‘WE ARE READY TO TALK’: As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky engaged in urgent consultations with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels yesterday, NATO said it was “gravely concerned” by what it called “the substantial, unprovoked, and unjustified Russian military build-up on the borders of Ukraine.”
A statement issued by NATO’s North Atlantic Council, the alliance's principal political decision-making body, called on Russia to “immediately de-escalate, pursue diplomatic channels, and abide by its international commitments on transparency of military activities.”
The statement also acknowledged Russian President Vladimir Putin’s complaints about threats to its security and said NATO is ready for “meaningful dialogue.”
“We are aware of Russia’s recent European security proposals,” the statement said but added that “any dialogue with Russia would have to proceed on the basis of reciprocity,” and “address NATO’s concerns about Russia’s actions.”
“We are ready to talk to Russia. We actually believe in dialogue,” said Stoltenberg in a joint appearance at NATO headquarters with Zelensky. “We believe that dialogue is important, especially when times are difficult as they are now. And our invitation to Moscow to meet in the NATO-Russia Council stands, and we are ready to sit down.”
NATO WARNS RUSSIA: ‘MASSIVE CONSEQUENCES’ FOR EXPANDED INVASION OF UKRAINE
ZELENSKY: RUSSIA CONDUCTING A ‘HYBRID’ WAR: Zelensky called his consultations with Stoltenberg “substantial” and said his main point was the need to uphold the rule of law and respect for international borders.
The Ukrainian leader accused Russia of conducting a hybrid campaign to blackmail Ukraine into giving up its dream of joining NATO, including cyberattacks, disinformation, and urging Belarus to send migrants across the border into Ukraine.
But Zelensky said Russia has no one to blame but itself for Ukraine’s desire for NATO protection. Public opinion on joining the Western alliance was split in Ukraine until Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, he argued. “Since 2014, we feel that Russia basically pushed Ukraine into NATO,” Zelensky said. “Indeed, my view is that Russia indeed is paving the way for Ukraine to join NATO.”
AS PUTIN KEEPS THE WORLD GUESSING, EXPERTS BET HE WON’T INVADE UKRAINE
WILL HE OR WON’T HE? As the world waits to see whether Putin is bluffing, or is serious about sending his troops and tanks into Ukraine, Zelensky says his Army is ready to fight, even as he concedes it’s no match for Russia’s superior military might.
“Ukraine is indeed a big state, and we have got quite a strong army,” said Zelensky through a translator. “We all understand that of course when we talk about our army, however high the level is, it is manyfold smaller than one of the most powerful armies in the world, you know, the Russian army.”
In testimony yesterday before a session of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an expert on the Russian military suggested Putin could avoid the pitfalls of a protracted ground war by punishing Ukraine with its high-tech weaponry including artillery, mobile launch rocket systems, submarine-launched cruise missiles, and its Iskander short-range ballistic missile systems.
“The objective wouldn't necessarily likely be to seize territory, although that could occur, but instead to inflict pain on Ukraine to alter the incentive structure and make conceding the preferable option,” said Robert Lee, expert on Russian military capabilities at King's College London. “That could be done by destroying Ukrainian military units, killing Ukrainian soldiers, destroying infrastructure or occupying key terrain, making the situation unsustainable for Kyiv.”
“So, we understand that if a full-fledged war takes place, we understand we are talking about hundreds of thousands of victims,” Zelensky said yesterday. “We do not want this. We are a civilized country.”
OPINION: PUTIN'S PROPAGANDA COUP
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VACCINE REQUIREMENT GETS REAL: The military services are sending a strong signal they are dead serious about enforcing the Pentagon’s mandatory COVID vaccine requirement, and the trickle of troops being unceremoniously booted out of the military will continue to grow in the coming months, likely into the tens of thousands.
The Marine Corps announced yesterday that 103 Marines have been booted from the service for vaccine refusal, and in a statement, the Army said it has relieved six active-duty leaders, including two battalion commanders, while issuing 2,767 written reprimands for refusing the vaccination order.
Still, the Army, the largest branch of the armed services, says 98% of active-duty soldiers have received at least one dose of the vaccine, and 96% – 461,209 soldiers – are fully vaccinated.
“Beginning in January, Army commanders will initiate involuntary separation for the less than one percent [3,864 soldiers] of active component Soldiers who continue to refuse the vaccination order without an approved or pending exemption,” the statement said.
WHERE IS IT GOING? The Pentagon says it is too early to say how many troops will eventually be expunged from the ranks, especially because some faced with expulsion may have a change of heart about the vaccine.
“We're just at a point here where the administrative processing is really just beginning. I mean, the Air Force just this week talked about 27. The Army now has a few thousand, but they're not going to even begin the processing until next month,” said Pentagon spokesman John Kirby. “And it's possible that some number of those Army soldiers may, after taking some time to think about it, may come around and take the vaccine.”
The Pentagon continues to portray the vaccine mandate as “enormously successful” and says the number of troops digging in in opposition to vaccination is a tiny percentage of the total force of more than 2 million.
“Not minimizing the importance of it. Not saying that we want any,” said Kirby. “We don't even want one soldier to be administratively discharged because of refusal to take the vaccine. But I do think some context and perspective about the scope here, the size of the numbers, is important when you look at the entire total force.”
