US-Russia relations fray; Trump backs NATO expansion; Low public support for Syria strike; Army dusts off hypersonic arty concept; and just a bit more…

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is in Moscow today during one of the more tense weeks of U.S.-Russian relations in recent memory. To that end, The Wall Street Journal reports Tillerson’s Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, “appeared to warn Washington not to strike Syria again” in comments before the two diplomats ducked behind closed doors to chat. The Journal: “Mr. Lavrov described the U.S. missile attack last week on a Syrian air base​ as ‘an unlawful attack against Syria,’ adding: ‘We believe it’s fundamentally important not to let these actions happen again.’” ​

However, “It was unclear whether Mr. Lavrov was referring to the U.S. strike on Friday or to what Russia says were rebel stockpiles of chemical weapons that were hit by Syrian government aircraft several days earlier in a town in Idlib province, killing at least 85 people and exposing hundreds of others to a toxic gas.”

But the diplomatic fallout between the two countries continues. Lavrov accued Washington of “offering ‘ambiguous as well as contradictory’ ideas about its stance toward Russia and foreign policy, and knocked Mr. Tillerson for having few officials in place at the State Department,” the Journal writes.

Making relations just a bit more tense, “In an interview set to air on Fox Business Network early Wednesday morning, Mr. Trump said Mr. Putin is backing a person who is ‘truly an evil person’—a reference to the Syrian president.”

That quote: “If Russia didn’t go in and back this animal [Bashar al-Assad], you wouldn’t have a problem right now.”

Also from that Fox Business interview: “We’re not going into Syria,” President Trump said. “But when I see people using horrible, horrible chemical weapons… and see these beautiful kids that are dead in their father’s arms, or you see kids gasping for life … when you see that, I immediately called General Mattis.” A tiny bit more of that interview, here.

We’re not done with U.S.-Russia tension stories yet. That’s because the White House “accused Russia on Tuesday of engaging in a cover-up of the Syrian government’s role in a chemical weapons attack last week, saying that United States intelligence had confirmed that the Assad regime used sarin gas on its own people,” The New York Times reported Tuesday.

Backing up their claim: “A four-page report drawn up by the National Security Council contains declassified United States intelligence on the [April 6] attack and a rebuttal of Moscow’s claim that insurgents unleashed the gas to frame the Syrian government.”

On background: “Senior White House officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the declassified intelligence report, said Russia’s goal was to cover up the Syrian government’s culpability for the chemical attack. They asserted that the Syrian government, under pressure from opposition forces around the country and lacking enough troops to respond, used the lethal nerve agent sarin to target rebels who were threatening government-held territory.”

The Russian response: “To my mind, this strongly resembles what happened in 2003 when representatives of the United States showed in the Security Council what was supposed to be chemical weapons found in Iraq,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said.

Putin says U.S.-Russian relations have only gotten worse under President Trump, according to state-run Interfax news.

Quipped former Army Ranger and Pentagon Middle East official Andrew Exum: “Man, it’s almost as if interfering in the U.S. elections was not actually smart and Putin is not the strategic genius everyone says he is.”

And here are some more semi-sordid news bits from the diplomatic beat: “Trump promised an ‘unpredictable’ foreign policy. To allies, it looks incoherent,” the Washington Post reports.

Two pull-outs from that article: “Nobody can tell us on Russia what the American policy is, on Syria what the American policy is, on China what the American policy is,” one ambassador said. “I’m not sure there is a policy.”

Said another: “I don’t know what will happen. You had a president who took three months to make a decision, and now you have one who takes three seconds. It’s very worrying.” Read the rest, here.

Also on Tuesday: Trump officially backed Montenegro joining NATO, a possible expansion of the alliance Trump famously called “obsolete.” White House statement, here.

Concerns over “hybrid war” may be pushing Finland and Sweden closer to NATO. The United States, Britain, France, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Finland, Latvia and Lithuania all signed a memo on Tuesday “to establish a center in Helsinki to research how to tackle tactics such as cyber attacks, propaganda and disinformation,” Reuters reported. “The center will be based in Helsinki and will form a network of experts for the participating countries. A steering group is due to hold its first meeting on Wednesday (today). It is expected to have a team of 10 people working there by later this year…The annual budget of the center is initially around 1.5 million euros ($1.60 million), with Finland providing half the funding and the rest covered by members.”

