TPM World News

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Threatening to fire a volley of missiles toward a major U.S. military hub — and the home to 160,000 American civilians — may seem like a pretty bad move for a country that is seriously outgunned and has an awful lot to lose.

But pushing the envelope, or just threatening to do so, is what North Korea does best.

By announcing a plan to send four “Hwasong-12” intermediate range missiles over Japan and into waters near the Pacific island of Guam, Pyongyang has significantly upped the ante despite threats from U.S. President Donald Trump.

The North has made it clear Kim Jong Un still has to sign off on the plan and give the execution order. But it says it could be ready to go within days — or just before the U.S. and South Korea are set to begin their annual Ulchi-Freedom Guardian military maneuvers.

So what, ultimately, is Pyongyang trying to accomplish?

A lot of things, actually.

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FIRST, BUILD UP THE CRED

North Korea sees the United States as an existential threat.

It knows that if it is going to be taken seriously, it needs to have a credible military deterrent. Its strategy for years, if not decades, has been to attain that by building long-range missiles that can carry nuclear warheads to targets on the U.S. mainland. It’s not good enough just to claim to have that capability — it must be demonstrated.

Successful tests provide the data needed to make technical advances and valuable training for ground troops. They also dispel doubts about whether those advances are being made.

Provocative testing or training also is a way of gauging where Washington’s red lines are. That can be used to decide when to push more aggressively or when to ease off.

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SECOND, CLAIM A NEW NORM

North Korea has said many times it has no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons. It doesn’t want to use them as a bargaining chip — or in a war it could not possibly survive. It wants them as a status-booster.

Pyongyang wants to force the United States to accept that it is a nuclear power, as it did with Pakistan and India, and treat it with commensurate respect. But while there is little remaining doubt about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, the U.S. has not accepted it as a nuclear power and is not likely to do so any time soon.

Pyongyang continues to push Washington’s buttons in hopes of changing that attitude.

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THIRD, USE THE LEVERAGE

Though Trump is taking a very hard-line approach, at least in his rhetoric, growing concerns over Kim Jong Un’s accelerated missile launches have added strength to the camp in the United States calling for a diplomatic resolution. That would likely involve some “carrots” — compromises that would be attractive in North Korea’s eyes. This is Pyongyang’s potential payoff.

Just forcing the U.S. to talk would in itself be a success for North Korea. Especially if it gives the appearance of talks between equals.

Of course, pushing the envelope with moves like the potential missile volley toward Guam has a lot of risks. One or more of the launches could fail. And if a missile actually hit the island, the consequences could be catastrophic. But having merely floated the idea sets a sort of precedent the North can use as a new baseline. And if it goes through with the launch and there are no consequences, it can use that too.

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FINALLY, PUSH FOR WHAT YOU REALLY WANT

What North Korea wants most is security. Its regime wants to survive.

It wants assurances it won’t be attacked, or suffocated by economic sanctions.

It wants a peace treaty formally replacing the armistice that ended the shooting war phase of the 1950-1953 Korean War. Getting any of those things would require a sea change in relations with not only Washington, but also Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo and possibly Moscow.

The good news, for everyone involved, is that North Korea isn’t likely to get what it really wants by starting another war.

But the bad news is that it’s not at all clear the North’s actions will help it achieve its goals. Indeed, they’ve helped create a risky situation that could spiral into something nobody wants.

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Military officials said Friday they plan to move ahead with large-scale U.S.-South Korea exercises later this month that North Korea, now finalizing plans to launch a salvo of missiles toward Guam, claims are a rehearsal for war.

The exercises are an annual event, but come as Pyongyang says it is readying a plan to fire off four Hwasong-12 missiles toward the tiny island, which is U.S. territory and major military hub. The plan would be sent to leader Kim Jong Un for approval just before or as the U.S.-South Korea drills begin.

