Connect with us

Published

on

US basketball star Brittney Griner has arrived back in America after being freed in a prisoner swap with convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death”.

The 32-year-old WNBA star was flown to San Antonio, Texas.

US special presidential envoy, Roger D. Carstens, said: “So happy to have Brittney back on US soil. Welcome home BG!”

Ms Griner was detained in February when customs agents said they found vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport.

She had pleaded guilty at her trial saying she used the cartridges to relieve pain from sports injuries and had made an “honest mistake”.

Nevertheless, a Russian court sentenced her to nine years in prison in August.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Griner’s wife: ‘Family is whole today’

US President Joe Biden said Ms Griner had been held under “intolerable circumstances” and been through a “terrible ordeal”.

More on Brittney Griner

Ms Griner “represents the best of America”, he added.

President Biden insisted the US has not forgotten about Paul Whelan, a former US marine who remains in Russian custody.

A senior US official said the administration tried everything they could to get Mr Whelan out, but “they are treating him differently. They say he is an espionage case. They said the choice was either one [Griner] or none”.

He did not refer to the price the US paid for Ms Griner’s liberty – the release of convicted arms dealer Bout.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Joe Biden says Brittney Griner ‘lost months of her life’

Bout could land public role now he’s home and dry

Victor Bout has been top of the list of citizens Russia wants back for quite some time. He was jailed in 2012 for 25 years on arms dealing charges after two decades spent selling Soviet-era weaponry to rebels, warlords and dictators.

The Taliban, al Qaeda and Charles Taylor’s regime in Liberia were all reportedly on his client roster.

His life was immortalised in the 2005 Hollywood film Lord of War, starring Nicolas Cage. Russia has always declared him innocent and that the case against him was fabricated.

Selling arms at that level tends not to happen without some kind of relationship with Russian security services, which may also be why Russia was so keen to get him home.

“Bout’s personality was demonised,” Russian lawmaker Maria Butina told me back in August after the US secretary of state said it was ready to strike a deal to get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan back. “I believe he’s like an evil Russian for the Americans, a bogeyman,” she said.

Butina herself spent 15 months in US detention after she was convicted of acting as an unregistered foreign agent. Now she has a seat in the parliament.

Russia has a tendency to give public positions to people wanted by the West. Don’t be surprised if Bout finds himself with a similar role now he’s finally made it home.

Ms Griner’s wife Cherelle said she was “overwhelmed with emotions” after going through “one of the darkest moments of my life”.

“So today my family is whole, but as you all are aware, there’s so many other families who are not whole.”

The Griner-Bout swap took place at Abu Dhabi airport, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry.

“The Russian citizen has been returned to his homeland,” it said in a statement.

Pressure on Washington over Griner case

For almost two decades, Bout was one of the world’s most notorious arms dealers, selling weaponry to rogue states, rebel groups and murderous warlords in Africa, Asia, and South America.

Ever since his capture in an elaborate US sting, the Russian state has been keen to bring him back.

President Biden’s agreement to release Bout highlights the escalating pressure that his administration has faced to bring Ms Griner home, particularly after the recent conclusion of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

Ms Griner’s detention was widely condemned by campaigners, including former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who said he was planning to fly to Russia in a bid to free the US basketball player.

The Texan-born athlete revealed her fears that she could be in prison “forever” in a letter to President Biden on US Independence Day.

She wrote: “As I sit here in a Russian prison, alone with my thoughts and without the protection of my wife, family, friends, Olympic jersey, or any accomplishments, I’m terrified I might be here forever.

“On the 4 July, our family normally honours the service of those who fought for our freedom, including my father who is a Vietnam War veteran.

“It hurts thinking about how I usually celebrate this day because freedom means something completely different to me this year.”

Continue Reading

US

What are spy balloons and why could they play a key role in the future of aerial reconnaissance?

Published

on

By

What are spy balloons and why could they play a key role in the future of aerial reconnaissance?

In an era of orbital satellites so advanced that they are able to make out objects half the size of cars from space, a spy balloon might seem like a bit of a relic.

They were a prominent tool for reconnaissance during the Cold War and were even used in a more basic form for intelligence gathering in the Napoleonic Wars more than 200 years ago.