RISK OF RADICALIZATION? Reporters at yesterday’s Pentagon briefing questioned Kirby about whether Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was concerned that disgruntled troops kicked out for opposing the mandate might turn to extremist or anti-government groups once they are out of uniform, given how the issue of mandates has become so political.
“There's no reason why this has to become an issue of extremism or not,” said Kirby. “While it may be a political issue in society, it's not a political issue here in the United States military; it is a valid military medical requirement, and it is a lawful order to accept the vaccine, to take the vaccine, and that's how we're looking at this.”
Kirby downplayed the idea that losing potentially thousands of troops, and perhaps dozens of commanders, would have an adverse effect on unit readiness. “The readiness concern is getting the vaccination rate as close to 100% as possible.”
THREATENING DRONE DOWNED IN SYRIA: The Pentagon confirmed yesterday that a drone was shot down by a British plane when it came too close to an area in Syria where a small number of U.S. troops are based.
“There were two unmanned aerial systems, i.e., drones that were tracked entering the At Tanf Garrison deconfliction zone on the evening of the 14th of December,” said Kirby. “As one of these drones continued its course deeper into the deconfliction zone, it was assessed as demonstrating a hostile intent and was shot down.”
The Pentagon did not identify the country of origin, but Kirby pointed a finger at Iran. “We know that this is an increasingly used and increasingly lethal, potentially lethal threat that these Iran-backed militia groups are using.”
US, UAE MEET AMID F-35 CONCERNS: Senior delegations from the United States and the United Arab Emirates met in Washington this week as a deal negotiated by the Trump administration to sell Lockheed Martin F-35s, America’s premier fighter jets, to the UAE has hit a snag.
The hang-up is over so-called “end-user requirements” that are designed to prevent America’s highest technology from falling into enemy hands.
“We're always concerned about technology transfer to nations that have an adversarial view of our commitment to a rules-based international order,” said Kirby. “There are end-user requirements with every foreign military sale,” he said. “They're important safeguards when we participate in foreign military sales, and they're nonnegotiable.”
A Pentagon readout of the meeting, which was attended by Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, made no mention of the F-35 issue, but Kirby confirmed the impasse was discussed.
“They raised questions and concerns. We have questions and concerns of our own, and we'll work our way through that,” he said. “We still would like to see this sale go through, and we're still open to dialogue with the UAE about it.”
ROUTINE ROTATIONS: The Army has announced the following regular rotation of forces for the 2nd quarter of fiscal year 2022:
- 1st Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, from Fort Drum, New York, will deploy to CENTCOM to support Operation Inherent Resolve
- 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, will deploy to Korea
- 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division, stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado, will deploy to Europe to support NATO allies and partners
INDUSTRY WATCH: Tomorrow is National Wreaths Across America Day, in which America’s fallen are honored by the placement of wreaths at gravesites at 30 cemeteries across the nation, including Arlington National Cemetery.
This year, Lockheed Martin Corporation has donated $210,000 to fund 15,000 wreaths for the project.
“About one in five Lockheed Martin employees has served in uniform, so this gesture is personal to many of our colleagues,” said Meagan Campion, Lockheed Martin’s director of social impact. “We are grateful for this solemn opportunity to honor all those who have served.”
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FRIDAY | DECEMBER 17
10 a.m. — Center for Strategic and International Studies virtual discussion: “A Humanitarian Emergency: The Collapse of Afghanistan's Banking System,” with Kathryn Striffolino, senior manager of the humanitarian practice at Interaction; and Mohammad Salem Omaid, CEO of Azizi Bank https://www.csis.org/events/humanitarian-emergency
11 a.m. — Washington Institute for Near East Policy virtual discussion “The War on Jihadism: Lessons from Twenty Years of Counterterrorism,” with Marc Hecker, director of research and communications at the French Institute of International Relations; and Elie Tenenbaum, research fellow at IFRI https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis
1 p.m. — Council on Foreign Relations conversation with national security adviser Jake Sullivan with Richard Haass, president, Council on Foreign Relations and author of The World: A Brief Introduction. Audio and video will be posted on the CFR website. https://www.cfr.org/cfr-presents
1 p.m. — Center for Strategic and International Studies virtual discussion: “China's Sphere of Influence in the Indo-Pacific,” with former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell; and Graham Allison, professor of government at Harvard University https://www.csis.org/events/chinas-power-debate
3 p.m. — Mitchell Institute Spacepower Advantage Research Center virtual “Spacepower Forum: Delta Commander's Perspectives,” with Col. Matthew Holston; Col. Miguel Cruz; Col. Robert Long, moderated by retired Gen. Kevin Chilton, explorer chair for space warfighting studies at MI-SPARC https://go.afa.org https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register
SATURDAY | DECEMBER 18
Arlington National Cemetery — National Wreaths Across America Day to place wreaths on the more than 253,000 headstones at Arlington National Cemetery to honor the nation’s fallen service members and their families. @ArlingtonNatl
QUOTE OF THE DAY
“These thousands that we're talking about, they still have an opportunity to do the right thing, to do the right thing for themselves and for their units. And we obviously hope that they will, but if they don't, it is a lawful order and it has to be obeyed because it is a valid medical requirement.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, on the prospect of thousands of troops being discharged in the coming months for refusing mandatory vaccines