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Yesterday, the talk of the town was breaking news of the U.S. providing intelligence to Ukraine to kill Russian generals. Now there’s another firestorm over reports on American-provided information helping Ukraine to sink Russia’s Moskva warship last month.
Speculation abounded across the Washington, D.C., natsec and intel communities that the administration was intentionally rubbing salt in the Kremlin’s wound. Turns out none of this is a coordinated leak by President JOE BIDEN’s team: “Someone is eager to take credit, but it’s not helpful,” a U.S. official told NatSec Daily. Others we spoke to revealed there’s an internal freakout over the stream of stories, though it’s unclear exactly who is feeding reporters the juicy nuggets.
Instead of boasting, a parade of administration officials have denied the direct link between the shared intelligence and targets, saying that U.S. military and intel assets merely tell Kyiv where the Russians are generally headed and where the next offensive might take place. What Ukrainian forces do with that information is up to them.
The intelligence the U.S. provides can get specific but not in every instance, multiple Western officials say. Ukrainian forces still have a lot to do after, for example, receiving information about a ping off a cell tower before finding the Russian invaders.
So to paraphrase the administration’s stance: We point the Ukrainians in the direction of Russians to kill, but we don’t provide intelligence with the express purpose of killing specific Russians.
That’s why Biden aides have pushed back so forcefully on the growing narrative.
“Leaks like this and stories like this, they’re unhelpful to the effort to help Ukraine defend itself,” Pentagon spokesperson JOHN KIRBY told CNN this morning. “The intelligence that we provide to Ukraine is legal, it’s lawful, it’s legitimate, and it’s limited. And we’re very careful about what we share and when we share it.”
U.S. officials aren’t the only ones angry about the stories.
“It’s stupid, it’s unnecessary. There’s no upside, only downside,” a European official told us. “It looks like the Americans are trying to take credit for what the Ukrainians are doing.”
“We prefer if these issues are handled privately,” a second European official added. “These kinds of leaks are not helpful” to the allied effort to help Ukraine if they’re not coordinated among all of the parties taking part.
There’s also concern on both sides of the Atlantic that Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN can’t ignore what news reports now describe as an open proxy war. With “Victory Day” coming up on May 9, Ukrainian officials are assessing that the Kremlin will announce an escalation of the war — that such American involvement can’t stand unanswered.
The second official did add that they don’t expect any new specific provocations coming from Russia as a result of the stories. Russian artillery is already smashing civilian infrastructure across Ukraine the international community beginning to investigate allegations of war crimes.
But there could be a silver lining from all of this: The West always “needs to speak to Russia from a position of power — it’s the language they use and understand — or they will use your weakness against you,” the official asserted.
MARIUPOL PLANT RESCUE: The United Nations is still racing to rescue civilians from a massive steel plant in Mariupol as Russia tries to capture the last stronghold of resistance in that shattered city.
“Some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters, by Russia’s most recent estimate, are holed up in the vast maze of tunnels and bunkers beneath the Azovstal steelworks, and they have repeatedly refused to surrender. Ukraine has said a few hundred civilians were also trapped there, and fears for their safety has grown as the battle has grown fiercer in recent days,” The Associated Press’ ELENA BECATOROS and JON GAMBRELL reported.
“Officials said Thursday that the U.N. was launching a third effort to evacuate citizens from the plant and the city. But on Friday, the organization did not divulge any new details of the operation; it has been similarly quiet about previous ones while they were ongoing,” they continued.
It’s widely believed that Putin wants to claim the Ukrainian city as a prize before the May 9 “Victory Day” celebrations. The intensity of the fighting has increased in recent days as Russian forces look to break the Ukrainians’ collective will.
ZELENSKYY’S CONDITIONS FOR TALKS: Ukraine won’t hold peace talks with Russia until Putin’s troops have retreated to their pre-invasion positions, Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY told a think tank audience Friday.
“I was elected by the people of Ukraine as president of Ukraine, not as president of a mini-Ukraine of some kind,” he said during a virtual event hosted by Britain’s Chatham House. “This is a very important point, and I would like us to realize we need some arrangements in terms of talks to stop the killing.”
It’s a maximalist position by the Ukrainian leader. He effectively called for the complete withdrawal of Russian forces before talks can continue. It’s doubtful Putin will accept such a condition, though at least Kyiv has left the door open to talks.
