Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by AM General — More weapons but no planes 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 announced another $800 million in new military assistance for Ukraine in the wake of an urgent plea from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for more help to beat back Russian troops.
We’ll detail what’s in the package and what Ukrainian officials still want, plus Biden’s comments after he introduced the new lethal aid, and Zelensky’s impassioned pleas to Congress and lawmakers’ reactions.
For The Hill, I’m Ellen Mitchell. Write me with tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Let’s get to it.
US announces $800M Ukraine aid package
The $800 million in new assistance for Ukraine, paired with $200 million authorized over the weekend, brings the total new aid for the country to $1 billion over the past week.
What that includes: The new aid will help provide 800 anti-aircraft systems to combat Russian planes; 9,000 anti-armor systems to help destroy Russian tanks and armored vehicles; 7,000 small arms such as machine guns and shotguns; and a total of 20 million rounds that includes artillery and mortar.
A ‘long and difficult battle’: “I want to be honest with you: this could be a long and difficult battle,” Biden said.
“We are united in our abhorrence of Putin’s depraved onslaught, and we’re going to continue to have [Ukraine’s] backs as they fight for their freedom, their democracy, their very survival,” Biden added. “And we’re going to give Ukraine the arms to fight and defend themselves through all the difficult days ahead.”
Timing: Biden’s speech came hours after Zelensky delivered a personal and emotional plea to the U.S. Congress asking for a no-fly zone over his country and more assistance to beat back Russian attacks on civilians and major cities.
Zelensky, who spoke in both Ukrainian and English during his address, invoked Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in urging Americans to consider what the toll has been for Ukrainians to see their cities come under relentless attack from Russian missile strikes.
What Ukraine still wants: Specifically, Zelensky called for sending warplanes to Ukraine after requests to the U.S. to help directly send Soviet-era fighter jets to the country fell through over concerns by the Biden administration that such a move would escalate the fighting to a conflict between Russia and the U.S. and NATO.
Zelensky also addressed Biden directly at one point, saying “being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
Biden did not respond to questions during Wednesday’s event about what it would take to send fighter jets from Poland to Ukraine.
For a list of everything the U.S. is sending to Ukraine, click here.
A MESSAGE FROM AM GENERAL
Zelensky lights new fire under Congress
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky confronted Americans on Wednesday with a graphic portrait of his country’s suffering in the face of Russian hostility, delivering an impassioned speech that challenged both the policies of the Biden administration and the conscience of a Congress that’s now vowing to escalate its response.
While Zelensky failed to secure the backing for his most urgent request, the creation of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, his subsequent plea for less drastic interventions — including more anti-aircraft weapons and tougher economic sanctions — won the enthusiastic support of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Zelensky’s strategy: If those positions weren’t exactly new, Zelensky’s gripping appeal seemed to reinforce them. Some lawmakers said that was his strategy all along.
“The point of the no-fly zone request is to make us feel guilty that we can’t do the no-fly zone, so that we work even harder on everything that we can do,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), who served as a pro-democracy official at the State Department. “It’s brilliant. It’s exactly what he should be doing.”
While warning against Congress trying to “micromanage” the administration, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, predicted that Zelensky’s speech would prompt lawmakers to seek additional ways to defuse Russia’s aggression.
“You can’t leave the speech without thinking to yourself, what more can we do? And I think that will be the question a lot of members are asking,” Murphy said.
Here are five takeaways from Zelensky’s virtual address to Congress.
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A MESSAGE FROM AM GENERAL
Biden calls Putin war criminal
Biden on Wednesday called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“I think he is a war criminal,” Biden told reporters at an event at the White House.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki, questioned about Biden’s labeling of Putin, said his comment speaks for itself.
“The president’s remarks speak for themselves. He was speaking from his heart and speaking from what he’s seen on television, which is barbaric actions by a brutal dictator through an invasion of a foreign country,” she said.
Efforts underway: She noted there is a legal process underway at the State Department about designating Putin a war criminal.
Harris backs the label: Vice President Harris, while in Romania last Friday, said intentional attacks against civilians are war crimes. In Poland on Thursday, she voiced support for a war crimes investigation into Russia over its strikes on civilian areas.
