Why ‘imminent’ pisses Zelenskyy off- POLITICO


imageIn this handout photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Jan.28, 2022.| Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP With help from Paul McLeary, Nahal Toosi, David Herszenhorn, Oriana Pawlyk and Daniel Lippman

In November, Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY couldn’t ring alarm bells loudly enough.”There is a threat today that there will be war tomorrow.We are entirely prepared for an escalation,” he told the BBC .

But as of late, Zelenskyy is on a mission to project calm and tell his counterparts — namely President JOE BIDEN — that the standoff with Russia isn’t so dire.“I’m the president of Ukraine and I’m based here and I think I know the details better here,” he told reporters in Kyiv today , adding the threat picture has been “constant” since Russia took the Crimean peninsula by force in 2014.

Zelenskyy’s change of tune, per multiple people close to him and his team, is borne partly out of a growing anger with the Biden administration.Officials in Ukraine, and some in Europe, say the U.S.allowing diplomats to leave Ukraine is premature and unnecessarily spooking locals as well as financial markets, driving up Kyiv’s borrowing costs.

On Monday, the European Union offered Ukraine a $1.3 billion aid package .

What’s more, one person said that Zelenskyy fears the U.S.is purposefully hyping the threat from Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN so it’ll have the political space to strike a deal with the Kremlin, such as giving Moscow greater control over the Donbas.The Biden administration has long denied anything like that is on the table.

“I can’t be like other politicians who are grateful to the United States just for being the United States,” Zelenskyy said today .

But the Ukrainian president’s biggest gripe is about something that seems literally lost in translation.

Per multiple people in the U.S.and Ukraine familiar with their Thursday call , Biden said Russia “could attack” at any time, citing the position of Russia’s 120,000 troops on the border.That echoes White House press secretary JEN PSAKI ‘s statement this week that an invasion “ remains imminent .”

There’s no direct translation in Ukrainian for “imminent” — that word is Неминуче, which most closely corresponds to “no matter what” or “inevitable,” which are close synonyms.But it’s not quite the same, and we’re told there isn’t a single Ukrainian word that conveys the meaning as it does in English.(Seriously, we checked with native Ukrainian speakers.) So when Biden’s team might genuinely mean “soon,” Zelenskyy hears U.S.officials effectively say “there will be an invasion regardless of what we do.”

For Zelenskyy, then, it’s important to project confidence that Ukraine, the U.S.

and Europe can deter Putin from launching a renewed incursion.“Given that we are still in the diplomatic phase, Ukraine is trying to prevent this from boiling over into the military phase, both for Russia and for NATO,” EUGENE CHAUSOVSKY , a fellow at the New Lines Institute in Washington, D.C., told NatSec Daily.It’s “politically useful for Zelenskyy to say when there is not a real threat of invasion, but it becomes more dangerous when that threat is now more acute.”

The former comedian’s antics have started to get on the Biden administration’s nerves.“According to three sources in the administration and on Capitol Hill whom I’ve spoken to in the last couple months, the Ukrainian president is by turns annoying, infuriating, and downright counterproductive,” Puck’s JULIA IOFFE reported this week.It’s a sentiment NatSec Daily has heard repeatedly in our conversations with key players, and last night’s Biden-Zelenskyy call didn’t help.

Zelenskyy’s actions have also prompted questions — not many, but some — about why the U.S.is sending weaponry and cash to Ukraine if Kyiv isn’t overly concerned about a massive invasion.CHUCK TODD, host of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” asked Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN a version of this question Sunday: “Why does it look like America’s more concerned about Europe’s security than Europe?”

“I don’t think that’s the case,” Blinken replied.

The Inbox JAYAPAL: NEED ‘SLOWDOWN’ OF RUSSIA SANCTIONS BILL: If the Senate passes a bipartisan Russia sanctions bill , Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair PRAMILA JAYAPAL (D-Wash.) told NatSec Daily it will meet some pushback from the left of the president’s party.

“We’re just asking for a slowdown so that we can continue to allow diplomacy to play its role,” she said in an interview.

