With help from Connor O’Brien
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On Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, President JOE BIDEN told reporters to give him a month to see if the sanctions would eventually stop VLADIMIR PUTIN. Well, it’s been a month, and now he’s vigorously defending the sanctions-first plan when asked about it on the one-month anniversary of the war.
“I did not say that in fact the sanctions would deter him. Sanctions never deter,” he insisted during a Thursday news conference following an extraordinary NATO summit. The point of the economic punishment threatened before the incursion, and now imposed, “is to be sure that after a month, we will sustain what we’re doing not just next month, the following month, but for the remainder of this entire year. That’s what will stop him.”
NatSec Daily’s eyebrows raised after hearing that, and they moved closer to our collective hairline after looking back at administration statements from earlier this year.
“The purpose of those sanctions is to deter Russian aggression,” Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN said in January, adding “if they’re triggered now, you lose the deterrent effect.”
Here’s one more for good measure, linking Biden directly to this argument: “The president believes that sanctions are intended to deter,” national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN stated in February.
We’ve spoken to U.S. officials about this for weeks now, not just since Biden’s remarks in Brussels yesterday. The general argument we hear is one Vox’s DYLAN MATTHEWS tweeted on Feb. 24: The administration believed Putin was likely to invade even with the threat of sanctions. The hope was showing the Kremlin that the U.S. and its allies would impose penalties together might lower the chance of troops crossing into Ukraine, but not eliminate it.
Two hours later that same day, White House press secretary JEN PSAKI pushed the same line. Making up numbers to illustrate her point, she said “if there’s a 95 percent chance of Russia invading without the threat of sanctions … and a 65 percent chance that they will with them, you’re obviously going to go with the threat of sanctions because you want to reduce the threat of an invasion. So, there is a deterrent.”
But Republicans don’t see it that way. OMRI CEREN, Sen. TED CRUZ’s (R-Texas) national security adviser, has openly called out the administration for changing its tune. He wrote an extensive Twitter thread showing nine separate instances in which Biden’s team made the sanctions-as-deterrence argument. Other right-leaning officials and experts have piled on, with the Hudson Institute’s REBECCAH HEINRICHS tweeting, “Biden supporting natsec commentators repeatedly made this case and said those calling for sanctions before the invasion ‘failed to understand deterrence.’”
We went back to the White House as the sanctions deterrence debate is being relitigated once again. Per a spokesperson, “we said all along that if Putin was willing to bear the cost of crippling his economy, weakening Russia’s strategic position, and isolating himself from the world, that was a choice he could make.”
In other words, the U.S. and its allies gave Putin a choice: Don’t invade, or else. The problem, of course, is that Putin chose “or else,” leading to the devastating scenes in Ukraine and Russia’s collapsing economy.
To NatSec Daily, that sounds like an admission that the U.S.-led sanctions plan didn’t work. But the question remains: Would Russia have invaded no matter what the West did? The president and his team seem to be arguing that.
