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: Syria using starvation as a weapon of war

By Dan Lamothe with Nathaniel Sobel Syria is using starvation as a weapon of war, according to new exclusive documents. That is the major takeaway of internal United Nations documents obtained by Foreign Policy. John Hudson has the exclusive: "Internal United Nations documents show modest improvements in the delivery of desperately needed food inside rebel-controlled ...

By Dan Lamothe with Nathaniel Sobel

Syria is using starvation as a weapon of war, according to new exclusive documents. That is the major takeaway of internal United Nations documents obtained by Foreign Policy. John Hudson has the exclusive: "Internal United Nations documents show modest improvements in the delivery of desperately needed food inside rebel-controlled areas of Syria. But the documents also point to a mass exodus of Syrians into areas controlled by President Bashar al-Assad in part because the dictator is the only reliable source of life-sustaining food. The documents obtained by Foreign Policy track the success of the U.N.’s World Food Program in the two months since the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution demanding that Assad provide immediate access for relief workers. The new data shows that the years-old U.N. effort has made some recent progress, with food supplies reaching a total of almost 415,000 people in hard-to-reach areas since the resolution was approved in February. In the country as a whole, WFP was able to reach 4.1 million persons in need in March, up from 3.7 million in February. However, in a country where 9.3 million people are in need of steady humanitarian assistance, that means that many more remain outside the U.N.’s reach."

"More distressingly, the documents show that Assad’s campaign to bring rebels to heel by cutting off food supplies in opposition-controlled areas is succeeding. The WFP’s increase in food distribution into the war-ravaged country was largely due to distressed Syrians fleeing into government-controlled areas where food aid is more readily available. The increase in distributions … was to a large extent a result of large population movements from non-government controlled areas to government-controlled areas ‘as people sought refuge,’ reads a U.N. document. Syria experts said that could only mean one thing. ‘Only by coming over to the regime areas can internally displaced peoples receive food,’ said Andrew Tabler, a Syria analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. ‘That’s in keeping with the Assad regime’s campaign to only provide food into regime controlled areas and starve out besieged opposition controlled areas.’ More here.

Good Friday morning to you. Literally for some of you, as in it is Good Friday, part of the Christian Easter Week celebration. I’m Dan Lamothe, and I’m wrapping up a week of churning out your morning Situation Report along with Nathaniel Sobel. Gordon Lubold is scheduled to return Monday. 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.

There’s a peace agreement in place now between Russia and Ukraine…. But what does it mean? The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Anne Gearan in Geneva: "Top diplomats on Thursday laid out a series of steps to tamp down violence and political unrest in Ukraine, even as Western officials publicly doubted Russia’s resolve to use its influence to help defuse the crisis in the former Soviet republic. The potential diplomatic breakthrough, which the Russian foreign minister referred to as ‘a compromise, of sorts,’ came after nearly seven hours of negotiations with Secretary of State John F. Kerry, the Ukrainian foreign minister and the European Union’s foreign policy chief. Under the agreement, all parties, including separatists and their Russian backers, would stop violent and provocative acts, and all illegal groups would be disarmed. A joint statement made no mention of the presence of what the United States has said are 40,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s eastern and southern borders. But Kerry said it made clear that Russia is ‘absolutely prepared to begin to respond with respect to troops,’ provided the terms of the agreement are observed."

"In Washington, President Obama said Russia’s stated commitments were only the beginning of a process. ‘My hope is that we actually do see follow-through over the next several days, but I don’t think, given past performance, that we can count on that,’ Obama said during a White House press conference. ‘We have to be prepared to potentially respond to what continue to be, you know, efforts of interference by the Russians in eastern and southern Ukraine.’ Obama threatened further economic sanctions and stressed American economic and diplomatic support for the Western-oriented government in Kiev. He ruled out a U.S. military response to help Ukraine fend off Russian incursions." More here.

The deal came the same day that the United State announced more non-lethal military aid for Ukraine. From the Associated Press’s Bob Burns: "The U.S. will send medical supplies, helmets and other nonlethal aid to the Ukrainian military in response to Russia’s ‘dangerously irresponsible’ efforts to destabilize the country, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday. Hagel told a Pentagon news conference that he telephoned Ukraine’s acting defense minister to tell him that President Barack Obama had approved the assistance, which does not include weapons. Hagel said the Obama administration will ‘continue to review’ additional aid requested by Ukraine. Washington had recently sent prepackaged meals for the Ukrainian military. Speaking alongside his Polish counterpart, Tomasz Siemoniak, Hagel said the U.S. and its NATO allies have to consider the possibility that Russia’s actions in Ukraine point to a broader campaign to retake territories of the former Soviet Union. ‘I think we have to be alert to all possibilities," Hagel said. The actions of the Russians over the last two months are not only irresponsible and violate "territorial integrity and sovereignty of sovereign nation, but it’s dangerously irresponsible.’" More here.

