Early Edition: April 21, 2021

A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours.

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A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news

RUSSIA-UKRAINE RELATIONS

Satellite images reveal the extent of Russia’s expanding military buildup along its border with Ukraine and in Crimea, with Su-30 fighter jets having been lined up in Crimea in the past few weeks. “Other Russian military units on the Crimean. peninsula include airborne troops, motorized rifle and armored units, attack helicopters, smoke generators, reconnaissance drones, jamming equipment and a military hospital, the photos indicate … Those forces and the stationing of Su-34, Su-30, Su-27, Su-25 and Su-24 aircraft elsewhere in the region, which are also depicted in the photos, have strengthened Moscow’s political leverage to coerce Ukraine, current and former officials say,” report Michael R. Gordo and Georgi Kantchev report for the Wall Street Journal.

The White House is in the early stages of considering requests from Ukraine for additional shipments of weapons, including Patriot missiles, amid tensions with Russia. Natasha Bertrand and Lara Seligman report for POLITICO.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told his nation yesterday of the possibility of war, stressing that although his country does not want war, it is certainly ready. “It appeared to be no coincidence that Mr. Zelensky’s address came on the eve of Mr. Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation address on Wednesday. At the end of his video, Mr. Zelensky switched from Ukrainian to Russian, speaking to Mr. Putin directly. He pushed back at Mr. Putin’s contention that Russian forces would be used in Ukraine only if the Russian-speaking population in the east was threatened, and proposed a summit in the war-torn eastern region known as Donbas,” Anton Troianovski reports for the New York Times.

Russia’s foreign ministry called on Ukraine and NATO to halt their alleged military preparations because they could lead to escalation, the RIA news agency reported. Reuters reporting.

Zelensky has signed legislation allowing reservists to be called for military service without first announcing mobilization, the president’s office said. “This will make it possible to quickly equip the military units of all defence forces with reservists, thereby significantly increasing their combat effectiveness during military aggression,” the office said. Reuters reporting.

CYBERSECURITY

Suspected Chinese hackers compromised multiple global government agencies and other critical organizations, including defense contractors, by exploiting vulnerabilities in Pulse Secure VPN, a widely used remote connectivity tool, according to a report by the cybersecurity firm FireEye, with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) saying the hacks started in June or earlier. The investigation is in its early stages but evidence suggests that the hackers breached sensitive defense companies, although the Defense Department is not thought to have been compromised. Despite CISA and Homeland Security acknowledging the situation, the White House and FBI declined to comment. Ellen Nakashima and Aaron Schaffer report for the Washington Post.

Homeland Security released a public advisory today urging network administrators to run scan for signs of compromise and to install an emergency workaround by Ivanti, the owner of Pulse Secure. Brian Fug and Geneva Sands report for CNN.

The House yesterday passed the Cyber Diplomacy Act which seeks to elevate cybersecurity at the State Department by requiring it to establish a Bureau of International Cyberspace Policy, with the head of the bureau appointed by the president and given the rank of ambassador, reporting directly to either the secretary of State or a deputy. “The new bureau would lead the State Department’s cybersecurity efforts, including through creating an international strategy to guide efforts by the United States to engage with other nations on cybersecurity issues and to set norms on responsible behavior in cyberspace, reports Maggie Miller for The Hill.

IMMIGRATION

An inside look at President Biden’s reversal on refugee caps is provided by Michael D. Shear and Zolan Kanno-Youngs for the New York Times, which details how Secretary of State Antony Blinken implored Biden and urged him to end Trump-era restrictions on immigrants.

Unaccompanied migrant children have been spending weeks in government custody facilities, in spite of their U.S.-based parents being eager to claim them. “The U.S. government has never had so many migrant teens and children in its care, with more than 20,000 held in Health and Human Services (HHS) shelters and another 2,200 in border facilities waiting for shelter beds to open up … More than 40 percent of the minors released by the government have at least one parent already living in the United States, but HHS has been taking 25 days on average to approve release and grant custody to the mother or father, a number that dipped to 22 days Thursday, according to the latest internal data reviewed by The Washington Post. It takes an average of 33 days to release minors to other immediate relatives, such as siblings,” report Maria Sacchetti and Nick Miroff for the Washington Post.

The Biden administration will set aside 6,000 seasonal guest worker visas for people from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in the coming months, Homeland Security said yesterday. “The 6,000-visa allotment would be part of an additional 22,000 H-2B visas made available to employers in the current fiscal year, which ends on September 30, DHS said in a statement,” reports Al Jazeera.

OTHER DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS

Homeland Security inspector general (IG) Joseph Cuffari blocked calls last year by career staff for an investigation into the Secret Service’s clearing of Lafayette Square during George Floyd protests last year, in addition to a probe investigating whether the agency flouted Covid-19-related federal protocols aimed at detecting and reducing the virus’s spread in its ranks, according to documents obtained by the Project On Government Oversight and people familiar with the decision. Carol D. Leonnig reports for the Washington Post.

