Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

FP’s Situation Report: Do Russia-Ukraine peace talks stand a chance in Geneva?

Hagel meeting with Poland’s defense chief; An explosion of foreign fighters in Syria; and a bit more.

By Dan Lamothe with Nathaniel Sobel

Peace talks in Geneva begin today between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union. The stated goal: Calm things down in Ukraine, where armed clashes between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russia fighters continue to boil over into bloodshed. From the Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman, reporting from Geneva: "Foreign ministers from Russia, Ukraine, the U.S. and the European Union started talks in Geneva on Thursday morning in the biggest diplomatic push so far to ease tensions between Kiev and Moscow. The four-way meetings are the highest-level direct talks between Russia and Ukraine since Moscow annexed the Crimea region and placed tens of thousands of troops on the border. Western officials are arriving with the threat of further sanctions on Russia in what they hope will force serious negotiations. Discussions are expected to focus on the growing crisis in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists have occupied government buildings in a number of towns."

"Ukraine has sent troops to oust the separatists that Kiev and Washington say are backed by Moscow. Three protesters were killed in an overnight clash that marked the bloodiest conflict in the operation so far. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was the last of the ministers to arrive in the Swiss lakeside city Thursday morning. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton beforehand." More here.

No sudden breakthroughs are expected, however. A firefight in the city of Mariupol killed three protestors, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric afterward underscores the severity of the situation. From the New York Times’ David M. Herszenhorn, reporting from Moscow: "President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia emphasized on Thursday that the upper chamber of the Russian Parliament had authorized him to use military force if necessary in eastern Ukraine, and also stressed Russia’s historical claim to the territory, repeatedly referring to it as "new Russia" and saying that only "God knows" why it became part of Ukraine. Speaking in a televised question-and-answer show, Mr. Putin also admitted for the first time that Russian armed forces had been deployed in Crimea, the disputed peninsula that Russia annexed last month immediately after a large majority of the population voted in a referendum to secede from Ukraine."

More from Putin, as reported by the Times: "We must do everything to help these people to protect their rights and independently determine their own destiny," he said. "Can a compromise be found on the Ukrainian question between Russia and America?" Mr. Putin asked. "Compromise should only be found in Ukraine," he said. "The question is to ensure the rights and interests of the Russian southeast. It’s new Russia. Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in Czarist times, they were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows. Then for various reasons these areas were gone, and the people stayed there – we need to encourage them to find a solution." More here.

Good Thursday morning to you. I’m Dan Lamothe, and I’ve got one more day churning out your morning Situation Report newsletter along with Nathaniel Sobel while Gordon Lubold is away. I’ll try to keep the knock-knock jokes to a minimum, but no promises. If you have anything you’d like to share with our newsletter, please email me at And if you’d like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send Gordon a note at and he’ll add you on our growing distribution list. Like what you see? Tell a friend. And if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, we hope you’ll say something — to Situation Report. And one more thing: Please consider following us at @DanLamothe, @glubold, and @njsobe4.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel hosts Poland’s minister of defense, Tomasz Siemoniak, at the Pentagon this morning. They’ll follow with a bi-lateral meeting, with a news conference to follow at 10:45 a.m, Pentagon officials say. It goes without saying that Poland is keenly interested in the Ukraine crisis, given Russia’s proximity to their own borders.

Poland wants boots on the ground. That from Defense News’ Marcus Weisgerber: "Poland’s defense minister is calling for a larger US and NATO military presence in his country to deter the type of Russian aggression occurring in eastern Ukraine. Tomasz Siemoniak is scheduled to meet with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday to discuss ways the US military could partner more with Poland at a time when Russia flexes its military muscles on the Crimean Peninsula and near Ukraine. ‘In the longer-term perspective, what we would like to see very much in Poland is the development of NATO and American infrastructure and an increasing military presence of both the US and NATO in our country,’ Siemoniak told Defense News in an exclusive interview on Wednesday. During his visit to Washington, Siemoniak said he will focus on the ‘long-term consequences’ of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine and the build-up of Russian troops on Ukraine’s eastern border." More here.

NATO’s chief wants more planes, ships in response to Russia’s moves on Ukraine. From the WSJ’s Naftali Bendavid: "The North Atlantic Treaty Organization said it would increase its flights over allied Baltic nations and send ships to the Mediterranean and Baltic seas in response to what it called Russia’s threat to Ukraine. NATO will also dispatch military personnel to intensify training and exercises in NATO countries in Eastern Europe, Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said after a meeting of representatives from the alliance’s 28 members in Brussels. ‘We will have more planes in the air, more ships in the water, and more readiness on the land,’ Mr. Rasmussen said on Wednesday. ‘More will follow, if needed, in the weeks and months to come.’ Germany has already committed to lead mine-sweeping maneuvers in the Baltic Sea and to contribute six Eurofighter jets to NATO’s efforts in the Baltics, the Defense Ministry confirmed in Berlin. The moves are part of a swing by NATO – which officials say they hope will be temporary – from viewing Russia as a partner to treating it as an adversary following its recent incursion into Ukraine and subsequent annexation of the Crimean peninsula. More broadly, NATO leaders say it is clear the rules of the game have changed in Europe now that a country has used military force to change international borders for the first time in years. Gen. Philip Breedlove, NATO’s military commander, said the new measures are designed to last at least until the end of the year." More here.