More air power is headed to Eastern Europe, courtesy of Canada. From my story for Foreign Policy: "The U.S. and Canadian militaries unveiled new measures Thursday designed to show Western resolve in the face of the ongoing Ukraine crisis and signal concrete support for other vulnerable eastern European countries. Ottawa announced that it would send six warplanes to Poland, while Washington said it would keep a detachment of 12 F-16 fighters in the country through the end of the year. The Pentagon also may increase the amount of American ground troops in Poland, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Thursday. He provided few additional details about what is planned, but said Moscow’s encroachment into Ukraine over the last two months means the United States must be prepared for any potential Russian move."

"Washington has enjoyed warm relations with Warsaw for years, but the Pentagon has maintained a permanent presence of U.S. troops there only since 2012, and even then it was a small detachment with just a handful of U.S. airmen. They were sent to support squadrons of U.S. warplanes that go to Poland on a rotational basis to teach Polish pilots how to fly F-16s. ‘We have to be alert to all possibilities,’ Hagel said. ‘The actions of the Russians over the last two months are not only irresponsible, with violating the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation, they’re dangerously irresponsible.’" More here.


The Pentagon’s top commander in Europe just called out the Russians. Gen. Philip Breedlove took to the blogosphere yesterday and called Russia’s use of armed, masked men to assert control over Ukraine in recent weeks. In a post titled "Who Are the Men Behind the Masks?" he asserted the following: "It’s hard to fathom that groups of armed men in masks suddenly sprang forward from the population in eastern Ukraine and systematically began to occupy government facilities.  It’s hard to fathom because it’s simply not true.  What is happening in eastern Ukraine is a military operation that is well planned and organized and we assess that it is being carried out at the direction of Russia."

On what did Breedlove base his conclusion? Several things. Among them: The "activists in eastern Ukraine "exhibit tell-tale military training and equipment and work together in a way that is consistent with troops who are part of a long-standing unit, not spontaneously stood up from a local militia." They also handle their weapons with great care, coordinate the use of tear gas and stun grenades, under the control of specific commanders on the ground, launch coordinated operations, and carry weapons and equipment that is primarily issued by the Russian army. "Any one of the points above taken alone would not be enough to come to a conclusion on this issue, but taken in the aggregate, the story is clear," Breedlove wrote. Full post here.

For all the worries about Russia’s energy stranglehold over Europe, the continent is still looking to Moscow for nuclear reactors. Keith Johnson for FP: "Whatever else Russia may have accomplished with its bullying of Ukraine, it has left Europe thoroughly frightened of Moscow’s ability to lord its energy dominance over the continent. Except, oddly enough, when it comes to nuclear power — and Russia’s plans to build reactors across Europe are proceeding with nary a hiccup. Despite a chorus of international condemnation for Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, plenty of hand-wringing over the latest disturbances in eastern and southwestern Ukraine, talk of tougher economic sanctions, and a mad dash to secure alternatives to Russian natural gas, nuclear power projects with Russian participation are going ahead as planned in Finland, Hungary, and Turkey."

"The Russian push doesn’t stop there. Rosatom, Moscow’s state-owned nuclear company, is busy building reactors in Vietnam and Bangladesh and bidding for projects in Slovakia and South Africa. Moscow’s nuclear dealings are another sign of the West’s inability to find a way of hammering Russia hard enough that it will stop harassing Ukraine. The United States and Britain have suspended nuclear-energy cooperation with Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, but other European countries — even those who have been most vocal about the threat posed by Russia’s control of natural-gas supplies — have hardly batted an eye." More here.

Meanwhile, on Russian TV, Putin takes a question from Snowden. From the New York Times’ David M. Herszenhorn and Andrew Roth: "One of the most startling moments in President Vladimir V. Putin’s televised question-and-answer session on Thursday came not in an exchange with a Russian citizen but with a surprise appearance by Edward J. Snowden, the fugitive American who leaked a huge trove of highly classified documents related to electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency. In a bold poke at the White House, the Kremlin arranged for Mr. Snowden, a former N.S.A. contractor wanted on espionage charges, to appear on camera and ask Mr. Putin about Russia’s own surveillance practices. When told that there was a question from Mr. Snowden, Mr. Putin responded slyly, saying, ‘Well, how could we do without this?’ Mr. Snowden’s appearance as a prop during the tightly scripted show risked legitimizing criticism of him as a stooge of the Kremlin, which has allowed him to remain in the country since June."

More from the Times: "Supporters of Mr. Snowden, however, many writing on social networks, praised his courage in making the appearance, which they said demonstrated his willingness to challenge the use of illegal surveillance in Russia, much as he had in the United States. In his recorded appearance, Mr. Snowden said that he had seen ‘little discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance.’ ‘So I’d like to ask you,’ he continued, ‘does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?

Putin’s reply: "‘Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent,’ the president replied. ‘I used to work for an intelligence service. Let’s speak in a professional language.’ ‘Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law,’ Mr. Putin said. ‘You have to get a court’s permission first.’ He noted that terrorists use electronic communications and that Russia had to respond to that threat. ‘Of course we do this,’ Mr. Putin said. ‘But we don’t use this on such a massive scale, and I hope that we won’t.’ ‘But what is most important,’ Mr. Putin concluded, ‘is that the special services, thank God, are under a strict control of the government and the society, and their activities are regulated by law.’" More here.

