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Austria, world’s intelligence capital, leans toward Russia

Austria to host Vladimir Putin next week

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If the Russians did it, and insert accusation here, then surely the Austrians would know about it. After all, they’re the intelligence capital of the world.

They’re supposed to be home to the best spies, and perhaps have lots of good ones, themselves.

So, again, if Russia was up to all the nefarious activities that Washington and London keep griping about, then surely they would have some goods on it and therefore know that cozying up to Moscow isn’t the best maneuver. But apparently, they haven’t yet caught on.

NBC news reports:

VIENNA — In a 19th-century kaffeehaus here, a handful of political activists nod their heads while sharing opinions many would consider racist, homophobic and awash with conspiracy theories.

One topic is never far from their lips: These men believe that historically neutral Austria should turn its back on the West and embrace Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“It’s our aim to somehow counter this negative image of Russia propagated in Western media,” Alexander Markovics, 26, says between sips of fizzy apple juice.

“We have to take the side of Russia,” the stocky and bearded Markovics adds. “Russia is a country that gets oppressed and is actually the victim of Western imperialism.”

Here in Austria, pro-Kremlin views aren’t just confined to fringe political meetings.

The country’s government appears to be drifting closer to Putin. With Vienna widely regarded as the spying capital of the world, that has serious implications for Washington and its allies.

One factor is at the heart of these concerns: the far-right Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) — which is openly supportive of Russia.

“Austria is economically and politically integrated in the West, but the FPÖ is trying to play the card of being part of the East,” says Gustav Gressel, a former desk officer at the Austrian Ministry of Defense. “If you have an East-West confrontation, you basically have parts of your enemy behind your own lines.”

Founded by former Nazis in the 1950s, the FPÖ has been a junior member of the country’s coalition government since December. As part of that deal, it was given responsibility for Austria’s defense and interior ministries, and with them the domestic and military intelligence services.

The FPÖ won 26 percent of the vote in last year’s legislative elections by deploying anti-establishment, anti-immigrant populist rhetoric that was condemned by opponents as racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic.

The party and its leading figures are also unashamedly fans of Putin. The idea of a pro-Russia party controlling intelligence services has led to fears that Western secrets aren’t safe any more if shared with Vienna.

“Austria is part of the European Union defense policy, and whatever is agreed and discussed there will be leaked to Moscow,” predicts Gressel, who is now a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.

“The issue is trust and mistrust,” says Siegfried Beer, a leading espionage expert at the Austrian Center for Intelligence, Propaganda and Security Studies, who added that in terms of security and dealing with partners, giving the FPÖ control of the intelligence services “was not the best solution.”

Austria’s tradition as a playground for espionage dates back to the 19th century and was immortalized in the 1949 film, “The Third Man.” Spying is legal here unless it’s against the Austrian state itself.

It was therefore no coincidence that Vienna was the venue for a high-profile spy swap between the U.S. and Russia in 2010 involving renowned Russian agent Anna Chapman.

The country’s neutral status — neither part of NATO nor allied to Russia — means it’s home to a large number of nongovernmental and international organizations. Experts say many diplomats working in the city are actually spies, with Beer and others estimating the number at around 7,000.

‘IT STINKS TO HIGH HEAVEN’

The FPÖ is not shy about its affection for Russia.

In 2016, party leader Heinz-Christian Strache signed a formal “cooperation pact” with Putin’s United Russia party — unprecedented for a mainstream political group in Western Europe.

It was not just symbolic. After the deal, the parties agreed to “reinforce the links between our parties and countries, including in the field of international security,” according to United Russia politician Sergei Zheleznyak.

“There’s a cause for concern,” says William Eacho, who served as U.S. ambassador to Austria from 2009 to 2013. “It’s certainly going to give other nations pause when it comes to sharing intelligence with the Austrians.”

Both Eacho and Beer say there is no concrete evidence that the FPÖ has so far used its position in government to help Russia.

But the point, they say, is that Russian links alone would be enough to prompt concern among Western powers.

“In the Austrian Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior, which are controlled by the FPÖ, you have people collaborating with the power you are preparing yourself to go to war against. That’s not very reassuring,” says Gressel, the former defense official.

Others allege that the FPÖ’s fondness for Russia has already had a measurable effect. Austria was one of the few European Union countries that refused to follow the U.K. and others in expelling Russian diplomats after the poisoning of ex-spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter on British soil in March.

