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A curated weekday guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is to meet Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov today in another high-stakes meeting on Ukraine. U.S. officials have low expectations that the meeting will resolve the current deadlock in negotiations, including in regard to Russia’s demand that NATO pledges never to expand further eastward. Blinken has said the session will be an opportunity to assess Moscow’s willingness to continue dialogue. Michael Crowley reports for the New York Times.
Further reporting on Blinken’s meeting with Lavrov is provided by Vivian Salama for the Wall Street Journal, by Missy Ryan for the Washington Post and by BBC News.
Russia’s foreign ministry today has said that Moscow is seeking guarantees from the west that include provisions requiring NATO forces to leave Romania and Bulgaria, countries that joined NATO in 1997. Patrick Wintour reports for the Guardian.
The U.S. has unveiled new sanctions against Russian-backed Ukrainian officials and has accused Russia of recruiting current and former Ukrainian government officials in an attempt to take control of Ukraine’s government. The Treasury said that the four individuals sanctioned, two of whom are current members of Ukraine’s Parliament, were acting under the direction of a Russian intelligence service and played “various roles” in Russia’s “global influence campaign to destabilize sovereign countries in support of the Kremlin’s political objectives.” Veronica Stracqualursi, Kylie Atwood, Jennifer Hansler and Alex Marquardt report for CNN.
Ukraine military intelligence has claimed that Russia is actively recruiting and training mercenaries in the separatist controlled areas of eastern Ukraine, as well as moving fuel, tanks, artillery and mortars into the area. Reuters reports.
President Biden strengthened his rhetoric yesterday on Ukraine, warning Russia that any movement of Russian units across the Ukrainian border would be considered an invasion. Biden’s comments came a day after he triggered alarm in European capitals with his suggestion of division among NATO as to how to respond to different levels of incursion into Ukraine from Russia. Biden subsequently told reporters that he had been “absolutely clear” with Russian President Vladimir Putin that a new incursion in Ukraine would be met by a “severe and coordinated economic response.” Michael Crowley and Steven Erlanger report for the New York Times.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenski publicly pushed back on Biden’s comment on Wednesday that a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine would prompt a lesser response than a full-scale invasion. “We want to remind the great powers that there are no minor incursions and small nations. Just as there are no minor casualties and little grief from the loss of loved ones,” Zelensky wrote on Twitter. Jeremy Herb reports for CNN.
Vice President Harris has insisted that the U.S. will respond aggressively to any incursion in Ukraine, joining the White House’s campaign to repair Biden’s earlier misjudged statement. Lauren Aratani reports for the Guardian.
Western officials yesterday rushed to contain any damage caused by Biden’s comments, along with French President Emmanuel Macron’s assertion that Europeans should negotiate their own version of a new security order with Moscow. The E.U.’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell inisted “that everything was under control and that neither Biden nor Macron had said anything remotely out of step,” David M. Herszenhorn, Lili Bayer and Rym Momtaz report for POLITICO.
A bipartisan group of senators have introduced a bill that would make it easier for the U.S. to send Ukraine defensive weapons. “The Ukrainian Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act would authorize Biden to enter into lend and lease agreements directly with Ukraine to provide the nation with military equipment necessary to protect vulnerable civilian populations,” Jordan Williams reports for The Hill.
Spain is sending warships to bolster NATO naval forces in the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and is weighing sending fighter jets to Bulgaria in a bid to deter Russian aggression, Spain’s Defense Minister Margarita Robles has said. Reuters reports.
RUSSIA – MILITARY DRILLS
Russia is sending two battalions of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems to Belarus for military drills with Belarus next month, the Interfax news agency has reported. The drills, which are to be held near Belarus’s border with NATO members Poland and Lithuania, and close to its southern flank with Ukraine, have fueled fears in Western states that Russia is preparing for an assault on multiple fronts against Ukraine. Reuters reports.
Russia has announced that its navy will stage a sweeping set of exercises involving all of its fleet this month. The drills will take place in the seas directly adjacent to Russia and will also feature maneuvers in the Mediterranean, the North Sea, the Sea of Okhotsk, the northeast Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific, Russia’s defense ministry said. Al Jazeera reports.
