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SitRep: Russia and Ukraine, at the Brink?; House and Senate Looking to Press, Contain Moscow

SitRep: Russia and Ukraine, at the Brink?; House and Senate Looking to Press, Contain Moscow

 

Crimean tensions. Russia has put air defense units on high alert and deployed ships from the Black Sea fleet off the coast of Crimea in preparation for two days of missile tests Ukraine has said it will conduct on Thursday and Friday.

Russia has reportedly threatened to shoot down the missiles and strike their launch platforms if the tests go forward, but Kiev has rejected the threats, saying the tests will occur 18 miles outside of Crimean airspace. One Russian official told RIA that the deployed ships are “designed in the first instance to shoot down heavy anti-ship missiles and cruise missiles. Together with land-based air defense units on the peninsula, the ships have thrown up a practically impenetrable shield against the enemy’s rockets.”

In August, Russia deployed long-range S-400 missile systems to Crimea, which it annexed in 2014 to widespread international outrage, and in September Moscow carried out large-scale military land exercises on the peninsula.

Russia popular on the Hill. The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed — by a 390-30 margin — a new intelligence policy bill that takes aim at Russia by calling for the establishment of a high-level panel to counter Russian attempts to “exert covert influence” in the United States and its allies.

The bill says the committee would work on “countering active measures by Russia to exert covert influence, including exposing falsehoods, agents of influence, corruption, human rights abuses, terrorism and assassinations carried out by the security services or political elites of the Russian Federation or their proxies.” Another provision of the bill limits the travel of Russian diplomatic personnel in the U.S. to no more than 25 miles from their official posts unless the FBI informs Congress that the officials have been cleared of any evidence of wrongdoing.

Demands for election intel. In a related move, seven Democratic members of the Senate intelligence committee have written to President Barack Obama to request he declassify relevant intelligence on “the Russian government and the US election that should be declassified and released to the public,” according to The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman. No Republican joined the call for declassification, nor did the outgoing ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California.

In October, U.S. intelligence officials accused Russia’s of hacking into the Democratic National Committee’s networks. Just after the election of Donald Trump, NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers added that the hacking “was a conscious effort by a nation state to attempt to achieve a specific effect.”

Awkward. The bills and calls for declassification come as the incoming Trump administration and Moscow look to be working to reach an accommodation, even before Trump takes office. Russian officials have said in recent days that they’ve been in touch with the Trump team. “These are different people whom we have known for a long time already,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov told the TASS news agency.

And speaking in Moscow Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin echoed the sentiment, saying he had recently spoken to Trump and their “opinions coincided” over how tensions between Washington and Moscow could be straightened out. This all follows news that Donald Trump Jr. held private talks with a pro-Russia figure in Paris in October that included discussions over how the two countries might cooperate to fight the Islamic State in Syria. Trump famously rejected the conclusions of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia was working to influence the U.S. election.

One last time on North Korea. In what is likely to mark its final bout of nuclear diplomacy, the Obama administration secured unanimous passage Wednesday of a U.N. Security Council resolution meant to further choke North Korea’s earnings in retaliation for developing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, FP’s Robbie Gramer and Dan De Luce report.

They write that he resolution targets coal, North Korea’s most lucrative export, and slashes exports of silver, copper, and nickel. Eight years of U.S. and U.N. diplomatic maneuvering during President Barack Obama’s tenure has left North Korea increasingly isolated, but “has still utterly failed to achieve the primary goal of curbing the country’s nuclear weapons and missile program. North Korea has detonated five nuclear weapons in underground tests since 2006 — four while Obama was in office — and conducted a flurry of missile launches for its growing missile arsenal. U.S. intelligence officers believe it is only a matter of time before the regime builds a nuclear-tipped intercontinental missile capable of striking the United States.”

South Sudan moves too late? Faced with U.N. warnings of a possible genocide in South Sudan, American diplomats this week were set to embrace an arms embargo against the world’s newest country.

But the effort, FP’s Colum Lynch writes, may be coming too late. The South Sudanese military “is poised to launch an offensive as the annual dry season — prime time for fighting — resumes in December. And U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, struggling to mount an international response to the killing, has been forced to shelve its planned sanctions after American diplomats realized they couldn’t muster the nine votes necessary for U.N. Security Council approval.”