The FPÖ’s senior coalition partner is the conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), led by Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz. Kurz, 31, explained that he wouldn’t expel diplomats because he wanted Austria to be a “builder of bridges between East and West” and “to keep the channels of communication to Russia open.”

The FPÖ has also called for an end to anti-Russia sanctions and backed a referendum on leaving the European Union — an institution Putin has long sought to destabilize…

A REBALANCING ACT

Austria’s warmth for Russia is neither new nor confined to the far-right, however.

The Allies and Soviets withdrew from the country in 1955 on the condition it wouldn’t take sides in the Cold War. It entered the E.U. in 1995, but never joined NATO.

Many Austrian citizens appear to have a fondness for Russia, too. More than one-third said they favored softer sanctions after the annexation of Crimea in 2014, according to a poll by the Austrian market research company OGM.

Back in the kaffeehaus, Markovics and his friends say that “heavy” Western “propaganda” over Crimea spurred them into creating their activist group, called the Suworow Institute after a Russian military leader from the 1700s.

The institute employs seven people and has around 100 members, according to its founder, 31-year-old Patrick Poppel.

“We try to present a different perspective especially on Russian foreign policy,” Poppel says, peering through his small, wire-rimmed glasses.

Poppel and Markovics were both members of the FPÖ, but quit because they feel the party hadn’t gone far enough in supporting Moscow while in government. They also say the FPÖ has been too soft on what they call the “Islamization” of Europe by refugees.

They deny any links to the Russian state, and say they are not racist or fascist.

However, Poppel talks of defending “Christian civilization” by closing Austria’s borders to immigrants and Muslims. He also wants to repatriate all those deemed non-indigenous — even though his wife is from Armenia — and speaks out against liberals who advocate “extreme homosexuality and feminism.”

Ultimately, Markovics says, the group believes that “elites” in the U.S. and its allies are dominating Europe, and “making profit out of actions that could lead us directly into nuclear apocalypse.”

They see greater ties with Russia as a way to rebalance that.

‘DEFINITELY NOT A THREAT’

The FPÖ insists its links to Moscow are not problematic.

Johannes Hübner is a lawyer, former FPÖ lawmaker and member of the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society. He withdrew his candidacy in last year’s legislative elections after giving a speech some claimed had anti-Semitic overtones — something he denies.

Speaking to NBC News over eggs and avocado on the veranda of his spacious Vienna apartment, Hübner recounted his time in Parliament.

“As a politician, I used a lot of my energy to lobby for more understanding for Russia and to lobby against cutting ties with Russia again,” he says.

Unlike the fringe Suworow Institute, the Austrian-Russian Friendship Society boasts high-profile politicians, businessmen and academics in Vienna and Moscow among its members.

Its board includes prominent FPÖ lawmaker Johann Gudenus, 41, a square-jawed speaker who studied in Moscow. He is often cited as the prime example of his party’s deep ties with Russia. When contacted by NBC News, Gudenus’ spokesman said he was not available.

Does Hübner see any problem or malice in fostering ties to a country often criticized by Western watchdogs as undemocratic and a human rights abuser?

“It is definitely not a threat,” he says, smiling gently. “I was in politics for almost nine years here and I would have realized if [Russia] tried to influence policy … or if they bribed people for a dark network. It doesn’t exist.”

Like many in the FPÖ, he says building bridges to Russia is important to counterbalance the “overwhelming American influence,” which is too often presented as the “white knight” of global affairs.

“The Moscow influence in Europe is zero,” Hübner adds. “It would be good if we had more influence from Russia. Not 50 percent, but maybe 10 percent or 15 percent. Now it is maybe 1 percent.”

Next week, the Austrian President, Alexander Van der Bellen and Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, are scheduled to host Russian President Vladimir Putin and talk relations as well as economic cooperation. They intend to discuss world events and their perspectives on major issues.

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Theresa May’s soft Brexit plan continues to fail, as EU now pushing for UK to leave (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 138.

Alex Christoforou

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Theresa May’s soft Brexit strategy has been such a monumental failure that even Brussels negotiators are now pushing for the UK to simply leave the union, in what has becoming a British debacle, and a thorn in the Conservative Party’s side.

Many media pundits and analysts are now asking if the latest impasse in Brexit talks means that we are indeed seeing the last days of Theresa May?

While much of the mess the Conservative Party finds themselves in because of Brexit is squarely Theresa May’s fault, much of the damage done by May’s inability to close the deal on Brexit will not go away, even if she does.

