Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

White House Delays Moving Military Assistance to Ukraine

And Congress is getting impatient.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A Ukrainian serviceman keeps watch at a position on the frontline of the conflict with Russia-backed separatists.
A Ukrainian serviceman keeps watch at a position on the frontline of the conflict with Russia-backed separatists.
A Ukrainian serviceman keeps watch at a position on the front line of the conflict with Russia-backed separatists not far from the city of Horlivka, in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, on Nov. 25. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Happy Thursday. We’re assuming you all tuned into the Financial Modeling World Cup where top contenders from around the world duked it out over their spreadsheet skills this past week. But just in case you missed it, here’s a recap

Alright, after that adrenaline rush, we’ve got some national security news for you too. Here’s what’s on tap for the day: Frustration mounts in the U.S. Congress over President Joe Biden’s Ukraine policy, the U.S. Senate passes a full State Department authorization bill for the first time in two decades, and China builds up troops on its border with India. 

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Welcome to Foreign Policy’s SitRep! Happy Thursday. We’re assuming you all tuned into the Financial Modeling World Cup where top contenders from around the world duked it out over their spreadsheet skills this past week. But just in case you missed it, here’s a recap

Alright, after that adrenaline rush, we’ve got some national security news for you too. Here’s what’s on tap for the day: Frustration mounts in the U.S. Congress over President Joe Biden’s Ukraine policy, the U.S. Senate passes a full State Department authorization bill for the first time in two decades, and China builds up troops on its border with India. 

If you would like to receive Situation Report in your inbox every Thursday, please sign up here.


Congress Hopes to Thaw Ukraine Aid

Congress is growing increasingly frustrated that the Biden administration has not moved forward with a package of military assistance destined for Ukraine, sources familiar with the decision said, fearing that the White House is doing too little to stave off the possibility of a Russian military invasion of the country. 

The White House has not yet OK’d a package of lethal and non-lethal assistance for the Ukrainian military that includes Javelin anti-tank munitions, counter-artillery radars, sniper rifles, assorted small arms, and communications and electronic warfare equipment, according to a source familiar with the matter. NBC News first reported that the military assistance was being held up on Saturday. 

The White House has been worried that the assistance would be too provocative to Russia, the source said. The Biden administration followed a similar logic in April when holding up military aid to Ukraine that was eventually delivered to Kyiv after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Washington in August. 

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan indicated last week that if Russia were to again invade Ukraine, the United States would provide additional defensive weapons above and beyond what Washington has already provided. A National Security Council spokesperson said that the United States has provided Javelin missiles, command launch units, two patrol boats, and a host of electronics and spare parts to Ukraine. The spokesperson also said the United States would deliver additional equipment and supplies through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative in the weeks and months ahead, and was still assessing more military assistance packages.

Meanwhile, top Biden officials and other Western leaders are on a diplomatic offensive to shore up political support for Kyiv and try to deter Russia from launching the invasion. Karen Donfried, Biden’s top envoy for Europe, visited Kyiv this week, while on Thursday NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met with Zelensky.

Frustrated with the delay in military assistance, however, members of Congress have gone to the region seeking answers for themselves. Over the weekend, the bipartisan trio of U.S. Reps. Michael Waltz, Ruben Gallego, and Seth Moulton visited Ukraine for meetings with U.S. embassy officials, Ukrainian national security leaders, and troops out in the field (and even some sparring with Russian diplomats). Waltz worried that the Biden administration’s “underlying premise” is to not antagonize Russia, he said on a call that SitRep joined on Tuesday. 

“The next round of lethal aid is literally sitting on [Biden’s] desk,” Waltz said. “[The] Ukrainians are practically begging for it. There was frustration among some of the American team out there that it’s moving slowly. They don’t understand.” 

The source familiar with the aid freeze told SitRep that some Republicans on Capitol Hill see hardening Ukraine with defensive weapons as more likely to influence Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculus. The more likely Putin is to face a bloody and slow-going invasion, the source said, the more likely the Russian leader will tread cautiously. 

Waltz, Moulton, and Gallego, who visited with Florida National Guard troops and the leader of Ukraine’s special forces during their visit, said they were encouraged by the military progress they saw on the ground. That view is also reflected by Eastern European diplomats, who say what Ukrainian forces lack in modern military equipment, they make up for in tactical skills and professionalism.

