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: Ukraine is feeling outmatched

Hagel's hotline to the Kremlin; Iraq's election today; Denny Blair debuts; Obama as Captain America; At the Pentagon, if it looks like an alligator… and a bit more.


Ukraine is feeling a little helpless. AP this hour: "Ukraine’s police and security forces are ‘helpless’ to quell unrest in two eastern regions bordering Russia, and in some cases are cooperating with pro-Russian gunmen who have seized scores of government buildings and taken people hostage, the country’s acting president said Wednesday. Oleksandr Turchynov said the goal now was to prevent the agitation from spreading to other territories.

Turchynov, at a meeting with regional governors: "I will be frank: Today, security forces are unable to quickly take the situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions under control… The security bodies … are unable to carry out their duties of protecting citizens. They are helpless in those matters. Moreover, some of those units are either helping or cooperating with terrorist organizations." More here.

The NYT’s Andrew Roth: "… Hours before Mr. Turchynov spoke, pro-Russian gunmen seized government buildings in the city of Horlivka, expanding their control over a swath of territory nominally controlled by new "people’s republics" opposed to Kiev. The men seized the city police building and the City Council building early Wednesday morning, according to Igor Dyomin, a spokesman for the police in the Donetsk region. Anti-Kiev protesters seized a regional police headquarters in the city earlier this month." More here.

You can’t surge trust, as they say: Hagel has a hotline to the Kremlin during the crisis, but is he getting through? Lubold for FP: When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke with his Russian counterpart back in December, the Pentagon hailed it as the first-ever video teleconference between U.S. and Russian defense chiefs. Hagel and Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu talked chemical weapons in Syria and missile defense issues and vowed to stay in close touch. The Pentagon even released pictures of the Skype-like chat. That was long before Russia annexed Crimea, sparking a crisis that has plunged Washington’s relationship with Moscow to its lowest point in decades. Today, the relationship that Hagel has begun to forge with his Russian counterpart is one of the few lines of communication that Washington has with Moscow.

In the past, these kinds of so-called "mil-to-mil" dialogues have helped the U.S. smooth over tensions, negotiate deals over things like shipping routes through Pakistan, and avert crises in places like the Asia-Pacific. When it comes to Ukraine, however, the conversations have so far failed to alter the tense dynamics between the two countries.

… The key, though, is for men like Hagel and Shoygu to build a sustainable, long-term relationship — not one used only as a matter of convenience or during times of crisis.

"As is often said, you cannot surge trust," [Retired Admiral Jim Stavridis] said. "Three cups of tea is only the beginning." More here.

Hey, if it walks like an alligator: Pentagon Pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby, at a Pentagon briefing yesterday, describing the call between Hagel and Shoygu: "I think minister — I think it’s safe to say that Minister Shoygu held a different view about — about who those individuals are and who they’re working for.

Reporter at briefing: "Well, he disputed the characterization?"

Kirby: "I think he held a different view than — than what — than what we do, but — but, look, I mean, I grew up in Florida. If it looks like an alligator, it’s an alligator." Full transcript here.

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of Situation Report. If you’d like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at and we’ll just stick you on. 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. Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

At the Pentagon today, Who’s Where WhenChuck Hagel hosts an honor cordon for Egypt’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Navil Fahmy, at 10:45 this morning at the Pentagon; then Hagel delivers remarks and receives the Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Award at 9pm at the Ritz downtown; Under Secretary Frank Kendall to testify before the SASC at 9:30 AM; Army Secretary John McHugh, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno, National Guard Bureau Army Chief Gen. Frank Grass, Army Reserve Chief Lt. Gen. Jeffrey W. Talley and Acting Army National Guard Director Maj. Gen. Judd Lyons testify before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense at 10:00 AM; AF Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III presents the Prisoner of War Medal to the internees of the Wauwilermoos Camp, Switzerland in the Pentagon Auditorium at 10:00 AM.

