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Tuesday Morning: Flip Off

Flip off a few caps; Death came for a few more well-loved artists. Rest well, Glenn Frey, Dale Griffin, Dallas Taylor. Gonna’ be one heck of a band on the other side. [Edit: Mic Gillette, too? Stop already, Grim Reaper, check your targeting.]

Hope the cull is done because obituaries are not my thing. Hard to type and sniffle copiously at the same time.

GM Opel dealers may be altering emissions control software on Zafira diesel cars
Great, just great. Like GM didn’t have enough on its plate with the ignition switch debacle. A Belgian news outlet reports GM Opel dealers have been changing the software on the 2014 Zafira 1.6l diesel engine passenger vehicles in what looks like a soft recall. This comes on the heels of an EU-mandated recall of Zafira B models due to fires caused by bad electronics repairs. Sorry, I don’t speak Dutch, can’t make out everything in this video report. What little I can see and read doesn’t look good. Wouldn’t be surprised if the EU puts the hurt on GM Opel diesel sales until all are fixed to meet EU emissions regulations. Should also note that a different electronics manufacturer may be involved; images online of ECUs for late model Zafiras appear to be made by Siemens — unlike Volkswagen’s passenger diesel ECUs, which are made by Bosch.

Texas manufacturer swindled out of cash by fraudulent email request, sues cyber insurer
AFGlobal, based in Houston, lost $480,000 in May 2014 after staff wired funds based on orders in emails faked by crooks overseas. The manufacturing company had a cyber insurance policy with a subsidiary of the Chubb Group, and filed a claim against it. The claim was denied and AFGlobal filed suit. This isn’t the first such loss nor the first such lawsuit. Companies need to create and publish policies documenting procedures for authorizing any online payments, including two-step authentication of identities, and review overall spending authorization processes with an eye on audit trails.

Ukrainian officials say Kiev’s main airport hacked
Hackers who attacked Ukrainian power companies in late December are believed to be responsible for the malware launched on Kiev’s airport servers. There are very few details — okay, none, zero details — about the attack and its affect on airport operations. A military spokesman only said “the malware had been detected early in the airport’s system and no damage had been done,” and that the malware’s point of origin was in Russia. Among the details missing are the date the attack was discovered and how it was detected as well as the means of removal.

Hold this thought: FBI still looking for info on cable cuts, with eye to Super Bowl link
Remember the post last summer about the 11 communications cable cuts in the greater San Francisco Bay Area near Silicon Valley? This is a hot issue again, given the impending Super Bowl 50 to be held at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. But reports now mention 15 or 16 cuts, not 11 — have there been more since last summer, or were there more not included in the FBI’s request for information? I’ll do some digging and post about this in the near term.

All right, carry on, and don’t drink all the añejo at once.

Ukraine’s Power System Hacking: Coordinated in More than One Way?

[original graphic: outsidethebeltway.com]

[original graphic: outsidethebeltway.com]

Analysis by industrial control team SANS determined hacking of Ukrainian electrical power utilities reported on 23-DEC-2015 was a coordinated attack. It required multiple phases to achieve a sustained loss of electricity to roughly 80,000 customers. SANS reported they “are confident” the following events occurred:

  • The adversary initiated an intrusion into production SCADA systems
  • Infected workstations and servers
  • Acted to “blind” the dispatchers
  • Acted to damage the SCADA system hosts (servers and workstations)
  • Action would have delayed restoration and introduce risk, especially if the SCADA system was essential to coordinate actions
  • Action can also make forensics more difficult
  • Flooded the call centers to deny customers calling to report power out

An investigation is still underway, and the following are still subject to confirmation:

  • The adversaries infected workstations and moved through the environment
  • Acted to open breakers and cause the outage (assessed through technical analysis of the Ukrainian SCADA system in comparison to the impact)
  • Initiated a possible DDoS on the company websites

The part that piques my attention is the defeat of SCADA systems by way of a multiphased attack — not unlike Stuxnet. Hmm…

Another interesting feature of this cyber attack is its location. It’s not near sites of militarized hostilities along the border with Russia. where many are of Russian ethnicity, but in the western portion of Ukraine.

