FP’s Situation Report: Russian troops pull back but what does it mean?
Hagel is wheels up for Hawaii, Asia; Hagel: who thinks tobacco is still healthy?; SitRep reaches 100,000 readers; George Little gets a promotion; and a bit more.
By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel
NATO will decide today on steps to reinforce eastern European countries anxious over Russia’s move into Crimea. Reuters’ Adrian Croft: "…Diplomats said NATO foreign ministers will look at options ranging from stepped-up military exercises and sending more forces to eastern members states, to the permanent basing of alliance forces there – a step Moscow would view as provocative. Ministers from the 28 alliance members are meeting in Brussels for the first time since Russia’s military occupation and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region caused the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War. While the United States and its allies have made clear they will not intervene militarily in Ukraine, which does not belong to NATO, they have scrambled to reassure anxious NATO members in eastern Europe, particularly ex-Soviet republics in the Baltics, that they are sheltered by the alliance’s security umbrella." More here.
Russia announces it will pull back a battalion from the Ukraine border – but Russia’s intent remains unclear. The WaPo’s Will Englund and Karen DeYoung: "The Russian Defense Ministry said Monday that a motorized infantry battalion is returning home after taking part in military exercises along the Ukrainian border. Russian President Vladimir Putin also told German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a telephone call that he had ordered a "partial withdrawal" of troops, according to Merkel’s office. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also informed Secretary of State John F. Kerry of the withdrawal.
"In Washington, however, officials said they could not confirm that any Russian troop movement had taken place. ‘I cannot confirm .?.?. one way or the other whether the Russians are pulling troops back,’ Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told reporters, saying that the Russian force on Ukraine’s border numbers in the ‘tens of thousands.’ White House press secretary Jay Carney said that "we’ve seen reports, and if they are true .?.?. that would be a positive sign, because it is certainly something that we have explicitly called for.’" More here.
Put the champagne down: American needs to flex its muscle on Ukraine. CFR’s Les Gelb for the Daily Beast: "Don’t pop the champagne corks just yet because Vladimir Putin phoned Barack Obama to pursue diplomacy on Ukraine and environs. It may be just a ploy, like Moscow’s proposal to denude Syria of chemical weapons to head off a potent U.S. air strike against President Assad’s forces. It may just be a gambit to tamp down the West’s drive toward greater sanctions against Russia. And all sinister explanations of the call gain weight by the fact that some 25,000 Russian troops still threaten Ukraine’s borders. Even if Putin is serious about diplomacy for the moment, there is a deeper problem afoot for Obama.
"It is one that the White House rejects outright, but one that officials outside the White House and experts outside the administration are certainly fretting about. It is that Obama’s idea of combating aggression essentially by means of economic sanctions and ‘diplomacy’ is not nearly enough, that the costs of aggression have to be raised, and that there has to be a stronger and more credible military dimension to U.S. national security policy. Whether the White House admits it or not, foes the world over seem to have concluded that Obama has taken the U.S. military force option off the table and made aggression easier." Read more here.
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It’s April Fool’s Day and all but this is no joke: Situation Report has 100,000 readers. As of this morning, the number of subscribers to Situation Report is 100,469. We were at 12,000 readers out of the gate when we launched SitRep 19 months ago. But thanks to the great work of our colleagues – at Foreign Policy and everywhere else, we have great material to work with every day.
Who’s counting? WE are! We thank readers in the extreme for being supportive of a newsletter that is a ton of fun to put together each day. It’s humbling and gratifying and inspiring. We love your over-the-transom recommendations, additions and what we like to call "candy" – little nuggets of news that our readers care about that don’t get anywhere else. Keep them comin’! We even like your "mean-mail" – missives that tell us we messed up, which we do, or missed something altogether. We know some people wish SitRep was one thing when it’s another; or wish it could be shorter – or longer – or quicker, or earlier – or have more cowbell. It’s a balance. We always work to make the newsletter better. Thanks for helping us to do that. And thanks for reading SitRep.
A Little promotion: George Little, the former Pentagon pressec who went to Booz Allen a few months ago, starts today in his new role as Booz Allen’s veep for marketing and communications. He’ll have responsibility for BA’s worldwide branding, marketing, media relations and community relations functions. Make him buy the rounds next time you see him out.
Situation Report clarifies – We wrote yesterday that Denny Blair is becoming the new chairman of the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, and that’s true. But we didn’t put a fine enough point on the fact that he will be the chairman of SPF’s DC entity. SPF’s Tokyo-based chairman isn’t going anywhere. Also, Blair co-chaired a report for Securing America’s Future Energy, or SAFE, not Securing America’s Energy Future, duh.
A new Senate report alleges the CIA misled folks on interrogation. The WaPo’s Greg Miller, Adam Goldman and Ellen Nakashima: " A report by the Senate Intelligence Committee concludes that the CIA misled the government and the public about aspects of its brutal interrogation program for years – concealing details about the severity of its methods, overstating the significance of plots and prisoners, and taking credit for critical pieces of intelligence that detainees had in fact surrendered before they were subjected to harsh techniques." More here.
