With help from Connor O’Brien
Turkish President RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN has chosen to be the skunk at Finland and Sweden’s NATO garden party.
The legislatures of all 30 members, including Turkey, must approve the two nations’ accessions to the alliance, putting Erdogan in prime position to derail the historic moves. But why is he choosing this moment to antagonize the West, especially when Turkey is actively helping Ukraine kill Russian invaders?
Experts NatSec Daily spoke with cited three key reasons: 1) a genuine grievance against Sweden’s ties to Kurds, 2) Erdogan’s bid to stay in power amid an economic downturn, and 3) signal to Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN that Ankara and Moscow can still be friends.
Let’s begin with the Kurds: Sweden was very open about its support for Western-backed, Kurdish-led forces fighting ISIS in Syria. Even with the terrorist group down and out, Stockholm has kept up ties with Kurdish-led fighters that Turkey considers terrorists.
What’s more, on Tuesday Turkish Justice Minister BEKIR BOZDAG said that neither Sweden nor Finland have extradited a single suspect Ankara believes form part of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or follow cleric FETHULLAH GÜLEN, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania.
“Turkey really wants to make an example of Sweden” in particular, said SONER CAGAPTAY, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The message to Stockholm and other Western capitals, he continued, is “don’t make the Kurdish ties permanent, don’t make them strategic.”
GIRAN OZCAN, executive director of the Kurdish Peace Institute in Washington, D.C., called Erdogan’s arguments about Sweden and the Kurds “spurious,” adding that he has “handed a free gift to a fellow warmongering autocrat in Moscow at the same time.”
Erdogan also has his eyes on domestic politics. Inflation in Turkey is pushing into the triple digits, plunging an already reeling economy deeper into crisis. That poses problems for the president ahead of elections in 2023, especially as the opposition unites against him.
One way to take back the reins is to simultaneously bash the Kurds while extracting concessions from Sweden, Finland and potentially other NATO allies, including the United States. Two possible aims are to have the applicants lift their arms embargoes on Turkey and/or push the U.S. to finally approve the sale of F-16 fighter jets stalled in Congress.
Even if those concessions are symbolic — say, Sweden promises to weaken its relationship with the Kurds over time — Erdogan-friendly media in Turkey can portray it as a huge win and the president himself as a strongman who brings the West to heel. Such coverage could give Erdogan the lift he needs before voters go to the ballot box, even if the election is already allegedly rigged in his favor.
Then there’s the matter of Russia. Erdogan and Putin get along very well despite their main geopolitical disagreements, including on the Ukraine invasion. Maintaining that relationship requires a lot of give and take, and in this case, Erdogan could be trying to please Putin by making a stink over Sweden and Finland’s NATO applications.
“Turkey values its defense cooperation with Ukraine, but also needs to keep relations with Russia amicable for tourism, energy and other factors that shape domestic approval rating, especially given Turkey’s economic crisis and the diminished support for [Erdogan’s party] that resulted from it,” said LISEL HINTZ, a professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Maintaining access to Russian-controlled airspace in northern Syria to strike Kurdish-led forces is important, too, she said.
Most people we spoke with said Erdogan will eventually back down after making his points and getting something in return. On Wednesday, White House national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN said the administration was “confident” Sweden and Finland would soon join NATO after overcoming the Turkey obstacle.
And speaking alongside President JOE BIDEN on Thursday, the leaders of Sweden and Finland said they’d work with Turkey to address its concerns. Meanwhile, the Senate looks poised to strongly vote in favor of accession for the two countries.
But some aren’t convinced that Erdogan and his team will relent so easily. “Turkish officials both think they are morally right in voicing their opposition and believe that they may profit from it. I don’t think that this is merely symbolic,” said HOWARD EISSENSTAT of St. Lawrence University. “There may well be a way to bring Turkey around, but I fear that diplomats are being overly sanguine about the barriers to agreement.”
