Today's D Brief: US troops leave Ukraine; WH's warning; Monitors pull out of E. Ukraine; Lockheed's stepback; And a bit more.
The diplomatic blitz continues in eastern Europe as Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, visits Ukraine’s President Volodomir Zelenskyy today before bouncing to Russia for talks with Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.
The top diplomats from Italy and Britain are also planning Ukraine trips this week, with Foreign Ministers Luigi Di Maio and Liz Truss scheduled to arrive in Kyiv on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively. Ukraine’s Zelenskyy even suggested U.S. President Joe Biden visit Kyiv in person sometime “in the coming days.” That, Zelenskyy told Biden, would “be a powerful signal and contribute to de-escalation.”
The big question hanging over all these trips, of course, is: Will Russia invade Ukraine again? U.S. officials on Friday insisted the answer is “yes,” and that the invasion will happen this week. High-profile media outlets like the New York Times and open-source intelligence monitors like Conflict Intelligence Team have published detailed summaries and maps of recent Russian military movements. The Wall Street Journal even shows how far some of Russia’s troops have traveled for these “drills” with and around Belarus.
Biden and Putin spoke by phone Saturday. And as expected, both parties left the call with the same positions and perspectives they had going in, according to senior White House officials who spoke to reporters afterward.
And SecDef Austin ordered the last American troops in Ukraine out of the country, the Pentagon announced Saturday. That includes 160 soldiers from the 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the Florida National Guard. They’ve been attached to the Joint Multinational Training Group-Ukraine since November, and have since been moved elsewhere in Europe, U.S. defense officials said.
Austin also rang up his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, on Saturday, according to a brief Pentagon statement.
State Secretary Antony Blinken did the same with Foreign Minister Sergie Lavrov on Saturday. Blinken made clear that a diplomatic path to resolving the crisis remained open, but it would require Moscow to de-escalate and engage in good-faith discussions,” according to a State Department statement.
The U.S. embassy in Kyiv directed most personnel out of the country on Saturday. “There are real limits to what we are able to do in a war zone,” a U.S. official warned reporters.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba just called SecState Blinken. “We keep actively coordinating efforts to protect Ukraine,” Kuleba tweeted Monday morning. “We also discussed the functioning of SMM OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine]. Ukraine is interested in it being fully operational.”
But dozens of OSCE’s conflict monitors already pulled out of the separatist-held city of Donetsk, according to Reuters, whose journalists “saw several armored cars being loaded [with] suitcases and leaving the mission's headquarters” on Sunday. An exact number wasn’t available, but a source said more than 150 observers were leaving, including those from the U.S., Britain, Denmark, the Netherlands, Canada, Slovakia, and Albania.
Officially speaking, Reuters reminds us, “Russia, which has built up military forces to the north, east, and south of Ukraine, has rubbished the idea it plans to attack, and has accused Western nations of spreading lies and hysteria.”
“Military psychosis” is how Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described the message from Washington and its allies in Europe over the last several days.
One possibly positive indicator could be what Russia’s defense chief seems to have told Putin today in Moscow: That the Belarusian exercises are ending, Russian troops are going “home” soon, and Russia won’t “go to war again with Ukraine,” according to Kevin Rockrock of Latvia-based Meduza news.
On the other hand, Russia-watcher Michael Kofman warns, “I wouldn't overly invest in this story until you see trains with equipment taking units back to their garrisons.”
Ukraine’s state security service says its facing “a massive wave of hybrid war,” which is to say, bad actors online are “attempt[ing] to systemically sow panic, spread fake information, and distort the real state of affairs…to undermine confidence in the state’s ability to protect its citizens, to destabilize our unity.”
The SSB’s recommendations include: “We all need to think critically and check all the information; be guided by data from official sources, not anonymous ones; learn to distinguish truth from fakes.” More here.
On Capitol Hill today: White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will reportedly brief House lawmakers on the latest developments around Ukraine sometime in the morning, and then he’ll do it again for senators in the afternoon.
Said one White House official, to reporters Saturday: “The stakes of this are too high not to give Russia every chance to avoid action that we believe would be catastrophic.” Although so far, that does not include a POTUS46 solidarity trip to Kyiv.
