The Cable

SitRep Exclusive: Pentagon Says Russia Can Fight in Ukraine and Syria Another Two Years

MANPADS for Syrian rebels; Obama in Saudi; and lots more

MOSCOW, Feb. 23, 2016: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, from left to right, view the honor guard during a wreath-laying ceremony in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 23, 2016.  Several officials of the Russian government attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with the eternal flame to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day here on Tuesday. (Xinhua/Dai Tianfang via Getty Images)
MOSCOW, Feb. 23, 2016: Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, from left to right, view the honor guard during a wreath-laying ceremony in Moscow, Russia, on Feb. 23, 2016. Several officials of the Russian government attended a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with the eternal flame to mark the Defender of the Fatherland Day here on Tuesday. (Xinhua/Dai Tianfang via Getty Images)

 

Still cold. It has been two years since NATO and Russia sat at the same table to talk security issues, and the time off hasn’t done much for the relationship. A meeting in Brussels Wednesday designed to break the ice on issues like Ukraine, Syria, and tensions in the Baltics didn’t get very far before all sides agreed they don’t see eye-to-eye on much.

“During the meeting it was reconfirmed we disagree, both when it comes to the facts, the narratives and the responsibilities for the crisis in and around Ukraine,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said after the sitdown.

The NATO-Russia Council was established in 2002 to keep up a monthly dialogue between Moscow and the European defense organization, but ties were broken off in June 2014 after the invasion of  Ukraine.

The war in Ukraine’s east rages on, however, with one senior Defense official telling SitRep that there are 7,000 Russian troops still inside Ukraine, advising pro-Moscow rebels and engaging in the fighting themselves.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in the Syrian conflict to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad hasn’t made a dent in the ability of Russia to send more equipment to Ukraine, either. Over the past year, Russia has shipped new rocket launchers, artillery, drones, and advanced electronic warfare equipment to the eastern Donbass region.

“I think they can sustain this for a considerable period of time,” the official said. “Our view is that they could sustain this easily for 24 months” even if oil prices remain low and the Russian economy continues to stagnate. Despite an announcement last month that the Russian military would begin to withdraw forces from Syria, instead Moscow sent more advanced helicopters, and the level of daily airstrikes has remained steady.

The NATO talks, some analysts say, likely won’t amount to much. But they’re a start. Olga Oliker, director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies says that “right now, the Russians are at the table in the interest of simply being at the table. I do think a part of the Russian purpose in meeting with NATO is ‘be aware of us, pay attention to us, and you can’t discount us,’” and not much more.

Talk about this. “I don’t think many people understand the visceral way Russia views NATO and the European Union as an existential threat,” Adm. Mark Ferguson, the U.S. Navy’s commander in Europe, told the New York Times. Ferguson was talking about the modernized Russian submarine capability, which has NATO worried, and scrambling to dust off Cold War-era strategies for tracking Moscow’s subs in the North Atlantic, the Baltic, and Mediterranean.

Road show. President Barack Obama is in Saudi Arabia for meetings with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) this week, but there doesn’t appear to be anything particularly new on the agenda. It’s a far cry from the meeting Obama hosted in Washington last year where he sought to sell his Middle East allies on the Iran nuclear deal. This time around, the U.S. is expected to offer Gulf states more security assurances, and Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Wednesday pressed GCC defense ministers to do more to help rebuild and stabilize parts of Iraq ravaged by its war with the Islamic State. Obama leaves for London later Thursday.

The guns of April. The U.S. is trying to develop a new kind of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile to provide Syrian rebels being pounded by the warplanes of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies. But there’s with one major caveat, FP’s Elias Groll writes in a smart new piece: they would have to “include technical controls that would limit where they can be used to ensure they don’t one day fall into terrorist hands.” But the design of such weapons controls remain highly elusive. “U.S. engineers aren’t known to have sorted out how to build a GPS chip into the weapon that would ensure it could be fired only on the front lines of northwest Syria. They also haven’t sorted out a way of rendering the weapons inert after a certain amount of time so they don’t show up on distant battlefields way in the future.”

Washington gonna Washington. Earlier this week, Raed Saleh, the head of the Syria Civil Defense — the white helmeted rescue workers in Syria you see pulling bloodied civilians from the pulverized remains of their neighborhoods — was denied entry to the United States at Washington’s Dulles airport. He had traveled to the U.S. to receive an award recognizing his contributions to humanitarian relief, but on landing, was told his visa had been canceled and placed on the next plane back to Turkey. Why? No one is saying. In a comment to the New York Times, a State Department official said something noncommittal. But State couldn’t explain what changed between last June, when Saleh traveled to New York to testify before the United Nations Security Council on the Syrian government’s use of barrel bombs, and now.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

China

The Center for Strategic and International Studies takes a look at how China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, stacks up against other countries’ carriers with a handy and media-heavy new website. In its size, speed, and in the aircraft it can launch, the ship falls way behind the capabilities of carriers from more experienced operators like the United States, clocking in closer to the likes of India and Japan. The limitations of the Liaoning make it likelier that the ship will be used for missions closer to home that are shy of sustained combat, like disaster relief and training.