Russia, Iran and China held their third joint naval drills in the northern Indian Ocean today, state TV reported. Reuters reports.
OTHER U.S. RELATIONS
U.S. prosecutors have charged four Belarusian government officials with conspiracy to commit aircraft piracy in connection with the forced landing of the Ryanair plane carrying opposition journalist Roman Protasevich in Minsk last May. The indictment filed yesterday in Manhattan Federal District Court contended that the bomb threat, which was used by Belarus’s government to justify the interception of the flight, was orchestrated by senior Belarus officials who were seeking to detain Protasevich in Minsk. The defendants are based in Belarus and remain at large. Benjamin Weiser reports for the New York Times.
During the height of the war against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, the U.S. bombed Syria’s largest dam, despite the dam being on a “no-strike” list and a military report having warned that striking the giant structure could cause tens of thousands of deaths. IS, the Syrian government and Russia blamed the U.S. for the bombing of the Tabqa Dam, controlled by IS at the time, which the U.S. military denied. However “in fact, members of a top secret U.S. Special Operations unit called Task Force 9 had struck the dam using some of the largest conventional bombs in the U.S. arsenal, including at least one BLU-109 bunker-buster bomb designed to destroy thick concrete structures, according to two former senior officials,” Dave Philipps, Azmat Khan and Eric Schmitt report for the New York Times.
Democratic lawmakers have called for Biden to review and overhaul the U.S.’s counterterrorism policy and drone strike strategy. In a letter 11 senators and 37 House members, “warned [that] the U.S.’s image overseas would suffer, ‘human and strategic costs’ would be incurred and counterterrorism objectives would be undermined if the current U.S. counterterrorism policy was not reformed to focus on international law and human rights,” Caroline Vakil reports for The Hill.
Top senators have downplayed and criticized a new interim CIA assessment that found that the mysterious symptoms known as “Havana Syndrome” are not the result of a sustained global campaign by hostile power. “Senators from both parties questioned the interim assessment’s timing and inconclusive nature, along with the fact that the report was not coordinated with other intelligence agencies ahead of its release. Others noted that it appeared to contradict previous information shared with the congressional intelligence committees, which pointed toward the use of a directed-energy weapon as the source,” Andrew Disiderio reports for POLITICO.
Federal prosecutors have dropped criminal charges against a Massachusetts Institute of Technology mechanical engineering professor who had been accused of hiding his ties with China. Gang Chen was arrested last January on charges of concealing posts he held in China in a grant application he had made to the U.S. Department of Energy in 2017. However, Energy Department officials have since told prosecutors that the Department does not believe that Chen had an obligation to disclose the posts at the time. Aruna Viswanatha reports for the Wall Street Journal.
OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS
A rocket attack on a north Syrian town controlled by Turkey-backed fighters has killed six civilians and wounded nearly 30. It was not immediately clear who fired the artillery shells on Thursday, but the attack came from a region where Kurdish fighters and Syrian government forces are present, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Al Jazeera reports.
Suspected IS gunmen have attacked an Iraqi army barracks in the Diyala province, killing 11 soldiers as they slept, according to Iraqi military and security officials. There has been no immediate claim of responsibility, but two officials have said that the fighters broke into the barracks and shot dead the soldiers before fleeing. Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Sarah El Deeb report for AP.
The U.N. has adopted a resolution that condemns denial and distortation of the Holocaust, and has urged its member states and social media firms to help fight antisemitism. The resolution, put forward by Israel and Germany, was passed without a vote by the 193-member General Assembly. UN News Centre reports.
Israel’s attorney general has ordered an investigation into Israeli police’s surveillance tactics amid reports of misuse of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. Reuters reports.
JAN. 6 ATTACK
The House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack has requested cooperation from Ivanka Trump. In a letter to Ivanka Trump, President Trump’s eldest daughter who served as one of his senior advisers, the committee said it had obtained evidence that multiple White House officials, including Ivanka Trump, had implored Trump to call off the violence. However, the letter also states that the panel understands that “certain” White House aides at the time were also worried about Trump issuing anything other than a scripted statement during the attack. Luke Broadwater reports for the New York Times.
