The Cable

SitRep: Top General Says Putin Trying to Break Up NATO

China’s purge of the PLA; Obama’s Saudi ambitions; no planes for Qatar; and lots more

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL, 19  (RUSSIA OUT)  Russian President Vladimir Putin speeches during the congress of Russian Engineering Union in Moscow, Russia, April,19, 2016. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
MOSCOW, RUSSIA - APRIL, 19 (RUSSIA OUT) Russian President Vladimir Putin speeches during the congress of Russian Engineering Union in Moscow, Russia, April,19, 2016. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

 

Messaging. The grumbling in Washington continues over the recent dramatic Russian flybys of the USS Donald Cook in the Baltic Sea, where Russian fighter jets harassed the ship over two days, coming within 30 ft. of its deck at one point.

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee are feeling particularly prickly, and took the opportunity Thursday to grill President Barack Obama’s nominee to take over the U.S. European Command, Gen. Army Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, over what the U.S. response should be. Russia should receive a “strong, clear and consistent” message about consequences for doing something like this again, he said, adding that U.S. military leaders “should keep everything on the table,” including a military response. He added s sobering note of caution, however: “once we make that known we have to enforce it,” Scaparrotti said.

The flybys are just part of an overall Russian effort — which includes ramping up submarine patrols to Cold War levels, poking Baltic states, and supporting separatists in the Ukraine — that show President Vladimir Putin “is deliberately trying to break up NATO,” the general said.

I survived the ‘80s one time already. While Washington is rightly concerned over the flybys, it’s worth noting that this sort of thing isn’t new. Come with us back to February 1988, when Russian warships actually rammed the USS Caron and the USS Yorktown while they were on patrol in international waters in the Black Sea. Video here. And here.

Watch the throne. You may now address Chinese President Xi Jinping as Commander in Chief of the military’s joint operations command center. The title, bestowed on a fatigues-clad Xi by state media this week, is largely a symbolic reaffirmation of his existing authority over the People’s Liberation Army. Analysts say that Xi is attempting to consolidate his control over China’s institutions and that the title may be intended to reinforce the image of Xi as the man in charge.

The move also comes as Xi is launching a massive reorganization of the PLA, moving it from a collection of distinct regional units that operated with a degree of autonomy to a more streamlined, top-down organization. The Chinese leader is also actively purging the military’s officer corps, arresting dozens on charges of corruption and firing others for incompetence, while cutting some 300,000 troops from the army’s bloated ranks.

Next stop is Vietnam. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Vietnam, and took the opportunity to complain about Chinese actions in the South China Sea before a receptive audience. Blinken said that China’s “massive land reclamation projects in the South China Sea and the increasing militarization of these outposts fuels regional tension and raises serious questions about China’s intention,” there. Vietnam is in the midst of several disputes with Beijing over ownership of islands in the South China Sea.

No jets today, maybe cyber? President Obama just left Saudi Arabia without inking any big new weapons deals. The big one everyone is waiting for is the sale of up to 73 F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets, worth billions of dollars, that has been on the table for more than two years. FP’s Dan DeLuce recently tracked the issue, and what the holdup is all about. Some thought that the sale might go through when Obama met with Middle East leaders this week, but Ben Rhodes, the president’s deputy national security adviser, seems to have put that one to rest.

He said Thursday the U.S. would continue to review sales of weapons to the region, but the Obama administration wanted to move away from big ticket items like fighter jets, and toward developing special operations forces and preventing cyberattacks. The usual sale of fighters and frigates to the region are “not necessarily the capabilities that are best designed to deal with the threats that we face,” he said. We would be curious to hear if the monarchies in the Gulf agree with that.

That’s a wrap. Obama is already in London, shifting his focus from the Gulf to Europe, but FP’s John Hudson has a smart wrap of the president’s time in Saudi. Obama tried his best to paper over differences between Washington and Riyadh, “but the growing chasm between Washington and the oil-rich Sunni monarchy — inflamed by a fresh wave of criticism from lawmakers of both parties — overshadowed the summit’s scripted displays of camaraderie and unity.”