SENATE PASSES $40B UKRAINE AID BILL: The latest round of emergency Ukraine funding is on its way to Biden’s desk after it finally cleared the Senate in a blowout vote, our own JENNIFER SCHOLTES and CONNOR O’BRIEN reported.
The vote was 86 to 11, giving the $40 billion military and humanitarian funding package a bipartisan stamp of approval as the White House and lawmakers look to step up as the Russian offensive against Ukraine approaches its fourth month.
All 11 no votes came from Republicans, as some GOP lawmakers embrace the non-interventionism promoted by former President DONALD TRUMP.
With administration officials warning that its authority to ship weapons and equipment to Ukraine would dry up this week, Democratic and Republican leaders had hoped to finalize the bill last week.
But Sen. RAND PAUL (R-Ky.) blocked quick passage, demanding the upper chamber amend the bill to designate a federal watchdog to oversee the money — though the bill requires the Pentagon inspector general to review how its share of the money is spent and report back to Congress.
The final bill is $7 billion more than the proposal Biden submitted to Congress last month. The package provides another $6 billion to the Pentagon’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative for arming Ukraine’s military, as well as nearly $4 billion for military operations in Europe. The State Department will receive $4 billion for foreign military financing to help arm Ukraine and other NATO countries.
The measure also raises the Pentagon’s authority to transfer weapons and equipment from U.S. stockpiles and ship them to Ukraine to $11 billion. And it allocates almost $9 billion to backfill items already sent to the frontlines.
Despite the massive price tag, some lawmakers say more will be needed.
Sen. JIM INHOFE of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called passing the aid package “a vital next step” in bolstering Ukraine against Russian aggression.
“But we still need to do more,” Inhofe added in a statement after today’s vote, “both to help Ukraine and replenish our own stocks, and we especially need to move faster on producing munitions.”
U.S. WEIGHS SENDING ADVANCED ANTI-SHIP MISSILES TO UKRAINE: The White House is considering sending the Harpoon and Naval Strike Missile to Ukraine, Reuters’ MIKE STONE reported.
The missile would either be sent directly by the U.S. to Ukraine or through a European ally that already has the missiles in its arsenal.
“But there are several issues keeping Ukraine from receiving the missiles. For one, there is limited availability of platforms to launch Harpoons from shore — a technically challenging solution according to several officials — as it is mostly a sea-based missile,” Stone wrote. “Two U.S. officials said the United States was working on potential solutions that included pulling a launcher off of a U.S. ship.”
And there’s another problem: “A handful of countries would be willing to send Harpoons to Ukraine, the U.S. officials and the congressional sources said. But no one wants to be the first or only nation to do so, fearing reprisals from Russia if a ship is sunk with a Harpoon from their stockpile, the third U.S official said.”
Meanwhile, the Naval Strike Missile — which can be launched from the Ukrainian coast up to 155 miles offshore — is “less logistically difficult than Harpoons” and takes fewer than 14 days to train on, per Stone.
U.S. COULD CURB RUSSIAN OIL REVENUES: The Biden administration is looking to dislodge Russia from the center of the global energy economy via secondary sanctions and blocking foreign buyers from doing business with U.S. or allied companies.
“The Biden administration is looking at various types of secondary sanctions and has yet to settle on a definite course of action,” The New York Times’ EDWARD WONG and MICHAEL CROWLEY reported. “Large foreign companies generally comply with U.S. regulations to avoid sanctions if they engage in commerce with American companies or partner nations.”
In other words, this is a plan under consideration, not one that will be executed at any point soon.
There are other ideas, per the Times.
“One measure American officials are discussing would require foreign companies to pay a below-market price for Russian oil — or suffer U.S. sanctions. Washington would assign a price for Russian oil that is well under the global market value, which is currently more than $100 per barrel. Russia’s last budget set a break-even price for its oil above $40. A price cap would reduce Russia’s profits without increasing global energy costs,” Wong and Crowley wrote. “The U.S. government could also cut off most Russian access to payments for oil. Washington would do this by issuing a regulation that requires foreign banks dealing in payments to put the money in an escrow account if they want to avoid sanctions. Russia would be able to access the money only to purchase essential goods like food and medicine.”