The Syrian Army has regained critical territory from armed rebels – but parts of the country may be irretrievable. That from the Christian Science Monitor’s Nicholas Blanford: "A slew of battlefield successes by the Syrian Army and its allies has prompted upbeat assessments from President Bashar al-Assad that his forces are headed for victory in the war against his rebel opponents. Mr. Assad predicted on Monday that the major battles could be over by the end of the year, while his ally, Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, claimed that the Syrian leader no longer faced the risk of being overthrown. "This is a turning point in the crisis, both militarily in terms of the Army’s achievements in the war against terror, and socially in terms of national reconciliation processes and growing awareness of the truth behind the [attacks] targeting our country," Assad said.

It’s not that simple, though. More from the Monitor:  "But a regime victory is unlikely to look anything like pre-war Syria. With vast tracts of northern and eastern Syria remaining in the hands of rebel groups, "winning" could simply mean retaking and holding parts of western Syria that are vital to the regime’s survival. In the past year, the Syrian Army, supported by Shiite fighters from Hezbollah and Iraq and backed by Russia and Iran, has concentrated its efforts on ousting rebels from Damascus and imposing control on the critical corridor that connects the Syrian capital to the Mediterranean coast, the heartland of the Alawites, a Shiite splinter sect to which Assad belongs. "The regime’s hold on the area not only protects Assad in Damascus; it also safeguards the crucial arms supply route from the Syrian military bases, where weapons are stored, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. More here.

Expect 2015 to look even worse in Syria than 2014. Nicholas Seeley, writing for Foreign Policy: "In late March, a Syrian refugee dramatically set herself on fire in front of the office of the U.N. Refugee Agency, UNHCR, in the embattled Lebanese city of Tripoli. Only a few days later, Lebanon hit the grim milestone of its millionth Syrian refugee. Soon after, in Jordan, as the U.N. was preparing to open a massive new refugee camp, a riot swept through the country’s existing camp, leaving one Syrian dead and dozens of refugees and police officers injured. These violent events have grabbed headlines, but refugee experts say they are most likely isolated incidents. The real danger signs about the future of the Syrian refugee crisis are more widespread and entrenched: Both Lebanon and Jordan are struggling to deal with huge populations of Syrians, and international funding isn’t keeping up with their needs. At the same time, the ongoing devastation of Syria is generating a seemingly endless supply of new people seeking refuge.

"The crisis, as it is being handled now, is unsustainable — and unless something drastically changes, it’s only going to get worse. ‘We’ll probably get through this year,’ says Andrew Harper, the head of UNHCR in Jordan. ‘But then how are we going to go through 2015? And if we struggle through 2015, how are we going to go in 2016 and beyond?’ Jordan currently hosts about 600,000 refugees, in a country whose pre-crisis population was estimated at barely over six million. About 100,000 of the refugees live in the massive Zaatari camp, which is run by the UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies, with international funding. The other half a million are dispersed among cities, towns, and rural areas. The U.N. also provides some assistance to these ‘urban refugees,’ but much of the cost falls on the government, through public services and subsidized goods. These refugees also put strains on local communities, which are facing rising prices, falling wages, and increasingly overcrowded public services." Full story here.

Meanwhile, the number of foreign fighters in Syria has increased tenfold. That, according to Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command. Defense One’s Kevin Baron, reporting from Tampa: "Critics have hammered Obama for not intervening militarily sooner, but the top U.S. general in charge of the region said on Wednesday that Syria is the most formidable problem he’s faced in nearly 40 years. In just the past year, the U.S. military no longer is tracking a two-sided war visible from space that fueled Odierno’s previous prediction. Now, commanders are deciphering a multi-fronted spider’s web of fighters more than battlefield maneuvers. ‘We’ve gone from tracking large formations of opposing forces to networks of enemy, which is much more challenging, to almost individuals, which is enormously challenging for our intel community,’ U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Lloyd Austin said during a keynote address to the intelligence satellite and mapping community at the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s GEOINT conference. And ‘unless you have done that’ kind of detailed manhunt work, he said, ‘you don’t understand it."’