Also today, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA’s big Washington event kicks off at the J.W. Marriott in DC this morning. Pentagon Chief of Staff Mark Lippert, State’s Danny Russell and Chip Gregson, Richard Samuels, David Sanger, Patrick Cronin, Michael Schiffer and a number of other heavy hitters will appear on various panels throughout the day. Then around lunchtime, Denny Blair, the new incoming chairman for SPFUSA, will deliver the keynote. And Susan Glasser (formerly our boss and now editor of Politico mag) will moderate.

Afghanistan’s corruption is fostered by the U.S., a Pentagon report finds. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio with an exclusive: "The U.S. government ‘created an environment that fostered corruption’ in Afghanistan by supporting warlords, relying on private trucking contracts and providing billions of dollars in aid, according to a previously undisclosed Pentagon report. ‘Corruption directly threatens the viability and legitimacy of the Afghan state" after a "large-scale culture of impunity" took hold, analysts for the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said in a 65-page assessment obtained by Bloomberg News. American forces dependent on Afghanistan-based trucking companies found themselves ‘trapped in a warlord protection racket,’ according to the report dated Feb. 28." More here.

SIGAR releases a report: a bust and an extortion ring highlights how corruption remains Afghanistan’s worst issue. US News & World Report’s Paul Shinkman: "… Corruption of this and many other flavors continues to plague Afghanistan after more than 13 years of war: Half of Afghan citizens paid a bribe while asking for a public service in 2012, according to U.N. figures. The problem also has eaten away at the Afghan government’s income, contributing to the country’s potential inability to fund as much as two-thirds of its $7.5 billion budget in 2014." Read the rest here.

Congressional pushback on resuming some aid to Egypt. FP’s John Hudson: "The Obama administration’s plan
to move forward with $650 million in military aid to Egypt hit a new snag on Tuesday as a key Democrat announced his opposition to the move in light of the mass death sentences handed out by Egyptian judges this week after what were widely derided as show trials. During an address on the Senate floor, Senator Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee that controls foreign aid, said he would block additional aid to Cairo due to its continued human rights abuses."

Leahy: "I’m not prepared to sign off on the delivery of additional aid for the Egyptian military… I’m not prepared to do that until we see convincing evidence the government is committed to the rule of law." More here.

At the Pentagon, (budget) dreams really can come true. The WaPo’s Christian Davenport on Page One: "…As Congress begins to wade through the Pentagon’s budget this week, deciding what stays and what goes, lawmakers will face a temptation that it has not seen in the past few years: robust wish lists, loaded with all sorts of shiny, new things they supposedly cannot afford to buy.

Former defense secretary Robert Gates had all but banned the lists, which allow the services to bypass the secretary’s office and go directly to Congress. But now, in an election year, they are back – resurrected by a member of Congress – stark reminders of how even in an era of tightened budgets, defense spending exerts a powerful pull.

"Critics say dangling page upon page of ships, aircraft and training programs before Congress can act as a gateway to the kind of out-of-control spending that lawmakers have vowed to curtail. If the items were such a priority – or a "requirement," as they are sometimes called – then they would have been funded in the first place, they say." More here.

Hagel considers cornrows as a policy issue but takes "very seriously" concerns that military rules on hairstyles unfairly target black women. The NYT’s Helene Cooper: "…Responding to a complaint lodged by the 16 women of the Congressional Black Caucus, Mr. Hagel said he had given the secretaries and military leaders of the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines three months to review comprehensive military regulations as they pertain to black women ‘to ensure standards are fair and respectful of our diverse force.’… Black women have said that a lack of understanding about the roots of black hair is part of the reason for the Army regulations, which went into effect at the end of March. While black hair comes in all textures, much of it is very curly, making it difficult, unless chemically straightened, to pull into a bun or to let hang loose in a neat, uniform way." More here.

Secretary of State John Kerry wasn’t the only one who used the A-word when it comes to Israel: Mattis said it, too. Mattis said at the Aspen Security conference last July that the United States is paying a military and security price "every day" because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, warning that the continued construction of settlements is liable to turn Israel into an apartheid state.