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:
— Russia has seen 1,351 service members killed and another 3,825 wounded since the war began on Feb. 24 (Russian Ministry of Defense)
— Since the war began on Feb. 24, Russia has lost around 16,100 personnel, 561 tanks, 1,625 armored combat vehicles, 291 artillery systems, 90 multiple-launch rocket systems, 115 warplanes, 125 helicopters, 1,089 vehicles, five ships and 53 drones (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
— Around 300 people were killed after Russia bombed a theater in Mariupol last week that was marked clearly with the Russian word for “CHILDREN” (Mariupol City Council)
— “The enemy is taking measures to recover combat readiness, replenish ammunition and fuel-oil in order to ensure offensive readiness” (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
— “The opponent failed to achieve the main goals of the broad-scale war – blocks of Kiev and exit to the administrative borders of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Partly the enemy succeeded in creating a land corridor between the temporarily occupied Crimea of the Crimea and part of the Donetsk region” (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
— “The probability of involving the armed forces of Belarus to aggression against Ukraine is rated high” (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
— A Russian brigade commander was killed after he was “run over by his soldiers” (Western official)
— A seventh Russian general has been killed since the war began (Western official and Office of the President of Ukraine)
— “Ukrainian counter-attacks, and Russian Forces falling back on overextended supply lines, has allowed Ukraine to re-occupy towns and defensive positions up to 35 kilometres east of Kyiv. Ukrainian Forces are likely to continue to attempt to push Russian Forces back along the north-western axis from Kyiv towards Hostomel Airfield. In the south of Ukraine Russian Forces are still attempting to circumvent Mykolaiv as they look to drive west towards Odesa with their progress being slowed by logistic issues and Ukrainian resistance.” (U.K. Ministry of Defense)
— Russia no longer has full control of Kherson (Senior U.S. defense official)
— Australia: Australia’s Foreign Ministry has added Belarusian President ALEXANDER LUKASHENKO to their sanctions list for his government’s role in supporting Russia strategically and militarily in Ukraine. Also being sanctioned are 22 Russians who the Australians accuse of being propagandists and disinformation operatives, including senior editors from Russia Today, InfoRos and NewsFront.
— Japan: Japan will be revoking Russia’s most-favored-nation status and freezing the assets of seven Russian banks and their subsidiaries that operate in the country, along with people who are associated with the Russian government, including VLADIMIR PUTIN. Three Belarusian banks and Belarusian President Lukashenko will also have their assets frozen as a punitive measure for allying with Russia. (Prime Minister’s Office of Japan)
Keep tabs on the weapons the world is sending to Ukraine.
— The Washington Post: “At Polish site, Ukrainians train to fly drones for rescue missions and targeting Russians”
— The New York Times: “‘Like a Weapon’: Ukrainian Use Social Media to Stir Resistance”
— The Wall Street Journal: “Ukrainian Refugees Find Easier Path to Enter U.S. at the Mexican Border”
BIDEN IN EUROPE: Biden had another busy day in Europe, striking an energy partnership with the European Union and hanging out with U.S. troops in Poland.
Biden announced that the U.S. and EU will work together to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. “Today we’ve agreed on a joint game plan toward that goal while accelerating our progress toward a secure clean energy future,” he said standing alongside European Commission President URSULA VON DER LEYEN. “This initiative focuses on two core issues: One, helping Europe reduce its dependency on Russian gas as quickly as possible. And, secondly, reducing Europe’s demand for gas overall.”
A senior administration official also told reporters today that “the task force and international partners will target additional LNG volumes to Europe of at least 15 bcm this year, with expected increases going forward.”
Biden also got a chance to eat pizza (topped with pepperoni and jalepeños) with troops stationed in southeastern Poland — while also reminding them of why they’re 50 miles from the Ukrainian border.
“What’s at stake [is] not just what we’re doing here in Ukraine to help the Ukrainian people and keep the massacre from continuing, but beyond that what’s at stake is what are your kids and grandkids going to look like in terms of their freedom?” Biden told members from the 82nd Airborne Division. “What you’re engaged in is much more than whether or not we can alleviate the suffering of Ukraine,” he went on. “We’re in a new phase, your generation. We’re at an inflection point.”
RUSSIA TO FOCUS ON DONBAS: Russia’s Defense Ministry is signaling a major shift in Putin’s war on Ukraine, saying the first phase of its operations have come to an end, which allows it to focus on the Donbas region.
“The announcement appeared to indicate that Russia may be switching to more limited goals after running into fierce Ukrainian resistance in the first month of the war,” Reuters reported. “The ministry said it did not rule out storming Ukrainian cities that had been blockaded and that Russia would react immediately to any attempt to close the airspace over Ukraine.”
If this announcement turns out to be true, then it’ll basically amount to an acknowledgment that Ukraine’s resistance proved too much for Russia. Despite clear designs to sweep across the country and have Kyiv surrender quickly, Russian forces have failed to capture a major city while losing large amounts of troops, generals and equipment.