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris discuss Theresa May’s continued failure to obtain her soft Brexit dream, placing herself (and her Conservative Party) in such an embarrassing position, that European Union negotiators, tired of never ending talks, are eager to see Britain go away, in what will be an inevitable hard Brexit.

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“Are these the last days of Theresa May?”, authored by Stephen Bush via The New Statesman:


Are these the last days of Theresa May? This morning’s papers are full of stories of plots and ultimatums to the Prime Minister unless she changes her Brexit strategy, whether from her Scottish MPs over any extension of the transition period due to concerns over fisheries policy, from her Brexiteer MPs over the backstop or from her Cabinet over practically everything.

All this before the Budget next Monday, when Philip Hammond is going to have to find some way to pay for the extra cash for the NHS and Universal Credit all while keeping to May’s pledge that debt will continue to fall as a share of GDP. So added to all May’s Brexit woes, a row over tax rises could be coming down the track.

Of course, the PM’s position has been perilous for a very long time – in fact, when you remember that her period of hegemony ran from July 2016 to June 2017, she’s actually been under threat for more of her premiership than she hasn’t. But just because you roll heads 36 times in a row doesn’t mean your chances of rolling tails aren’t 50/50 on roll 37, and May’s luck could well be running out.

But while May shares a good size of the blame for the mess that the Conservative Party are in, it’s not all her fault by any means and none of those problems will go away if May is replaced or changes tack to win over her internal opponents in the European Research Group.

Ireland has a veto over the end state and only an indefinite and legally binding backstop for the island of Ireland will do if any deal is to be signed off. It’s true to say that no deal also means a hard border on the island of Ireland, but it’s also true that it will always been in the political interests of whoever is in office in Ireland for a hard border to be imposed as a result of no deal rather than for the Irish government to acquiesce in the creation of one through a EU-UK treaty.

The DUP can bring the Conservative government to an early end so they, too, have a de facto veto over any deal that creates barriers between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. But the only UK-wide solution – for the backstop to encompass the whole of the United Kingdom – is nothing doing with pro-Brexit Conservative MPs who don’t want an indefinite backstop. It’s also politically tricky with many EU member states, who don’t want the default outcome of the talks to be a UK-wide backstop, which many regard as a threat to the sanctity of single market. (The only reason why it is acceptable on the Irish border is because Ireland is still a member state and because the Irish border was both the location and the cause of political violence within living memory.)

Added to that, the Conservative parliamentary party seems to be undergoing a similar psychological journey to the one that Steve van Riel described during the 2015 Labour leadership election: that groups of any kind tend to reach a more extreme position the longer an issue is debated. Brexiteers who spent 20 years saying they wanted a Norway style deal now talk of Norway as a betrayal. Leavers who cheerily talked about making Northern Ireland into its own customs area before Brexit now talk of the backstop as a constitutional betrayal. And Conservative Remainers who only reluctantly backed an In vote to avoid the political upheaval of negotiating Brexit, or the loss of David Cameron, now call for a referendum re-run and privately flirt with the idea of a new party.

Some of that is May’s fault, yes. But none of it is going to go away if she does and all of it makes the prospect of reaching a Brexit deal considerably less likely.

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Saudi Crown Prince Spoke To Khashoggi By Phone Moments Before He Was Killed: Report

The shifting Saudi narrative of the killing has been met with scepticism and condemnation from the international community.

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Via Zerohedge


In the latest bombshell report involving the Khashoggi murder, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly spoke on the phone with journalist Jamal Khashoggi moments before he was murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Turkish pro-government daily Yeni Safak disclosed the new alleged details of the case in a report on Sunday, contradicting claims by Saudi authorities that Prince Mohammed played no part in Khashoggi’s murder.

“Khashoggi was detained by the Saudi team inside the consulate building. Then Prince Mohammed contacted Khashoggi by phone and tried to convince him to return to Riyadh,” the report said.

“Khashoggi refused Prince Mohammed’s offer out of fear he would be arrested and killed if he returned. The assassination team then killed Khashoggi after the conversation ended,” it added.

While the report is so far unconfirmed, the New Arab reports that so far Turkish pro-government media have been receiving a steady stream of leaks many of which turned out to be accurate, including pictures of the hit team as they entered Turkey and reports of audio recordings of the murder said to be in the possession of Turkish authorities.