Aloha: Hagel is wheels up this morning. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will head first to Hawaii, followed by stops in Japan, China and Mongolia. This is Hagel’s fourth trip to the region in less than 12 months and, defense officials are fond of pointing out – a demonstration of his commitment to the "rebalance" to Asia and his emphasis on "face-to-face engagements," as a senior defense official said yesterday.
Hagel, in the Pentagon briefing room yesterday, on the trip: "…Security and stability are key anchors for prosperity, for economic development and we rebalance to the Asia Pacific with all of those different responsibilities and dimensions as our focus. And it’s pretty clear the tremendous progress that’s been made in the Asia Pacific the last few years has been much the result of a secure area, an area that has worked through many of its differences peacefully. There are still issues. There are still questions. But it’s a region that has prospered because they have worked through many of these — these differences."
Staffers on a plane –Chief of Staff Mark Lippert, Senior Military Assistant Lt. Gen. Abe Abrams, "Conference Sherpa" Lindsey Ford, Trip Director J.P. Eby, Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asia Pacific Security Affairs Kelly Magsamen, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Helvey, Director for South and Southeast Asia Christel Fonzo-Eberhard; Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs Brent Colburn, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, Chief Speechwriter Jacob Freedman and Assistant Pentagon Press Secretary Carl Woog. And the Defense Secretary’s wife, Lilibet Hagel, is traveling with her husband as she will be hosting defense minister spouses during the ASEAN conference.
Reporters on a plane – AP’s Lita Baldor, WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum, AFP’s Dan De Luce, Bloomberg’s Gopal Ratnam, NYT’s Helene Cooper, Reuters’ Phil Stewart, CNN’s Jamie Crawford, WaPo’s Ernesto Londono, Bloomberg TV’s Peter Cook, Omaha World Herald’s Joseph Morton.
Hagel prepares to champion climate change at this week’s ASEAN ministerial. The WSJ’s Amy Harder and Dion Nissenbaum: "Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top U.S. officials plan to emphasize increased humanitarian and security risks posed by climate change during meetings this week with military officials from Southeast Asia.
"Mr. Hagel and Rajiv Shah, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, will raise the issue in Hawaii on Wednesday at the start of a three-day meeting of defense ministers from the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations. They plan to tell them that climate change is fueling a need for greater disaster relief and humanitarian aid, while stirring political instability.
"The message reflects an increased effort within the Obama administration to persuade both the U.S. public and other governments that the extreme weather events linked to climate change are putting at risk major swaths of the world’s population, even as polling shows most U.S. residents don’t see it as an urgent issue."
"’Climate change is not just an environmental problem, it’s an economic and security problem as well," said John Podesta, senior counselor to President Barack Obama. "That’s why it’s significant that Secretary Hagel and Administrator Shah have made climate change an integral part of the Asean defense ministers’ forum in Hawaii this week." More here.
A new poll shows that most Afghanistan and Iraq war veterans know a post-9/11 servicemember or veteran who attempted or died by suicide. IAVA press release: "Coming a week after Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA) demanded Congress and the Administration adopt stronger policies to combat veteran suicide, a new poll from the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation found that 51 percent of post-9/11 veterans know a servicemember or veteran who attempted or died by suicide. The findings – similar to recent survey results of IAVA members – underscore the need for Congress and President Obama to take new action on the issue." Full statement here. The WaPo survey here.
Hagel urges the Navy to go cold turkey on on-base sales of tobacco products. Stripes’ Jon Harper: …"I don’t know if there’s anybody in America who still thinks that tobacco is good for you," Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon in response to a question about the Navy review. "We don’t allow smoking in any of our government buildings. Restaurants, states, [and] municipalities have pretty clear regulations on this. I think in reviewing any options that we have as to whether we in the military through commissaries [or] PXs sell or continue to sell tobacco is something we need to look at. And we are looking at it. And I think we owe it to our people." Full story here.
The spy Pollard is on the table in an effort to keep the Israeli-Palestinian peace process afloat. FP’s Shane Harris: "The United States considers him one of the most damaging spies in recent history. Israel considers him a martyr. And now, he may be coming home. Jonathan Pollard, who has been imprisoned for nearly 30 years after giving U.S. military and intelligence secrets to Israel, may be released within the next two weeks as part of what two officials familiar with the discussions described as an effort to salvage the flailing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
"In exchange, these people said, Israel would consider releasing 14 Israeli-Arab prisoners who’ve also been jailed for decades as well, potentially, as Marwan Barghouti, a prominent Palestinian militant. White House spokesman Jay Carney neither confirmed nor denied the reports at his daily press briefing. "I have nothing new…that I haven’t said in the past, which is that [Pollard] was convicted of espionage and that he is serving his sentence," Carney said. The State Department dismissed the discussions as "rumors about what may or may not be on the table." Full story here.