More specifically, the affected power company served the Ivano-Frankivsk region, through which a large amount of natural gas is piped toward the EU. Note the map included above, showing the location and direction of pipelines as well as their output volume. Were the pipelines one of the targets of the cyber attack, along with the electricity generation capacity in the region through which the pipes run? Was this hack planned and coordinated not only to take out power and slow response to the outage but to reduce the pipeline output through Ukraine to the EU?

Russia’s Sabre-Rattling: Not Just Bluster About Banks and Ukraine Unrest


Last Friday, CNBC interviewed Andrey Kostin, CEO of Russia’s second largest bank, following the EU’s decision to extend economic sanctions against Russia, ostensibly to punish Russia for hostilities against Ukraine. Kostin’s comments were combative.

“You know, we have quite a strong opinion on sanctions. Sanctions, in other words, is economic war against Russia. Economic war will definitely have and will have very negative implications on the Russian economy, but more than that it will have very negative implications on the political dialogue and on security in Europe. And who wants to live in a less secure world? I think nobody. I think it’s the wrong way to treat Russia like this. I think it will never to lead to any other consequences as to less stability and less secure Europe.” [sic]

“”You can’t treat any country like this. You know you can’t say, if you behave rightly, that’s a small [weep*] for you, if you behave wrongly, that’s a big [weep*] for you.’ That’s not a dialog, that’s a threat. … I think we should talk. I mean, politicians should talk, like business men. Business men do talk, and they are interested in working together. …”

In short, Russia feels the sanctions are warfare, and they want to deal. They’d really like the asymmetric attack on finance to stop short of terminating Russian banks’ access to SWIFT (the impact of which WaPo spells out).

But the banks’ discomfort with the sanctions and continued incursions against Ukraine aren’t the only signs of Russian belligerence. By year end, there had been forty events characterized as “close military encounters” during 2014, according to European Leadership Network, a non-partisan, nonprofit think tank. Read more

Glaring Front Page Error by David Sanger, New York Times as Iran Nuclear Negotiations Near Deadline

See the update below, as of about 2:45 pm, the Times has changed the wording of the erroneous paragraph without adding a note of the correction. Oops. I got off on the wrong paragraph when I checked back. See the comment from Tony Papert below.

For someone who has written on a range of technical issues for many years, the error committed last night by David Sanger could not be worse nor come at a worse time for the important events he is attempting to cover. In an article put up last night on the New York Times website and apparently carried on page A1 of today’s print edition, Sanger and the Times have garbled a key point at the heart of the negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group of nations as they near the critical November 24 deadline for achieving a full agreement on the heels of last year’s interim agreement.

The article ostensibly was to announce a major breakthrough in the negotiations, although Gareth Porter had worked out the details of the progress last week. Here is what Porter deduced:

The key to the new approach is Iran’s willingness to send both its existing stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU) as well as newly enriched uranium to Russia for conversion into fuel for power plants for an agreed period of years.

In the first official indication of the new turn in the negotiations, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marzieh Afkham acknowledged in a briefing for the Iranian press Oct. 22 that new proposals combining a limit on centrifuges and the transfer of Iran’s LEU stockpile to Russia were under discussion in the nuclear negotiations.

The briefing was translated by BBC’s monitoring service but not reported in the Western press.

Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, who heads the U.S. delegation to the talks, has not referred publicly to the compromise approach, but she appeared to be hinting at it when she said on Oct. 25 that the two sides had “made impressive progress on issues that originally seemed intractable.”

As Porter goes on to explain, such an arrangement would allow Iran to maintain a large number of centrifuges continuing to enrich uranium, but because there would be no stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU), the “breakout time” (time required to highly enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon) would remain at about a year. By having Russia convert the LEU to fuel rods for Iran’s nuclear power plant, that LEU would be removed from any easy pathway to a weapon. This would provide Iran the “win” of maintaining its present level of around 10,000 operational centrifuges but give the P5+1 its goal of a longer breakout time. The key here is that unlike a proposal in 2005 where Russia would take over enrichment for Iran, this new proposal would allow Iran to continue its enrichment program while shipping virtually all of of its LEU to Russia for conversion to fuel rods.

Sanger appears to start off on the right track with his article:

Iran has tentatively agreed to ship much of its huge stockpile of uranium to Russia if it reaches a broader nuclear deal with the West, according to officials and diplomats involved in the negotiations, potentially a major breakthrough in talks that have until now been deadlocked.

