Overnight Defense & National Security — US rules out combat aircraft for Ukraine
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 Biden administration has shut the door on a what it’s calling a “high risk” transfer of Polish fighter jets to Ukraine following a very public back-and-forth over the proposal the past few days.
We’ll lay out the Pentagon’s final say and what it means for Ukraine, plus the new White House warning on possible Russian chemical weapons, details of Vice President Harris’s trip to Eastern Europe and where the Iran nuclear talks are now that Russia has attacked Ukraine.
For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. Write me with tips at email@example.com.
Let’s get to it.
No fighter jets for Ukraine
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in a Wednesday morning conversation with his Polish counterpart, said the U.S. government does not support the transfer of MiG-29 aircraft to the Ukrainian Air Force “at this time,” press secretary John Kirby told reporters.
The United States does want Poland to directly transfer the aircraft to Ukraine, nor does it want Warsaw to first give the MiG-29s to Washington to then give those to Kyiv, as publicly suggested by the Polish government on Tuesday.
‘High-risk’: “The intelligence community has assessed that the transfer of MiG-29s to Ukraine may be mistaken as escalatory and could result in significant Russian reaction that might increase the prospects of a military escalation with NATO,” Kirby said.
“Therefore, we also assess the transfer of the MiG-29s to Ukraine to be high-risk.”
A surprise announcement: NATO ally Poland caught Washington off guard with the announcement it would transfer its fleet of MiG-29s to the U.S. military’s Ramstein Air Base in Germany, a move that would allow Washington to then move the jets to Ukraine. Kyiv has begged Western officials for the Russian-made combat aircraft, which its pilots are trained to fly.
But the Pentagon swiftly met the announcement with one of its own on Tuesday, calling the plan “untenable,” due to the geopolitical battlefield that is moving jets from a U.S.-NATO base to a non-alliance country to help in its fight against Russia. The Kremlin warned this week that such a move could be seen as NATO inserting itself into the conflict.
A red line?: The United States has already quickly moved to send Ukraine hundreds of millions of dollars in lethal aid — including a $350 million package approved late last month — but Wednesday’s announcement appeared to draw a line at transferring combat aircraft.
Kirby said the U.S. is “not drawing a red-line here,” but would not detail “the sausage making of how this particular decision got made.”
Other options: The U.S. believes the best way to support Ukraine is “by providing the weapons and the systems that they need most to defeat Russian aggression, in particular anti-armor and air defense,” Kirby said.
WH warns Russia may use chemical weapons
White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday warned of the potential for Russia to use chemical weapons in Ukraine after Moscow alleged the United States was housing biological weapons in Ukrainian territory.
Psaki called the claim from Russia “false” and “preposterous,” and she warned it could serve as a pretext for the Russians to deploy chemical weapons in their assault on Ukraine.
“It’s the kind of disinformation operation we’ve seen repeatedly from the Russians over the years in Ukraine and in other countries, which have been debunked, and an example of the types of false pretexts we have been warning the Russians would invent,” Psaki said in a statement.
A ‘ploy’: “This is all an obvious ploy by Russia to try to try to justify its further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attack on Ukraine. Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern,” she said.
Maria Zakharova, a Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, claimed Russia discovered evidence of a program to develop anthrax and other biological weapons run by the United States in Ukraine, Reuters reported. She alleged the program was backed by the Pentagon.
Other responses: “This Russian disinformation is total nonsense and not the first time Russia has invented such false claims against another country,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement. “Also, these claims have been debunked conclusively and repeatedly over many years.”
And Pentagon press secretary John Kirby at a Wednesday briefing called the claims “absurd” and “laughable.”
PENTAGON SEES INDICATIONS RUSSIA USING ‘DUMB BOMBS’
Russia has launched more than 710 missiles against Ukraine since its attack on the country began two weeks ago, and the Pentagon has seen indications that Kremlin forces are also dropping so-called “dumb bombs,” a senior U.S. defense official said Wednesday.
Dumb bombs are munitions that are not precision-guided and therefore have limited ability to hit targets accurately.
The official said it’s unclear whether Moscow’s use of the dumb bombs is by design or by default due to potential damage to its precision capabilities. Nevertheless, the U.S. government is seeing “increasing damage to civilian infrastructure and civilian casualties” with the combined use of bombs and missiles.
Russia strikes hospital: The comments follow Ukraine accusing Russia of bombing a children’s hospital and maternity ward on Wednesday in the port city of Mariupol.
“Direct strike of Russian troops at the maternity hospital. People, children are under the wreckage. Atrocity! How much longer will the world be an accomplice ignoring terror?” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted after the attack.
The hospital in Mariupol joins the dozens of other that have been severely damaged or destroyed since the start of the war, according to information compiled by a group of Ukrainian journalists.
‘No real ground progress’: Elsewhere in Ukraine, the U.S. sees “no real ground progress to speak to except in a couple of places,” the official said.
