The United Nations’ top nuclear official this week warned about the “very alarming” military activity surrounding the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility just across the Dnipro River from the southern city of Nikopol. Russian forces seized control of the site — the largest nuclear plant in Europe — in March and are accused of using it as a shield and a base to launch rocket attacks.
Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, last week called the situation “completely out of control” and is now urging both Ukraine and Russia to halt any fighting near the facility that has “even the smallest potential to jeopardize nuclear safety.”
Indeed, the continued fighting and shelling surrounding Zaporizhzhia risks sparking a nuclear disaster that could impact thousands of Ukrainians and Russians through displacement and radiation dangers that will have health impacts for years or decades to come.
Ukraine and Russia must reach an agreement now that permits international inspectors onto the site to ensure its stability and security, and, ideally, creates a “safe zone” around the perimeter to prevent attacks that come close to the reactors or their safety systems.
Instead of focusing on who is to blame for creating this dire situation, Ukraine, Russia, and the international community need to work together to figure out how to stem the danger of a strike on the plant or its supporting safety systems. So long as this war continues, risks of catastrophic actions, accidents, and escalations will remain, and will threaten people on both sides of the war’s continually shifting lines between Russia and Ukraine.
This crisis further underscores the vital importance of diplomacy —even, and perhaps especially, at a time of intense fighting in Ukraine. The United States will play a central role in any eventual peace settlement, and bringing about such an agreement should be a top priority for U.S. officials.
The alternative is the continuation of a lengthy, volatile war that risks additional, massive suffering and possible escalation into a direct U.S.-Russia or NATO-Russia conflict, with all the dangers that entails.
William D. Hartung is a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His work focuses on the arms industry and U.S. military budget.
File photo - Employees sit at the control panel of a power generating unit and a turbine at the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Enerhodar, Zaporizhzhia Region, southeastern Ukraine, July 9, 2019. There was growing concern on Monday that the ongoing war in Ukraine could lead to serious damage at Europe's largest nuclear power plant. Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of shelling the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Station — a sprawling facility on Russian occupied ground that continues to function as the war rages around it. Russian emergency services released images of damage around the plant after both sides traded fresh accusations of shelling the compound. Photo by Dmytro Smolyenko/Ukrinform/ABACAPRESS.COMNo Use Russia.
Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns prepares for a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing on worldwide threats, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, March 10, 2022. After the House passed a late night government funding bill with more than $13 Billion in additional funding for Ukraine, the Senate is expected to take up the measure and pass it before a government shutdown deadline.
The White House’s messaging on the Ukraine war is built around two simple-yet-powerful adjectives: “We are united in our condemnation,” said President Joe Biden almost two years ago in a joint statement with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, “of Russia’s unjustified and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine.”
The “unjustified and unprovoked” line has been used numerous times by a chorus of top U.S. officials and allies, quickly becoming a rhetorical mainstay of Biden’s maximum pressure campaign against the Kremlin.
This messaging conflates two important, yet fundamentally different issues. There is little question that Russia’s invasion has wrought a horrific human toll on Ukraine and upended European security in ways that few anticipated prior to February 2022. But it is also not without its context, which includes a litany of grievances that — however unjustified from the perspective of the West — constitute what the Kremlin saw as sufficient provocation to initiate the most destructive war in Europe in 1945.
An explosive New York Times exposé by Adam Entous and Michael Schwirtz sheds light on major developments preceding the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. According to the report, the Ukrainian government entered into a wide-ranging partnership with the CIA against Russia. This cooperation, which involved the establishment of as many as 12 secret CIA “forward operating bases” along Ukraine’s border with Russia, began not with Russia’s 2022 invasion, but just over 10 years ago.
Within days of the February 2014 Euromaidan Revolution that culminated with the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych and ushered in a firmly pro-Western government, the newly appointed head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, reportedly proposed a “three-way partnership” with the CIA and MI6, the UK’s foreign intelligence service. Ukrainian security officials gradually proved their value to the U.S. by feeding the CIA intelligence on Russia, including “secret documents about the Russian Navy,” leading to the establishment of CIA bases in Ukraine to coordinate activities against Russia and various training programs for Ukrainian commandos and other elite units.
A graduate of one such CIA training program, then-Lt. Col. Kyrylo Budanov, went on to become the chief of Ukrainian military intelligence.
Kyiv routinely pushed this relationship’s boundaries, violating the Obama administration’s red lines around lethal operations by carrying out assassinations of high-profile Russian fighters on territory controlled by Russian-aligned separatists. The Kyiv-CIA partnership deepened under the Trump administration, yet again putting the lie to the baseless idea that former President Trump was somehow amenable to Russia’s interests while in office.