Notable takeaway from that story: “Though neither [Finland nor Sweden] will seek formal membership in the decades-old military alliance, Helsinki and Stockholm are, thanks to the looming threat from the east, moving ever closer to the very NATO that Russia has for so long sought to keep them from joining,” Foreign Policy reported Tuesday.

One more diplomatic odd one: Tillerson “asked his European counterparts on Tuesday why American voters should care about the conflict in Ukraine,” Reuters reported Tuesday. “French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said Tillerson had openly questioned why ‘American taxpayers’ should be concerned about Ukraine, which has been racked by a separatist conflict for the last three years. Ayrault told reporters he had replied: ‘It is in the interests of the U.S. taxpayers to have a Europe that is secure and is strong politically and economically … You don’t want a weak Europe, broken into bits and feeble.’” More here.

From Defense One

No Doubt’ Syria Behind Chemical Attack, Mattis Says // Kevin Baron: And Trump’s rush order for a counter-ISIS plan, remains just a “skeleton,” Mattis said. “It’s going to take time.”

US Army Exploring ‘Devastating’ New Weapon For Use In the Event of War with Russia // Patrick Tucker: The Kinetic Energy Projectile would be a tungsten projectile that moves at three times the speed of sound to destroy anything in its path.

Iran Expected an Economic Boost from the Nuclear Deal. It’s Not Happening // Zachary Laub: Sluggish growth is putting pressure on Tehran, where hardliners who opposed the deal may be looking to strike back.

If You Only Work on Your Malware on Weekdays, You Might Be a CIA Hacker // Keith Collins: Analysts at Symantec found a curious pattern in malware alleged to have been developed by the CIA: all the timestamps are Monday through Friday.

Tired: Stealing Data. Wired: Holding a Dam for Ransom // Joseph Marks: The spread of ransomware means government and critical infrastructure providers need to start gaming out responses, cyber watchers say.

Rex Tillerson’s Russian Mission Impossible // Vali Nasr: The secretary of state is expected to use his visit to Moscow this week to demand Russia break with Assad. This is wishful thinking.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD1861: Confederate forces fire on Fort Sumter, S.C., the first shots of the Civil War. Send us your news:

Backing off a bit from the military option. President Trump threatened North Korea with “increased economic and political pressure,” but he’s chosen to keep his “military options…under consideration longer term,” The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.

We also learned from that article that Syria and North Korea had a bonding moment in the face of Trump’s military maneuvers: “The two countries are ‘conducting a war against big powers’ wild ambition to subject all countries to their expansionist and dominationist policy,’ Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said in a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency.”

Worth noting: “Mr. Trump has yet to review or finalize his strategy for fighting Islamic State, or of reviewing Russia policy,” the Journal reported. “The president is unlikely to have until the fall an overall foreign-policy strategy that knits together the various challenges and regions in the world,” a U.S. official told WSJ. More here.

What Chinese President Xi Jinping wants: a peaceful solution to the North Korean dilemma, he told President Trump in a phone call early this morning, the Washington Post reports as the returning Carl Vinson strike group heads toward the Korean peninsula.

About that carrier strike group: Japan’s navy will exercise with the U.S. ships “in a display of military power aimed at deterring the North Korean regime from further missile tests,” Reuters reports. “The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force (MSDF) may conduct helicopter landings on each other’s ships, as well as communication drills, as the USS Carl Vinson and its escort ships pass through waters close to Japanese territory,” Reuters quotes two “sources” as saying. More here.

The U.S. military is increasing its force protection measures in Syria, Military Times reported Tuesday. “A U.S. military spokesman said the U.S. commander for the campaign in Iraq and Syria, Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, has been ‘calling in the resources that he needs’ to protect U.S. forces considering the increased tensions following the strikes. Defense officials declined to specify exactly what protection measures were taken.” That, here.  