Under the proposed agreement, the Russians would convert the uranium into specialized fuel rods for the Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran’s only commercial reactor. Once the uranium is converted into fuel rods, it is extremely difficult to use them to make a nuclear weapon. That could go a long way toward alleviating Western concerns about Iran’s stockpile, though the agreement would not cut off every pathway that Tehran could take to obtain a nuclear weapon.

But about halfway through the article, Sanger displays a shocking ignorance of the real points of recent negotiations and somehow comes to the conclusion that Russia would be taking over enrichment for Iran rather than converting LEU into fuel rods:

For Russia, the incentives for a deal are both financial and political. It would be paid handsomely for enriching Iran’s uranium, continuing the monopoly it has in providing the Iranians with a commercial reactor, and putting it in a good position to build the new nuclear power reactors that Iran has said it intends to construct in the future. And it also places President Vladimir V. Putin at the center of negotiations that may well determine the future of the Middle East, a position he is eager to occupy.

Somehow, Sanger and his New York Times editors and fact-checkers are stuck in 2005, suggesting that Iran would negotiate away its entire enrichment program. Such a drastic move would never be contemplated by Iran today and we are left to wonder whether this language found its way into the Times article through mere incompetence or more nefarious motives meant to disrupt any possible deal by providing false information to hardliners in Iran.

At the time of this writing (just before 9 am on November 4), the Times still has not added any correction or clarification to the article, despite the error being pointed out on Twitter just after 10:30 pm last night (be sure to read the ensuing Twitter conversation where Laura Rozen and Cheryl Rofer work out the nature of the error).

Update: And now, around 2:45 in the afternoon, I see that the Times has changed the erroneous paragraph. So far, I don’t see a note that a correction has been made. Here is the edited paragraph:

Russia’s calculus is also complex. It stands to gain financially from the deal, but it also has an incentive to see the nuclear standoff between Iran and the rest of the world continue, because an embargo keeps Iranian oil off the market. With oil prices falling, a flood of exports from Iran could further depress prices.

Will they ever get around to adding a note? I’ll keep an eye out. Well dang, this is embarrassing. I went to the wrong paragraph when I looked back. The article is still unchanged. Thanks to Tony Papert in comments for catching my bone-headedness.

Was Quantum Entanglement Experiment Behind “Classified Cryptographic Equipment” Confusion After Antares Crash?

Yesterday evening, an Antares rocket built and operated by Orbital Sciences Corporation exploded shortly after liftoff. The rocket was intended to ferry supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. Orbital and Spacex have taken over some of the duties supplying the space station since the termination of NASA’s shuttle program.

In the early aftermath of the explosion, word came out that the crash site had to be secured because sensitive cryptographic equipment was on board:

The Cygnus mission was non-military, but the company’s Antares program manager, Mike Pinkston, said the craft included “some classified cryptographic equipment, so we do need to maintain the area around the debris in a secure manner”.

That initially struck me as odd. The International Space Station has a large number of cooperating countries, including Russia. It’s hard to imagine that the US would put sensitive equipment into the hands of cosmonauts right now, given the cool state of US-Russian relations. Of course, it would make sense for ISS communications to be encrypted in order to prevent meddling by hackers, but movement all the way to classified (and presumably military or NSA-level) encryption seems to be excessive.

This morning, we are seeing walk-back on the presence of classified equipment:

Shortly after the explosion, CNN quoted a launch director as saying that the spacecraft contained classified “crypto” equipment, but early Wednesday a NASA spokesman said by email that “We didn’t have any classified items on board.”

In trying to make sense of what could have been behind these strange statements, I ran across this interesting announcement of a new cryptographic technology that European scientists have proposed evaluating in an experiment on the space staion:

A team of European researchers have proposed a series of experiments that, if successful, could turn the International Space Station into a key relay for a quantum communications network.

The key basis of physics underlying quantum communications is entanglement. Entangled particles are connected in a way that pretty much defies common sense. If you change the spin of one of the particles, the spin of its entangled counterpart will change – even if they’re miles apart. And that change happens nearly instantaneously – at least four orders of magnitude faster than the speed of light, according to a recent experiment.

