With help from Daniel Lippman
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It turns out Ukraine didn’t get a new shipment of warplanes after all.
Yesterday, the Department of Defense’s chief spokesperson JOHN KIRBY told reporters that Kyiv had “received additional platforms and parts” — with “platforms” meaning aircraft — to increase its fleet size. That sent reporters, including your friends here at NatSec Daily, off to figure out what new planes Ukraine now had and who gave it to them.
But it turns out that Kirby misspoke, and on Wednesday said Ukraine had not received “whole aircraft.” What did happen is that the Ukrainian military received parts from the United States and other nations to help make more than 20 once-grounded planes operational. Kirby said he regretted his error.
Ukraine’s Air Force confirmed the correction in a tweet: “Ukraine did not receive new aircraft from partners! With the assistance of the US Government, [the Ukrainian Air Force] received spare parts and components for the restoration and repair of the fleet of aircraft in the Armed Forces, which will allow [us] to put into service more equipment.”
We’ve been on fighter-jets-to-Ukraine watch ever since Alex and PAUL McLEARY reported the White House’s March discussions with Poland to send MiG-29s to Kyiv. That deal fell apart after Warsaw surprised Washington, D.C., by suggesting the warplanes be transferred into American custody to give to Ukraine. The U.S. shot down that idea immediately, with Kirby telling reporters on March 9 that “we do not support the transfer of additional fighter aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force at this time.”
President JOE BIDEN agreed with the Pentagon and intelligence community that the risk of Europeans transferring Soviet-era fighter jets and the limited utility outweighed the costs in spiked tensions with Russia.
But Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY and other members of his government have continued to call for combat aircraft to push back the Russian invasion and own the skies.
The administration has since insisted that countries have the sovereign right to transfer warplanes if they so choose. “We have never opposed European nations sending MiGs to Ukraine and have always said it is up to European countries to decide if they want to send their MiGs,” a senior administration official told NatSec Daily today.
The question on our mind is: What’s stopping the transfer of these planes, then? March was forever ago in terms of how this war has played out, with helicopters and drones now being openly delivered to Ukrainian forces. Images of blown-up Russian equipment by Bayraktar drones provided by Turkey, a NATO member, are posted all over social media.
U.S. and European officials we’ve spoken to suggest, but never say explicitly, that they believe fighter jets are Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN’s red line. They all seem to have information — maybe even hard intelligence — that Ukrainian MiGs are a step too far for Putin. The last thing he may want to see is more fighter jets taking off from the still-working airfields.
Poland is fearful of what Russia might do next, per former acting Defense Secretary CHRIS MILLER. Last week, he told us officials in Warsaw related to him that they believe Poland is next on Putin’s target list. Refraining from sending aircraft to Ukraine, then, might be Poland’s way of staying out of the crosshairs. It’s unclear if other countries with MiGs, namely Slovakia, feel the same way.
SITUATION REPORT: We will only cite official sources. As always, take all figures, assessments and statements with a healthy dose of skepticism.
War in Ukraine:
— Since the war began on Feb. 24, Russia has lost roughly 20,900 personnel; 815 tanks; 2,087 armored combat vehicles; 391 artillery systems; 136 multiple-launch rocket systems; 171 warplanes; 150 helicopters; eight ships; and 165 drones. (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
— “The Russian enemy is trying to continue offensive operations in the Eastern Operational Zone in order to establish full control over the territory of Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts. The Russian enemy continues to launch missile and bomb strikes on military and civilian infrastructure throughout Ukraine.” (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
— “The Russian enemy’s main efforts are focused on capturing the city of Mariupol, continuing the assault in the area of the Azovstal plant.” (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
— “The situation in Mariupol remains unchanged — as severe as possible. The Russian army is blocking any efforts to organize humanitarian corridors and save our people. The occupiers are trying to carry out deportation or even mobilization of the local residents who have fallen into their hands. The fate of at least tens of thousands of Mariupol residents who were previously relocated to Russian-controlled territory is unknown.” (Ukrainian President Zelenskyy)
— “Russia’s military presence on Ukraine’s eastern border continues to build, while fighting in the Donbas is intensifying as Russian forces seek to break through Ukrainian Defences. Russian air activity in northern Ukraine is likely to remain low since its withdrawal from north of Kyiv. However, there is still a risk of precision strikes against priority targets throughout Ukraine. Russian attacks on cities across Ukraine show their intent to try and disrupt the movement of Ukrainian reinforcements and weaponry to the east of the country.” (U.K. Ministry of Defense)
— Germany: The German government will provide Ukraine with ammunition and training for the PzH 2000, a self-propelled, rapid-fire artillery system.
