Friday News Roundup—November 8, 2019

Good morning from Washington, D.C. While impeachment proceedings are moving towards public testimony, several court cases could determine whether Trump administration officials — including former National Security Advisor John Bolton — can comply with Congressional subpoenas or claim executive privilege. In The Hill, CSPC President and CEO Glenn Nye talks about how impeachment reflects the broken state of our politics, no matter whether one supports or opposes the current occupant of the Oval Office.

At the same time, domestic politics may soon be shaken up, as former New York Mayor and billionaire businessman/philanthropist Mike Bloomberg may be entering the Democratic Presidential Primary. In this week’s roundup, Chris Condon looks at what the off-year elections tell us about 2020 — as well as what they don’t.

Joshua Huminski covers the role of Russian mercenaries in projecting Moscow’s power abroad, while our military fellow Ethan Brown provides some perspective about Tehran’s latest nuclear bluster and brinksmanship.

As always, we wrap with news you may have missed.

Russia’s Mercenary Army

Joshua Huminski

Wagner Group Mercenaries in Syria

As Russia seeks to advance its interests and undermine American influence, Moscow is pursuing non-traditional sources of influence. It is here that the (nominally) private military company Wagner, believed to be closely associated, and loosely coordinating its activities, with Moscow, has emerged as a notable international actor.

The use of private military contractors (PMCs) is not new. Niccolo Machiavelli in the Prince warned against the use of mercenaries: “they have no other attraction or reason for keeping the field than a trifle of stipend, which is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you.” Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater, the private security company made famous in the 2007 al-Nisour Square incident, in which 17 civilians were killed, continues to advocate for the use of contractors in lieu of uniformed soldiers and Marines.

It should be no surprise that President Putin is using Wagner for Russia’s national ends. His use of Chastnye Voennie Companiy (ChVK) is not terribly different than that of the United States. Contractors are not directly affiliated with the state and, consequently, the state has little obligation to them as compared to uniformed service members. They can operate in a grayer area that legally governed armed forces, and they are in many ways more flexible (and disposable) than traditional military assets. Indeed, reporting suggests that Wagner personnel are not that well looked after.

For its part, Wagner operates in a nebulous middle ground — it is not entirely within the operational fiefdom of President Putin, nor is entirely autonomous from the Russian state. Moscow will not undertake efforts to compensate fallen Wagner personnel, but it has provided logistical support for Wagner’s activities and most of its operational activities fall squarely within the realm of interest for Moscow.

There are two key differences in how Russia uses PMCs in comparison to the United States — offensive operations and resource acquisition. Wagner is acting as an unacknowledged annex of the Russian military. It is training forces, as evidenced in the Central African Republic, conducting offensive ground operations in Syria, serving as agent provocateurs in Ukraine, and intervening on behalf of Khalifa Hifter in Libya.

The clash between roughly 30 Delta Force soldiers and Rangers, and some 500 pro-Syrian fighters backed by Russian mercenaries is instructive. The clash, which took place in February 2018 near a Conoco oil facility in Deir al-Zour province, resulted in over 200 to 300 casualties of the attacking force with no losses to U.S. personnel. The Russians, according to then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, denied that the force was theirs and, consequently, the Secretary directed Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “for the force, then, to be annihilated.” “And it was.”

Officially, Russia denied the presence of any of their personnel, later claiming that just four Russians were killed in the incident, but several dozen were believed to have actually been killed. This was, perhaps, the first indirect clash between U.S. soldiers in uniform and “Russian forces” (predominantly former military and intelligence personnel) in recent history. A staggering, but true, reality.

Second, Wagner is more than happy to take possession of precious/rare metal mines, oil/gas resources, or anything else of value in lieu of formal payment. Equally, in a throwback to the 60s and 70s era of mercenary activity, in the event that precious resource is held by an adversary, Wagner would be happy to remove them from the equation and then take position of the resource.

