The Cable

SitRep: Trump and Putin Chat; White House Staffers Rip Into Tillerson and McMaster

China keeps building islands, U.S. Army takes a hard looks at its Mosul operation

 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Trump and Putin chat. Proving yet again that the ongoing investigation into Russian meddling into the 2016 U.S. presidential election won’t impact his outreach to Russian leadership, President Donald Trump on Thursday dialed up Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss ways to work together to resolve the North Korean crisis.

Trump also used the call to thank Putin for “acknowledging America’s strong economic performance in his annual press conference,” according to a White House read out of the call. National security adviser H.R. McMaster didn’t participate in the call.

Trump skepticism. The Washington Post takes a long, detailed look at how Trump’s doubts over U.S. intelligence findings related to Russian involvement in the election have shaped his thinking, and roiled Washington.

U.N. official says North Koreans are listening. Jeffrey Feltman, one of the United Nations officials who recently traveled to Pyongyang for talks with the regime, said he doesn’t see a breakthrough on the country’s missile and nuclear programs, but there was a sign of hope.

“They listened extremely carefully to the points that we were making,”  he told CNN. “I don’t know if they’ll accept anything that we said. But they gave us a fair hearing about why the international community was so alarmed.”

Here we go again. Or, just another day for Rex Tillerson. Anonymous White House officials are again ripping into the Secretary of State, this time for suggesting the United States would be open to negotiations with North Korea.

The WaPo reports that one White House official said Tillerson “had not learned his lesson from the last time,” when Trump publicly rebuked his top diplomat on Twitter over the wisdom of talking to North Korea, while another said Cabinet secretaries largely deem Tillerson “irrelevant.”

Whisper campaign against McMaster continues. Months after a protracted campaign to oust president Trump’s national security advisor, H.R. McMaster, died down, “America First” critics appear to still be trying push the U.S. Army officer out of the White House, reports FP’s Jenna McLaughlin. More:

“Critics of the three-star general, who have long claimed McMaster is working against the president’s agenda, are now saying he’s hurting efforts to recruit members to a key intelligence advisory board, an accusation denied by two sources directly familiar with the potential recruits’ thinking”.  

Brussels worried about Russian missiles. NATO on Friday echoed the concerns long expressed by the Pentagon that a Russian cruise missile system violates a 1987 pact banning ground-launched missiles that can travel 310-3,400 miles. “NATO urges Russia to address these concerns in a substantial and transparent way, and actively engage in a technical dialogue with the United States,” the alliance said in a statement.

Secret history of the Russian consulate. FP contributor Zach Dorfman has a great story looking at the long, checkered, and pretty outlandish history of Moscow’s now-shuttered consulate in San Francisco.

Haley on Iran. Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, claimed Thursday that the international body has obtained “undeniable” evidence that Iran supplied Yemeni insurgents with missiles and other arms. But, as FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer report, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres reached no such conclusion in his report this month that addresses U.S. and Saudi claims the Houthi insurgents fired Iranian short-range ballistic missiles that nearly missed Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport on Nov. 4.

The NYT notes that U.S. officials couldn’t answer questions over where or when the missile components Haley used as a background were fired, or when they came into American hands, raising questions over the strength of her arguments.

China keeps building. Somewhat lost amid the wars in the Middle East and rising tensions with North Korea this past year is Beijing’s continued reclamation of land in the South China Sea. But new satellite imagery released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative shows China has built infrastructure covering 72 acres in the Spratly and Paracel islands during 2017, paving the way for new air and naval bases.

 

Saudi under fire in Yemen. A White House statement last week calling on Saudi Arabia to allow unfettered access for humanitarian aid into Yemen could provide the legal basis for halting U.S. security assistance to Riyadh. That’s the view of Republican Sen. Todd Young of Indiana, who has repeatedly urged the Trump administration to use its leverage with the Saudis to persuade them to allow humanitarian aid into Yemen.

Young wrote a letter to the president on Thursday arguing that the Dec. 6 White House statement acknowledged that the Saudi block on aid should trigger a U.S. law prohibiting the delivery of American assistance to a country that impedes humanitarian aid.

The White House probably won’t agree with that assessment. But Young has stalled the confirmation of Trump’s nominee for the top legal advisor at the State Department, Jennifer Newstead, over the issue.

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

Moon goes to Beijing. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is in Beijing, trying to make nice with China and smooth over relations after the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system caused a brief diplomatic spat between the two countries. Experts say Moon may have helped to cool the temperature of the dispute over the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system deployment but China remains irritated that the South won’t remove the system, which Beijing says it fears could someday target Chinese missiles.

Cord cutting. Britain’s Air Chief Marshal Stuart Peach is warning that Russia could one day use its sophisticated submarine fleet to attack the undersea cables that carry the world’s data and make the Internet possible in the event of a major conflict.

Objects in mirror are larger than they appear. The U.S. Air Force gave an unwelcome surprise to a Russian jet in eastern Syria, sending two F-22 Raptors, America’s most sophisticated fighter jets, to intercept a Russian Su-25. The U.S. says the Russian jet had strayed into the airspace of areas controlled by U.S.-backed forces near the Iraqi-Syrian border despite multiple calls from the U.S. over a deconfliction hotline set up to avoid clashes.

Mosul lessons learned. An Army study commissioned by Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the former top officer in charge of the war against the Islamic State, calls out some of the tactical problems that plagued U.S. forces in taking Mosul. The study calls the Islamic State’s use of drones a particular challenge, saying the U.S. “lacks a comprehensive approach to urgent, emerging battlefield challenges” and cites existing urban warfare training as insufficiently realistic to have prepared troops for the winding alleys where the fight took place in Mosul

Getting snippy. The U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition announced the killing of 20 Islamic State near At-Tanf, pointedly noting that “Daesh still finds ways to move freely through regime lines and pose a threat.”

Afghanistan wants the Warthog. Now that the wars in Iraq and Syria are winding down, Afghan officials are asking the U.S. to deploy A-10 Warthog close air support aircraft used against the Islamic State to Afghanistan in order to target Taliban drug production facilities.

Graft kills military aid to Somalia. The U.S. is cutting off military aid to the Somali National Army because of concerns over corruption within the force, according to a Reuters exclusive. The U.S. has spent millions providing food and fuel aid to Somali troops but American diplomats have repeatedly found that the Somali military is unable to account for shipments sent to it.

Season’s greetings. People around the world are getting in the holiday spirit.

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

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