Called Ulchi-Freedom Guardian, the exercises are expected to run from Aug. 21-31 and involve tens of thousands of American and South Korean troops on the ground and in the sea and air. Washington and Seoul say the exercises are defensive in nature and crucial to maintaining a deterrent against North Korean aggression.

The exercises were scheduled well before tensions began to rise over President Donald Trump’s increasingly fiery rhetoric and North Korea’s announcement of the missile plan, which if carried out would be its most provocative launch yet. Along with a bigger set of maneuvers held every spring, the exercises are routinely met by strong condemnation and threats of countermeasures from North Korea.

While tensions typically spike around the dates of the exercises — North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test just days after last year’s maneuvers — the situation generally calms afterward as the North needs to focus on its farms and the approach of the fall harvest.

The heightened military activity on the peninsula this time is a concern because it could increase the possibility of a mishap or an overreaction of some sort by either side that could spin into a more serious escalation. North Korea has been increasingly sensitive to the exercises lately because they reportedly include training for “decapitation strikes” to kill Kim Jong Un and his top lieutenants.

Pyongyang is also switching its propaganda machine into high gear by bringing in a large number of foreign journalists to ensure it gets global attention for an event next week in honor of its ruling Kim family on Mount Paektu, a dormant volcano that straddles the Chinese border and is something of a spiritual home for the regime.

Defense officials in Seoul confirmed Friday that the exercises are expected to begin without any delays, but refused to provide further details. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, Ulchi-Freedom Guardian involves about 40,000 troops, along with civilian South Korean government personnel who train their civil defense responses.

The possibility of escalation is made even more acute by the lack of any means of official communication across the Demilitarized Zone, though there has been no easing of the barrage of inflammatory comments in the U.S. and the North since new sanctions against North Korea were announced last week.

Keeping up his tough talk from his New Jersey golf resort where he is on a working vacation, Trump warned Kim Jong Un’s government to “get their act together” or face extraordinary trouble, and suggested his earlier threat to unleash “fire and fury” on North Korea was too mild.

Trump declined to say whether the U.S. is considering a pre-emptive military strike as he spoke to reporters before a briefing with his top national security advisers.

The president insisted the North had been “getting away with a tragedy that can’t be allowed.”

“North Korea better get their act together, or they are going to be in trouble like few nations have ever been in trouble,” Trump said, flanked by Vice President Mike Pence. Accusing his predecessors of insufficient action, Trump said it was time somebody stood up to Kim Jong Un.

Though tensions have been building for months amid new missile tests by the North, including the launch of its first intercontinental ballistic missile, the pace has intensified since the U.N. Security Council on Saturday passed sweeping new sanctions Trump had requested.

According to its reported plan, North Korea would fire four Hwasong-12 intermediate-range missiles over Japan and into waters around Guam, home to about 7,000 troops and 160,000 people.

North Korea said its military would finalize the plan by mid-August, then wait for Kim’s order. U.S. allies Japan and South Korea quickly vowed a strong reaction if the North were to follow through.

Trump echoed that threat Thursday, insisting if North Korea took any steps to attack Guam, its leaders would have reason to be nervous.

“Things will happen to them like they never thought possible, OK?” Trump said. He did not specify what they might be.

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Associated Press writers Jonathan LeMire in Bedminster, New Jersey, and Josh Lederman and Lolita C. Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

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BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union says it has slapped sanctions on nine North Koreans and four entities including the state-owned Foreign Trade Bank, in addition to those already on its sanctions list.

In a statement Thursday, it says the asset freezes and travel bans were added to the EU’s North Korea sanction list to bring the bloc into line with a new U.N. Security Council Resolution.

The resolution was adopted last week in response to North Korea’s on-going development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile activities.

The EU move means that 62 people and 50 entities, like companies, organizations or banks, are now under sanctions in line with the U.N. list. The EU has autonomously slapped restrictive measures on a further 41 people and 7 entities.

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PARIS (AP) — A police source says the suspect in an attack on soldiers near Paris is a 37-year-old Algerian man who was legally living in France.