Vladimir Putin’s terrific, triumphant, all good, totally badass year. That’s the colorful headline on a new column by FP’s David Rothkopf. From his piece: "Admit it. You wish you were Vladimir Putin right now. Enemies fear him. Allies are grateful to him. Women are drawn to him. Jimmy Fallon imitates him. Even Edward Snowden wants to be his video buddy. To paraphrase that great geopolitical analyst Alicia Keys, this guy is on fire. Oh sure, his country’s economy is in the tank and sinking fast. But what’s that to a man whose personal fortune is estimated in the billions? (That KGB pension plan rocks.) Yes, Barack Obama thinks that Putin is hurting Russia with his Ukrainian antics. But the Russian people — the constituents who would be directly responsible for electing him president if anybody believed Russia were actually a democracy — are giving him approval ratings Obama would kill for. And the deal the West and the Russians cut with Ukraine on April 17 to ease tensions seems likely to take relieve some of the East-West tensions, leaving Putin with much of what he wanted."

Rothkopf continues: "Of course, winning Crimea brings with it a ton of challenges given that the region is an economic basket case and building the infrastructure to connect it to Russia will cost billions of dollars. But not only was the annexation an emotional pick-me-up for a Motherland that has been down in the dumps for a generation, but it took little more than Putin raising one of his intimidating Bond-villain eyebrows to get it. And the penalties the finger-wagging West has imposed upon him hardly even qualify as ‘surgical’ sanctions — they were more like pinpricks. (New ad slogan for the West: ‘The Atlantic Alliance — blazing new trails in foreign policy acupuncture.’)" More here.

After Nevada ranch stand-off, emboldened militias ask: where next? Reuters’ Jonathan Allen: "Flat on his belly in a sniper position, wearing a baseball cap and a flak jacket, a protester aimed his semi-automatic rifle from the edge of an overpass and waited as a crowd below stood its ground against U.S. federal agents in the Nevada desert. He was part of a 1,000-strong coalition of armed militia-men, cowboys on horseback, gun rights activists and others who rallied to Cliven Bundy’s Bunkerville ranch, about 80 miles northeast of Las Vegas, in a stand-off with about a dozen agents from the federal Bureau of Land Management. The rangers had rounded up hundreds of Bundy’s cattle, which had been grazing illegally on federal lands for two decades. Bundy had refused to pay grazing fees, saying he did not recognize the government’s authority over the land, a view that attracted vocal support from some right-wing groups. Citing public safety, the BLM retreated, suspending its operation and even handing back cattle it had already seized. No shots were fired during the stand-off, which Bundy’s triumphant supporters swiftly dubbed the ‘Battle of Bunkerville,’ but the government’s decision to withdraw in the face of armed resistance has alarmed some who worry that it has set a dangerous precedent and emboldened militia groups." More here.

Iran has significantly reduced its stockpile of near bomb-grade enriched uranium. It’s also moving more quickly than required to dispose of remaining stocks by mid-July, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. From the Christian Science Monitor’s Scott Peterson: "Today, the United Nations nuclear watchdog reported that Iran has significantly reduced its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium – the material that is a few technical steps from bomb-grade – and is ahead of schedule to completely dispose of remaining stocks by mid-July. Iran has two incentives to move quickly on the terms of the deal, which took force on Jan. 20. It is eager to show it can abide by all its nuclear commitments, as Iran and world powers begin drafting a comprehensive nuclear deal after three rounds of talks, with a fourth due to begin on May 13. It also wants the release of $4.2 billion in frozen oil sale funds, part of a package of eased sanctions worth a total of $7 billion incorporated in the six-month initial agreement." More here.

Can Washington stop Heartbleed? From Inside Cyber Security’s Christopher J. Castelli: "Institutions worldwide must confront the high risk that stems from their dependence on information technology and build resilience to withstand future global shocks to the Internet — a point underscored by the recent Heartbleed vulnerability, according to a new report from the Atlantic Council and Zurich Insurance Group. Although the Internet has long been resilient to attacks on a day-to-day basis, risk managers, corporate executives, board directors and government officials are not prepared for future cyber attacks that will significantly impact globally interconnected systems, states the report, "Beyond Data Breaches: Global Interconnections of Cyber Risk." The assessment likens the looming problem to the subprime mortgage crisis. More here. And check out the report itself here.

Where my marshmallow NSA Peeps at? Finally, Easter annually brings the Washington Post’s Peeps diorama competition, in which competitors fashion elaborate and frequently hilarious scenes starring marshmallow birds and rabbits. This year’s edition includes a few with national security ties, including "Peeping POTUS," a semifinalist entry which shows the sugary nexus between the White House, NSA and regular Joe bunnies just trying to live their lives peacefully. There also is "President Putin Peeved by Peep Riot Performance," in which a marshmallow bands rocks out in the red square while engaged shirtless president – riding a horse, no less – angrily looks. Check out all the finalists’ work here. And the semifinalists here. Enjoy the weekend, friends.

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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