Today's D Brief: 'Minor incursion' becomes major headache for WH; Tragedy in N.C.; 2FA for DOD, IC; And a bit more.

The White House is facing new heat from Ukraine’s president and top diplomat, as well as from the usual cast of detractors on Capitol Hill. The new pressure, including a subtweet from Kyiv, follows remarks U.S. President Joe Biden delivered Wednesday in a rare press conference at the White House marking his first year in office. 

“Russia will be held accountable if it invades,” Biden told reporters Wednesday. But he then gave his detractors an opening when he warned that the U.S. response (emphasis added) “depends on what [Russia] does. It’s one thing if it’s a minor incursion and then we end up having a fight about what to do and not do, et cetera.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded on Twitter, writing on Thursday morning, “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones. I say this as the President of a great power.”

Zelenskyy’s top diplomat chimed in similarly to the Wall Street Journal today, when Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Vivian Salama, “We should not give Putin the slightest chance to play with quasi-aggression or small incursion operations. This aggression was there since 2014. This is the fact.” However, he added, “We in Ukraine have no doubt that President Biden is committed to Ukraine.”

One of Biden’s detractors on the Hill was Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., who told Reuters, “President Biden basically gave Putin a green light to invade Ukraine by yammering about the supposed insignificance of a ‘minor incursion.’ He projected weakness, not strength.”

Another Republican knocking Biden was Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., who voted to overturn the 2020 election along with 146 far-right lawmakers in Congress. “Let’s be clear, Mr. President: An invasion of another country is an invasion,” Rogers said in a statement later that evening. “There is no such thing as a ‘minor incursion’ into another country, especially when Russia already occupies large portions of Ukraine.”

“An Afghanistan-in-Europe disaster” is how the democratically disinclined Rogers described what could lie ahead for Ukraine. “We’re staring down the barrel of an Afghanistan-in-Europe disaster,” Rogers said in his statement, “and everyone appears to see it coming but Joe Biden.” 

  • For what it’s worth, Biden’s poll numbers seem to have begun tanking after the Kabul evacuation in August 2021; and one Russian observer warns the parallels are beginning to seem ominous for Kyiv.

By the way: HASC lawmakers like Rogers were given a classified briefing on Ukraine Wednesday afternoon, CNN’s Melanie Zanona reported. But in terms of what the White House expects, Biden was clear. 

“My guess is he will move in,” he said, referring to his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, authorizing another invasion of Ukraine. “He has to do something.” And that’s partly why Biden’s Press Secretary Jen Psaki issued a follow-up statement after his presser making perhaps more clear that, “If any Russian military forces move across the Ukrainian border, that’s a renewed invasion, and it will be met with a swift, severe, and united response from the United States and our Allies.”

Biden knows “the Russians have an extensive playbook of aggression short of military action,” Psaki said, “including cyberattacks and paramilitary tactics. And he affirmed today that those acts of Russian aggression will be met with a decisive, reciprocal, and united response.”

The White House’s only breathing room, according to Biden, seems to be attempting to forge an agreement to keep U.S. “strategic weapons” (nuclear warheads) out of Ukraine. “We could work out something” on that point, he said Wednesday; but Putin would have to reciprocate “along the Russian line as well—or the Russian border, in the European area of Russia.” And few regional experts view this as a viable path forward for either Moscow or Washington or even Brussels. 

But when it comes to NATO, Biden admitted there are differences among allies about how to respond to Russian escalation, whether that be an invasion or damaging cyber attacks. “It’s very important that we keep everyone in NATO on the same page,” Biden said Wednesday at the White House. “And that’s what I’m spending a lot of time doing. And there are differences. There are differences in NATO as to what countries are willing to do depending on what happens—the degree to which they’re able to go.” 

Biden’s top diplomat is spending today in Berlin before he and his team will pivot to Geneva for talks on Friday with his Russian counterpart. 