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as wrap up another week of SitRep. 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.

Syria

The peace talks in Geneva between the Syrian regime and rebel forces appear again (or still?) to be on the verge of failure as rebel representatives threatened to walk out by Friday if the Assad regime refused to release 10,000 women prisoners. The demand was made by Mohammed Alloush of the Islamist Jaish al-Islam rebel group. The cessation of hostilities in Syria, hammered out with help from the U.S. and Russia, has begun to fray as fighting has expanded and as reports surfaced that Russia has been moving artillery pieces toward the city of Aleppo.

Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, emphasizing Israel’s position that Syria and Iran not be allowed to transfer sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, currently fighting alongside Russia on behalf of the Assad regime. Netanyahu also reiterated that Israel wouldn’t accept Hezbollah or Iranian-backed forces massing along Israel’s border in the Golan Heights. The meeting comes amid reports that Russian aircraft have fired on Israeli jets several times over the past several weeks.

China

China has more or less fessed up to testing its DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile in response to an article by the Washington Free Beacon alleging that a test took place on April 12. Reuters reports that China’s Defense Ministry issued a statement saying “these tests are not aimed at any set country or target” — an implicit acknowledgement that testing of some type took place. The DF-41 can reportedly be launched from special cars on railway lines and testing has been taking place since December 2015.

Who’s where when

9:30 a.m. Retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis will take the stage today at CSIS to talk about the Middle East, in a discussion moderated by Dr. Jon Alterman. The former general’s presidential ambitions are the subject of much speculation and encouragement from some inside the Republican party, so expect plenty of questions about whether the general has plans for 2016. Livestream here.

Iran

Iran reportedly launched its Simorgh rocket during President Obama’s visit to Saudi Arabia. An anonymous official tells Fox News that the rocket, which many believe to be a cover for Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile program, launched successfully but didn’t put a satellite in orbit. Iran suggested earlier this year that it was planning a Simorgh and satellite launch in February, and imagery from Iran’s launch center showed preparations that month. So far, though, no launch has yet been confirmed and Iran has been mum on reports that the event took place this week.

Libya

Forces fighting on behalf of the Tobruk-based government in Libya appear to have kicked the Islamic State out of the city of Derna, leaving Sirte as the only city where the group holds major territory in the country, according to the BBC. Fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Derna Mujahideen Shura Council (DMSC) told the Beeb that Islamic State fighters had left the city following clashes with DMSC fighters and airstrikes from jets flown by the Tobruk government’s armed forces.

Bots o’ war

The Guardian takes a look at six families in Pakistan and Yemen whose lives were changed after U.S. drone strikes killed their loved ones and left others severely injured. Compensation from the U.S. for the loss of loved ones has been lacking and the secrecy surrounding the CIA’s drone program has left those left behind wondering why and how the U.S. targeted their family members.

Airstrikes carried out by drones now outnumber those by manned aircraft in Afghanistan, according to a scoop from Reuters. In 2015, 56 percent of the munitions released by U.S. Air Force aircraft in the country came from drones and the trend appears to be holding into 2016. In the first quarter of the year, drones fired 61 percent of the 300 weapons used by the Air Force.

The Navy’s USS Carl Vinson is now home to the service’s first aircraft carrier-based drone command center. The Vinson’s Capt. Karl Thomas said the move to put the MQ-XX command center on board the ship’s deck was done to prepare for the eventual development of an unmanned refueling drone to replace the F/A-18E/F jets currently fulfilling that role. The Navy recently announced that it had shifted gears in its unmanned carrier-launched drone program, aiming to develop an aerial refueling drone, the MQ-25 Stingray, and ditching plans for an armed version for light strike missions.

And finally…

The U.S. Air Force and Navy have been busy these past 20 months blowing up American Humvees in Iraq captured by ISIS. Feeling left out, the Army decided to just drop some out of the back of cargo planes. Boom. Or maybe, oops.

 

Photo Cedit: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

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