the speech and her cabinet, and, well, I guess it remains to be seen how that vote will go.



Yet another Venezuelan protester was killed by police on Tuesday:

Venezuelans are bracing for a further escalation of violence after a 17-year-old protester was shot dead by the national guard, and the supreme court announced charges against the country’s attorney general – one of the most senior officials to speak out against the government of Nicolás Maduro.

Fabian Urbina died on Monday after security forces opened fire with handguns during clashes with demonstrators on a major highway in Caracas. Initial reports said six others were wounded – one of them critically – in the incident.

The interior minister, Nestor Reverol, confirmed Urbina’s death on Twitter, where he said the cause of death was presumed to be “excessive use of force” and added that those responsible would be “presented to their superiors to determine their responsibility”.

The death toll in these protests is now up over 70. The other news mentioned in that excerpt involves Luisa Ortega Díaz, the country’s attorney general and former Maduro ally who has become one of his fiercest critics. She’s now being investigated by Venezuela’s Maduro-stacked Supreme Court for “serious errors” in the conduct of her job which could lead to some kind of prosecution.


First of all, isn’t this interesting:

The publication of hundreds of thousands of secret US documents leaked by the Aarmy soldier Chelsea Manning in 2010 had no strategic impact on the American war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, a newly released Pentagon analysis concluded.

The main finding of the Department of Defense report, written a year after the breach, was that Manning’s uploading of more than 700,000 secret files to the open information organization WikiLeaks had no significant strategic effect on the US war efforts.

The belated publication of the analysis gives the lie to the official line maintained over several years that the leak had caused serious harm to US national security.

It also puts into context the severe punishment that was meted out to the soldier – 35 years in military prison, the harshest sentence in history for an official leak. And it raises questions about the continuing investigation by the US justice department into the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.

I guess all the people who spent the last several months tearing out their hair over the fact that Barack Obama commuted Manning’s sentence instead of renditioning her to a CIA black site are going to apologize now, right? Yeah, I know.

While we’re on the subject of leaks and who should be punished for them, are you a voter? Then chances are your personal information was freely available to anybody for the first two weeks of June, courtesy of a Republican analytics firm:

In what is the largest known data exposure of its kind, UpGuard’s Cyber Risk Team can now confirm that a misconfigured database containing the sensitive personal details of over 198 million American voters was left exposed to the internet by a firm working on behalf of the Republican National Committee (RNC) in their efforts to elect Donald Trump. The data, which was stored in a publicly accessible cloud server owned by Republican data firm Deep Root Analytics, included 1.1 terabytes of entirely unsecured personal information compiled by DRA and at least two other Republican contractors, TargetPoint Consulting, Inc. and Data Trust. In total, the personal information of potentially near all of America’s 200 million registered voters was exposed, including names, dates of birth, home addresses, phone numbers, and voter registration details, as well as data described as “modeled” voter ethnicities and religions.

This disclosure dwarfs previous breaches of electoral data in Mexico (also discovered by Vickery) and the Philippines by well over 100 million more affected individuals, exposing the personal information of over sixty-one percent of the entire US population.

Manning’s leak exposed potential American war crimes. These assholes splayed everybody’s personal information to all comers out of sheer dumbfuckery. Manning was given 35 years in prison while the people responsible for this mess are unlikely to suffer any repercussions at all.

Finally, there’s a bit of new Trump investigation news tonight: House Democrats are requesting documents related to any work disgraced former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn may have done on behalf of Saudi Arabia. At this point it seems like the list of countries whose money Flynn didn’t take would be shorter than the list of countries whose money he did take, and yet he doesn’t seem to have felt the need to register as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice over any of this work, at least not until he started getting unwanted attention for it. And speaking of people who should be doing time, if Flynn lied about all these gigs in his security clearance paperwork, that sort of thing carries up to five years in prison.

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