But security experts say the balloons are just the “tip of a revolution” in the development and use of new high-altitude surveillance craft, with the UK even investing millions in a project to develop spy balloons last year.

It comes as the US military on Friday said it was tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon, described as being the size of three buses, that has been flying over northwestern America in recent days.

A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana but the Pentagon would not confirm whether it was the surveillance balloon
Image:
A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana

Read more:
Chinese spy balloon flying over US airspace, says Pentagon
Spy balloon over US is actually a ‘civilian airship’, says China

A senior defence official said the US has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and was flying over sensitive sites to collect information, while China has not immediately denied the balloon belonged to them.

Beijing admitted that the balloon had come from China, but insisted it was a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace and that it was for meteorological and other scientific research.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is postponing a high-profile visit to China which had been due to begin on Sunday.

What are spy balloons?

The devices are lightweight balloons, filled with gas, usually helium, and attached to a piece of spying equipment such as a long-range camera.

They can be launched from the ground and are sent up into the air where they can reach heights of between 60,000ft (18,000m) and 150,000ft (45,000m), above the flight paths of commercial aircraft in an area known as “near space”.

Once in the air, they travel using a mixture of air currents and pressurised air pockets, which can act as a form of steering.

Why are they still useful in the satellite era?

According to defence and security analyst Professor Michael Clarke, the biggest advantage of spy balloons over satellites are that they can study an area over a longer period of time.

Sky News' Defence Analyst Prof Michael Clarke
Image:
Professor Michael Clarke

“The advantage is they can stay in one place for a long time,” he told Sky News.

“Because of the way the Earth rotates, unless a satellite is over the Equator, you need three to five satellites going all the time to track the same spot.

“These balloons are also relatively cheap, and much easier to launch than a satellite.”

Will balloons continue to be used in future for spying?

Very much so, according to Professor Clarke.

Despite the wide use of satellite technology, countries including the UK are also focusing on the development and use of spycraft to operate in the upper atmosphere.

In August, it was announced the Ministry of Defence had agreed a £100m deal with US defence company Sierra Nevada to provide high-altitude unmanned balloons to be used for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Professor Clarke said: “(These balloons) are the very tip of the revolution for passive upper atmosphere aircraft.”

He said other defence firms, such as BAE, were working on ultralight solar-powered drones which are able to operate in the upper atmosphere and stay in place for up to 20 months.

Why have China used them now?

According to Professor Clarke, the use of these balloons, if indeed they were launched by China, will likely have been a message to the US following its decision to open new military bases in the Philippines.

“I think it’s a challenge,” he said.

“They (China) are signalling that if the US is going to come closer to them then they will be more aggressive with their surveillance.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Could there be a US-China war?

Watch: Future Wars: Could there ever be a conflict between the US and China?

“It is also caused a political issue in the US now, because it will be seen as a sign of weakness not to shoot it down.

“This causes some embarrassment, but the US doesn’t need to respond.”

The balloon was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday – close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, says that those involved should be ‘cool-headed’

Military and defence leaders said they considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.

Professor Clarke added: “I think the debris issue is a bit of an excuse. It was over one of the least densely populated areas of the US and if they needed to they could have asked everyone to stay inside.

“I don’t think they wanted to make it a bigger issue, because China are daring them to shoot it down and make it an international issue.”

Continue Reading

US

Chinese spy balloon: US sec of state Blinken speaks with senior Chinese official over cancelled visit

Published

on

By

Chinese spy balloon: US sec of state Blinken speaks with senior Chinese official over cancelled visit

US secretary of state Antony Blinken has spoken with a senior Chinese official about his postponed trip to the country.

US officials said Mr Blinken spoke to the Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office Wang Yi today postponing the planned visit.

But the secretary of state “indicated he would plan to travel” to China “at the earliest opportunity when conditions allow”.

Officials also said they “noted” China’s statement of regret but said “the presence of this balloon in our airspace is a clear violation of our sovereignty, as well as international law, and it is unacceptable that this has occurred”.

The diplomatic wrangling comes after a Chinese surveillance balloon has been tracked by US intelligence in recent days.

In a press conference today, the US defence department has said the Chinese spy balloon is heading eastwards but poses “no physical or military threat” to civilians.