Saudi money

Saudi Arabia has been spending big on public relations and lobbying in the U.S., coughing up millions of dollars for PR firms as a bill makes its way through Congress to allow 9/11 victims to sue the country in civil court over the attacks. The Saudis have hired an array of firms to make its case to the American government, including the Podesta Group, BGR Government Affairs, and DLA Piper, among others. The spending has also extended to publicity for Saudi-backed Syrian rebel groups, with the kingdom hiring Qorvis to run some of the Syrian Opposition Coalition’s social media accounts.

North Korea

The U.S. is trying to deter North Korea from carrying out yet another nuclear test by threatening United Nations Security Council sanctions on remittance payments made by North Koreans working abroad. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Danny Russel made the threat in an interview with Reuters, adding that the U.S. and its European and Asian allies could apply the sanctions unilaterally failing action in the Security Council. Experts estimate that Pyongyang rakes in close to a billion dollars a year from workers in the food service and construction industries. South Korea recently warned that the North may be preparing to conduct a fifth nuclear test in short order.

Syria

U.S. officials tell the Wall Street Journal that Russia is moving artillery pieces up toward northern Syria, where fighting has recently strained the tentative truce ironed out between Russia, the Assad regime, and rebel groups, leading some to think the cessation of hostilities may be on its last legs. Concern over the movement has reached the White House, where President Obama phoned Vladimir Putin for what press secretary Josh Earnest described as “intense conversation” about the situation. In addition to the artillery movements, U.S. intelligence has seen an uptick in Russian air operations in Syria.

Sub games

British officials are worried about their submarine hunting capabilities, especially now that Russian subs are patrolling the North Atlantic at a rate not seen in two decades. Problem is, London retired all of its maritime patrol aircraft back in 2010 for budgetary reasons. Scrambling to rectify that mistake, London decided in December to buy nine U.S. P-8 aircraft, but since the planes won’t be available until 2019, the U.S. will try and fill some of the gap by flying its own P-8s out of an old Cold War base in Keflavik, Iceland. Refitting the base will cost Washington about $20 million.

F-35

The development of the F-35 fighter plane has been troubled, to say the least. But that doesn’t mean that U.S. allies aren’t lining up to get their hands on the high-tech bird. The list, however, is being tightly controlled and the cap has been reached for the moment — which is good news for Washington’s Israeli allies. Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work recently told Defense News that despite the Saudis and other Gulf allies showing intense interest in the plane, “right now, we do not have any expectation for selling the F-35 in the near term, beyond the countries that have already bought into the program.”

Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is en route to Moscow, where he’s expected to ask Russian President Vladimir Putin for assurances that he won’t allow Iranian-backed forces to mass along Israel’s northern border. The meeting comes as Israeli deputy chief of staff, Major-General Yair Golan warned that another war with Hezbollah in Lebanon would cause “devastating damage” to the country and be “much harsher than anything we’ve experienced in the last 20 years.”

Boko Haram

Are Boko Haram and the Islamic State forging closer ties? Hard to say, but Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, commander of U.S. special operations in Africa sure dropped some hints about his thinking during a recent visit to Chad. Short answer: probably?

Bots o’ war

Remember Big Dog, the creepy Boston Dynamics quadruped robot which the Pentagon briefly considered to haul cargo for U.S. troops? The project may be dead here in the U.S. but a similar-looking unmanned ground vehicle — this time armed with a machine gun and anti-tank weapons — is underway in Russia. Army Recognition reports that Russian version is known as the Rys or “Lynx” and is expected to be ready by 2019. The requirements for the robot state that it can be piloted by a human or operate autonomously and plot its own route through artificial intelligence. What could possibly go wrong?

Budget issues

A coalition of 17 different groups, spanning the ideological spectrum from libertarians to peace activists, have sent a letter to Congress specifying $38.6 billion in Pentagon budget cuts they’d like to see. The letter makes the case for cancellations or pauses in a number of big ticket weapons systems, including the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Sensor Systems, the Littoral Combat Ship, F-35, and Air Launched Cruise Missile Follow-On.

 

Photo Credit: Xinhua/Dai Tianfang via Getty Images

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