Weekly News Update 
WASHINGTON, D.C. August 4, 2017

TO: NCSEJ Leadership and Interested Parties

FROM: Daniel Rubin, Chairman;
Alexander Smukler, President;
Mark B. Levin, Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Dear Friend,

On Wednesday, President Trump signed a new sanctions bill into law that reinforces sanctions against Russia for the 2014 annexation of Crimea and interference in the 2016 U.S. elections. The bill received near-unanimous support in Congress, passing the Senate 98-2 and the House 419-3. President Trump's signing statement regarding the bill can be read here.

Vice President Mike Pence visited Estonia, Georgia, and Montenegro this week. In Estonia and Georgia, Vice President Pence reaffirmed U.S. support for their sovereignty and defense, denouncing Russian aggression and Russian attempts to redraw international borders.

The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the Pentagon and the State Department have drawn up plans to provide Ukraine with lethal aid, including antitank missiles, for its ongoing conflict in Donbass. According to the report, President Trump has not been briefed on the plan and his position regarding lethal aid to Ukraine is not known.

Former Auschwitz guard, 96-year-old Oskar Groening, has been found fit to serve a four year prison sentence for his role in the murder of some 300,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust. Auschwitz survivor Irene Weiss, mother of NCSEJ Deputy Director Lesley Weiss, testified at Groening's trial which concluded in 2015.

In Moldova, hundreds of protesters took to the streets to denounce electoral changes that many people believe give unfair advantages to the two ruling parties, the pro-Western Democratic Party and the pro-Russian Socialists. The next round of parliamentary elections are scheduled for next year.

Mark B. Levin
NCSEJ Executive Vice-Chairman & CEO
Washington, D.C. August 4, 2017

Trump Signs Russian Sanctions Into Law, With Caveats    

By Peter Baker and Sophia Kishkovsky

New York Times, August 2, 2017

President Trump signed legislation on Wednesday imposing sanctions on Russia and limiting his own authority to lift them, but asserted that the measure included “clearly unconstitutional provisions” and left open the possibility that he might choose not to enforce them as lawmakers intended.

The legislation, which also includes sanctions on Iran and North Korea, represented the first time that Congress had forced Mr. Trump to sign a bill over his objections by passing it with bipartisan, veto-proof majorities. Even before he signed it, the Russian government retaliated by seizing two American diplomatic properties and ordering the United States to reduce its embassy staff members in Russia by 755 people.

The measure reflected deep skepticism among lawmakers in both parties about Mr. Trump’s friendly approach to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and an effort to prevent Mr. Trump from letting the Kremlin off the hook for its annexation of Crimea, military intervention in Ukraine and its meddling in last year’s American election. Rather than the rapprochement Mr. Trump once envisioned, the United States and Russia now seem locked in a spiral of increasing tension.

Read the full article here.

After Russia’s Retaliation, Embassy Workers Brace for a ‘Shock to the System       

By Neil MacFarquhar

New York Times, July 31, 2017

The last time the Kremlin forced a sweeping reduction of local staff at the American Embassy in Moscow, a young diplomat named Steven Pifer found himself working four days a week on arms control, as usual. But on the fifth day, he navigated the capital in a big truck to move furniture or haul mammoth grocery loads.

The entire staff of the embassy, except the ambassador, was assigned one day each week to grunt work called All Purpose Duty, Mr. Pifer recalled in an interview on Monday, when they shed their dark suits and polished loafers to mow the lawns, fix the plumbing, cook in the cafeteria and even clean the toilets.

That was a last hurrah for the Cold War in 1986, and although the embassy now functions on a far more complex scale, many current and former diplomats expect a similar effort in the wake of President Vladimir V. Putin’s announcement on Sunday that the United States diplomatic mission in Russia must shed 755 employees by Sept. 1.

Read the full article here.

