Transitional. “With ethics reviews steamrolled, financial disclosures uncertified, FBI background checks incomplete, and nine confirmation hearings squeezed into three days, President-elect Donald Trump faces the very real possibility that few of his cabinet picks will be in place by the time he’s sworn in next Friday,” FP’s Molly O’Toole writes. The fun begins today with several hearings on the Hill for top Trump appointees in a three-day blitz that will see a total of nine hearings, a Trump press conference, and remarks delivered by national security advisor Michael Flynn and his incoming deputy, KT McFarland. FP will be all over it, so check back early and often…

Work it. A series of reports out Monday evening suggest the Trump team may ask Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work to stick around for several months after James Mattis is (presumably) confirmed to be the next Secretary of Defense. Work, like Mattis, is a retired Marine officer, and has been outgoing Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s point man for many of his most innovative technology modernizations programs. The leak comes amid ongoing speculation that there is growing tension between Mattis and Trump Tower over who will serve under him at the Pentagon, with the former Marine rejecting several names that have been floated to him.

Back to al Bab. American drones are again buzzing over Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies as they slog it out around the Islamic State-held city of al-Bab, in anticipation of a larger U.S. role in support the operation. After weeks of tension between Washington and Ankara, which saw U.S. support for the push dry up while Russian warplanes began supporting the Turks, there’s talk that American planes, equipment, and Special Operations Forces might again be part of the fight, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan report.

It won’t be easy, however. U.S. officials are concerned about the number of Russian and Turkish planes already in the sky around the city, and straightening out the logjam — especially given the reported Russian refusal to identify themselves when operating around U.S. aircraft — is a huge concern.

The crowded skies. “Rarely, if ever, do they respond verbally,” U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Corcoran told the Wall Street Journal’s Michael M. Phillips and Gordon Lubold of the Russian pilots. “We don’t know what they can see or not see, and we don’t want them running into one of us.” It’s a problem throughout Syria, and there are about 50 to 75 coalition a day aircraft flying over Raqqa in close proximity to Russian planes.

But the Russians have frequently shadowed U.S. aircraft or come close to hitting them — and U.S. pilots think some of the near-misses have been because the Russians simply didn’t see the American planes. Russian planes also “plow through tightly controlled groupings of allied aircraft over Raqqa. Russian bombers, flying to Syria via Iran, have crossed Iraq and disrupted allied flight patterns over the battlefields of Mosul.”

On the ground. U.S. Special Operations Forces carried out an assault on ISIS leadership near the city of Deir al-Zour in Syria on Sunday, U.S. officials have confirmed, though few details have been made public. According to the site Deir al-Zour 24, the troops landed in helicopters, cut off a road, and killed and captured several ISIS fighters. The raid was nothing that hasn’t happened before, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Monday. “We’ve done them before and we’ll do them again,” he said, adding that reports of 25 ISIS fighters killed in the raid were too high. He declined to provide a number of his won, however.

Mosul. Davis also told reporters that ISIS fighters in Mosul have been staggered by U.S. airstrikes and the Iraqi ground assault. The militants “can’t respond to coordinated attacks,” and are having a hard time keeping up the pace of suicide bombers they had been throwing at the Iraqis. Since mid-October, the U.S.-led coalition has dropped 8,944 bombs on ISIS positions in Mosul, taking out 134 car bombs in the process. In contrast, as of Monday the coalition has dropped 1,542 bombs on Raqqa since Nov. 5.

Not impressed. Russian officials don’t appear impressed, however. Warplanes sent to Syria by the Kremlin have conducted 19,160 sorties and conducted 71,000 airstrikes since October 2015, claimed Chief of Russia’s General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov Tuesday. According to the state-run media mouthpiece TASS, Gerasimov took a swipe at the U.S.-led coalition during his remarks, adding the Americans “have not achieved any significant success… At the same time, a large number of civilian deaths as well as Syrian government troops deaths has been recorded.”

