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President JOE BIDEN has said time and time again he’ll never deploy U.S. troops to thwart Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But one of his best friends and confidantes is telling multiple audiences: Never say never.
Early last week, Sen. CHRIS COONS (D-Del.) told a virtual forum hosted by the University of Michigan that lawmakers and administration figures should reach a “common position” on when a move to confront Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN’s forces is appropriate. “If the answer is never then we are inviting another level of escalation in brutality by Putin,” he said.
Pressed on that comment by MARGARET BRENNAN Sunday on CBS News’ “Face the Nation,” Coons replied “this is a critical moment. If Vladimir Putin, who has shown us how brutal he can be, is allowed to just continue to massacre civilians, to commit war crimes throughout Ukraine without NATO, without the West coming more forcefully to [its] aid, I deeply worry that what’s going to happen next is that we will see Ukraine turn into Syria.”
“I think the history of the 21st century turns on how fiercely we defend freedom in Ukraine, and that Putin will only stop when we stop him,” he continued.
Those remarks couldn’t have been taken well inside the White House, especially coming from the president’s “shadow secretary of State.”
NatSec Daily spoke to a Coons aide to understand what the senator was getting at. Coons was trying to make a broader point about the West needing to firmly stand up and deter Putin from the possible use of chemical or nuclear weapons. If he does use them, the aide said “The conversation would look radically different.”
While Coons or the aide wouldn’t say it explicitly, the implicit takeaway is that Coons believes Biden made a mistake by taking at least the threat of sending troops off the table.
”Everyone, including those at the White House, thought this war was going to be short. We’re now in a very different war than we were in February,” the aide said.
Coons cleaned up matters himself, later tweeting, “I’m not calling for U.S. troops to go into the war in Ukraine.” But his remarks force the administration to face difficult questions on the degree to which the White House is willing to support a proxy fight against Russia, even if officials have repeatedly insisted there will be no war over Ukraine. It’s a different story if Russia attacks NATO territory, though, as the administration has publicly vowed to defend “every inch” of allied lands.
What stuck out to us here at NatSec Daily was how Coons’ views seemed to deviate from those of his colleagues. We decided to gut check that feeling with our own ANDREW DESIDERIO, who closely covers congressional debates on national security, and he told us that the senator’s sentiments were indeed a deviation.
“Coons’ remarks, while a reflection of the anger many Americans harbor toward Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine, don’t represent any sort of shift on Capitol Hill. It’s certainly notable that a leading Democratic senator — one who’s extremely close with Biden — is suggesting troop deployments might become necessary. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a significant cohort of lawmakers willing to break with the president’s long-standing vow that the U.S. won’t be sending its own forces into Ukraine to fight Russia. And it’s even tougher to find folks eager to draw red lines when it comes to Putin,” he said.
If anything, Desiderio continued, “lawmakers are doubling down on their support for new shipments of weapons and other supplies the Ukrainian military needs as it fights back against the Russian assault.”
So if you’re Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY and you’re trying to read the tea leaves in Washington, D.C., Coons’ surprising comments might suggest the cavalry is coming. But the truth is the sentiment in the White House and among most lawmakers remains the same: Arm Ukraine, but don’t send American sons and daughters into that war zone.
The National Security Council didn’t respond to requests for comment. But a senior Democratic congressional aide did react to the remarks in a text exchange with NatSec Daily: “Red lines, much like hairlines, are not to be drawn.”
