Today's D Brief: POTUS to Maui; Ukraine’s prospects; Russia’s purchases; New Army ads; And just a bit more.
President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden are expected to arrive on Maui this afternoon to see the devastation wrought by the wildfires there firsthand, and to meet with leaders, survivors, and first responders. “My heart, my prayers, and my focus are on the victims of the Maui wildfires and their families,” Biden said in a statement Sunday. “I will do everything in my power to help Maui recover and rebuild from this tragedy.”
The Bidens’ visit comes as the death toll from the Maui wildfires sits at 114, as of Sunday evening. More than 1,800 people have been moved to hotel rooms on the island, leaving emergency shelters nearly vacant, and 85 percent of the impact zone has been searched, Hawaii Gov. Josh Green said Sunday.
Residents of the island have said they felt abandoned in the aftermath of the disaster, and Pentagon officials have made clear that more troops and assets are available and ready to go if asked. In a call with reporters Friday, Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Stephen Logan defended the federal government response, describing it as “nearly immediate,” but he also noted that the Joint Task Force he commands is not in the lead.
“We’re not in command,” Logan said. “We’re in support of the county of Maui, and are working along the lines of effort that are prioritized by the elected mayor.” Biden also defended the federal government’s response in his statement Sunday, stressing that “from day one we immediately authorized three Fire Management Assistance Grants, and as soon as Gov. Green requested a major disaster declaration, I signed it.”
More than 1,000 federal government personnel were on the ground in Maui by Sunday, according to the White House. During his visit Monday, Biden plans to announce a new chief federal response coordinator to oversee the federal government’s long-term recovery work on Maui, administration officials said.
The Defense Department’s contribution to the effort includes six people from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to help identify remains of victims, Logan said. But the bulk of the Task Force’s effort is “to secure the impact zone” and “render the area as safe as possible, to prevent entrance by unauthorized personnel because of the hazardous nature of what the operational environment is like, and then to facilitate the dignified and proper recovery of the descendants and their remains,” said Logan. “And that process is ongoing,” he added.
Next? Missions the Pentagon may assist with in the future include removing debris, assessing damage, and rebuilding, U.S. Army Pacific told Defense One’s Jennifer Hlad.
- “Navy sends many ships in San Diego Bay to sea to avoid damage by Hurricane Hilary,” the Los Angeles Times reported Saturday; KPBS has similar coverage;
- And “One Soldier Dead, Another Hospitalized Amid Outdoor Fitness Tests in Mississippi Heat Wave,” Military.com reported last Thursday.
Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad and Bradley Peniston. If you haven’t subscribed to this newsletter yet, you can do that here. On this day in 1885, New York-born inventor William Seward Burroughs patented a “calculating machine,” which became nearly ubiquitous across the U.S. banking industry in just a matter of years. Fast-forward to today, and the U.S. military is now considering allowing potential recruits to use calculators on its entry-level screening test, the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery, because a growing number of would-be recruits aren’t scoring high enough to qualify for enlistment. Military.com has that story, here.
The Army has launched the second phase of its back-to-the-future “Be All You Can Be” recruiting campaign. The first batch, released in March, may have had some effect; Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said numbers to date have so far been better than last year.
The service’s recruiting crisis is balanced by the Army’s “generally high retention rate, but the shortfalls are nevertheless pushing the Army to consider reducing its number of units,” D1’s Sam Skove reports.
Denmark promised to transfer 19 F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, President Volodymir Zelenskyy said Sunday during a trip to Copenhagen. However, the first tranche, which includes six of the U.S.-made aircraft, won’t arrive until closer to the end of the calendar year. Eight more are expected in 2024, and five more are slated to arrive in 2025, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said Sunday.
The Danes also pledged to help Ukraine acquire more “air defense, artillery, munitions, coastal defense, Leopards [tanks], armored personnel carriers and demining vehicles,” Zelenskyy said, calling the two nations’ cooperation “important for global food security.”
