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Russian Agent Maria Butina Sentenced to 18 Months in Prison

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  • Maria Butina, a Russian operative who conspired to gain access to conservative circles in the U.S. to advance Russian interests, was sentenced to 18 months in prison Friday.
  • In December, Butina pleaded guilty to failing to register as a foreign agent in the U.S. while plotting an influence campaign with a Russian government official that involved infiltrating the NRA and other influential conservative groups.
  • Butina has been in jail since her arrest in July and will receive credit for the 9 months she already served, she will be deported back to Russia once her term is complete.

Maria Butina Sentenced in Federal Court

Russia national Maria Butina was sentenced to 18 months in prison on Friday for conspiring to infiltrate U.S. conservative political circles to promote Russian interests.

Butina pleaded guilty in December to one count of conspiracy to act as a Russian agent in the U.S. without registering with the Department of Justice. She admitted to conspiring with a senior Russian official to access the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other conservative organizations to open backchannel lines of communication.

She also admitted to using her contacts in conservative political circles at the National Rifle Association and at the National Prayer Breakfast to sway U.S. relations with Russia, as part of a broader Russian-influence campaign.

Butina’s efforts started in 2015 and continued until she was arrested and detained in July of 2018. She has been incarcerated since her arrest and will receive credit for the nine months she has already served. Once her sentence is complete, she will be granted her request to be deported to Russia.

The Defense

Before receiving her sentence, Butina said that she never intended on causing harm. She said she came to the U.S. to receive a graduate degree from American University in Washington D.C. because she “wanted a future career in the international policy.”

“At the same time, I wished to mend relations while improving my own resume,” Butina continued, “So I sought to build bridges between my motherland and the country I grew to love.”

Butina claimed that if she had known she needed to register as a foreign agent with the government, she would have done so.

“Though it was not my intention to harm the American people, I did that by not notifying the Attorney General of my actions. I deeply regret these events,” Butina said. “Please accept my apology and allow me to begin again.”

Butina’s lawyers also emphasized these points, describing her activities as “friendship citizen diplomacy” rather than a “nefarious” campaign to infiltrate conservative organizations to advance Russian political interests.

The Prosecution  

On the other side, the prosecution argued that while Butina was not a spy in the traditional sense, she still gathered sensitive information by gaining access to people in the highest places at some of the most influential conservative organizations.

“The value of this information to the Russian Federation is immense,” wrote Assistant U.S. Attorney Erik M. Kenerson, the lead prosecutor for the case. “Such operations can cause great damage to our national security by giving covert agents access to our country and powerful individuals who can influence its direction.”

The prosecution also claimed that Republican operative Paul Erickson, who was also Butina’s boyfriend, connected her with prominent conservatives. The information she received from those individuals, as well as Erickson, was reported back to Russian officials.

Prosecutors argued that Butina’s relationship with Erickson, who is identified as “U.S. Person 1” in court documents, was purely for political gain.

“For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization,” prosecutors wrote last year. “Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1.”

Erickson has not been charged in Butina’s case so far, but he was indicted in February in an unrelated fraud scheme.

The Decision

The prosecution’s arguments were ultimately echoed by U.S. District Judge Tanya S. Chutkan, who oversaw the case. While giving her sentence, Chutkan said Butina was indeed a legitimate graduate student, but concluded that “she was not simply seeking to learn about the U.S. political system.”

“She was seeking to collect information about individuals and organizations that could be helpful to the Russian government,” said Chutkan, “Under the direction of a Russian official and for the benefit of the Russian government, at a time when the Russian government was working to interfere in and affect the American electoral process.”

Chutkan described Butina’s networking with the NRA, efforts to arrange for NRA leadership to visit Russia, and other actions as explicit and intentional attempts to establish backchannel communication lines to promote Russian interests.

“The conduct was sophisticated and penetrated deep into political organizations,” Chutkan said. Chutkan also argued that while Butina’s actions “might” have been legal if she had registered as an agent for the Russian government, the fact that she did not disclose this information was exactly the reason why her actions “were so dangerous and constituted a threat to our democracy.”

Her failure to register, Chutkan asserted, was so harmful because it prevented the government, American University, the NRA, and other groups from understanding exactly what she was doing, and taking actions in response.

“Diplomacy Project”

In her plea papers, Butina stated that she conducted the infiltration campaign under the direction of Alexander Torshin, a former Russian government official and lifetime NRA member.

Butina called the plan “Diplomacy Project,” and described it as an effort to form relationships with people high-up in conservative organizations over the course of multiple years as a way of eventually reaching the Republican winner of the 2016 election.

Butina planned the strategy in March 2015 and intended on specifically targeting gun rights groups, citing the NRA’s influence on the Republican Party.

