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.

British Spy Chief Says Russian Forces Refusing to Carry Out Orders

Russia’s command and control is in “chaos.”

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy, and , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A man in a suit and glasses speaks in front of a microphone.
A man in a suit and glasses speaks in front of a microphone.
Jeremy Fleming, the director of Britain’s intelligence, security, and cybersecurity agency, gives an address on cyberpower in Singapore on Feb. 25, 2019. Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome back to Situation Report, your inside scoop on defense, national security, and foreign policy. In good news for the people of Kyiv, booze is legal again, after a month of government-imposed prohibition during the war, and restaurants in the city are keeping a running tally of Russian losses.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: Britain’s top spy says Putin has made a massive mistake in Ukraine, musical chairs in the Biden administration’s rank-and-file, and the United States tries to sell the Iran nuclear deal to skeptical friends in the Middle East.

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

Welcome back to Situation Report, your inside scoop on defense, national security, and foreign policy. In good news for the people of Kyiv, booze is legal again, after a month of government-imposed prohibition during the war, and restaurants in the city are keeping a running tally of Russian losses.

Alright, here’s what’s on tap for the day: Britain’s top spy says Putin has made a massive mistake in Ukraine, musical chairs in the Biden administration’s rank-and-file, and the United States tries to sell the Iran nuclear deal to skeptical friends in the Middle East.

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


Questionable Judgment 

A top British spy chief said that Russian President Vladimir Putin has “massively misjudged” his country’s war in Ukraine amid stalled offensives and plunging morale among Russian forces in an exceedingly rare public speech on Thursday. 

Projectile dysfunction. “We’ve seen Russian soldiers—short of weapons and morale—refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment, and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft,” said Jeremy Fleming, director of Britain’s GCHQ, the country’s top signals intelligence agency, in a speech in Australia. 

“Their command and control is in chaos. We’ve seen Putin lie to his own people in an attempt to hide military incompetence,” he added. 

What this all adds up to is the fact that Russia’s abject military incompetence may end up being the most important saving grace for Ukraine’s outmanned and outgunned forces. Fleming’s speech was the latest sign that top Western officials believe Putin’s war in Ukraine has devolved into a massive military blunder as the Kremlin’s hopes of a swift victory have all but crumbled. 

The worst is yet to come. Still, Fleming signaled that the war was far from over, even as he argued that the invasion stiffened Western resolve to support Ukraine and galvanized unity in NATO. “It’s become his personal war, with the cost being paid by innocent people in Ukraine and, increasingly, by ordinary Russians, too,” Fleming said. 

Sure, Vlad. Russia announced its troops were pulling back from Kyiv to pave the way for peace talks, but as we reported this week, most Western officials see it as a ruse to help their haggard military rearm for new offensives. Similarly, they see the latest round of diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine as little more than a stalling tactic by Moscow to regroup.

Let slip the dogs of war. Part of its regrouping will be trawling far and wide for more troops to throw into the fight, be they foreign fighters from Africa and the Middle East and be they well trained or not (most likely not). 

Fleming warned that the Wagner Group, an opaque private mercenary group that acts as a proxy for the Russian military in places like Syria and conflict hot spots in Africa, is “looking to move up a gear” in Ukraine. “We understand that the group is now prepared to send large numbers of personnel into Ukraine to fight alongside Russians,” he said—including possible foreign fighters who “could be used as cannon fodder to try to limit Russian military losses.”

FP has done a lot of reporting and analysis on what the Wagner Group is, as well as early signs of Russian reliance on Syrian mercenaries to join the fight in Ukraine.


Let’s Get Personnel

White House National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne had her last day on the job on Wednesday. Her deputy, Adrienne Watson, previously the director of communications for the Democratic National Committee, will take over the role. 

Dan Shapiro, a top State Department Iran advisor and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, is heading to think tank land to serve as a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council, according to an announcement earlier this week. 

Palantir Technologies, one of the Pentagon’s preferred private sector number-crunching companies, is adding two high-profile names well-known to the Defense Department brass to its federal advisory board: former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who also leads the top business advisory board to the Pentagon, and former U.S. Special Operations Command chief William McRaven, a retired admiral who’s known for his role in commanding the 2011 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden—and for making his bed.

A top economist at the World Trade Organization, Robert Koopman, is joining American University’s School of International Service as a distinguished practitioner in residence.

Vipin Narang is joining the Pentagon as a principal deputy assistant for space policy, where he will also oversee nuclear, cybersecurity, and missile defense policy. Narang is taking leave from his job as a professor of nuclear security at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


On the Button

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

Fission accomplished? Israel has made it clear that it is not exactly thrilled with the prospect of a renewed Iran nuclear deal, but to soften the blow, the Biden administration is promising that Tehran will never acquire nuclear weapons, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a news conference on Sunday after a gathering between Israel and the Gulf states.

But wait, there’s more, the Biden team said: The United States is also signaling it would not agree to Iranian demands to lift the U.S. designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group in any new nuclear deal. 

Pick a side. The Biden administration and American allies in Europe have insisted that Russia is more isolated than ever on the world stage after its renewed invasion of Ukraine has killed thousands of people and forced more than 4 million people to flee into Europe. But elsewhere around the world, other countries aren’t so willing to forgive past U.S. and European foreign-policy mistakes.

In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly earlier this month, South Africa’s Ambassador Mathu Joyini took time out to scold the United States for past errors, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The speech reflects a more tepid reaction among some African and Asian countries to the Western response to Russia’s war, our colleague Colum Lynch reports from Turtle Bay. 

Off the case. As top U.S. and British officials warned of a likely Russian invasion in the weeks before the war in Ukraine, their French counterparts were singing a different tune. French intelligence reportedly disputed those reports and said an invasion was unlikely, as it was too costly for Russia.

Now, the proverbial heads are rolling as France’s military intelligence chief, Gen. Eric Vidaud, is reportedly losing his job over failures to predict the invasion. 


Snapshot 

A fighter jet on the ground faces the camera.
A fighter jet on the ground faces the camera.

A French-made Rafale fighter jet takes part in the NATO international air force exercise, dubbed Frisian Flag, at Leeuwarden Air Base in the Netherlands on March 28.Jeffrey Groeneweg/ANP/AFP via Getty Images


Put On Your Radar

Thursday, April 7: The Senate Foreign Relations Committee holds a confirmation hearing for several of Biden’s top diplomatic picks, headlined by Caroline Kennedy to be U.S. ambassador to Australia and Philip S. Goldberg to be the top U.S. diplomat in South Korea.


Quote of the Week

“We don’t believe fancy word constructions, we believe in what happens on the battlefield.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky responds on March 30 to Russian entreaties for direct leader-to-leader talks over the Kremlin’s monthlong invasion of his country.


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

A new plea. Remember Marina Ovsyannikova, who appeared to interrupt a Russian state television broadcast by brandishing an anti-war poster? She’s now urging the European Union to lift sanctions on Russia—making some question whether there were ulterior motives behind the initial protest. “There is no sugar on store shelves,” she said in an Instagram plea.

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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