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 20,600 personnel; 790 tanks; 2,041 armored combat vehicles; 381 artillery systems; 130 multiple-launch rocket systems; 167 warplanes; 147 helicopters; eight ships; and 155 drones. (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
— “Russian troops are preparing for an offensive operation in the east of our country. It will begin in the near future. They want to literally finish off and destroy Donbas. Destroy everything that once gave glory to this industrial region. Just as the Russian troops are destroying Mariupol, they want to wipe out other cities and communities in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.” (Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY)
— “Constant shelling of our city of Kharkiv continues. … As of this moment, the list of dead from this strike includes five Kharkiv residents and at least 15 wounded. In the last four days alone, 18 people have been killed and 106 have been wounded by the Russian shelling of Kharkiv.” (Zelenskyy)
— “The occupiers are also trying to tear off the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, following the example of the so-called [Donetsk People’s Republic] and [Luhansk People’s Republic]. This territory is being transferred to the ruble zone and subordinated to the administrative machine of Russia.” (Zelenskyy)
— “The Russian enemy concentrated its main efforts in the areas of the settlements of Lyman, Kreminna, Popasna and Rubizhne, trying to establish full control over the city of Mariupol. It carried out offensive operations in the Siverodonetsk, Popasna and Zaporizhia directions. The Russian enemy tried unsuccessfully to gain a foothold in the areas of Kreminna and Rubizhne. It carried out assault operations in the areas of Novotoshkivske, Popasna, Avdiivka and Marinka. It was also unsuccessful.” (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
— “In the South Buh direction, the enemy focuses its main efforts on maintaining its positions, and continues to exert fire on the positions of our troops in the directions of Mykolayiv and Oleksandrivka. It is expected that the Russian enemy will continue to fight to reach the administrative borders of the Kherson region.” (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)
— “Russian commanders will be concerned by the time it is taking to subdue Mariupol. Concerted Ukrainian resistance has severely tested Russian forces and diverted men and materiel, slowing Russia’s advance elsewhere. The effort to capture Mariupol has come at significant cost to its residents. Large areas of infrastructure have been destroyed whilst the population has suffered significant casualties. The targeting of populated areas within Mariupol aligns with Russia’s approach to Chechnya in 1999 and Syria in 2016. This is despite the 24 February 2022 claims of Russia’s Defence Ministry that Russia would neither strike cities nor threaten the Ukrainian population.” (U.K. Ministry of Defense)
— All Russian forces are now in the east or the south. In total, there are now 76 battalion tactical groups in Ukraine. (U.S. Department of Defense)
U.S.: Four flights carrying some of the new $800 million tranche in military assistance to Ukraine arrived yesterday, with another flight arriving tomorrow. (U.S. Department of Defense)
— The Associated Press: “Syrian fighters ready to join next phase of Ukraine war”
— POLITICO: “Lonely Anatoly: The Russian ambassador is Washington’s least popular man”
— The Washington Post: “Lethal darts were fired into a Ukrainian neighborhood by the thousands”
FIRST WARTIME DEATHS IN LVIV: Seven people were killed and 11 were injured after Russian forces pounded the Western Ukrainian city of Lviv on Monday.
The Washington Post’s HANNAH ALLAM, ANNABELLE TIMSIT and DAVID STERN, citing Ukrainian officials, noted that “[a] preliminary Ukrainian assessment indicated that the strikes were launched from airplanes that came from the direction of the Caspian Sea.”
These are the first confirmed deaths in the city itself since the war began, though last month 35 were killed and 130 injured at a military facility in nearby Yavoriv.
By striking at the heart of Lviv — which is only 43 miles from the Polish border — Russia is sending a clear message. “Today in Ukraine there are no safe and unsafe cities,” Lviv Mayor ANDRIY SADOVYI said. “Today all are in the same conditions.”
PRISONER SWAP? Two Brits — foreign fighters SHAUN PINNER and AIDEN ASLIN — appeared on Russian state media Monday asking to be swapped for VIKTOR MEDVEDCHUK, the pro-Russian politician captured by Ukrainian authorities.
“We look to exchange myself and Aiden Aslin for Mr. Medvedchuk. Obviously I would really appreciate your help in this matter,” Pinner said in a direct appeal to British Prime Minister BORIS JOHNSON. It’s unclear if the two made this request freely or under duress.
Coincidentally, or maybe not, Medvedchuk appealed in a video released by the Ukrainian government that he be sent to Russia in exchange for Ukrainians trapped in Mariupol.
As of now there’s no sign that a deal for their swap — or any swap — is in the works. But the two videos underscore how Moscow and Kyiv may conduct sensitive trades for captives even as they fight each other.
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ISRAEL’S GOVT RISKS FALLING AFTER MOSQUE FALLOUT: Clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians at the Al-Aqsa mosque has Israel’s eight-party coalition government teetering.
“Israeli police on Sunday entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City to secure the way for Jewish visitors to the flashpoint holy site, fueling clashes that left 17 Palestinians wounded, according to Palestinian medical workers. The unrest happened just two days after clashes with Palestinians at the same site,” The Associated Press’ JOSEF FEDERMAN reported.
As a result of those and other actions, Raam, an independent Arab party in the coalition, said it was suspending its participation. If the party holds that position when the Israeli Parliament returns from recess on May 8, then it’s possible the government collapses — sending Israel to its fifth election in just three years, per The New York Times’ PATRICK KINGSLEY and RAJA ABDULRAHIM.
SAUDI PUSHED YEMEN’S LEADER TO RESIGN: Saudi Arabia pushed Yemen’s elected president, ABED RABBO MANSOUR HADI, to step down this month, with local authorities now confining him to his home in exile in Riyadh.
