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NATO leaders converge on Washington ahead of Vilnius summit, as Ukraine presses for membership commitment

May 15, 2023

SUNAK MEETS BIDEN: After a day of meeting with U.S. congressional leaders and throwing out the first pitch at a baseball game in Washington's smoke-filled air, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak meets in the Oval Office with President Joe Biden this morning for wide-ranging talks that will include discussions of Ukraine's future with NATO.

"Of course, Ukraine and Russia will be top of mind and discussed, said press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre at yesterday's White House briefing.

Sunak's two-day visit, his first as PM, comes ahead of NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg's scheduled Monday White House meeting with Biden and as Ukraine is pressing for a concrete signal that it will be formally invited to join NATO once the war with Russia is over.

Sunak is also expected to lobby for Biden's support for British Defense Minister Ben Wallace to succeed Stoltenberg, whose term as secretary-general ends in September.

Biden and Sunak are holding a joint news conference at 1:30 p.m.


SUNAK: 'UKRAINE’S RIGHTFUL PLACE IS IN NATO': In an interview with CNBC last week, Sunak said, "I agree with the NATO secretary-general, Ukraine's rightful place is in NATO" and that the alliance needs to "send a very strong signal to Vladimir Putin that we’re not going anywhere."

Asked if, in light of Sunak's statement and Stoltenberg's impending visit, Biden was thinking about a renewed push toward Ukraine's admission into NATO, Jean-Pierre was noncommittal. "Nothing has changed on how we’ve answered this question before," she said. "An alliance decision is between the 31 allies and the aspirant country. That's how it's dealt with. There's a process, and there's an open-door policy. That's what we support."

One week from today, NATO defense ministers gather again in Brussels, and next month, NATO heads of state meet in Vilnius, Lithuania, for the alliance's annual leader's summit.

ZELENSKY: WITHOUT SIGNAL, ‘NO POINT’: In an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed frustration that after 15 years, it still doesn't have a firm commitment to join NATO.

Zelensky told the newspaper he does not expect Ukraine to join while the war is raging but wants security guarantees for now and a firm promise it will be admitted to the alliance in the future.

"If we are not given a signal in Vilnius, I believe there is no point for Ukraine to be at this summit," he said. Asked whether he thought he would get a signal, he replied: "I don't know. I honestly don't know."

In a Tuesday address at the Bucharest Nine summit, Zelensky argued it's time for NATO to show it's not intimidated by Russia.

"At this year's NATO summit in Vilnius, it is time to show that NATO's declared values and real values do not differ. It is time to show that there will be no weakness in Europe," Zelensky said. "It is necessary to finally establish that Ukraine will be a member of NATO, and this can only be established by an invitation to Ukraine to join."


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HAPPENING TODAY: ZELENSKY IN KHERSON: This morning, Zelensky traveled to the southern city of Kherson, one of the areas hardest hit by the massive flooding resulting from the destruction of the Kakhovka dam and hydroelectric power plant on the Dnipro River Monday, which he blamed on Russian "terrorism" and labeled "ecocide."

Video on his official Twitter account showed Zelensky being briefed on rescue and relief efforts, and in a separate tweet, he appealed for a "clear and quick" international response.

"The situation in the occupied part of Kherson region is absolutely catastrophic. The occupiers simply abandoned people in these terrible conditions. Without rescue, without water, just on the rooftops in flooded communities. And this is another deliberate crime of Russia: after the terrorist state has caused a disaster," Zelensky tweeted. "Our military and special services are rescuing people as much as it is possible, despite the shelling. But large-scale efforts are needed. We need international organizations, such as the International Committee of the Red Cross, to immediately join the rescue operation."


ALSO TODAY: RARE ISW LIVE BRIEFING: Every day, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War publishes it best assessment of how the war in Ukraine is going, but tonight, Jennifer Cafarella, ISW's director of strategic initiatives; and Mason Clark, leader of ISW's Russia team, are conducting a live briefing over Zoom at 7 p.m.

