Today's D Brief: Russian drills in Belarus; Macron speaks up; Accountability problem at Quantico; And a bit more.
CODEL debriefing at the White House. U.S. President Joe Biden just spoke virtually with several of the eight senators who visited Ukraine’s president in Kyiv on Monday. Delegation members unpacked their findings for POTUS46, and they “discuss[ed] next steps to protect Ukrainian partners and deter Russian aggression,” according to the press secretary for delegation co-leader Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. Shaheen tweeted a tiny bit more from this morning’s VTC, here.
New: Biden’s top diplomat will meet his Russian counterpart Friday in Switzerland. “We’re now at a stage where Russia could at any point want an attack in Ukraine,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki warned Tuesday from the White House. “And what Secretary [Antony] Blinken is going to do is highlight very clearly there is a diplomatic path forward.”
Said Blinken Wednesday in Kyiv, standing beside President Volodymyr Zelenskyy: “I think one of Moscow’s long-standing goals has been to try to sow divisions between and within our countries and, quite simply, we cannot and will not let them do that.” For his part, Zelenskyy referenced “our strategic plans of Ukraine joining the [NATO] alliance,” but he didn’t push much more on that point, which is Russia’s largest issue amid the current “crisis.”
Also new: The White House just approved another $200 million in new defensive military assistance to Ukraine, State Department officials said Tuesday. “Still, the administration has stopped short of providing offensive weapons to Ukraine and said it won’t use direct military force to support the country,” the Wall Street Journal reports.
Meantime, more westward Russian troop movement was reported Tuesday, according to the Associated Press. Russia says what observers are seeing concerns preparations for its Allied Resolve 2022 exercises, based in Belarus. Those run from Feb. 10-20.
Ukraine’s military tells CNN it thinks Russia has about 127,000 troops staged nearby for possible action. Blinken warned Wednesday in Kyiv that Russia could reach about 200,000 nearby troops “on relatively short order.”
Moscow’s public messaging: “There is no risk of a large-scale war to start to unfold in Europe,” Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told CNN today. “We do not want and will not take any action of aggressive character,” he added. “We will not attack, strike, invade, quote unquote, whatever Ukraine.”
“Unexplained and unjustified” is how NATO’s chief on Tuesday described Russian troop levels near Ukraine.
What specific Russian activities should trigger sanctions? That’s a question with many answers, as Financial Times reports from recent deliberations among European allies.
Dive deeper: How could Western sanctions hit Russia next? Reuters explains.
Big picture reading: “The Overstretched Superpower,” from Hal Brands of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, writing in Foreign Affairs on Tuesday. Brands pulls from Britain’s 19th-century hegemonic lessons to warn the U.S. may have to consider that declining-power playbook sooner than later. However, in his final warning (“Eventually, the world will punish a superpower that allows its strategic deficit to grow too big for too long”), Brands refrains from guessing how soon the American superpower will be punished for its global economic ambitions. Read his full argument, here.
French President Emmanuel Macron wants the EU to draw up defense plans in response to Russian aggression, he said today at the European Parliament in eastern France. “It is good that Europeans and the United States coordinate, but it is necessary that Europeans conduct their own dialogue,” he said Wednesday. “We should build it among Europeans, then share it with our allies in the framework of NATO, and then propose it for negotiation to Russia.” AP has more, here; Reuters has more here.
BTW: Greece just received several French-made Rafael fighter jets, Reuters reports from Athens.
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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 1981, U.S. and Iranian negotiators reached an agreement to release 52 Americans held in Iran after protesters stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979.
Afghan accountability problem at Quantico. Marines receiving and caring for more than 3,755 Afghan evacuees at Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Virginia, did not track the Afghans appropriately and instead “relied on Afghan leaders and interagency partners” to tell them when people went missing or didn’t show up for appointments, Marine Corps Times’ Todd South reported Tuesday from a recently released DOD Inspector General report. Other bases that housed refugees, including Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey and Ft. Lee, Va., used identification devices like badges and did regular accountability checks, South writes.
However, the Marines did provide vaccines for more than a dozen illnesses, South writes, “reaching a 90 percent COVID-19 vaccination rate and 70 percent polio vaccination rate among the evacuee population on base.”
Kazakhstan’s military chief was just fired more than a week after protests rocked the nation and caused Russia to send special forces troops to put down the unrest. Reuters has more from Almaty, here.
But Russia’s troops are already out of Kazakhstan, the Moscow Times and Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reports today. And that would seem to be a fair reminder that Russia’s military isn’t always a “ravening invader,” as British wonk Mark Galeotti tweeted Wednesday.
Happening soon: U.S. Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall joins Dr. Stacie Pettyjohn of the Center for a New American Security for a virtual “fireside chat” about the future of the force. That discussion gets started at 11 a.m. ET. Details and registration (required) here.
This afternoon, America’s top Space Force officer headlines another think tank event in Washington, this time with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Todd Harrison of CSIS sits down with Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond for about an hour, beginning at 2:30 p.m. ET. Details here.
And top military medical officials join Dr. Anthony Fauci this afternoon to discuss the omicron COVID-19 variant at a military community town hall hosted by nonprofit organization Blue Star Families. Defense Health Agency Director Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place and Joint Staff surgeon Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul Friedrichs are among the participants. Details and registration here.
And lastly today: Go inside the head of the president of the United States during a simulated nuclear attack. Will you make the best choices? What are the best choices? Those are some of the questions raised by Princeton University researchers who created a virtual reality game giving you 15 minutes to save the world from a catastrophic attack. (If this sounds familiar, we mentioned it in our Dec. 15 D Brief.)
“It’s no big deal, just the fate of humanity hanging on your orders,” according to CNBC’s Eamon Javers, who donned the headset recently to see what it’s like for “The News with Shepard Smith.”
“We had a couple of people who were so overwhelmed by the situation that they just wanted out,” researcher Sharon Weiner said. Watch Javers’ full three-and-a-half minute video report from CNBC right here.