The man, Hamou Benlatreche, was known to French police over minor crimes but has never been convicted in court, the officer told The Associated Press Thursday. He spoke anonymously because he was not allowed to speak on an ongoing investigation.

French media, who reported the same name, say the suspect was living in the suburb of Bezons, north of Paris, where police searched a building on Wednesday night.

The suspect rammed his car into a group of soldiers Wednesday, injuring six of them. He was arrested by police following a highway manhunt and was hospitalized with bullet wounds.

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea has announced a detailed plan to launch a salvo of ballistic missiles toward the U.S. Pacific territory of Guam, a major military hub and home to U.S. bombers. If carried out, it would be the North’s most provocative missile launch to date.

The announcement Thursday warned that the North is finalizing a plan to fire four of its Hwasong-12 missiles over Japan and into waters around the tiny island, which hosts 7,000 U.S. military personnel on two main bases and has a population of 160,000.

Japan and South Korea vowed a strong reaction if the North were to go through with the plan.

It said the plan, which involves the missiles hitting waters 30 to 40 kilometers (19 to 25 miles) from the island, could be sent to leader Kim Jong Un for approval within a week or so. It would be up to Kim whether the move is actually carried out.

It is unclear whether — or exactly why — North Korea would risk firing missiles so close to U.S. territory. Such a launch would almost compel the United States to attempt an intercept and possibly generate further escalation.

North Korea, no stranger to bluffing, frequently uses extremely bellicose rhetoric with warnings of military action to keep its adversaries on their heels. It generally couches its threats with language stating it will not attack the United States unless it has been attacked first or has determined an attack is imminent.

But the statement raised worries amid threats from both sides.

Following reports that U.S. intelligence suggests the North might be able to pair a nuclear warhead with a missile capable of reaching targets on the United States mainland, Trump warned North Korea that “it faces retaliation with fire and fury unlike any the world has seen before.”

Pyongyang, meanwhile, has been louder in its complaints against a new and tough round of sanctions imposed by the United Nations, with strong U.S. backing, and Washington’s use of Guam as a staging ground for its stealth bombers, which could be used to attack North Korea and are a particularly sore point with the ruling regime in Pyongyang.

Its reported plan is extremely specific, suggesting it is actually plotting a launch.

The report said the Hwasong-12 rockets would fly over Shimane, Hiroshima and Koichi prefectures in Japan and travel “1,065 seconds before hitting the waters 30 to 40 kilometers away from Guam.” It said the Korean People’s Army Strategic Force will finalize the plan by mid-August, present it to Kim Jong Un and “wait for his order.”

“We keep closely watching the speech and behavior of the U.S.,” it said.

Such a move would not merely be a test launch, but a demonstration of military capabilities that could easily lead to severe consequences.

South Korea’s military responded by saying North Korea will face a “stern and strong” response from Washington and Seoul. Taking it a step further, Japan’s Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told parliament a missile attack on the U.S. territory would be a Japanese national emergency because it would threaten Japan’s existence as a nation.

If North Korea were to actually carry it out — even if it aimed at hitting the waters off Guam and not the island itself — that would clearly pose a potential threat to U.S. territory and put the United States in a much more complicated situation than it has been during previous missile launches.

Guam lies about 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) from the Korean Peninsula, and it’s extremely unlikely Kim’s government would risk annihilation with a pre-emptive attack on U.S. citizens. It’s also unclear how reliable North Korea’s missiles would be against such a distant target, but no one was writing off the danger completely.

Washington has been testing its missile defenses in response to the North’s stepped-up development and the current escalation of tensions could lead to pressure for the U.S. military to try to shoot down the North’s missiles in midflight if they are heading toward Guam.

That would likely open up a set of very major problems, including the possibility of both a very high-profile failure or a miscalculation of Washington’s intentions and a more deadly pre-emptive strike by the North — which has missiles able to hit Tokyo and conventional weapons that could devastate South Korea’s capital of Seoul.

