Biden struggles to tell his Russia story- POLITICO

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With help from Connor O’Brien

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Every time President JOE BIDEN steps up to the podium, he’s given a chance to highlight his leadership against a classic villain in Russia’s VLADIMIR PUTIN. So far, he’s got a good story to tell: Western weapons have helped Ukraine fend off a stronger force, and the United States and its allies are more united than ever — while Russia reels from economic sanctions.

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But instead there’s an odd defensiveness, where the president often stomps on that message as soon as reporters ask him tough questions about the imperfections of his Russia policy.

NatSec Daily has spoken to reporters who cover Biden’s foreign policy over recent days, prompted by a gathering this evening to bid NSC spokesperson EMILY HORNE farewell. What they’ve told us — almost unanimously — is that Biden has long had a temper and hates when his views are questioned. This happens most notably on global affairs since Biden dealt with complex issues as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair and vice president. He reasonably considers himself an expert, and experts tend not to like when their expertise is challenged.

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That tension becomes apparent the moment he calls on reporters about Russia policy.

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On Monday, a journalist asked Biden if he understood why many viewed his comment that Putin “cannot remain in power” as a new policy of regime change. “No,” Biden replied. “[I]t’s ridiculous. Nobody believes” that’s what he meant, noting his aversion to sparking World War III.

It was reminiscent of other times the president brusquely waved off pointed critiques or questions. Last summer, Biden berated a reporter in Geneva for asking if he was confident engagement with Putin would change the autocrat’s behavior. He later apologized on the tarmac before heading back to the U.S. while still managing to work in a dig at journalists.

“[T]o be a good reporter, you got to be negative,” he said. “You got to have a negative view of life — okay? — it seems to me, the way you all — you never ask a positive question.”

Last week, Biden denied that he or his team said sanctions could deter Putin from invading Ukraine, even though officials did so explicitly multiple times. That was odd, considering on Feb. 24, hours after Russia’s invasion began, Biden said to give him a month before judging whether the financial penalties worked.

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The day a reporter insinuated to Biden that the sanctions didn’t appear to have had the intended deterrent effect was March 24 — the one-month mark. And yet, after accusing the reporter of misunderstanding his position, he concluded by saying “You’re playing a game with me.”

Some Democrats explain this behavior away. “There are shortcomings for sure, but I understand why it would be upsetting to be accused of anything when compared to [former President DONALD] TRUMP,” a senior Senate Democratic aide told NatSec Daily. Others also note that, even when Biden makes serious gaffes, he’s wearing his heart on his sleeve.

“He’s just a man who feels passionately about things,” a White House official said.

Biden often is “making a complex point that is more insightful than the toplines of our talking points, or making a point that is important to him personally. He answers candidly with what he believes in,” a senior administration official added.

Experts also are quick to point out that the partisan atmosphere in Washington, D.C., has poisoned debate.

“There are so many bad-faith criticisms of Biden’s foreign policy that it’s reasonable that even good-faith criticisms are coming from a place of bad faith,” said KYLE HAYNES, a professor of U.S. foreign policy at Purdue University. “Maybe it’s a defense mechanism — he’s used to swatting things away as if they’re ill-willed criticisms, even though sometimes people are just quoting him.”

Biden’s plainspoken demeanor is central to his political persona. But it’s odd that Biden remains so abrasive when confronted with tough questions about his foreign policy — a pattern that seems to be winning him fewer easy wins in the press than he might otherwise have.

SITUATION REPORT: We will only cite official sources. As always, take all figures, assessments and statements with a healthy dose of skepticism.

War in Ukraine:

— Since the war began on Feb. 24, Russia has lost around 17,300 personnel, 605 tanks, 1,723 armored combat vehicles, 305 artillery systems, 96 multiple-launch rocket systems, 131 warplanes, 131 helicopters, seven ships and 81 drones. (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)

— Russia has lost more than 10,000 troops. (U.S. Department of State)

— “The Russian enemy continues to conduct a full-scale armed aggression against Ukraine. It suffered significant losses and probably temporarily gave up the task of blocking Kyiv. It regroups and focuses on offensive operations in the Eastern Operational Zone and to increases [sic] the system of logistical and logistical support of troops in the Donetsk and Tavriya areas.” (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)

— Russia “is having significant difficulties” moving combat equipment. “The opponent is considering the possibility of transporting malfunctioning equipment to the temporarily occupied territories of Donetsk region by tractors for its further recovery.” (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense)

— “Yesterday, in the Russian city of Belgorod, due to neglect of safety rules and violation of the requirements for the transportation of ammunition, their unauthorized detonation took place. This situation is an example of the typical mass use of obsolete dangerous munitions by Russian servicemen, including during the Second World War.” (Ukrainian Ministry of Defense) NatSec Daily note: This seems like a denial that Ukraine struck Belgorod with artillery.

