News Roundup and Notes: March 10, 2014

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin defended Crimea’s secession referendum in phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and UK Prime Minister David Cameron yesterday [AP]. Putin said:

“The steps taken by the legitimate leadership of Crimea are based on the norms of international law and aim to ensure the legal interests of the population of the peninsula.”

According to Russian news agencies, the Russian Ministry of Defense threatened to consider stopping international inspections of its nuclear weapons in response to threatened sanctions from the U.S. and NATO [Washington Post’s Kathy Lally and Carol Morello].

Meanwhile, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk stressed yesterday that “[t]his is our land” and vowed not to “budge a single centimeter from Ukrainian land” [AP]. And tens of thousands of people have held rival pro-unity and pro-Russian rallies, as Russia “continues to strengthen its grip on Crimea” [BBC].

The White House has announced that Ukrainian Prime Minister Yatsenyuk will visit President Obama on March 12 to discuss “how to find a peaceful resolution to Russia’s ongoing military intervention in Crimea that would respect Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Obama spoke with his counterparts in Latvia, Lithuania, France, Estonia, Italy and the UK over the weekend to discuss how to “de-escalate” the situation. And White House national security adviser Tony Blinken told CNN’s “State of the Union” (Candy Crawley) that the door to diplomacy is still “clearly open” with Russia.

Chinese president Xi Jinping has urged a political solution to the crisis and called on all sides “to remain calm and exercise restraint,” during separate telephone calls with Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel [Reuters]. The Daily Star (Carol Huang) notes that according to analysts, China “has stood by unable even to articulate its stance [regarding Ukraine], exposing an inconsistent approach to foreign affairs despite its fast-growing global interests and stature.”

UK Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC that Russia had made a “big miscalculation” in entering Crimea. While Hague ruled out military action, he warned of the danger of a “real shooting conflict” if Russia made any further advances. Hague said that European countries could reduce reliance on Russia for energy supplies and import more gas from the U.S.

Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Fox News “Sunday” (Chris Wallace) he does not believe that “Crimea will slip out of Russia’s hands.” And Former Vice President Dick Cheney called for greater military steps, short of sending troops, on CBS’s “Face the Nation” (Bob Schieffer).

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discusses the “longer-term task” for the U.S., which is “to answer Putin’s statement about Europe’s post-Cold War future.” Leslie H. Gelb argues that “[a]ll countries must stop their lies and self-destructive posturing or pay costs they’re loath to admit” [The Daily Beast].

Jim Thomas notes that the “absence of serious thinking about NATO’s territorial defense mission … and the weakness its 28 member nations have shown since the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia have proven catnip for Vladimir Putin” [Wall Street Journal]. And Marc Weller examines the legal issues raised by Russia’s intervention in Crimea, explaining why Russia’s move fails the legal test [BBC].

Surveillance

A federal judge with the FISC has refused the Justice Department’s request to extend the storage of metadata obtained through NSA surveillance beyond the current five-year limit [CNN’s Bill Mears]. The Justice Department argued that the ongoing litigation over the surveillance program required it to preserve the data.

In written evidence to the European Parliament on electronic mass surveillance, Edward Snowden said he had “reported these clearly problematic programs to more than ten distinct officials, none of whom took any action to address them.” The New York Times’ Charlie Savage has more details.

Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told NPR (David Greene) that U.S. officials must plan for the “worst case” that Russia has access to American intelligence. In relation to Snowden, Flynn  said, “If I’m concerned about anything, I’m concerned about defense capabilities that he may have stolen from where he worked, and does that knowledge then get into the hands of our adversaries—in this case, of course, Russia.”

Iran

Speaking in Tehran, EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, expressed support for nuclear negotiations with Iran, but warned that there is “no guarantee we’ll succeed” [Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian]. The New York Times (Thomas Erdbrink) and Wall Street Journal (Laurence Norman) also cover Ashton’s meeting with Iranian leaders yesterday.

In a separate development, CNN (Barbara Starr) has learned that the U.S. Navy had “secret orders this week to be ‘prepared to act’ to stop a cargo ship carrying Iranian arms destined for Gaza.” According to senior U.S. military officials, navy vessels in the Middle East had instructions to move “into the proximity of the ship and act if ordered.” The Pentagon subsequently issued a statement saying the department and the Israeli Defense Ministry “have been in consistent touch on Israel’s interdiction operation, … coordinating extensively through military and intelligence channels.”

And Secretary of State John Kerry announced he has asked the Iranian government “to work cooperatively with us on the investigation into [Robert Levinson’s] disappearance so we can ensure his safe return.”

Afghanistan

The Taliban has issued a statement warning Afghans to “reject completely” the upcoming presidential election [AP]. The statement threatened, “We have given orders to all our mujahedeen to use all force at its disposal to disrupt these upcoming sham elections to target all its workers, activists, callers, security apparatus and offices.”

The Wall Street Journal (Yaroslav Trofimov and Ehsanullah Amiri) covers the death of Afghanistan’s First Vice President, Mohammed Qasim Fahim—“altering the country’s political landscape ahead of presidential elections next month.”

Syria

The Washington Post (Loveday Morris) covers how suicide bombers are increasingly targeting Beirut’s southern suburbs as the Syrian crisis spills across the border.

The Independent (Cahal Milmo) reports that UK diplomats have “quietly opened a new front in efforts to stem the flow of Britons travelling to fight in Syria” by investing nearly £200,000 on “social media activity” to deter would-be jihadis from leaving the country.

Several nuns who had been held in Syria for more than three months have been released and are on their way to Damascus via Lebanon, reports the AP.

A new report from Save the Children documents the Syrian war’s “devastating toll” on the health of Syrian children.

Other developments

Current and former officials have told The Associated Press that U.S. intelligence officials are planning “a sweeping system of electronic monitoring that would tap into government, financial and other databases to scan the behavior of many of the 5 million federal employees with secret clearances.” The system is designed to identify “rogue agents, corrupt officials and leakers.”

Saudi Arabia has designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization, “in a move that could increase pressure on Qatar whose backing for the group has sparked a row with fellow Gulf monarchies” [Reuters].

Libyan government forces and loyal militia fighters have taken control of a North Korea-flagged tanker that a rival group wished to use to export oil in defiance of central authorities, according to officials [Al Jazeera].

A suicide bomber driving a truck attacked a security checkpoint in southern Iraq yesterday, killing at least 45 people and wounding more than 100 [New York Times’ Duraid Adnan].

Al Jazeera America reports on the three days of fighting between Shi’ite Muslim fighters and Sunni tribesmen in Yemen, which has killed at least 40 people.

In an “unusual statement,” Sunni Lebanese militant group, Abdullah Azzam Brigades apologized for the civilian casualties of a suicide bombing at Iran’s cultural center in Beirut last month [Reuters].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

Former Associate Editor at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@RParekh88).