Jayapal and her CPC colleague Rep.BARBARA LEE (D-Calif.) are pushing a new progressive foreign policy strategy for America .

There’s a heavy emphasis on diplomacy in it, and Jayapal argues the U.S.should exhaust all diplomatic options in the Ukraine crisis before imposing crushing sanctions and sending military reinforcements to Europe’s east.

“These things do take some time and what we want to do is deescalate, not escalate,” she told us.

The Washington lawmaker is also skeptical of the effectiveness of financial penalties, the centerpiece of Biden’s Russia deterrence plan: “I just don’t think that broad-blanket economic sanctions are the solution.Every time we’ve done that, what we’ve seen is broad suffering amongst average people.”

Jayapal noted that there are others in her caucus who feel the same way.It’s unclear, though, if CPC resistance would complicate passage of a Russia sanctions bill in the House, as it’s expected enough Republicans will vote with Democrats to send the measure to Biden’s desk.

But Jayapal’s comments indicate that the administration has work to do to convince progressives that they’re pursuing the right course.

MOMMY AND DADDY AREN’T FIGHTING: German and U.S.officials are pushing back against claims that the two countries are fighting over how to approach the Ukraine crisis.The problem is that even though they insist their positions are in alignment, their talking points don’t suggest the same.

German Ambassador to the United States EMILY HABER is among the officials refuting the reports that indicate a rift between Washington and Berlin or Berlin and its European friends.

Reports that Germany wouldn’t permit the United Kingdom to use its airspace to fly military equipment to Ukraine? Germany wasn’t even asked, she told our own NAHAL TOOSI and other journalists.

Assertions that Germany is blocking Estonia from transferring howitzers to Ukraine? Estonia has made the request, but Germany hasn’t made a decision yet, she said.The helmets Germany is being mocked for sending to Ukraine? Ukraine asked for them, she said.

Haber admits that German laws can be restrictive when it comes to defense-related actions, but notes that Germany is one of Ukraine’s largest donors on both the humanitarian and economic front, both of which matter in the current crisis.

A senior State Department official, too, dismissed the notions of a German-U.S.gap.“Germany has been a superb partner,” the official said, pointing to everything from the development of sanctions, the coordination on the diplomatic front, and the preparation on the military front.The official added that it helps to have German nationals holding offices within the European Union’s governing structure.

In one area, though, the two countries haven’t quite matched their rhetoric.

German officials keep saying that the future of the controversial Nord Stream 2 German-Russian energy pipeline will be “on the table” should Russia invade Ukraine.The implication is that the Germans are willing to axe the pipeline, but they are staying ambiguous for now.

U.S.officials have gone further.State Department spokesperson NED PRICE told NPR: “I want to be very clear: if Russia invades Ukraine, one way or another Nord Stream 2 will not move forward.” Price has declined to specify what exactly “one way or another” means.Overall, this makes for a disconnect that undercuts the claim that the relationship is just fine.

BIDEN’S RUSSIA SANCTIONS PLAN LEAKS: The Biden administration’s closely guarded sanctions plan for if Russia invades Ukraine is now out in the open thanks to The Wall Street Journal’s IAN TALLEY and BRETT FORREST .

“[T]the potential targets include several of Russia’s largest government-owned banks, such as VTB Bank, the banning of all trade in new issues of Russian sovereign debt and the application of export controls across key sectors such as advanced microelectronics,” they reported, noting that no final decision has yet been made.

“Off the table, for now, are sanctions on oil and natural gas exports or disconnecting Russia from SWIFT, the basic infrastructure that facilitates financial transactions between banks across the world, said one of the officials.”

GREGORY BREW , an oil expert at Yale University, told NatSec Daily in a tweet that the administration “probably realized that sanctions blocking Europe from buying Russian oil/natgas would have a destabilizing impact on markets and contribute to high prices.There is not enough spare capacity to fill a Russian gap in the near-term.”

The Journal also notes what experts across the political spectrum have noted recently, that Moscow has long anticipated this moment: “Russia is better prepared now, with deeper foreign currency reserves, less reliance on foreign debt, faster economic growth and rising prices for oil — the country’s primary revenue source.”