— “Russian units suffering heavy losses have been forced to return to Belarus and Russia to reorganise and resupply. Such activity is placing further pressure on Russia’s already strained logistics and demonstrates the difficulties Russia is having reorganising its units in forward areas within Ukraine. Russia will likely continue to compensate for its reduced ground manoeuvre capability through mass artillery and missile strikes. Russia’s stated focus on an offensive in Donetsk and Luhansk is likely a tacit admission that it is struggling to sustain more than one significant axis of advance.” (U.K. Ministry of Defense)

— “We have seen over the last 24 hours the repositioning of a small percentage” of Russian troops arrayed against Kyiv — less than 20 percent. Some are repositioning into Belarus, but none of them are repositioning to their home garrisons. (U.S. Department of Defense)

Global Response: 

U.S.: Biden told Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY that the U.S will provide his country with $500 million in direct budgetary aid.

Germany: Economy and Climate Minister ROBERT HABECK, seeking to curb the country’s dependence on Russian energy, raised the warning level for gas supplies and called on Germans to “help Ukraine by saving gas or energy altogether.”

Poland: Prime Minister MATEUSZ MORAWIECKI said his country would end all imports of Russian energy by the end of this year.

Headlines:

— The Washington Post:Ukraine Says Russia Forcibly Relocates Thousands From Mariupol. Here’s One Dramatic Account.

The Economist:The War Has Changed Everyone’s View of Ukraine

The Wall Street Journal: Russian Invasion Deals Blow to European Business Confidence

PUTIN FEELS MISLED BY MILITARY: A U.S. official, citing declassified intelligence, is telling reporters that Putin feels misled by his military, adding that there’s “persistent tension” within the Kremlin.

“Putin didn’t even know his military was using and losing conscripts in Ukraine, showing a clear breakdown in the flow of accurate information to the Russian president,” the official said in an anonymous statement. “We believe that Putin is being misinformed by his advisers about how badly the Russian military is performing and how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions, because his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth.”

Biden refused to comment on the intelligence when asked by reporters. But in Algiers, Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN said, “One of the Achilles’ heels of autocracies is that we don’t have people in those systems who speak truth to power or have the ability to speak truth to power. And I think that is something that we’re seeing in Russia.”

It’s worth noting that Russian Defense Minister SERGEI SHOIGU was spotted again after a two-week absence.

ISRAEL INCREASES SECURITY AS ATTACKS CONTINUE: After a Palestinian gunman killed five people Tuesday in a largely ultra-Orthodox city outside of Tel Aviv, Israel’s army on Wednesday sent reinforcements to the occupied West Bank, and security forces deployed along the boundary between Israel and Gaza, reports The New York Times’ PATRICK KINGSLEY.

Israeli police also “said they were turning their focus almost exclusively to counterterrorism operations while scaling up their presence on the streets,” per Kingsley. The shooting Tuesday was the fifth attack in Israel in less than two weeks — a spate of violence that has killed 11 people and made March “one of the deadliest months in Israel, outside of a full-scale war, in several years.”

“In the past few weeks, officials have repeatedly expressed concerns that violence will escalate once the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts later this week, begins,” Kingsley writes. This year’s Ramadan “was already expected to be more tense than usual because it will converge with Passover and Easter — a rare occurrence expected to lead to more Muslims, Jews and Christians gathering at shared religious sites in Jerusalem.”

In a video statement, Israeli Prime Minister NAFTALI BENNETT said his country was “currently facing a new wave of terrorism.” Blinken, in his own statement, said: “This violence is unacceptable. Israelis — like all people around the world — should be able to live in peace and without fear.”

4 MILLION REFUGEES FLEE UKRAINE: The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees announced Wednesday that 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion, with 6.5 million still “displaced inside the country” and 13 million “estimated to be stranded in affected areas or unable to leave.”

“We are confronted with the realities of a massive humanitarian crisis that is growing by the second,” UNHCR posted on its official Twitter account. Poland remains the neighboring country that has accepted the most refugees from Ukraine, numbering roughly 2.3 million. Romania has accepted the second-largest number of refugees, roughly 600,000.