Get a better picture of that “complex and coordinated” three-hour attack on U.S. special forces and their moderate rebel partners near the Syria-Jordan border over the weekend, via this roll-up from Business Insider. Some of what you’ll read there: “The attack came from ISIS fighters disguised as US-backed rebels, carrying M-16 rifles and using vehicles captured from US-supported rebel groups. They struck first with a car bomb at the base entrance, which allowed some of the attackers to infiltrate the base. Many of the ISIS fighters were wearing suicide vests.” Rebel reinforcements were sent, “but they came under attack from other ISIS fighters.”

It was a serious fight,” a U.S. military official told the WSJ. “Whether or not it was a one-off, we will have to see.” More here.

Russia reportedly lost a couple soldiers recently to Islamic State mortars in Syria, the defense ministry announced Tuesday, with no mention of where or when. “The latest deaths bring the number of Russian combat deaths in Syria officially acknowledged by the Defense Ministry to 29,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports, here.

Pundits loved the Syria strike. The U.S. public, not so much. “The 50% of Americans who approve of the military strikes against Syria last week is historically low compared with other previous U.S. military actions,” the pollsters at Gallup reported Tuesday. Since 1983, only one action had lower approval: Libya in 2011, at 47%. Other findings: 41% of those surveyed disapproved. Overall, 82% of Republicans approve, compared with 33% of Democrats. Read more, here.

How many reasons has the Trump administration offered for the strike? Just Security’s Kate Brannen compiled a list, here.

Then there’s this, via NBC News, from presidential son Eric Trump: “If there was anything that Syria [strike] did, it was to validate the fact that there is no Russia tie.”

Speaking of Trump-Russia ties, Lawfare offers a list of examples of “at least tacit collaboration between the Russians and the Trump campaign, collaboration in which Trump personally participated on multiple occasions. But we have collectively discounted this cooperation for two related, and quite perverse, reasons: It was overt and public and it was legal.” Read the list, here. Still: “It remains an important question whether anyone in the Trump camp colluded covertly or illegally or whether they coordinated with the Russian operation.”

And on that last question: “The FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of an adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump,” the Washington Post reports. The warrant was issued after the FBI and the Justice Department convinced a judge that there was probable cause to believe Carter Page was acting as a Russian agent, U.S. officials told the Post. Read, here.

Then there’s this: “When Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, sought the top-secret security clearance that would give him access to some of the nation’s most closely guarded secrets, he was required to disclose all encounters with foreign government officials over the last seven years. But Mr. Kushner did not mention dozens of contacts with foreign leaders or officials in recent months. They include a December meeting with the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, and one with the head of a Russian state-owned bank, Vnesheconombank, arranged at Mr. Kislyak’s behest.” NYT, from last week, here.

And now for something completely different: The U.S. military has ordered two more surveillance satellites to roam in geosynchronous orbit, the nerds over at Spaceflight Now reported Monday. The company involved: Orbital ATK. Launch dates haven’t been released and the Air Force contract’s value is classified. However, “for Orbital ATK, the contract to build two more GSSAP satellites helps offset a weak commercial market, keeping the company’s engineers busy and satellite-related revenue steady as industry-wide demand has waned from the traditional major commercial geosynchronous satellite operators.”

A bit more on these orbiting hunks of high-tech machinery: “The GSSAP satellites lurk near the ring of geosynchronous satellites that fly around Earth at the same speed of the planet’s rotation, allowing craft to remain over a fixed geographic location. Commercial companies and defense agencies use the orbit for communications, missile warning and signals intelligence missions. Not only can the surveillance platforms help the Air Force track objects in geosynchronous orbit — a capability needed to manage traffic and avoid collisions — the GSSAP spacecraft can adjust their orbits to approach and image other satellites using sharp-eyed optical cameras.” Read the rest, here.

Lastly today: From Bloomberg to the Pentagon and now to the American Bankers Association. That’s the recent career path of Peter Cook, former Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s press secretary, and assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs. He’s been named Chief Communications Officer for the ABA (not this ABBA). Cook has also worked for NBC News and MSNBC, among others. More from ABA, here.

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