BIDEN’S ASIA TRIP: We’ll have more to say about Biden’s visit to South Korea and Japan in the days ahead. In the meantime, make sure to read these two curtain raisers by our colleagues:
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RUSSIA’S NEW LASER WEAPON?: Does Russia have a laser weapon? A senior official made the claim, even if much of the world rolled their eyes.
“In an interview with the state-controlled Channel One, Russian Deputy Prime Minister YURY BORISOV said the country’s latest laser weapon, dubbed ‘Zadira,’ is now used by military units fighting in Ukraine,” The Washington Post’s AMY CHENG reported. “The equipment is capable of incinerating targets up to three miles away within five seconds, he added, and is more advanced than the Peresvet, another laser system unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2018.”
There’s currently no evidence for such a claim. A senior defense official on Wednesday said, “I have not seen anything to corroborate reports of lasers being used.” Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY also mocked the Russian boast in his nightly address, calling the lasers a “wonder weapon” and adding that “this also shows that they are afraid to admit that catastrophic mistakes have been made at the highest state and military levels in Russia.”
Russia has done a lot of chest-beating during the war, and it’s possible this is yet another instance of that. But, as Cheng notes, in March the “U.S. and British authorities confirmed that the Russian military fired two hypersonic missiles.” Moscow has invested in higher-end military technologies — even if they’re not proving decisive in the war in Ukraine that it’s currently losing.
CISA ISSUES VMARE WARNING: The Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency said federal agencies have until Monday to counter vulnerabilities in five VMare products which could allow threat actors to “obtain administrative access without the need to authenticate.”
“These vulnerabilities pose an unacceptable risk to federal network security,” said CISA Director JEN EASTERLY. “CISA has issued this Emergency Directive to ensure that federal civilian agencies take urgent action to protect their networks. We also strongly urge every organization — large and small — to follow the federal government’s lead and take similar steps to safeguard their networks.”
‘SET THE STAGE’: Leading aerospace industry groups and advocacy organizations urged Congress on Wednesday to finally pass a NASA authorization bill, which is currently attached to the pending Bipartisan Innovation Act, report our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!).
“NASA was last authorized by Congress in 2017 and, in addition to the necessity of extending expiring authorities, there have been a series of new developments since that time that would benefit from the definition, guidance, and support a 2022 bipartisan NASA authorization would provide,” they wrote in a public appeal.
They argued that since the last authorization, NASA has initiated a series of major efforts, including the Artemis program to return astronauts to the moon; financing private space station development; launching the James Webb Space Telescope; and “developed a comprehensive Earth observation plan to greatly increase our understanding of climate change.”
“A new authorization will provide clear bipartisan direction to build from these developments and set the stage for the next decade of accomplishments,” they added.,
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY –– STEFANIK’S HALT ACT: Rep. ELISE STEFANIK (R-N.Y.), the third-highest ranking Republican, will introduce a bill Thursday cutting off federal funding to U.S. colleges and universities that make deals with Chinese or Russian universities that support their local militaries.
Titled the Halting Academic Liaisons to our Adversaries Act, or HALT, the goal is to ensure U.S. taxpayer dollars don’t at some point aid the development of Chinese and Russian forces.
“An institution of higher education that maintains a contract or other agreement between the institution and an academic institution of the People’s Republic of China or the Russian Federation identified on the list … of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 … shall not be eligible to receive Federal funds,” reads a copy of the bill obtained by NatSec Daily.
“The threat posed by China and Russia continues to grow as they enhance their militaries and engage in malign activities around the world. I will continue to ensure the United States does not assist in those efforts and that we continue to maintain our military superiority over our adversaries,” Stefanik told us.
The bill has eight cosponsors, including Rep. MICHAEL TURNER (R-Ohio), the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY –– PLACE PLAHOTNIUC MEMBERS ON TREASURY LIST: Sen. STEVE DAINES (D-Mont.) wants members of the Plahotniuc crime ring to be placed on the Treasury Department’s specifically designated nationals and blocked persons list.