Ironically, Butina’s sentence comes on the same Donald Trump is attending to massive NRA conference in Indianapolis.

For two years, she attended conferences and events to meet with Republican presidential candidates and those close to them.

She went to NRA conventions, attended Donald Trump’s inaugural ball, organized “friendship dinners” with influential Americans, and arranged for a Russian delegation to attend the distinguished National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.

Butina accessed to those groups by creating a gun rights group in Russia and working as an interpreter for Torshin.

Butina’s sentence marks the first time a Russian national has been convicted for attempting to influence American policy before the 2016 election. However, her case was not handled by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, and she was not one of the 13 Russians named as part the indictments resulting from the Muller Report.

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (NPR) (NBC News)

International

Egypt Seizes Ship That Blocked Suez Canal Until Owners Pay Nearly $1 Billion

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  • Egyptian authorities seized the Ever Given, a mega-ship that blocked the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month, after a judge ruled Wednesday that the owners must pay $900 million in damages.
  • The ship was seized just as it was deemed fit to return to sea after undergoing repairs in the Great Bitter Lake, which sits in the middle of the Suez Canal.
  • The vessel’s owners said little about the verdict, but insurance companies covering the ship pushed back against the $900 million price tag, saying it’s far too much for any damage the ship actually caused.

Ever Given Still in Egypt

An Egyptian court blocked the mega-ship known as the Ever Given from leaving the country Wednesday morning unless its owner pays nearly $1 billion in compensation for damages it caused after blocking the Suez Canal for nearly a week last month.

The Ever Given’s ordeal started when it slammed into the side of the canal and became lodged, which caused billions of dollars worth of goods to be held up on both sides of the canal while crews worked round the clock to free the vessel. An Egyptian judge found that the Ever Given becoming stuck caused not only physical damage to the canal that needed to be paid for but also “reputational” damage to Egypt and the Suez Canal Authority.

The ship’s Japanese owner, Shoei Kisen Kaisha, will need to pay $900 million to free the ship and the cargo it held, both of which were seized by authorities after the ship was transported to the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the canal to undergo now-finished repairs. Shoei Kisen Kaisha doesn’t seem to want to fight the judgment in court just yet. It released a short statement after the ruling, saying that lawyers and insurance companies were working on the claims but refused to comment further.

Pushing Back Against The Claim

While Shoei Kisen Kaisha put in a claim with insurers, those insurance companies aren’t keen on just paying the bill. One of the ship’s insurers, UKP&I, challenged the basis of the $900 million claim, writing in a press release, “The [Suez Canal Authority] has not provided a detailed justification for this extraordinarily large claim, which includes a $300 million claim for a ‘salvage bonus’ and a $300 million claim for ‘loss of reputation.’”

“The grounding resulted in no pollution and no reported injuries. The vessel was re-floated after six days and the Suez Canal promptly resumed their commercial operations.”

It went on to add that the $900 million verdict doesn’t even include payments to the crews that worked to free the ship, meaning that the total price tag of the event could likely be far more for Shoei Kisen Kaisha and the multiple insurance companies it works with.

See what others are saying: (Financial Times) (CNN) (The Telegraph)

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Treated Radioactive Water From Japanese Nuclear Power Plant Will Be Released Into Ocean

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  • The Japanese government confirmed Tuesday that it will officially move forward with plans to dump millions of gallons of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.
  • The government spent a decade decontaminating the water, only leaving a naturally occurring isotope in it that scientists recognize as safe for people and the environment.
  • Despite the safety claims, protesters took to the streets in Tokyo to show disapproval of the decision. Local business owners, in particular, have expressed fears that more municipalities worldwide could ban Fukushima products, including fish, because of distrust in the water.
  • Meanwhile, officials have insisted that the dump is necessary as the water takes up a massive amount of space, which is needed to store highly radioactive fuel rods from the remaining cores at the now-defunct nuclear facility.

Editor’s Note: The Japanese government has asked Western outlets to adhere to Japanese naming conventions. To that end, Japanese names will be written as Family Name followed by Given Name.

Radioactive or Bad Publicity?

After years of discussions and debate, the Japanese government announced Tuesday that it will dump radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant into the ocean.

Government officials consider the move necessary, but it’s facing backlash from local businesses, particularly fisheries, over potential consequences it could have. Many are especially concerned that the decision will create bad press for the region as headlines about it emerge. For instance, a headline from the Guardian on the issue reads, “Japan announces it will dump contaminated water into sea.”

