Today's D Brief: Germany's about-face on Russian oil; UN chief in Ukraine; WH's new vision for the Internet's future; Top Gun ballad; And a bit more.
Two days after visiting the Kremlin, the chief of the United Nations is in Kyiv today meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy. “We will continue our work to expand humanitarian support & secure the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones,” António Guterres tweeted from Ukraine. “The sooner this war ends, the better—for the sake of Ukraine, Russia, and the world.”
His latest tweet, delivered after visiting the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha and Borodyanka, reads simply: “War is evil.” Read more about his travels via the UN’s press team, here.
New: Germany says it’s ready to stop buying Russian oil, which is an enormous and surprising change from Berlin’s official stance that would have waited until the end of the calendar year for such a move.
The fine print: German officials want “sufficient time to secure alternative supplies,” according to the Wall Street Journal. But the big reversal came after Berlin officials struck a deal to import oil via the Baltic Sea port of Gdansk, in Poland. A refinery there “was the biggest obstacle to Germany accepting a ban on Russian oil imports because thousands of jobs in the region depend on it and there was no alternative supply to feed it until now.”
Why it matters: Russia is receiving about a billion dollars each day for its gas from nations across the EU. But the Kremlin’s decision to cut off Bulgaria and Poland on Wednesday accelerated the thinking in Berlin.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the east is “gathering momentum” as the Russians make “slow progress” trying to cut off Kyiv’s forces south of the city of Izyum, the Associated Press and Journal report separately. Analysts at the Institute for the Study of War echo that update around Izyum, calling Russian advances “minor but steady” as “they likely intend to outflank Ukrainian defensive positions on the highways to Barvinkove and Slovyansk.”
The White House says it will send a new supplemental funding request to Congress this week asking for more military aid to Ukraine. It would also include plans to move the American embassy back to Kyiv, and help allies backfill the weapons and munitions they have sent to Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told senators on Wednesday. The supplemental, which could be sent to Congress as early as Thursday, will also include funding to help remove mines that retreating Russian soldiers are using to booby trap washing machines or toys in Ukrainian homes, our colleague Jacqueline Feldscher reports.
Russia as terrorist? Under questioning from Sen. Lindsay Graham, R-S.C., Blinken also said the administration is “looking at” adding Russia to the list of state sponsors of terrorism. “There’s no doubt in my mind that the Russians are terrorizing the Ukrainian people,” he said. “This is something lawyers are looking at to make sure we meet the statutory requirements.” It was Blinken’s second appearance on Capitol Hill this week. He’s expected to testify again this morning at the House Appropriations Committee and this afternoon at the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Enhanced” oligarch hunting: Along with that supplemental request to Congress, Biden is seeking stronger powers “to hold the Russian government and Russian oligarchs accountable for President Putin’s war against Ukraine,” the White House announced Thursday. This would involve “new authorities for the forfeiture of property linked to Russian kleptocracy,” which would then “allow the government to use the proceeds to support Ukraine.”
Also involved: The creation of “a new criminal offense, making it unlawful for any person to knowingly or intentionally possess proceeds directly obtained from corrupt dealings with the Russian government.” The White House’s request also seeks to extend the statute of limitations for money laundering and post-conviction forfeitures from five to ten years. A bit more, here.
- “Microsoft: Russian hacks often accompany Ukraine attacks,” via AP, reporting Wednesday from Microsoft’s own review, published Wednesday;
- “Ukraine Brings First War-Crimes Charges Against Russian Soldiers in Bucha,” via the Wall Street Journal, reporting Thursday;
- “Building a War-Crimes Case Against Vladimir Putin,” via Human Rights Watch, writing Wednesday;
- “Trained Russian Navy Dolphins are Protecting Black Sea Naval Base, Satellite Photos Show,” via U.S. Naval Institute News, reporting Wednesday;
- “They Flooded Their Own Village, and Kept the Russians at Bay,” via the New York Times, updating coverage initiated in March via the Washington Post;
- And “See the moment CNN crew gets caught in active Russian shelling,” via CNN, reporting Monday.
From Defense One
What Have US Special Operators Learned from the Ukraine War? // Elizabeth Howe: The Army, for one, is considering creating a special-operations drone specialty.
CEO: Boeing Should Have Rejected Trump’s Air Force One Deal // Marcus Weisgerber: The company revealed that it has lost $660 million outfitting the next presidential jets—so far.
Hiring for the Foreign Service Is Getting an Overhaul // Eric Katz: The nearly 100-year-old test will play less of a role in picking candidates.
Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad and Jacqueline Feldscher. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here.
With an eye to China and Russia, the White House wants to protect the internet from “rising digital authoritarianism,” similar to the kind that’s grown dramatically since Putin’s Ukraine invasion. This means the Biden administration wants to more vocally resist states whose leaders “have been acting to repress freedom of expression, to censor independent news sources, to interfere with elections, promote disinformation around the world, and deny their citizens other human rights.”