Commissioner FILIPPO GRANDI, the agency’s head, tweeted Wednesday that he had “just arrived in Ukraine,” and that he planned to travel to Lviv to “discuss with the authorities, the UN and other partners ways to increase our support to people affected and displaced by this senseless war.”

20,000 MARIUPOL RESIDENTS DEPORTED TO RUSSIA: Mariupol’s city council announced Tuesday that Russian forces had forcibly deported more than 70 residents from a maternity hospital to Russia, including medical staff and patients. The total number of deported Mariupol residents now numbers more than 20,000, the officials said.

“Identity documents are confiscated from Ukrainian citizens and sent to so-called filtration camps. Then redirected to remote cities in Russia. The principle of distribution and the reasons for the deportation remain unknown,” the city council posted on its Telegram channel.

Mariupol Mayor VADYM BOYCHENKO said the deportations violate “all possible international human rights,” comparing them to “the actions of fascist troops during World War II.” He also said that officials are “creating a base of deported residents of the city and developing an effective mechanism for the return of compatriots.”

IT’S WEDNESDAY: Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @QuintForgey.

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STATE UPDATES WARNING TO AMERICANS IN RUSSIA: The State Department issued a new travel advisory for Russia on Tuesday, warning of “the potential for harassment against U.S. citizens” by Russian security officials, as well as “the singling out of U.S. citizens … including for detention.”

“U.S. citizens, including former and current U.S. government and military personnel and private citizens engaged in business, who are visiting or residing in Russia have been interrogated without cause and threatened by Russian officials, and may become victims of harassment, mistreatment, and extortion,” the department said in the travel advisory.

Russian security services, the travel advisory continued, “have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, singled out U.S. citizens in Russia for detention and/or harassment, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence.”

NORTH KOREA MAY HAVE USED OLD MISSILE: Despite all the sweet video montages, it looks like Pyongyang’s latest test wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. An official from South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense said Wednesday that Seoul and Washington believe the newly developed Hwasong-17 that North Korea claimed to test last week was likely the same intercontinental ballistic missile that Pyongyang launched in 2017, per AFP.

“[U.S.] and South Korean intelligence has determined that what was fired on March 24 was a Hwasong-15,” the official told AFP, referring to the Hwasong-15 ICBM that North Korea already tested more than four years ago.

North Korea’s purported test of the Hwasong-17 last week was Pyongyang’s 12th round of weapons tests this year and would have been its first ICBM launch since the Hwasong-15 test. Both the Hwasong-15 and the Hwasong-17 are potentially capable of reaching the U.S.

MOSCOW CRACKS DOWN ON VPN USE AMID INVASION: Hundreds of websites have been blocked in Russia since the start of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, causing huge spikes in VPN usage as a means of accessing the internet. But even VPN companies “have not escaped Russian censorship,” and operations are now “getting more complicated” for the firms, reports Wired’s MORGAN MEAKER.

Russian internet regulator Roskomnadzor has made more than 12,800 requests for Google to remove URLs under the country’s 2017 ‘VPN law’ from March 13-25, according to the Lumen database, and roughly 20 VPN services have already been blocked in the country.

In addition to the VPN companies “struggling with increased attention from the authorities,” international sanctions and credit card companies suspending operations “mean Russian users are struggling to pay for their services,” Meaker notes. The invasion “has also reignited a debate within the VPN industry about whether these companies offer a safe way to dodge Russian internet censorship.”

CRUISE CONTROL: Per our own CONNOR O’BRIEN, Gen. TOD WOLTERS, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, told lawmakers he supports continued development of the Navy’s nuclear-tipped cruise missile, which the Biden administration plans to eliminate.

Wolters told the House Armed Services Committee that “it would” be his best military advice to continue with the missile and said he agreed with Adm. CHARLES RICHARD, head of U.S. Strategic Command, that “having multiple options exacerbates the challenge for the potential enemies against us.”

The cruise missile, known as the SLCM-N, is one of two new programs directed by the Trump administration in its 2018 nuclear blueprint. The other is the submarine-launched low-yield nuclear missile that has already entered the fleet.

Defense hawks are sure to hammer this split when Biden’s Nuclear Posture Review becomes public. But many Democrats had sought to kill the program, criticizing it as costly and destabilizing.

‘WIN THIS UNLAWFUL WAR’: A quarter of the Senate wrote to national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN urging the administration not just to help Ukraine defend itself, but actually win the war against Russia.