While the water is contaminated and radioactive, it’s not nearly what the headlines make it out to be. The government has spent the last decade decontaminating it, and now it only contains a trace amount of the isotope tritium. That isotope is common in nature and is already found in trace amounts in groundwater throughout the world. Its radiation is so weak that it can’t pierce human skin, meaning one could only possibly get sick by ingesting more than that has ever been recorded.

According to the government, the decontaminated water at Fukushima will be diluted to 1/7 of the WHO’s acceptable radiation levels for drinking water before being released into the ocean over two years.

Something Had To Eventually Be Done

Over the last decade, Japan has proposed this plan and other similar ones, such as evaporating the water, which the International Atomic Energy Agency said last year met global standards.

The water has been sitting in containers for years, so why is there a push to remove it now? Space and leakage seem to be the primary reasons.

The water containers are slowly being filled by groundwater, and the government expects to run out of space relatively soon. Space is sorely needed, as Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has pointed out in the past that the government wants to use the space to store damaged radioactive fuel rods that still need to be extracted from the plant. Unlike the water, those rods are dangerously radioactive and need proper storage.

Regardless, Suga reportedly recognizes that removing the water is going to end up as a lose-lose situation.

“It is inevitable that there would be reputational damage regardless of how the water will be disposed of, whether into the sea or into the air,” he said at a press conference last week. As expected, the government’s decision did trigger backlash, prompting many demonstrators to take to the streets of Tokyo Tuesday in protest.

To this day, eleven countries and regions still ban many products from the Fukushima prefecture despite massive clean-up efforts that have seen people returning to the area to live.

See what others are saying: (NPR) (KBS World) (NBC News)

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Greta Thunberg To Skip U.N. Climate Change Conference, Citing Vaccine Inequality

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  • Young environmental activist Greta Thunberg will not attend the U.N.’s climate change conference set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland this November.
  • “Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem,” the 18-year-old tweeted Friday, adding, “Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions.”
  • Since rollouts began late last year, 40% of vaccines have been administered in wealthy and Western countries, according to The Washington Post.
  • Scientists have warned that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.

Thunberg Points To Vaccine Inequality

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg has said she is skipping the UN’s climate change conference.

The COP26 summit is set to take place in Glasgow, Scotland in November, but 18-year-old Thunberg told BBC she won’t attend because she’s concerned about the impact COVID-19 will have on attendance.

In a Twitter thread Friday, she responded to a headline about her plans to miss the summit.

“Of course I would love to attend…But not unless everyone can take part on the same terms. Right now many countries are vaccinating healthy young people, often at the expense of risk groups and front line workers (mainly from global south, as usual…),” she wrote.

“Inequality and climate injustice is already the heart of the climate crisis. If people can’t be vaccinated and travel to be represented equally that’s undemocratic and would worsen the problem.”

“Vaccine nationalism won’t solve the pandemic. Global problems need global solutions,” the teen continued.

Thunberg went on to say that if the summit is delayed, it doesn’t mean urgent action should too.

“We don’t have to wait for conferences nor anyone or anything else to dramatically start reducing our emissions. Solidarity and action can start today,” she added before noting that digital alternatives for the conference would also be insufficient.

“High speed internet connection and access to computers is extremely unequal in the world. In that case we would lack representation from those whose voices need to be heard the most when it comes to the climate crisis,” she wrote.

Data on Global Vaccine Distribution Efforts

According to The Washington Post, nearly 20% of people in the United States are now vaccinated, but many other countries are unlikely to hit that same metric by the end of the year, even with international assistance through the Covax program.

Current projections predict it could be years before developing countries distribute enough doses to come close to herd immunity, which scientists say requires inoculating around 70-80% of a population.

Since rollouts began late last year, enough shots have been distributed to fully vaccinate about 5% of the world’s population, but The Post reported that the vast majority have been administered in wealthy and Western countries.

Around 40% of vaccines have been given in 27 wealthy nations that include only 11% of the world’s population, according to the Bloomberg Vaccine Tracker.

That’s pretty concerning because scientists also warn that the longer the virus continues to circulate widely, the more chances it will have to change and potentially develop vaccine resistance.

Thunberg’s comments are a blow for U.K. organizers, who have already postponed the conference once from last November because of the pandemic. Even now, there has been speculation that it could be delayed again this year.

Thunberg would not play a formal role at the conference but her decision not to attend is a significant symbolic moment.

At COP25, the young climate change activist gave a headline speech and she typically attends major climate events of this nature. On top of that, reports say this summit was slated to be one of the most consequential climate conferences since the 2015 Paris accord.

On the agenda for this year’s conference discussions were country-level plans for cutting carbon emissions, along with progress on the Paris agreement and the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change.

See what others are saying: (Insider) (CNBC) (The Washington Post)

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