That’s why the White House just launched a new “Declaration for the Future of the Internet,” (PDF) which is an emerging, joint effort linking at least 50 different nations in order to “advance a positive vision for digital technologies anchored by democratic values,” senior administration officials told reporters Wednesday. “The primary impetus here was to get at this question of state behavior,” and “what we’ve seen as an effort to fundamentally change the Internet—the nature of the Internet—from something that is an instrument of commerce and culture to something that is an instrument of state power.”
Why? Leaders like Putin and Xi Jinping are increasingly trying to create “a splinternet,” as White House officials described it. “Look at what Russia is doing, some of the steps that China has been taking,” a senior official said Wednesday. “The Internet was originally a network of networks designed to interconnect everyone, and we think there’s extraordinary value in that. And we’re here to try to restore that vision.”
To be clear, “this is not about cyber warfare,” a White House official emphasized. Instead, it’s intended to concern “all kinds of areas, whether it’s unlawful surveillance of your citizens, whether it’s blocking legitimate news sources, whether it’s shutting down the Internet,” as well as “interfering with elections of other countries.”
Can it work? Perhaps, but so far India (the world’s largest democracy) isn’t officially on board. At any rate, whether it succeeds isn’t something we’re likely to learn for many months to come. And yet there’s also the possibility that it turns into one of those White House initiatives—like President Donald Trump’s diversity-targeting “1776 Commission”—that gets tossed out the window with the next administration, should the Democrats lose the 2024 general election. Read over a White House fact sheet for the program, here.
A key U.S. military cyber official is talking about “The Shifting Geopolitics of Cyberspace” at an event in California this afternoon featuring Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy Mieke Eoyang.
America’s top Navy officer, Adm. Mike Gilday, is scheduled to discuss the future of the service in an afternoon event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. That one begins at 1 p.m. ET. Details and registration, here.
Canada’s new defense chief, Anita Anand, is dropping by CSIS this morning at 11:15 a.m. ET—before then pivoting across the Potomac to visit Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon about two hours later. Details and registration, here.
On Capitol Hill, the future of the F-35 program is the focus of a hearing before House lawmakers at the Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee. That one begins at 2 p.m. ET. Details here.
And HASC’s intel and special operations subcommittee plans to tackle U.S. Special Operations Command’s FY2023 budget request in the same room (2118 Rayburn) about two and a half hours later. Details for that one, here.
Also this afternoon, Brookings is hosting a two-part event reviewing defense industry supply chains and overall U.S. defense spending, beginning at 3 p.m. Registration required; details here.
Pandemic loan oversight: Former Pentagon chief Mark Esper is in hot water for allegedly intervening in the national security loan certification process for a trucking company, Yellow Corporation, that allegedly overcharged for its services, according to a new Congressional report released Wednesday by the Democratic staff of the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. The New York Times unpacked some of the findings, which also include correspondence illustrating that “Mark Meadows, the White House chief of staff, was a ‘key actor’ coordinating with Yellow’s lobbyists.”
Also included in this investigation: Ellen Lord, former top weapons buyer for the Pentagon in the Trump administration, and Steven Mnuchin, former Treasury Secretary under Trump. Both appear to have intervened in the certification process, with Mnuchin’s aides reportedly taking a more direct role in steering the authorization to Yellow Corp. Read over a summary, here; or find the full report (PDF) here.
An estimated $7 billion in U.S. military equipment stayed behind in Afghanistan when Kabul fell this past August, according to a new Congressionally-mandated Pentagon report obtained by CNN on Wednesday. It was all equipment passed onto the former Afghan government after more than a decade and a half of trying to build the military and police forces from the ground up.
By the numbers: According to CNN, “The US gave a total of $18.6 billion of equipment to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces from 2005 to August 2021…equipment worth $7.12 billion remained in Afghanistan” on August 31, 2021. That included “aircraft, air-to-ground munitions, military vehicles, weapons, communications equipment, and other materials,” according to the report.
It would also seem that some precision-guided munitions were left behind as well. CNN writes that more than 9,500 air-to-ground munitions stayed after U.S. forces left, and the “significant majority” of the “remaining aircraft munitions stock are non-precision munitions.”
The U.S. was able to keep its hands on five Mi-17 helicopters, which it delivered to Ukraine beginning in January. “These five helicopters were in Ukraine undergoing overhaul maintenance when the Afghan government collapsed, and have remained there since,” the report reads.
By the way: On the first day of Taliban rule last August, take one guess at who you think was visiting the Pentagon that day… The answer is Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy. Just two short months later, he’d change out his military chief when he installed current Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov—who traveled to the Pentagon just two weeks later for his first in-person visit with SecDef Lloyd Austin. Watch the two military chiefs greet each other just two days ago for Austin’s first in-person visit to Kyiv, via Reznikov’s Twitter feed, here.
Related reading: “How Equipment Left In Afghanistan Will Expose US Secrets,” via our colleague Patrick Tucker, reporting in September.
Lastly today: Lady Gaga has announced the song she wrote for the new Top Gun movie. The song is called “Hold My Hand,” and is a “soaring ballad,” according to Variety. The song will be released next week, while Maverick fans will have to wait a little longer—until May 27—to see the movie.