Early Edition: September 19, 2022 – Just Security

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A curated weekday guide to major national security news and developments over the past 24 hours. Here’s today’s news.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

The funeral of Queen Elizabeth II is taking place today, following 10 days of mourning since her death on Sept. 8. Live reporting is provided by the New York Times. 

RUSSIA, UKRAINE – WAR CRIMES INVESTIGATIONS

Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S. said yesterday that Ukraine has uncovered evidence of “war crimes of massive proportions” in territory recently liberated from the Russians after months of occupation. “It’s so important for everyone to see the true face of this aggression,” Ambassador Oksana Markarova said. “It’s tortures, rapes, killings, war crimes of massive proportions. That’s why we need to liberate the whole territory of Ukraine as soon as possible, because clearly Russians are targeting all Ukrainians. Whole families, children, so there is no war logic in all of this. It’s terrorizing and committing genocide against Ukrainians.” David Cohen reports for POLITICO

The exhumation of bodies from hundreds of unmarked graves in Izium will continue for another two weeks, the city’s mayor Valery Marchenko has said. Serhii Bolvinov, the head of the investigative department of the regional police force in Kharkiv, said the exhumed bodies would be forensically examined as part of an investigation into whether Russian forces committed war crimes during their occupation of the region. Carly Olson reports for the New York Times

The foreign minister of the Czech Republic, current holder of the presidency of the Council of the E.U., has called for a “special international tribunal” to investigate Russia’s actions in Izium. “Russia left behind mass graves of hundreds of shot and tortured people in the Izyum area. In the 21st century, such attacks against the civilian population are unthinkable and abhorrent,” Foreign Minister Jan Lipavský wrote on Twitter. “We stand for the punishment of all war criminals. I call for the speedy establishment of a special international tribunal that will prosecute the crime of aggression,” he said. His comments follow similar calls for accountability from U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and E.U. foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. Gian Volpicelli reports for POLITICO

RUSSIA, UKRAINE – FIGHTING

A Russian missile has exploded near the South Ukraine Nuclear Power Plant, Ukrainian officials have reported. The missile exploded less than 1,000 feet from the plant’s reactors and caused extensive damage around a hydroelectric power station in the industrial zone that surrounds the nuclear complex, forcing the shutdown of one of the plant’s hydraulic units. There was no damage to essential safety equipment at the nuclear power plant, which remained fully operational, the company said. Marc Santora reports for the New York Times. 

Four Ukrainian health care workers were killed yesterday when Russian forces launched an attack during an evacuation of psychiatric patients from a hospital in the Kharkiv region. “Russians opened massive fire during evacuation,” the head of the regional military administration, Oleh Synyehubov, wrote on Telegram. “Unfortunately, four health workers were killed and two patients injured.”  Only a few dozen of the more than 600 patients at the facility had been evacuated, he wrote. His post did not give further details and it was unclear whether the attack involved artillery or missiles. Matthew Mpoke Bigg reports for the New York Times

Russian strikes have increasingly picked out civilian targets over the past week, even when no immediate military benefit could be perceived, according to a U.K. Ministry of Defense intelligence update. The aim is to “undermine the morale of the Ukrainian people and government,” following Russian setbacks in the  Kharkiv region, it said. This has raised concerns about further escalation from Moscow. Speaking during a regional summit in Uzbekistan on Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia had launched several warning strikes in response to Ukraine’s offensive. “If the situation continues to develop in this way, then the response will be more serious,” he added. Isabel Coles reports for the Wall Street Journal.

RUSSIA, UKRAINE – OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

Whilst Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksyy presses the U.S. for longer-range missile systems, President Biden remains wary of provoking Russia,  senior aides have said. We’re trying to avoid World War III,” Biden often reminds his aides, echoing a statement he has also made publicly. Senior aides to the president also say that when Biden asked the Pentagon in recent weeks how much the longer-range missile systems would help Ukrainian forces during the next stage of the war, he was told the benefits would be minimal. That led him to conclude, they said, that it was not worth the risk. David E. Sanger, Anton Troianovski, Julian E. Barnes and Eric Schmitt report for the New York Times. 

A group of human rights defenders has issued an appeal to the Russian prosecutor general to investigate reports of prisoners being sent to war in Ukraine. “Information was widely disseminated (in the show ‘Besogon TV,’ [and] in the show ‘Vesti’ on the ‘Russia-1’ channel ” on Sunday, August 7, 2022) that now throughout Russia there are thousands of prisoners with unserved terms for [committing] various — including serious crimes — who are sent to Ukraine to participate in a special military operation,“ the activists stated in the letter addressed to Russian Prosecutor General Igor Krasnov. “In connection with the above, we ask you to clarify, on what basis are these persons released from prison, if this information is true?” the appeal asked. The appeal also stated that prisoners should only be released before finishing their sentence under certain terms: a pardon from the President, amnesty from the State Duma, or parole by a court decision. Mariya Knight reports for CNN.

U.S. RELATIONS – CHINA

U.S. forces would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, President Biden has said. When asked in a CBS 60 Minutes interview broadcast whether U.S. forces would defend the democratically governed island claimed by China, he replied: “Yes, if in fact, there was an unprecedented attack.” When asked to clarify if he meant that unlike in Ukraine, U.S. forces – American men and women – would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, Biden replied: “Yes.” This is Biden’s most explicit statement on this issue and has drawn an angry response from China. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning told a regular briefing in Beijing that Biden’s comments sent a “seriously wrong signal” to those seeking an independent Taiwan. David Brunnstrom and Trevor Hunnicutt report for Reuters

U.S. policy on Taiwan has not changed, a White House official has said following Biden’s CBS interview. Officially, the U.S. maintains “strategic ambiguity” on whether American forces would defend Taiwan, but the Taiwan Relations Act obligates the U.S. to help equip Taiwan to defend itself. CBS News reports. 