Wagner allows the Kremlin a measure of distance and deniability. It is an open secret that Wagner is connected to President Putin via Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch known as Putin’s chef (and a former hotdog seller) and funder of the Internet Research Agency — the organization behind much of the 2016 election interference. In the world of Kremlinology, that kind of connection is not just a passing acquaintance.

Were Putin to deploy uniformed Russian soldiers to Libya, Ukraine, or Syria (beyond that which it is currently doing), the international response would be decidedly stronger and condemnations perhaps louder. Wagner, while beholden to Putin for all intents and purposes, is a private entity, deniable, and not subject to the norms of international behavior or conduct. Further, the fact that there is no legal framework governing private military companies in Russia allows another layer of deniability. Surely Wagner can’t be doing what it is accused of, if it were it would be violating Russian law… the argument would go.

Where to from here? This question is in fact two parts. First, what does the future hold for Russian private military companies’ writ large. In the absence of a clear legal framework within Russia and an agreed upon international framework (such as the Montreux Document), one should expect business to continue as usual.

To a degree, Russian companies operating in a similar fashion have driven the price for security services down to a near commodity. From previous experience, the author understood this to have happened in the counter-piracy field off the Somali coast. American contractors were undercut by cheaper Russian rivals who, while offering the same service, offered a decidedly less quality product.

The second part is perhaps more interesting. What will happen to Wagner and Prigozhin, if anything? Given that Wagner is emerging in nearly every location in which Russia has a vested interest, it is unlikely that they will be going away anytime soon. In this new world of gray zone conflict or hybrid warfare, they are proving too valuable a tool of national (if deniable) power. Much like anything within Putin’s orbit, so long as it continues to deliver results, not cause undue problems, and stays in his good favor, Wagner should remain a fixture of the contemporary battlespace for the foreseeable future.

That Secretary Mattis sought to annihilate the attacking force is not surprising. An American force was under attack and all available assets were oriented towards the protection of those personnel and the prosecution of their mission. Equally, it could be inferred that Secretary Mattis sought to send a message to Wagner and Moscow. The message was undoubtedly received, but whether it will be heeded going forward remains to be seen.

Yes, There Were Elections This Year

Chris Condon

Photo Credit: Jackie Hai/KUNC

While Americans’ attention is captured every four years by presidential campaigns, midterm elections receive comparatively little of the nation’s consciousness. Even more obscure are off-year elections — those that take place in odd-numbered years between midterm and presidential election years. Not every state holds elections in these years, and many that do only use them to fill local offices whose term may only last one year. 2019 was such a year, with the attention of many Americans focused on the impending chaos of the 2020 election or shut off from politics entirely. However, a few key developments happened in this year’s elections that warrant discussion.

First and perhaps most widely analyzed are the elections for General Assembly in Virginia. The Commonwealth of Virginia is one of the only places in the nation that holds state legislative election in off years, and thus often makes waves in otherwise uneventful electoral years. This year was no exception, as Republicans lost their razor-thin majorities in both houses of the General Assembly. Granted, the Democrats’ new majorities are likewise quite modest, especially their one-seat hold in the State Senate. Gains in the House of Delegates were comparatively large, with the Republicans’ one-seat majority there flipping to at least a four-seat Democratic majority. This is the first time since 1994 that Democrats have held united control of the Old Dominion’s government, and they will likely use their majority to push through much of the party’s platform in the coming years.

The new majority in Virginia also has interesting implications on one of the most-watched pieces of legislation in the Commonwealth, a state constitutional amendment to end partisan gerrymandering. While the legislation passed through the General Assembly last term under a GOP majority, it was largely championed by Democratic legislators. Now that Democrats are certain that they will control the redistricting process in two years, it is not a guarantee that the new majority will be quite as eager to take control of drawing districts away from the legislature in favor of an independent commission. Whatever happens, it will likely have an impact on the morale of the anti-gerrymandering movement nationwide.