Meanwhile, the Saudi version of events has been changing significantly over the past two weeks with authorities conceded Saturday that Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist and a Riyadh critic, was killed inside the kingdom’s Istanbul diplomatic compound following a “brawl”. The admission came after a fortnight of denials with the insistence that the journalist left the consulate alive, starting on October 5, when Crown Prince MBS told Bloomberg that Khashoggi was not inside the consulate and “we are ready to welcome the Turkish government to go and search our premises”.

On Saturday, the kingdom announced it had fired five top officials and arrested 18 others in an investigation into the killing – a move that has widely been viewed as an attempt to cover up the crown prince’s role in the murder.

The shifting Saudi narrative of the killing has been met with scepticism and condemnation from the international community, and has left the U.S. and other allies struggling for a response on Sunday. As Bloomberg reports, France demanded more information, Germany put arms sales to Riyadh on hold and the Trump administration stressed the vital importance of the kingdom and its economy to the U.S.

In Sunday radio and TV interviews, Dominic Raab, the U.K. politician in charge of negotiating Britain’s exit from the European Union, described the latest Saudi account as not credible; French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire called for “the truth’’; and Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said his government would approve no arms sales so long as the investigation was ongoing.

Earlier on Sunday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir acknowledged a cover-up attempt. The dramatic reversal, after Saudi officials had previously said the columnist left the building alive, has only complicated the issue for allies.

Saudi Arabia’s al-Jubeir told Fox News on Sunday that the journalist’s death was an “aberration.”

“There obviously was a tremendous mistake made and what compounded the mistake was the attempt to cover up,” he said, promising that “those responsible will be punished for it.”

More importantly, he said that Prince Mohammed had no knowledge of the events, although if the Turkish report is confirmed, it will be yet another major flaw with the official narrative.

Several senior members of US President Donald Trump’s Republican Party said they believed Prince Mohammed was linked to the killing, and one called for a “collective” Western response if a link is proved. In an interview with The Washington Post, President Trump, too, said the Saudi narrative had been marked by “deception and lies.’’ Yet he also defended Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a “strong person,’’ and said there was no proof of his involvement in Khashoggi’s death. Some members of Congress have questioned his willingness to exonerate the prince.

“Obviously there’s been deception and there’s been lies,” Trump said on the shifting accounts offered by Riyadh.

On Sunday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to disclose details about the case at a meeting of his AK Party’s parliamentary faction on Tuesday, Haberturk newspaper reported.

Meanwhile, as Western firms and high-ranked officials scramble to avoid any Saudi involvement, Russia is more than happy to step in and fill the power vacuum void left by the US. As a result, Russian businesses are flocking to attend the investment forum in Saudi Arabia, as Western counterparts pull out.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has had considerable success boosting Moscow’s influence in the Middle East at U.S. expense, by standing by regimes that fall afoul of the West, including in Syria and Iran. Last week Putin signed a strategic and partnership agreement with Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, backed by $25 billion in loans to build nuclear reactors. Until El-Sisi came to power, Egypt had been closely allied to the U.S.

Meanwhile, all eyes are fixed squarely on the Crown Prince whose position of power is looking increasingly perilous. Congressional leaders on Sunday dismissed the story proffered earlier by the Saudis, with Republican Senators Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Bob Corker of Tennessee saying they believed the crown prince was likely involved in Khashoggi’s death.

Lawmakers said they believe the U.S. must impose sanctions on Saudi Arabia or take other action if the crown prince is shown to have been involved. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, the chamber’s No. 2 Democrat, said the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. should be formally expelled until a third-party investigation is done. He said the U.S. should call on its allies to do the same.

“Unless the Saudi kingdom understands that civilized countries around the world are going to reject this conduct and make sure that they pay a price for it, they’ll continue doing it,”’ Durbin said.

The obvious question is what happens and how the Saudi royal family will respond if it is pushed too far, and whether the worst case scenario, a sharp cut in oil exports, could be on the table if MBS feels like he has little to lose from escalating the situation beyond a point of no return.

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The Biggest Winners In The Mediterranean Energy War

Energy companies are flocking to the Mediterranean after oil and gas discoveries in the territorial waters of Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt.