Another remarkable aspect of this technology that sounds almost too good to be true is its potential security. After noting that quantum networks are quite fragile, the Forbes article continues:

But why bother with these networks at all if they’re so fragile? The answer is pretty simple – because they’re almost perfectly secure. Here’s how it works. Let’s say that I want to send a message to New York City. My message is going to travel through normal channels, but it will be encrypted with a key. That key is transmitted via the entangled photons – so the changes I make to entangled particles on my end almost instantly show up in the particles in New York. We then compare the measurements of what I changed in my photons to those states in New York City.

Those measurements then comprise an encryption key for our communications. So even if our communications are bugged, nobody can read them without knowing that encryption key. And here’s the important thing: if somebody were to try to eavesdrop on the quantum entanglement, they would alter the spin of the photons. So the measurements I make and the measurements made in New York would be out of sync – thus letting us know that we have an eavesdropper. It also prevents us from creating an encryption key, so we don’t send any communications. Theoretically, a quantum encrypted network is almost perfectly secure. (That said, they’re not perfect, and there are some exploits.)

The announcement from the European group that they wished to carry out the experiment based on what Einstein called “spooky action over a distance” came last April. Then, in June, it was announced that China had carried out a key demonstration of concept experiment back in 2010 but waited four years to publish the result.

With China announcing progress on the technology, one would think that the West would want to accelerate its work in the area, so it would not be at all surprising if equipment for the European experiment was among the items lost when the rocket exploded. Further, one would expect that Orbital would have been told that security for that equipment would be of the very highest level. In discussing the issue of sensitive equipment among the Antares wreckage, PCWorld this morning mentioned the incident of China perhaps examining the wreckage of the US stealth helicopter that was left behind after the mission to kill Osama bin Laden. It could well be that for this crash site, keeping the debris away from prying eyes from China is behind the call for security. Note also that the experiment quite likely would have been coordinated by the European Space Agency on behalf of the European scientists, so NASA’s claim that “We didn’t have any classified items on board” could be parsed as not applying to any classified items that ESA might have had on the rocket.

Plane Meets Plow: The Curious End of Total S.A. CEO Christophe de Margerie

[Photo tweeted by @Enel_Aire, post time stamped 2014-10-21 at 09:45 (time zone unknown)]

[Photo tweeted by @Enel_Aire, post time stamped 2014-10-21 at 09:45 (time zone unknown)]

Forgive my skepticism about the accident Monday night that took the life of Christophe de Margerie. CEO of French oil and gas company Total S.A. We’ve been told by enough analysts that several target countries, including Russia, are under siege, though these experts don’t refer to this openly as asymmetric warfare. The recent and ongoing drop in petroleum prices threatens cash inflows to those countries whose economies rely on oil revenues — Russia and Iran among them. The death of an oil industry executive isn’t unexpected given the amount of money in play; people die daily for far less cash.

Not as much as Moscow, mind you, but we get snow where I live in flyover country USA. Any time between mid-October and mid-April we can expect some frozen precipitation. A blizzard in October isn’t unheard of — we had one 17 years ago this week, in fact. I’ve lived with six months of snow per year for most of my life.

Which is why the photo here of the crash site looks sketchy to me.

Early reports indicated the plane carrying de Margerie hit or was hit by a snowplow driven by a drunken operator, in poor visibility. It’s not clear exactly which hit the other based on different accounts across the internet. A Russian reconstruction video furnished to Le Figaro shows the plane’s wing clipping a vehicle upon landing — but the video exerts more effort on the fire and smoke than it does on the initial impact. Note in this second video of the plane after the crash during daylight hours that the wing which hit the plow as characterized in the video is missing.

At least one article claimed debris was spread 200 meters by the plane after impact. Perhaps the wing was in that debris, but it’s not reflected in the Russian reconstruction video. A more recent report said the snowplow was parked on the runway.

Ultimately, what we see is a plane that flipped over — either tipped over by the force of a plow, or flipped over after impact.

And no snow. This particular photo is rather pixelated, but it doesn’t reflect reduced visibility due to snowfall. There’s no snow in the second video link above, though visibility has worsened. Read more

Kerry Castigates Putin For Using US Strategy of Training, Arming Rebels

So far, I have suffered no ill effects from this outdated beer.

