It appears that the U.S. military has dodged a bullet. Defense officials reported last week that rather than cut the Pentagon budget, the Biden White House will "flatline" military expenditures, postponing a reset of defense spending priorities.
A senior Pentagon official confirms the report, first headlined in Breaking Defense, telling me that the Biden defense budget (due for release on May 3), will come in at just over $696 billion (total national security outlays, including those to the Department of Energy, could total more than $735 billion), a figure comparable to the base funding provided to the Pentagon in 2021. Put simply, the new Biden administration will keep in place the lavish spending on defense that was a hallmark of the Trump years — a decision likely to spur howls of protest from Biden's progressive supporters.
The report that Biden's new defense budget will look a lot like the old defense budget brought sighs of relief to defense hawks who'd spent the last two years prepping for deep cuts in military outlays, reflecting the economic cratering that has accompanied the global pandemic as well as growing unease over the "Trump bump," which saw defense expenditures rise by $100 billion over three years. "With slim Democratic majorities in the House and Senate and resistance among moderate Democrats to cutting defense significantly, a major reduction in the budget is unlikely," a Center for Strategic and International Studies paper recently noted.
The senior Pentagon official who spoke with Responsible Statecraft agrees. "If you had asked me just six months ago I would have said that we're going to have cuts, and maybe even big cuts, in defense spending,” the official said. "But no more. This is all politics. Biden doesn't want to endanger his domestic agenda, which means he's not going to pick a fight over defense dollars."
"This was all decided in the Oval Office," a former high-profile budget official who is familiar with the Biden budgeting process told us. "I can imagine the meeting: it was Biden, Harris, Ron Klain [Biden's chief of staff] maybe Susan Rice [the head of the Domestic Policy Council] and Brian Deese [the Director of the National Economic Council] and that's about it. It's one of those few times, right at the beginning of a new administration, when the defense budget isn't decided at the Pentagon. And my bet is that Biden gave the marching orders: 'doing nothing on defense doesn't cost us a thing.' It was probably a pretty short meeting."
In fact, the White House seems prepared to argue that even modest defense spending cuts undermine the Biden administration's plans for a post-pandemic economic recovery, as cuts to defense outlays will translate into cuts in defense jobs — a major engine of economic growth. Then too, White House officials (and Biden's Pentagon team), are poised to argue that any significant budget reductions will have to await a recasting of the Trump administration's national defense strategy and a Pentagon global posture review, as well as internal assessments on nuclear modernization and navy shipbuilding plans — the Pentagon equivalent of kicking the can down the road.
Finally, the White House is apparently concerned that pushing for defense cuts is likely to peel away crucial support among Senate Republicans and moderate Democrats for Biden's legislative initiatives on immigration, infrastructure, and climate change. Refusing to reduce defense spending won't get those votes, but it will keep them in play.
The proposed reprieve on defense cuts hasn't gone unnoticed among defense hawks, who are prepared to argue that even a flat budget is an obstacle to keeping America secure — a stance previewed at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference, where Biden was skewered for being soft on China.
Defense hawks in Congress are also prepared to argue that even a flat budget does not keep pace with China's military build-up or with inflation — or with the pro-defense wish list of annual defense increases of three to five percent. Put another way, conservative critics of Biden will likely say that the new administration's decision not to add to the defense budget actually means a cut in Pentagon spending, an argument the American public will hear in the months ahead. As news of Biden's likely Pentagon proposal circulated in Washington late last week, senior military officers jumped on the bandwagon, reupping their calls for a larger Navy, full production of the controversial F-35, a follow-on to the F-16 fighter, and more money for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
While Biden's Pentagon budget plans have yet to be fully revealed, anything resembling a proposal that institutionalizes the previous administration's expenditures will spark controversy among Congressional progressives. This is particularly true for those who were convinced that the military had accepted the economic necessity of making cuts. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley said as much back in December, during a teleconference with Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. Milley told O'Hanlon that he not only expected the Pentagon budget "could actually decline significantly," but that such a decline might be good news.
"That doesn't mean that the world's going to end for us," Milley said. "What that means is that we have to tighten up and take a much harder look at priorities and where we put the moneys we do get."
Milley doubled down on his views the next day, during a presentation before the Navy Institute: "So, look, I'm an Army guy, and I love the Army..." Milley said, "but the fundamental defense of the United States, and the ability to project power forward [are] going to be naval and air and space power."
