The Cable

Kerry Accuses Moscow of 'Unmistakable' Covert Ops in Eastern Ukraine

In blistering testimony before Congress on Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry accused Russian special forces of orchestrating "chaos" in eastern Ukraine this week to set the stage for a possible invasion of the region and bluntly warned that Moscow would be hit with significant new economic sanctions if it chose to launch a strike.

Kerry's comments reflected the Obama administration's growing concern that the unrest raging in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv, Luhansk and Donetsk could offer Russian President Vladimir Putin an excuse for an armed incursion. Pro-Russian demonstrators  have seized an array of government buildings in recent days and demanded the right to secede from Ukraine, leading Kiev to send troops to retake the compounds. U.S. officials worry that Putin is trying to force Ukraine into a clash with the protesters so Moscow would be able to justify an intervention on humanitarian grounds.

"No one is fooled by what could potentially be a contrived pretext for military intervention just as we saw in Crimea," Kerry said. "These efforts are as ham-handed as they are transparent, and quite simply what we see from Russia is illegal and illegitimate effort to destabilize a sovereign state and create a contrived crisis with paid operatives across an international boundary."

Russia has denied meddling in eastern Ukraine, but Moscow has been steadily ratcheting up its war of words with Ukraine. On Tuesday, Russia's Foreign Ministry warned Kiev's fledgling government that any further use of force in the cities of Donetsk, Luhansk, and Kharkiv could lead to civil war. "We are calling for the immediate cessation of any military preparations," it said in a message on its website.

More tantalizingly, the ministry went on to accuse "American experts from the private military organization Greystone" of working with Ukrainian troops to prepare for a crackdown on the country's pro-Russian residents. 

Speaking on background, a State Department official notably did not deny the presence of Greystone personnel in the country. "I'd refer you to that company for any questions on its personnel," said the official. "As for the United States, we do not have any U.S. military units in Ukraine." 

Greystone, formerly an affiliate of the notorious private security firm known as Xe Services, broke off as a standalone company in 2010. The company did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Its website advertises protective services and training; aviation maintenance and operations; site security and management; and vulnerability assessments and risk management.

Kerry followed his allegations against Russia with warnings that the U.S. was prepared to impose new sanctions on key sectors of the Russian economy and those "orchestrating" the actions in eastern Ukraine. Sanctions on "energy, banking, mining - they're all on the table," Kerry said. Existing sanctions have targeted Russian individuals involved with Moscow's seizure and annexation of Crimea.

The U.S. hopes to launch multilateral negotiations in the next 10 days involving Washington, Kiev, the European Union and Moscow but no date has been agreed upon. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday he was prepared for the talks, but "we need to understand the format and agenda of this meeting."

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National Security

Fort Hood Sparks Gun Control Fight Between Republicans and Pentagon

Hawkish Republicans and the senior leadership of the Pentagon typically see eye-to-eye on most things, but the deadly shooting at Fort Hood last week has exposed a rift on a highly-charged issue: Gun control.

After U.S. Army Specialist Ivan Antonio Lopez killed three troops and wounded 16 others last week, Republicans on Capitol Hill began calling for new legislation to allow servicemembers to carry concealed weapons on U.S. bases. The measures are strongly opposed by the Pentagon, which says they would be costly and do nothing to improve security at bases.

"Some of the top reasons are safety concerns, the prohibitive costs of use-of-force and weapons training, qualification costs, and compliance with various weapons screening laws," a spokesman for the department said.

But on Capitol Hill, a number of GOP lawmakers say the current system is broken and if more Fort Hood personnel were armed last week, Lopez would not have been able to kill and injure as many as he did.

"We should be looking at the idea of senior leadership at these bases, give them the ability to carry a weapon," Michael McCaul (R-TX), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee told Fox News on Sunday.

McCaul isn't alone. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX) introduced legislation following the shootings at the Washington Navy Yard in September that would allow servicemembers and civilians to carry personal firearms on bases. A spokesman for Stockman says his bill gained three co-sponsors since last week: Paul Broun (R-GA), Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA) and Scott Perry (R-PA). In the Senate, James Inhofe (R-OK) also says he supports allowing service members to carry on base. At a hearing last week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) suggested the ban on concealed carry weapons should be lifted.

The Pentagon counters that a lack of guns on military bases is not the problem.

Existing rules allow military police and some other personnel to carry weapons deemed necessary for their job. In such a situation, a service member would openly carry government-provided weapons with the approval of the installation commander. Beyond that, the military says it "does not support arming all personnel,"  a position it came upon after ordering a review of safety protocols following the 2009 Fort Hood killings and another review following the shooting at the Washington Navy Yard in September.

McCaul did not offer specifics on legislation he's considering, but some Republicans want to see servicemembers allowed to carry concealed weapons, which is strictly prohibited under existing rules. At a press conference on April 2, Lt. General Mark Milley, Ft. Hood's commanding officer, opposed the allowance of concealed weapons on base. "We have law enforcement agents, with trained professionals, and I don't want to endorse carrying concealed weapons," he said.

The latest flare up is not the first time the military establishment has gone to the mat against gun rights advocates.

In 2012, U.S. military commanders came under increasing pressure to combat the alarming spike in military suicides, many involving firearms. However, a law backed by the NRA prohibited military officers from asking servicemembers about personally-owned firearms and whether removing the weapon may be appropriate given the servicemember's mental state.

"I am not allowed to ask a soldier who lives off-post whether that soldier has a privately-owned weapon," General Peter Chiarelli, the Army's former vice chief of staff said at the time. The law took effect in 2010, and since then, a dozen retired military officers including former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dennis Reimer, have written to members of Congress asking them to amend the law.

With respect to the Fort Hood shooting, the law prevented commanders from asking about Lopez's personally-owned weapons because he had not been judged by a mental health care worker to be a risk to himself. At a Senate hearing last week, Army Secretary John McHugh said Lopez had seen a military psychiatrist but there were no red flags. "He was fully examined ... We had no indication on the record of that examination that there was any sign of likely violence, either to himself or to others. No suicidal ideation," McHugh said.

While the military maintains its opposition to the 2010 law, there are no signs it will be amended anytime soon.

The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.

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