Related reading: “Puzzle in Ukraine Crisis: Where’s the U.S. Ambassador?” via the New York Times, reporting Friday.
From Defense One
Drones Shooting Microwave Rays Could Be the Drone Killers of Tomorrow // Patrick Tucker: Moving away from vacuum tubes is making microwave weapons smaller and smarter.
Russia Has Been Prepping Its Population for a ‘False Flag’ Operation For Months // Patrick Tucker: A steady noise of disinformation, mostly from Russian-backed separatist leaders in Ukraine, crescendoed this month.
US Orders Most Troops, Diplomats to Leave Ukraine // Jacqueline Feldscher and Caitlin M. Kenney: 160 National Guardsmen pulled from Ukraine; skeleton crew left in Kyiv after Biden-Putin phone call produces “no fundamental change."
The Homeland Security Department Has a Playbook for the Super Bowl // Courtney Bublé: More than 500 DHS personnel are providing support for this year’s game.
Russian Invasion of Ukraine Could Happen ‘At Any Time,’ Warns White House // Jacqueline Feldscher and Caitlin M. Kenney: President orders 3,000 more US troops to Poland; American citizens told to flee “immediate” threat in Ukraine.
Biden’s Indo-Pac Strategy Will Rely On Partnerships To Counter China // Jacqueline Feldscher: “This is not a China strategy,” a senior administration official said. “This very clearly identifies China as one of the challenges the region faces…but our China strategy is global in scope.”
Biden Seeking To Split $7B In Afghan Money Between Humanitarian Aid, 9/11 Families // Jacqueline Feldscher: Any transfer of money will need to be approved by the courts because of the pending legal cases brought by families of terrorist victims.
Defense Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: Defense Business Brief: Boeing to pitch KC-46 in next Air Force tanker contest; Indonesia to buy Rafales; Finland signs F-35 paperwork; and more.
Welcome to this Monday 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 2003, United Nations weapons inspector Hans Blix said that 11 weeks of searching around Iraq had not revealed any weapons of mass destruction, despite White House officials’ insistence to the contrary. President George W. Bush would order an invasion 33 days later anyway.
The U.S. military has sent F-22s to the UAE after the rocket attacks from the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. Recall that U.S. troops in Abu Dhabi “launched Patriot interceptor missiles in response to the Houthi attacks last month, the first time U.S. troops have fired the system in combat since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq,” AP’s Jon Gambrell reported Saturday from the UAE.
“The Raptors’ presence will bolster already strong partner nation defenses and puts destabilizing forces on notice that the U.S. and our partners are committed to enabling peace and stability in the region,” Lt. Gen. Greg Guillot, the commander of the U.S. Air Force’s Mideast command, said in a statement. More at AP, here.
President Biden released his new Indo-Pacific strategy (PDF) Friday, and it includes plans for new embassies in Southeast Asia, as well as an expansion of the Coast Guard’s training mission in the area and strengthening alliances with India, Japan, and South Korea, Defense One’s Jacqueline Feldscher reports.
Of note: The new strategy contains many references to China, but a senior administration official told reporters it is focused on the entire region, not just on Beijing.
Pacific pivot redux? Some experts say the strategy is extremely similar to President Obama’s; Craig Singleton from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies said the new plan “feels like we’re again on the cusp of another failed pivot,” referring to the effort begun under POTUS44 as “the pivot that never happened.” Read more, here.
And lastly: In the middle of the Superbowl, Lockheed Martin announced it’s walking away from its $4 billion agreement to buy Aerojet Rocketdyne. The company terminated its planned acquisition instead of fighting a Federal Trade Commission lawsuit aiming to block the deal, Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber tweeted.
Background: “The merger, which was announced in late 2020, drew criticism as it would give Lockheed a dominant position over solid fuel rocket motors—a vital piece of the U.S. missile industry,” CNN reports.
Said LM CEO Jim Taiclet in a statement: “We stand by our long heritage as a merchant supplier and trusted partner and will continue to support Aerojet Rocketdyne and other essential suppliers in the Defense Industrial Base still overcoming the challenges of the pandemic.”