The Pentagon’s press secretary would not confirm the current location of the balloon, which is operating at around 60,000ft.

There is also no evidence of any nuclear or radioactive material on board but it has the ability to be manoeuvred, according to Brigadier General Pat Ryder.

The spy balloon's route from China over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada and into Montana
Image:
The spy balloon’s route from China over the Aleutian Islands, through Canada and into Montana

Watch:
Future Wars: Could there ever be a conflict between the US and China?

He also rejected Chinese claims that the balloon was in fact a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace.

The US authorities said it now knows the object – spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday, close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base – was a Chinese balloon flying over sensitive sites to collect information.

A map showing where the balloon was spotted and the US's Malmstrom Air Force Base
Image:
A map showing where the balloon was spotted and the US’s Malmstrom Air Force Base

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken postponed a high-profile visit to China which had been due to begin on Sunday.

Senior state department officials described the incident as a “clear violation of US sovereignty and international law” and said conditions were “not right at this moment” for Mr Blinken to travel.

Mr Blinken was prepared to depart for China tonight before the trip was postponed, Sky News understands.

He plans to travel “when conditions allow”, according to officials.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Pentagon spokesman said that suspected Chinese spy balloon flying over the US has ‘violated international law’, adding that it doesn’t pose any physical threat for people on the ground.

The Foreign Ministry in Beijing admitted the balloon had come from China – but said it was for meteorological and other scientific research.

The Pentagon spokesperson said it is “monitoring the situation closely and will continue to review options”.

Read more:
What are spy balloons?

China responds to claims by the US that it has identified a Chinese 'surveillance balloon' over Montana
Image:
China responds to claims by the US that it has identified a Chinese ‘surveillance balloon’ over Montana

The balloon will probably remain over the US for a few days, the spokesperson added.

US officials also confirmed military intelligence had previously seen similar surveillance balloons elsewhere.

The object is believed to have flown over the Aleutian Islands, off the coast of Alaska, and through Canada before entering the US.

Military and defence leaders had considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of senior military and defence leaders to review the threat profile of the balloon and possible responses, which were presented to US President Joe Biden on Wednesday.

President Biden, speaking at a White House conference about jobs earlier today, refused to answer questions on the topic.

The US has engaged Chinese officials “with urgency” and communicated the seriousness of the situation.

China and the US have experienced tensions of late, clashing over Taiwan and China’s human rights record and its military activity in the South China Sea.

Continue Reading

US

What are spy balloons and why could they play a key role in the future of aerial reconnaissance?

Published

on

By

Chinese spy balloon: US sec of state Blinken speaks with senior Chinese official over cancelled visit

In an era of orbital satellites so advanced that they are able to make out objects half the size of cars from space, a spy balloon might seem like a bit of a relic.

They were a prominent tool for reconnaissance during the Cold War and were even used in a more basic form for intelligence gathering in the Napoleonic Wars more than 200 years ago.

But security experts say the balloons are just the “tip of a revolution” in the development and use of new high-altitude surveillance craft, with the UK even investing millions in a project to develop spy balloons last year.

It comes as the US military on Friday said it was tracking a suspected Chinese spy balloon that has been flying over northwestern America in recent days.

A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana but the Pentagon would not confirm whether it was the surveillance balloon
Image:
A high-altitude balloon floats over Billings in Montana

Read more:
Chinese spy balloon flying over US airspace, says Pentagon
Spy balloon over US is actually a ‘civilian airship’, says China

A senior defence official said the US has “very high confidence” it is a Chinese high-altitude balloon and was flying over sensitive sites to collect information, while China has not immediately denied the balloon belonged to them.

Beijing admitted that the balloon had come from China, but insisted it was a “civilian airship” that had strayed into American airspace and that it was for meteorological and other scientific research.

What are spy balloons?

The devices are lightweight balloons, filled with gas, usually helium, and attached to a piece of spying equipment such as a long-range camera.

They can be launched from the ground and are sent up into the air where they can reach heights of between 60,000ft (18,000m) and 150,000ft (45,000m), above the flight paths of commercial aircraft in an area known as “near space”.

Once in the air, they travel using a mixture of air currents and pressurised air pockets, which can act as a form of steering.

Why are they still useful in the satellite era?