"Austin, the final commander of the Iraq War, said the threat of foreign fighters and extremists is very real. ‘It is a credible threat," he said. ‘As I look at the Syria problem, I gotta tell you that this is the most complex problem I’ve seen in the short, almost 39 years that I’ve been doing this. If you kind of look at the elements of the problem, there’s chemical weapons involved, there’s significant proxy activity ongoing in that country, there’s sectarian issues, and, if you took one of those things on its own, it would make for a very complicated set of affairs, or issue. But if you combine all of that, then it makes it really, really tough. And you layer on top of that this issue of extremist activity that we’ve seen grow in that country – it’s very concerning.’ More here.

The White House confirms that Syrian opposition fighters now have U.S.-made TOW antitank missiles. From the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung: "Syria’s opposition fighters have been supplied with U.S.-made antitank missiles, the first time a major American weapons system has appeared in rebel hands. It is unclear how the rebels obtained the wire-guided missiles, which are capable of penetrating heavy armor and fortifications and are standard in the U.S. military arsenal. The United States has sold them in the past to Turkey, among other countries, and the Pentagon approved the sale of 15,000 of the weapons to Saudi Arabia in December. Both countries aid Syrian opposition groups. U.S. officials declined to discuss the origin of the weapons but did not dispute that the rebels have them. Their appearance in Syria coincides with a U.S. commitment this year to escalate a CIA-run program to supply and train vetted ‘moderate’ rebel groups and to improve coordination with other opposition backers. ‘The United States is committed to building the capacity of the moderate opposition, including through the provision of assistance to vetted members of the moderate armed opposition,’ said National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan. ‘As we have said, we are not going to detail every single type of our assistance.’ Videos showing rebels using the weapons were first uploaded to YouTube between April 1 and 5 by Harakat Hazm, a moderate insurgent splinter group, according to Charles Lister, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, who was among the first to identify the so-called TOW (‘Tube-launched, Optically-tracked, Wire-guided’) antitank missiles." More here.

For the record: Check out FP’s Shane Harris, writing about those YouTube videos earlier this month here.

Hagel wants a broad review of the military justice system. From Military Times’ Pentagon correspondent, Andrew Tilghman: "The Pentagon is launching a ‘systemic’ review of the entire military justice system that will look at how commanders convene courts-martial and impose nonjudicial punishments. The 18-month review of the Uniform Code of Military Justice ‘will help ensure the continued effectiveness of our armed forces and the fair administration of justice for our service members,’ Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement. The aim of the review is to ‘provide both a step-back look at ways to improve how the UCMJ operates and a close technical scrub to address any discontinuity after decades of individual amendments,’ according to the announcement. The review comes at a time of increasing concern among Pentagon leaders about sexual assault specifically and broader misconduct across the force after years of war. The Pentagon also is under pressure from Congress to reform the UCMJ in fundamental ways. In March, the Senate narrowly rejected a bill that would have stripped commanders of their authority to oversee courts-martial of major crimes and instead transfer that mission to a new military prosecutor’s office." More here.

The Pentagon has offered to help with South Korea’s shipwreck disaster, but time is already running out to find survivors. My story for FP: "The USS Bonhomme Richard is steaming toward the site of the South Korean passenger ship Sewol, which sank roughly 60 miles offshore after running aground in shallow water Wednesday morning, authorities said. The emergency has sparked a scramble to save as many of the 450 people who were on board as possible. At least four are dead and some 284 passengers — many of the children — remain unaccounted for, raising fears that they may be trapped below the Sewol’s deck as it takes on water. The U.S. Navy and Marine Corps could launch a variety of helicopters to respond to the deadly ferry disaster off the southern tip of South Korea, using the Bonhomme Richard, a 40,000-ton warship, as a base from which to help in the crisis, U.S. military officials said Wednesday. But with hypothermia a significant threat to stranded passengers, there is a tight window of time in which survivors may be saved. Frigid temperatures make it unlikely that passengers could survive long in the water, said Christopher Harmer, an analyst with the Institute for the Study of War and former Navy helicopter pilot. The water in the area where the ship sank is about 54 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning hypothermia will set in quickly for wet passengers still trapped on the ship, and even more swiftly for anyone floating nearby." More here.

Dan Lamothe is an award-winning military journalist and war correspondent. He has written for Marine Corps Times and the Military Times newspaper chain since 2008, traveling the world and writing extensively about the Afghanistan war both from Washington and the war zone. He also has reported from Norway, Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia and while underway with the U.S. Navy. Among his scoops, Lamothe reported exclusively in 2010 that the Marine Corps had recommended that Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer receive the Medal of Honor. This year, he was part of a team of journalists that exposed senior Marine Corps leaders' questionable involvement in legal cases, and then covering it up. A Pentagon investigation is underway in those cases. Twitter: @DanLamothe

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