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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.
U.N. GENERAL ASSEMBLY
World leaders will begin addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York today, with the war in Ukraine and its implications for food and energy expected to take center stage. Notably absent among the more than 150 leaders and government representatives scheduled to deliver speeches from Tuesday through Sunday is Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin. Also sitting out the gathering are China’s leader, Xi Jinping, and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India. Those leaders will be represented by ministers who will deliver speeches later in the week after heads of states and governments have spoken, in accordance with U.N. protocol. The focus on Ukraine is expected to draw concerns from developing countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Leaders there fear the world’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine has diverted humanitarian aid and resources from other nations that are in dire need. Farnaz Fassihi and Victoria Kim report for the New York Times.
Ukraine hopes to use the U.N. General Assembly to press its case for a special tribunal to prosecute war crimes, following the discovery of more than 450 bodies in mass graves in Izium. However, whilst Russia’s actions have attracted condemnation from the world leaders who are meeting in New York, it is not clear how the international community plans to hold Moscow accountable for war crimes. Rather than a special tribunal, many countries see existing bodies like the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.), as the best forum to prosecute any case against Russia. But that is insufficient for Ukrainian officials who worry that the I.C.C. will only hold accountable those who directly perpetrated the crimes, rather than the higher echelons of Putin’s government. Suzanne Lynch reports for POLITICO.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE – WAR CRIMES INVESTIGATIONS
Most of the 146 bodies exhumed so far in the Ukrainian city of Izium were civilians, according to the leader of the regional military administration, Oleh Synyehubov. “Some of the dead have signs of violent death. There are bodies with tied hands and traces of torture,” Synyehubov wrote in a post on Telegram. Others had stab wounds or injuries from mine explosions and shrapnel, and two of the bodies belonged to children, he added. Investigators say the discoveries recall the broad evidence of atrocities by Russian soldiers in towns like Bucha, near Kyiv, but each body must be forensically examined to determine the cause of death. Carly Olson reports for the New York Times.
RUSSIA, UKRAINE – OTHER DEVELOPMENTS
Ukrainian air defenses have shot down at least 55 Russian warplanes since the start of the war in late February, a U.S. general said yesterday. The huge losses are a major reason Russian fighter planes and bombers have not played much of a role in the conflict, he added. That lack of protection from the sky has been one of the big surprises of the war, as most analysts expected Russia to quickly establish dominance over Ukraine’s airspace in the early days of the invasion. That failure allowed the Ukrainian air force to regroup and survive mostly intact. Speaking to reporters at the annual Air Force Association conference, Air Forces in Europe and Africa commander Gen. James Hecker estimated that Ukraine has retained about 80 per cent of its air force, seven months into the war. Paul McLeary reports for POLITICO.
Russia is struggling to attract recruits for its army following setbacks in Ukraine, a senior U.S. defense official has said. “The Russians are performing so poorly that the news from Kharkiv Province has inspired many Russian volunteers to refuse combat,” the official said, adding that the leader of the Wagner Group, a private military company with ties to the Kremlin, had been seen in videos posted on social media asking Russian prisoners, Tajiks, Belarusians and Armenians to join the fight in Ukraine. The official also signalled that the U.S. may be open to transferring Western main battle tanks to Kyiv, alongside the soviet era tanks already provided. “Armor is a really important capability area for the Ukrainians,” the official said. “We recognize that there will be a day when they may want to transition — and may need to transition — to NATO-compatible models.” John Ismay reports for the New York Times.
Russian military leaders have responded to losses in Ukraine by escalating the air campaign over Syria, the U.S. air commander for the Middle East operations warned yesterday. “Some of the personalities of Russian leadership that [are] in Syria right now, some of those Russian general officers frankly failed in Ukraine,” said Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, commander of the 9th Air Force, which includes Central and Southwest Asia. “Now they are in Syria, and my assessment is they are trying to make a name for themselves again and regain favorable standing within the Russian armed forces,” Grynkewich said at the annual Air, Space & Cyber Conference. The U.S. has about 900 troops still in Syria, and they are in contact with the Russian military “every single day, intercepting them, escorting them, and making sure our forces on the ground remain safe,” he said. Defense One reports.