So far, I have suffered no ill effects from this outdated beer.

Aside from the fact that the only craft beer served at the National Security Caucus session at Netroots Nation 2014 was an outdated California beer rather than a local Michigan beer, it was a session marked by interesting discussion. I received quite a bit of support during that discussion for noting that the US response to any crisis anywhere, for far too long, has been simply to ask “Which group should we arm?”. Further, I noted, as we had heard in the “Iran: Diplomacy or War?” session, there is reason for optimism among those of us who favor diplomacy over violence in the successful removal and ongoing destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons rather than the missile strikes the US had been planning and in the remaining strong possibility of a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear technology issue instead of a war to destroy the technology. I illustrated that point by mentioning the tragic downing of MH17 and how that demonstrated the folly of training and arming rebel groups that often veer into extremist actions that result in atrocities. That point ties to the mad push to arm Syria’s rebels with the shorter range MANPAD antiaircraft missiles even though they are less powerful than the Buk missile that took down MH17. As I noted, will Syrian “moderates” promise us never to take the MANPADS to a site where civilian aircraft are within range, and would there be any reason to believe such a promise?

In executing his Full Ginsburg yesterday, US Secretary of State John Kerry reached new heights of hypocrisy, as he went from Sunday morning talk show to talk show, proclaiming the evils of Russian actions in Ukraine. The evils for which Kerry is castigating Putin are precisely the evils that the US has been unleashing on the world in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and beyond. From today’s New York Times:

 In presenting the most detailed case yet alleging Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis, Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday that Russia had funneled large quantities of heavy weapons to Ukrainian separatists and trained them how to operate SA-11 antiaircraft missiles, the type of system that is believed to have been used to shoot down the Malaysian airliner over eastern Ukraine.

“We know for certain that the separatists have a proficiency that they’ve gained by training from Russians as to how to use these sophisticated SA-11 systems,” Mr. Kerry said on the CNN program “State of the Union.”

Just as when CIA Director John Brennan got his panties in a wad over al Qaeda training death squads in Syria after we had trained our own death squads to send there, Kerry is now saying that Russia choosing a group to arm and train is a horrible thing even though he has been instrumental in helping the Obama administration to do the exact same thing in other areas.

And just as the US now faces problems in its upcoming training of Iraqi troops because of the previous failures in training Iraqi troops, there is reason to believe that the atrocity of MH17 may be due in part to failed training by the Russians. From today’s Washington Post:

Meanwhile, in Kiev, the U.S. Embassy said American intelligence analysts had confirmed the authenticity of recorded conversations in which rebel leaders bragged about shooting down what they thought was a Ukrainian military transport plane moments after the Malaysian jetliner was blown apart.

So even though the separatists are good at using the missiles to blow aircraft out of the sky (the Times article notes they have downed “almost a dozen Ukrainian transport planes, reconnaissance aircraft and helicopters”), it would appear that they haven’t quite worked out that whole target verification thing and that this tragedy may not have been an intentional targeting of civilians as much as it is a training failure. But yes, the Russians own a large portion of this tragedy, as the evidence seems strong that they provided the weapon along with instructions on firing it (if not the full lesson on target verification). And their tactics in doing do were taken directly from the US playbook, all the way down to the training being an abject failure.

[UPDATED] Russian GPS-Alternative Satellites Went ‘Illegal/Failure’: Solar Storm Damage or Cyberwar in Space?

GLONASS_monitoring_02APR2014-1407h_500pxw

[Update at end of article.Rayne 6:45 pm EST]

Between 1030 and 0400 UTC last night or early morning, most of Russia’s GLONASS satellites reported “illegal” or “failure” status. As of this post, they do not appear to be back online.

GLONASS is the equivalent of GPS, an alternative global navigation satellite system (GNSS) launched and operated by Russian Aerospace Defense Forces (RADF). Apart from GPS, it is the only other GNSS with global capability.

It’s possible that the outage is related to either a new M-class solar storm — the start of which was reported about 48 hours ago — or recent X-class solar flare on March 29 at approximately 1700 UTC. The latter event caused a short-term radio blackout about one hour after the flare erupted.