“Important to emphasize that Russia clearly had more ambitious goals. Attrition and resistance has made it unlikely Russia could take Odesa or Kyiv at this point. Targeting Ukrainian forces in the JFO and solidifying control over the Donbas/southern Ukraine makes more sense,” the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s ROB LEE tweeted.
SOLE SEARCH: Biden promised during the campaign that he’d change U.S. policy to say the “sole purpose” of nuclear weapons is to deter or respond to a nuclear attack. But now he’s backing off that position, instead sticking to America’s long-standing policy that it could deploy nuclear weapons in extreme situations — not solely in response.
“Mr. Biden’s new decision, made earlier this week under pressure from allies, holds that the ‘fundamental role’ of the U.S. nuclear arsenal will be to deter nuclear attacks. That carefully worded formulation, however, leaves open the possibility that nuclear weapons could also be used in ‘extreme circumstances’ to deter enemy conventional, biological, chemical and possibly cyberattacks,” The Wall Street Journal’s MICHAEL GORDON reported.
It was unlikely Biden was going to change policy, despite his campaign pledge. Allies, particularly in East Asia but also some in Europe, advised the U.S. to switch to a “sole purpose” policy so as to maintain deterrence and still keep them firmly under America’s nuclear umbrella. It’s also likely that China’s nuclear advances and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed the president’s calculus and heightened allies’ concerns.
60 PERCENT OF THE TIME, EVERY TIME: Russia’s precision-guided missiles fail up to 60 percent of the time in Ukraine, Reuters’ PHIL STEWART reported.
“Citing U.S. intelligence, three U.S. officials said the United States estimated that Russia’s failure rate varied day-to-day, depended on the type of missile being launched, and could sometimes exceed 50%. Two of them said it reached as high as 60%,” he wrote. “One of the officials said the intelligence showed that Russia’s air-launched cruise missiles had a failure rate in the 20% to 60% range, depending on the day.”
“Though Reuters could not determine what a standard failure rate would be for air-launched cruise missiles, two experts interviewed by Reuters said any failure rate of 20% and above would be considered high,” he wrote.
Separately, the Defense Department’s No. 3 said Thursday that Russia is running out of precision-guided munitions, confirming NatSec Daily’s Tuesday scoop.
Put together, Russia’s missile failures provides more evidence for the growing belief that Russia is losing the war it launched a month ago.
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TOP UN: It’s Friday, so let’s take a moment to savor the malignant deliciousness that is North Korean leader KIM JONG UN’s 11-minute hype video for this week’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The test is no laughing matter, as it demonstrates once again that Pyongyang has the capability to hit the entirety of the continental U.S. with a nuclear-tipped weapon. But the video definitely is a laughing matter, as it features Kim in ‘80s-style action movie sequences replete with slow-mos that capture the essence of “cool guys don’t look at their ICBMs.”
NatSec Daily has many favorite scenes, but the best one has to be Kim and his military entourage walking slowly toward the camera as the gargantuan missile emerges from the hangar behind them. Then, Kim and a general look at their watches as fast edits cut between the two of them, until Kim takes off his sunglasses and gives the nod to let her rip.
It’s just quintessential North Korea — a wacky, tacky display that obscures the main message: We have a badass nuclear and missile program, and we’re not afraid to show it.
CHINA’S SECRET DEAL: China and the Solomon Islands have signed a secret security agreement that could provide Beijing greater access to that part of the Pacific, The New York Times’ DAMIEN CAVE reported.
“Though it is marked as a draft and cites a need for ‘social order’ as a justification for sending Chinese forces, it has set off alarms throughout the Pacific, where concerns about China’s intentions have been growing for years,” Cave wrote. “It is not clear which side initiated the agreement, but if signed, the deal would give Prime Minister MANASSEH SOGAVARE of the Solomon Islands the ability to call on China for protection of his own government while granting China a base of operations between the United States and Australia that could be used to block shipping traffic across the South Pacific.”