The Hwasong-12, which was revealed for the first time at a military parade in April, is an intermediate-range ballistic missile that is believed to have a radius of more than 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles). It can be fired from mobile launchers, making it hard to detect and destroy on the ground.

By launching a salvo of four, the North would be attempting to make it harder for the U.S. to intercept all of the incoming missiles. Its stated flight path over Japan is also very aggressive — it has recently tried to avoid flying over neighboring countries by shooting its missiles up at a very high angle to land in the ocean.

Washington, meanwhile, has been giving out mixed signals about its intentions.

While Trump was threatening annihilation and boasting from the New Jersey golf resort where he’s vacationing that he has made the U.S. nuclear arsenal “far stronger and more powerful than ever before,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to calm the sense of crisis.

“Americans should sleep well at night,” Tillerson told reporters. “Nothing that I have seen and nothing that I know of would indicate that the situation has dramatically changed in the last 24 hours.”

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PARIS (AP) — The Latest on an attack on soldiers in a Paris suburb (all times local):

12:20 p.m.

France’s Defense Ministry says three soldiers were seriously injured in a car attack in a Paris suburb but their lives are not currently in danger.

The ministry said in a statement that six members of the 35th infantry regiment were injured in the incident, including three “more seriously.”

Defense Minister Florence Parly and Interior Minister Gerard Collomb are visiting soldiers hospitalized at the Begin military hospital in the suburb of Saint-Mande.

It was the latest of several attacks on members of the Sentinelle military operation tasked with protecting French sites after deadly attacks.

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11:35 a.m.

French counterterrorism prosecutors have opened an investigation into a car attack on soldiers in Paris suburb that left six injured.

The Paris prosecutor’s office says the investigation was opened after Wednesday’s incident in Levallois-Perret.

No one is specifically named in the investigation yet, but it aims at pursuing perpetrators on charges of attempted murder of security forces in connection with a terrorist enterprise, the prosecutor’s office said.

The move means authorities believe the attack was deliberate and planned with a terrorist motive.

The car and driver have not yet been found.

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11:15 a.m.

A Paris suburb where a vehicle rammed into soldiers is home to France’s main intelligence agency and a staging point for soldiers assigned to protect prominent sites after recent attacks.

Residents of Levallois-Perret are so accustomed to seeing security forces that resident Roseline Bailleux thought Wednesday’s attack was an exercise.

Bailleux, 67, was one of several people who said that the street where the soldiers were hit was nearly always thronged with soldiers.

She was woken in the morning by her husband, who had noticed a crush of ambulances and emergency vehicles.

“We thought it was an exercise,” she said.

She said that area was popular with parents and their children but the attack happened when they weren’t around.

She said she had been touched by several previous attacks, including the 2015 gun rampage at the Bataclan music venue in Paris — which was next door to where one of her children lived — and the 2016 Nice truck attack, which happened near where she used to live.

“I’m not going to stop walking through the park because of that. … It can happen to anyone.”

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10:15 a.m.

Police officials say a driver in a dark BMW is on the run after ramming his car into a large group of soldiers in what appeared to be a calculated ambush in a Paris suburb.

Two police officials say authorities are checking video surveillance of the area near the city hall of Levallois to identify the vehicle and hunt the driver responsible for Wednesday’s attack.

The officials said witnesses described seeing a BMW with one person on board waiting in a cul-de-sac near a building used for soldiers from the Sentinelle operation. One official said the attacker hit just as a group of soldiers emerged from the building to board vehicles for a new shift.

Neither official was authorized to be publicly named discussing ongoing operations.

—by Angela Charlton

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9:50 a.m.

The mayor of a Paris suburb where a vehicle ran down six soldiers says it was a deliberate act targeting security forces.

Levallois Mayor Patrick Balkany denounced on BFM television what he called an “odious attack” and said it was “without a doubt deliberate.”

Authorities are searching for the driver and vehicle, which drove away after the incident at Place de Verdun in Levallois, on the northwest edge of Paris.