A court in Russian-occupied eastern Ukraine yesterday sentenced two Ukrainian staff members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (O.S.C.E.) to 13 years in prison on treason charges. In a statement, the chairman of the regional security organization Zbigniew Rau called the decision “inhumane and repugnant.” The workers “have been held unjustifiably for more than five months in unknown conditions for nothing but pure political theater,” Rau said. Helga Maria Schmid, the O.S.C.E. secretary general, called for the immediate release of the staff members, Dmytro Shabanov and Maxim Petrov, along with a third unnamed staff member she said had been detained. The O.S.C.E. said all three are Ukrainian nationals. Dan Bilefsky reports for the New York Times.
Pro-Russian officials in the two self-declared separatist “republics” in eastern Ukraine have called on Moscow to immediately annex the territories. In a statement published on the website of the Luhansk People’s Republic’s “public chamber,” the deputy head of the chamber, Lina Vokalova, called for a public referendum to approve annexation and said the vote would “fulfil our dream of returning home – to the Russian Federation.” A similar message came from the pro-Kremlin puppet authorities in Donetsk. The appeals from authorities in the Luhansk and Donetsk people’s republics came as Ukrainian forces continued to extend their gains of recent days, signaling an apparent panic that the Kremlin’s war is failing. David L. Stern reports for the Washington Post.
Senior officials from Russia and China have agreed to carry out more joint military exercises and enhance defense cooperation, according to statements issued yesterday. The statements, which came after a meeting between Nikolai P. Patrushev, the leader of Russia’s Security Council, and China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, signal that whatever misgivings Beijing may have over the war in Ukraine, the nations’ strategic partnership is only growing stronger. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, has also said that Russian and Chinese officials would coordinate closely at the United Nations General Assembly in New York this week. Ivan Nechepurenki and Austin Ramzy report for the New York Times.
China has lodged “stern representations” with the U.S., after President Biden said U.S. forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, the Chinese foreign ministry has said. China reserves the right to take all necessary measures in response to activities that split the nation apart, said Mao Ning, spokesperson at the foreign ministry, at a regular media briefing. “We are willing to do our best to strive for peaceful reunification. At the same time, we will not tolerate any activities aimed at secession,” Mao said. Reuters reports.
China sees the Pacific islands as an area of significant strategic interest and the U.S. should strengthen its commitment to north Pacific island states, according to a report by the United States Institute for Peace. China had made progress in the Pacific on geostrategic goals it has been unable to achieve elsewhere, said the report, whose co-authors include former senior military officials. This was cause for concern but not alarm, the report added, saying the U.S. should bolster support for island states in the north Pacific where it had the strongest historical ties. The report comes ahead of a meeting between President Biden and a dozen Pacific island leaders next week, as Washington seeks to compete for influence with Beijing. Kirsty Needham reports for Reuters.
China is capable of blockading Taiwan, a senior U.S. Navy official has said, citing the size of the country’s rapidly growing navy. “They have a very large navy, and if they want to bully and put ships around Taiwan, they very much can do that,” Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, commander of the U.S. Seventh Fleet, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. By using a blockade, military analysts say, Beijing could try to force submission by Taiwan’s government without an invasion. If China were to mount a blockade, the international community could step in Adm. Thomas said. Niharika Mandhana reports for the Wall Street Journal.
OTHER U.S. RELATIONS
The U.S. is negotiating with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to trade nearly 50 military aircraft flown across the border as the Afghan government collapsed last summer for help hunting terrorists in Afghanistan. The fate of the U.S.-donated aircraft has been in limbo for more than a year after Afghan air force pilots flew them to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan last August to escape Taliban capture. The Taliban have insisted the aircraft are Afghan property and demanded them back. But Uzbek authorities say they are the property of the United States and will not be returned. According to those with knowledge of the negotiations, the goal is to provide a number of aircraft to the Uzbek and Tajik governments in exchange for an informal agreement to “deepen our security relationships” on border security and counterterrorism. The deal could include anything from increased intelligence sharing to, in the long-term, basing troops or aircraft in those countries as a regional staging post for keeping an eye on terrorist activity in Afghanistan. However, for now, it’s more likely that the agreement would involve access to information the Uzbeks and Tajiks have about terrorist networks in Afghanistan. Lara Seligman report for POLITICO.
