It’s Friday, welcome to Overnight Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.
The U.S. on Friday accused Russia of laying the groundwork for a “false flag” operation to provide a possible pretext for invading Ukraine.
More on the allegations, plus how a series of recent missile launches puts pressure on the Biden administration’s strategy on North Korea.
For The Hill, I’m Jordan Williams. Write me with tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s get to it.
Russia accused of creating invasion pretext
U.S. intelligence findings point to Russia having prepared a false-flag operation to invade Ukraine.
“We do have information that indicates that Russia is already working actively to create a pretext for a potential invasion, for a move on Ukraine,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters on Friday.
Russia has massed tens of thousands of troops near Ukraine’s border, sparking fears that Moscow may be planning to invade its neighbor in a manner similar to when it annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Moscow, however, has repeatedly denied any intentions of invading Ukraine.
President Biden has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that Moscow would face serious economic sanctions if Russia were to invade Ukraine.
Ukraine concurs: Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense also released a statement on Friday accusing Russia of plotting to provoke its own forces and place the blame on Kyiv.
“The military units of the aggressor country and its client states receive orders to prepare for such provocations,” the statement said.
WHAT WE KNOW
As part of the false-flag plans, Washington has information indicating that Moscow has prepositioned a group of operatives who are trained in urban warfare and using explosives to carry out “acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy forces,” a U.S. official said.
The United States’ information also indicates that Russian influence actors are starting to fabricate Ukrainian provocations on state and social media sites to justify a Russian intervention.
The influence actors are pushing narratives about human rights deteriorating in Ukraine, blaming the West for escalating tensions, and “promoting Russian patriotism to encourage domestic support for military action,” the statement said.
“The Russian military plans to begin these activities several weeks before a military invasion, which could begin between mid-January and mid-February,” the official said. “We saw this playbook in 2014 with Crimea.”
Ukrainian websites hit with cyberattacks
Amid increasing tensions between Russia and Ukraine, several Ukrainian government websites were hit by a “massive cyberattack” on Friday, which saw hackers take control and post messages warning to “be afraid and expect worse.”
In the early hours of Friday morning, Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, tweeted that “the websites of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a number of other government agencies are temporarily down” from the cyberattack.
“Our specialists have already started restoring the work of IT systems, and the cyberpolice has opened an investigation,” he wrote.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters that President Biden has been briefed on the cyberattack and that the U.S. government has not attributed the attack to a specific actor at this time.
“The United States and our allies and partners are concerned about this cyberattack and the president has been briefed,” Psaki told reporters. “We are also in touch with the Ukrainians and have offered our support as Ukraine investigates the impact and nature and recovers from the incident.”
A MESSAGE FROM HUAWEI
MARINES GRANT FIRST VAX EXEMPTIONS
The Marine Corps said Thursday that it has granted the military’s first religious exemptions to its COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
In an emailed statement, the Marines said it granted two of the 3,212 requests for religious exemptions that it has processed. The service has received 3,350 religious accommodation requests in total.
Religious exemptions across the military: Outside of the Marines, the military has received thousands of requests for religious exemptions from the vaccine, none of which have been approved.
The Navy reported on Wednesday that it had approving none of the over 3,700 religious accommodation requests it received from active-duty service members and reservists. Last week, a Texas federal judge blocked the Navy from taking “any adverse action” against 35 sailors who refuse to get vaccinated for religious reasons.
Separately on Wednesday, the Army reported none of the 2,128 requests it’s received for permanent religious exemptions, and has rejected 162 requests. On Tuesday, the Air Force reported that it has rejected 2,387 accommodation requests, though a separate 2,158 requests are pending.
The Marine’s vaccination rate: Overall, 97 percent of active-duty marines are at least partially vaccinated, while 95 percent are fully vaccinated. Additionally, 87 percent of its reserve component is at least partially vaccinated, while 86 percent are fully inoculated.
Aside from religious exemptions, the Marines are tracking 943 approved administrative or medical exemptions.
Missile launches pressure N. Korea strategy
President Biden may soon be forced to take action amid threats from an increasingly aggressive North Korea, which has flexed its military might in recent days with provocative missile launches.
Biden, who has taken a more subdued approach to Pyongyang compared to his predecessor, former President Trump, has long called for open dialogue over a host of issues between the two nations without preconditions.
The administration has taken no steps to entice North Korea to begin such talks — which the isolated nation has roundly rejected — but Pyongyang’s reported launching of at least two hypersonic, ballistic missiles this month are challenging Biden’s current stance.
Prioritizing North Korea: Experts say the Biden administration’s focus on North Korea has dropped on its list of international priorities. Other challenges, like Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine, reviving the nuclear deal with Iran and the fallout over the U.S.’s violent exit from Afghanistan, have required more immediate attention.
“The desire to start a new diplomatic campaign to engage North Korea beyond what has already been on the table — that North Korea has not picked up — the appetite for that is pretty low,” said Jacob Stokes, a fellow in the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
“Ultimately, because there’s a number of other things going on.”
DON’T IGNORE THE MISSILES
Biden officials are saying the administration won’t ignore Pyongyang’s ongoing missile tests, the latest of which took place on Jan. 10.
The Treasury Department on Wednesday issued sanctions against five North Korean nationals that it says are involved in procuring goods for Pyongyang’s weapons program and that it said were issued in response to at least six ballistic missile launches carried out by North Korea since September 2021.
These are likely to include reported launches on Jan. 10 of an advanced hypersonic ballistic missile, another hypersonic missile test on Jan. 5, a submarine-launched ballistic missile in October and launching long-range cruise missiles on Sept. 11 and 12.
U.S. agencies are still analyzing the most recent test, which caused the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to temporarily pause some West Coast flights, but little else has been revealed on the launch. The Pentagon on Thursday declined to comment on what type of missile it has assessed the armament to be.
Two more launches: North Korea on Friday launched two more ballistic missiles, hours after criticizing the U.S. for calling for more sanctions over missile launches.
Two presumed short-range missiles (SRBMs) were detected by South Korea from the North Pyongan Province, South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff announced, according to Reuters.
A presumed SRBM was also found launched into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, according to an unnamed Japanese defense ministry official. The Japanese coast guard also reported that North Korea had fired a missile, the outlet notes.
Read more of our North Korea coverage:
- Biden strategy on North Korea under pressure over missile launches
- North Korea fires two more missiles, calls US sanctions a ‘provocation’
- Early warning systems warned North Korea missile could hit US: report
WHAT WE’RE READING
- Dems block Cruz’s Nord Stream 2 sanctions bill
- Military.com: Texas denying most Guard troops at border chance to help families suffering hardships at home
A MESSAGE FROM HUAWEI