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Defense & National Security — Russia’s tenuous grip slips

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The Pentagon has announced that Russian forces are no longer in full control of Kherson — the first Ukrainian city Kremlin troops captured as part of its invasion into the country — with Moscow also admitting nearly 1,400 of its troops have been lost in the more than four weeks of fighting. 

We’ll break down the ramifications of these latest developments, plus Biden’s words of encouragement to U.S. troops in Poland, and the Supreme Court’s new ruling on the Pentagon’s authority over unvaccinated troops. 

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

Let’s get to it. 

 

Pentagon: Russia lost partial control of major city

Russian forces are no longer in full control of Kherson, the first Ukrainian city Kremlin troops captured as part of its invasion into the country, a senior U.S. defense official said Friday. 

“We’ve seen reports of resistance there in areas that were previously reported to be in Russian control,” the official told reporters. “We can’t corroborate exactly who is in control of Kherson, but the point is it doesn’t appear to be as solidly in Russian control as it was before … we would argue that Kherson is actually contested territory again.”  

The official said Ukrainian forces are fighting to take back control of the vital port city located northwest of Crimea. 

Alternate views: However, that U.S. assessment has been challenged by both Russian and Ukrainian officials. 

Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy, the Russian defense ministry’s deputy head of the general staff, on Friday said the Kherson region was “under full control.” 

And Ukrainian officials also said the city still looked to be under Russian control but that there were battles across the broader area, The New York Times reported. 

Significant if true: Should Kherson indeed be contested or eventually taken back, it would make it difficult for Moscow to move to take control of other major Ukrainian ports, including Odessa.  

“That would be significant if the Ukrainians were able to take Kherson back. It is a strategically located city,” the official said.  

Losing Kherson would also put at risk Russian troops fighting in nearby Mykolayiv, the official added.  

A shift in Kyiv: Russian forces around Kyiv, meanwhile, are now in defensive positions and have stopped “any interest in terms of ground movement” toward the capital city.   

“They’ve not made any advances toward the city, either from the north or northwest, and to the east of Kyiv, we still hold them about where they were before,” according to the official.  

The official added that the assessment is in line with the U.S. view that Russia is now “prioritizing” fighting in eastern Ukraine, particularly the contested Donbas region where fighting has occurred since 2014.  

Other developments: U.S. intelligence has also picked up indications that Moscow has started pulling from its forces in Georgia to send into Ukraine, the official noted. 

Washington has seen “movement of some number of troops from Georgia,” — where Kremlin troops have been stationed since they invaded in 2008 — but the defense official could not provide a number.   

Read the full story here.

 

RUSSIA RAISES ITS ESTIMATES TO 1,400 TROOPS KILLED

Russia on Friday raised its official number of military losses in Ukraine to just under 1,400, a figure that comes after NATO put Moscow’s losses at up to 15,000. 

“Unfortunately, there were losses among our comrades during the special military operation,” Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy, the Russian defense ministry’s deputy head of the general staff, said in a briefing. “To date, 1,351 servicemen have died, and 3,825 have been injured.”  

An update: Russia closely guards information on its casualties, with the last such update on March 2, when it said almost 500 soldiers were killed and nearly 1,600 wounded. 

Western estimates: NATO on Wednesday estimated that roughly 7,000 to 15,000 Russian soldiers have been killed and up to 40,000 were dead, wounded, taken prisoner or missing since the country’s attack on Ukraine began four weeks ago. 

The alliance said it came to those totals after reviewing information from Ukrainian officials, Western intelligence and what is has picked up from Russian communication channels, according to a senior NATO military official. 

Read more here. 

 

Biden: This fight among ‘democracies and oligarchs’

President Biden on Friday visited with U.S. troops on his first stop in Poland, commenting on the importance of their work for maintaining democracy amid the Russian invasion into Ukraine. 

“Ten, 15 years from now in terms of our organizational structures, the question is, who’s going to prevail? Are democracies going to prevail and the values we share? Or are autocracies going to? That’s really what’s at stake. So what you’re doing is consequential, really consequential,” Biden said to the 82nd Airborne of the United States Army stationed in Rzeszów.  

“We’re in the midst of a fight between democracies and oligarchs,” he said. 

A pep talk: The president said that, in the last decade, fewer democracies have been formed than have been lost.   

“The rest of the world looks to us because, you know, we not only lead by the example of our power but by the power of our example. Your generation combines both,” he said. 

The numbers: The U.S. has 10,500 troops in Poland as part of the 100,000 U.S. forces stationed across Europe, according to the White House.  

Biden expressed his gratitude to the troops multiple times and noted that all of them stepped up and volunteered to be in the military.  

“You represent 1 percent of the American people. None of you have to be here — you all decided to be here for your country,” he said, adding that the remaining 99 percent of Americans, including himself, “owes you.” 

Read more here

 

SCOTUS: Pentagon has deployment authorization

The Supreme Court on Friday granted an emergency request from the Defense Department to restore its authority over the deployment of unvaccinated Navy SEALs and other special warfare service members amid a pending legal challenge to the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate. 

The court’s move temporarily blocked a January ruling by a federal judge in Texas. That judge halted the department from considering vaccination status in deployment decisions affecting Navy special forces operators who have refused to comply with the military’s mandate on religious grounds. 

The court’s reasoning: Justice Clarence Thomas indicated that he would have denied the Pentagon’s request, and fellow conservatives Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch wrote in dissent. 

“In this case, the District Court, while no doubt well-intentioned, in effect inserted itself into the Navy’s chain of command, overriding military commanders’ professional military judgments,” conservative Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote, concurring with the majority. 

Context: The ruling marks the latest twist as the Pentagon fights to be able to enforce its mandate against the plaintiffs in the case, who argued that the mandate violated their religious rights.

In early January, U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor blocked the Navy from taking “any adverse action” against 35 special warfare sailors — including Navy SEALs, divers and special warfare combat crew. He argued that the religious accommodation process was “by all accounts, it is theater,” adding the branch “merely rubber stamps each denial.” 

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals later turned down a request from the Pentagon to partially stay that ruling, saying the agency hadn’t proven “paramount interests” that justify vaccinating the plaintiffs. 

Read more about the ruling here.

 

ON TAP FOR MONDAY

WHAT WE’RE READING

 

That’s it for today! Check out The Hill’s defense and national security pages for the latest coverage. See you Monday!

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