The US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley slammed Russia Monday, accusing Moscow of "cheating" and acting like a "virus" by helping North Korea evade international sanctions aimed at curbing Pyongyang's nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
"Russia has been cheating. And now they've been caught," Haley said during a speech at a UN Security Council meeting.
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Her remarks come as the US and its allies have ramped up military efforts to monitor and document evidence of sanctions violations, information the US says proves Moscow's complicity.
"The United States has evidence of consistent and wide-ranging Russian violations," she added.
Russia's ambassador to the UN denied the allegations, accusing Haley of making an "emotional statement" and of attempting to throw America's weight around the UN.
He also denied that Moscow had attempted to strip references to Russia from a UN report on sanctions violations, an allegation made last week by Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The US had said that Russia had intervened with the independent panel of experts to have them remove Russia from its report on North Korea sanctions. Portions of an earlier version of the report shown to CNN last month included references to Russia.
The UN Security Council decided in 2017 to sanction North Korea by placing a cap on Pyongyang's imports of oil and other refined products at 500,000 barrels a year, however Haley accused Russia of helping North Korea skirt those sanctions.
She said Russia is helping Pyongyang by using ship-to-ship transfers on the high seas for "illegal procurement of refined petroleum products."
"One of the main ways North Korea cheats is through ship-to-ship transfers of banned items, mainly oil, but increasingly coal and other goods," Haley said.
"To evade port inspections, oil tankers come together on the high seas. North Koreans use hoses to transfer refined petroleum products to their ships to bring back home" Haley said, saying that "many tankers are willing to provide oil to make a quick buck.
She specifically cited a Russian vessel named the Patriot which she said was captured on film transferring refined petroleum to a North Korean controlled vessel in April.
Haley referenced a recently established US and allied military effort aimed at monitoring this type of sanctions evasion.
"With our allies and partners, the United States has evidence of many more ships we have uncovered providing oil illegally through ship-to-ship transfers,"
Haley said that in 2018 the US military "tracked at least 148 instances of oil tankers delivering refined petroleum products obtained through illegal ship-to-ship transfers," allowing North Korea to obtain over 800,000 barrels of refined petroleum products.
"North Korea continues to illegally procure refined petroleum products with the help of Russia," she said.
US and allies coordinating monitoring efforts
The US and its closest allies quietly launched a new effort several months ago to better coordinate surveillance efforts aimed at monitoring and collecting intelligence of North Korean attempts to evade UN sanctions, information that likely formed the basis of Haley's allegations of Moscow's complicity.
At present the initiative centers on efforts to better share information and coordinate the activities of the half a dozen allies currently involved in patrolling the waters near North Korea in a bid to monitor illicit transfers of refined petroleum to North Korean oil tankers in the East China Sea.
To achieve this the allied nations have established something called the Enforcement Coordination Cell, two US officials tell CNN.
The cell is currently based onboard the US Navy command ship USS Blue Ridge which is assigned to the Navy's 7th fleet.
Multiple military personnel from the allied countries are also working aboard the Japan-based USS Blue Ridge as part of this cell which shares information and de-conflicts patrol to enhance coverage in the East China Sea.
All told approximately 50 personnel are part of the cell, coming from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Japan, South Korea, the UK, and France although officials say that not every country is represented at all times.
This effort is not brand new and has been going on, albeit quietly, for several months.
The US often has multiple Navy warships along with allied vessels operating in the area to support the UN sanctions enforcement mission.
One of the ships that was recently participating in the patrols was the amphibious ship the USS Green Bay according to two US officials.
The mission is also supported by US Maritime patrol aircraft, primarily P-8s, flying daily flights out of Kadena Air Base in Japan.
But despite the relatively large number of military assets dedicated to the mission, officials say that keeping tabs on North Korean smuggling is a major challenge given the amount of ocean involved and the fact that legitimate ship-to-ship transfers in international waters are fairly common.
One US official said that because legitimate transfers "happen all the time" it's often not clear a transfer is illicit until the military imagery is sent back to the intelligence community for analysis.
Because of these challenges officials say coordination and information sharing between the allied countries is essential, hence the establishment of the coordination cell.
One official said that interdiction of North Korean vessels is being looked at as a potential option to curb the illicit transfers but said that no decision has been taken and right now monitoring and sharing information is the only mission the military had been tasked with.
US defense officials told CNN on Thursday that the Trump Administration was planning on being more public about the patrolling mission however a US official said that the announcement of the initiative had been put on hold after aspects of if were first reported in the Wall Street Journal.
The US has not been very public about its efforts partly to avoid irritating Pyongyang in the midst of negotiations over its nuclear program.
"The difficult, sensitive talks with North Korea are ongoing. The Trump-Kim summit has set us on the path toward complete denuclearization. But we are not there yet. And until we get there, we must not ease the powerful worldwide sanctions that are in place," Haley said.
"Russian corruption is like a virus. It is impeding our ability to achieve complete denuclearization in North Korea," she added.
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