Two top military officers — U.S. Strategic Command chief Adm. Charles Richard and U.S. Space Command chief Gen. James Dickinson — told lawmakers that they have “zero” extremists under their command, citing security clearance processes. Richard told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he is “very confident that the number of extremists in my forces is zero,” while Dickinson said, “in my organization, I would say that number is zero.” Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has conceded to her touted 9/11-style commission into the Jan. 6 attack having an equal number of Democrats and Republican members, reversing her initial stance that called for a higher proportion of Democrats, a source familiar with the matter told CNN, who said a letter with the proposals was sent to colleagues Friday, with her leadership team briefed yesterday. “The offices of both House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have been actively involved with the negotiations, told CNN they have yet to see a new draft proposal and they have not had any communication with Pelosi on the commission in several weeks,” report Ryan Nobles, Annie Grayer and Jeremy Herb for CNN.

Plans to reinstall an outer perimeter fence around the Capitol Complex grounds have been reversed just hours after receiving approval, a spokesperson for the Capitol Police said. “The plan for fencing was approved in anticipation of potential unrest following the verdict in the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer charged with killing George Floyd. Shortly after the jury returned a guilty verdict on all charges, the Capitol Police revealed they had scrapped the renewed fencing plan,” Kyle Cheney, Nichola Wu and Sarah Ferris report for POLITICO.

Lisa Monaco was yesterday confirmed in a 98-2 vote by the Senate to be deputy attorney general. Sadie Gurman reports for the Wall Street Journal.

U.S. RELATIONS

U.S. Strategic Command chief Adm. Charles Richard, the top officer in charge of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, warned that China and Russia are modernizing their nuclear weapons and capabilities at a faster rate than the U.S., telling congressional leaders during a hearing yesterday that if the U.S. does not invest more in defense and infrastructure, it would be “at risk of losing credibility in the eyes of our adversaries.” Ellie Kaufman and Barbara Starr report for CNN.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that striking terrorist targets in Afghanistan after all U.S. troops have been withdrawn will be “harder” but “not impossible.” McKenzie said he was in the midst of “detailed planning” for options for “over the horizon” forces, or forces stationed elsewhere in the region that could continue counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, adding that he plans to give Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin those options by the end of April. Rebeccca Kheel reports for The Hill.

Afghan peace talks in Turkey have been postponed until the end of Ramadan, following consultation between Turkey, Qatar, the U.S. and U.N., Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said yesterday, adding that there was “no need to hurry” following the decision to withdraw U.S. troops from the region by Sept. 11. Al Jazeerareporting.

Indirect talks between the U.S. and Iran in Vienna over a future return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal remain “positive,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters yesterday. “I would just say generally that the talks have continued in Vienna, as we know. The United States and Iran, we have, together, a stated, common objective of returning to mutual compliance with the [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action]. We have been engaged constructively in a diplomatic process to achieve that goal. I think it continues to be fair to say that the talks have been business-like, they have been positive,” Price said. “Yes, there has been some progress, but there remains a long road ahead. I think it’s fair to say that we have more road ahead of us than we do in the rearview mirror,” he added. Tal Axelrod reports for The Hill.

The U.S. and China are close to naming new envoys to both capitals: “Beijing plans to appoint Qin Gang, an adept diplomat who has acted as President Xi Jinping’s chief protocol officer, as the next ambassador to Washington … Washington is widely expected to name R. Nicholas Burns, a veteran diplomat who has served in both Democratic and Republican administrations, as its ambassador to Beijing,” Lingling Wei and Bob David report for the Wall Street Journal.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has urged for Biden to engage with North Korea on matters of denuclearization, which is a “matter of survival” for his country, during an interview with the Times. Details of the interview are provided by Choe Sang-Hun for the New York Times.

CORONAVIRUS

The novel coronavirus has infected over 31.79 million and now killed over 568,400 people in the United States,  according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 143.05 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 3.04 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Johnson & Johnson’s Covid-19 vaccines will resume in the E.U. but should carry a warning about rare blood clots, the European Medicines Agency said yesterday, making clear that the benefits outweigh the risks. “The move by European officials comes as use of the shot has been paused in both Europe and the U.S., where an advisory committee to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is scheduled to meet Friday to advise about the next course of action,” reports Thomas M. Burton and Eric Sylvers for the Wall Street Journal.

A map and analysis of the vaccine roll out across the U.S. is available at the New York Times.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. is available at the New York Times.

U.S. and worldwide maps tracking the spread of the pandemic are available at the Washington Post.

A state-by-state guide to lockdown measures and reopenings is provided by the New York Times.

Latest updates on the pandemic at The Guardian.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Russian President Vladimir Putin today warned during his annual “State of the Nation” address in Moscow that: “organizers of any provocations threatening the fundamental interests of our security will regret their deeds more than they have regretted anything in a long time.” New York Times reporting.

Allies of Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny have been arrested. Reuters reporting.

Myanmar’s military junta Senior General Min Aung Hlaing will join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit of Asian leaders this weekend, Nikkei Asia reported on Wednesday. Reuters reporting.

The president of Chad, Idriss Déby, dies from combat wounds, the military says, the same day that he won a sixth term. Jason Burke and Zeinab Mohammed Salih report for the Guardian. 

About the Author(s)

Siven Watt

Associate News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK. Follow him on Twitter (@SivenWatt)