As Budanov reportedly put it, “It only strengthened. It grew systematically. The cooperation expanded to additional spheres and became more large-scale.” This cooperation, as painstakingly outlined by the Times, went far beyond helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia in a narrow, technical sense — rather, Ukraine was drawn into a Western coalition for the purpose of waging a broad-based shadow war against Russia.
The New York Times’ exposé offers no shortage of disturbing implications. Ukraine is, needless to say, a sovereign state in charge of determining its own security arrangements. The underlying issue is not whether Ukraine is within its rights to enter into this kind of relationship with the CIA, as it obviously is, nor is it whether the Maidan Revolution put Ukraine on a certain path toward political cooperation with Western entities.
The problem, rather, is one of basic security perceptions. Moscow repeatedly warned — for many years before 2014 — that it was and remains prepared to take drastic action to prevent Ukraine from being used by the West as a forward operating base against Russia. Yet that, as recounted in lurid detail by The New York Times, is precisely what has happened over the past 10 years.
The fact that Ukraine has not just willingly but enthusiastically submitted to this arrangement is immaterial to Russia’s core concerns. Nor can this issue be entirely reduced to NATO membership: Ukraine can play the role of an anti-Russian outpost on NATO’s eastern flank without ever formally joining the alliance, and this, too, is unacceptable to the Kremlin.
Justification is by nature a subjective exercise, but there can be little question that the activities described in this exposé constitute, from the Kremlin’s perspective, a dire provocation and would be seen as such by the United States if the situation were reversed and a rival superpower established such bases in Mexico. This perception is an inseparable part of the military and political context that shaped this war’s outbreak. It can be dismissed as paranoid, but if so it is a paranoia common to all security establishments.
It is unclear what concrete U.S. interests these joint intelligence activities served. They certainly did not facilitate de-escalation between Moscow and Kyiv or promote regional stability, goals ostensibly shared by the Obama and Trump administrations. On the other hand, it is quite easy to see how Kyiv’s deepening relationship with the CIA needlessly fed into Moscow’s worst security fears and precipitated its conclusion — whether justified or not — that it must act decisively in the face of an implacable conflict with the West over Ukraine.
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The German Bundeswehr ship "Hessen" sets sail on Feb. 8, 2024 from Wilhelmshaven to help protect merchant ships in the Red Sea against attacks by the Iranian-backed Houthi militia. (Reuters)
With no ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas in sight and Houthi forces in Yemen still firing missiles and drones at commercial shipping in the Red Sea, the EU’s efforts at addressing conflict in Gaza and its broader regional ramifications keep flailing.
After weeks of discussions, the EU officially launched its naval operation in the Red Sea on February 19 to protect international commercial shipping from Houthi attacks. The Houthis claim they wantto force a ceasefire in Gaza. Yet, while the ceasefire remains elusive, the attacks impose real costs on EU members: the EU commissioner for economy Paolo Gentiloni recently estimated that the rerouting of shipping from the Red Sea has increased delivery times for shipments between Asia and the EU by 10 to 15 days and the consequent costs by around 400%.
Around 40% of the EU’s total trade with the Middle East and Asia passes through the Red Sea.
Protecting that shipping route thus is an important collective economic and security interest for the EU. Yet only four countries — France, Germany, Italy and Belgium — out of the 27 member states have agreed to provide warships for the new operation. Spain, which refrained from using its veto power to block the initiative, nonetheless declined to participate, having expressed concerns from the outset that any armed operation would reduce pressure on Israel to agree to a ceasefire in Gaza.
A bigger question is how effective this new EU operation will be in countering the Houthi threat given its purely defensive mandate to provide “situational awareness, accompany vessels and protect them against possible attacks at sea.” Accordingly, the participating EU warships will be authorized to fire on Houthi targets only if they themselves or commercial vessels they are to protect are attacked. That rules out pre-emptive action against Houthi missile batteries or related targets.
The defensive nature of the operation, however, may not be enough to convince the Houthis to refrain from attacking the European ships. In fact, Houthi leaders warned Italy, one of the new operation’s chief promoters, that it will become “a target if it participates in attacks on the Houthis.”
If this threat comes to fruition, will the EU authorize offensive action against the Houthis, potentially drawing itself into a wider conflict? Will it rely on U.S. hard power for protection given that Washington is already engaged against the Houthis through “Operation Prosperity Guardian,” in which a few EU nations – Denmark, Netherlands and Greece, as well as non-EU NATO members Britain and Norway -- are also participating?
Would such developments not lead to a de facto merging of the U.S. and EU-led operations under Washington’s lead — an outcome Europeans sought to avoid and which is the very reason why they launched their own mission in the first place?