‘THEY’RE GETTING BETTER’: Russian forces have improved their artillery skills since the invasion began, The New York Times’ THOMAS GIBBONS-NEFF and NATALIA YERMAK reported.
“A Russian surveillance drone hovered above, watching, sending back coordinates to Russian artillery units, the major said. About twenty minutes later, at least three shells rained down, forcing the major and his team to scramble,” they wrote.
“They’re getting better,” the Ukrainian major told them. “They know our positions, but they saw the car coming and started to fire.”
Despite that tactical improvement on the Russian side, the larger strategic takeaway is that the artillery standoff has made it harder for either side to advance their positions, though gains have been made.
The war is “a slow moving grind that focuses on one village at a time and relies primarily on drones and concentrated fire with artillery,” per the NYT. “These weapons, capable of lobbing munitions from outside the direct line of sight of opposing forces, are now the central component of the war following the Russian defeat around Kyiv, where long columns of troops and tanks were visible targets vulnerable to ambush. Without them, Ukrainian and Russian units cannot advance nor can they really defend.”
Earlier this week, Rep. JASON CROW (D-Colo.), who was on a congressional delegation to Ukraine last weekend, told reporters Zelenskyy specifically requested armed long-range drones and more artillery to fend off the Russians.
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DEADLY ATTACK IN ISRAEL: A suspected terror attack in Israel killed at least three people and injured seven more on the country’s Independence Day.
“Two unidentified assailants were involved in the attack, including one who was armed with an ax, according to Deputy Superintendent MIRIT BEN MAYOR, an Israeli police spokeswoman. It occurred in Elad, a largely ultra-Orthodox town adjacent to the occupied West Bank, and came in the wake of increased tensions at one of Jerusalem’s most contested holy sites, where Israeli police and Palestinians clashed in the morning,” The Wall Street Journal’s ADAM RAGSON and DAVID CLOUD reported.
“Hundreds of officers were searching for the perpetrators who fled the scene after carrying out the attack and whose identity the police hadn’t confirmed yet, Ms. Ben Mayor said. AVI BITON, the police commander for Israel’s central district, told reporters that special forces, intelligence officers and helicopters were participating in the pursuit of the attackers,” the story continued.
The attack comes weeks of tensions at a flashpoint holy site in Jerusalem and waves of terror attacks that have killed 15 people in Israel.
In a statement, Defense Minister BENNY GANTZ said Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank couldn’t enter Israel until Sunday, except for humanitarian reasons. “The perpetrators will pay a heavy price for the attacks,” he also said.
CHINA SET TO INSTALL NEW HONG KONG LEADER: China’s yearslong effort to impose its will on the once-democratic city of Hong Kong comes to fruition Sunday after Beijing installs its handpicked candidate as chief executive.
JOHN LEE, once Hong Kong’s second-in-command, “is the only candidate Sunday in what is an election in name only. Well over half of the 1,500-member Election Committee that selects the chief executive has already endorsed him and he needs only a simple majority to win,” the AP’s KEN MORITSUGU reported.
“Hong Kong has to seize its opportunity, we cannot afford to wait, we cannot be late,” the 64-year-old former police officer told supporters Friday. “We will have to consolidate Hong Kong as an international city, to develop Hong Kong’s potential as a free and open society, to connect the mainland of China and the world.”
Forget “free and open” — “seize” and “consolidate” seem to be the key words here.
Lee begins his term on July 1 after the current Hong Kong CEO, CARRIE LAM, steps down after five years of aiding China’s subjugation of the city.
RUSSIAN HACKERS TARGET HUMANITARIAN WORK: Russian hackers are increasingly taking aim at humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection said Friday, per our own MAGGIE MILLER.
According to an analysis of malicious cyber efforts aimed against Ukraine released by the agency, “Russian military hackers are attempting to cause a humanitarian disaster in Ukraine,” including attacking Ukrainian information systems such as the State Emergency Service of Ukraine, which provides emergency information to civilians. In addition, the SSSCIP accused Russian hackers of using distributed denial of service attacks to disrupt Ukrainian Railways, a state railway provider that helps evacuate civilians and deliver aid into war-torn areas of the country.