“It’s going to be very bloody,” Kaimo Kuusk, Estonia’s ambassador to Ukraine, recently told SitRep. “It’s going to be really, really bloody, because Ukraine’s armed forces are actually really good. They have already been fighting for more than seven years against Russian forces.” 


Let’s Get Personnel

Biden announced a raft of nominees on Wednesday, all of which require Senate confirmation. Biden picked Caroline Kennedy, the U.S. ambassador to Japan during the Obama administration and the eldest child of former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, to serve as U.S. ambassador to Australia. 

As our colleague Colum Lynch first reported, Biden tapped Robert Wood to be the number-three official at the U.S. mission to the United Nations. 

Biden has also selected former Olympic figure skater and State Department official Michelle Kwan to be his ambassador to Belize. Fun fact: As our friends on Twitter note, Belize is not a member of the international bodies that govern ice hockey and speed skating. 

At the Pentagon, Biden nominated Frank Calvelli to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and Franklin Parker to be assistant secretary of the Navy for manpower and reserve affairs.

Also for the Pentagon, Ilan Goldenberg left the Center for a New American Security to become principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs.

On the intelligence side, Ryan T. Young was named executive assistant director of the Intelligence Branch at the FBI. 

At the Energy Department, Biden tapped Marvin Adams as his nominee for deputy administrator for defense programs of the National Nuclear Security Administration.

At the United Nations, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres announced Tanzanian diplomat Joyce Msuya would be assistant secretary-general for humanitarian affairs and deputy emergency relief coordinator. 

In advocacy land, Sara Haghdoosti is being moved up to become executive director of the progressive foreign policy organization Win Without War and its education fund. She was previously deputy director. 


On the Button 

What should be high on your radar, if it isn’t already.

Authsome news. The Senate passed a full State Department authorization bill as part of the massive defense spending bill that just passed. This is a big deal. The last time a full State Department authorization bill was passed and signed by the president was in 2002—a time when Barack Obama was just a freshman Illinois senator and less than 10 percent of the global population used the internet.

One new development in the bill: Special envoys will now have to be Senate confirmed (with some exceptions). Presidents and secretaries of state have in the past been able to appoint special envoys to tackle specific diplomatic crises without needing them to go through the (sometimes) lengthy and onerous Senate confirmation process, which has led to a proliferation of envoys and caused some headaches at Foggy Bottom. 

Oh, not this again. China is once again amassing military forces near its high-altitude Himalayan border with India, setting the stage for another tense confrontation between the two nuclear powers, a senior defense official told Jack. The standoff could convince India to take a harder line on China, something that U.S. officials in Washington would likely welcome with open arms. 

Inroads to Damascus. After 10 long years of being an international pariah, Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad is finally getting some countries to return his calls, as Bente Scheller writes for Foreign Policy.

Never mind that he spent a decade killing and gassing his own people, all while being propped up by Iran and Russia. Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and other countries have slowly (and quietly) begun talking to Assad again, an indication that the Syrian leader and war criminal has succeeded in clinging to power while crossing red lines left and right, mostly by waiting out the crisis. 


Snapshot 

A Ukrainian soldier walks in a trench on the frontline of the conflict with Russia-backed separatists.

A Ukrainian soldier walks in a trench on the front line of the conflict with Russia-backed separatists, not far from the city of Avdiivka in Ukraines Donetsk region, on Dec. 10.Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images


Put On Your Radar

Saturday, Dec. 18: Russia’s withdrawal from Open Skies Treaty takes effect.


Quote of the Week

“If Putin invades, I want him to know that he’ll have trouble buying a soda from a vending machine in the next five minutes.” 

—Democratic Rep. Seth Moulton calls for punitive U.S. sanctions against Russia in case of a potential invasion of Ukraine, on Dec. 14.


Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

The gingerbread people’s house. It’s Christmas in the U.S. House of Representatives. Fred Johnson, the lower chamber’s top chef, has built a scaled gingerbread replica of the U.S. Capitol for the fifth straight year. Take a look. And for those asking: no, you can’t eat it. 

Obit of the year. Check out this wild ride of an obituary in the Fayetteville Observer. You won’t regret reading it. Rest in peace, Renay Mandel Corren. 

Update, Dec. 16, 2021: This story has been updated to provide additional information on U.S. military aid to Ukraine.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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