Stealing some of Virginia’s limelight this year was the Commonwealth of Kentucky, which held a highly anticipated gubernatorial election. Governor Matt Bevin has earned a reputation as one of America’s least popular state chief executives after costly political battles with Kentucky’s teachers, and faced an uphill battle to reelection. Although his poll numbers were buoyed slightly by a recent endorsement from President Trump, Governor Bevin has seemingly lost a close race to Andy Beshear, Kentucky’s Attorney General. Bevin has refused to concede, however, and has asserted that Mr. Beshear’s victory by less than half a percentage point is grounds for a recount of votes cast. If a recount confirms the tentative election results, Andy Beshear will step into the office that his father Steve Beshear held before Governor Bevin.

Some local election news has also caught the eye of politicos, particularly in Pennsylvania and New York. Especially interesting in the Keystone State were results in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where Republicans were shellacked in local races. Delaware County’s governing Council is now entirely Democratic, while Republicans lost their majorities in the governing bodies of both Chester and Bucks counties. Some pundits have suggested that this weakness in traditionally Republican suburban districts may portend disaster for the GOP more broadly in 2020.

Further north, New York City voters approved a slate of ballot measures on Tuesday, which includes a measure to implement Ranked Choice Voting in primary and special elections for Mayor, Public Advocate, Comptroller, Borough President and City Council Members.

It is the tendency of political pundits to jump to conclusions immediately following an election. This year is no different, and many have made bold claims about the future in states where Democrats were met with success this year. In Virginia, countless articles have been published in less than 48 hours alleging that Virginia is officially a blue state. With a one seat majority in the State Senate and at most a five seat majority in the State House, it seems premature to deem one of the most purple states in the union a Democratic stronghold at this point. Similarly, pundits have argued that the defeat of Governor Bevin in Kentucky spells doom for Mitch McConnell in his next bid for reelection, ignoring the fact that the rest of the Republican ticket in that state achieved victory despite Bevin’s unpopularity. Mississippi’s gubernatorial race also saw a Republican dominate a “vulnerable” race, which many have ignored in their post-election takes.

In the grand scheme of American politics, it is impossible to accurately make grandiose predictions about the future from the results of one election. While the president is certainly not a popular figure and that may have had implications on this year’s contests, that is no guarantee that conditions will remain constant for another year. Democrats have had a strong showing since President Trump’s inauguration, but the president himself is evidence that anything can happen in the politics of the new age.

Iran Remains Outlier in Russian/Western influenced Middle East Stability

Ethan Brown

IR-6 Centrifuges

Prior analysis in this medium has yielded consistent assertions on the current Middle East power-broker dynamic, notably the recusal of the United States from leading the region’s post-ISIS evolution to cede events towards Russia-Turkey-Syria tripartite power projection. Amid this geopolitical changing of the guard, the influence and motivations of Iran have been under-examined. An assessment of the region concluded that Russia is increasing in its regional manipulation. Despite this, Iran absolutely remains a central figure in the balance of power and influence in the region- agnostic of Western, Russian, and local democratic persuasions.

In order to effectively narrow the context of this analysis, two considerations are made. The first is that as a power broker, Iran is going nowhere with regards to Middle East competition; “dug in like ticks” through direct government sponsorship and network patronage are the mechanisms of Iran’s influence — and those networks run deep. Second, while the possibility of Iran achieving weapons grade uranium is clearly on the table, it should be maintained that Tehran is acting in its own self-interests, pursuant to the notion of sovereignty and in response to the sanctions levied upon the state by international players and in particular the United States. The alternatives are pressure, which has led to this retaliation; and engagement (but not appeasement), which brought the JCPOA to fruition, albeit in some flawed execution. This assertion is based on three key elements:

1. Iran’s sphere of influence took a significant blow from the recent success of public protests in Lebanon and Iraq- two locations known to have suffered from Iran’s covert paramilitary arm of government and rampant Shia militant group support.

2. Iran has continued engagement in low-impact and overt conflict with the regions other domestic power broker in predominantly-Sunni Saudi Arabia, either through direct interference (sophisticated attacks on Abqaiq/Khurais Oil facilities) or through proxy competition in Yemen.