It’s still possible the Russia sanctions bill, currently in draft form in the Senate, could legally mandate some of these or other sanctions, including booting Russia from SWIFT, as has long been rumored.

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U.S.-RUSSIA BACK-AND-FORTH CONTINUES: Russian officials are ever-so-slightly softening their rhetoric about the U.S.written response to Moscow’s security demands, which Foreign Minister SERGEY LAVROV now says contains some “rational elements,” per Bloomberg News .

POLITICO’s DAVID HERSZENHORN , who monitored the foreign minister’s interview Friday with four Russian radio stations, also reports that further engagement appears set to proceed after Lavrov said he’d send a letter to Western counterparts seeking clarification on a key question.

Specifically, Lavrov wants the United States and other Western powers to explain their position on the principle of “indivisibility” in Euro-Atlantic security, as described in the 1999 “Istanbul Document” of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Although Lavrov’s point “might seem esoteric,” Herszenhorn explains, “his comments represented a potentially important signal from the highest levels of the Russian government about the willingness to continue diplomatic talks, amid fears of a further invasion or other military strike on Ukraine.”

Diplomacy proceeds: Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN today spoke with French President EMMANUEL MACRON , and British Foreign Secretary LIZ TRUSS will visit Moscow within two weeks .

DRINKS WITH NATSEC DAILY: At the end of every long, hard week, we like to highlight how a prominent member of Washington’s national security scene prefers to unwind with a drink.

Today, we’re featuring AMY ENGLISH , Sen.JEANNE SHAHEEN ’s (D-N.H.) foreign policy adviser.When she’s not working on Russia-Ukraine issues with her boss, English enjoys a glass of rosé “preferably from the Provence or Languedoc regions of France, which is where I lived for a couple years before I joined Sen.Shaheen’s office.”

The dilemma, though, is where to drink it.

English has no preferred watering hole, as she’s content to drink the vino “wherever where we can most easily convene our group of girlfriends (rosé pairs well with long chat sessions),” she told NatSec Daily.

Okay, we said, but if you had to choose? Pressed, English named “Le Diplomate” as the D.C.drinking locale of choice.Santé , Amy!

IT’S FRIDAY.WELCOME TO THE WEEKEND: 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.

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Flashpoints UKRAINE CRISIS STOKES NUCLEAR CONCERNS: National security officials on both sides of the Atlantic are worried that the United States and Russia — the world’s two largest nuclear powers — could stumble into an atomic confrontation if the situation along Ukraine’s border spirals out of control, our own BRYAN BENDER reports.

Last week, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists cited the Ukraine conflict as contributing to its decision to keep the “Doomsday Clock” at 100 seconds to midnight stating: “Ukraine remains a potential flashpoint, and Russian troop deployments to the Ukrainian border heighten day-to-day tension.”

One of the biggest sources of anxiety is Russia’s arsenal of thousands of battlefield “tactical” nuclear weapons, which are central to its military strategy.Plus, many of Russia’s military aircraft and missiles are designed to carry both non-nuclear and nuclear weapons, a capability that could sow even more confusion during hostilities.

Keystrokes RUSSIAN INVASION COULD REDEFINE CYBER WARFARE: Apart from the possibility of a U.S.-Russia nuclear conflict, a potential invasion of Ukraine could provide the world its first taste of a true cyber war, our own MAGGIE MILLER reports.Attacks earlier this month on Ukrainian government websites — and Microsoft’s subsequent discovery of malware planted in Ukrainian government systems — offered only a hint of Moscow’s cyber capabilities.

“In a full-scale cyber assault,” Miller writes, “Russia could take down the power grid, turn the heat off in the middle of winter and shut down Ukraine’s military command centers and cellular communications systems.A communications blackout could also provide opportunities for a massive disinformation campaign to undermine the Ukrainian government.”

This nightmare scenario for Ukraine also could have broader implications for the future of cyber warfare, should Putin ever authorize retaliatory attacks against the United States for any U.S.sanctions.“They will do things that will ruin people and cause great harm.

… It’s not just about making the lights go on and off,” warned Lt.Gen.BEN HODGES , the former commanding general of the U.S.Army Europe.