Good morning and as always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley

PEOTUS

Congressional Republican hawks like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have announced their intention to introduce new sanctions against Russia and joined Democrats in a call for an investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. But USA Today reports that Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway isn’t a fan of either proposal. In reference to calls by suggesting that Congress launch a bipartisan investigation of Russian hacking, Conway painted the effort as a partisan veneer for post-election sour grapes. She also questioned whether additional sanctions against Russia were necessary, describing President Obama’s ejection of 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. as exceedingly harsh.

Sanctions

Monday was a big day for sanctions officials, who dropped a host of new restrictions on individuals in Russia and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

The Washington Post reports that President Obama topped off the list of Russian individuals sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act with five new names. The act allows the president to sanction Russians involved in corruption related to the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and broader human rights abuses. Obama sanctioned an official from Russia’s Investigative Committee, citing his participation in a coverup of Magnitsky’s death in prison, as well as two Russians suspected of involvement in the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko.

On the terrorism end of sanctions, the State Department added two members of Hezbollah, Ali Damush and Mustafa Mughniyeh, to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The State Department describes Damush as an aide to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and in charge of the group’s arm in charge of carrying out terrorist operations abroad. Mughniyeh is the nephew of Imad Mughniyeh, the late senior official in the Lebanese terror group accused of carrying out the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. Mustada, according to the sanctions announcement, is in charge of Hezbollah operations in the Golan Heights.

Iran

There’s been another incident in the tense game of intimidation under way in the Persian Gulf between the U.S. and Iran. CNN reports that the U.S. destroyer the USS Mahan fired warning shots at five vessels from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. Pentagon spokesman said the boats closed to within 900 yards of the Mahan and ignored multiple warnings in the form of radio commands, sirens, and smoke grenades, failing to halt until the Mahan fired a warning shot burst from a .50 caliber machine gun.

Iran also appears headed towards more confrontation with the U.S. through its missile program. Reuters reports that legislators in Tehran added an extra five percent to the country’s defense budget, earmarking more funds for the country’s ballistic missile program. American officials have argued that Iran’s ballistic missile programs are in violation of existing U.N. Security Council sanctions on the country, although its allies in Russia have pushed back against the claim. Regardless, Iran carried out a number of ballistic missile tests since 2015 and plans to expand its program with a plan for development that stretches into 2021.

Pakistan

Pakistan admitted it has a submarine-launched cruise missile program, Defense News reports. The revelation came by way of a press release from the Pakistani military saying it had carried out a test of the system in the Indian Ocean at some indeterminate point in time. The missile, Babur 3, a submarine-launched variant of its land-based cousin, the Babur-2 and is likely fired from a Pakistani Agosta-90B submarine.

Photo Credit: NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images

Saint Louis, MO, USA – March 11, 2016: Donald Trump addresses supporters at the Peabody Opera House in Downtown Saint Louis
Photo Credit: Gino Santa Maria / Shutterstock.com

Back in December 2015, when Donald Trump was still considered that year’s GOP gadfly, I wrote a piece for Salon headlined “Donald Trump’s got Putin fever: The GOP frontrunner is stumping for a Russian strongman.” At the time, Trump was bragging about his “great relationship” with Vladimir Putin, with whom he said he had appeared on “60 Minutes.”

It turned out that the CBS News program had simply aired separate segments about the two men on the same broadcast, but Trump claimed the show’s great ratings proved there was something special about the combination. When Putin later called Trump “bright and talented,” the Donald was giddy with delight, saying, “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.”

Trump seemed to believe that because the Russian leader disliked President Barack Obama, Putin and Trump would get along. Evidently, it was an “enemy of my enemy” thing, which is an unusual position for a U.S. presidential candidate to take. Normally, even if an opposition candidate has serious disagreements with a rival on foreign policy matters, he or she wouldn’t publicly side with a foreign leader. But that’s Trump, breaking every rule and norm without even knowing — or caring — that they ever existed.

