The Kremlin drone attack, explained as best we can
With help from Daniel Lippman, Lara Seligman and Jonathan Lemire
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Wednesday will undoubtedly be one of those days we all remember in the 14-month war between Russia and Ukraine. Here’s a breakdown of what happened.
Two drones flew above the Kremlin overnight and were seemingly downed in the 2:00 a.m. hour in Moscow. The Russian government immediately claimed that Ukraine tried to kill President VLADIMIR PUTIN, prompting Kyiv to immediately deny the allegations.
“We don’t attack Putin or Moscow,” President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY told the Nordic broadcaster TV2 during a surprise trip to Finland, NATO’s newest member. “We fight on our territory. We’re defending our villages and cities. We don’t have enough weapons for these.” Later, he seemed to suggest Putin staged the whole thing because it can’t boast of any battlefield wins: “Because of that, he has to do some unexpected moves like surprise drone attacks.”
Such a brazen attack wasn’t in Ukraine’s interest, MYKHAILO PODOLYAK, a senior adviser to Zelenskyy, told NatSec Daily. It would only encourage Russia to escalate the war it started and put millions of civilians in even greater danger. “Why would we need this? Where is the logic in that?” he asked.
But Ukraine has launched dramatic operations before, most notably detonating a bomb on the Kerch Strait bridge. And intelligence suggests a pro-Ukrainian group damaged the Nord Stream pipelines last year while the U.S. believes Ukraine orchestrated the killing of DARIA DUGINA, the daughter of a famous Russian nationalist.
So as it stands, it’s a game of Vlad-said/Volodymyr-said.
Four U.S. officials told Alex and JONATHAN LEMIRE that they had no foreknowledge of any drone attack in the heart of Moscow. Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN added Wednesday that he’d take any claims coming from the Kremlin with a “large shaker of salt.”
Senior administration officials are working to confirm whether the suspected strike was ordered by Kyiv, conducted by a rogue pro-Ukraine group, or a false flag operation by Russia, two U.S. officials said. The Senate Intelligence Committee got briefed at 2:30 p.m. today about what America knows so far.
Current and former officials, as well as experts, are fairly convinced that Ukraine didn’t attempt assassination. Sending drones to the roof of the Kremlin, when Putin wasn’t even there, is Keystone Cops-type stuff, they say. What some have suggested, though, is that groups loyal to Kyiv might be trying to make the regime think twice about its safety. After all, a few mysterious drones have been found in recent days near Moscow.
Not everyone thinks it’d be bad if it does end up being a Ukrainian government attack. “I hope it is fact” that Ukraine was behind an attempted strike on the Kremlin, said retired Gen. Philip Breedlove, formerly the NATO supreme allied commander. “Russia enjoys sanctuary, we essentially enforce it by forbidding Ukraine from using our weapons in striking Russia…I want the Russian Federation to have to expend energy and forces in their defense of their capital.”
U.S. PATRIOTS IN UKRAINE: A Patriot air defense system from the U.S. Army, along with a group of 65 Ukrainian air defenders trained by the U.S. military at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, arrived in Ukraine last week, a senior DoD official tells LARA SELIGMAN, not wanting to go on the record so as not to speak for the Ukrainians. This is the second Patriot to arrive on the battlefield, after a system provided jointly by Germany and the Netherlands arrived in early April.
The Patriot will provide Ukraine a critical capability to defend soldiers and civilians from incoming Russian missile and aircraft attacks, which have ramped up in recent weeks as Kyiv prepares to mount its spring counteroffensive.
IRAN’S RAISI IN SYRIA: Iranian President EBRAHIM RAISI arrived in Syria on Wednesday where he is expected to meet with president BASHAR ASSAD, the first visit from an Iranian head of state since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, according to government-run news reports.
Raisi’s arrival comes as Tehran tries to rebuild ties after years of tension. Many Arab nations moved to isolate Syria over its crackdown against protests in 2011, but are now reportedly developing a roadmap to help bring Syria back into the Arab fold.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair MICHAEL McCAUL (R-Texas) and Rep. JOE WILSON (R-S.C.) issued a joint statement on Wednesday that said they are “deeply alarmed by the ongoing efforts to facilitate Bashar al Assad’s reintegration into the Arab League,” a coalition of 22 Middle Eastern nations, which Syria was thrown out of in 2011.
“For years and years, a meeting with the Syrian foreign minister was something other Arab foreign ministers didn’t do,” said DAVID ADESNIK, director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, who said the White House has failed to sanction Syria effectively.
