Today's D Brief: From Brussels to Vienna; NATO's carrots; Anxiety in the Baltics; Private group evacuating Afghans; And a bit more.
No surprises in Brussels; now it’s onto Vienna. NATO and Russian officials met formally today for the first time in nearly three years, as the U.S. and its allies want Russia to pull its 100,000-plus troops away from Ukraine’s border, and Russian officials want Europe to return to the way things were 30 years ago.
Attending today’s NATO-Russia Council meeting in Brussels: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, who was Moscow’s representative to NATO for six years, ending in 2018; and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg described the talks beforehand as “a timely opportunity for dialogue at a critical moment for European security. When tensions are high, it is even more important that we sit down around the same table and address our concerns.”
Afterward, he declared, “There are significant differences between NATO allies and Russia,” and those “will not be easy to bridge.” But he said it was good that everyone who met Wednesday did so amicably enough, “and engaged on substantive topics.”
And regarding one of the more sensitive issues in Russia’s protest over Ukraine, Stoltenberg declared “Russia does not have a veto” when it comes to a nation that wants to join NATO.
NATO offered to negotiate on missile deployments and arms control agreements, since “There is a real risk for new armed conflict in Europe,” as Stoltenberg said. Russian officials have not yet briefed reporters Wednesday, but there were few indications Moscow had any interest changing its course going into Wednesday’s discussions at NATO.
Stoltenberg also said NATO wants to open an office in Moscow, but it’s not clear at all how soon such a development could actually occur. The secretary-general travels next to Brest, France, for a meeting of European Union defense ministers later today.
What’s next for Putin? According to the New York Times, which polled several analysts, “even his diplomats cannot be certain whether Putin is prepared to launch a new war or what concessions would satisfy him.”
One wonk’s read on the future: “Moscow is awaiting some sort of more formal response to its demand for security guarantees next week, which will likely trigger next steps,” Michael Kofman of CNA tweeted Tuesday evening.
By the way: U.S. and Slovak officials may have reached a deal to potentially host American aircraft on Slovakian soil in the future. The agreement, which concerns airports in Sliac and Malacky, “still needs the president's signature and ratification by the country’s parliament,” which isn’t 100% onboard just yet, Reuters reports from Prague.
Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia could see a boost in alliance troops, Estonia's Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told Reuters separately today. That decision, which is more of a desire presently, would raise the current total of about 1,000 NATO troops each of the Baltic nations now hosts as a Russian deterrent drawn up after Moscow’s 2014 invasion.
Meanwhile on Capitol Hill, a key senate committee is ready to punish Russia should it re-invade Ukraine, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman and Democrat Robert Menendez of New Jersey said in a statement Wednesday morning obtained by the Washington Post. These possible new sanctions could serve as political cover for lawmakers hesitant to take action on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline before German officials show their hand amid Russia’s threat of a further invasion of Ukraine.
Another bill targeting Russia, which is up for a vote Friday in the senate, “would slap sanctions on the pipeline within 15 days of passage, regardless of whether Russia reinvades Ukraine,” Reuters reports. However, according to White House officials, that bill—sponsored by Texas Republican Ted Cruz—would “not counter further Russian aggression or protect Ukraine.” More to all that over at WaPo, here.
Today on the Hill: The “Impact of Continuing Resolutions” is the focus of a hearing before the House Appropriations' Defense Subcommittee. That began at 10 a.m. ET. Catch the livestream here.
From Defense One
US Navy May Put Autonomous Tech on Crewed Ships to Prevent Collisions // Marcus Weisgerber: It’s the same technology already being used on uncrewed vessels.
The US Must Prepare for War Against Russia Over Ukraine // Evelyn N. Farkas: If Putin is not deterred from seizing another chunk of sovereign territory, he won’t stop there.
Private Group Keeps Afghanistan Evacuations Flying Despite Ground Halt // Tara Copp: Group leader: “There are Americans saying, ‘Help me, help me, help me.’ And the State Department is saying, ‘Fill out your form in triplicate.’”
Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson, with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1962, the U.S. military's first combat operation of the Vietnam war, Operation Chopper, began about 10 miles north of Saigon.
The U.S. Navy says a fuel spill in November believed to have contaminated the water of more than 9,000 military families in Hawaii was the result of “operator error,” Military Times’ Karen Jowers reported from a House Armed Services subcommittee hearing Tuesday. More than 5,900 people have shown symptoms of exposure, the Pacific Fleet surgeon said during the hearing, but most of those symptoms disappeared very quickly after they were removed from the tainted water.
Rewind: Military families first started complaining of a fuel smell and film in the water on base eight days after the spill, Jowers writes, but while Hawaiian officials and Army leaders immediately warned against drinking the water, the Navy incorrectly told residents it was safe. The Navy base commander responsible for that initial assessment has formally apologized. Task & Purpose reported that some families started feeling sick before the November spill. Navy officials at Tuesday’s hearing said they are still looking into whether a similar fuel spill in May may be linked to the current problems.
Also (still) seeking justice for the effects of contaminated water at another base: families who served at Camp Lejeune during a nearly 35-year period ending in 1987. CBS has that story, here.
China has begun building along another disputed border, this time on its southern border with Bhutan, Reuters reports, citing satellite imagery from a number of sources, including the United Nations.
Why this matters: It “suggests that China is bent on resolving its border claims by giving its ambitions concrete form,” one regional analyst told Reuters. And the two countries’ beef over their border is already nearly four decades old, with 24 rounds of discussions going back to 1985.
According to China’s foreign ministry, “It is within China's sovereignty to carry out normal construction activities on its own territory.” Bhutan’s foreign ministry told Reuters that it has a strict policy “not to talk about boundary issues in the public.” Read on, here.
Related reading: “How a Beltway naval breakfast sparked China’s ire over Taiwan,” via Navy Times, reporting Tuesday.
And lastly today: Cambodia’s legendary, landmine-sniffing rat has died. His name was Magawa, and he was an African giant pouched rat celebrated for having sniffed out “more than 100 landmines and other pieces of unexploded ordnance” across Cambodia, beginning in 2016, the New York Times reported Tuesday.
A note on his skill: Magawa, and others like him, “are trained to detect the explosive TNT, and can search an area the size of a tennis court in 30 minutes,” the Times writes. “The same work would usually take a person with a metal detector four days.” Read more from the Belgian nonprofit that trained him, here.