3. Iran’s outward hostility to its neighbors and growing shadowy threat of interference in global oil production (think using mines on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman) looms as potential for outright conflict with the west, which challenges United States policy makers in how best to address this power play.

Perception is Reality

On Monday morning, Iran announced it had begun operating sixty IR-6 uranium enrichment centrifuges, which has the potential to incite by Iran hawks. However this move by the Iranian regime must be objectively looked at as a clever and calculated maneuver to do exactly that: illicit reactions which allow Iran to dictate conditions of the Middle East geopolitical chessboard. In just a few days, Lebanon’s public protests resulted in the Prime Minister resigning and Iraq’s political establishment agreed to major electoral overhauls, eroding Iranian influence on a public stage in a new and startling fashion. In the arena of international politicking, Iran was faced with a difficult scenario in which they clearly felt the need to re-assert themselves as a regional powerhouse.

Iran is actually acting in accordance with the fragmenting shambles of the JCPOA, which states in article 26 that imposition of nuclear-related sanctions by the United States would be treated as grounds for Iran to “cease performing its commitments…in whole or in part”. As the economic siege of Iran trudges on in the form of global sanctions and blockages on Iranian property and assets, it is clear that the regime in Tehran believes it is within its rights to step beyond the bounds of the JCPOA. This is a logical step for a state who is acting in its own self-interests to do, but one that is certain to garner a profound reaction. The full components of this action must be taken into account and the question must again be raised — should the international community continue to force Iran into a corner and gamble on a volatile outcome, or engage in attempts to find a diplomatically agreeable solution (with the added benefit of potentially driving a divide between Iran and its main benefactor in Moscow)?


First, the transition from the IR-1 to the IR-6 uranium enrichment centrifuges was actually going to occur all along, Iran is simply getting ahead of the timeline imposed by the JCPOA (which again, was technically always an option). The agreement stated that the utilization of the IR-6 (which enriches natural ore roughly ten times faster than the IR-1s used previously) would not be allowed to occur until eight and one half years after the signing of the agreement (June/2015). The enrichment process of natural uranium ore is also limited by the agreement to levels of 3.67% (U-235), with a stockpile of no greater than 300kg allowed, or generally one third of the total volume of enriched uranium required for a HEU-style nuclear weapon.

Based on the breakout timeline as originally sketched out in the JCPOA, the projection that Secretary Mike Pompeo alludes to in his recent remarks equates to somewhere around 8 months. Likely, this is shortened by the employment of the IR-6 vs. IR-1 systems, with additional considerations made with regards to the process of detecting and confirming detections on the presence of nuclear material. This looming threat places everyone not-named Iran on pins and needles, and accentuates the need for the international community, including the United States, to cautiously but steadfastly explore all mechanisms for de-escalation. This is why allies matter, and the US withdrawal from Syria hangs over this incident as a possible catalyst for Iranian confidence.

Photo credit: Tehran Times

It is difficult to prognosticate that that Iran would pursue an overt uranium-enrichment program in the near term, or pursue an aggressive breakout strategy, despite article 26 of the JCPOA. The primary reason for this overt course of action being unlikely is that Iran remains a signatory party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Granted, they are not signatory nor in recognition of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and as such, a veil of intrigue hangs over the ratified NPT in the case of Iran. But the regime is cunning enough to understand that the overt uranium enrichment beyond permitted norms would spark international backlash. As Iran has been engaged in a proxy conflict with its geopolitical rival Saudi Arabia for decades, an incident like overt nuclear weapons development that could ignite an international conflagration is incredibly unlikely. Iran is not suddenly going to start churning out a nuclear arsenal, they are simply utilizing clever tactics to upset the balance of power, knowing full well that western rhetoric will do the bulk of upsetting for them.