In a letter led by Sens. JONI ERNST (R-Iowa) and KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND (D-N.Y.), the lawmakers are asking Sullivan to provide them with information “on the speed, specifics, and supply of lethal aid provided to Ukraine.”

Specifically, they want:

  • “A list of all lethal and nonlethal aid provided to date and status of delivery or estimated delivery to Ukraine.
  • A list of all equipment purchased or allocated for the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund that remains within U.S. stocks or control, and an assessment of the feasibility to provide such equipment to Ukraine.
  • A complete list of all Army Pre-positioned Stock (APS) or Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) stocks in Europe by item and location.
  • An analysis of available equipment within allied and partner nations that could be procured or transferred to Ukraine and subsequently backfilled with NATO equipment.
  • A list of equipment, production capacity, and war reserve inventories the United States is capable of delivering to backfill to NATO members who have provided capabilities to Ukraine.”

Ernst and Gillibrand led a CODEL this month to Poland and Germany to affirm the Senate’s commitment to NATO and learn about America’s military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

Catch up here with POLITICO’s tracker of all the weapons and military aid the world is giving Ukraine.

GALLAGHER QUESTIONS ‘INTEGRATED DEFENSE’: Rep. MIKE GALLAGHER (R-Wis.), former Marine and member of the House Armed Services Committee, penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed criticizing the administration’s concept of “integrated defense” — the beating heart of the new National Defense Strategy.

Integrated defense calls for “combining diplomacy, alliances and new technology with conventional hard power to deter bad guys from doing bad things,” in Gallagher’s words. “That may sound reasonable, but the administration’s embrace of integrated deterrence is an abandonment of the Pentagon’s previous strategy of deterrence by denial. That required the U.S. to maintain enough military strength to turn back an adversary’s aggression, particularly in Taiwan and Eastern Europe.”

“[D]eterrence ultimately rests on an adversary’s assessment of existing U.S. military power and Washington’s willingness to employ it. That’s why integrated deterrence failed its first big test in Ukraine, where the Biden administration relied on the threat of nonmilitary punishment to deter Vladimir Putin,” he continued.

Gallagher is in effect preaching the Reagan-era gospel of “peace through strength,” whereby adversaries won’t try any funny business because America could defeat them in a fight. The lawmaker accuses the administration of saying their concept is working in Europe and Asia to then argue that defense spending can be cut.

Safe to say Gallagher won’t be among the members of Congress buying into the new Pentagon budget request.

‘IT SUCKS’: Rep. ELAINE LURIA (D-Va.), a U.S. Navy veteran, said Biden’s naval portion of the defense budget proposal, well, “sucks.”

“They propose decommissioning 24 ships; 11 of which are less than 10 years old. 1 has been in service less than 2 years and 2 are currently in modernization,” she wrote in a D.C.-viral Twitter thread. “All to save … 0.5% of their budget. This, along with an anemic building program, will shrink the navy to 280 ships, at the same time they are calling to build a 500-ship Navy. HINT: If you want to grow the Navy, stop decommissioning more ships than you build.”

Luria, the HASC vice chair, has consistently advocated for a more muscular defense policy. Last year, she wrote a Washington Post op-ed calling on Congress to loosen restrictions on the president’s ability to respond to an attack on Taiwan.

— KENNETH WARD was named as the U.S. special representative to the Biological Weapons Convention. He will lead a team of experts at the convention later this year.

— DEAN THOMPSON has been announced as the president’s pick to serve as U.S. ambassador to Nepal. He currently serves as the State Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for South and Central Asian affairs.

— MATT NOVAK, Gizmodo: The Government Made This Fake News Broadcast About a Nuclear Attack on Indianapolis

— HANNAH BEECH, The New York Times:Driven From City Life to Jungle Insurgency

— ARUNA VISWANATHA, The Wall Street Journal:Trial Opens Against Islamic State Member Charged in Death of U.S. Hostages

— The American Conservative and American Moment, 10 a.m.:Up From Chaos: Conserving American Security — with DAN BISHOP, JOE KENT, THOMAS MASSIE, RAND PAUL, MATT ROSENDALE, DAVID SACKS, J.D. VANCE and more”

— The Arab Center Washington D.C., 10 a.m.: Russia’s War in Ukraine and Its Impact on the Middle East — with HEBA GOWAYED, KHALIL E. JAHSHAN, BESSMA MOMANI, YOUSEF MUNAYYER and KRISTIAN COATES ULRICHSEN

