The Cable

SitRep: Washington and Moscow Spar; Japanese, South Korean Warships Join American Carrier; North Korea Readies Nuke Test

New Weapons for U.S. Frigates; Air Force Force Issues; American Spies Snatch Syrian Chemical Comms; Lavrov Lectures

SH-60 helicopters are seen as Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) escort ship Izumo takes part in a fleet review off Sagami Bay, Kanagawa prefecture, on October 18, 2015. Thirty-six MSDF vessels and ships from Australia, India, France, South Korea and the United States participated in the fleet review.    AFP PHOTO / Toru YAMANAKA        (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)
SH-60 helicopters are seen as Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) escort ship Izumo takes part in a fleet review off Sagami Bay, Kanagawa prefecture, on October 18, 2015. Thirty-six MSDF vessels and ships from Australia, India, France, South Korea and the United States participated in the fleet review. AFP PHOTO / Toru YAMANAKA (Photo credit should read TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Big day. Wednesday was quite a day in the history of U.S. – Russia relations, but it remains to be seen if it was a good one. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson made his first highly-anticipated visit to Moscow, where he met with his diplomatic counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and sat with President Vladimir Putin for almost two hours. But publicly, at least, little appears to have changed.

Just after their meetings in Moscow wrapped up, President Donald Trump — speaking alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the White House — declared relations between the two powers were at an “all time low,” following comments earlier in the day in which he partially blamed Moscow for the Syrian chemical attack last week that killed over 80 civilians. Speaking during a press conference with Lavrov, Tillerson said there is a “low level of trust” between the two countries. For his part, Lavrov blasted the United States for not learning from its own history, especially past military campaigns in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan, all conflicts the Kremlin has opposed.

Pressure. “I really think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on Russia to make sure that peace happens, Trump told Fox News Wednesday morning, “because frankly, if Russia didn’t go in and back this animal, we wouldn’t have a problem right now,” Trump said, referring to Mr. Putin’s support for President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.

Further complicating the Syria row, Russia on Wednesday vetoed a Western-backed resolution at the United Nations Security Council condemning the chemical attack. The tally of Russian vetoes at the international body over Syria-related resolutions now stands at eight in the six-year-old Syrian civil war. China, in a surprise move, abstained from the vote rather than voting with Russia, in a sign that Moscow is isolated in its support for Damascus.

Just say it. The American Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, who appears to have been given free reign to be the Trump administration’s most strident voice on foreign policy issues, Tweeted Wednesday, “After today’s vote to hold Syria accountable it’s: A strong day for the US, a weak day for Russia, a new day for China & doomsday for Assad.”

Meanwhile in Moscow. On Thursday, Lavrov will sit down with his Syrian counterpart Walid Muallem to walk through strategies to “consider the possible joint steps to minimize the negative effects” of the U.S. cruise missile attack last week, which Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called a “gross violation of international law for international and regional peace and security.”

Flip flops. On the campaign trail, then-candidate Trump railed against the high cost of Washington remaining in the NATO alliance, labeling the bedrock Western allaicne as “obsolete.” Now, just a little over 100 days in office, the president has done a complete 180 on the issue. After meeting NATO’s Stoltenberg on Wednesday, Trump said he’s decided the alliance is “no longer obsolete.” Trump chalked up his reversal to what he believes is the alliance’s newfound willingness to take on terrorism, but we should note that over a thousand non-U.S. NATO troops have died in Afghanistan since the U.S. invoked Article 5 after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Watching. As relations with Moscow suck up all the air in the room, major powers in the Asia Pacific region are lurching toward crisis. North Korea appears ready to conduct another test of its nuclear capabilities at any time, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is warning of his country’s vulnerability to the North’s chemical weapons.

Meanwhile, Japan is sending warships to take part in exercises with the USS Carl Vinson strike group which was dispatched to the far western Pacific earlier this week. “The planned rendezvous is a further sign of increased cooperation between the US, Japanese and South Korean navies,” The Guardian reports. “Last month, Aegis ships from the three countries held a joint drill to improve their ability to detect and track North Korean missiles.” There are also reports in the Japanese press that the United States told Tokyo it is willing to take military action in North Korea unless China steps in to play a bigger role in ensuring Pyongyang gives up its nuclear program. There appears to be little appetite among Asian allies for any such move, however.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Intercepts. American spies intercepted conversations of Syrian troops discussing the preparation of the chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykhun, according to a scoop from CNN. Anonymous intelligence sources tell the cable news outlet that intelligence analysts only realized they were in possession of the intercepted communications after the attack had taken place, discovering it as part of an intelligence review ordered in the wake of the incident. U.S. communication intercepts do not confirm Russian complicity in the attack but some sources tell CNN that the absence could be attributable to Russia’s more sophisticated operational security precautions.

I just called to say… Russia is signaling it might be open to restarting deconfliction talks with the U.S. for its military operations in Syria following Tillerson’s visit to Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said President Putin are “willing to put [the deconfliction channel] back into force,” provided the U.S. to continue airstrikes against the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and refrain from further strikes against the Assad regime. Col. John Dorrian, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria, said that he’ll stop providing daily updates on the status of deconfliction talks with Russia because it’s “not a productive thing to do.”

Today in trolling. Foreign journalists in North Korea were expecting something big when North Korea told them to prepare for a “big and important event.” Given that the North is on the verge of both the anniversary of founder Kim Il Sung’s birthday on April 15 and an apparent nuclear weapons test by the North, reporters were wondering what was in store when minders told them to ditch their phones, laptops, and lighters as they were herded onto a bus. The surprise? The unveiling of a new street by Kim Jong Un. As veteran Reuters Korea hand James Pearson noted, the anticlimactic reveal is a tactic the North has deployed before, tweeting that “They did the same to journalists in May 2016. Hours of security screening for what turned out to be a pop concert.”

Frigates. The Navy would like to add a new air defense capability to its frigates and it has established a study group to examine the possibility. Navy Times reports that a Navy Requirement Evaluation Team is studying the possibility of arming frigates with enhanced air defense weapons in order to protect logistics ships supplying other vessels.  

Stop loss. The Air Force is walking back a suggestion by one of its generals that the service could use a stop-loss order in order to deal with the exodus of military pilots to commercial airlines. In an interview with CQ Roll Call, Air Mobility Command chief Gen. Carlton Everhart said he’d told airline executives that “if we can’t meet the requirements, the chief could drop in a stop-loss” — an order which extends the active duty service of military personnel. But Air Force Chief of Staff. Gen. David Goldfein told an audience at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday, “I want to make it as clear as I possibly can: I am not considering stop-loss.” Air Force Times also checked in with Lt. Gen. Gina Grosso, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for manpower, personnel and services, who said that the service will instead try to deal with its pilot shortage through “monetary and non-monetary tools.”

Kidnapping. A member of Qatar’s ruling family was kidnapped in Iraq in 2015 and now one of his family members is paying an American company two million bucks to determine whether the man is still alive and try to enter negotiations with his captors. The AP discovered the payment in Foreign Agent Registration Act paperwork filed by the company receiving the money. The unnamed Qatari man was kidnapped alongside his traveling party while on a falconry hunting trip near the Saudi border by a group suspected to be comprised of Shiite militia. The wire service reports that a recent advertisement on an encrypted darknet website offering 25 million Euros for information on the kidnapped man may be linked to the American firm.

 

Photo Credit TORU YAMANAKA/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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