It targeted soldiers from the Sentinelle security force created after Islamic extremist attacks in 2015.

The incident comes four days after a teenager with psychiatric problems tried to attack security forces guarding the Eiffel Tower.

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9:40 a.m.

French police say a vehicle slammed into soldiers guarding a Paris suburb, injuring six of them, before getting away.

Authorities are now searching for the vehicle and driver after the Wednesday incident, according to a Paris police spokesman.

The vehicle appeared to clearly target the soldiers but the motive is unclear, the spokesman said. The official was not authorized to be publicly named according to police policy.

Four people were injured lightly, two more seriously, the spokesman said.

The incident in Levallois, northwest of Paris, is the latest of several attacks targeting security forces in France guarding sites after a string of deadly attacks.

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DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Qatar has filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization against three of the four Arab countries that are isolating it, opening up a possible new path for negotiations with its opponents.

The Gulf nation said late Monday it had filed the grievance with the WTO’s dispute settlement body alleging that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain are violating laws and conventions related to trade.

The three countries, along with Egypt, cut diplomatic ties and severed air, land and sea links with Qatar on June 5, accusing it of supporting extremists. Qatar denies the charge and sees the boycott as politically motivated.

Qatar’s appeal to the WTO coincided with a visit to Geneva by Sheikh Ahmed bin Jassem bin Mohammed Al Thani, the country’s minister of economy and commerce, who met with the head of the trade organization and lawyers specializing in trade disputes.

It calls for the start of formal consultations with the three Gulf states and lays out specific trade violations, according to a statement released by Qatar’s government communications office. It argues the boycott hurts not only Qatar, which is the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, but also its trading partners.

“This positive step taken by the State of Qatar clearly demonstrates to all member countries of the WTO the level of transparency exhibited by the State of Qatar through requesting formal and transparent dialogue and consultations with the siege countries,” the statement said.

Under WTO rules, the parties have 60 days to resolve their dispute through negotiations. If they fail, Qatar can request the establishment of an independent panel that could force the trio to end their boycott or face penalties.

Qatar has rejected a tough 13-point list of demands from the Arab bloc, arguing that accepting them wholesale would undermine its sovereignty.

Fellow Gulf state Kuwait is mediating the crisis, but it and Western-led diplomatic efforts have so far failed to secure a breakthrough. Neither side has shown any significant sign of backing down.

The isolation campaign, which sealed Qatar’s only land border with Saudi Arabia, has proved costly for the 2022 World Cup host, however.

Qatar Airways, one of the Mideast’s biggest long-haul airlines, has been forced to reroute flights on costly detours over friendlier airspace and is blocked from flying to key regional feeder airports such as Dubai. The boycott has dramatically driven up costs to import food, medicine and likely even building materials that Qatar needs for extensive infrastructure projects.

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea after decades of effort has a missile potentially capable of reaching the continental United States, but analysts say Pyongyang has yet to show the ICBM can inflict serious damage once it gets there.

U.S. and South Korean experts on Tuesday said Japanese video footage capturing the Hwasong-14’s re-entry vehicle shortly before it crashed into the sea suggests it failed to survive the extreme heat and pressure after re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere following its launch from northern North Korea on Friday.

But the apparent failure likely means the North will conduct more flight tests of the Hwasong-14 missile to ensure the warhead could survive the re-entry from space and hit its intended target, the analysts said.

The Hwasong-14 ICBM, which was first tested on July 4, follows decades of effort by North Korea to obtain a nuclear deterrent against the United States. Analysis of the flight data from Hwasong-14’s second test has suggested that more of the U.S. mainland, including Los Angeles and Chicago, is now in range of Pyongyang’s weapons.

However, whether North Korea can arm the missile with a nuclear warhead and protect it throughout the flight are different questions entirely.