— House Armed Services Committee, 10 a.m.:Subcommittee Hearing: Updates on Modernization of Conventional Ammunition Production — with WILLIAM M. BORUFF, DOUGLAS R. BUSH, EDWARD M. DALY, BRETT FLAUGHER, JASON W. GAINES, GAVIN J. GARDNER, BRIAN GATHRIGHT and JOHN J. MCGUINESS

— House Foreign Affairs Committee, 10 a.m.: Subcommittee Hearing: Opportunities and Challenges in the Eastern Mediterranean: Examining U.S. Interests and Regional Cooperation — with ALISSA DE CARBONNEL, HOWARD EISSENSTAT, FREDERICK KAGAN and ALAN MAKOVSKY

— House Homeland Security Committee, 10 a.m.:Subcommittee Hearing: Assessing the Department of Homeland Security’s Efforts to Counter Unmanned Aircraft Systems — with SCOTT W. CLENDENIN, AUSTIN GOULD, DENNIS J. MICHELINI and SAMANTHA VINOGRAD

— ​​House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, 10 a.m.:Full Committee Hearing: Helping Veterans Thrive: The Importance of Peer Support in Preventing Domestic Violent Extremism — with WILLIAM ‘BILL’ BRANIFF, CHRIS BUCKLEY, JOE CHENELLY, JOHN HORGAN, EMMA JOUENNE, CHRIS PURDY, VIDHYA RAMALINGAM, PETE SIMI and SARAH STREYDER

— Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 10 a.m.:Subcommittee Hearing: China’s Role in Latin America and the Caribbean — with EVAN ELLIS, KERRI HANNAN, ANDREW M. HERSCOWITZ, MARGARET MYERS and PETER NATIELLO

— Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, 10:15 a.m.:Full Committee Hearing: Nominations — with DEREK T. KAN and DANIEL M. TANGHERLINI

— The German Marshall Fund of the United States, 10:30 a.m.: Ukraine’s Frontline Effort to Fight Putin and Accelerate Eurointegration — with JONATHAN D. KATZ, BRUNO LÉTÉ and OLHA STEFANISHYNA

— House Appropriations Committee, 10:30 a.m.:Subcommittee Hearing: Military Privatized Family Housing Oversight — with AL AYCOCK, CODY CALDERON, RACHEL CHRISTIAN, PATRICIA COURY, ELIZABETH A. FIELD, PHILIP RIZZO, BRIAN STANN, RICK TAYLOR, CAROLYN TREGARTHEN and NIKKI WYLIE

— The Johns Hopkins University’s Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, 12:30 p.m.:Robert A. Mundell Global Risk Memorial Lecture — with ROBERT HOLZMANN, MICHAEL G. PLUMMER, GUIDO SANDLERIS and PAOLA SUBACCHI

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 2 p.m.:Report Launch: Implications for Cybersecurity in Western-Chinese Technology Decoupling — with DENNIS BLAIR and ARTHUR COVIELLO

— House Armed Services Committee, 2 p.m.:Subcommittee Hearing: Posture and Readiness of the Mobility Enterprise — with LUCINDA LESSLEY, JACQUELINE D. VAN OVOST and KEVIN M. TOKARSKI

— The Brookings Institution, 2:30 p.m.:The Struggle to Govern the World’s Oceans — with DAVID BOSCO, LINDSEY W. FORD, BRUCE JONES and MELANIE W. SISSON

— The Veterans Affairs Department, 3 p.m.: Meeting of the Veterans and Community Oversight and Engagement Board

— The Wilson Center, 4 p.m.:Indo-Pacific Responses to Ukraine — with SHIHOKO GOTO, MICHAEL KUGELMAN, LUCAS MYERS, PRASHANTH PARAMESWARAN, SUE MI TERRY and BRYCE WAKEFIELD

— The Washington Diplomat, 4:30 p.m.: Ambassador Insider Series: Japan — with TOMITA KOJI

— The Stimson Center, 7 p.m.:North Korea’s ‘Checkerboard’ Threat: Obstacles and Opportunities for the U.S.-ROK Alliance — with VINCENT K. BROOKS, IN-BUM CHUN, HO-YOUNG LEEM, NATALIA SLAVNEY, JENNY TOWN and CLINT WORK

— American University, 7:30 p.m.:Thurber Dialogue on Democracy — with ADAM SCHIFF and JIM THURBER

Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.

And thanks to Ben Pauker, who always says that his negative view of life is what makes him a good editor.





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