That these are not abstract questions is underscored by the failure, so far, of scores of U.S.- and UK-led strikes to degrade the Houthis’ capabilities to the point where they would no longer pose a significant threat. Indeed, just as the EU announced its mission, the Houthis hit a British cargo ship which was at risk of sinking in the Gulf of Aden in what the Yemeni rebels claimed was their biggest attack yet. The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations confirmed the incident, though it did not name the ship.
Ironically, the safest way for the EU to avoid a direct military engagement with the Houthis, apart from testing their vow to stop attacking shipping if Israel ends its Gaza offensive, would be to reduce the number of targets in the Red Sea by encouraging ships to reroute. But such an outcome would, of course, vindicate the Houthi strategy to impose costs on the Western powers for the failure to stop the war in Gaza.
And that brings us back to the mother of all conflicts in the Middle East: the continuing war in Gaza. The EU’s approach so far has been to delink Gaza from the crisis in the Red Sea and the broader escalation in the region, including clashes between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Yet mounting tensions on that front show that its approach is not working.
Some actors in the EU understand the urgent need for a ceasefire in Gaza as a necessary condition for regional de-escalation. The EU high representative on foreign policy Josep Borrell has been particularly vocal in his criticism of Israel. He suggested limiting arms sales to Tel Aviv on the grounds that such transfers violate EU guidelines that ban sales to countries accused of violations of the international humanitarian law.
A Dutch appeals court recently ordered a halt to exports of F-35 jet parts to Israel on the same grounds. However, it is highly unlikely that the EU as a whole would adopt such a position, given that a number of countries – especially Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary – strongly support Israel.
A stronger point of leverage could be to suspend fully or partially the association agreement between the EU and Israel. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner. In 2023, that agreement enabled 46.8 billion euros worth of bilateral trade. The prime ministers of Spain and Ireland, Pedro Sanchez and Leo Varadkar, respectively, asked the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, to “urgently review” whether Israel is violating the human rights clauses included in that agreement. On February 19, the Spanish foreign minister, Jose Manuel Albares, insisted that the review should be completed in time for the next EU foreign ministers meeting on March 18.
A full suspension of the agreement seems very unlikely even if the Commission finds Israel to have violated its human rights obligations because that would call for a unanimous decision by all member states. A partial suspension would require a qualified majority: 55% of member states (or 15 out of 27) representing 65% of the EU’s total population.
Notably, the only precedent for taking such an action came in 2011 when the EU suspended an association agreement with Syria in response to mass violations of human rights by the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Meanwhile, the EU proved unable last week to issue even an official appeal to Israel not to follow through with its plans to carry out a ground invasion of Rafah, the southernmost city in Gaza, which has become the last refuge of nearly a million refugees from elsewhere in the enclave. In the face of a veto threat by Hungary, the other 26 member states instead issued a joint statement warning of the catastrophic humanitarian consequences should Israel move ahead with such an invasion.
Notably, however, Hungary was isolated in its opposition to the appeal as Germany and other member states that have traditionally been reluctant to criticize Israel’s conduct of war were on board. That is a step forward, but it’s too little and it comes too late. As long as the EU keeps avoiding imposing real consequences on Israel for its conduct, it will keep losing influence in the Middle East.
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Mike Shoemaker VP F35 customer programs, FMS, Domestic and Partners talks during the inauguration ceremony of Sabca's new production hall for the horizontal tailplane of the F-35 fighter aircraft, in Lummen, Thursday 10 March 2022. T BELGA PHOTO JOHN THYS.
Instead of reevaluating its maximalist national security strategy, the Biden administration is doubling down. It is proposing a generation of investment to expand an arms industry that, overall, fails to meet cost, schedule, and performance standards. And if its strategy is any indication, the administration has no vision for how to eventually reduce U.S. military industrial capacity.
When the Cold War ended, the national security budget shrank. Then-Secretary of Defense Les Aspin and deputy William Perry convened industry leaders to encourage their consolidation in a meeting that later became known as the “Last Supper.” Arms makers were to join forces or go out of business. So they ended up downsizing from over 50 prime contractors to just five. And while contractors needed to pare down their industrial capacity, unchecked consolidation created the monopolistic defense sector we have now — one that depends heavily on government contracts and enjoys significant freedom to set prices.
In the decades since, contractors have leveraged their growing economic power to pave inroads on Capitol Hill. They have solidified their economic influence to stave off the political potential for future national security cuts, regardless of their performance or the geopolitical environment.