The non-profit organization is asking for a suggested $18 donation for what it says will be the first time a general audience will have direct access to the analytical leaders responsible for ISW's updates. "The briefing will feature a detailed examination of the current situation on the front line and a deeper dive into ISW's forecasts and assessments than our daily updates," the ISW said.

HOIST ON THEIR OWN PETARD: Assuming that Russia was responsible for blowing up the dam — which it adamantly denies and the U.S. has not confirmed — the move backfired spectacularly from a purely military perspective, according to the ISW.

"The destruction of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant dam is significantly changing the geography and topography of the Kherson frontline sector in southern Ukraine," the group's analysts wrote in their latest campaign assessment.

"The flooding has destroyed many Russian first line field fortifications that the Russian military intended to use to defend against Ukrainian attacks. Rapid flooding has likely forced Russian personnel and military equipment in Russian main concentration points in Oleshky and Hola Prystan to withdraw. Russian forces had previously used these positions to shell Kherson City and other settlements on the west (right bank) of Kherson," they wrote. "The flood also destroyed Russian minefields along the coast, with footage showing mines exploding in the flood water."

Some Russian heavy equipment was also lost in the first 24 hours of the flooding, the ISW said, but the amount is unclear.


HUDSON’S TAKE: The Hudson Institute is out with its weekly Ukraine Military Situation Report, and it has two bottom lines up front: "First, the Ukrainian military is now staging a series of small-to-medium-scale offensive actions. Second, Ramzan Kadyrov's Chechen fighters are replacing Wagner units at an increasing rate."

The assessment, written by Can Kasapoğlu, a senior fellow at Hudson, suggested the current advances by mechanized Ukrainian forces are likely probing operations looking for weak spots that are a prelude to the big push.

"The Ukrainian General Staff is likely conducting these rapid and calculated small maneuvers to test Russian defenses’ reaction times and force Russian combat formations to reveal their integrated fire plans," he wrote. "Ukrainian commanders are also trying to improve their understanding of Russian artillery planning in defensive combat operations. These factors remain critical to assessing the opposing force before launching a large-scale action."

TWO UKRAINE SUPPORTERS ENTER RACE FOR WHITE HOUSE: The two big names to enter the race this week for the Republican presidential nomination are former Vice President Mike Pence and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and both have pledged strong support for Ukraine, in contrast to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and frontrunner Donald Trump.

In a CNN Town Hall last night, Pence gave a full-throated defense of aid to Ukraine and dissed Trump for calling Russian President Vladimir Putin "a genius."

"I know the difference between a genius and a war criminal. And I know who needs to win in the war in Ukraine. And it's the people fighting for their freedom and fighting to restore their national sovereignty," Pence said. "It's not our war, but freedom is our fight. And we need to give the people of Ukraine the ability to fight and defend their freedom."

"But also, look, our greatest economic and strategic threat in the 21st century is China," Pence said. "And I believe the most effective way to discourage China's increasing military aggression and ambitions in the Asia-Pacific is to give the Ukrainians the ability to defeat Russia and drive them out. That will send a Russia [message] to China that we're not going to tolerate them."

In an appearance on CNN earlier in the day, Christie had a similar message.

"This is a proxy war with China. It's what it is. China is buying Russian oil like no one else in the world is doing. They're funding the murder of Ukrainians by the Russian army. President Xi goes to Russia, stands with Putin, and says there's no limits to the Chinese friendship with the Russians," Christie told CNN's Jake Tapper.

"I think it's very clear what we need to do. We need to give the Ukrainians every piece of military hardware they need to protect themselves against this aggression, and we need to continue to do it until they are ready to resolve the conflict with Russia," he said. "This is a much bigger deal than just Ukrainian territory, it is a much bigger deal. Our friends around the world are going to see, do we stick, do we stand with our friends, and do we give them the tools they need to protect themselves from authoritarian aggression?"

"And I don't know what President Trump is thinking about this," Christie added as an aside, "except that he's been a puppet of Putin from the time he was president. And it always was disturbing to me."