Critics in the U.S., namely Rep. KATIE PORTER (D-Calif.), have pushed the U.S. to improve ties with Pacific islands partly out of fear that China would step into a vacuum. This China-Solomon Islands agreement doesn’t derail America’s talks with regional islands nations over a new compact — Solomon isn’t part of that negotiation — but it remains a big concern.
“China has ramped up its presence and extended its influence across the Pacific over the past decade. And, despite repeated claims that it has no hegemonic or colonial designs, it is clear that Beijing is looking to establish military bases across the Pacific, influence regional politics, project power further afield, and complicate U.S. and allied access to the region,” said CHARLES EDEL, a senior adviser and Australia chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
The State Department announced on Tuesday that JOSEPH YUN, formerly the U.S. envoy for North Korea negotiations, was appointed as America’s diplomatic lead to finalize compact negotiations.
RUSSIA BEHIND UKRAINE SATELLITE HACK: Russia’s GRU was behind a cyberattack on a satellite broadband service that disrupted Ukraine’s military communications at the start of the war, The Washington Post’s ELLEN NAKASHIMA reported, even though the administration has yet to make its finding public.
“The recent outages, which began Feb. 24 — the day Russia invaded Ukraine — resulted from the hack of satellite modems belonging to tens of thousands of people in Ukraine and other countries in Europe, according to an official with the U.S. firm Viasat, headquartered in Carlsbad, Calif. Agencies affected included civilians as well as Ukraine’s military and other government agencies, according to Ukrainian officials,” Nakashima wrote. “The modems were part of Viasat’s European satellite network, KA-SAT. The company uses distributors in Europe to sell Internet service, which relies on modems, to customers. The company is shipping new modems to the distributors so they can get them to affected customers, the official said.”
VICTOR ZHORA, deputy chief of Ukraine’s State Service of Special Communications and Information Protection, said in a statement on Wednesday that hackers were “attacking financial, governmental and telecommunication infrastructures,” but had been largely unsuccessful.
BUDGET TIME: Our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!) report that the Biden administration on Monday will preview its fiscal 2023 budget request, which is expected to come in at $773 billion for the Pentagon, about $30 billion more than allocated for the current year. That will almost certainly fall short of Republican defense hawks’ demand for a 5 percent increase, adjusted for inflation.
The budget release will set off a steady stream of oversight hearings. First up: White House budget director SHALANDA YOUNG will testify before the House and Senate Budget committees on Tuesday and Wednesday.
THE DOOR, IT REVOLVES: Morning D also noted that Northrop Grumman has hired a trio of former congressional staffers at Subject Matter to lobby on tax issues, according to a notice.
What will they be lobbying on? The research and development tax credit; American Innovation and R&D Competitiveness Act; American Innovation and Jobs Act; United States Innovation and Competition Act; and the America COMPETES Act.
Defense companies are urging lawmakers to allow them to continue writing off R&D investments, a generous financial benefit that’s been on the books for the past several years.
HOLD THE LINE: Progressive Reps. MARK POCAN (D-Wis.) and BARBARA LEE (D-Calif.) are urging Biden to avoid yet another defense increase in his upcoming budget, just weeks after he signed a funding deal that added $30 billion in military spending that he didn’t seek, our own CONNOR O’BRIEN writes in.
In a letter obtained by POLITICO, Pocan and Lee, who co-chair the House’s Defense Spending Reduction Caucus, urged Biden to “do everything in your power to resist such increases.”
“Some of our colleagues will continue to seek virtually unlimited amounts of funding for the Department of Defense, no matter the Department’s own assessments of its needs for the coming fiscal year,” they wrote. “This mission creep is dangerous to peace-seeking efforts, and it will continue to starve our domestic priorities of needed funding.”
They likely won’t be pleased with Biden’s defense budget when it comes out on Monday. The administration is expected to seek $773 billion for the Pentagon, up $30 billion from this year’s level.
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — END THE YEMEN WAR: Activists are once again asking lawmakers to end any American involvement in the Yemen war, using the eight-year anniversary of the start of hostilities to make their pitch.