The Complex ONA NO NO: Our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!) note the Pentagon’s internal think tank violated a series of federal rules in awarding contracts, according to an investigation by the DoD inspector general, including failing to establish oversight measures to ensure it was getting what it paid for.

The Office of Net Assessment, which conducts long-term assessments of trends to help the military prepare for future conflicts, did not follow a series of guidelines, according to the report, including using contracting officers with the proper clearances.The multiple failures led to the inappropriate approval of at least $10 million in contracts, the IG found.

The office also didn’t follow oversight guidelines on the projects.

“Without established and documented surveillance measures for ONA service contracts, ONA may not have received all services outlined in contractor’s statements of work,” the report concluded.

NO DATA ON WEAPONS TESTING: Breaking Defense’s VALERIE INSINNA reports that the Pentagon’s independent weapons tester “has eliminated data about the performance of more than 20 weapon programs from the public version of its 2021 report, including major acquisition efforts like the Marine Corps’ CH-53K King Stallion and the Navy’s Ford-class carrier.”

“On Thursday, the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation published the public version of its annual report, and for the first time ever, a version with ‘controlled unclassified information’ was also made available to Defense Department personnel and Congress — out of sight of taxpayers who foot the bill for the multi-million dollar programs,” she wrote.

RAYMOND O’TOOLE , who in December led the DOT&E office, said withholding that data was important so adversaries couldn’t see it.But now experts and other analysts can’t assess on their own the utility and effectiveness of extremely expensive weaponry.

So much for transparency.

On the Hill SENATE RUSSIAN SANX GANG TO MEET TONIGHT: Senators hammering out a massive Russia sanctions bill meet over Zoom again Friday evening, a person familiar with the negotiations told NatSec Daily.

Convened by Senate Foreign Relations Chair BOB MENENDEZ (D-N.J.), the goal is to reach an agreement on providing the president with certain sanctions authorities on Russia, a lend-lease weapons program and other security assistance for Ukraine and more.The hope is that lawmakers can reach a bipartisan agreement soonest and pass the legislation through both chambers of Congress.

We are told the sequencing of sanctions, including on the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline, remain major points of contention between both parties.

There’s a growing sense that a deal must be struck soon, as Putin could launch an invasion at any moment.

“The window for action is shrinking,” this person said.

Menendez and SFRC ranking member JIM RISCH (R-Idaho) will surely attend, and expected attendees include Sens.ROB PORTMAN (R-Ohio), CHRIS COONS (D-Del.), CHRIS MURPHY (D-Conn.), JOHN CORNYN (R-Texas), LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-S.C.) and BEN CARDIN (D-Md.).

Menendez and Risch will join CNN’s “State of the Union” Sunday — possibly indicating they plan to have an agreement by then.

Meanwhile, Axios’ ZACHARY BASU reported that the chair of Ukraine’s Parliament Chair RUSLAN STEFANCHUK sent eight U.S.

Senators working on the bill some suggestions (read: demands) about what should be in the measure.

The four requests by are:

— “Expedited and higher-impact security assistance, including air defense, anti-ship and anti-armor capabilities, and flexible loans and financing mechanisms.”

— “Immediate, mandatory sanctions” against the operator of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which the letter calls “no less an existential threat to Ukraine’s security and democracy than the Russian troops on our border.”

— “A clear trigger” for sanctions based on Russia’s actions, with a lower threshold than what has been outlined in the current Democratic-sponsored legislation under consideration.

— “Mandatory pre-trigger and post-trigger sanctions against all of Russia’s most significant financial institutions.”

MERKLEY TO USE OLYMPICS TO SHAME CHINA: Sen.JEFF MERKLEY (D-Ore.) minces no words when he discusses the Olympics starting next week in China: “The Olympics should not be held in a country engaged in genocide,” he told NatSec Daily in an interview.

“This has echoes of 1936 when Hitler was already doing egregious things and used the Olympics to try to distract the world from his conduct.”