But there is conjecture that GLONASS’ outage is human in origin and possibly deliberate. The absence of any reported outage news regarding GPS and other active satellite systems suggests this is quite possible, given the unlikelihood that technology used in GLONASS differs dramatically from that used in other satellite systems.

At least one observer mentioned that a monitoring system tripped at 21:00 UTC — 00:00 GLONASS system time. The odds of a natural event like a solar storm tripping at exactly top of the hour are ridiculously slim, especially since radiation ejected from the new M-class storm may not reach its peak effect on earth for another 24-48 hours.

GLONASS_monitoring_02APR2014

It’s not clear whether the new GLONASS-M satellite launched March 24th may factor into this situation. There are no English language reports indicating the new satellite was anything but successful upon its release, making it unlikely its integration into the GLONASS network caused today’s outage.

If the outage is based in human activity, the problem may have been caused by:

— an accidental disabling here on earth, though RADF most likely has redundancies to prevent such a large outage;

— deliberate tampering here on earth, though with RADF as operator this seems quite unlikely; or

— deliberate tampering in space, either through scripts sent from earth, or technology installed with inherent flaws.

The last is most likely, and of either scripts sent from earth or the flawed technology scenarios, the former is more likely to cause a widespread outage.

However, if many or all the core operating systems on board the GLONASS satellites had been updated within the last four years – after the discovery of Stuxnet in the wild – it’s not impossible that both hardware and software were compromised with an infection. Nor is it impossible that the same infection was triggered into aggressive action from earth.

Which begs the question: are we in the middle of a cyberwar in space?

UPDATE — 6:45 PM EST—

Sources report the GLONASS satellite network was back online noon-ish Russian time (UTC+4); the outage lasted approximately 11 hours. Unnamed source(s) said the outage was due to the upload of bad ephemeris data, the information used by the satellites to locate other satellites in space. An alleged system-wide update with bad data suggests RADF has serious problems with change management, though.

There is speculation the M-class solar storm, summarized at 1452 UTC as an “X-ray Event exceeded M5,” may have impacted GLONASS. However early feedback about radiation ejected by an M-class storm indicated the effects would not reach earth for 24-48 hours after the storm’s eruption.

With Over Half of Chemical Weapons-Related Stockpile Removed, Russia Says Syrian CW Potential Near Zero

Yesterday, in describing how Russia has played the US media regarding “threats” to the P5+1 negotiations on Iran’s nuclear technology, I mentioned that continued progress on Syria’s removal of its chemical weapons-related materials was further evidence that Russia intends to cooperate on the Iranian and Syrian nonproliferation issues separately from disputes over the Crimea annexation. Today, with news out that removal of the CW-related materials from Syria has crossed the 50% level, Russia has praised that accomplishment while pointing out that Syria now has virtually no capability of using chemical arms. Oh, and if we need any further confirmation that Russia is ready for the recriminations over Crimea to end, Putin himself has now said that there is no further need for retaliation against US sanctions (although I’m guessing that Dana Rohrabacher is in mourning that he wasn’t included in the list of ten US figures sanctioned by Russia since he even played dress-up and “fought” against the Soviets in Afghanistan).

A press release put out by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons yesterday put the removal of materials from Syria at just under 50%:

The OPCW-UN Joint Mission has verified the delivery of another consignment of Priority 1 chemicals today to Latakia and their removal from the port on a cargo ship, raising the amount of Syrian chemicals that are now out of the country to nearly half of the total stockpile.

The confirmation came on the heels of an announcement late yesterday by the Joint Mission of two other consignments of chemicals that were delivered to Latakia and removed during the past week. A total of 11 consignments of chemicals have now been transported out of Syria for destruction outside the country. The updated cumulative figures are as follow:

Priority 1 chemicals removed:             34.8 %*
Priority 2 chemicals removed:             82.6 %
Total chemicals removed:                   49.3 %

/snip/

* Includes all sulfur mustard, the only unitary chemical warfare agent in Syria’s arsenal

But the UN has slightly different figures, putting the removal over 50%:

More than half of Syria’s declared chemical weapons arsenal has been shipped out or destroyed within the country, the head of the international team overseeing the disarmament process said on Thursday.