At the time, this didn’t surprise me too much. I knew that Trump was wired into the right-wing fever swamp through friends like Roger Stone, and later learned that he had enlisted his aide at the time, Sam Nunberg, to listen to hours and hours of conservative talk radio and give him reports on what that audience was most interested in. And one of the odd little sidebars of the past few years in the talk-radio world was a serious man crush on Vladimir Putin.

As I mentioned in my 2015 piece, Marin Cogan’s article in National Journal on the emerging Putinphilia showed that the right was just hungry for a real man:

Earlier this year, when Putin supposedly caught — and kissed — a 46-pound pike fish, posters on Free Republic, a major grassroots message board for the Right, were overwhelmingly pro-Putin. “I wonder what photoup of his vacation will the Usurper show us? Maybe clipping his fingernails I suppose or maybe hanging some curtains. Yep manly. I can’t believe I’m siding with Putin,” one wrote. “I have President envy,” another said. “Better than our metrosexual president,” said a third. One riffed that a Putin-Sarah Palin ticket would lead to a more moral United States.

As David Weigel in Slate has pointed out, some of the the right’s big thinkers, like Christopher Caldwell, were less ebullient in their admiration, dismissing Putin’s corruption and retribution against political opponents as the price of doing business. Still, they found his anti-gay policies and jailing of upstarts like the “sacrilegious” members of Pussy Riot to be refreshingly assertive. Victor David Hansen in National Review synthesized the right’s view perfectly:

Bare-chested Putin gallops his horses, poses with his tigers, and shoots his guns — what Obama dismisses as “tough-guy schtick.” Perhaps. But Putin is almost saying, “You have ten times the wealth and military power that I have, but I can neutralize you by my demonic personality alone.” Barack Obama, in his increasingly metrosexual golf get-ups and his prissy poses on the nation’s tony golf courses, wants to stay cool while playing a leisure sport. It reminds us of Stafford Cripps being played by Stalin during World War II. “Make no mistake about it” and “Let me be perfectly clear” lose every time. Obama’s subordinates violate the law by going after the communications of a Fox reporter’s parents; Putin himself threatens to cut off the testicles of a rude journalist.

This view of Obama as a “prissy” metrosexual compared to Putin is widely held. And it seems that social conservatism in the hands of a macho authoritarian is intoxicating to these folks.

Although the right protested Putin’s handling of the second Chechen War and war crimes against his own people a decade and a half ago, Trump and his followers seem to be impressed today with Russia’s deploying similar tactics in Syria. Mark Galeotti in Foreign Policy wrote, “These are very different wars, fought in different ways by different forces, but they nonetheless highlight one central aspect of Putin’s approach to fighting insurgents: the value of brutality.”

It’s doubtful whether Donald Trump has ever heard of Chechnya, but he has made it clear that he too values brutality. Among his most notorious statements on the campaign trail was the following:

Would I approve waterboarding? You bet your ass I would. In a heartbeat. I would approve more than that. It works. And if it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway for what they do to us.

The New York Times interviewed some Trump voters this past weekend about the reports of Russian involvement in the campaign and many seemed sanguine about this type of activity. Most of them saw the intelligence report as a matter of Democrats being sore losers and ginning up the scandal for political purposes. One of these voters even said that if it took help from the Russians for Trump to win, he’s glad they did it.

It is unknown how many of these Trump voters know the specifics of Putin’s leadership. But adulation for the macho Putin in comparison to the allegedly effeminate Obama has been percolating through the right-wing media for several years. There’s every reason to believe that Trump understood this as well. It’s not that he stole Putin’s act. Trump is no different today than he was 30 years ago. It’s that he recognizes, probably on an intuitive level, that both of them are cut from the same cloth. The fact that the right was so attracted to the Russian leader may simply have served as Trump’s signal that his time had come.

Heather Digby Parton, also known as “Digby,” is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.