“On April 7, Mr. Hadi handed power to a council of eight representatives of different Yemeni groups, as Saudi Arabia looks for ways to end a seven-year civil war in Yemen that has caused a humanitarian crisis and damaged the kingdom’s relations with Washington.
“On the sidelines of talks among Yemeni politicians in Riyadh that week, Crown Prince MOHAMMED BIN SALMAN, Saudi Arabia’s day-to-day leader, presented Mr. Hadi with a written decree delegating his powers to the council, according to the Saudi and Yemeni officials. Prince Mohammed told him the other Yemeni leaders had agreed it was time for him to relinquish power, those officials said,” The Wall Street Journal’s SUMMER SAID and STEPHEN KALIN reported.
“Hadi is effectively under house arrest at his residence in Riyadh without access to phones,” a Saudi official told WSJ.
It’s unclear if this move, which other Saudi officials deny happened, will precipitate an end to the seven-year war. The Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen rejected the authority of the new council and want Saudi Arabia to stop interfering in Yemen’s politics. If sidelining Hadi doesn’t work, then sputtering peace efforts will fail and Riyadh might launch a new offensive against Houthi positions.
Biden’s special envoy for Yemen, TIM LENDERKING, just returned from a three-week trip to the region.
U.S. SOUNDS ALARM ON RUSSIAN CYBERATTACKS: The Biden administration is issuing fresh warnings about potential cyberattacks by Russia, with JEN EASTERLY — director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency — describing Putin’s Kremlin as “a very dangerous, very sophisticated, very well-resourced cyber actor.”
“That’s why we’ve been telling everybody consistently, shields up. What does that mean? It means, assume there will be disruptive cyber activity, and make sure you are prepared for it,” Easterly told CBS News’ BILL WHITAKER over the weekend.
U.S. officials “are seeing evolving intelligence about Russian planning for potential attacks” on critical infrastructure, Easterly said, “and we have to assume that there’s going to be a breach. There’s going to be an incident. There’s going to be an attack.”
Asked which sector she’s most worried about Moscow targeting, Easterly replied: “We know that energy … is part of the Russian playbook. But also finance, given potential retaliatory attacks for the very severe sanctions that the U.S. and our allies have imposed and continue to impose.”
CYBERCOM SEEKING EXTRA $236 MILLION: U.S. Cyber Command is asking for more advanced cyber training and operational support as part of its $236 million fiscal 2023 budget wish list of so-called unfunded requirements, report our own CONNOR O’BRIEN and LEE HUDSON (for Pros!).
The unfunded requirements list includes $167 million for operational support including advanced cyber training, as well as $56 million for integrating cyber war fighting systems and $12 million for growing the command’s intelligence component.
The Cybercom list is the latest set of unfunded requirements to circulate on Capitol Hill. POLITICO has previously obtained the wish lists for the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marine Corps, the Space Force, U.S. Central Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and the Missile Defense Agency.
GO FAST AND BREAK THINGS: Our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!) note how DARPA has disclosed details for the second phase of its Glide Breaker project, which would counter hypersonic weapons using an interceptor launched from an Aegis Mark-41 vertical launch system, according to public documents.
Glide Breaker is a highly classified program described in a one-sentence explanation on DARPA’s website as a project that “began in 2018 to develop and demonstrate technologies to enable defense against hypersonic systems.”
Participating in the first phase of Glide Breaker is not a prerequisite for competing in the second phase. The second phase requires a company to design and flight-test a demo system within four years of contract award.
The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act authorized $309.7 million for hypersonic defense programs.
JAPAN ‘MORE OPEN’ TO STRATEGIC TALKS: Sen. BILL HAGERTY (R-Tenn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told NatSec Daily that Japan is “more open now to discussing deepening our strategic posture together” — indicating Tokyo is inching closer, but is still not close, to hosting American ground-based missiles on its territory.
The former U.S. ambassador to Japan returned from the country after leading a bipartisan congressional delegation featuring Sens. BEN CARDIN (D-Md.) and JOHN CORNYN (R-Texas). The group met with Prime Minister KISHIDA FUMIO, former Prime Minister ABE SHINZO, and other top officials and lawmakers. They discussed issues ranging from economic and energy security to technology, as well as the latest with China and North Korea. Their visit helped affirm America’s bipartisan support for the U.S.-Japan relationship ahead of Biden’s visit in May.