After analyzing video from a rooftop camera operated by Japan’s NHK television on the northern island of Hokkaido, U.S. missile expert Michael Elleman concluded that Hwasong-14’s re-entry vehicle “disintegrated” before it landed at sea.

In an article posted at the 38 North website, Elleman said the video showed the re-entry vehicle shedding small radiant objects at an altitude of 4 to 5 kilometers (2.5 to 3 miles). He said the re-entry vehicle dims and quickly disappears at an altitude of 3 to 4 kilometers (1.9 to 2.5 miles) before it passes behind a mountain range and is obscured from the camera’s view. Had the re-entry vehicle survived, it would have continued to glow until disappearing behind the mountains, Elleman said.

“In short, a reasonable conclusion based on the video evidence is that the Hwasong-14’s re-entry vehicle did not survive during its second test,” said Elleman, an expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “If this assessment accurately reflects reality, North Korea’s engineers have yet to master re-entry technologies and more work remains before Kim Jong Un has an ICBM capable of striking the American mainland.”

Granted, it’s impossible to know how the warhead would have performed if North Korea had launched the missile for real. Both ICBMs were test-launched at highly lofted angles to reduce the range and avoid neighboring countries, and the near-vertical flight paths meant the re-entry vehicles endured harsher conditions during their descents.

But Kim Dong-yub, a defense analyst at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul, said it’s obvious North Korea has yet to reach where it wants to be with re-entry technologies.

While North Korea has declared that the Hwasong-14’s latest launch confirmed important features of the missile, such as its range and the warhead’s atmospheric re-entry, it also described the rocket as “landing in the target waters in the open sea.” That probably wasn’t an ideal outcome for North Korean engineers because nuclear warheads are usually designed to detonate at lower altitudes shortly before impact, Kim said.

“Considering the cost and efforts they put into tests, North Korea likely would have tried to detonate the warhead properly; they apparently failed this time, but could focus on this aspect in future tests,” Kim said.

Mastering warhead re-entries would be one of the most critical military milestones the North has left, along with developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile system and solid-fuel ICBMs, Kim said.

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MOSCOW (AP) — Pyotr Levashov appeared to be just another comfortable member of Russia’s rising middle-class — an IT entrepreneur with a taste for upmarket restaurants, Thai massages and foreign travel.

Then police raided his vacation rental in Barcelona, marching him out in handcuffs to face charges of being one of the world’s most notorious spam lords.

Levashov’s April 7 arrest was one in a series of American-initiated operations over the past year to seize alleged Russian cybercriminals outside their homeland, which has no extradition agreement with the United States.

They come at a fraught moment in relations between Moscow and Washington, where politicians are grappling with the allegation that Kremlin hackers intervened in the U.S. election to help President Donald Trump. Through their lawyers, several defendants have suggested their arrests are linked to the election turmoil. Experts say that’s possible, though an Associated Press review of the cases found no firm evidence to back the claim.

“There is a big hunt underway,” said Andrei Soldatov, an expert on the Russian security services and co-author of “Red Web,” a book about Russian attempts to control the internet. He said the recent burst of arrests made it look like the United States was “trying to understand what’s going on with a very complicated world of Russian hacking and a very complicated relationship between Russian hackers and Russian secret services.”

But Soldatov didn’t rule out another possible explanation: The imprisoned Russians may be falsely tying their arrests to Trump’s election in a bid to sow confusion and politicize their cases.

“It’s a very big question,” he said.

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“HE GOT TO EVERY MAILBOX THERE EVER WAS”

At least five Russians have been picked up in Europe as part of U.S. cybercrime prosecutions in the last nine months.

Evgeny Nikulin, 29, was arrested in a restaurant in Prague in October, accused of hacking into LinkedIn and Dropbox around the time that tens of millions of users there were compromised; Stanislav Lisov, 31, the alleged developer of the NeverQuest financial data-stealing software, was detained at Barcelona’s airport during his honeymoon in January; and Yury Martyshev, 35, accused of helping run a service that let cybercriminals test-drive their malicious software, was recently extradited to the U.S. after being pulled off a train at the Russia-Latvia border in April. On Tuesday, Alexander Vinnik, 38, was arrested at his hotel in Greece on charges of running a money laundering ring for hackers that processed billions of dollars in digital currency.