TUBERVILLE CLAIMS TOP SPACE COMMANDER FAVORS ALABAMA FO HQ: In the ongoing effort to pressure the Biden administration to implement the Trump-era decision to locate the permanent headquarters of the U.S. Space Command in Huntsville, Alabama, Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) said the general who heads that command is on his side.

Currently, the SPACECOM headquarters is at Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

"Today, the Alabama delegation met with U.S. SPACECOM Commander Gen. [James] Dickinson," Tuberville said in a statement. "Just like the GAO and DoD IG report, Gen. Dickinson confirmed Huntsville is the preferred location of Space Command headquarters. Enough is enough, it's time to bring SPACECOM home to Huntsville."

The Biden administration is reportedly reconsidering the move in light of the burden Alabama's restrictive abortion laws would have on troops required to be based there.

BRIEFING ROOM IS BACK! After a several monthslong renovation, the historic Pentagon Briefing Room is open as of today, marking the end of a temporary setup in a 4th-floor hallway.


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7 a.m. 7920 Jones Branch Dr., McLean, Virginia — Potomac Officers Club 2023 Cyber Summit, with David McKeown, principal deputy defense CIO

8:30 a.m. 1616 Rhode Island Ave. NW — Center for Strategic and International Studies discussion: "Why Taiwan Matters," with Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK); and Victor Cha, CSIS Korea chairman

8:45 a.m. 137 National Plaza, Oxon Hill, Md. — Defense Strategies Institute Smallsat and Space Access Summit, with Lt. Gen. Philip Garrant, U.S. Space Force deputy chief of space operations, strategy, plans, programs, and requirements

9 a.m. 1401 Pennsylvania Ave. SE — PunchBowl News discussion: "National security and foreign relations," with Senate Appropriations Committee ranking member Susan Collins (R-ME); Jill Albertelli, president for military engines at Pratt & Whitney; Andrew Desiderio, senior congressional reporter at Punchbowl News; Anna Palmer, founder and CEO of Punchbowl News

9:30 a.m — Center for a New American Security virtual conference: "American Power and Purpose," with Ely Ratner, assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs; and Sen. Joni Ernst (R-IA)

11 a.m. — Jewish Institute for National Security of America online discussion: "Saudi Arabia's Oil Production Cut," with John Hannah, senior fellow at JINSA's Gemunder Center for Defense and Strategy, and former national security adviser for Vice President Cheney; Larry Goldstein, founder and director of the Energy Policy Research Institute Inc. and JINSA Gemunder Center senior adviser; and Jonathan Ruhe, JINSA director of foreign policy

7 p.m. — Institute for the Study of War virtual briefing: "The critical next phase of the war between Russia and Ukraine," with Jennifer Cafarella, ISW director of strategic initiatives; and Mason Clark, ISW Russia team lead


6 p.m. 2500 Calvert St. NW — Intelligence and National Security Alliance 38th William Oliver Baker Award Dinner "to posthumously honor Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, former deputy commander of the U.S. Cyber Command and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency," with Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Dimitri Henry, director for intelligence, the Joint Staff; and Letitia Long, chairwoman of the INSA Board of Directors


TBA — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg arrives in Washington for two days of talks with President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and members of the Senate NATO Observer Group


12 p.m. — Joint media availability with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg

1 p.m. — Center for Strategic and International Studies releases: "Ahead of the NATO Summit: Burden Sharing to Responsibility Sharing," a new CSIS report by Kathleen McInnis and co-author Daniel Fata, CSIS non-resident senior adviser and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy; Max Bergmann, CSIS director, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program; E.J. Herold, member, The SPECTRUM Group and former NATO deputy assistant secretary general for defense investment; and moderated by Donatienne Ruy, CSIS director of executive education

"Military campaigns are rarely all or nothing, but this one comes close. If Ukraine can drive back an already shaky Russian army, it stands a chance of forcing Moscow to bargain for an end of its failed invasion. But if Ukraine fails, it would be a bitter blow to the country's weary population and could endanger continued support from some restless NATO members."

David Ignatius writing in the Washington Post