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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.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE – EASTEN UKRAINE
Pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine have accused Ukrainian government forces of shelling a village today. The separatists, for a second consecutive day, said they had come under mortar and artillery fire from Ukrainian forces, according to the Interfax news agency. Dmitry Antonov and Pavel Polityuk report for Reuters.
Exchanges of artillery fire with Russian-backed separatists reached their most intense level in months yesterday. The separatists claimed yesterday that they had come under fire from the Ukrainian military, the sort of incident Western officials have warned Russia might try to use to justify military action. “At the White House, President Biden said ‘every indication we have is they’re prepared to go into Ukraine, attack Ukraine.’ He said the United States had ‘reason to believe’ that Russia was ‘engaged in a false flag operation to have an excuse to go in,’” Andrew E. Kramer and Anton Troianovski report for the New York Times.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken has accused Russia of planning to manufacture a pretext for an attack on Ukraine that could include “a fake, even a real, attack using chemical weapons,” saying that “Russia may describe this event as ethnic cleansing or a genocide.” Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin rejected Blinken’s statement as a “regrettable” and “dangerous” move that further fuels tensions. Michelle Nichols and Humeyra Pamuk report for Reuters.
In the U.N., Russia has formally levelled accusations that Ukraine is pursuing “genocide” against Russian speakers, accusations which western officials have dismissed as a disinformation effort to justify military action against Kyiv. Yaroslav Trofimov, Ann M. Simmons and William Mauldin report for the Wall Street Journal.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE – TROOP BUILDUP
The U.S. is now assessing that there are up to 190,000 Russian personnel near Ukraine’s borders, an increase from 1000,000 in January, according to a statement today by the U.S. mission to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The U.S. statement also states: “We are aware that Russia is intent on creating a pretext to justify an invasion into Ukraine. We have reports from multiple sources that provide detail on Russia’s efforts to fabricate supposed “Ukrainian provocations” and shape a public narrative that would justify a Russian invasion,” and notes “an uptick in cyber operations against Ukraine’s defense and banking sectors.”
U.S. officials have obtained intelligence that Russia’s announced military pullback from Ukraine’s border was a deliberate ruse to mislead, officials have said. Russian forces have continued to increase near Ukraine’s frontier, officials said. Meanwhile President Biden has said that the threat of invasion remains “very high” and that Russia may be creating an excuse to do so, warning that the Kremlin will launch an attack “in the next several days.” Ellen Nakashima, Shane Harris, Alex Horton and Michael Birnbaum report for the Washington Post.
The U.K. believes that nearly half of Russian forces that have massed near Ukraine are now within 30 miles of the border, in contrast to statements from Moscow that troops are being sent back to barracks. U.K. officials have also said that reinforcements from 14 Russian battalions are in the process of arriving at the border, and highlighted a pontoon bridge that was briefly set up in Belarus in the past few days as an example of unusual military activity. Dan Sabbagh and Andrew Roth report for the Guardian.
Russia has accused the U.S. and NATO of making “unfounded accusations” after Western officials disputed Russia’s claims it had started withdrawing its forces from near the Ukrainian border. “Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told a news briefing that Russia’s defense ministry had a clear timetable for the return of units to their permanent bases. ‘It’s clear the grouping for the (military) exercises was built up over many weeks, and it is of course impossible to withdraw it in a single day. They can’t just take off and fly away…it takes time,’ Peskov said,’” Reuters reports.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE – DIPLOMACY
President Biden is set to speak with global allies this afternoon about Russia’s buildup of troops near Ukraine’s border. The fighting in eastern Ukraine yesterday has set off another diplomatic scramble and a White House official said that Biden would host a phone call with trans-Atlantic leaders in “continued efforts to pursue deterrence and diplomacy.” It is unclear who will join. Michael D. Shear, Andrew E. Kramer and Anton Troianovski report for the New York Times.
The Kremlin has threatened in a letter to the U.S. that it would resort to unspecified “military-technical measures,” if it did not receive from the U.S. and its allies legally binding guarantees of its security. The security guarantees Russia is demanding include a pledge from NATO never to allow Ukraine to join, as well as limits on troop deployments in Eastern Europe. Yaroslav Trofimov, Ann M. Simmons and William Mauldin report for the Wall Street Journal.
