Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

Russia to Boot More U.S. Diplomats as Tensions Rise

The news broke just before Blinken met Lavrov in Stockholm.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Blinken meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Stockholm.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Stockholm on Dec. 2. Jonathan Nackstrand/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Happy 12-02-2021, a palindrome day! It’s a big day in another sense, too: Jack’s grandfather turns 100 today, so give a toast to grandpa Claude.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: Blinken and Lavrov go toe-to-toe after Russia expels U.S. diplomats, Pentagon’s top dog travels to South Korea, and why Congress can’t get enough of Taiwan

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Happy 12-02-2021, a palindrome day! It’s a big day in another sense, too: Jack’s grandfather turns 100 today, so give a toast to grandpa Claude.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: Blinken and Lavrov go toe-to-toe after Russia expels U.S. diplomats, Pentagon’s top dog travels to South Korea, and why Congress can’t get enough of Taiwan

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.

Russia’s Big Slap to U.S. Diplomacy

The slow strangling of U.S. diplomacy in Russia continues. The Russian government has ordered all U.S. diplomats who have been in the country for more than three years to leave by the end of January, dealing yet another blow to U.S.-Russia relations when things were already ugly. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government had already forced the United States to trim the number of U.S. diplomats in the country this year and then cease hiring local employees to help staff the mission. The moves have forced the closure of two Russian consulates and effectively kneecapped routine U.S. diplomacy, leaving only a skeleton crew in place to keep the embassy afloat. 

Bad timing. The news, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, broke just before U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was set to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of a big diplomatic confab in Stockholm on Thursday. The latest move cast a shadow over the meeting between the two diplomats and posed a significant setback for the Biden administration’s efforts to dial back tensions with Moscow. 

Face/Off. What was on the agenda for the big Blinken-Lavrov meeting? Well, aside from the dismal state of U.S.-Russia relations, Ukraine was and is at the top of the list. Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine, fueling fears there’s a new Russian invasion looming over its eastern neighbor. (Blinken is also meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Stockholm.)

“Should Moscow choose the path of military escalation, the secretary made clear that the United States and our allies are prepared to impose significant costs,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement after the meeting between Blinken and Lavrov.

Blinken also raised the cases of Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed to Lavrov during the meeting, according to Price. Whelan and Reed are two Americans imprisoned without just cause in Russia. 

A game of posturing. For now, it’s still unclear whether Russia will carry out plans for an invasion of Ukraine. But NATO is trying to warn Moscow off its plans and show solidarity with Kyiv (or as much as possible with a country that’s not actually in the alliance). Blinken arrived in Stockholm from Latvia, where NATO foreign ministers met this week. At the NATO meeting, Blinken said the Western alliance planned to “reinforce its defenses on the eastern flank” in response to Russian aggression. 

Let’s Get Personnel

President Joe Biden is nominating onetime Air Force acquisition chief Bill LaPlante as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer. 

Biden’s first pick for the job, Defense Innovation Unit Director Michael Brown, dropped out of the running to be undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment as the Defense Department inspector general dug into his past personnel and contracting decisions. 

The military’s No. 2 job will stay vacant, for now. The Senate’s scheduled Thursday hearing for Adm. Christopher Grady to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff has been postponed as Congress tries to negotiate the Pentagon’s annual defense authorization bill. 

Biden is expected to tap Brig. Gen. Maria Barrett to head up the Army’s Cyber Command, the Record reported on Wednesday. If selected, Barrett would be the first woman to become the Army’s cyber honcho. 

NATO’s senior civilian representative to Afghanistan, Stefano Pontecorvo, is departing his role, as the alliance’s mandate ended on Tuesday, he announced in a tweet. Pontecorvo was previously Italy’s ambassador to Afghanistan. 

Vice President Kamala Harris’s senior advisor and top spokesperson Symone Sanders is leaving the administration at the end of the year, Politico reported on Wednesday night, the latest in a string of high-profile departures from the veep’s office, which has been plagued by rumblings of disorder and friction.

The Washington Post reported that Harris’s deputy director of public engagement and intergovernmental affairs, Vincent Evans, and her director of press operations, Peter Velz, are also leaving. 

On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

New plan, who dis? The United States and South Korea are set to begin writing a new war plan to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat, according to Defense One’s Tara Copp, who is traveling with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to the region.

The plan will respond to North Korea’s advances in delivering nuclear missiles, including through a series of tests since September of cruise missiles, ballistic missiles launched by rail and submarine, and claims of testing hypersonic glide vehicles. The move comes as Gen. Mark Milley, the U.S. military’s top officer, is in Seoul to discuss future joint military exercises.

Just say nyet. Russia is stonewalling the appointment of a veteran British official at the United Nations to become the new Libya envoy, FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie report in an exclusive. The move comes at a bad time, just days after U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres booted Slovak diplomat Jan Kubis from the job, as the international community is racing to get Libya ready for elections set for late December. 

Lowering the boom(er). We’re expecting the Oklahoma Sooners to have a tougher go of it when they move to college football’s premier Southeastern Conference next season, but another group of Oklahoma’s favorite sons (and daughters), the state’s National Guard, is already having a tough go of it with the Pentagon’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

In a memo sent on Tuesday, Austin said all National Guard troops and reservists must be vaccinated, in line with the agency’s mandates, or face a loss of pay or other penalties. Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt has asked the Pentagon to rescind vaccine requirements for the state’s National Guard and has appointed a new commander who issued guidance insisting that troops do not have to be vaccinated. 


Members of Bosnia’s joint armed forces take part in a military exercise.

Members of Bosnia’s joint armed forces take part in a military exercise in Rajlovac, near Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Nov. 30.Damir Sagolj/Getty Images

Put on Your Radar

Saturday, Dec. 4: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin makes keynote remarks at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California. 

Monday, Dec. 6: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi meet in New Delhi as part of an inaugural 2+2 dialogue between their defense and foreign ministers. 

Quote of the Week

“I am more than disappointed the current administration is infringing on my First Amendment constitutional rights. And it is with regret that legal recourse is the only path now available for me to tell my full story to the American people.”

Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Sunday became the first former Pentagon chief to sue the Defense Department, claiming the agency is unjustly blocking the publication of large portions of his upcoming memoir over classification concerns.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The British Bulldog. Legendary former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would have turned 146 this week, and given his love of whisky and brandy, he would have toasted it in style. Jack documented Churchill’s drinking habits from an average day in World War II, which started with a glass of wine and included healthy helpings of Johnnie Walker Red Label, 19th-century British brandy, and champagne. 

“I show no excitement.” If you think you’re having a rough day, you should check out the daily schedule of disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, which started with a 4 a.m. wake-up call. Her notepad has become part of the public record as she faces charges of fraud.

Holmes, whose company was once backed by foreign-policy bigwigs such as former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former Secretary of State George Shultz, scrawled single-sentence self-motivating notes, like Donald Rumsfeld’s famed “snowflake” memos but Silicon Valley style. “I know the outcome of every encounter” and “I constantly make decisions + change them as needed,” she wrote to herself.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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