The Cable

SitRep: Trump Defends Putin, but Moscow Pushes Back; White House Moves Ukrainian Border; U.S. Targets Iran in Yemen

Trump to Centcom; China’s Tech Push; and Lots More

US Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) attends a meeting with Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida (not pictured) in Tokyo on February 3, 2017. 
Any nuclear attack by North Korea would trigger an "effective and overwhelming" response, US Defence Secretary James Mattis said February 3 as he sought to reassure Asian allies rattled by President Donald Trump's isolationist rhetoric. / AFP / POOL / DAVID MAREUIL        (Photo credit should read DAVID MAREUIL/AFP/Getty Images)
US Defense Secretary James Mattis (C) attends a meeting with Japanese Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida (not pictured) in Tokyo on February 3, 2017. Any nuclear attack by North Korea would trigger an "effective and overwhelming" response, US Defence Secretary James Mattis said February 3 as he sought to reassure Asian allies rattled by President Donald Trump's isolationist rhetoric. / AFP / POOL / DAVID MAREUIL (Photo credit should read DAVID MAREUIL/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Borderline call. The White House made some very deliberate word choices over the weekend when it came to the Russian-fueled conflict in Ukraine. After a Friday call with the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, President Trump said in a statement that the U.S. “will work with Ukraine, Russia, and all other parties involved to help them restore peace along the border.” After a Sunday call with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg the White House doubled down on the language choice, saying in a statement that the two “discussed the potential for a peaceful resolution of the conflict along the Ukrainian border.”

NATO didn’t mention any borders in its readout of the call.

The Ukrainian border with Russia, of course, was obliterated in 2014 when Russian troops poured into eastern Ukraine, and there’s no actual fighting across the internationally-recognized boundary between the countries. There are, however, front lines between the Russian-backed fighters and government troops well inside Ukrainian territory. (FP’s Paul McLeary recently wrote how renewed heavy fighting in Ukraine presents the Trump administration with a major test.)

Who’s to say? President Trump came to the defense of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s reputation over the weekend by portraying the U.S. as Russia’s moral equivalent. When Fox’s Bill O’Reilly questioned Trump about respecting a “killer” like Putin, Trump responded by saying that America has “a lot of killers,” asking “you think our country’s so innocent?”

The Kremlin has demanded an apology from O’Reilly for his comments about Putin.

Three’s a crowd. The Trump administration is looking to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran in its quest to work with Russia to fight ISIS in Syria, but as the Wall Street Journal notes, that’s easier said than done: “The emerging strategy seeks to reconcile President Donald Trump’s seemingly contradictory vows to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and to aggressively challenge the military presence of Iran—one of Moscow’s most critical allies.” One European diplomat added, “there’s daylight between Russia and Iran for sure,” but “what’s unclear is what Putin would demand in return for weakening the alliance.” (See Ukraine issue at the top of this post…)

The Kremlin isn’t so sure about the whole thing. On Monday, spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow that the government doesn’t agree with Trump’s assessment of Iran as “the number one terrorist state” in his weekend Fox News interview, saying, “Russia has friendly partner-like relations with Iran, we cooperate on a wide range of issues, value our trade ties, and hope to develop them further.”

Next up: Yemen. One place where Washington and Tehran might face off is in Yemen, which the Trump administration increasingly sees as a place to check Iranian influence in the Middle East. One person who has been in contact with the national security team at the White House tells FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary that “there’s a desire to look at a very aggressive pushback” against Iran in Yemen within the administration. Given the public rhetoric and private deliberations in the White House, the United States could “become more directly involved in trying to fight the Houthis” alongside Saudi and Emirati allies, said the source, who asked not to be named as he had not been authorized by the White House to comment. Read the whole thing here.

President Trump will get an earful of Iran — and ISIS — Monday when he visits MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla., home of the U.S. Central Command and Special Operations Command for briefings about the wars in Iraq Syria, and Afghanistan.

Back home. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is back at the Pentagon after traveling to South Korea and Japan last week on a trip in part meant to reassure allies that the Trump administration was a reliable partner. But he also sounded a cautious note on U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria, and tried to cool down tensions while not backing down from his assessment of Tehran’s role in the Middle East.

Mattis said Saturday that the threat from Iran’s missile program doesn’t require more American troops in the Middle East, shortly after the national security advisor Michael Flynn warned that the administration was “officially putting Iran on notice” for its missile tests. Mattis, a former commander of U.S. operations in the Middle East and an Iran hawk, still called Iran the world’s “single biggest state sponsor” of terrorism.

Welcome to SitRep. Send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Sanctions

Vice President Mike Pence says Russia can get out from under American sanctions. Pence opened the door to the possibility that sanctions the Obama administration put in place for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could be lifted even if Russian policy — and military involvement — in Ukraine didn’t change. Pence said the White House could change its mind if it sees changes in Russian behavior and “the opportunity perhaps to work on common interests” like the fight against the Islamic State. Russia has claimed it is already fighting the Islamic State and that its purpose in joining the war in Syria was to curb the growth of Islamist extremism.

China

There’s an artificial intelligence talent gap, the New York Times argues, and the private sector, particularly from China, is winning it. The paper reports that more and more researchers are leaving the U.S. to help Chinese companies develop artificial intelligence systems for products like self-driving cars. The pace of research in China has some worried that China may soon catch up with the U.S. and be able to leverage its research in the field in developing smarter weapons and guidance systems for missiles. The Pentagon has been trying to do something similar in the U.S., building out the Defense Innovation Unit – Experimental office to take advantage of technologies available in the private sector.

Numbers

American combat aircraft have been busier than the Defense Department is willing to admit, according to a Military Times investigation. The paper found that 456 Army airstrikes carried out by helicopters and drones in Afghanistan were not included in an Air Force-maintained database of overall U.S. airstrikes, raising questions about transparency. An anonymous Army official disclaimed any legal responsibility for the service to catalog or share such data, disputing the characterization of airstrikes conducted by attack helicopters really being airstrikes.

Syria

The U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) are entering the third phase of their plan to wrest the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa from the terrorist group’s hands. SDF forces tell Reuters they’re headed east of the city in order to cut it off from Deir ez-Zor, where some of the Islamic State’s key leaders have recently taken shelter. The Trump administration agreed to provide the SDF with armored vehicles last week at a time when Turkey, bogged down in its own Euphrates Shield operation against the Islamic State, has grown warier of U.S. support for Kurdish militants it considers terrorists.

Iraq

NATO is on the ground in Iraq training up Iraqi troops to take on the Islamic State, according to the Wall Street Journal. The alliance has been mulling a training role in Iraq for some time, but NATO personnel are now engaged in a “modest” training capacity, according to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, with 10 staff members there and others visiting as circumstances warrant. Alliance members have been wary of putting a NATO face on training efforts against the Islamic State in Iraq, putting more resources in national contributions to the U.S.-led Operation Inherent Resolve coalition. On a trip to NATO headquarters in Brussels last month, FP’s Paul McLeary wrote about the Iraq mission and some of the other contributions the alliance is making in the counterterrorism fight.

The kick is good

The aircraft carrier USS Gerald Ford is testing out its catapult by hurling trucks off its deck and into the ocean like so many stones across a lake.

 

Photo Credit DAVID MAREUIL/AFP/Getty Images

 

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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