Edward Vallejo, an Oath Keeper indicted last week on charges of seditious conspiracy relating to the Jan. 6 attack, cached weapons in preparation for the attack. A federal magistrate judge in Arizona ruled that Vallejo should be detained pending his trial. The judge said that prosecutors had presented compelling evidence that Vallejo had been prepared to shuttle the large cache of firearms and other weaponry into Washington D.C. to aid the efforts of Oath Keepers to storm and occupy the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein report for POLITICO.
The Justice Department is arguing that Stewart Rhodes, the leader of the Oath Keepers group, should remain in jail as he awaits trial for seditious conspiracy related to the Jan. 6 attack. “There are no conditions of release that can reasonably assure the safety of the community or the defendant’s appearance in court…And based on Rhodes’s evidence destruction aimed at hiding his crimes and the identities of his co-conspirators, he poses a risk of obstructing justice should he be released,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing. Katelyn Polantz, Andy Rose and Mary Kay Mallonee report for CNN.
After the Jan. 6 attack, Fox News host Sean Hannity worked with White House aides in an effort to persuade Trump to abandon his false claims about voter fraud, according to documents disclosed by the Jan. 6 committee. Michael M. Grynbaum reports for the New York Times.
OTHER U.S. DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS
Members of former President Trump’s campaign team, led by Rudy Giuliani, oversaw efforts in December 2020 to put forward illegitimate electors from seven states that Trump lost. Sources have said that Giuliani and his team coordinated the details of the process on a state level. One source also said that there were multiple planning calls between Trump campaign officials and Republican state operatives, and that Giuliani participated in at least one call. Marshall Cohen, Zachary Cohen and Dan Merica report for CNN.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis has requested a special grand jury to investigate efforts to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results. In a letter, Willis told the chief judge of Fulton County’s Superior Court that the grand jury was necessary to secure key testimony. “While the letter didn’t mention Trump by name, it referred to efforts by people to contact the Georgia secretary of state, the Georgia attorney general, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Atlanta. An exhibit attached to the letter mentioned Trump, who pressured Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger about the vote in a January 2021 phone call,” Alexa Corse and Cameron McWhirter report for the Wall Street Journal.
The FBI is treating the attack by Malik Faisal Akram on a synagogue in Forth Worth, Texas on Saturday as “an act of terrorism targeting the Jewish community,” the FBI’s director Christopher A. Wray, has said. The FBI had initially said that Akram was not driven by antisemitism when he held four people hostage at the synagogue. However, during a webinar hosted by the Anti-Defamation League, Wray told viewers that: “this was not some random occurrence…It was intentional, it was symbolic and we’re not going to tolerate antisemitism in this country.” Ruth Graham reports for the New York Times.
Akram conducted Internet searches for influential rabbis, an imprisoned terrorist and gun and pawnshops in the days before he attacked the synagogue in Fort Worth, law enforcement officials have said. Devlin Barrett, Matt Zapotosky, Jack Douglas and Souad Mekhennet report for the Washington Post.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX)’s home and campaign office in Texas were raided as part of a federal investigation into Azerbaijan and a group of U.S. businessmen who have ties to the country, a senior law enforcement official has said. A federal grand jury in Washington is investigating the matter, but it is currently unclear if Cuellar, who is co-chair of the Congressional Azerbaijan Caucus, is a target of the grand jury’s probe. Mark Levine reports for ABC News.
YouTube has shut down two channels linked to the Oath Keepers militia group. The channels broke the platform’s creator responsibility guidelines, YouTube said. “YouTube deactivated one channel named ‘Oath Keepers,’ which had fewer than 45,000 subscribers, and another belonging to the group’s national leader Stewart Rhodes, which had fewer than 20 subscribers,” Ashley Gold reports for Axios.
The Austrian Parliament’s lower house has voted in favor of the Austrian government’s proposals for compulsory Covid-19 vaccination. The law, which is due to come into effect on Feb. 1, would make Austria the first European country to introduce a mandatory vaccine, and from mid-March it will see adults unvaccinated against Covid-19 subjected to fines of up to €3,600. BBC News reports.
COVID-19 has infected over 69.30 million people and has now killed over 860,200 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 342.70 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 5.57 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.
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.