The Duran

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Authored by Vanand Meliksetian via Oilprice.com:


Former Vice-President of the United States Dick Cheney once said: “the good lord didn’t see fit to put oil and gas only where there are democratically elected states… Occasionally we have to operate in places where, all considered, one would not normally choose to go. But we go where the business is.” Europe is surrounded by states with abundant energy resources, but supply from these countries is not always as reliable. Russia, for example, is regularly accused of using energy as a weapon. However, major discoveries of gas in the Eastern Mediterranean could mitigate dependence on Russian gas.

The discovery of a gas field named Tamar near the coast of Israel in 2009 set off a wave of investments in the energy sector. After 9 years, companies are flocking to the region after other discoveries in the territorial waters of Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt. Ever larger finds in the Mediterranean Sea’s Levant Basin such as the Leviathan gas field in 2010 and Zohr in 2015, have the potential to transform the strategic importance of the region.

Turkey’s energy hub ambitions

Few states in the world are geographically so well positioned as Turkey. The country controls Russia’s only warm water port in the Black Sea and serves as a bridge between east and west. Therefore, during the Cold War Ankara was an indispensable member of NATO. More recently, Turkey has the ambition to become an energy hub for Middle Eastern and Caspian energy. Ankara has had mixed successes in attracting investors and maintaining political stability.

After Israel’s significant discoveries, a U.S. backed initiative presented Turkey as an energy hub. Although a land pipeline is the cheapest option to transport gas from the Mediterranean to Europe, political developments have stalled construction. President Erdogan’s escalating public denunciations of Israel have made Jerusalem look for other options. Furthermore, relations with Europe have also been damaged which would be dependent on Turkey as a transit country.

Egypt as the regional gas hub

Egypt’s has the third largest gas reserves in Africa. Therefore, its export-oriented LNG industry came on-stream in 2004 but was shut mid-2013 due to a lack of resources. The growth of the domestic market demanded ever larger volumes, which went at the expense of exports. Instead, Egypt started importing LNG. However, the discovery of the massive Zohr gas field, the largest in the Eastern Mediterranean, has turned around the situation. Egypt imported its last shipment of LNG in September 2018.

Although relations between Egypt and Israel are far from normal, privately held companies have been able to strike a deal. Starting from the first quarter of 2019, in 10 years 64 bcm worth $10 billion will be delivered. The agreement has stirred controversy in Egypt, which until recently was exporting to Israel. However, with this deal, Cairo comes closer in becoming an energy hub.

The recent signing of another agreement, this time with Nicosia to develop a subsea pipeline from Cyprus’ Aphrodite gas field, has been another important step. Cypriot gas will be pumped 400 miles (645 kilometers) to the south to Egypt’s LNG facilities. Difficult relations with Nicosia’s northern neighbors make a pipeline to the north highly unlikely.

Cairo has been able to act pragmatically concerning its relations with its neighbors such as Israel while taking advantage of the limited amount of options for exporting gas. The obvious winner in this context has been Egypt and its LNG industry. Its chances of becoming the regional energy hub instead of Turkey have significantly increased.

Turkey’s hope for luck

All littoral states of the Eastern Mediterranean struck ‘gold’ in the shape of natural gas except for Turkey. Ankara strongly opposes the exploitation of the gas resources in the exclusive economic zone of the Republic of Cyprus without a sharing agreement with Northern Cyprus’ Turkish inhabitants. The Turkish Navy prevented ships from Italy’s Eni from performing exploratory drilling off the coast of the Republic of Cyprus.

In search of its own luck, Ankara has set up a project to start looking for gas in the EEZ of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC), which is only recognized by Turkey. Kudret Özersay, TRNC deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs, proclaimed the desire to turn the TRNC into an energy and electricity hub. However, it seems unlikely that investors will be willing to participate due to political and legal reasons.

The legal situation of the TRNC is an impediment to any major decision involving a longtime commitment worth billions. From an international point of view, the region is de jure part of the Republic of Cyprus, despite holding no control over the region. The TRNC holds no seat in the WTO.

Large investments require solid legal and political support for companies to earn back their investments. The current economic situation of Turkey makes it dependent on foreign money. However, stringent due diligence rules could impede some international banks in lending the necessary funds.

The Eastern Mediterranean Sea basin promises great rewards, but the risks are also high. With Turkey potentially being the only country that doesn’t profit from the gas bonanza, Ankara has acted aggressively to get what it regards as its fair share. However, it faces a united front from the other littoral states of the Eastern Mediterranean. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that Turkey will be able to profit in the same way as Cyprus, Egypt or Israel.

By Vanand Meliksetian for Oilprice.com

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