SitRep: U.S. Tanks Arrive in Poland, But Will Trump Let Them Stay?; China Hints at War Over Tillerson’s South China Sea Comments
Israel Unsure about Sharing Intel With U.S.; China, Russia Push Back on THAAD; And Lots More
Russia policy. The first real test of President-elect Donald Trump’s NATO and Russia policy could take place in Poland, where American tanks are rumbling into position as part of a new Pentagon strategy of reassuring nervous Eastern European allies in the face of an increasingly aggressive Russia.
Heavy equipment and the first of what will be about 4,000 U.S. troops arrived on Thursday, where they’ll set down in western Poland, while another deployment, set for April, will settle in eastern Poland near the “Suwalki Gap,” a pocket that sits between Belarus and the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad. FP has lots more on this critical patch of land here.
Not having it. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that Russia sees the U.S. troop deployments as a direct threat. “Any country can regard a buildup of foreign military presence near its borders negatively,” he said. “We interpret this as a threat to us and as actions that endanger our interests and our security.”
A senior Pentagon official speaking on the condition of anonymity told SitRep that the moves — including hundreds of troops from the U.K., Canada, and Germany taking up positions in NATO’s Baltic states — are intended as a message to Moscow. “Russia takes advantage of a lack of resolve,” the official said, and the deployments, though small, are intended to demonstrate commitment.
Breaking from Trump Tower. The incoming president’s nominees for secretary of defense and director of the CIA on Thursday broke sharply with the boss on how to handle Russia and NATO, though it remains to be seen what Washington’s policies will be come Jan. 20. Retired Marine General James Mattis repeatedly backed NATO during his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, while also lambasting Russia and offering a grudging acceptance of the Iran nuclear deal, FP’s Paul McLeary reports.
“If we did not have NATO today, we would need to create it,” Mattis said, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin — long an object of Trump’s praise and his hopeful dance partner on the global stage — is “trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.” Mattis said that he has spoken with Trump about NATO and Iran and “he understands where I stand.”
Spies like us. Likewise, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R.-Kan.) — Trump’s pick to run the CIA – told the Senate Intelligence Committee that he accepts the assessment that Russia meddled in the election to boost the Republican’s candidacy.
“Pompeo sought to reassure lawmakers that he did not share Trump’s often extreme views, and that he would faithfully carry out his duties in the Trump administration, even if that led to clashes with the new president,” FP’s Elias Groll writes. “Pompeo said he would continue investigating the Russian effort to meddle in the U.S. election and would share that information with the FBI, even if that investigation ensnares Trump or his associates. As CIA director, Pompeo said he would “‘pursue the facts wherever they take us.’”
Hold on there. All of this talk of independence was quickly squelched by Trump spokesman Sean Spicer on Thursday, however. He told reporters that “at the end of the day, each one of them is going to pursue a Trump agenda,” adding, “They’re being asked their personal views here and there. They’re giving them.”
Behind closed doors. The gatekeeper to the Oval Office for Mattis, Pompeo, and Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson will be national security advisor Mike Flynn, who shares some of PEOTUS’ instincts to reach out to Moscow to cooperate on a range of issues. An interesting note: On Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced it was expelling 35 Russian diplomats in response to Russian hacking during the presidential election, Flynn reportedly dialed up Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak “several times,” the Washington Post’s David Ignatius writes.
Missiles and tanks. With NATO-Russia relations at their lowest point in decades, the two former Cold War adversaries are in a tense stand-off over missile defense, FP’s Robbie Gramer writes in a fascinating new piece. “In recent years, Russia established a dense thicket of overlapping missile and missile defense systems with ranges that jut into NATO territory. Those systems could hinder NATO’s access to the territory in which it operates — akin to a 21st century moat around a castle. In defense jargon, it’s a strategy known as anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD. And it’s a top worry for NATO commanders.” Come for the story, and stay for the maps. Everyone loves a good map.