And in an interview on CNN at the time, Mattis praised Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but he also said this: "I would tell you that the current situation is unsustainable," Mattis said, adding, "It’s got to be directly addressed. We have got to find a way to make the two-state solution that Democrat and Republican administrations have supported. We’ve got to get there, and the chances for it are starting to ebb because of the settlements, and where they’re at. [They] are going to make it impossible to maintain the two-state option."

Mattis discussed the dangers to Israel’s future and mentioned the settlements as an example"If I’m in Jerusalem and I put 500 Jewish settlers out here to the east and there’s 10,000 Arab settlers in here, if we draw the border to include them, either it ceases to be a Jewish state or you say the Arabs don’t get to vote – apartheid," he warned. "That didn’t work too well the last time I saw that practiced in a country. So we’ve got to work on this with a sense of urgency."

Read CNN’s piece on how Kerry won’t be the last to use the word, here.

Iraq votes today in the first national elections since U.S. troops withdrew. Iraq’s Maliki’s critics say he has seized control of state TV, other agencies, and is using them to win a third term. The WSJ’s Matt Bradley in Baghdad: "Osama Al Nujaifi, Iraq’s speaker of the parliament, stood in front of television cameras last month to deliver a blistering tirade against his political nemesis, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But before Mr. Nujaifi could begin, the cameras for Al Iraqiyya, the state-run television network and the only one allowed to show parliamentary proceedings, panned away. Mr. Nujaifi was left speaking to a small group of allied lawmakers instead of a national audience.

"Among the political levers that Mr. Maliki controls ahead of parliamentary elections on Wednesday, few are more crucial than Iraqiyya, which American officials set up after Saddam Hussein’s 2003 downfall and modeled after the U.K.’s BBC.

"The broadcaster is among more than a half-dozen other once-independent institutions that Mr. Maliki has come to dominate and is now using to catapult himself to a third term, say his political opponents, critics and analysts." More here.

BUT, the NYT’s Tim Arango and Michael Gordon report today: "… A strategy of showing toughness may win votes among Mr. Maliki’s Shiite constituency, but as Iraqis vote on Wednesday in the first national elections since the withdrawal of American forces, it is far from certain that he will be able to win over enough others to lock down another term." More here.

A coordinated bomb attack kills 24 people in Baghdad ahead of elections. From the AP: "Back-to-back bombs ripped through an outdoor market northeast of Baghdad on Tuesday, the deadliest in separate attacks that officials said killed 24 people on the eve of the first nationwide elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces." More here.

More than ever, Americans want to withdraw from the world. The WSJ’s Janet Hook: "Americans in large numbers want the U.S. to reduce its role in world affairs even as a showdown with Russia over Ukraine preoccupies Washington, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll finds. In a marked change from past decades, nearly half of those surveyed want the U.S. to be less active on the global stage, with fewer than one-fifth calling for more active engagement-an anti-interventionist current that sweeps across party lines… The poll showed that approval of President Barack Obama’s handling
of foreign policy sank to the lowest level of his presidency, with 38% approving, at a time when his overall job performance drew better marks than in recent months." More here.

The secretive U.S. commando mission in the Philippines is getting an overhaul. FP’s Dan Lamothe: "President Obama’s new agreement with the Philippines will give U.S. troops greater access to military bases across the Pacific island nation. But it’s not the only major military transition underway there: Just as more conventional U.S. forces are likely to flow through the Philippines, the United States is pulling back on its long-running and secretive special operations mission there, reducing the number of commandos and altering the focus for those who remain… The U.S. forces’ primary mission wasn’t to fight, but the American commandos have still found themselves in bloody situations on occasion. At least 17 U.S. troops have died there, including 10 in a helicopter crash in 2002, one in a restaurant bombing in 2002, and two in a roadside bombing attack in 2009." More here.