“This is a symbolic event that coincides with this major move of Arab re-engagement from Assad, which to a large degree has become overtly encouraged by the Biden administration,” he added.
SECOND TANKER TAKEN: Iran seized an oil tanker in the Gulf waters on Wednesday, nearly a week after it captured another tanker in the area, Reuters’ LISA BARRINGTON reports.
The Panama-flagged ship Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy was seized while traveling through the Strait of Hormuz, between the Gulf of Oman and the Persian Gulf. The tanker was captured on a judicial order following a plaintiff’s complaint, Tehran officials said.
STRUGGLE TO FLEE SUDAN: As Americans rush to flee Sudan amid the nation’s ongoing violence, some are facing additional logistical hurdles to get family members out.
SARAH GUBARA, a psychologist, told Matt and DANIEL LIPPMAN from Laguna Beach, Calif., that her mother, sister and grandmother fled Khartoum when the fighting broke out three weeks ago and are now in Cyprus. They’re now trying to get to northern Virginia, but Sarah’s 88-year-old grandmother isn’t American and her Sudanese passport was expired. It was a feat just to figure out how State could conduct a required interview of the grandmother — who is nonverbal, immobile and uses a feeding tube.
While the State Department isn’t legally required to evacuate Americans from global hotspots, much less non-citizens, a spokesperson said they’re working to help family members of Americans.
“Our embassies and consulates in the broader region have also been integral to this effort, in many cases going to extraordinary lengths to provide assistance to U.S. citizens and their non-U.S. citizen family members who arrive from Sudan on ally and partner flights,” State Department spokesperson VEDANT PATEL said in a statement.
Still, Gubara said she’s experienced a “lack of communication, support and leadership” from the State Department. State did not speak to this specific case when asked.
Gubara said her relatives are working to make sure that an airline will accept paperwork from the embassy to fly out of the country without a passport — a costly coordinated effort.
Evacuation from Sudan for those who aren’t diplomats or in the military “has not been as seamless or clean, and it’s just more indicative that our lessons learned from the Afghan evacuation still have not resonated or been acted on,” said ANDREW COTÉ, a former U.S. Marine and DoD official in the Trump administration who has assisted Gubara’s family with their travel.
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NO DIGGING ON DESANTIS: After much speculation about who paid for Florida Gov. RON DeSANTIS’ international trip to meet with foreign leaders, lawmakers in the Sunshine State passed a law that makes it more difficult to dig up his travel records.
Lawmakers agreed on Tuesday to shield the governor’s publicly funded travel records, giving his administration a way to block inquiries from the media and political opponents ahead of an expected presidential run, our own GARY FINEOUT reported late Tuesday. The bill can apply to future travel and be used to retroactively deny access to information on trips he’s already taken.
DeSantis’ week-long trip to Japan, South Korea, Israel and the United Kingdom was organized through Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development arm, and is supposed to be financed through private donations. Flight tracking records show that DeSantis used a chartered jet for the trip — an expense that could run as much as $10,000 an hour but Enterprise Florida so far has not answered questions about why the governor needed a chartered jet.
CAREFUL WHAT YOU CLICK: Meta is warning that hackers are increasingly using public interest in OpenAI’s ChatGPT to lure users into downloading malware, our own MAGGIE MILLER reports (for Pros!).
In a blog post, Meta security researchers reported that since March they have found 10 different types of malware families that are using faked ChatGPT links or apps promising to include ChatGPT features to encourage individuals to install malware viruses on their devices. They’ve often gone after file-sharing services on platforms including Dropbox, Google Drive, iCloud, Microsoft OneDrive and more.
The warning comes as the cybersecurity community worries that artificial intelligence software will be used to intensify hacking efforts: “The generative AI space is rapidly evolving. It obviously holds great promise, and bad actors know it, so we should all be very vigilant to stay safe,” Meta Chief Information Security Officer GUY ROSEN told reporters.
BLOOMBERG AT THE PENTAGON: Billionaire and former New York mayor MIKE BLOOMBERG made an appearance at the Pentagon this morning, LARA SELIGMAN writes in.
Bloomberg, who took over last fall as the chair of the Defense Innovation Board, spoke to the Joint Chiefs and the combatant commanders about innovation and technology at the semi-annual Strategic Seminar Series hosted by Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. MARK MILLEY, according to Milley’s spokesperson, Col. DAVE BUTLER.
Bloomberg succeeded former Google CEO ERIC SCHMIDT, after Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN rebooted the body early last year.
“Bloomberg was a natural pick for General Milley as he’s been working to drive innovation across the Joint Force,” Butler said. “He has thoughtful perspective on technology’s application to defense and how we need to prepare and adapt for the future.”