It was a breathtakingly blunt admission that America's pivot to Asia included a pivot to the Navy, which would now garner a larger share of defense dollars — at the Army's expense. In fact, Milley's views had been foreshadowed by a gaggle of respected experts who warned of what Milley admitted would be a budget "bloodletting," with the Army doing most of the bleeding. But it wasn't just the Army's budget that was on the line.
In a now celebrated article, Pentagon reporter David Axe revealed that Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown questioned whether his service should purchase the full complement of 1,763 stealth F-35 fighters, which has not lived up to its billing as "the most lethal, survivable and connected fighter jet in the world."
In a meeting with reporters, Brown said that he favored designing a new fighter to replace the F-16, a virtual vote of no-confidence in the F-35 (Brown later walked back his comments.) Other services have also questioned the purchases they've made over the last years: Navy officers have argued that the Ford class aircraft carrier presents too high a profile in a contest with China, the Marines have already recast their role as America's primary expeditionary force, and a recent article from the Modern War Institute at West Point recommended that the army reduce its force structure (and save $7 billion), by jettisoning three infantry brigade combat teams.
Now it appears none of that will happen. Rather, after the president rolls out his defense budget in May, the debate inside the Pentagon will not be how to make do with less money, but how to distribute with more than they need. Considering the president's recent foreign policy moves (airstrikes in Syria, the refusal to act decisively against Mohammed bin Salman, the foot dragging on renewing the JCPOA, and now, his retreat on the defense budget), progressives are questioning whether the man they supported in November is as progressive as they had hoped, or whether (at least on foreign policy and the military) he's simply Trump without the tweets.
"Progressives are in for a cycle of disappointment," Gordon Adams, the former Associate Director for National Security Programs at the Office of Management and Budget, says. "But perhaps they shouldn't be surprised. In some sense this is predictable. What we're going to see on May 3 is a president who's focused on domestic issues with a domestic agenda. He's simply unwilling to endanger that."
"Joe Biden has to make a decision whether he wants to be a transformational president, or a transactional president," Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense, adds. "And I think we're seeing now what his decision is. That might not be a problem for conservatives and it's certainly not a problem for the armed services. But it's a problem for his base. They expected a lot more from him when they pushed that lever."
In fact, as both Adams and Korb imply, what progressives are facing is unprecedented. This is the first time in American history that the military has signaled that it's willing to cut its own budget — and the first time in our history that a president has said "no."
Mark Perry is a senior analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a widely published military and foreign affairs reporter. He is also an award-winning author of ten books, including The Pentagon’s Wars: The Military’s Undeclared War Against America’s Presidents (Basic Books, 2017); The Most Dangerous Man In America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur (Basic Books 2014); and Talking To Terrorists (Basic Books, 2010). The Boston Globe named his book on Gen. MacArthur the best non-fiction work of 2014. Previously, Perry served as a senior foreign policy analyst and political director for Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, which founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which won the 1997 Nobel Peace Prize. He is a graduate of Boston University.
Then- Vice President Joe Biden is greeted by New York Air National Guard 174th Attack Wing leadership on Oct. 20, 2014. (New York Air National Guard photo by Technical Sgt. Jeremy Call/released)
Ukraine would consider inviting Russian officials to a peace summit to discuss Kyiv’s proposal for a negotiated end to the war, according to Andriy Yermak, the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff.
“There can be a situation in which we together invite representatives of the Russian Federation, where they will be presented with the plan in case whoever is representing the aggressor country at that time will want to genuinely end this war and return to a just peace,” Yermak said over the weekend, noting that one more round of talks without Russia will first be held in Switzerland.
The comment represents a subtle shift in Ukrainian messaging about talks. Kyiv has long argued that it would never negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin, yet there is no reason to believe Putin will leave power any time soon. That realization — along with Ukraine’s increasingly perilous position on the battlefield — may have helped force Kyiv to reconsider its hard line on talking with the widely reviled Russian leader.
Zelensky hinted at a potential mediator for talks following a visit this week to Saudi Arabia. The leader “noted in particular Saudi Arabia’s strivings to help in restoring a just peace in Ukraine,” according to a statement from Ukrainian officials. “Saudi Arabia’s leadership can help find a just solution.”
Russia, for its part, has signaled that it is open to peace talks of some sort, though both Kyiv and Moscow insist that any negotiations would have to be conducted on their terms. The gaps between the negotiating positions of the two countries remain substantial, with each laying claim to roughly 18% of the territory that made up pre-2014 Ukraine.
Ukraine’s shift is a sign of just how dire the situation is becoming for its armed forces, which recently made a hasty retreat from Avdiivka, a small but strategically important town near Donetsk. After months of wrangling, the U.S. Congress has still not approved new military aid for Ukraine, and Kyiv now says its troops are having to ration ammunition as their stockpiles dwindle.
