Overnight Defense

Overnight Defense & National Security — US tries to turn down the dial on Russia

Madeline Monroe/istock/Associated Press-Alex Brandon

It’s Wednesday, 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 United States has sought to simultaneously ease away from tough military rhetoric as it puts more economic pressure on Russia over its invasion into Ukraine, now in its first full week.  

We’ll detail where the administration is pumping the breaks and where it’s pressing the gas at the Pentagon, State Department, White House and beyond, plus an update on Russian military movement, where Congress is in passing an aid package for Ukraine and the Pentagon’s new mask rules.  

For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. Write me with tips at emitchell@thehill.com.   

Let’s get to it. 

Pentagon postpones missile test launch

Secretary of Defense L. Austin

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has ordered the Pentagon to postpone a planned test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile to quell tensions with Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.   

“In an effort to demonstrate that we have no intention in engaging in any actions that can be misunderstood or misconstrued, the secretary of Defense has directed that our Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile test launch, scheduled for this week, to be postponed,” press secretary John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.   

“We did not take this decision lightly, but instead to demonstrate that we are a responsible nuclear power,” he added.  

Setting off an alarm: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday alarmed Western powers when he directed Kremlin nuclear forces be placed on high alert after Moscow faced international condemnation and crippling financial penalties for its invasion of Ukraine.   

Since then, Russia’s nuclear submarines and mobile missile launchers reportedly staged drills and units of Moscow’s Strategic Missile Forces dispersed intercontinental ballistic missile launchers in forests in eastern Siberia to practice secret deployment.  

Not taking the bait: The U.S. and its NATO allies have refused to raise their own nuclear alert levels, calling Russia’s stance reckless and escalatory.   

“Now, in this time of heightened tensions, the United States and other members of the international community rightly saw this as a dangerous and irresponsible and, as I’ve said before, an unnecessary step,” Kirby said.    

“We recognize at this moment of tension how critical it is that both the United States and Russia bear in mind the risk of miscalculation and take steps to reduce those risks.”  

About the missiles: Minuteman III ICBMs, located in underground silos in five Western states, are tested several times a year and can be ready to launch in minutes should the president order it.    

Tight lipped: Kirby would not comment on whether the administration made any other changes to U.S. nuclear forces, only saying that the delayed test is not affecting U.S. strategic nuclear posture. He added that Austin is confident that U.S. posture “is up to the task of defending the homeland and our allies and our partners.” 

“This is not a step backwards in our readiness, nor does it imply that we will necessarily cancel other routine activities to ensure a credible nuclear capability,” he said.  

“It is a wise and prudent decision by the secretary to send a strong, clear, unambiguous message to Mr. Putin, how seriously we take our nuclear responsibilities at a particularly tense time.”   

Read the full story here.

Russia ups strikes, no ‘significant’ movement

The United States has seen “no appreciable movement” of Russian forces toward Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv since yesterday, though the Kremlin has increased its strikes on the city, a senior defense official said Wednesday.    

“We would assess that there essentially has been no appreciable movement closer to the city than what we briefed a couple of days ago,” the official told reporters. “Basically they remain stalled outside the city center.”   

Washington has also observed “an increase in missiles and artillery” targeting Kyiv’s infrastructure, with similar situations seen in Chernihiv to the north and Kharkiv to the northeast.  

Updated combat power: The United States estimates that Russia has now sent into Ukraine 82 percent of the combat power it had staged outside the country prior to the invasion, which began last week.    

Those combat powers include a much watched 40-mile-long military convoy heading toward Kyiv, but the U.S. believes that movement is “stalled,” due to lack of fuel, food and fierce Ukrainian resistance, the official said.  

“They are not moving at any rate that would lead one to believe that they’ve solved their problems. So we would characterize it as stalled,” they said.  

Missile strikes: The official also said Russia has conducted “more than 450 missile launches,” since the assault started. The missiles are of “all stripes and sizes,” including “short-range, medium-range, surface air missiles, cruise missiles,” they added. 

Read the full story here.