How the CIA’s vaccination ruse in the hunt for OBL made health workers combatants Pakistan’s war with the Taliban. Kristina Shevory from Karachi for FP: "…Ever since the CIA used a vaccination campaign as cover in its hunt for Osama Bin Laden, real medical professionals have found themselves in the crosshairs in Pakistan. The Taliban have banned immunizations and accused those attempting to deliver medical services in the tribal areas of being Western spies. As a result, medical workers armed with polio vaccines have become inadvertent fighters against the Taliban and other militants as they try to rid the country of a virus that paralyzes and often kills young children. Pakistan has never been free of polio, a disease eliminated in the United States more than 30 years ago, and zealots have vowed to make its eradication impossible through a targeted campaign of shootings, kidnappings, and roadside ambushes." More here.

It was heroin that killed the two former SEALs aboard the Maersk Alabama.  From the AP: "Seychelles police say a mixture of heroin and alcohol caused the deaths of two former U.S. Navy SEALs. A police statement Tuesday quoted by the government-funded Seychelles News Agency said toxicology analysis found no poison in the men’s blood. The police said previously the men died of respiratory failure and were suspected to have had heart attacks. The two Americans – Mark Daniel Kennedy, 43, and Jeffrey Keith Reynolds, 44 – were security contractors providing anti-piracy services for the Virginia Beach, Virginia-based maritime security firm The Trident Group. The two were found dead Feb. 18 aboard the Maersk Alabama, a ship famous because Somali pirates hijacked it in 2009. Navy SEALs shot and killed three pirates to free the ship in an incident depicted in a movie starring Tom Hanks." More here.

Extra, extra: Read all about the Houbara Bustard: the war-on-terror chicken. FP’s own Dana Stuster: "The houbara bustard — a gawky, turkey-sized bird with spindly legs, a long, thick neck, and a goofy mating ritual — would be a mostly unremarkable species, except for one thing: It is the prey of choice for Arab falconers, who have hunted the bird to the brink of extinction in the Persian Gulf. And over the past 20 years, it has become a recurring character in a strange geopolitical drama featuring wealthy Arab sheikhs, the CIA, and Osama bin Laden." More here.

Reading Pincus: When the government goes after the government. The WaPo’s Walter Pincus: "For a government worker, nothing concentrates the mind quicker – or makes you at first angry and later perhaps more cautious – than the prospect that you might go to jail for doing your job. It’s a reminder from the conflict between the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the CIA over the panel’s more-than 6,300-page report on the CIA’s coercive interrogations during the administration of President George W. Bush. They included waterboarding and other torture-like methods. From 2008 through 2012, CIA officers and contractors faced a criminal investigation by a Justice Department special prosecutor for their roles in what now is considered torturous interrogations, as well as the 2005 destruction of 92 video recordings of some of those activities." More here.

In pop culture, and at Marvel, Obama has become Captain America. The NYT’s Michael Shear in a story under the Page One headline, "The Rise of the Drone Master: Pop Culture Recasts Obama." Shear: "In Marvel’s latest popcorn thriller, Captain America battles Hydra, a malevolent organization that has infiltrated the highest levels of the United States government. There are missile attacks, screeching car chases, enormous explosions, evil assassins, data-mining supercomputers and giant killer drones ready to obliterate millions of people. Its inspiration? President Obama, the optimistic candidate of hope and change.

"Five and a half years into his presidency, Mr. Obama has had a powerful impact on the nation’s popular culture. But what many screenwriters, novelists and visual artists have seized on is not an inspirational story of the first black president. Instead they have found more compelling story lines in the bleaker, morally fraught parts of Mr. Obama’s legacy.

"’We were trying to find a bridge to the same sort of questions that Barack Obama has to address,’ said Joe Russo, who with his brother, Anthony, directed ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier.’ ‘If you’re saying with a drone strike, we can eradicate an enemy of the state, what if you say with 100 drone strikes, we can eradicate 100? With 1,000, we can eradicate 1,000? At what point do you stop?’" More here.

And there’s this: wait for Marine PFC Merica to get seek his commission and become a "Captain Merica," here. (h/t to someone on FB who we can’t remember.)

Gordon Lubold is a senior writer at FP and author of Situation Report  with help by Nathaniel Sobel, director of research at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Follow him @glubold and him @njsobe4.

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