New model diplomacy. On Wednesday, Pakistani Prime Minister Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif and U.S. President-elect Donald Trump spoke by phone. And then Islamabad released an unforgettable readout of the call, which said that Trump called Sharif “a terrific guy.” FP’s Emily Tamkin has more: Trump reportedly added that he is “ready and willing to play any role that you want me to play to address and find solutions to the outstanding problems. It will be an honor and I will personally do it.”

Not the usual diplo-speak, for sure. Tamkin notes that by writing such a blank check, “Trump just promised the head of Pakistan, a country warped by the use and abuse of proxy terrorist groups, which is perpetually at odds with its nuclear-armed neighbor, which is deepening defense and economic ties with China, and which has been very recently rocked by cross-border violence, that he will personally take care of whatever Pakistan needs.”

Change of heart? Kind of. Former Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who once called Donald Trump “willfully ignorant about the rest of the world,” said on Wednesday that he hopes he was wrong, and is somewhat encouraged by some of the people Trump is reportedly considering to be in his cabinet. He continues to be bothered by the number of former generals Trump is considering, however, telling CBS News that there is the danger of “too much military influence” in the White House. “I think it would be very difficult to have former generals as both secretary of State and Defense. I think that is probably too much military influence in the decisionmaking process,” he said.

Good morning and as always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

Who’s Where When. The Obama administration has set specific U.S. force levels in both Iraq and Afghanistan, something which many critics — and many in the Pentagon — have said has tied the hands of military commanders. It’s unclear what the incoming Trump administration will do with the wars it is inheriting, but on Thursday at 10:00 am, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo) is holding a hearing to explore the issue of lifting the troop caps. Testifying are retired Lt. Gen. Jim Dubik, and retired Gen. Carter Ham. Livestream here.

North Korea

North Korea’s brutal network of prison camps is expanding. The Guardian reports on a new study by a U.S.-based Committee for Human Rights in North Korea (HRNK), which used satellite imagery to analyze the camps. HRNK says that under Kim Jong Un, the North has closed prisons close to the Chinese border and expanded others deeper in the country. Satellite imagery recently released by Amnesty International of North Korea’s Camp 15 shows that the North has expanded and built new structures at the facility.

South Korea

South Korea is planning on making its own fighter jet, according to Yonhap News Agency. The South’s Defense Acquisition Program Administration announced that design work for a new Korean Fighter Experimental (KF-X) jet is kicking off this month. The projected cost for the program is around $15 billion and the planes are expected to replace South Korea’s fleet of American F-4 and F-5 jets.

Ships ahoy

Retired admirals and former Director of National Intelligence Adm. Dennis Blair and Rear Adm. Mike McDevitt squared off in a debate over whether an American military presence in the South China Sea is reconcilable with China’s interests and sovereignty on Wednesday. McDevitt argued that American allies in the region are uncomfortable being forced into confrontations that involve choosing sides between the U.S. and China. Blair said the Chinese are often baffled at America’s desire to increase its military role in Asia, seeing it as an unwarranted move in the face of peaceful Chinese behavior.

India’s indigenously-built aircraft carrier might take a longer time to finish than initially thought and that’s making U.S. defense officials queasy. The Wall Street Journal reports that American engineers who inspected the carrier in February found it drastically behind, estimating that it won’t be ready for at least another decade. The U.S. has been counting on an Indian navy buildup to help check China’s growing naval presence in the Indian Ocean. India’s struggling efforts to build a carrier indigenously reportedly spurred the Obama administration to green light a host of technology cooperation programs in order to get the ship up and running faster.

After breaking down and having to be towed into port, the U.S. Navy’s $4 billion stealth ship is finally able to move under its own power again. USNI News reports that leaks in the ship’s lube oil chillers allowed seawater to seep into bearings connected to the Advanced Induction Motors. The USS Zumwalt is headed next to Mexico and then home to San Diego.

The U.S. Coast Guard is looking to jump in on all the action in the South China Sea. VOA News reports that Coast Guard Commandant Admiral Paul Zukunft believes that the Coast Guard could help the U.S. assert its right to freedom of navigation in disputed waters without the added diplomatic baggage of a military face on that presence. U.S. military officials had told FP that the idea had been floated previously but initially rejected. China often uses its coast guard in disputed waters around the region for similar reasons.

 

 

Photo Credit: Vietnam News Agency/AFP/Getty Images