Zelensky said Sunday that he expects Russia to mount a new offensive as soon as late May. It’s unclear whether Ukrainian troops are prepared to stop such a move.
Even the Black Sea corridor — a narrow strip of the waterway through which Ukraine exports much of its grain — could be under threat. “I think the route will be closed...because to defend it, it's also about some ammunition, some air defense, and some other systems” that are now in short supply, said Zelensky.
As storm clouds gather, it’s time to push for peace talks before Russia regains the upper hand, argue Anatol Lieven and George Beebe of the Quincy Institute, which publishes Responsible Statecraft.
“Complete victory for Ukraine is now an obvious impossibility,” Lieven and Beebe wrote this week. “Any end to the fighting will therefore end in some form of compromise, and the longer we wait, the worse the terms of that compromise will be for Ukraine, and the greater the dangers will be for our countries and the world.”
In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:
— Hungary finally signed off on Sweden’s bid to join NATO after the Swedish prime minister met with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest, according to Deutsche Welle. What did Orban get for all the foot dragging? Apparently just four Swedish fighter jets of the same model that it has been purchasing for years. The prime minister blamed his party for the slow-rolling, saying in a radio interview prior to the parliamentary vote that he had persuaded his partisans to drop their opposition to Sweden’s accession.
— French President Emmanuel Macron sent allies scrambling Tuesday when he floated the idea of sending NATO troops to Ukraine, according to the BBC. Leaders from Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Poland, and other NATO states quickly swatted down the idea that the alliance (or any individual members thereof) would consider joining the war directly. Russia said direct conflict with NATO would be an “inevitability” if the bloc sent troops into Ukraine.
— On Wednesday, Zelensky attended a summit in Albania aimed at bolstering Balkan support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, according to AP News. The Ukrainian leader said all states in the region are “worthy” of becoming members of NATO and the European Union, which “have provided Europe with the longest and most reliable era of security and economic development.”
— Western officials were in talks with the Kremlin for a prisoner swap involving Russian dissident Alexei Navalny prior to his death in a Russian prison camp in February, though no formal offer had yet been made, according to Politico. This account contrasts with the one given by Navalny’s allies, who claimed that Putin had killed the opposition leader in order to sabotage discussions that were nearing a deal. Navalny’s sudden death has led to speculation about whether Russian officials may have assassinated him, though no proof has yet surfaced to back up this claim. There is, however, little doubt that the broader deterioration of the dissident’s health was related to the harsh conditions he was held under.
U.S. State Department news:
In a Tuesday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the situation on the frontlines in Ukraine is “extremely serious.” “We have seen Ukrainian frontline troops who don’t have the ammo they need to repel Russian aggression. They’re still fighting bravely. They’re still fighting courageously,” Miller said. “They still have armor and weapons and ammunition they can use, but they’re having to ration it now because the United States Congress has failed to act.”
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Janet Yellen, United States Secretary of the Treasury. (Reuters)
On Tuesday, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen strongly endorsed efforts to tap frozen Russian central bank assets in order to continue to fund Ukraine.
“There is a strong international law, economic and moral case for moving forward,” with giving the assets, which were frozen by international sanctions following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, to Kyiv, she said to reporters before a G7 meeting in San Paulo.
Furthermore on Wednesday, White House national security communications adviser John Kirby urged the use of these assets to assist the Ukrainian military.
This adds momentum to increasing efforts on Capitol Hill to monetize the frozen assets to assist the beleaguered country, including through the “REPO Act,” a U.S. Senate bill which was criticized by Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in a recent article here in Responsible Statecraft. As Paul pointed out, spending these assets would violate international law and norms by the outright seizure of sovereign Russian assets.
In the long term, this will do even more to undermine global faith in the U.S.-led and Western-centric international financial system. Doubts about the system and pressures to find an alternative are already heightened due to the freezing of Russian overseas financial holdings in the first place, as well as the frequent use of unilateral sanctions by the U.S. to impose its will and values on other countries.
The amount of money involved here is considerable. Over $300 billion in Russian assets was frozen, mostly held in European banks. For comparison, that’s about the same amount as the entirety of Western aid committed from all sources to Ukraine since the beginning of the war in 2022 — around $310 billion, including the recent $54 billion in 4-year assistance just approved by the EU.
Thus, converting all of the Russian assets to assistance for Ukraine could in theory fully finance a continuing war in Ukraine for years to come. As political support for open-ended Ukraine aid wanes in both the U.S. and Europe, large-scale use of this financing method also holds the promise of an administrative end-run around the political system.