The Dutch confirmed they will eventually provide Ukraine with F-16s as well, though the precise number is still being worked out, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said while standing beside Zelenskyy in Eindhoven on Sunday. The Netherlands has 42 of these aircraft available, but it’s unlikely to transfer all of those up front.
Developing: Ukrainian pilots are training to fly Sweden’s Gripen fighter aircraft, with plans to transfer some of them to Ukraine, Zelenskyy said after a visit with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson on Saturday.
The two countries also agreed to jointly produce Swedish CV-90 armored vehicles, Zelenskyy announced this weekend. “This is war: something breaks and needs to be repaired. To repair in other states, not on the territory of Ukraine. It is very hard. You lose time and initiative on the battlefield,” he said. “Therefore, today's step is a powerful step forward.”
According to Zelenskyy, “Russia has already used more than 6,500 missiles and more than 3,500 attack drones” against targets across Ukraine, the president said Sunday, emphasizing the persistent need for air defense systems to protect civilians.
Frontline Ukrainian military officers are in brighter spirits lately, the New York Times reported Sunday. “Even if the counteroffensive has yielded only mixed results so far, with Ukrainian troops slowed by dense Russian minefields and sustained firepower, [those officers] describe previous periods as being tougher than this one,” Carlotta Gall writes. However, “Some commanders even talk of a permanent state of conflict” due to the apparent durability of Russian occupation forces.
As it currently stands, Russia’s invasion and occupation of Ukraine could drag on for years because Kyiv and its allies lack “political goals that are both clear and attainable,” Marcus Walker of the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday, citing unnamed Western officials, scholars like Alina Polyakova of the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis, Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center in Berlin, and the long-dead Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz.
Behind these anxieties lie essentially the same concerns articulated by Lulu Garcia-Navarro of the New York Times, who said less than a month into the invasion: “Putin is betting that the unity the democratic West is exhibiting will dissipate under the weight of refugees and high gas and food prices. The West is betting that sanctions and isolation will pressure the authoritarian Kremlin to buckle. This is a fight over which system will win.”
But perhaps the most dominant consideration for the White House remains avoiding an “uncontrolled escalation that leads to a direct war with Russia or to Putin using nuclear weapons,” as the Journal put it. That leaves a sort of Catch-22, Walker reports: “Without a battlefield breakthrough, Kyiv doesn’t want to negotiate peace—and Moscow doesn’t have to.”
China sold Russia a lot more trench-digging excavators in the past year, particularly around August and September of 2022, when Russian forces first started losing occupied territory, the Journal reported separately Monday. Overall, Chinese companies “sold Russia nearly twice as many front-end shovel loaders and more than three times as many excavators in the first seven months of 2023 as it did over the same period a year prior."
“That’s not a coincidence,” said Joseph Webster, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. “That’s when Russian forces really started to entrench themselves, when they started retreating.” Occupation officials in Donbass even publicized the Chinese construction equipment in June on social media.
In addition, “Russia became the top importer of Chinese vehicles this year,” the Journal reports, noting that, “As of June, six of the top 10 car brands in Russia were Chinese, compared with none three years ago.” More, here.
Another nation making a pretty penny on Russia’s Ukraine invasion: the UAE. The Journal reported again on Monday how Abu Dhabi “is capitalizing on the Ukraine war’s economic opportunities like few other countries.”
For a sense of the scale, “U.A.E. imports of Russian crude oil tripled in 2022 to a record 60 million barrels,” the Journal writes. And “Foreign currency flooded into the U.A.E. after Russia’s invasion, increasing about 20% each month since May 2022 compared with the year before.” What’s more, “The U.A.E. imported $4 billion worth of Russian gold between Feb. 24, 2022 and March 3 this year, up from $61 million during 2021,” the Journal reports. But that’s not all: “In the second quarter of 2023, Russians became the third-largest property buyers in Dubai, compared with the ninth biggest in 2021.”
If this trend sounds familiar, it’s likely because there have been many different reports of the UAE’s opportunism over the past year, including at Reuters, the New York Times (also here and here), the Associated Press, CNN, and previously at the Wall Street Journal (here, too).