— Norway: Norway announced it will send the Mistral air-defense system to Ukraine, with the Defense Ministry saying in a statement it “will be of great benefit.”
— The Associated Press: “Russia’s Chernobyl seizure seen as nuclear risk ‘nightmare’”
— Bloomberg: “Kremlin Insiders Alarmed Over Growing Toll of Putin’s War in Ukraine”
— The Washington Post: “West sends Ukraine fighter jets, heavy weapons amid fighting in Donbas”
NULAND TALKS NEW AID TO UKRAINE: Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs VICTORIA NULAND — the fourth-ranking official at Foggy Bottom — suggested it’s all but certain that an additional package of security assistance (read: weapons) is heading to Ukraine, and that a new set of sanctions are coming for Russia. In an interview on MSNBC this morning, she said that “there are two things we will continue to do” as the fighting in the Donbas unfolds.
“First, to provide the kinds of weapons that the Ukrainians need for this fight.… As the fight changes, the types of weapons we need to get them, along with our allies, have to change. And we are making those adjustments as they speak to us about what they need,” Nuland said. “But we also have to continue to up the pressure on Putin and on Russia and on the richest Russians, so that they will pressure Putin.”
In another interview on CNN, Nuland was pressed on whether the U.S. waited too long to send more sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine.
“What I would say is at the beginning of this fight — when we worried that Putin could take Kyiv in five days — what the Ukrainians needed then was what we were sending them: Stinger weapons, Javelin anti-tank systems,” Nuland said. “Now, as Putin changes his tactics … what Ukraine needs is different. They need these long-range fires. They need this anti-tank weaponry that we’re sending now. And they need the anti-ship weapons. And so we are adjusting as Ukraine’s needs have adjusted.”
But as our own DAVID HERSZENHORN writes, the Western allies — even after promising Kyiv more of virtually every type of assistance this week — still are unable to offer any assurances that the new aid will stop Russia’s brutal assault in eastern Ukraine.
A senior Defense Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, also opted not to comment on the “decision process” behind a potential package of additional U.S. security assistance in the coming days, saying only that such an option hasn’t been ruled out.
5 MILLION REFUGEES FLEE UKRAINE: More than 5 million people have now fled Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion, and more than 7 million have been displaced within the country, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In total, 12.65 million “are estimated to be directly affected by the war, stranded in a war zone or unable to leave.” In March, the United Nations estimated that a total of 10 million people may flee their homes if violence continued with 4 million people seeking refuge in neighboring countries.
Commissioner FILIPPO GRANDI tweeted that the refugees “have left behind their homes and families. Many would do anything, and some even risk going back, to see their loved ones. But every new attack shatters their hopes. Only an end to the war can pave the way for rebuilding their lives.”
Of the refugees escaping Ukraine, the majority — more than 2.8 million — have fled to Poland, according to a UNHCR dashboard.
RUSSIA TESTS ICBM: Russia for the first time tested a Sarmat nuclear-capable intercontinental ballistic missile that the Kremlin claims can evade defenses — and will make adversaries pause before testing Moscow.
“This truly unique weapon will force all who are trying to threaten our country in the heat of frenzied, aggressive rhetoric to think twice,” Putin said on state-run television.
The Pentagon isn’t particularly concerned about the test launch, as Russia warned the U.S. ahead of the test. The administration views the launch as routine and not a threat to America.
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SOLOMON ISLANDS-CHINA PACT: China and the Solomon Islands have struck a security agreement, paving the way for Beijing to potentially place military bases close to U.S. allies Australia and New Zealand, The Washington Post’s MICHAEL MILLER and FRANCES VINALL reported.
“Let me assure the people that we entered into an arrangement with China with our eyes wide open, guided by our national interests,” Prime Minister MANASSEH SOGAVARE told Parliament Wednesday, addressing concerns that China might take advantage of the weaker nation. “We have full understanding of the fragility of peace, and our duty as a state is to protect all people, their property and critical national infrastructures.”
Opposition leader MATTHEW WALE suggested Chinese troops could enter the country in as soon as a few weeks.
KURT CAMPBELL, the National Security Council’s top Asia official, is set to visit the Solomon Islands and other regional nations this week. The expectation was he would try to convince the country not to sign the deal with China. Too little, too late it seems.
We asked our own China Watcher PHELIM KINE what to make of this move. “This highlights the value of Beijing’s long-term, relentless diplomatic engagement with any/every country possible in regions of perceived strategic value,” he wrote. “The U.S. shut its embassy in the Solomon Islands almost 30 years ago and there has been extremely limited on-the-ground U.S. engagement there.… China abhors a diplomatic vacuum and leverages U.S. hesitancy to its advantage.”
The Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Australia Chair CHARLES EDEL agrees. “As Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea and elsewhere demonstrate, the Chinese government has a track-record of denying its true intentions while taking actions to militarize its forward presence and interfere in the domestic politics of foreign nations,” he told NatSec Daily.
It’s unclear if the agreement could derail America’s efforts to negotiate a compact with the Marshall Islands, which essentially allows the U.S. to keep tabs on China and test missiles. Rep. KATIE PORTER (D-Calif.), a lawmaker leading congressional calls to complete that accord, is concerned about what the new China-Solomon Islands deal means.
“Most Pacific Island nations would prefer to align with the United States, but they’re going to look to China to meet their needs if they have to. The situation in the Solomon Islands is unique, but it should still be a reminder not to take anything for granted,” she told NatSec Daily. “I think we can do a better job meeting partners in the region where they are with a greater emphasis on diplomacy, development aid, and help with climate change.”
PUNISHING PUTIN’S CYBERATTACKS: With officials predicting that the Russian leader will soon unleash cyberattacks against critical U.S. infrastructure as retaliation for supporting Ukraine’s resistance, our own MAGGIE MILLER explains some of the ways the American president could answer such strikes.
Biden’s top option is levying further sanctions on Russia, since the financial penalties are viewed as an easier way to crack down on a foreign government than taking direct offensive cyber actions. But as former NSA Deputy Director RICHARD LEDGETT notes, “I think we are already sanctioned up” against Moscow amid the Ukraine conflict.
Ratcheting up, Biden could take sweeping action against cyberattackers themselves, targeting the individuals behind the hacking operations and disabling their systems. This scenario would be a larger-scale version of the U.S. takedowns of Russian troll farms, Miller writes. “To put it crudely, hack the hackers,” said JOSH LOSPINOSO, CEO and co-founder of cybersecurity company Shift5, and a former senior official at both U.S. Cyber Command and the NSA’s cyber intelligence office.
Upping the stakes even further, Biden might authorize a U.S. cyberattack against Russian infrastructure. This action would send the loudest message to Moscow, but also increase the likelihood of an escalatory Russian response. “We have substantial capabilities to respond,” said Senate Intelligence Committee member ANGUS KING (I-Maine), declining to elaborate further.
SHIP SHAPE: Our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!) report that the Navy will release its much-anticipated 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan today, but USNI News got ahold of it in advance. Our first take is that Congress … will not be pleased.
The plan calls for retiring 24 ships starting in fiscal 2023, 13 more than had already been announced. That includes decommissioning the entire fleet of cruisers by fiscal 2027.
The report also outlines three possible futures for ship procurement: The first would yield a fleet of 316 ships by fiscal 2052, the second would fund 327 ships in the same period, and the final option goes big by funding 367 ships by fiscal 2025.
That last plan is likely unrealistic, the Navy admits. “The ability of the industrial base to support” such a buildup “has not been independently assessed,” the plan says.
BYE BYE, JOLLY GREEN: Morning D also noted that the Air Force is proposing 25 fewer Jolly Green II search-and-rescue helicopters in its fiscal 2023 budget because they aren’t expected to be widely needed in the Pacific, Secretary FRANK KENDALL said on Tuesday.
If China invades Taiwan, the conflict would likely be in a “very disparate environment” where it would be difficult for the helo to operate over such vast distances, Kendall told the National Press Club.
Kendall said the new HH-60W model would also not likely play a major role elsewhere in the Pacific region due to the vast distances, and the Air Force would like to use the money to buy “conventional helicopters” that require fewer modifications.
LEND-LEASE UP FOR VOTE NEXT WEEK? The Senate-passed bill to create a World War II-style lend-lease program for Ukraine could come up for a vote as a suspension bill next week, our own ANDREW DESIDERIO reported.
If it comes up, the measure would require a two-thirds vote once lawmakers return from recess.
The Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022, as it’s known, would expedite the transfer of critical military equipment and other needed supplies to Ukraine by cutting bureaucratic red tape. It allows for the de facto gifting of equipment, with provisions stipulating that recipient countries would repay the U.S. at a later date.
“As the war in Ukraine unfolds, delivering military aid as quickly as possible is pivotal for Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against Putin’s unprovoked attacks,” Sen. JEANNE SHAHEEN of New Hampshire, the lead Democratic sponsor of the effort, said this month. “The Kremlin is committing horrific assaults throughout the nation on civilian infrastructure and targeting innocent men, women and children.”