Here are a few big picture considerations from former Pentagon official Elbridge Colby: “Americans and our allies need to grapple with the reality: We don't and won't have a military big enough to increase commitments in Europe *and* have a chance of restoring our edge in Asia against China. We *must* prioritize. Arguments that don't reckon with that are misleading.” What’s more, “China is a *much* bigger challenge than Russia,” in part because “Asia is much more important than Europe.” For example, “Asia will be 50%+ of global GDP. Europe will be 10% within 20 years.” 

Which all means: “Right now we have a situation that is both strategically untenable and inequitable,” Colby writes. And that’s a situation “in which the U.S. is expected to shoulder the main burden of European NATO defense…And if something can't go on, it probably eventually won't.” Read his full argument, here.

From Defense One

Navy Shouldn't Build Next-Gen Destroyers Until Tech is Proven, Navy Secretary Signals // Caitlin M. Kenney: More testing needed on new tech “so that we don't get ahead of ourselves,” says Del Toro, citing mistakes made building the futuristic Zumwalt-class.

Biden Promises More Troops In Poland, Romania If Russia Invades Ukraine // Jacqueline Feldscher: The president said he is unwilling to consider troop cuts in potential negotiations with Putin.

Air Force Must Harden Pacific Bases Against Missiles, Secretary Says // Marcus Weisgerber: Today’s unhardened, undispersed hangars are easy targets for a new generation of Chinese weapons, Frank Kendall said.

Ukraine Needs Help Surviving Airstrikes, Not Just Killing Tanks // Dara Massicot: A Russian invasion would likely start with a punishing bombardment intended to induce quick capitulation.

NSA Can Now Order Other Agencies to Fix Their IT Systems // Adam Mazmanian: A White House memo grants the intelligence agency new powers under the May 2021 executive order on cybersecurity.

Welcome to this Thursday 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 1887, the Senate secretly authorized the U.S. Navy to use Pearl Harbor as a base.

Tragedy in North Carolina, where two U.S. Marines died and 17 more were injured when a transport vehicle known as a 7-ton rolled over on the highway Wednesday, southwest of Camp Lejeune. The 19-year-old driver of the vehicle has been arrested and charged with exceeding a safe speed and two counts of misdemeanor death by motor vehicle, according to ABC News. More here.

COVID surge in South Korea. Officials in Seoul are urging the U.S. military throughout South Korea to step up COVID-19 mitigation measures as cases among troops and base workers continue to surge, Stars and Stripes reports.
U.S. Forces Korea “reported a pandemic record of 1,599 weekly cases between Jan. 4 and 10,” up from the previous high of 682 cases the week before; from Jan. 3 to 16, about 42% of cases in the city where Camp Humphreys is located “stemmed from people affiliated with the U.S. military.”
From the region: U.S. troops and families in Japan are still in a two-week lockdown, after officials in that country asked American military officials to do more to stop the spread of coronavirus. 

Meanwhile in Germany, communities that host U.S. bases are also seeing spikes in COVID infections, Stripes’ Jennifer Svan reports in a separate story. The Kaiserslautern area saw 68 new U.S. cases last week, “which is believed to be the highest on record,” and other communities with U.S. troops and families are seeing similar increases. 

Tragic Kabul strike footage obtained. The New York Times sued the Defense Department and this week obtained previously classified surveillance video of the Aug. 29 drone strike, which was thought to target ISIS fighters, but in fact killed 10 civilians, including seven children.
A few words on the significance of this new footage: “The longest video, about 15 minutes, is shot mostly with a black-and-white thermal lens and is blurry,” Evan Hill of the Times tweeted Wednesday. “But at least four figures in addition to the car’s driver can be seen moving around the courtyard. Some walk, and others run in a way that suggests they could be children. The U.S. military had never acknowledged seeing multiple people moving around the courtyard before the strike.”

And lastly: 2FA is now mandated network security policy across the Defense Department and the U.S. intelligence agency—including its associated contractors, the White House announced Wednesday. “The memo calls for new guidance on minimum security standards for national security systems in the cloud to be developed and published within 90 days of its issuance,” Nextgov reported on the new changes. Exemptions to the new policy are available, and Nextgov lays some of those out here. The Wall Street Journal has more, here.