Levashov, who made his first court appearance in Madrid for a brief hearing Wednesday, is easily the best known of the five. The 36-year-old is charged with fraud and unauthorized interception of electronic communications, but his spamming career is said to stretch back to the turn of the millennium, when the business of stuffing email inboxes full of pitches for cut-price pills and penny stocks was still largely unregulated.

Court documents trace how Levashov, using the alias Peter Severa, teamed up in 2005 with Alan Ralsky, an American bulk email baron once dubbed the “King of Spam.”

Ralsky described the Russian as a master of his trade.

“He made me look like an amateur,” Ralsky said in a recent interview. “He got to every mailbox there ever was.”

Spammers can make a lot renting out their services to those peddling grey market pharmaceuticals or pornography. Ralsky said Levashov was pulling in “more money than you could shake a stick at” and traveled widely, saying he remembered getting vacation snaps of the Russian enjoying himself at a fishing cabin in Finland or the famously expensive Burj Al Arab hotel in Dubai.

By then, Levashov had crossed American law enforcement’s radar.

In 2007, he was indicted under his Severa alias as part of the case where Ralsky and several associates pleaded guilty to charges including wire fraud and mail fraud. Two years later, American authorities identified Levashov by name as the operator of the “Storm” botnet, a massive network of compromised, spam-spewing computers.

In the Russian hacker community, Levashov’s profile was rising too. In online forums, he promoted the idea of collaborating with Russia’s spy services, according to Soldatov, the Russian intelligence expert, who said Levashov spearheaded an effort to knock out websites linked to Islamist insurgencies in southern Russia.

“He was the first Russian hacker known to have brought the FSB into the circle of the Russian hacking community,” Soldatov said, referring to Russia’s domestic spy agency. “His idea was to make it more patriotic.”

When Levashov was finally caught, his wife Maria drew international attention when she was quoted as saying the arrest was “linked to Trump’s win.” But in a conversation with The Associated Press in Madrid on Wednesday, she pulled back from those comments.

“I think there are some political reasons in this case, but I’m not sure,” she said. “I don’t have any evidence.”

Levashov’s lawyer, Margarita Repina, offered a similar qualification to her assertion that U.S. officials were “just taking hackers with any excuse to see if any of them admits involvement in the Trump issue.”

“This is just an opinion,” she said. “We have no evidence.”

Legal documents suggest the latest effort to catch Levashov began well before the election. In a sworn declaration, FBI Agent Elliott Petersen said he began tracking Kelihos, the latest incarnation of Levashov’s alleged spam botnet operation, more than two years ago.

The former spam king was also skeptical that Levashov’s arrest was linked to the vote.

“They’ve been after him for a long time,” Ralsky said.

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“THERE IS A CHESS GAME THAT ESCAPES US”

Levashov wouldn’t be alone in floating thinly supported claims that his prosecution is related to the 2016 election. Lisov was also arrested in Barcelona and spent a month as Levashov’s cellmate in Madrid. His attorney, Juan Manuel Arroyo, told an extradition hearing last week that there was “a game of chess that escapes us” between Moscow and Washington. Arroyo suggested that the American extradition request was “not normal.”

A Spanish court document seen by AP suggests Lisov has been sought by the U.S. since Aug. 5, 2015, undermining the idea of an election link. Arroyo says he disputes the existence of any such request.

Nikulin, who is the subject of a conflicting extradition request from Russia, has been the most explicit. He told a judge in Prague that he was twice taken out of prison and offered a pardon, U.S. citizenship and refuge for his parents if he confessed to having “hacked the Democratic Party” on the Russian government’s orders, an apparent reference to the embarrassing leak of Democratic National Committee emails in the heat of the U.S. race.