Beijing not happy. All this focus on Russia has in some respects clouded the comments that Tillerson made earlier in the week about the South China Sea. He told senators at his nomination hearing that Washington is “going to have to send China a clear signal that first, the island-building stops, and second, your access to those islands is also not going to be allowed.”
His answer amounted to more than just staking out a tough line on China. “It was a stunning break with years of American foreign policy,” reports FP’s Emily Tamkin. “Tillerson’s warning that the United States would block China’s access to the contested islands shocked and bewildered lawmakers and their aides, and diplomats across Asia. If carried out, it could violate international law as Washington has interpreted it and could put the United States on a collision course with China, raising the danger of a military clash.”
Beijing has sure noticed. On Friday, the government-run the Global Times newspaper said Washington would have to “wage a large-scale war” in the South China Sea to prevent Chinese access to the islands.
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China has a new ally in its pushback against the decision by the U.S. and South Korea to deploy a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery to South Korea. The U.S. offered up the missile defense system to help South Korea cope with North Korea’s ever-busier ballistic missile program but China objected, arguing that THAAD’s could be used to see into Chinese airspace. Russia has also objected to the THAAD deployment and Reuters reports that Chinese state news claimed that China and Russia are now at work on “countermeasures”
U.S. Central Command has stumbled into an accidental Twitter flap with Turkey over a tweet from the command carrying a statement from the U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces denying any links to the Kurdish PKK terrorist group. The National reports that the tweet landed with a thud in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdogan responded by saying “nobody has the right to claim they have nothing to do with the PKK” and his spokesman asked on Twitter “Is this a joke or @Centcom has lost its senses?” The U.S. has relied heavily on Kurdish fighters from the YPG militant group to provide troops for the Syrian Democratic Forces, but Turkey has fought bitterly with YPG, fearing the growth of a Kurdish state on its border.
Meanwhile, relations between Turkey and Russia are on a different course. The AP reports that the two countries have signed a memorandum of agreement on flight safety over Syria. The agreement marks a sharp turn in relations between Ankara and Moscow since a November 2015, when a Turkish F-16 shot down a Russian Su-24 Turkey claimed violated Turkish airspace. Since then, Turkey has been inching closer to Russia’s way of seeing things in Syria, and Moscow has reciprocated by offering air support to Turkish forces looking to take back the town of al-Bab from the Islamic State.
Syria is once again accusing Israel of striking one of its military facilities, the AP reports. Locals in Damascus reported seeing explosions near the Mezzeh military airport. Syrian state news claimed that the explosions were the result of Israeli missiles fired from the vicinity of the Sea of Galilee. Israel typically does not confirm or deny carrying out strikes against Syria, but it has reportedly struck targets in Syria to prevent weapons transfers from Syria to the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.
The Obama administration is slapping more sanctions on Syria on its way out the door. The Treasury Department announced sanctions against 18 members of the Assad regime it says are involved with weapons of mass destruction. The decision to apply the sanctions, according to Treasury, was prompted by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons’ late 2016 reports concluding that the Assad regime had used chlorine gas weapons. Treasury also cited five branches of the Syrian military — the Air Force, Air Defense Force, Army, Navy, and Republican Guard — alongside the 18 individuals.
Central Command issued a terse press release announcing that the U.S. had carried out two airstrikes on operatives from al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula figures in Yemen. The two strikes took place on December 29 and January 8, killing three people in total, according to the command.
Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman has a story up at Ynetnews reporting that some Israeli intelligence officials are worried that under the Trump administration intelligence shared with the United States could end up getting passed to Russia. Israeli spies are apparently worried that some of that information could also make its way to Iran by way of Russia. American intelligence officials who met with their Israeli counterparts also reportedly warned them that Russian intelligence may have compromising blackmail material on President-elect Trump, further heightening Israeli concerns.
Photo Credit: VINCENT JANNINK/AFP/Getty Images
Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary