The Cable

SitRep: Mattis Lands in Ukraine, Rips Russia; WH Hands Pentagon Transgender Ban Memo

  With Adam Rawnsley Tough words for Moscow. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has landed in Ukraine, becoming the first SecDef to visit the country since Robert Gates in 2007. After viewing a parade celebrating the 26th anniversary of the country’s independence from Moscow on Thursday, Mattis took aim at Russia, portraying the American rival as ...

Ukrainian Minister of Defence Stepan Poltorak (L-back) speaks to US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (C) before a military parade in Kiev on August 24, 2017 to celebrate the Independence Day, 26 years since Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union.  / AFP PHOTO / Genya SAVILOV        (Photo credit should read GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Ukrainian Minister of Defence Stepan Poltorak (L-back) speaks to US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis (C) before a military parade in Kiev on August 24, 2017 to celebrate the Independence Day, 26 years since Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union.  / AFP PHOTO / Genya SAVILOV (Photo credit should read GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images)

 

With Adam Rawnsley

Tough words for Moscow. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has landed in Ukraine, becoming the first SecDef to visit the country since Robert Gates in 2007. After viewing a parade celebrating the 26th anniversary of the country’s independence from Moscow on Thursday, Mattis took aim at Russia, portraying the American rival as attempting to redraw international borders.

“Have no doubt,” Mattis said at a news conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, “the United States stands with Ukraine.” He added that Washington refuses to accept the Russian annexation of Crimea, and “despite Russia’s denials, we know they are seeking to redraw international borders by force.”

The big question: where are the missiles? The White House continues to debate a military aid package to Kiev which reportedly includes some $50 million worth of javelin anti-tank missiles. If approved, it would mark the first time the U.S. supplied Ukraine with lethal weaponry. A similar proposal was rejected by former president Barack Obama, who overruled much of his Pentagon and White House staff who supported the shipments.

Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Audricia Harris told SitRep that the U.S. “has not provided defensive lethal assistance nor ruled out the option of doing so. We are examining how to bolster Ukraine’s ability to defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Harris added that Washington has spent over $750 million on security assistance to Ukraine since 2014, including training, counter-artillery and counter-mortar radars, vehicles, communications equipment‎, body armor, and medical equipment.

Hotline. The relationship between Moscow and Washington may be tense in plenty of places, but on the phone lines set up to deconflict U.S. and Russian operations in Syria, relations are surprisingly cordial. The Air Force gave Reuters access to its Combined Air Operations Area in Qatar, where Russian linguists say that they field around 10-12 calls a day as U.S. and Russian forces come into closer proximity while the Islamic State’s caliphate crumbles.

One amazing takeaway from the story revolves around the June shootdown of a Syrian Su-22 by a U.S. Navy F-18. As the Syrian plane closed in on U.S.-backed forces on the ground, “two Russian fighter jets looked on from above and a American F-22 stealth aircraft kept watch from an even higher altitude, they told Reuters.”

Transgender ban on the way. Per the WSJ: “The White House is expected to send guidance to the Pentagon in coming days on how to implement a new administration ban on transgender people in the military, issuing a policy that will allow Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to consider a service member’s ability to deploy in deciding whether to kick them out of the military.

The White House memo also directs the Pentagon to deny admittance to transgender individuals and to stop spending on medical treatment regimens for those currently serving, according to U.S. officials familiar with the document. The 2½-page memo gives Mr. Mattis six months to prepare to fully implement the new ban, according to these officials.”

VP Mike Pence has played a large, but quiet role in the transgender debate, as FP has reported.

General urges Taliban to talk. The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan said Thursday that president Trump’s new strategy for the war should force the insurgent group to the negotiating table. “The Taliban cannot win on the battlefield, it’s time for them to join the peace process,” Gen. John Nicholson told reporters. “We will not fail in Afghanistan, our national security depends on that as well.” He also hinted that the U.S. plans to stick around for awhile. “This policy announcement … is proof of our continued commitment,” Nicholson said.