Nikulin said he rejected the offer, and his lawyer Vladimir Makeev later wrote a rambling letter warning Trump that the bureau was railroading Nikulin to undermine his presidency.

In an interview at his office in Moscow, Makeev said his client was being pressured by “certain unscrupulous representatives of the FBI that wish to have an impeachment carried out on president of the United States.”

There’s little evidence for the inflammatory claim.

Nikulin was in fact questioned in the presence of an FBI agent from the bureau’s San Francisco office, according to a Russian-language legal document which Makeev shared with AP.

But there’s no indication the agent — who was one of 10 officials, translators and defense lawyers listed as being present at the interrogation — ever discussed the election or made Nikulin an offer, much less of citizenship. The FBI would not make the agent available for an interview but a law enforcement official said no such deal was ever discussed. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Martyshev’s attorney did not return messages seeking comment, but the Russian pleaded not guilty to all charges at a court hearing in Alexandria earlier this month.

Levashov may soon be joining him in America. His extradition to the United States seems a foregone conclusion, according to Repina, his attorney. She argued that would hardly be fair given that, in Russia, the spamming he’s alleged to have carried out may not even be a crime.

“In his country, Levashov has legal businesses and a family that he needs to provide for,” she said. “He is a patriot.”

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia urged the United States Monday to show “political will” to mend ties even as it ordered sweeping cuts of U.S. embassy personnel unseen since Cold War times.

President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it will take time for the U.S. to recover from what he called “political schizophrenia,” but added that Russia remains interested in constructive cooperation with the U.S.

“We are interested in a steady development of our ties and are sorry to note that we are still far from that,” he said.

Peskov’s statement followed Sunday’s televised comments by Putin, who said the U.S. would have to cut 755 of its embassy and consulate staff in Russia, a massive reduction he described as a response to new U.S. sanctions.

The Russian Foreign Ministry had previously said that the U.S. should cut its embassy and consular employees to 455, the number that Russia has in the United States. Along with the caps on embassy personnel announced Friday, it also declared the closure of a U.S. recreational retreat on the outskirts of Moscow and warehouse facilities.

Moscow’s action is the long-expected tit-for-tat response to former U.S. President Barack Obama’s move to expel 35 Russian diplomats and shut down two Russian recreational retreats in the U.S. over reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Putin had refrained from an immediate quid-pro-quo until now in the hope that President Donald Trump would follow on his campaign promises to improve ties with Moscow and roll back the steps taken by Obama.

The Russian leader hailed his first meeting with Trump at the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Germany earlier this month, saying that the talks offered a model for rebuilding Russia-U.S. ties.

But the Congressional and FBI investigations into links between Trump’s campaign and Russia have weighed heavily over the White House, derailing Moscow’s hopes for an improvement in ties.

The overwhelming endorsement of a new package of stiff financial sanctions that passed Congress with veto-proof numbers last week dealt a new blow to Moscow’s aspirations. The White House said that Trump will sign the package, and Putin decided to fire back without waiting for that to happen.

“We had hoped that the situation will somehow change, but apparently if it changes, it won’t be soon,” Putin said in remarks broadcast by state television late Sunday. “I thought it was the time to show that we’re not going to leave it without an answer.”

The diplomatic personnel reductions are the harshest such move since 1986, when Moscow and Washington expelled dozens of diplomats.

The U.S. State Department called Putin’s move “a regrettable and uncalled-for act.”

Putin described the cuts in the U.S. embassy and consulate personnel as “painful” and said that Russia has other levers to hurt the U.S. He added, however, that he currently sees no need for further action.

The State Department declined to give an exact number of American diplomats or other U.S. officials in Russia, but the figure is believed to be about 400, some of whom have families accompanying them on diplomatic passports.

The vast majority of the more than 1,000 employees at the various U.S. diplomatic missions in Russia, including the embassy in Moscow and consulates in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg, are local employees.

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