The Testing Ground for Trump’s Russia Policy

By Uri Friedman

The Atlantic, July 30, 2017

At the moment, U.S.-Russian relations could be thought of as a live experiment in the “Great Man” theory of history, which attributes historical change to the actions of exceptional individuals rather than impersonal forces that transcend any man or woman. If it were up to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, it seems, Russia and the United States would be teaming up to defeat terrorism, leaving the bitter days of sanctions and election meddling and proxy wars behind them.

The evidence to date, however, suggests it’s mostly not up to the two men. Despite all the speculation about the American president cozying up to the Kremlin, the United States under Trump has repeatedly done the opposite. Yes, Trump has echoed Putin talking points, wavered on clearly committing to defend NATO allies, and ended some U.S. funding for rebels fighting Russia’s ally in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad. Yet since Trump took office, the U.S. government has also attacked Assad’s forces, admitted another country to the NATO military alliance over Russian objections, and advanced new sanctions to punish Russia for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.

Many members of Congress and Trump’s own administration, including the president’s defense secretary and national-security adviser, consider Russia a U.S. adversary. Many Americans, amid investigations into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, are suspicious of any White House concession to the Kremlin. And so far, these views, as well as the clashing geopolitical goals of the two world powers, have proven stronger than Trump’s desire to pursue friendlier relations with Moscow.

Read the full article here.

Pence Says U.S. Will ‘Always Stand’ With Baltic Nations          

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 31, 2017

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has reaffirmed Washington's support for the Baltic nations and accused neighboring Russia of seeking to “redraw international borders " and "undermine democracies."

“We stand with the people and nations of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, and we always will,” Pence said on July 31 in the Estonian capital, Tallinn, where he met with the three Baltic presidents -- Kersti Kaljulaid, Raimonds Vejonis, and Dalia Grybauskaite.

Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania are members of NATO and were under Moscow's rule during the Soviet era.

The three countries and other allies in Eastern Europe have expressed concerns about Russia's intentions in their respective regions.

Read the full article here.

Pence Reaffirms U.S. Solidarity With Georgia, Denounces Russian ‘Aggression’

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, August 1, 2017

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has reaffirmed Washington's support for Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity during a visit to Tbilisi and denounced Russia’s “aggression” and “occupation” of Georgian territory.

“America stands with Georgia," Pence said on August 1 at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Giorgi Kvirikashvili.

“Today, Russia continues to occupy one-fifth of Georgian territory,” Pence said. “So, to be clear -- the United States of America strongly condemns Russia's occupation on Georgia's soil."

The Kremlin recognized Georgia's breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries after fighting a five-day war against Tbilisi in 2008. Russia maintains thousands of troops in the two regions.

Read the full article here.

Pentagon Offers Plan to Arm Ukraine

By Julian E. Barnes, Laurence Norman, and Felicia Schwartz

The Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2017

The U.S. Pentagon and State Department have devised plans to supply Ukraine with antitank missiles and other weaponry and are seeking White House approval, U.S. officials said, as Kiev battles Russia-backed separatists and ties between Moscow and Washington fray.

American military officials and diplomats say the arms, which they characterized as defensive, are meant to deter aggressive actions by Moscow, which the U.S. and others say has provided tanks and other sophisticated armaments as well as military advisers to rebels fighting the Kiev government.

Since Russia invaded and annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and then began supporting Russian-speaking insurgents in the country’s east, Washington, wary of escalating the conflict, has largely limited its support for Kiev’s military to so-called non-lethal aid and training.

A senior administration official said there has been no decision on the armaments proposal and it wasn’t discussed at a high-level White House meeting on Russia last week. The official said President Donald Trump hasn’t been briefed on the plan and his position isn’t known.

Read the full article here.

Forget Saakashvili’s political career. Ukrainian democracy is in danger.

By Maxim Eristavi

Washington Post, July 31, 2017

Ukraine made news this week by making Mikheil Saakashvili stateless for the second time in his career. Barely two years have passed since the leaders of post-revolutionary Ukraine invited the former Georgian leader to their country to support its reform program. They offered him a Ukrainian passport as part of the bargain. Since his vindictive political opponents back home in Georgia had already stripped him of his citizenship there, he was happy to accept the offer.