Protests spread across Iran yesterday over the death of a young woman in police custody who allegedly violated the country’s strict Islamic dress code. Dozens of protesters have been injured over the past three days as security forces have used water cannons and fired pellets and tear gas to disperse the crowds. The demonstrations over Mahsa Amini’s death, the latest in a string of protests, pose one of the toughest challenges yet for the one-year-old government of President Ebrahim Raisi, highlighting how restrictions on women have galvanized opposition to the government in Iran. Benoit Faucon reports for the Wall Street Journal.
Newly released footage has shown allies of former President Trump and contractors who were working on his behalf handling sensitive voting equipment in Coffee County, Georgia, weeks after the 2020 election. The footage, which was made public as part of long-running litigation over Georgia’s voting system, raises new questions about efforts by Trump affiliates in a number of swing states to gain access to and copy sensitive election software, with the help of friendly local election administrators. The new videos show a group of individuals, including members of the Atlanta-based firm SullivanStrickler, which had been hired by Sidney Powell, a lawyer advising Trump, inside an office handling the county’s poll pads, which contain sensitive voter data. The videos also show that some of the Trump allies who visited Coffee County were given access to a storage room, and that various people affiliated with Trump’s campaign, had access to the building over several days. Danny Hakim, Richard Fausset and Nick Corasaniti report for the New York Times.
A Texas sheriff will investigate the flights arranged by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to transport dozens of Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard. The Bexar County Sheriff’s Office announced that it had opened an investigation into last week’s incident, in which migrants were “lured from the Migrant Resource Center” in their county and flown to Florida and later on to Martha’s Vineyard, where they were “left to fend for themselves.” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff who has spoken with the sheriff about his decision to investigate told the Washington Post, “our thinking was early on if they were lured under false pretenses, it could be a crime.” “If you think about what smugglers do, it’s not much different,” he said. Amy B Wang reports for the Washington Post.
Former President Trump was warned by a White House lawyer last year that he could face legal liability if he did not return the government materials he had taken with him when he left office. The lawyer, Eric Herschmann, sought to impress upon Trump the seriousness of the issue and the potential for investigations and legal exposure if he did not return the documents, particularly any classified material, three people familiar with the matter said. The account of the conversation is the latest evidence that Trump knew about the legal perils of holding onto the material seized from his Mar-a-Lago residence by the FBI, which is now at the heart of a criminal investigation into his handling of documents and the possibility that he or his aides engaged in obstruction. Maggie Haberman reports for the New York Times.
The Justice Department and lawyers for Trump filed separate proposals yesterday for conducting an outside review of documents seized from Mar-a-Lago. Both sides referenced a “draft plan” given to them by Judge Raymond J. Dearie, the newly appointed special master. Trump’s lawyers expressed concern that Dearie posed questions about the documents that the judge who appointed Dearie has left unasked, arguing that Trump might be left at a legal disadvantage if he answered them at this stage of the process. In the filing, Trump’s lawyers also wrote that they don’t want Dearie to force Trump to “fully and specifically disclose a defense to the merits of any subsequent indictment without such a requirement being evident in the District Court’s order” — a remarkable statement that acknowledges at least the possibility that the former president or his aides could be criminally charged. The government’s filing did not address how Dearie should review the classified documents. Instead, prosecutors said they were waiting to see if the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta would grant their request for a partial stay of Cannon’s decision. Perry Stein and Devlin Barrett report for the Washington Post.
COVID-19 has infected over 95.73 million people and has now killed over 1.05 million people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 612.526 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 6.53 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.
A map and analysis of the vaccine rollout 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.