Mekley wants to leverage the events in Beijing to draw attention to the regime’s human rights abuses.With #OlympicPrisoner , Merkley and Rep.JIM McGOVERN (D-Mass.) — who together lead the Congressional-Executive Commission on China — the lawmakers will highlight a political prisoner held by the Chinese Communist Party.

“We’ve highlighted 62 individuals so far to give a face to the thousands and thousands of folks who have been so oppressed, millions if you include the oppressed, millions if you include other oppressed minorities and the effects of genocide and so forth,” Merkley said.

The senator hasn’t spoken directly with U.S.Olympic athletes about the campaign, even though he thought about doing so.Since he couldn’t talk with all of them, he felt singling out one or a few participants could put undue pressure on them to speak up.

Still, Merkley hopes his initiative will cut through the glitz and glamour of the games: “It’s important for people to understand what this very powerful player on the world stage is doing, and this is an opportunity to help.”

Broadsides O’BRIEN SAYS BIDEN SUFFERS ‘PERCEPTION OF WEAKNESS’: ROBERT O’BRIEN , former President DONALD TRUMP ’s national security adviser, said during a Council on Foreign Relations virtual session Friday that even though the administration has gotten its Russia-Ukraine policy right, the U.S.

suffers from a “perception of weakness.”

“Vladimir Putin perceives the United States to be weak right now,” he said, claiming Biden squandered the energy advantage Trump left him.The U.S.could send some stronger messages to the Kremlin, he argued, namely modernizing America’s nuclear triad.

O’Brien, asked by CBS News’ MARGARET BRENNAN why the Trump administration failed to deter Putin’s aggression, said that the last team “took very tough action and we sanctioned Russia more than any prior administration history.

And that was a peace-through-strength posture that let the Russians know that we meant business and this sort of activity was not welcome and would have severe consequences.”

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Transitions — FIRST IN NAT SEC DAILY: JASMINE WILLIAMS is now strategic outreach and visits manager for government affairs and public policy at Google.She most recently was a policy adviser at the National Security Council.

What to Read — ANGELA STENT, Foreign Affairs: “ The Putin Doctrine ”

— RONEN BERGMAN and MARK MAZZETTI, The New York Times: “ The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon ”

— SAEED SHAH, The Wall Street Journal: “ As Hunger Spreads in Afghanistan, Hospitals Fill With Premature, Dying Babies ”

Monday Today — Biden welcomes Emir TAMIM BIN HAMAD AL THANI of Qatar to the White House.

— The Royal United Services Institute, 10 a.m.: “ The Strategy of Denial: American Defense in an Age of Great Power Conflict — with ELBRIDGE COLBY and SIDHARTH KAUSHAL ”

— The Hudson Institute, 12 p.m.: “ Iran Nuclear Negotiations: Will a Revived Deal Undermine American Interests? — with MOHAMMED KHALID ALYAHYA , MICHAEL DORAN , JONATHAN SCHACHTER and JOHN P.WALTERS ”

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1 p.m.: “ Economy Disrupted: The View from Guam — with MATTHEW P.GOODMAN , LOU LEON GUERRERO​ and SARAH LADISLAW ”

— The Heritage Foundation, 1 p.m.: “ The Wrong Choice: China and the 2022 Winter Olympics — with LEE EDWARDS , OLIVIA ENOS , ENES KANTER FREEDOM , KATHARINE CORNELL GORKA , MICHAEL MCCAUL ”

— The Atlantic Council, 2 p.m.: “ Biometrics at the Border: Balancing Security, Convenience, and Civil Liberties — with THERESA CARDINAL BROWN , CRAIG MCINTIRE , TROY A.MILLER , CLEMENTINE G.STARLING , SETH STODDER , JOHN P.


— The Wilson Center, 4 p.m.: “ Cuba: An American History — with ERIC ARNESEN , ADA FERRER , LILLIAN GUERRA , CHRISTIAN F.


STEP INSIDE THE WEST WING : What’s really happening in West Wing offices? Find out who’s up, who’s down, and who really has the president’s ear in our West Wing Playbook newsletter, the insider’s guide to the Biden White House and Cabinet.

For buzzy nuggets and details that you won’t find anywhere else, subscribe today .

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.

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