Russia has accused the U.S. of failing to properly address its security concerns. “The U.S. side deliberately chose the issues that it feels comfortable to discuss, which raises doubts that Washington is willing to settle the European security issue,” Russia wrote in its reply yesterday to the U.S. proposals, according to the TASS news agency. Andrew Jeong reports for the Washington Post.
Blinken spoke at a U.N. Security Council meeting yesterday and is set to speak with European leaders today. Blinken said he invited Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to meet next week in Europe, and proposed further meetings of the NATO-Russia Council, as well as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. William Mauldin, Michael R. Gordon and Courtney McBride report for the Wall Street Journal.
Blinken is set to meet Lavrov next week, with Blinken having accepted an invitation to meet Lavrov provided there was no invasion of Ukraine. “If they do invade in the coming days, it will make clear they were never serious about diplomacy,” said State Department spokesperson Ned Price. Julian Borger, Daniel Boffey, Dan Sabbagh and agencies report for the Guardian.
Vice President Harris is leading the U.S. delegation to the Munich Security Conference today. Jasmine Wright and Natasha Bertrand report for CNN.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE – OTHER DEVELOPMENTS
Russia has expelled Bart Gorman, the number two diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The State Department has said that it is weighing a response to what it considers an “escalatory step” and an “unprovoked” move. “Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Gorman was forced to leave Moscow in response to what it called the ‘unreasonable expulsion’ of a senior Russian official by Washington, accusing the United States of unleashing a ‘visa war,’” Simon Lewis and Humeyra Pamuk report for Reuters.
The U.S. believes that Moscow has already selected targets that Russian tanks and troops would advance on, including Kyiv, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in his address to the U.N. Security Council yesterday. Blinken also said that top Russian officials were likely to hold urgent meetings before an attack that would include Russian bombings across Ukraine and cyber attacks. Jeremy Herb, Veronica Stracqualursi, Kylie Atwood and Ellie Kaufman report for CNN.
The last of nearly 5,000 U.S. troops from the 82nd Airborne Division arrived in Poland yesterday, Pentagon officials have said. “The Pentagon reiterated that the troops would not enter Ukraine, but could help the Polish government deal with the possible influx of people fleeing over the border if there is a war. Another 1,000 American troops…are moving from Germany to Romania, and should be in place by Saturday, a U.S. military official said,” Eric Schmitt reports for the New York Times.
Ottawa’s police have begun making arrests in downtown Ottawa, hoping to end weeks of gridlock in Canada’s capital due to demonstrations. Among those arrested yesterday was Tamara Lich, one of the protests’ main organizers, as well as another organizer, Chris Barber. Sarah Maslin Nir, Natalie Kitroeff, Dan Bilefsky and Ian Austen report for the New York Times.
After the arrests began yesterday evening, hundreds of protesters remained in the encampment area in Ottawa. “Police on Thursday also set up almost 100 checkpoints in downtown Ottawa with the goal of preventing people from entering the city’s core to join the encampment and continued handing out fliers to protesters warning them to leave the area and that further action was imminent. They also installed additional fencing near Parliament Hill and concrete barriers in some areas of the city and blocked off exits from the main highway into downtown,” Kim Mackrael and Paul Vieira report for the Wall Street Journal.
OTHER GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS
A court in India has sentenced to death 38 people for a series of bomb blasts in 2008 that left more than 50 dead and 200 wounded in the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat state. The judge also sentenced 11 people to life imprisonment in the case. During the attack, more than a dozen bombs went off across Ahmedabad. Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami, a militant Islamic group which is believed to be no longer active, claimed responsibility for the bombings. AP reports.
Beijing has said it is “seriously concerned” as India cracks down on Chinese companies. Earlier this week, India blocked access to 54 apps in the country over security concerns, according to details shared by a senior government representative from the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. “Indian authorities have taken a series of repressive measures against Chinese companies and related products in India, which has seriously damaged the legitimate rights and interests of Chinese companies,” a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Commerce said yesterday. Diksha Madhok reports for CNN.
