A power grab in Crimea; State's new HR report is out; Washington's strange alliance with Qatar; and a bit more.
By Gordon Lubold
Page One: Armed men take up positions in airports in Crimea and fears of secession rise. The NYT's Andrew Higgins Patrick Reevell: "Amid fears of a Kremlin-backed separatist rebellion here against Ukraine's fledgling government, armed men in military uniforms took up positions at two Crimean airports as Ukraine's interior minister warned of "a direct provocation," but there was no sign of any violence. In Simferopol, the regional capital of Crimea, a large number of masked armed men were stationed at the international airport Friday morning. They were dressed in camouflage and carrying assault rifles, but their military uniforms bore no insignia. It was not clear who they were and they declined to answer questions.
"In Kiev, the speaker of Parliament, Oleksandr V. Turchynov... now the acting president of Ukraine, convened a meeting of the National Security and Defense Council to discuss the situation in Crimea. Announcing the meeting in Parliament, Mr. Turchynov said: "Terrorists with automatic weapons, judged by our special services to be professional soldiers, tried to take control of the airport in Crimea." More here.
Reuters' Alissa de Carbonnel and Alessandra Prentice, in Simferopol this morning: "...More than 10 Russian military helicopters also flew into Ukrainian airspace over the region on Friday, Kiev's border guard service said, accusing Russian servicemen of blockading one of its units in the port city of Sevastopol, where part of Moscow's Black Sea fleet is based. However, the fleet denied its forces were involved in seizing one of the airports, Interfax news agency reported, while a supporter described the armed group at the other site merely as Crimean militiamen." More here.
And three European countries freeze the assets of Ukrainian ex-leaders. Reuters: "Switzerland, Austria and Liechtenstein on Friday moved to freeze assets and bank accounts of up to 20 Ukrainians including ousted president Viktor Yanukovich and his son, after Ukraine's new rulers said billions had gone missing. The measures were announced as the crisis in Ukraine worsened, with armed men taking control of two airports in Crimea in what Ukraine's new government described as an invasion and occupation by Russian forces, although Moscow denied involvement." More here.
The Explainer on Crimea (and what Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade' has to do with it) - The WSJ's Stephen Fidler: "Even in a world of nuclear weapons, naval power is critical to projecting a country's power beyond its borders. So in Russian history, the Crimean peninsula and its port of Sevastopol have been a potent symbol of Moscow's ability to extend its influence via the Black Sea into the Mediterranean and beyond. Russia seized Crimea from the declining Ottoman Empire in the 18th century. In the mid-19th century, the efforts of Britain and France to constrain further expansion of the Russian empire sparked the Crimean War. The war became a watchword in Britain for military incompetence, thanks largely to the reports from the region by William Russell, a journalist for the Times of London who is regarded as one of the first modern war correspondents. The haplessness of British military commanders was immortalized in Tennyson's poem 'The Charge of the Light Brigade.'
"During that conflict, Sevastopol resisted a lengthy siege, as it did again in World War II against the Germans. Though the city eventually succumbed in both conflicts, its resistance, historian Robert Service says, made it "prominent in the annals of Russian military valor."
Fidler's kicker: "In 1994, as part of an accord in which Ukraine gave up legacy Soviet nuclear weapons on its territory, Russia agreed to act as a guarantor of Ukrainian territorial integrity, along with the U.S. and the U.K. That guarantee-as pro-Russian activists occupy government buildings in Simferopol, the capital of Crimea-will make it difficult for Russian President Vladimir Putin to openly support Russian separatist efforts in the peninsula."
Memo to separatists: life under Putin's not so good, says State in a new report. The Daily Beast's Josh Rogin: "The State Department's 2013 report on human rights is out and it contains a scathing critique of life inside Vladimir Putin's Russia. The Russian government led by Vladimir Putin systematically suppressed dissent, persecuted LGBT citizens, ignored the rule of law, allowed killing and torture by police, and committed a long list of other human rights abuses last year, according to new State Department report." Read State's new report on human rights records of various countries, here. Read Rogin here.
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Is Washington's un-honeymoon with Chuck Hagel over? Which is to say, is the negativity that has beleaguered the Defense Secretary since his troubling confirmation hearing a year ago, ebbing? Maybe for now. A day after his one-year anniversary at the Pentagon, and after this week's unveiling of a controversial new defense budget, he's received a number of accolades from distinctly different places. People may not be ready to accept a new narrative about Hagel, and it's unclear how much of the defense budget he'll be selling on Capitol Hill will go through. But according to a smattering of views, he may be enjoying a moment.
A NYT Editorial: "...The Pentagon's proposals to reduce the Army to pre-World War II levels and modify some benefits for troops and retirees may seem unsettling to a nation that prides itself on having the world's most capable military. But these ideas, part of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's 2015 military budget, reflect a necessary and more prudent realism as America ends 13 years at war." More here.
Loren Thompson, writing on Forbes.com: "Chuck Hagel is an unusually persuasive man, and he is passionately committed to getting his department the resources it needs to prepare for future challenges. Doctrinaire proponents of budget cuts might find it hard to argue with a fellow Republican who was repeatedly wounded in Vietnam when he warns them their plans are putting today's warfighters at risk." More here.
From the WaPo's Walter Pincus: "The former Nebraska senator has prepared for an extended political fight. He's trying to set the terms of the debate by speaking out about the fiscal 2015 Pentagon reductions and sending top aides into verbal combat a week before President Obama's budget is released Tuesday.... On Tuesday, he recalled the teaching of Tom Osborne, the former University of Nebraska football coach who said the first quarter of a game was the time to build internally and the second was the time to play." The rest of that here.
