Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: SEALs board a tanker

Hagel considers non-lethal aide to Ukraine, but the Pentagon's options are limited; Terrain masking: Did Flight 370 fly at 5,000 feet? Clancy predicted Crimea; Sinclair to plead guilty to lesser charges; and a bit more.

Navy SEALS board the commercial tanker Morning Glory seized earlier this month by three armed Libyans. From a statement of Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby, arriving in the inbox at 2:25 a.m. this morning: "No one was hurt tonight when U.S. forces, at the request of both the Libyan and Cypriot governments, boarded and took control of the commercial tanker Morning Glory, a stateless vessel seized earlier this month by three armed Libyans. The boarding operation, approved by President Obama and conducted just after 10 p.m. EDT on March 16 in international waters southeast of Cypress, was executed by a team of U.S. Navy SEALs attached to Special Operations Command Europe. The SEAL team embarked and operated from the guided missile destroyer USS Roosevelt (DDG-80). USS Roosevelt provided helicopter support and served as a command and control and support platform for the other members of the force assigned to conduct the mission. The Morning Glory is carrying a cargo of oil owned by the Libyan government National Oil Company. The ship and its cargo were illicitly obtained from the Libyan port of As-Sidra. The Morning Glory will be underway soon to a port in Libya with a team of sailors from the USS Stout (DDG-55) embarked. The sailors will be supervising the transit."  From the WaPo’s Fred Barbash: "… The ship appears to have been wandering around the Mediterranean piloted by unknown sailors under an uncertain flag, with at least one effort made by three men in a boat near Larnaka to buy oil from it." And the NYT story, here.

Meantime, Count them out: the votes are in and Crimea looks to want to secede from Ukraine. FP’s John Hudson: "The Obama administration and its allies couldn’t prevent an overwhelming majority of Crimea’s residents from voting to secede from Ukraine. It’s looking increasingly likely that they also won’t be able to prevent Russian strongman Vladimir Putin from annexing the restive Ukrainian province. Western powers spent much of the last week asking Putin and Crimea’s new pro-Russian government to cancel the secession referendum, but the appeals failed and residents of Crimea turned out in droves Sunday to vote. There had never been much doubt about what the outcome would be in the pro-Russian peninsula of Ukraine, but the margins were still startling: with 50 percent of the votes counted, more than 95 percent of voters opted to join Russia and secede from Ukraine, according to local Crimean election officials. The officials said 80 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast ballots.

"In separate statements Sunday, the United States and European Union called the vote illegal and refused to recognize its results. ‘This referendum is contrary to Ukraine’s constitution, and the international community will not recognize the results of a poll administered under threats of violence and intimidation from a Russian military intervention that violates international law,’ said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney." More here.

For the Pentagon confronting the Crimean crisis, options are limited. Defense News’ Aaron Mehta: "As the situation in Ukraine continues to worsen, the US and its allies in Europe find themselves with a limited set of options at the same time the Pentagon is trying to plan for potential fallout. The most likely path seems to be economic sanctions of some kind, hand in hand with moves to isolate Russia internationally. But even without direct conflict, experts warn Russia’s reaction could lead to fallout with the world’s militaries. Economic sanctions are ‘the most viable national security tool we’ve got,’ said David Asher, adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security." More here.

Hagel considering non-lethal aide to Ukraine. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is said to support the White House in its approach to apply "diplomatic and economic levers of pressure" to the situation in Ukraine, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby told Situation Report. Also, he said, Hagel is "willing to consider options" for providing non-lethal assistance to the Ukrainian armed forces. Kirby would not expand on what form that assistance could take or when it would come. Dempsey agrees. Senior military leaders are "solidly behind" the administration’s twin efforts – ongoing diplomatic efforts as well as "military re-assurance" to NATO allies with whom the U.S. has Article V treaty obligations, we’re told. At the same time, "no one is leaning towards direct military engagement over Ukraine," a senior defense official at the Pentagon told FP. "However, General Dempsey remains concerned over the precedent that Russia is setting using protection of Russian ethnic minorities as a justification for violating a nation’s sovereignty."

A senior defense official adds that "Hagel understands there is a delicate balance to strike here.  We need to put enough pressure on Moscow to change their calculus, but do so in such a way that we don’t escalate the tension. Careful, steady and flexible is where he thinks we are — and where we need to be — right now."