The Reality

Iranian employment of its enhanced uranium-enrichment capabilities isn’t news. At least in the context of knowing its existing capacity for nuclear power, and objectively reasoning that a state equipped with such infrastructure, when faced with increasing international pressure after agreeing to limit its exploits via the JCPOA, would be an inevitability. What is news worthy is the pending reaction of the global community, and in particular those aforementioned hawks of foreign policy. Furthermore, as the technical legal use of this action is legitimate — but, undoubtedly, it’s complicated.

There are multiple mechanisms at play through both the collective intelligence services of the United States and the EU, as well as the International Atomic Energy Association, whose watchdog enterprising is particularly comprehensive. Through geospatial intelligence collection, the world order (via those intelligence services) is able to maintain accurate and comprehensive analysis on the uranium mines from which Iran draws its stores, as well as the status of the facilities where these resources and the fancy new IR-6s are kept and utilized; there is need to keep secrets in the realm of acknowledged nuclear power, which is generally the philosophical point of nuclear weapons, a la Dr. Strangelove.

With such comprehensive overwatch of the options for weapons-grade uranium enrichment, Iran is simply unlikely to do much with its uranium to upset the international order — they just want to stir the pot in the Middle East to remind everyone that they are still a legitimate power broker.

The time to worry would be when Iran outright refuses to let IAEA scientists conduct scheduled inspections on the process of uranium enrichment. Here is where the narrative matters: as reported by diplomats on the 6th of November, an IAEA investigator was temporarily held and her documentation was confiscated. However, before reactionaries tout this as the prelude to the drums of war, the timing and narrative must be considered. The exact nature of the hold-up of the IAEA investigator is undisclosed, as was the duration of the incident and the exact nature of the “confiscated documents,” which were ultimately returned to the scientist in question, who appears to have been allowed to continue immediately after this event unhindered. Again, this story being reported in the same week as Iran announcing the employment of the centrifuges must be viewed through the prism of international politicking. The narrative always matters.

These opinions are of the author and do not reflect the views, position, or policy of the U.S. Air Force or Department of Defense.

News You May Have Missed

Former Twitter Employees Charged As Spies

U.S. federal prosecutors charged three men acting illegally as foreign agents for Saudi Arabia this week. Ahmad Abouammo and Ali Alzabarah allegedly used their status as employees of the social media giant to gather personal information of users critical of the Saudi Arabian government. In the wake of the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi on the Crown Prince’s orders, it is no secret that Saudi Arabia deals with critics rather harshly. In this instance, they could have identified and located their critics through information stored by Twitter, and may have utilized it for similarly nefarious purposes. Ahmed Almutairi, a Saudi national, allegedly acted as an intermediary between the two Twitter employees and the Saudi regime.

Huawei to Provide 5G Technology to Hungary

Despite objections from the Trump administration, Hungary will allow Huawei to develop 5G infrastructure in their country. Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto announced early this week that the Hungarian government could find no evidence that Huawei’s technology posed a security risk, and that the Chinese telecom giant would be involved in the 5G rollout there. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned eastern European nations against accepting technological assistance from Chinese companies during a visit to Budapest in February, stating that doing so would make it harder for the administration to “partner alongside them.” China’s entry into eastern Europe is part of their growing influence across the Eastern Hemisphere, exemplified by their Belt and Road Initiative to develop infrastructure between Asia and Europe.

French President Macron Decries NATO’s “Brain Death”

In remarks delivered to The Economist, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the alliance’s future and relevance were increasingly in doubt as American commitment to our European allies has wavered — especially as President Trump has spoken publicly of his disdain for the alliance while failing to consult European governments about major foreign policy shifts like the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria.

Hong Kong Student Dies Near Clash with Police

In circumstances likely to heighten tensions between protestors and Beijing’s apparatchiks, Hong Kong student Chow Tsz-lok succumb to severe injuries following a fall from one level of a parking garage to another as clashes raged nearby between protestors and police using tear gas to disperse protestors. While footage of Mr. Chow’s death does not directly implicate police forces, protestors have long called for independent investigations on police use of force, and Mr. Chow’s death will only inspire further anger towards Hong Kong’s government.

The views of authors are their own and not that of CSPC.



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