Despite the efforts to target humanitarian efforts, the SSSCIP noted that Russian cyber aggression seems to have “reached its peak,” with Ukrainian officials previously attributing cyberattacks on energy infrastructure and government websites to Russian hackers since the invasion of Ukraine in February.
SSSCIP chief YURIY SCHYHOL told reporters through a translator at a press conference earlier this week that while cyberattacks against Ukraine this year were triple that of 2021, Ukraine “has survived a cyber war and won it.”
SOUTH KOREA JOINS NATO CYBER CENTER: South Korea’s spy agency became Asia’s first to join a NATO cyber group, an indication of a growing partnership with Western allies against common threats from China, Russia and North Korea.
“Cyberthreats are causing great damage to not only individuals but also separate nations and also transnationally, so close international cooperation is crucial,” South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said in a statement, per Time’s CHARLIE CAMPBELL.
The move means South Korea will now be part of the Estonia-headquartered NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence and take part in joint drills online.
“The NIS submitted its application to join the group in 2019 and has participated in the two most recent Locked Shields, the world’s largest international live-fire cyberdefense exercise. The CCDCOE now has 27 NATO member countries and five non-NATO contributing participants,” Campbell wrote.
BIDEN KEEPS TRUMP-ERA DRONE RULES: Our own PAUL McLEARY has a wonky and important scoop in Morning Defense (for Pros!): The Biden administration is keeping a major change to weapons export rules that was adopted by the Trump administration to ease some drone sales.
The Trump administration unilaterally decided in 2020 that unmanned aircraft that can fly at speeds below 800 kilometers per hour would no longer be subject to a “presumption of denial” under the Missile Technology Control Regime, a change Biden doesn’t plan to reverse.
The restrictions have long frustrated defense companies that make drones such as the Reaper and Predator and would like to sell them overseas. An administration official confirmed to Paul that the Biden White House has not revisited the Trump-era changes, so they will remain in place.
One new entrant in the world of big drones could be Ukraine, which has requested the MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone, along with munitions like the AGM-114 Hellfire missile.
But there could be pushback from the arms control community, which has been banking on the Biden team to take steps to limit the flood of high-tech arms overseas.
The Trump change sparked concern that it would open the floodgates for armed drones to be sold to countries that might use them against domestic opponents or spark more cross-border conflict. So far those fears have yet to materialize. For example, Qatar and Indonesia have both been seeking Reaper drones but no deals have been approved.
REPLENISHING STOCKS: The Pentagon is working with Javelin manufacturers Lockheed Martin and Raytheon Technologies to surge production by approximately “one-and-a-half-times” the monthly production rate, Deputy Defense Secretary KATHLEEN HICKS said on Friday, per our own LEE HUDSON.
Javelin manufacturers currently build 2,100 missiles annually and DoD is working with industry to determine “the smartest application of funds” to increase missile output, Hicks said at the Ronald Reagan Institute.
The Pentagon is reshuffling $1.4 billion from the Ukraine Replacement Transfer Fund to replenish Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles that were sent to Ukraine from U.S. stocks.
The first tranche of funding was transferred to the Army and Marine Corps earlier this week to replenish U.S. stocks of Stingers and Javelin missiles that were sent to Ukraine, BILL LaPLANTE, DOD’s acquisition chief, told reporters in a Friday briefing. He expects a contract for the Stingers to be awarded by the end of May; the contract award for Javelins is “imminent.”
CONGRESS’ IRAN DEAL WARNING: Our own ANDREW DESIDERIO noticed that “a bipartisan super-majority of senators voted late Wednesday to endorse a Republican-led measure stating that any nuclear agreement with Tehran should also address Iran’s support for terrorism in the region, and that the U.S.should not lift sanctions on an elite branch of the Iranian military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”
It’s a nonbinding measure, so the vote won’t necessarily derail Biden’s efforts to put the U.S. back into the Iran nuclear deal. But it goes to show that the environment on Capitol Hill is perhaps more hostile to reentry than in recent months or years.
“Lawmakers from both parties said it was a warning shot to Biden’s negotiating team, who have all but acknowledged in private that an agreement that goes beyond curtailing Iran’s nuclear program is no longer possible,” multiple people familiar with classified Hill briefings on the subject told Desiderio.