ZELENSKYY SAYS WAR WOULD BE OVER IF WEST SENT WEAPONS: In an address, the Ukrainian president leveled some of his harshest criticism of Western nations to date — arguing that if those countries had provided Kyiv with the full stockpile of weapons it requested earlier in the war, the invading Russian forces would have already been expelled.
“If we had access to all the weapons we need, which our partners have and which are comparable to the weapons used by the Russian Federation, we would have already ended this war,” Zelenskyy said. “We would have already restored peace and liberated our territory from the occupiers. Because the superiority of the Ukrainian military in tactics and wisdom is quite obvious.”
Zelenskyy also complained it’s “unfair” that Ukraine “is still forced to ask for what its partners have been storing somewhere for years,” adding: “If they have the ammunition that we need here and now, it is their moral duty first of all to help protect freedom. Help save the lives of thousands of Ukrainians.”
— DAN GREENWOOD has joined the board of advisors of the Common Mission Project. He is the senior vice president in BGR Government Affairs’ defense and aerospace practice.
— MILANCY HARRIS has changed titles at the Defense Department. She is now deputy assistant secretary of Defense for irregular warfare and counterterrorism. She previously was deputy assistant secretary of Defense for special operations and combating terrorism.
— COOPER SMITH is now a senior consultant in the national security practice at Guidehouse. He most recently was a senior associate at Grant Thornton Public Sector. He previously served in various roles at the White House, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Homeland Security in the Trump administration.
—REBECCA LISSNER is joining Vice President KAMALA HARRIS’ staff as deputy national security adviser, our own DANIEL LIPPMAN reports.
— ZAHRA NADER and ZAHRA MOUSAWI, Foreign Policy: “What the Taliban Means for Queer Afghans”
— LIANA FIX and MICHAEL KIMMAGE, Foreign Affairs: “What If the War in Ukraine Doesn’t End?”
— ARAM ROSTON, Reuters: “Ex-CIA analyst says she ‘got bloodied’ in tangled U.S. war on Al Qaeda”
— The International Energy Agency, 5 a.m.: “Playing My Part: How to Save Money, Reduce Reliance on Russian Energy, Support Ukraine and Help the Planet — with FATIH BIROL and DITTE JUUL JØRGENSEN”
— The Bethesda Chapter of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, 8 a.m.: “Data as an Asset in the Age of Zero Trust — with ROB BROWN, CAROLE HOUSE, KSHEMENDRA PAUL and KIM SAWYER”
— Friends of Europe, 9 a.m.: “In Conversation with WENDY SHERMAN — with DHARMENDRA KANANI”
— New America and the Norwegian Refugee Council, 9 a.m.: “Millions of Ukrainians Have Fled. What Happens to Their Property? — with VOLODYMYR KHORBALADZE, DENYS NIZALOV, YULIYA PANFIL, EKATERINA REZNIKOVA and JON UNRUH”
— The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 10:45 a.m.: “The Guard and Growing Threats: A Conversation with the Chief of the National Guard Bureau — with BRADLEY BOWMAN, DANIEL R. HOKANSON and MARK MONTGOMERY”
— The Hudson Institute, 12 p.m.: “Redesigning Contingency Planning Mechanisms in Northeast Asia — with IN-BUM CHUN, HARRY B. HARRIS JR., KEN JIMBO and H.R. McMASTER”
— The Vandenberg Coalition, 12 p.m.: “Series on the Future of Conservative Foreign Policy — with MATT KROENIG”
— The Wilson Center, 12:30 p.m.: “Arctic Cooperation in the Shadow of Russian Aggression: Armchair Discussion with Icelandic Foreign Minister THÓRDÍS KOLBRÚN REYKFJÖRD GYLFADÓTTIR — with MARK GREEN and MICHAEL SFRAGA”
— Defense One and Nextgov, 1 p.m.: “Genius Machines: Artificial Intelligence — with GREGORY C. ALLEN, SAMUEL BENDETT, ELSA B. KANIA, CHRIS MESEROLE and BRETT VAUGHAN”
— The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, 1 p.m.: “Nuclear Deterrence and Missile Defense Forum — with PETER PRY”
— The Brookings Institution, 1:30 p.m.: “Protecting Civilians in Partnered Military Operations — with JOHN R. ALLEN, SARAH KREPS, PETER MAURER and MICHAEL E. O’HANLON”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
And thanks to our editor, Ben Pauker, who often scolds us “in the heat of frenzied, aggressive rhetoric to think twice.”