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Is the Obama approach working? The commander-in-chief’s favorite non-combatant command is Treasury.  The NYT’s David Sanger: "For five years, President Obama has consciously recast how America engages with the world’s toughest customers. But with Russia poised to annex Crimea after Sunday’s referendum, with a mounting threat to the rest of Ukraine and with the carnage in Syria accelerating, Mr. Obama’s strategy is now under greater stress than at any time in his presidency… As he learned to play the long game, the Treasury Department became Mr. Obama’s favorite noncombatant command. It refined the art of the economic squeeze on Iran, eventually forcing the mullahs to the negotiating table.

"But so far those tools – or even the threat of them – have proved frustratingly ineffective in the most recent crises. Sanctions and modest help to the Syrian rebels have failed to halt the slaughter; if anything, the killing worsened as negotiations dragged on.

The White House was taken by surprise by Vladimir V. Putin’s decisions to invade Crimea, but also by China’s increasingly assertive declaration of exclusive rights to airspace and barren islands. Neither the economic pressure nor the cyberattacks that forced Iran to reconsider its approach have prevented North Korea’s stealthy revitalization of its nuclear and missile programs. In short, America’s adversaries are testing the limits of America’s post-Iraq, post-Afghanistan moment."

A former senior national security aide, to Sanger, about Obama’s forpol policies: "We’re seeing the ‘light footprint’ run out of gas… No one is arguing for military action, for bringing back George Bush’s chest-thumping," the former aide said… At the same time, he said, the president’s oft-repeated lines that those who violate international norms will be "isolated" and "pay a heavy price" over the long term have sounded "more like predictions over time, and less like imminent threats." More here.

Crimean crisis: Sweden likes it some NATO. Defense News’ Gerard O’Dwyer in Helsinki: "Sweden’s government is examining a proposal to boost military spending to defend its own territories and the strategic Baltic Sea area in the face of renewed Russian aggression in Ukraine. There is also a movement among high government officials to re-examine the long-running issue of joining NATO. The Swedish Cabinet will discuss, in coming weeks, a cross-party coalition proposal to signifi­cantly increase capital spending on the Navy’s submarine fleet. In a direct response to Russia’s military actions in the Crimean Peninsula, Jan Björklund, the Liberal Peoples’ Party leader and Sweden’s deputy prime minister, is pushing for a ‘comprehensive strategic military re-think on capability.’ Björklund also wants Sweden to "set the wheels in motion" to join NATO." More here.

ICYMI: Tom Clancy totally predicted Crimea. The HuffPo’s Pablo Freund last week: "The late spy-thriller novelist and military historian Tom Clancy’s posthumous novel Command Authority, published in December of last year, revolves around an ex-spy strongman president of Russia who gambles that he can make an armed incursion into Ukraine while NATO and the world watch powerlessly as he flexes his military might with impunity. The novel’s characters, as with most works of fiction, are based on real situations, but I can’t decide if his story is eerily prescient or just the playing out of a predictable scenario that was well understood in the policy and military arena. Regardless, the crisis unfolding in the Eastern Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula is very real, revealing once more that the global governance system is ill-equipped to effectively handle real-world power dynamics, in this case Putin’s realpolitik maneuvering." More here.

State just announced formally that Daniel Rubinstein will be Syria’s new envoy. From a statement from Secretary of State John Kerry this morning: "Daniel Rubinstein will be an outstanding successor to Ambassador Robert Ford as the U.S. Special Envoy for Syria. This position is as important as it is challenging. Like Robert, Daniel is a Senior Foreign Service officer who speaks fluent Arabic and is widely respected in the region. It’s more than fair to say that he is among our government’s foremost experts on the Middle East and has served with distinction in some of our most challenging and high profile regional Missions, including Damascus. Wherever he’s served — from Jerusalem to Amman, from Baghdad to Tel Aviv, from Tunis, to the Sinai, and most recently back in Washington in the INR Bureau where I was reacquainted with him — Daniel has excelled."

Terrain masking is the new buzzword in the ever deepening Malaysia Airlines mystery, and pilots of Flight 370 may have flown as low as 5,000 feet to avoid detection. New Straits Times’ Farrah Naz Karim and Tasnim Lokman in Sepang: "MAS Airlines flight MH370 dropped to an altitude of 5,000 feet, or possibly lower, to defeat commercial (secondary) radar coverage after it turned back from its Kuala Lumpur-Beijing route on March 8. Investigators are poring over the Boeing 777-200ER’s flight profile to determine if it had flown low and used "terrain masking" during most of the eight hours it was missing from the radar coverage of possibly at least three countries.