According to defence and security analyst Professor Michael Clarke, the biggest advantage of spy balloons over satellites are that they can study an area over a longer period of time.

Sky News' Defence Analyst Prof Michael Clarke
Image:
Professor Michael Clarke

“The advantage is they can stay in one place for a long time,” he told Sky News.

“Because of the way the Earth rotates, unless a satellite is over the Equator, you need three to five satellites going all the time to track the same spot.

“These balloons are also relatively cheap, and much easier to launch than a satellite.”

Will balloons continue to be used in future for spying?

Very much so, according to Professor Clarke.

Despite the wide use of satellite technology, countries including the UK are also focusing on the development and use of spycraft to operate in the upper atmosphere.

In August, it was announced the Ministry of Defence had agreed a £100m deal with US defence company Sierra Nevada to provide high-altitude unmanned balloons to be used for surveillance and reconnaissance.

Professor Clarke said: “(These balloons) are the very tip of the revolution for passive upper atmosphere aircraft.”

He said other defence firms, such as BAE, were working on ultralight solar-powered drones which are able to operate in the upper atmosphere and stay in place for up to 20 months.

Why have China used them now?

According to Professor Clarke, the use of these balloons, if indeed they were launched by China, will likely have been a message to the US following its decision to open new military bases in the Philippines.

“I think it’s a challenge,” he said.

“They (China) are signalling that if the US is going to come closer to them then they will be more aggressive with their surveillance.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Could there be a US-China war?

Watch: Future Wars: Could there ever be a conflict between the US and China?

“It is also caused a political issue in the US now, because it will be seen as a sign of weakness not to shoot it down.

“This causes some embarrassment, but the US doesn’t need to respond.”

The balloon was spotted over Billings, Montana, on Wednesday – close to one of the US’s three nuclear missile silo fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, says that those involved should be ‘cool-headed’

Military and defence leaders said they considered shooting the balloon out of the sky but decided against it due to the safety risk from falling debris.

Professor Clarke added: “I think the debris issue is a bit of an excuse. It was over one of the least densely populated areas of the US and if they needed to they could have asked everyone to stay inside.

“I don’t think they wanted to make it a bigger issue, because China are daring them to shoot it down and make it an international issue.”

Spy balloon threatens efforts to ease US-China relations

Distrust between the Chinese and the Americans is as high as it’s been for decades.

An incident like this would serve to feed that distrust no matter when it happened, but coming, as it has, just days before Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s highly significant visit to Beijing could seriously undermine tentative efforts being made on both sides to try to halt any further deterioration in relations.

Mr Blinken is expected to land in Beijing on Sunday and had planned to meet his opposite number Qin Gang as well as Wang Yi, China’s highest ranking diplomat.

A huge amount of painstaking diplomatic effort will have gone into making such a visit possible – the fact it was happening at all is a progress of sorts.

In recent days there has even been suggestions Mr Blinken might meet with President Xi Jinping himself.

If so, he would be the first US secretary of state granted this level of access in five years and it would be a major sign both sides are serious about attempting to smooth over their deeply damaged relations.

The Chinese leader and US President Joe Biden both recognised when they met at the G20 summit late last year that they need to do more to ensure that their distrust and competition does not descend into conflict and confrontation.

This visit was a clear part of that effort. But mutual recognition that spiralling tensions aren’t a good thing is not the same thing as the active rebuilding of trust.

This incident will likely be seen by the Americans as flying in the face of both. And there is, perhaps, an awareness here in Beijing of just how much jeopardy this incident poses to those fledgling efforts.

Indeed, at a regular news conference in Beijing on Friday, there was a clear desire on the Chinese part to contain speculation.

Foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said China was “verifying” the situation and added: “I would like to emphasise that until the facts are clarified, speculation and hype will not be helpful to the proper resolution of the issue.”

Given the low ebb of current relations between the two, Mr Blinken’s visit was not expected to deliver any breakthroughs. It was being framed more as a chance for both sides to restate their positions and red lines and keep the channels of dialogue open.

It will likely never be known if this spy balloon was purposefully scheduled ahead of the visit or if it’s just unfortunate timing, but if it forces Mr Blinken to cancel, the ramifications for the longer term project of containing deteriorating relations could be very serious indeed.

Continue Reading

Trending