Sigrid Kaag, head of the joint mission of the United Nations and Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), said 54 percent of the toxins had been removed or eliminated.

The process, which President Bashar al-Assad’s government agreed to after a chemical attack killed hundreds of people around Damascus last year, is months behind schedule but Kaag said the new momentum “would allow for timely completion”.

“The joint mission welcomes the momentum attained and encourages the Syrian Arab Republic to sustain the current pace,” Kaag said in a statement.

Russia welcomed this news and added that Syria now has almost no capability of carrying out an attack with chemical weapons:

The Syrian government has reduced its chemical weapons potential close to zero, state-run RIA news agency quoted an unnamed official at the Russian Foreign Ministry as saying on Friday.

“Chemical weapons production facilities, equipment for mixing (chemicals) and operating (the weapons), as well as the means of their delivery have been destroyed,” the official said, adding that the only gas that had been ready for use in weaponry had been completely removed from the country.

“At the moment, Damascus has de facto reduced its military chemical weapons potential to almost zero.”

Sadly, those who relish a restart of the Cold War are unlikely to stop now, so we are left to wonder what Putin will do in response if the US (especially Congressional meddlers) takes further steps claimed to be in response to the annexation of Crimea. Putin’s statement today that he sees no need for further retaliation can be viewed as reining back in the “threat” delivered by Ryobkov after the P5+1 negotiations ended Wednesday. Further action by the US, though, could end Russian cooperation in both the P5+1 process and the Syrian CW situation, seriously hurting current nonproliferation efforts.

It is my hope that Cold War fans will restrict their threats against Russia to the realm of what would happen should Putin try to grab more territory beyond Crimea.

US Pouts Over Potential Crimea Spillover While Russia Enters P5+1 Talks With Optimism

Alissa Rubin today has two separate articles in the New York Times that parrot US misgivings ahead of today’s round of talks between the P5+1 group of countries and Iran. In the article that went up first, Rubin offers anonymity to a “senior American official” to do some hand-wringing over how Russia’s move toward full annexation of Crimea could disrupt US-Russian relations to the point that the P5+1 negotiations could be thrown off track:

Tensions between the West and Russia over events in Ukraine have cast a shadow over the second round of talks set to begin on Tuesday in Vienna on a permanent nuclear agreement with Iran.

/snip/

A senior American official, speaking before the Iran talks and just before the secession vote in Crimea on Sunday that overwhelmingly approved reunification with Russia, indicated concern about possible consequences from the friction over Ukraine. Since western nations consider that vote illegal and have warned President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia not to annex Crimea, the situation for the Iran talks would now seem more worrisome.

“I think that we all hope that the incredibly difficult situation in Ukraine will not create issues for this negotiation,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks.

“We hope that whatever happens in the days ahead, whatever actions we and the international community take, depending upon the decisions and the choices that Russia makes, that any actions that Russia subsequently takes will not put these negotiations at risk,” the official said.

Rubin allows this “official” to frame the situation as only dire while completely ignoring that significant and rapid progress was made on the negotiations for Syria to abandon its chemical weapon stockpile while the US and Russia were on completely opposite sides of the Syrian conflict. In the current case, while Russia is more closely aligned to Iran than the rest of the P5+1, their differences with the group on general issues of nuclear proliferation are much smaller than the differences between the US and Russia in the Syrian conflict. So why is Crimea a barrier to talks with Iran when being on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict wasn’t a barrier to an agreement on chemical weapon destruction?

Even when Rubin moves on to her article relating Iran’s interest in seeing the talks progress, she can’t resist opening with a repeat of the concerns of a spillover of Crimean tensions:

As talks on a permanent nuclear agreement with Iran resumed in Vienna on Tuesday, under the shadow of tensions between the West and Russia, Iran said the onus to ensure progress was on the world powers with which it is negotiating.

“Important and tough discussions ahead today,” Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, said on Twitter. “We have held our end of the bargain. Time for our counterparts to keep theirs.”

The article then goes on to repeat many of the same paragraphs from the original, including the senior American official quotes, although it does mention in passing that EU negotiator Catherine Ashton and Zarif held a brief meeting prior to the main negotiations opening this morning.

Contrast that with the reporting in the Iranian press. PressTV reports that Russia is in fact optimistic about the talks: Read more