EU DEFENSE INDUSTRY GETS A BOON: European Commission industry chief THIERRY BRETON unveiled a new plan to boost weapons manufacturing across Brussels, per our own SUZANNE LYNCH and JAKOB HANKE VELA.
The Act in Support of Ammunition Production, which the European Commission signed off on Wednesday, will support more than $550 million from the EU budget to boost weapons manufacturing — matched with another $550 million in co-financing from member countries, with the aim to produce 1 million rounds of ammunition within one year.
Ukraine’s minister of foreign affairs, DMYTRO KULEBA, praised the move as “a step we expected and a sign of lasting E. support for Ukraine.”
The framework would controversially permit dipping into new pots of EU cash originally intended for boosting development around the continent.
When Breton was asked Wednesday how he justified dipping into the cohesion and Recovery and Resilience Facility funds for European defense, he said that many factories were built in isolated areas. As a result, cohesion funds are “entirely appropriate and well-suited” and would “support our industrial base.”
On the Hill
SCHUMER SAYS: Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER unveiled part of his new bipartisan China package during a speech on Wednesday.
The plan will involve curbing the flow of U.S. investments and advanced tech to Beijing; investing in American businesses and building the future workforce; convincing allies to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative; and deterring Chinese aggression toward Taiwan, the senator said.
The New York Democrat has directed his committee chairs to work with Republican counterparts to come up with legislation in the months ahead, which will be combined into a single large Chinese competition bill, he said.
ZELENSKYY IN THE DARK: As leaked Pentagon documents spilled into the public, Zelenskyy found out the same way most others did: by reading about the secrets, many regarding his own nation’s war plans, online.
“I did not receive information from the White House or the Pentagon beforehand,” Zelenskyy told the Washington Post’s ISABELLE KHURSHUDYAN. “We did not have that information. I personally did not. It’s definitely a bad story.”
While he was hesitant to air his private feelings about the matter, Zelenskyy characterized the situation as “unprofitable for us,” Zelensky added. “It is not beneficial to the reputation of the White House, and I believe it is not beneficial to the reputation of the United States.”
Ukraine was particularly angry after the leak of the documents indicating the U.S. isn’t confident the counteroffensive will prove overly successful.
— FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: STEPHANIE EPNER is now global senior director of the Climate Imperative Foundation, Daniel has learned. She previously was a special adviser and acting senior director for climate and energy at the NSC and is a former longtime aide to JOHN KERRY.
— JOHN BERGERON has been named VP of global services for surveillance at Teledyne Technologies’ FLIR Defense subsidiary. He most recently led product support at Raytheon as a VP.
What to Read
— NAHAL TOOSI and ROSA PRINCE, POLITICO: ‘Preposterous’ but ‘loved’ it: A guide to Netflix’s ‘The Diplomat’
— ROSIE GRAY, The New York Times: How DONALD TRUMP and TUCKER CARLSON upended the GOP foreign policy apparatus
— GILMARY HOSTAGE III, JOSEPH GUASTELLA, HENRY OBERING and DAVID MANN, The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs: Build it and they will come:a U.S. strategy for integrating Middle East air and missile defenses
— Johns Hopkins University, 5:30 a.m.: NATO and the Evolving Transatlantic Security Agenda
— Association of the United States Army, 8 a.m.: Honoring Army Civilians
— Senate Armed Services Committee, 9:30 a.m.: Annual World Wide Threats hearing with heads of the intelligence community
— Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9:30 a.m.: Assessing President Yoon’s State Visit
— Senate Foreign Relations Committee, 10:15 a.m.: Ambassador nominations
— Brookings Institution, 10:30 a.m.: Global diplomatic engagement: Prospects for U.S.-Japan cooperation
— Hudson Institute, 12 p.m.: Reaching an Endgame in Ukraine
— Center for Strategic and International Studies, 3 p.m.: Allies and Geopolitical Competition in the Indo-Pacific Region
— Center for Strategic and International Studies, 3:30 p.m.: A conversation with President FERDINAND MARCOS of the Philippines
— Hudson Institute, 4:15 p.m.: A Conversation with Gen. Bussiere, Commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command
— House Veterans, 4:30 p.m.: Ending Veteran Homelessness in San Diego
— Washington Institute, 7 p.m.: Keynote Address by National Security Advisor JAKE SULLIVAN
Thanks to our editor, Heidi Vogt, who would openly say she was behind a drone attack on us.
We also thank our producer, Gregory Svirnovskiy, who no one would try to kill.
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