His experiment in trans-border politics has now collapsed, and Saakashvili is crying foul, accusing Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko of engaging in a political vendetta. (Over the past year Saakashvili has become one of Poroshenko’s harshest critics, which likely prompted the government’s action.) The presidential administration is now attacking Saakashvili for allegedly lying on his citizenship application form.

It’s a juicy scandal, so it’s understandable that the international media are transfixed by the story. Yet most of the breathless commentary is missing the point. Ukrainian democracy is in serious danger.

Read the full article here.

Antisemitic Graffiti Targets WZO in Ukraine       

By Tamara Zieve

Jerusalem Post, July 30, 2017

Vandals in northwestern Ukraine sprayed Nazi symbols and other antisemitic graffiti that targeted the World Zionist Organization, the organization learned on Sunday.

 According to the WZO, local residents visiting a monument for victims of the Holocaust discovered the graffiti near the site, located in the village of P’yatydni in Volyn Oblast. In 1942, the Nazis killed 20,000 Jews near the village, shooting them execution-style on the edge of giant pits into which the bodies fell.

A local Jewish activist affiliated with the WZO who is engaged in work to fight antisemitism reported the incident.

An equals sign with the initials WZO painted on one side and a Star of David and a swastika on the other were found on the ground in front of the steps leading to the monument.

Read the full article here.

Former Auschwitz guard, 96, found fit to serve prison sentence

JTA, August 2, 2017

A 96-year-old former Auschwitz guard is fit to serve a prison sentence, according to prosecutors in the German state of Hanover.

Oskar Groening was convicted and sentenced in July 2015 to four years in jail for his role in the murder of 300,000 Hungarian Jews at the concentration camp in Poland. A federal appeals court rejected his appeal in November.

A doctor who examined Groening found him fit to go to prison with appropriate medical care, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office told The Associated Press. The prosecutor’s office then rejected a defense request to excuse Groening from going to jail.

Read the full article here.

Russia warns Poland not to touch Soviet WW2 memorials    

BBC, July 31, 2017

The Russian government has warned Poland that it will face sanctions if it removes monuments glorifying the Soviet victory in World War Two.

Last month Poland updated its "de-communisation" legislation, banning "totalitarian" symbols, which would include Soviet propaganda monuments.

Now Russian foreign ministry officials have warned of "asymmetric measures" if Poland removes Soviet war monuments.

Russia could refuse visas for Polish officials or downgrade trade relations. The officials, quoted by the Russian daily Izvestia, were not named.

The Red Army's defeat of Nazi German forces on Polish soil in 1944-1945 remains a thorny issue in Russian-Polish relations.

Read the full article here.

Moscow ‘Disappointed’ Over Exclusion from Sobibor Museum Project

By Tamara Zieve

Jerusalem Post, August 2, 2017

The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry has accused Poland of attempting to rewrite history after being excluded from an international project to build a museum and memorial on the grounds of the Sobibor Nazi death camp in eastern Poland.

A statement from the ministry on Monday expressed Moscow’s disappointment over Warsaw’s “refusal to include Russia in the project,” which includes plans to build a new memorial and visitor center.

“We see this decision as unethical in terms of the historical truth,” the statement read. “It is hard to deny that Russia’s involvement in building a new Sobibor memorial and museum is absolutely justified.

There is no rational explanation for ignoring historic facts and this must not go unnoticed by the global community.

“The intention to prevent Russia from participating in the project is part of Warsaw’s openly demonstrated anti-Russia sentiment and Poland’s attempts to impose its own understanding of history by belittling the Soviet Union’s and the Red Army’s role as liberators during WWII.”

Read the full article here.

Israeli Ambassador to Russia Expresses Renewed Concern Over Advantages for Iran from Trump-Putin Syria Deal

By Ben Cohen

Algemeiner, August 1, 2017

Israel’s envoy in Moscow told a Russian news outlet on Tuesday that the Jewish state would remain “skeptical” of the recent US-Russian deal to create “de-escalation zones” in Syria until the issue of Iran’s growing military presence in the war-torn country was resolved.