Joyce Raezer, executive director of the National Military Families Association in a statement about Hagel outreach: "We've never had this kind of access to leaders at this level in this stage of the budget process. I think they know things are hard, they want to reach out to the troops and they want to put the message out there that is how tough this budget situation is... "They didn't have to do this."
Retired Vice Adm. Norbert Ryan, from the Military Officers Association of America, in the WSJ: "The Military Officers Association of America, which led the recent charge to roll back the cost-of-living cut, is taking a wait-and-see approach on future proposals... Retired Vice Adm. Norbert Ryan, its president, praised Mr. Hagel for meeting with his group three times as part of his outreach to veterans associations, more often than other recent secretaries, and said he is willing to listen to the proposals." More here.
Lawrence O'Donnell, on MSNBC: "The Secretary of Defense was announcing an approach to military spending that is designed to meet the threats he believes the United States faces in the world today. And quite reasonably, he believes that requires less military personnel and smaller budgets than it did when were fighting simultaneous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan." More here.
David Ignatius in the WaPo this week: "Hagel is trying hard to master one of the toughest management jobs in Washington, and he deserves good marks for his first budget."
From the Raleigh News and Observer: "In the end, Defense Department spending should be about defending the nation, not bolstering the economies of congressional districts or fattening the profits of defense contractors. Hagel is leading in response to what's in front of the United States - the end of two wars and their continuing costs. Congress should follow him." More here.
And you've probably seen this one from the Beloit Daily News in Wisconsin: "Such finger-pointing won't move the budget needle. Making tough decisions is the only way. Which brings us to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's sweeping announcement about proposed downsizing of the military. He said fiscal reality dictates that the military get smaller and more efficient, in synch with today's threat parameters - not fighting yesterday's wars, which the generals are notorious for doing. It's hard to argue with that thinking." More here.
But Gordon Adams holds a slightly counter view. Writing on FP, Adams: "It's budget season in Washington. Every year at this time I am hopeful that the Pentagon might finally escape Wonderland and wake up... The bad news is that Hagel's current forecast is still not real. It could work, but the budget castles he designed for between 2016 and 2019 are built on quicksand, which is a real problem for defense planners over the next five years.
OK, so now for the unreal part -- the Wonderland adventure. The new Hagel budget still imagines that the Budget Control Act and its spending levels are higher than what they actually are, when, in fact, the Budget Control Act caps are lower than Hagel's numbers -- $115 billion lower over the next five years. He has not gone far enough. Even in 2015, when the Hagel budget accepts reality, he has added an asterisk. There's a little $26 billion boost he would like to get, as part of a White House proposed investment fund, that would be above the Ryan-Murray cap. This is the first step back into Wonderland -- this magical investment fund will not happen." Read the rest of Gordon Adams on FP here.
Speaking of which: a defense official says: don't blame us for the cuts, blame Congress. Defense News' Michelle Tan: "A senior defense official says the US Army and Defense Department are being unfairly vilified in the media over military budget cuts when Congress is really to blame. 'Congress is the one that passed the law that put sequestration into place,' the senior official told Army Times. The official requested anonymity in order to speak candidly. 'Sequestration is bad. We've got to get rid of sequestration. What the Army and DoD leadership is trying to do, within the constraints, is give you the best [military] we can. We don't want to cut.'" More here.
And here's the BLUF for retired Army colonel and military analyst Ken Allard, writing in the Washington Times about how shrinking the defense budget could alienate those who defend the country: "...I live in San Antonio, known as Military City USA, where support for the troops and cultural Christianity are traditional landscape features. But the mega-church I attend rarely questions the morality of living in a society so addicted to self-interest that only 1 percent of our citizens ever serve in uniform. When they're candid, church leaders will also admit that religious beliefs are not always matched by a corresponding commitment to personal service. It's odd how that kind of thing can be catching, since only 6 percent of our local electorate even bothered to vote in the last municipal elections. I sometimes wonder if Americans should start asking: Do we still deserve our freedom? And if so, then why?" More here.
BTW, the link to FP's Dan Lamothe's story on the Marine Corps' Jim Amos - "Tarnished Brass," was broken in yesterday's edition. Click here if you want to read the whole story.
Post 2014 means post-Karzai: the coalition is OK with delaying a decision on Afghanistan until after Karzai leaves. The WSJ's Julian Barnes and Stephen Fidler with a Brussels dateline: "The North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the U.S. military are prepared to wait until Afghan President Hamid Karzai exits office later this year before making decisions on a troop presence, according to a planning process described by officials Thursday. The scenario differs from a few months ago, when officials said they needed an immediate decision by Mr. Karzai on a security agreement or would be forced to plan for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from the country. Mr. Karzai has refused to sign the agreement, which would lay the groundwork for a foreign troop presence after this year's scheduled pullout." Read the rest here.
The U.S. and Qatar have a strange alliance. Jonathan Schanzer, for Politico Magazine: "When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited Qatar in December, he met with Qatar's emir and other senior officials and took time to tour the high-tech Combined Air Operations Center at the massive al-Udeid Air Base. It's not only the biggest U.S. airbase in the Middle East, but a very visible symbol of what Hagel touted as the close 'partnership' between the United States and the tiny hereditary kingdom with big global aspirations. America may dream of abandoning the entanglements of the Middle East but, for now, as Hagel put it, these ties with America's Persian Gulf allies are 'important, and probably more so than they've ever been.'
"Awkwardly, the U.S. Treasury Department just one week later designated Abd al-Rahman bin 'Umayr Nu'aymi, a Qatari national with links to the emirate's elites, a "terrorist financier and facilitator who has provided money and material support and conveyed communications to al Qaeda and its affiliates in Syria, Iraq, Somalia and Yemen. These two reports underscore the very strange alliance between Doha and Washington." More here.