A spokesperson for the Beijing Olympics organizing committee has said that reports of human rights abuses against the Uyghur ethnic minority in Xinjiang are “based on lies.” The spokesperson also stated, in response to questions on Taiwan that “there is only one China in the world,” calling it “a solemn position” for China. International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach said IOC officials had talked with the Chinese about the spokesperson’s statements. Stephen Wade and Graham Dunbar report for AP.
FORMER PRESIDENT TRUMP
New York Attorney General Letitia James can question former President Donald Trump and two of his adult children under oath as part of a civil inquiry into Trump’s business practices, a judge ruled yesterday. Lawyers for Trump’s family had argued that James was politically biased against Trump and was inappropriately using her civil inquiry to aid a parallel district attorney’s criminal investigation, which she is also participating in. However, in a written ruling, the judge dismissed that point, and dismantled several other arguments, to conclude that James had uncovered “copious evidence of possible financial fraud,” which entitled her to question the Trump family. Jonah E. Bromwich, Ben Protess and William K. Rashbaum report for New York Times.
State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron ordered Trump to hand over documents within two weeks, and he and his adult son and daughter face questioning in the next three weeks. The judge said the “800-pound gorilla in the room” was that one of the subpoenas was directed to the former president of the U.S. However, Justice Engoron was clear that: “to me, he’s a citizen.” Corinne Ramey and Deanna Paul report for the Wall Street Journal.
Further reporting on the ruling is provided by Josh Gerstein for POLITICO.
JAN. 6, 2021 ATTACK
Republicans on the House Administration Committee are asking for the release of Capitol security footage from Jan. 5, 2021 as a way to answer ongoing questions over whether some Republican lawmakers led “reconnaissance tours” shortly before the Jan. 6 attack. A letter from Rep. Rodney Davis (R-IL), the committee’s ranking member, has said that Republicans have reviewed the videos, finding no footage of large group tours. Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.
OTHER U.S. DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS
The Senate has passed a bill to avert a government shutdown ahead of a deadline tonight, sending the legislation to President Biden’s desk for a signature. Senators voted 65-27 on the bill, which funds the government through March 11 at current levels. Jordain Carney reports for The Hill.
Biden’s administration is considering offering Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Afghans already in the United States. While more than 70,000 Afghans arrived in the U.S. during the evacuation from Afghanistan, they remain in a tenuous immigration status, with some given as little as one year to formalize their paperwork to remain in the United States. Providing TPS to Afghanistan along with several other countries, would allow Afghans and others who would otherwise be without legal status, to remain in the U.S. without fear of deportation due to unstable conditions in their home country. Rebecca Beitsch reports for The Hill.
A Texas grand jury has indicted 19 Austin police officers on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for their actions during 2020 protests over racial injustice, according to sources. “Word of the indictments came hours after Austin city leaders approved paying $10 million to two people injured by police in the protests, including a college student who suffered brain damage after an officer shot him with a beanbag round,” AP reports.
Reports of sexual assaults at U.S. military academies have significantly increased over the past academic year, according to a Department of Defense report released yesterday. The report, “which contains numbers of reported instances of sexual harassment and sexual assault, found that figures increased during the 2020-2021 school year as students returned to in person settings. Reports especially spiked at the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Cadets and midshipmen reported 131 assaults in 2020-2021, increasing from 88 in 2019-2020 and 122 in 2018-2019,” Chloe Former reports for The Hill.
The military has approved religious exemptions to its COVID-19 vaccine mandate for 15 service members out of approximately 16,000 requests, according to the latest data from the services. “The Marine Corps has approved religious exemptions for six Marines and the Air Force has approved nine requests for exemptions. The Navy has given conditional approval for a member of the Individual Ready Reserve, but that member would have to be fully vaccinated before returning to service,” Oren Liebermann and Ellie Kaufman report for CNN.
COVID-19 has infected over 78.26 million people and has now killed over 931,700 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 419.98 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 5.86 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.