“Until they bring concrete results in terms of reducing the Iranian presence, we will be skeptical about the effectiveness of this policy,” Israeli Ambassador Gary Koren said in an interview with the Sputnik news agency, a media outlet loyal to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Koren said that Israel “appreciated” Russia’s diplomatic efforts in Syria, but insinuated that Israel’s national interests were not all served by the Syria agreement reached on July 7 — a deal that led one influential former IDF general to harshly criticize US President Donald Trump for “ignoring” his “commitment to oust the Iranians from Syria,” thereby exposing Israel to a heightened threat from Iran and Hezbollah on its own borders.

Read the full article here.

Russia, Not the U.S., is Now Calling the Shots in the Middle East with Iran and Iraq

By Tom O’Connor

Newsweek, August 3, 2017

Russia's deputy foreign minister met Wednesday with leading diplomats from Iran and Iraq to discuss combating Islamist extremist groups and the future of Syria.

With the U.S. minimizing efforts to topple the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iraq expressing weariness of the U.S.'s extended presence in its country, Russia has become an increasingly important power broker in the region. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met in Moscow with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hossein Jaberi Ansari and Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister for Political Affairs Nazar Khairallah to emphasize the "principled position of the three countries" on Syria. All three expressed support for Assad in a lengthy war pitting his armed forces against jihadists and opposition groups, according to Syria's pro-government Al-Watan newspaper and Iran's semi-official Tasnim News Agency.

Bogdanov also took the opportunity to attack the U.S.'s most recent round of sanctions against his country. The Russian diplomat called the sanctions "absolutely unlawful" and said they would further alienate the U.S. at a time where Washington is seeking to work more closely with Moscow in the Middle East and on other international affairs.

Read the full article here.

Hundreds Rally in Moldova Against Electoral Changes    

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 30, 2017

Hundreds of protesters rallied in Moldova after parliament approved controversial changes to the electoral system that critics say favors the country's two largest political parties.

Protesters carrying Moldovan and European Union flags gathered in front of the parliament building in the capital, Chisinau, on July 30.

Demonstrators in the former Soviet republic chanted "Thieves! Down with the dictatorship!"

Protesters have staged several rallies since lawmakers approved the changes on July 27, including lowering the threshold for political alliances to enter parliament, creating new constituencies, and requiring candidates to declare their assets.

Read the full article here.

Open Georgia, Closed Georgia     

By Thomas de Waal

Carnegie Europe, July 31, 2017

Georgia has never been so open to the world. Boosted by more direct flights to and from Europe, the country received a record 1.3 million temporary visitors in the first six months of 2017, 29 percent more than in the same period last year. The main summer season will see the arrival of even bigger numbers. Meanwhile, 55,000 Georgians have taken advantage of free ninety-day visas to the EU granted to them since March.

Yet unfortunately, this wave of travel is happening just as Georgia’s political system is looking more closed and opaque than for many years. The problems stem from the unhealthily large majority the ruling Georgian Dream party received in the 2016 parliamentary election. Thanks as much to the opposition’s dysfunction as to the party’s own campaign, Georgian Dream won 115 seats out of 150 in the parliament, effectively earning the chance to govern unchecked.

It’s the third time since independence in 1991 that Georgia has become a de facto one-party state. In 1999, then president Eduard Shevardnadze’s ruling party had a huge majority in the parliament, and president Mikheil Saakashvili’s National Movement had the same between 2004 and 2012. On both occasions, one-party domination hurt Georgian democracy.

Read the full article here.

[Link to pdf of full articles]
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Founded in 1971, the National Coalition Supporting Eurasian Jewry represents the organized American Jewish community in monitoring and advocating on behalf of the estimated 1.5 million Jews in Eastern Europe and Eurasia, including the 15 successor states of the former Soviet Union.