More diplos out at State. A seasoned U.S. diplomat who oversees European and NATO policy is being forced out of his job, the latest senior civil servant to be pushed aside in the Trump administration’s shake-up of the State Department, current and former officials told Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce and Colum Lynch.

More: “John Heffern, a veteran diplomat who once served as the American ambassador to Armenia, is currently the acting assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs. He was due to hand over that post to a political appointee, A. Wess Mitchell, who has yet to be confirmed by the Senate.”

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Russia inquiry. The Congressional inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election has uncovered a previously unreported attempt to set up a meeting between then candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. CNN reports that Rick Dearborn, now the White House deputy chief of staff, forwarded a request from an individual identified only as “WV” trying to connect Trump with President Putin.

Russia is proving to be a source of friction between President Trump and Congressional Republicans. Politico reports that Trump sparred with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) over sanctions punishing Russia for its interference in the 2016 election and phoned up Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) to discuss a bill he’s cosponsoring that would protect special prosecutor Robert Mueller from being fired by the president.

Candid camera. North Korea showed some more leg on its weapons of mass destruction programs late Tuesday night, revealing photographs of missile technology during a visit by Kim Jong-un to the country’s Chemical Material Institute of the Academy of Defense Sciences. During the visit, Kim inspected a fiber casing for a ballistic missile, which would allow a missile to fly farther. Posters on the wall during Kim’s visit also showed off a new kind of solid fueled ballistic missile called the Pukguksong-3.

Back in business. A North Korean front company is back up and apparently doing business, advertising military gear for sale even after being outed by a U.N. report and Reuters investigation. James Martin Center for Nonproliferation senior research associate Andrea Berger found Glocom, cited by U.N. investigators as a money-making operation for Pyongyang, posting new marketing videos on YouTube — later removed once Berger posted her research on ArmsControlWonk.com.

The Putin bump. Poland has decided to increase defense spending by an additional $55 billion through 2032 amid fears of an increasingly aggressive Russia. Most of the money will go towards doubling the size of Poland’s army.

Netherlands. The Netherlands had a brief terrorism scare on Wednesday after police stopped a van with Spanish plates carrying gas canisters. Dutch officials cancelled a concert in Rotterdam after Spanish officials shared a tip about a potential terrorist plot but Dutch authorities say the van was unrelated to the Spanish tip or last week’s terrorist attack in Barcelona.

99 Trial Balloons. The anti-nuclear protests of the 1980s may be back if the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats — currently trailing Chancellor Angela Merkel by around 15 points in the polls — has his way. Party leader Martin Schulz promised to remove all U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany if elected chancellor.

Gulf. Relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia are getting ever so slightly less hostile as the two countries exchange diplomats for the first time since protesters in Tehran burned the Saudi embassy there.

Yemen. An airstrike by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen killed 30 people at a hotel outside of Sanaa.

Sudan. Mirgayas Shirinsky, Russia’s ambassador to Sudan, died while swimming in the pool at his home in Khartoum, the Russian government revealed in a statement on Wednesday. Russian authorities say a preliminary investigation has ruled out foul play as a cause.

Cuba. The bizarre story about American and Canadian diplomats injured by a mysterious “sonic weapon” in Cuba just keeps getting worse. CBS News reports that medical records show diplomats affected by the device suffered traumatic brain injuries in addition to hearing loss.  

Triad. The Defense Department is dropping $900 million on preliminary work for the Long Range Standoff weapon (LRSO), choosing Raytheon and Lockheed Martin a controversial nuclear-capable air-launched cruise missile intended to replace the Air Force’s current nuclear cruise missiles.

Incidents. Why has the Navy experienced an unusual number of collisions in such a short period of time? Military.com polled experts, who cited a number of reasons including long hours, a shortfall in sufficient training and a declining number of ships stretched across the same demand for their presence.

Memory hole. YouTube has been deleting vast amounts of video documenting the Syrian Civil War in an attempt to remove potential extremist propaganda, but critics say the purge is indiscriminate, taking footage of possible war crimes in a move that could undermine future prosecutions under international law.

 

Photo Credit: GENYA SAVILOV/AFP/Getty Images

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