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NEW US RESTRICTIONS TARGET BELARUS, RUSSIAN DEFENSE SECTOR

The Biden administration is restricting exports of key technologies to Belarus in response to its support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and leveling new sanctions on Russia’s defense sector, the White House announced Wednesday.  

The Commerce Department is also restricting exports of oil and gas extraction equipment to Russia, which the White House said would degrade Russia’s refining capacity over time without reducing the global supply of energy.   

The U.S. has avoided imposing restrictions on Russia’s energy sector due to European reliance on Russian oil and gas and a fear additional shocks to the oil market could further raise gas prices domestically.   

A global pariah: The U.S. and European allies have worked in concert to impose hefty financial costs on Russia over its large-scale invasion of Ukraine.     

“As a result of our historic, multilateral coordination, Russia has become a global economic and financial pariah,” the White House said in a fact sheet laying out the new actions.    

Extended: The White House said the Commerce Department would extend export controls placed on Russia last week to Belarus, which has served as a staging ground for Russian troops entering Ukraine.    

A block for Belarus: The Commerce Department said that its Bureau of Industry and Security would block Belarus from importing sensitive U.S. technology that supports its defense, aerospace and maritime industries.   

“Belarus’s choice to enable Russia’s horrific assault on the people of Ukraine has rightly drawn international condemnation. Today’s action will significantly impair Belarus’s ability to abet Russia’s unjustifiable aggression,” Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Export Administration Thea Rozman Kendler said in a statement.   

In lockstep: The European Union similarly approved new sanctions on Belarus on Wednesday.  

The White House said the State Department would impose full blocking sanctions on 22 Russian companies that produce defense equipment like combat aircraft, missiles, and unmanned aerial vehicles.   

Read more here. 

In Congress, deal on Ukraine aid imminent  

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Wednesday that an agreement on aid to Ukraine is imminent, setting the stage for the emergency funding to be combined with a larger government spending bill poised to get votes next week. 

The news comes as lawmakers race to lock in a deal for aid to the country consumed by war with Russia.  

“We should probably have all of that done today, because we have to be on schedule for the omnibus,” she told reporters in the Capitol Wednesday.  

“It’s the fastest thing,” she added, referring to the omnibus. “It’s the vehicle that’s leaving the station.” 

Haggling the final figure: The Biden administration has asked Congress to provide $6.4 billion in new aid to Ukraine, divided between funding to boost Kyiv’s military defenses and furnish humanitarian aid to the countless victims affected by the Russian invasion. 

But some on Capitol Hill have suggested the number could be significantly higher. Sen. Richard Shelby (Ala.), senior Republican on Appropriations Committee, has floated $10 billion. 

Pelosi on Wednesday declined to specify a top-line number, deferring to the negotiators. But she said those details should arrive by the end of the day. 

“We’ll find that out,” she said. 

Read more here. 

PENTAGON LIFTS MASK REQUIREMENTS

The Pentagon on Wednesday lifted its mask requirement for inside the building following new guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).  

“Effective immediately … masks are no longer required indoors at the Pentagon,” according to a Defense Department statement. “Individuals may wear a mask if they choose.”  

Other changes: In addition, the Pentagon — where roughly 20,000 military and civilian employees work — lowered its health protection level in the building to “Bravo,” allowing up to 50 percent occupancy in the building as well as “more options for seating in the food court.”    

Earlier: The Pentagon’s announcement follows similar moves from the White House and Congress earlier this week, with lawmakers mostly going maskless when attending President Biden‘s first State of the Union address at the Capitol on Tuesday night. 

Starting Tuesday, the House made mask wearing optional throughout the Capitol complex, regardless of vaccination status, while the White House ended its mask requirement for fully-vaccinated employees. 

Those decisions come after the CDC last Friday eased its mask recommendation for most Americans, advising that people living in communities with “low” or “medium” COVID-19 levels do not need to wear face coverings.    

Read the full story here. 

ON TAP TOMORROW

 

WHAT WE’RE READING

 

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