Growing the military industrial base over the course of a generation would only further empower arms makers in our economy, deepening the ditch the United States has dug itself into for decades by continually increasing national security spending — and by doling about half of it out to contractors. The U.S. spends more on national security than the next 10 countries combined, outpacing China alone by over 30%.
Ironically, the administration acknowledges in the strategy that “America’s economic security and national security are mutually reinforcing,” stating that “the nation’s military strength depends in part on our overall economic strength.” The strategy further states that optimizing the nation’s defense needs typically requires tradeoffs between “cost, speed, and scale.” It doesn’t mention quality of industrial output — arguably the biggest tradeoff the U.S. government has made in military procurement.
Consider, for instance, the B-2 bomber, the F-35 fighter jet, the Littoral Combat Ship, the V-22 Osprey, and many other examples of acquisition failures that have spanned decades. More recently, the Government Accountability Office has reported that while the number of major defense acquisition programs has fallen, both costs and average delivery time have risen.
So what is the military really getting from more and more national security spending? Less for more: Fewer weapons than it asked for, usually late and over budget, and, much of the time, dysfunctional. Acquisition failures are a major reason the Congressional Budget Office projects that operations and maintenance spending will significantly exceed the rate of inflation for the next decade — a considerable budgeting issue for a military that seemingly has no plans to reduce either its force structure or its industrial capacity. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Biden’s new National Defense Industrial Strategy specifically states there is a need for the U.S. to “move aggressively toward innovative, next-generation capabilities while continuing to upgrade and produce, in significant volumes, conventional weapons systems already in the force.” Ironically, the military has spent over two decades developing the F-35, next-generation technology that the Pentagon still hasn’t greenlit for full-rate production.
Throwing more money at an industrial base comprised of businesses too big to fail won’t increase the quantity or quality of its output. But that’s exactly what the strategy urges. One of the priorities is to “institutionalize supply chain resilience.” It’s an important goal, but one the administration proposes the Pentagon tackle, in part by investing in “spare production capacity,” what the strategy defines as “excess capacity a company or organization maintains beyond its current production needs.”
But building factories to sit empty is not supply chain resilience. It’s wasting money on unnecessary infrastructure, creating a profit motive for arms makers to make more weapons. And for an industry constantly sounding the alarm about the need for consistent “demand signals” from Congress, the Pentagon’s plans to invest a generation of U.S. taxpayer money in “spare production capacity” sounds a lot like throwing the demand-supply principle out the window. In that case, the U.S. might as well consider nationalizing the defense industry, which already lacks competition and relies almost entirely on the government. Why not eliminate the profit motive? It’s not like making money drives contractors to produce quality products on time or within budget.
Besides supply chain resilience, another priority laid out in this strategy is “flexible acquisition.” The stated goal is to reduce costs and development times while increasing scalability. In pursuit of that goal, the administration proposes “a flexible requirements process” for multiyear contracts, and the expansion of multiyear contracting writ large. It reasons that as priorities shift in an “evolving threat environment,” so too should contractors’ deliverables. But pairing flexible requirements with an increasing number of multiyear contracts is a recipe for disaster.
Before Russia attacked Ukraine, multiyear contracts were relatively rare — limited to major aircraft and ships. The Congressional Research Service notes that estimated savings on these programs have historically fallen within the range of 5% — 10%. But those are estimates, and they may not apply to other munitions now produced under multiyear contracts. The report also confirms that actual savings are “difficult to observe,” in part because the Pentagon does not track the cost performance of multiyear contracts.
Just because multiyear contracting is more common doesn’t mean it’s cheaper. And while the Pentagon argues that multiyear contracts give contractors the so-called demand signal they need to ramp up production, contractors don’t usually spend their extra money on identifying efficiencies or making capital investments to increase output at a lower cost — and the Pentagon isn’t checking.
The strategy also proposes “aggressive expansion of production capacity.” It notes that during peacetime, weapons acquisition tends to focus on “greater efficiency, cost effectiveness, transparency, and accountability.” Taking caution not to assert that the United States is in wartime, the strategy contrasts peacetime acquisition policy with “today’s threat environment,” calling for “crisis period acquisition policy” that revitalizes the industrial base and shifts focus from efficiency and effectiveness to ensuring that military contractors are “better resourced.” But contractors don’t have a resource problem, and “crisis acquisition policy” puts the United States on a “permanent war footing.”
Lawmakers must challenge the administration’s maximalist national security strategy by interrogating its push to expand military industrial capacity so drastically. It’s critical that they do, not only because the U.S. is limited in what it can produce and provide to other countries but also because arms industry greed is boundless — and without off-ramps or constraints, the U.S. government may find in 20 or 30 years that it’s in a ditch it can’t get out of.