Dempsey is in Jerusalem and hints at Israeli cooperation with the Gulf Arab states. The NYT’s Helene Cooper, in Jerusalem: "Looking for a potential bright spot in the roiling upheaval of the Middle East, American and Israeli officials meeting in Jerusalem on Monday held out the hope of growing security cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors in the Persian Gulf. That idea, basically unthinkable a few years ago, could be more plausible now because of widespread worry over Iran’s nuclear program, coupled with chaos in Syria and turmoil in Egypt.
"Even though Saudi Arabia and other gulf countries have long viewed Israel as the Arab world’s biggest adversary, the rise of threats they all share in common is creating a new urgency to find common ground, the officials said. Emerging from meetings with his Israeli counterparts on Monday, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that discussions included ‘an outreach to other partners who may not have been willing to be partners in the past.’ He added, ‘What I mean is the Gulf states in particular, who heretofore may not have been as open-minded to the potential for cooperation with Israel, in any way.’
"While General Dempsey did not go into specifics, other American military officials said that possibilities include intelligence-sharing, joint counterterrorism exercises and perhaps looking for how Israeli and Saudi troops could jointly work on the training of Syrian opposition fighters." More here.
The U.S. backed off sharing radar information with Honduras. FP’s Dan Lamothe: "The United States has maintained controversial ties to the Honduran military and police for years, even as the Central American country’s government continues to take fire for its horrendous record of corruption and human rights abuses. Washington just took one major step away, however, saying they will no longer provide radar information to the Honduran government that could help it shoot down planes piloted by suspected drug smugglers." More here.
33,000 troops to go: a roadmap to departing Afghanistan. Army Times’ Michelle Tan: "The U.S. has closed nearly 290 bases across Afghanistan as of March 1 and fewer than 80 bases remain. When it comes to personnel, there are still about 33,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but there’s also "a steady path to reduce throughout the year," said Marine Brig. Gen. Daniel O’Donohue, the chief operations officer for the International Security Assistance Force Joint Command. O’Donohue provided an overview of U.S. troops still serving downrange during a March 18 phone interview with Army Times. ‘We’ve reduced our forces from about 100,000, by about 67 percent,’ said he said. ‘We are truly in a support role.’
"… Current forecasts call for 54 more bases to be closed by Aug. 1, and only about 27 bases are expected to remain open by the end of October, O’Donohue said. The goal is to reduce the number of American troops in Afghanistan by about 15 percent by Aug. 1 and by another 20 percent by Oct. 31, he said." More here.
About those MRAPs in Afghanistan… Stimson’s Josh White, writing on FP: "… There are a host of other more practical ways in which the Afghan election may shape Afghan-Pakistani relations. The election outcome, for example, may well influence the transfer of materiel from Afghanistan to neighboring countries. The Washington Post recently reported that 20 countries, including Pakistan, have expressed an interest in mine-resistant ambush-protected (MRAP) vehicles from U.S. stocks. (It remains unclear how many of these are still in Afghanistan, though the majority appear to have been returned to the continental United States.) These vehicles would be made available through the Excess Defense Articles (EDA) process on an "as-is, where-is" basis, meaning that the U.S. government sells them without warranty or delivery.
"For Pakistan, MRAPs are more than a prestige purchase. The Pakistani military has faced a serious threat from militants employing roadside bombs — even while it has been accused of not doing enough to stymie the flow of so-called precursor materials, such as calcium ammonium nitrate, originating in Pakistani territory. Even if Afghan EDA were made available, Pakistan would have to consider whether it really wants to assume the heavy financial and maintenance costs associated with taking on a fleet of ageing, battered MRAPs." More here.
Speaking of which: Pakistan is in line to receive leftover US military hardware. The Nation: "The United States said on Monday that it is reviewing Pakistan’s request for Excess Defence Articles (EDA) programme, adding that if approved, this EDA is to be sourced from US stock in Afghanistan as its troops withdraw. Excess defense articles are military equipment owned by Department of Defense (DoD) and US Coast Guard that are no longer needed and declared excess by the US Armed Forces. This excess equipment is offered at reduced or no cost to eligible foreign recipients in support of US national security and foreign policy objectives.
"… Earlier the US Embassy in a statement said that military equipment that has been determined to be excess could be made available through the worldwide excess defense articles (EDA) program, which is open to all eligible countries, including Afghanistan and Pakistan. "This equipment will not be brought back with US forces from Afghanistan as they redeploy elsewhere", the statement added.
It said that the US assists Pakistan through many security cooperation programs to build partnership capacity.
"Pakistan has requested a variety of excess defense articles. The US is currently reviewing Pakistan’s request. The Department of Defense manages the process for identifying recipients for EDA with State Department approval." Full story here. State Dept statement here.
Reading Pincus: Congress and the Pentagon continue to battle over the Budget. The WaPo’s Walter Pincus: "Defense Department officials and Congress continue to disagree on how to save money in the fiscal 2015 defense budget. In most instances, Pentagon officials have the facts and politicians generally have concern about the effects on their constituents." More here.