“We have been clear that any intentional attack or targeting of civilians is a war crime. Period,” she said last week.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in an interview aired on Wednesday that the U.S. is looking into whether Russia is intentionally targeting civilians and journalists, saying it would constitute a “war crime” if Russia was doing so. Blinken’s comments come as journalists in Ukraine have been killed and hospitalized this week while covering the Russian invasion.
SULLIVAN WARNS RUSSIAN COUNTERPART AGAINST CHEMICAL WEAPONS ATTACK
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke to his Russian counterpart, Nikolai Patrushev, on Wednesday and warned Russia against using chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, according to the White House.
The message: Sullivan “warned General Patrushev about the consequences and implications of any possible Russian decision to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine,” White House National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne said in a statement.
Sullivan also reiterated the United States’ “firm and clear” opposition to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and vowed to continue imposing penalties on Russia in coordination with allies, she said.
“Mr. Sullivan told General Patrushev that if Russia is serious about diplomacy then Moscow should stop attacking Ukrainian cities and towns,” Horne said.
A long-awaited conversation: White House press secretary Jen Psaki later told reporters that the call was the most senior discussion between the U.S. and Russia since Secretary of State Antony Blinken last spoke to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov. That call took place in February, before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the large-scale invasion of Ukraine three weeks ago.
The last disclosed call between Sullivan and Patrushev occurred on Nov. 17. Sullivan has also periodically engaged with Putin’s foreign policy adviser, Yuriy Ushakov. The White House did not offer a particular reason for why Sullivan called Patrushev, who is the secretary of the Russian Security Council, on Wednesday.
Earlier: Biden administration officials have warned publicly for the past week that Russia could use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, saying that Russia is spreading false claims about the U.S. supporting chemical weapons development in the country in order to create a pretext for further aggression.
“We have real concerns that Russia could use a chemical weapon, another weapon of mass destruction,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CNN Tuesday. “This is something we’re very focused on.”
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
- The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace will host a virtual discussion on “Consequences of the War in Ukraine on the Middle East,” at 8 a.m.
- The German Marshall Fund will hold a virtual discussion on “China’s Russia Strategy: The Ukraine Crisis and Beyond,” at 8:30 a.m.
- The Atlantic Council will hold a virtual talk on “A Force Multiplier? China and Russia’s Relationship in the Middle East,” at 9 a.m.
- The Stimson Center will talk about “Undeterred by War: Trends in International Arms Transfers,” at 9:30 a.m.
- The Wilson Center will host a discussion on “The Ukraine Crisis and the Balkans: What Changes, and What Doesn’t,” at 9:30 a.m.
- The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing on “National Security Challenges and U.S. Military Activities in the Greater Middle East and Africa,” with testimony from Celeste Wallander, assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs; U.S. Africa Command head Gen. Stephen Townsend; and U.S. Central Command leader Gen. Frank McKenzie, at 10 a.m.
- The Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe will hold a hearing to examine the Baltics under pressure, at 10 a.m.
- The House Appropriations Committee will hold a closed hearing on “United States Southern Command,” at 10:00 a.m.
- The Wilson Center will also discuss “Will Iran Build the Bomb?” and the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran at 11 a.m.
- The House Natural Resources Committee will hold a hearing on “Ongoing Oversight of Runit Dome and the U.S Nuclear Legacy in the Marshall Islands,” at 11 a.m.
- The Vandenberg Coalition will host a discussion on “The future of U.S.-China competition and how the China Challenge is reshaping U.S. foreign policy,” with former Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger, at 12 p.m.
- Mikko Hautala, Finnish Ambassador to the United States,” will speak at a Washington Post Live event at 3 p.m.
- A House Armed Services subpanel will hold a hearing on “Defense Intelligence Posture to Support the Warfighters and Policy Makers,” with testimony Ronald Moultrie, undersecretary of defense for intelligence and security; Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of U.S. Cyber Command and director of the National Security Agency; and Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, at 4 p.m.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- Russia bombs theater where civilians were hiding out, officials say
- DHS gives temporary protected status to Afghans in US
- Texas National Guard troops were ordered as private security for wealthy ranches, service members say
- Graham invokes McCain in latest call to take out Putin
- Majority of Americans back troop presence in Europe: poll
- Ukrainian diplomat says Melitopol mayor freed
- Zelensky: World War III ‘may have already started’
- World court rules for Russia to stop attack on Ukraine
- Defiant Putin claims Ukraine invasion ‘going to plan’
That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for latest coverage. See you Thursday!