“It is a strong expression of sentiment about where we’re at with Iran and the concern that members of the Senate have with Iran’s trajectory here as it relates to its march toward a nuclear weapon — and what we try to do to prevent it,” said Senate Foreign Relations Chair BOB MENENDEZ (D-N.J.), who wasn’t present for Wednesday’s vote but would have supported the measure. Menendez opposed the 2015 nuclear deal under Barack Obama’s administration.
“At the end of the day,” he added, “I think it’s a pretty strong statement.”
AMLO SAYS U.S. MALO: Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador started his five-day tour of Central America by talking about what he deems the region’s biggest problem: the United States.
“They are different things and they shouldn’t be compared categorically, but they have already approved $30 billion for the war in Ukraine, while we have been waiting since President DONALD TRUMP, asking they donate $4 billion, and as of today, nothing, absolutely nothing,” López Obrador said during a stop in Guatemala. “Honestly, it seems inexplicable,” he continued, per The Associated Press. “For our part, we are going to continue to respectfully insist on the need for the United States to collaborate.”
Biden and AMLO spoke last month about climate change, migration and economic development for Central America. It seems the Mexican president is unsatisfied and wants more investment and attention from the country the populist is angry with.
HUNGARY COULD DERAIL EU’S BAN OF RUSSIAN OIL: The prospects for a European Union ban on Russia oil dimmed Friday after Hungarian Prime Minister VIKTOR ORBÁN called the plan a “nuclear bomb” for his nation’s economy.
Per POLITICO Europe’s LEONIE KIJEWSKI, Orbán told public service radio channel Kossuth Rádió that “he wants a five-year delay for his country, arguing that the [European] Commission hasn’t taken into account that landlocked Hungary receives oil exclusively via pipelines, making it more difficult to replace Russian oil.”
Importantly Orbán didn’t threaten a veto, but he did say Budapest won’t get to yes until that issue is resolved.
Every member of the 27-country bloc must agree to the oil-ban proposal for it to go into effect, so Orbán’s comment threatens to sink the whole plan. It’s possible, though, that Orbán is playing hardball to extract some sort of concession before ultimately agreeing to a deal.
— STARLISHA ANDERSON is now human capital director/deputy chief human capital officer at the Office of Management and Budget. She most recently was director of human resources operations, policy and programs for the commander of Navy Installations Command.
— JACOB HEILBRUNN, POLITICO Magazine: “How the War in Ukraine Is Reviving the Blob”
— DAN ZAK, The Washington Post: “The quid pro quos of GORDON D. SONDLAND”
— STEPHANIE STAMM and EMMA BROWN, The Wall Street Journal: “Mass Graves in Ukraine Reveal Mounting Death Toll”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 7:30 a.m.: “Strengthening the U.S.-Japan Alliance: Perspective from Two Ambassadors — with RAHM EMANUEL, MICHAEL J. GREEN and TOMITA KOJI”
— Open RAN Policy Coalition, 7:45 a.m.: “The Second Quad Open RAN Forum — with MARC ABLONG, AZITA ARVANI, APRIL MCCLAIN-DELANEY, NARENDRA NATH, YASUO TAWARA and more”
— New America, 9 a.m.: “Prospects for Peace in Yemen — with NADWA AL-DAWSARI, MAYSAA SHUJA AL-DEEN, ADAM BARON, ABDULWASEA MOHAMMED, ALEXANDRA STARK”
— The Centre for Security, Diplomacy, and Strategy and the Center for Strategic and International Studies, 10:30 a.m.: “CSDS-CSIS Transatlantic Dialogue on the Indo-Pacific — with KURT CAMPBELL, VICTOR CHA, JOHN HAMRE, EVA PEJSOVA, LUIS SIMÓN and more”
— The Heritage Foundation, 2 p.m.: “The National Guard’s State Partnership Program and Its Role in the National Defense Strategy — with DANIEL R. HOKANSON and THOMAS SPOEHR”
— The George Washington University, 3 p.m.: “Book Talk: The Hardest Place — with WESLEY MORGAN and NILOFAR SAKHI”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 3:30 p.m.: “United States, Europe, and Japan: Trilateral Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific — with MAX BERGMANN, YUICHI HOSOYA, PIERRE MORCOS, EVA PEJSOVA, LUIS SIMÓN and more”
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