Security Brief

Security Brief: Stand-Off in the Kerch Strait; Chaos and Tear Gas at the Border

A stand-off in the Kerch Strait marks a new phase in an undeclared war between Russia and Ukraine, the caravan arrives in Tijuana, U.S. troops are now authorized to use lethal force against migrants, if necessary, and more.

A vehicle runs down the 19 km road-and-rail Crimean Bridge passing over the Kerch Strait and linking southern Russia to the Crimean peninsula on May 15, 2018, in Kerch, prior to the opening ceremony.  ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images
A vehicle runs down the 19 km road-and-rail Crimean Bridge passing over the Kerch Strait and linking southern Russia to the Crimean peninsula on May 15, 2018, in Kerch, prior to the opening ceremony. ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images

The Russian military opened fire on several Ukrainian Navy ships in and around the Kerch Strait on Sunday, sharply escalating an ongoing dispute between the two former members of the Soviet Union. Hundreds of Central American migrants from the much-anticipated caravan rushed the border between the United States and Mexico, forcing U.S. Border Patrol agents to deploy tear gas. Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has increased the number of armed drone strikes around the world compared to former President Barack Obama, peace talks to end the conflict in Yemen will take place in December, and more.

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Standoff. Russian forces closed the Kerch Strait and seized three Ukrainian naval vessels, provoking a serious stand-off with Ukraine over the weekend.

Video and news footage from the strait show a cargo ship blocking the area under the bridge that spans it, preventing passage of Ukrainian ships, and Russian fighter planes patrolling above. Ukraine’s navy accused Russian forces of firing on its vessels, injuring several sailors, and seizing a tug and two gunboats.

The Kerch Strait represents a vital waterway. The narrow body of water separates Crimea from mainland Russia, and Moscow has spent billions of dollars to build a bridge linking the peninsula with Russia. The strait links the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea, and Ukrainian merchant vessels travel through the straits to deliver goods to and from key ports, such as Mariupol, on the Azov side.

The stand-off over the strait marks a new phase in Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, even as e Russia has refused to acknowledge its backing of separatist forces in the country’s east.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, announced that the Security Council will convene in emergency session on Monday to discuss the issue.

Ukrainian lawmakers will convene Monday to consider imposing martial law following the weekend’s events.

The crisis in Ukraine comes ahead of an expected meeting this week between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Argentina, their first meeting since their talks this summer in Helsinki.

The caravan has arrived. U.S. Border Patrol agents used tear gas to disperse hundreds of Central American migrants in the Mexican city of Tijuana who made a rush for the border fence on Sunday, as tension builds over the diminishing prospects for asylum seekers trying to enter the country.

Sunday’s incident came as top advisers to President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador of Mexico are in talks with the Trump administration over a plan that would require migrants seeking asylum in the U.S. to wait in Mexico while their claims are adjudicated. The plan, which hasn’t been signed, seeks to limit the number of migrants permitted to remain in the U.S. while they petition for asylum status.

The migrants began arriving in Tijuana about 10 days ago and have been housed in squalid conditions in a community sports center that has been converted into a makeshift shelter. Many have become increasingly desperate with the realization of the obstacles they still face in reaching the United States.

“People had thought that they were going to open the gates, but that was a lie,” Fani Caballero, a migrant from Honduras, told the New York Times. “We thought it would be easier.”

Lethal force. In addition to the Border Patrol agents, the White House has deployed roughly 5,900 active-duty troops and 2,100 National Guard forces to the border. These troops are legally prohibited from performing domestic law enforcement, but the White House late Tuesday signed a memo allowing troops stationed at the border to engage in some law enforcement roles and use lethal force, if necessary.

But Defense Secretary James Mattis emphasized that the vast majority of forces on the border are not armed and would stay that way. Use of force would be carried out by “unarmed MPs” using shields and batons, he explained to reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday.

Drone king. President Donald Trump has sharply escalated the use of armed drone strikes against militant groups around the world, the Daily Beast reports.

In 2009 and 2010, Obama launched 186 drone strikes on Yemen, Somalia, and especially Pakistan,” the outlet reports. “In 2017 and 2018 to date, Trump has launched 238 drone strikes there, according to data provided to the Daily Beast by U.S. Central Command and the drone-watchers at the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in London.”

Defections. President Donald Trump continues to lose support among his Republican caucus on Capitol Hill over his handling of the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post reports.

In interviews over the weekend, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) criticized the president’s soft stance toward Saudi Arabia and its crown prince, whom the CIA concluded ordered Khashoggi’s killing. Trump has distanced himself from that assessment.

“It’s inconsistent with the intelligence I’ve seen,” Lee said, referring to the president’s recent statements on the CIA’s conclusion. “The intelligence I’ve seen suggests that this was ordered by the crown prince.”

Fast-track. The Department of Justice asked the Supreme Court on Friday to bypass lower courts and rule quickly on its ban of most transgender military members. The proposed policy in question was sent to the president in February by Defense Secretary James Mattis, and would disqualify service members “who require or have undergone gender transition.”