Russian forces have inched closer to Kharkiv, gaining about 12 miles in the past day, and are just outside the city. And the nation’s forces are about 9 miles north of Mykolaiv, the official said.
But there still have been “no significant movements” towards Chernihiv or Kyiv, the country’s capital.
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Harris heads to Eastern Europe
Vice President Harris will become the face of the Biden administration in Europe amid Russia’s war in Ukraine when she engages with leaders in Poland and Romania starting Thursday.
The trip is Harris’s highest-profile one yet, coming nine months after a shaky visit to Mexico and Guatemala that drew criticism from both sides of the aisle.
What’s on the schedule: Harris is expected to engage with world leaders including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and will also meet with refugees and service members stationed near the Ukrainian border, trying to show solidarity while tensions are high following the latest round of sanctions on Russia.
One of the vice president’s first stops on Thursday will be to meet with refugees in Warsaw. She also will participate in bilateral meetings with Polish President Andrzej Duda, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and Trudeau, who will be in Poland at the same time. And she plans to meet with Kyiv embassy staff who have relocated to Poland, as well as embassy staff in Warsaw.
In Bucharest, Romania, Harris will participate in a bilateral meeting with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and meet with embassy staff there as well.
An opportunity: “I think this is the opportunity her team has been looking for to showcase her strengths,” said one Democratic strategist close to the White House. “She’s had a few missteps on the international stage, but this is a chance for her to shine while the world is watching these horrific events play out.”
Senior administration officials say Harris will be “carrying a three-part message” on the trip. She will be conveying a sentiment that the U.S. “stands firmly and resolutely” with NATO allies while also showing support for the people of Ukraine. Nearly 2.2 million Ukrainians have fled the war-torn country, with nearly 1.3 million in Poland alone.
A strong message: But perhaps the strongest message Harris will deliver is that Russian President Vladimir Putin “has made a mistake that will result in resounding strategic defeat for Russia,” one senior administration official said.
RUSSIA’S WAR ON UKRAINE UPENDS NUCLEAR TALKS WITH IRAN
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is throwing into doubt global efforts to revive the nuclear deal with Iran, just as international mediators appeared poised to announce a breakthrough.
Negotiators from the U.S., Europe, Russia, China and Iran had largely managed to seal themselves off from outside crises around the globe over nearly a year of talks in Austria.
But international condemnation against Russia and a globally coordinated sanctions regime – now targeting Russia’s oil exports, its main financial artery – is reverberating through the conference rooms in Vienna.
ON TAP TOMORROW
- German Ambassador to the United States Emily Haber will speak at a Washington Post Live virtual discussion on Ukraine at 9 a.m.
- The Air Force’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion will hold its “2022 Women’s Air & Space Power Symposium” beginning at 9 a.m.
- The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies will host a discussion on “Security Challenges in Latin America Forum: Security, Defense, and Gender in Latin America,” at 9 a.m.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies will host a virtual discussion on “The South Korean presidential election,” at 9:30 a.m.
- The Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on “The Posture of United States Indo-Pacific Command and United States Forces Korea,” at 9:30 a.m.
- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a hearing on “Examining U.S. Security Cooperation and Assistance,” at 9:30 a.m.
- The Senate Select Intelligence Committee will hold a hearing on “Worldwide Threats,” with testimony from CIA Director William Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, National Security Agency Director Gen. Paul Nakasone, FBI Director Christopher Wray and Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, at 10 a.m.
- The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies will host its Nuclear Deterrence and Missile Defense Forum at 10:30 a.m.
- NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg will give a keynote address at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defense at 11 a.m.
- The Vandenberg Coalition will hold a virtual talk on the future of U.S. foreign policy with former National Security Council Deputy Advisor for Strategy Nadia Schadlow, at 12 p.m.
- Hudson Institute will discuss “Implications of the Ukrainian War for the Indo-Pacific,” at 12 p.m.
- The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies will also host a virtual discussion on Russia’s attack on Ukraine at 12:30 a.m.
- The Atlantic Council will host “A Conversation With UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss,” at 3:30 p.m.
- The Center for a New American Security will discuss “U.S.-North Korea Policy,” with Jung Pak, deputy special representative for North Korea and deputy assistant secretary of State for multilateral affairs and global China issues, at 5:30 a.m.
- The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace will hold a virtual talk on “South Korea’s National Security Policy After the 2022 Election,” at 7 p.m.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- Russia says it’s used thermobaric weapon system in Ukraine: UK
- Lawmakers reach $1.5T deal on government funding package
- FBI asked all offices to canvas for info on DNC, RNC pipe bombs
- Blinken welcomes UAE support for increasing oil production
- McCarthy breaks with Trump on Putin: Russian leader not ‘savvy,’ ‘genius’
- Ukrainians trapped by Russian forces unable to receive aid
- Amnesty International: Fatal strike in Ukrainian city may be war crime
- Ukraine says Russian forces disconnected Chernobyl plant from power grid
- Russian-American charged with illegally acting as an agent in the US