But there are also considerable potential downsides, particularly in Europe. European financial institutions hold the overwhelming majority of frozen Russian assets, and any form of confiscation could be a major blow to confidence in these entities. In addition, European corporations have significant assets stranded in Russia which Moscow could seize in retaliation for the confiscation of its foreign assets.
Another major issue is that using assets to finance an ongoing conflict will forfeit their use as leverage in any peace settlement, and the rebuilding of Ukraine. The World Bank now estimates post-war rebuilding costs for Ukraine of nearly $500 billion. If the West can offer a compromise to Russia in which frozen assets are used to pay part of these costs, rather than demanding new Russian financing for massive reparations, this could be an important incentive for negotiations.
In contrast, monetizing the assets outside of a peace process could signal that the West intends to continue the conflict indefinitely.
In combination with aggressive new U.S. sanctions announced last week on Russia and on third party countries that continue to deal with Russia, the new push for confiscation of Russian assets is more evidence that the U.S. and EU intend to intensify the conflict with Moscow using administrative mechanisms that won’t rely on support from the political system or the people within them.
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Activist Layla Elabed speaks during an uncommitted vote election night gathering as Democrats and Republicans hold their Michigan presidential primary election, in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. February 27, 2024. REUTERS/Rebecca Cook
A protest vote in Michigan against President Joe Biden’s handling of the war in Gaza dramatically exceeded expectations Tuesday, highlighting the possibility that his stance on the conflict could cost him the presidency in November.
More than 100,000 Michiganders voted “uncommitted” in yesterday’s presidential primary, earning 13.3% of the tally with most votes counted and blasting past organizers’ goal of 10,000 protest votes. Biden won the primary handily with 81% of the total tally.
The results suggest that Biden could lose Michigan in this year’s election if he continues to back Israel’s campaign to the hilt. In 2020, he won the state by 150,000 votes while polls predicted he would win by a much larger margin. This year, early polls show a slight lead for Trump in the battleground state, which he won in 2016 by fewer than 11,000 votes.
“The war on Gaza is a deep moral issue and the lack of attention and empathy for this perspective from the administration is breaking apart the fragile coalition we built to elect Joe Biden in 2020,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), a progressive leader who has called for a ceasefire in Gaza, as votes came in last night.
Biden still has “a little bit of time to change this dynamic,” Jayapal told CNN, but “it has to be a dramatic policy and rhetorical shift from the president on this issue and a new strategy to rebuild a real partnership with progressives in multiple communities who are absolutely key to winning the election.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, a prominent Biden ally, told Semafor the vote is a “wake-up call” for the White House on Gaza.
The “uncommitted” option won outright in Dearborn, a Detroit suburb with a famously large Arab American population. The protest vote also gained notable traction in college towns, signaling Biden’s weakness among young voters across the country. “Uncommitted” received at least 8% of votes in every county in Michigan with more than 95% of votes tallied.
The uncommitted campaign drew backing from prominent Democrats in Michigan, including Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and state Rep. Abraham Aiyash, who is the majority leader in the Michigan House. Former Reps. Andy Levin and Beto O’Rourke, who served as a representative from Texas, also lent their support to the effort.
“Our movement emerged victorious tonight and massively surpassed our expectations,” said Listen to Michigan, the organization behind the campaign, in a statement last night. “Tens of thousands of Michigan Democrats, many of whom [...] voted for Biden in 2020, are uncommitted to his re-election due to the war in Gaza.”
Biden did not make reference to the uncommitted movement in his victory speech, but reports indicate that his campaign is spooked by the effort. Prior to Tuesday’s vote, White House officials met with Arab and Muslim leaders in Michigan to try to assuage their concerns about the war, which has left about 30,000 Palestinians dead and many more injured. (More than 1,100 Israelis died during Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks last year.)
The president argues that his support for Israel has made it possible for him to guide the direction of the war to the extent possible, though his critics note that, despite some symbolic and rhetorical moves, he has stopped far short of holding back U.S. weapons or supporting multilateral efforts to demand a ceasefire.
Campaigners now hope the “uncommitted” effort will spread to other states. Minnesota, which will hold its primaries next week, is an early target.
“If you think this will stop with Michigan you are either the president or paid to flatter him,” said Alex Sammon, a politics writer at Slate.
Meanwhile in the Republican primary, former President Donald Trump fended off a challenge from former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley. With 94% of votes in, Trump came away with 68% of the vote, while Haley scored around 27%.