Censored. Researchers found that Saudi internet authorities stepped up censoring of news sites in the immediate aftermath of Khashoggi’s killing, the MIT Technology Review reports.  

Spyware. In the weeks before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman launched a crackdown on his opponents, senior Saudi officials met with the Israeli spyware company NSO, which supplies advanced software to infiltrate and spy on mobile phones, Haaretz reports.

Electoral fiasco. Election officials in Afghanistan are considering delaying next year’s presidential election by several months, amid disarray in counting votes from last month’s parliamentary balloting. Some politicians and observers believe that the electoral fiasco might help encourage peace talks with the Taliban, who are unlikely to agree to a deal if a new president is about to be elected for a five-year term.

KIA. The Pentagon identified a U.S. Army soldier killed in Afghanistan as Sgt. Leandro Jasso of Leavenworth, Washington. He is the 10th American soldier to be killed in the country this year. He was 25.

Chemical attack. Syria called on the United Nations on Sunday to condemn its rebel foes after an apparent attack with unidentified chemicals in the city of Aleppo sent scores of choking victims to hospitals. Medics reported a flood of patients with breathing trouble, inflamed eyes and other symptoms after a shelling attack on Saturday that Syrian and Russian officials blamed on the rebels.

Observation posts. The U.S. military will begin putting observation posts in northern Syria to help Turkey secure its border, Military Times reports. The move could prevent skirmishes in areas near Turkey’s border from distracting U.S.-backed fighters from their mission to defeat the Islamic State, but could also draw the ire of U.S. lawmakers, some of whom view the mission in Syria as drifting away from the original goal of defeating ISIS.

Yemen peace talks. In recent weeks, moves to find a solution to the conflict in Yemen have picked up pace, with international pressure mounting against Saudi Arabia. Peace talks to end the war between a Saudi-backed coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels will take place in Sweden in early December, according to Defense Secretary James Mattis..

In the meantime, the coalition is losing roughly one to two tankers worth of U.S. fuel per day after the Air Force halted its mission of refueling the coalition several weeks ago, officials with U.S. Central Command told Military.com.

Exit ban. Chinese authorities are preventing an American woman and her two children from leaving China in an apparent bid to pressure a former state-owned bank executive to return to the country, the New York Times reports.  

The bank executive, Liu Changming, is accused of taking part in a $1.4 billion fraud.

Deny, deny. U.S. President Donald Trump isn’t the only one in denial about a trade war—and potential cold war—with China. If you ask people there, the relationship between the two countries has just hit a little rough patch and will soon be over it, Caroline Houck writes for Foreign Policy.

Another ID. A man wanted in connection with the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 appears to be a Russian military intelligence officer, according to reporting by a consortium of investigative outlets.

“The reporting team, made up of McClatchy and investigative websites Bellingcat in Great Britain and The Insider in Moscow, identified the man, previously known only by his call sign Orion, as Oleg Vladimirovich Ivannikov,” McClatchy reports.

Cue the speculation. The head of Russia’s military intelligence agency was found dead at the age of 62. Igor Korobov died after a prolonged illness, according to Russian outlets, but his death is fueling speculation about the cause, the Guardian reports.  

Hayden. Former NSA and CIA Director Michael Hayden is in the hospital, recovering from a stroke last week, NBC reports.  

Slow Seoul’s roll. As Washington’s diplomatic initiative with Pyongyang has stalled, South Korea is steadfastly pushing ahead, promoting business and infrastructure projects to bind the economies of North and South more closely together—threatening a rift between the United States and South Korea, FP’s Elias Groll reports.

Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Seoul not to get too far ahead of Washington. “We have made clear to the Republic of Korea that we do want to make sure that peace on the peninsula and the denuclearization of North Korea aren’t lagging behind the increase in the amount of interrelationship between the two Koreas,” Pompeo told reporters in Washington.

Puppy diplomacy. The dog given to South Korean President Moon Jae-in by North Korea has given birth to puppies.

Oil for war. President Donald Trump has repeatedly suggested to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi that the United States be compensated with Iraqi oil in exchange for its war expenditures there, Axios reports.  

Disinfo watch. Google quietly revealed that it took down a small number of accounts spread across several of its platforms and linked to an Iranian influence operation, Axios reports.

Go north. The Washington Post surveys American efforts to expand its military presence in the far north, where it is jousting with rival countries looking to take advantage of a warming climate above the Arctic Circle. That feature provides a wonderful photographic survey of the far north.

Counting the militants. As many as 230,000 Salafi jihadist militants are active around the globe, despite a 17-year American military campaign against the groups they belong to, the New York Times reports. The figure represents as much as a four-fold increase of the number of fighters on September 11, 2001.

Hacked! An unknown group of hackers gained access to up to 500,000 email accounts belonging to top Italian officials, Reuters reports.  

Pardoned. A British academic sentenced to life in jail in the United Arab Emirates on charges of espionages was pardoned by the kingdom’s rulers.

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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