But one of the takeaways Hagerty heard from his conversation was that there’s “greater receptivity” to strategic issues in the relationship, including the possibility of Tokyo allowing the U.S. to put once treaty-banned intermediate-range nuclear missiles on Japanese lands. Hagerty was sure to say that it’s “premature” to conclude Japan will green-light that option, noting Kishida’s government is going through a national security and defense review.
In January, Japan’s Ambassador to the U.S. TOMITA KOJI suggested to NatSec Daily that the door was neither open nor closed on the missiles. Tokyo would have a firmer answer on the subject after the reviews.
Biden will likely discuss this issue with Kishida during his trip to Tokyo next month for the Quad Summit.
AUSTRIAN LEADER SAYS PUTIN’S DELUDED ABOUT INVASION: Austrian Chancellor KARL NEHAMMER had more harsh words for Putin over the weekend, telling NBC News’ CHUCK TODD that the Russian leader is stuck “in his own war logic” and believes the invasion of Ukraine is going successfully, per our own DAVID COHEN.
Nehammer’s latest remarks come after his trip last week to Ukraine, where he met with Zelenskyy in Kyiv and saw firsthand the atrocities in Bucha. He then traveled to the outskirts of Moscow for what he described as “not a friendly conversation” with Putin.
“It was a frank and tough conversation. And I told him what I saw. I saw the war crimes. I saw the massive loss of the Russian army,” Nehammer told Todd, adding that it’s “necessary … to confront [Putin] all the time with that which is going on in Ukraine.”
“You know, at the end of our talks, he told me in German ‘it’s better the war ends earlier than later,’” Nehammer said. “So I think he knows exactly what’s going on now.”
— RICHARD LEE BUANGAN and RACHNA SACHDEVA KORHONEN have been nominated by the president to serve as the U.S. ambassadors to Mongolia and Mali, respectively. Buangan currently serves as the principal deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of Global Public Affairs at the State Department. Korhonen currently serves as a deputy assistant secretary and the executive director of the combined executive offices of the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs and the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs.
— THU RAJAN is now vice president for global government relations covering China and the Asia Pacific at JPMorgan Chase. She most recently worked as a special assistant at the State Department.
— HELEN TONER is now director of strategy and foundational research grants at the Center for Security and Emerging Technology. She most recently was director of strategy at CSET.
— PARKER NASH is joining the German Marshall Fund’s Washington, D.C., team as a program assistant focusing on security and defense policy.
— PANTHEA LEE, The Nation: “Sex, Death, and Empire: The Roots of Violence Against Asian Women”
— RONAN FARROW, The New Yorker: “How Democracies Spy on Their Citizens”
— DAVID JOHNSON, War on the Rocks: “The Tank Is Dead: Long Live the Javelin, the Switchblade, the … ?”
— The Business Council for International Understanding, 8:30 a.m.: “In-Person Breakfast Roundtable with Brigadier General KRZYSZTOF NOLBERT, Defense Attache of Poland to the United States”
— The American Enterprise Institute, 9 a.m.: “Joint All-Domain Command and Control: Bringing the DoD’s Innovative Command and Control to Life — with JAMES H. ADAMS, JOHN G. FERRARI, SCOTT STAPP and STEVE WALKER”
— The American Society of International Law, 9 a.m.: “Displacement in and From Ukraine: Risks, Responses and Legal Dimensions — with JEAN-PIERRE GAUCI, MELTEM INELI-CIGER, YULIA IOFFE, OLENA KIBENKO, ANTON KORYNEVYCH, MAJA LYSIENIA and NOEMI MAGUGLIANI”
— The George Washington University, 9 a.m.: “Germany and the Impact of the War in Ukraine — with HOPE HARRISON and TOBIAS LINDNER”
— The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, 9 a.m.: “Building Alliances and Competing with China: The Imperative for UAV Export Reforms — with HEATHER PENNEY and PAUL SCHARRE”
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 11 a.m.: “How the Chinese Public Views Russia’s War in Ukraine — with JUDE BLANCHETTE, MICHAEL CERNY, BONNY LIN and YAWEI LIU”
— The Hudson Institute, 12 p.m.: “The Ambassador’s Series: A Conversation with French Ambassador PHILIPPE ÉTIENNE — with WALTER RUSSELL MEAD”
— The Government Executive Media Group, 1 p.m.: “Electrifying the Future Fleet — with BRYAN CLARK, TODD HARRISON, GEORGE JACKSON, JACK W. KLIMP, JON MILLER and more”
— The National Press Club, 2 p.m.: “NPC Newsmaker: Secretary of the Air Force FRANK KENDALL”
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