“Given the Biden administration’s strong condemnation of Russia’s ruthless and illegal invasion of Ukraine, it is shocking that the U.S. government would continue to support a similarly merciless assault on Yemen by Saudi Arabia. After seven years of direct and indirect involvement in the war against Yemen’s Houthis, the United States must cease supplying weapons, spare parts, maintenance services, and logistical support to Saudi Arabia,” wrote the coalition of antiwar groups led by the Friends Committee on National Legislation and the Yemen Relief and Reconstruction Foundation.
The Biden administration last year announced it would cease its support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. But the U.S. continues to authorize a maintenance contract that keeps Saudi warplanes in the skies. These and other groups have spent years asking for the administration to cancel that contract to no avail.
‘VERY DISAPPOINTED’: A top adviser to Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY said Kyiv is “very disappointed” with the result of the NATO summit.
“We’re very disappointed,” ANDRIY YERMAK, Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, told a virtual audience hosted by the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, D.C. “The alliance is taking decisions as if there is no war.… It’s hard to be optimistic.”
The alliance agreed to send four battlegroups to Eastern Europe, doubling its presence in the region, while individual countries increased their military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine. But Yermak, like his boss, wanted to see more commitment to Ukraine in the form of advanced weapons, the establishment of a no-fly zone and a pathway into the alliance.
However, Yermak did say he was pleased with NATO specifically warning China not to help Russia win the war and give it an economic lifeline.
— ANDREY BATLITSKY is leaving his position as a senior research fellow at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. He wrote on Twitter: “I hope you will provide government & people of Russia with realistic & unbiased analysis, it is needed more than ever.”
— WILLIAM D. HARTUNG, NICK CLEVELAND-STOUT and TAYLOR GIORNO, The Nation: “We Don’t Need to Go Back to Cold War Spending—We’re Already There”
— MICHAEL BIESECKER, ERIKA KINETZ and BEATRICE DUPUY, The Associated Press: “War Crimes Watch: Russia’s onslaught on Ukrainian hospitals”
— ANDREW LOHSEN, War On The Rocks: “Will Russia Create New ‘People’s Republics’ In Ukraine?”
— Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to Israel, the West Bank, Morocco and Algeria on March 26-30.
— The Middle East Institute, 10 a.m.: “Present and future challenges and opportunities facing U.S. maritime goals and plans in the region — with BRAD COOPER and BILAL Y. SAAB”
— The United States Institute of Peace, 11 a.m.: “Islam, Peace and Women’s Rights in Afghanistan — with LISE GRANDE, RINA AMIRI, ALYA AHMED BIN SAIF AL THANI and more”
— Washington Post Live, 11 a.m.: “The current political dynamic in Belarus and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — with SVETLANA TIKHANOVSKAYA”
— The Hudson Institute, 12 p.m.: “Freedom Over Tyranny — with JONI ERNST and BRYAN CLARK”
— The American Physical Society’s Physicists Coalition for Nuclear Threat Reduction, 12:30 p.m.: “The Nuclear Dimensions of the War in Ukraine — with LAURA GREGO, ALEX GLASER, PAVEL PODVIG and more”
— Washington Post Live, 1 p.m.: “Western sanctions imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and additional steps — with MICHAEL R. TURNER”
— The Wilson Center’s Global Europe Program, 1 p.m.: “The European Union, U.S. and NATO: Partners for Global Security — with STEFANO SANNINO, DUNCAN WOOD and ROBIN S. QUINVILLE”
— The Hudson Institute, 2 p.m.:“Insights on the Upcoming National Security Strategy — with MICHAEL R. POMPEO and NADIA SCHADLOW ”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 3 p.m.: “Organizations and Nation-State Cyber Threats in the Crosshairs — with BRYAN PALMA and MATTHEW NOYES”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 4 p.m.: “In Conversation with Senator the Hon PENNY WONG — with CHARLES EDEL”
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, whose deterrence strategies have failed to keep us from writing this newsletter.