The Pentagon is intensifying efforts to decouple U.S. defense companies’ global supply chain from China, according to executives and department officials. The Defense Department said it has started using artificial intelligence to improve the way it analyzes whether aircraft parts, electronics and raw materials used by U.S. military contractors originate in China and other potential adversaries. Defense contractors, encouraged by the Pentagon and lawmakers, have also said they are weaning themselves off microelectronics and specialized metals from China, one of the biggest global suppliers. In the U.S., new facilities are under development to process rare-earth minerals, most of which remain widely sourced from China. Doug Cameron reports for the Wall Street Journal

OTHER U.S. RELATIONS

At a press conference during her visit to Armenia, Speaker Nancy Pelosi expressed strong support for the country and condemned “illegal and deadly attacks by Azerbaijan.”  Pelosi traveled to Armenia to meet with the country’s prime minister, Nikol Pashinyan, after fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan erupted last week, resulting in the deaths of more than 180 people. “This was initiated by the Azeris, there has to be recognition of that,” Pelosi said, openly taking sides in a dispute where American officials have been careful to mediate discreetly. Emma Bubola reports for the New York Times

Navy veteran Mark Frerichs has been freed after two and a half years of captivity in Afghanistan under a prisoner swap personally approved by President Biden. After months of negotiations with the Taliban, Biden agreed to commute the sentence of an Afghan drug lord, Bashir Noorzai, who spent 17 years in U.S. custody and was convicted in 2008 of running a major operation to smuggle heroin into New York City. The Taliban announced the deal overnight and Noorzai appeared at a news conference in Kabul. Ken Dilanian reports for NBC News

Thomas Barrack, a confidant of former President Trump, goes on trial this week on charges that he illegally pushed U.S. officials to support policies favoring the United Arab Emirates. Federal prosecutors allege that Barrack, the former chair of investment firm Colony Capital Inc, worked with a former colleague and an Emirati citizen to influence the Trump administration and U.S. officials at the direction of high-ranking Emirati officials. At the same time, Barrack solicited and received about $374 million in capital commitments from Emirati sovereign-wealth funds, they say. Barrack, who was charged in July 2021, is also accused of obstruction of justice and making false statements during a 2019 interview with agents from the FBI. James Fanelli and Rory Jones report for the Wall Street Journal

DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS 

Hurricane Fiona knocked out all electricity on the island of Puerto Rico, as winds reached 86mph (140km/h). Though officials said some of the island’s power had been restored, the rest will take days to be reconnected, according to the operator of the island’s grid, Luma Energy. The Category 1 storm caused severe flooding and landslides on the island. President Biden declared a state of emergency for the island, allowing authorities to provide disaster relief. Merlyn Thomas reports for BBC News

The Pentagon has ordered an audit of how it conducts clandestine information warfare after major social media companies identified and took offline fake accounts suspected of being run by the U.S. military. The takedowns in recent years by Twitter and Facebook of more than 150 bogus personas and media sites created in the United States was disclosed in a report last month by internet researchers Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory. While the researchers did not attribute the sham accounts to the U.S. military, two officials familiar with the matter said that U.S. Central Command is among those whose activities are facing scrutiny. Military commands that engage in psychological operations online have been ordered to provide a full accounting of their activities by next month, according to several defense and administration officials familiar with the matter. Ellen Nakashima reports for the Washington Post

The Biden administration has for the first time appointed a senior diplomat to oversee detainee transfers out of Guantanamo. Alongside this, the administration has also signaled that it will not interfere with plea negotiations that could resolve the long-stalled prosecution of alleged 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four co-defendants. These steps represent a revamping of the administration’s effort to close the prison, after taking a low-profile approach to avoid political controversy. Jess Bravin reports for the Wall Street Journal. 

Mazars USA, the accounting firm for former President Trump that cut ties with him this year, has begun turning over documents related to his financial dealings to Congress. According to committee chair, Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY), the House Oversight Committee has received a first trove of documents from the firm, which recently entered into a legal settlement agreeing to produce a range of financial documents from several years before Trump took office and during his early presidency.  The agreement states that Mazars must turn over any documents between 2014 and 2018 that indicate any false or undisclosed information about Trump’s assets, income or liabilities; communications related to any potential concerns that financial information provided by Trump’s companies was inaccurate; documents from November 2016 to 2018 related to the Old Post Office Building, a federal property in Washington that Trump’s company converted into a hotel through a lease deal; and documents from 2017 and 2018 related to relationships between Trump’s businesses and foreign states. Luke Broadwater reports for the New York Times. 

MAR-A-LAGO SEARCH

The Justice Department asked an appeals court on Friday to let the FBI regain access to about 100 sensitive documents taken from former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence. However, the department did not seek to stop the installation of an outside arbiter to review other materials taken from Mar-a-Lago. Instead, in a 29-page filing, the department asked the court not to submit the roughly 100 files marked as classified through the vetting process of the special master. “Although the government believes the district court fundamentally erred in appointing a special master and granting injunctive relief, the government seeks to stay only the portions of the order causing the most serious and immediate harm to the government and the public,” wrote lawyers with the department’s national security division. Glenn Thrush, Alan Feuer and Charlie Savage report for the New York Times. 

COVID-19

COVID-19 has infected over 95.70 million people and has now killed over 1.05 million people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 612.056 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 6.53 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

A map and analysis of the vaccine rollout across the U.S. is available at the New York Times.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. is available at the New York Times.

U.S. and worldwide maps tracking the spread of the pandemic are available at the Washington Post.