"Top officials, who make up the technical team that had been holed up from morning till late at night here, are looking at the possibility that the jetliner, carrying 239 people, had taken advantage of the busy airways over the Bay of Bengal. By sticking to commercial routes, the flight may not have raised the suspicion of those manning primary (military) radars of the nations it overflew. To them, MH370 would appear to be just another commercial aircraft on its way to its destination. ‘The person who had control over the aircraft has a solid knowledge of avionics and navigation, and left a clean track. It passed low over Kelantan, that was true,’ said officials." More here.

Malaysia to the U.S.: we’ve got this. The NYT’s Michael Schmidt and Scott Shane: "With malicious intent strongly suspected in the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, American intelligence and law enforcement agencies renewed their search over the weekend for any evidence that the plane’s diversion was part of a terrorist plot. But they have found nothing so far, senior officials said, and their efforts have been limited by the Malaysian authorities’ refusal to accept large-scale American assistance.

"There are just two F.B.I. agents in Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, where local investigators are hunting for clues that the two pilots or any of the other 237 people on board had links to militant groups or other motives to hijack the flight. In the days after the plane went missing on March 8, American investigators scoured their huge intelligence databases for information about those on board but came up dry. A senior American official: "We just don’t have the right to just take over the investigation… There’s not a whole lot we can do absent of a request from them for more help or a development that relates to information we may have."

Meanwhile, theories abound: "… With no obvious motive apparent, American investigators are considering a range of possibilities, though they caution that all remain merely speculative. Among them are involvement by Al Qaeda’s Southeast Asian affiliate, which once discussed recruiting commercial pilots in Malaysia to crash a plane; an act by members of China’s Uighur minority, who have recently become more militant and could conceivably have targeted a plane headed to Beijing; a lone-wolf attack by someone without ties to established terrorist groups; or even a suicidal move by a troubled individual." More here.

Sinclair to plead guilty to lesser charges today. The WaPo’s Craig Whitlock: "The legal defense team for a general whose sex-crime trial has gripped the U.S. military said Sunday that the Army has agreed to drop the most serious charges in exchange for his admission that he ‘maltreated’ a junior officer with whom he had a long affair and caused her emotional distress.

"The plea deal is scheduled to be presented to an Army judge at Fort Bragg, N.C., on Monday. It would result in the dismissal of sexual-assault charges and other counts that would have required Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair to register as a sex offender and almost certainly would have resulted in prison time. Sinclair’s sentence remains to be determined, although his attorneys said they have agreed to a side deal with the Army that would cap his punishment. They declined to disclose details Sunday, but his punishment is expected to be finalized in court this week. Lt. Col. Robert Stelle, the lead prosecutor, declined to comment. Maj. Crystal Boring, an Army spokeswoman at Fort Bragg, said, ‘Right now, the Army is allowing the outcome to be announced in the courtroom [today].’ More here.

For the record: They’re not exactly blowing up trucks in Afghanistan. The military services have identified that there are approximately 4,000 vehicles and other pieces of equipment that are considered "excess" to the services’ needs and requirements. The U.S. command in Afghanistan is working with the services to validate their assessment, and officials are working to see what excess vehicles could be provided to U.S. allies in the region. Contrary to a media report and concerns of a perception within Congress that the U.S. command was taking excess trucks in Afghanistan and destroying them by blowing them up – the final disposition for them remain unclear as of yet. Dunford, last week: "We are not – we are not destroying any of those vehicles right now.  Some months ago, I said, just make sure that we don’t destroy any good vehicles.  The vehicles that we’re destroying in Afghanistan today are those vehicles that are battle-damaged to the point where they cannot be replaced or — or restored as more properly."

Also, he said: "One of the challenges with that is a rule that we have to live by, which is, any equipment that we provide to our partners is on an as-is, where where-is basis.  In other words, I can’t pay to move it, and I can’t pay to fix it.  So, if a country wants one of those 4,000 vehicles, they have to come and get it in the current condition that it’s in.  That’s — that’s the rules.  It’s — it’s because the United States is not going to invest more money in a vehicle that we’re not going to use."

But Dunford did say that if a vehicle the U.S. military doesn’t need is going to cost too much to bring home, he’ll have to make a decision about what’s best to do with it. "My initial framing of the problem is, that if I bring a vehicle home that I don’t need, I pay $50,000 for it, and then I have to maintain it when it comes home, or I could destroy it in Afghanistan for a fraction of that cost… this is an issue that is not — is not closed.  I’m still working through it…"

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