“Such an action is not only morally imperative, but has the potential to return billions of dollars stolen from the Moldovan people. That money would not only be advantageous to bolstering the country’s national defense in the event Russia invades, but would also increase the defense spending of Moldova which could be utilized for both the Foreign Military Financing and Foreign Military Sales programs,” Daines wrote in a May 18 letter to Deputy Treasury Secretary WALLY ADEYEMO, obtained by NatSec Daily. “VLADIMIR PLAHOTNIUC, a Moldovan oligarch and former leader of the Democratic Party of Moldova, is directly connected with extensive violations of human rights, laundering of public funds, and transnational criminality.”
Daines fears that Russia might move into the breakaway region of Transnistria should it take Odessa in Ukraine. To counter that possibility, Daines wants Treasury to put Plahotniuc members on a special list so they stop bleeding Moldova dry.
“Making the actions to hold criminals such as Vladimir Plahotniuc accountable, the return of stolen funds, and the prevention of future or ongoing criminality is of major strategic importance,” Daines wrote.
FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY –– HASC DEMS URGE SECDEF TO COUNTER INFLATION: Eight Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee have urged Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN to minimize the effect of inflation on military families.
“[T]here is one action you may take that would have an immediate impact on the problem: remove the revenue requirement on the Defense Commissary Agency (DeCA) in order to lower prices and maximize savings,” reads the letter led by Reps. MARC VEASEY (D-Texas) and STEVEN HORSFORD (D-Nev.) obtained by NatSec Daily. Keeping around $120 million in DeCA revenue in the pockets of military families on bases “has an immediate, direct impact for families, lowering their grocery bills and extending their pay as a non-pay compensation benefit, and reducing food insecurity and inflationary effects.”
Austin vowed last November to support military families struggling with rising costs, saying it was a “readiness issue.”
The other six signatories on the letter include Reps. MARILYN STRICKLAND (D.Wash.), WILLIAM KEATING (D-Mass.), RICK LARSEN (D-Wash.), VERONICA ESCOBAR (D-Texas), ANTHONY BROWN (D-Md.) and KAIALI’I KAHELE (D-Hawaii).
CRITICAL VOICES RISE IN MOSCOW: Even in Russia’s repressive media ecosystem, critical voices against the invasion of Ukraine have emerged, per The Wall Street Journal’s THOMAS GROVE and MATTHEW LUXMOORE.
IGOR MARKOV, a pro-Russian former Ukrainian lawmaker, said on Russia’s state-run Channel One that “What’s going on now—I don’t see how we’re going to [win],” adding: “I really want to believe that they are reporting to the commander in chief the real state of things that are happening.”
There are others. “Notice the difference: we used to speak of the Kharkiv offensive, the Kyiv offensive,” ALEKSANDR SLADKOV, a Russian military journalist and former military member, wrote on Telegram. “Now our successes are of a different format, and we’re naming successful offensives with the names of modest towns.”
These voices add to that of retired Col. MIKHAIL KHODARYONOK, who also said on Channel One that the war was isolating Russia. He appeared on the channel days later spouting a more pro-Russian line, perhaps because he received a stern talking to off camera.
The Kremlin’s hold on the narrative remains quite strong, but it’s clear counter messaging is starting to break through. What effect that might have on Putin, if any, remains unclear.
BUSH’S SELF OWN: We’d be remiss if we didn’t share with you former President GEORGE W. BUSH’s devastating takedown of former President George W. Bush.
When trying to bash Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Bush said it was the “decision of one man to launch a wholly unjustified and brutal invasion of Iraq” — before catching and then correcting himself. Except he then followed up with “Iraq, too, anyway.”
The 75 year old blamed the comment on his age, but some have started to speculate if maybe Bush had a Freudian slip. Perhaps, given time to ruminate on his decision to launch the ill-fated war that cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives, Bush has come to regret his actions.
Vox’s ZACK BEAUCHAMP had a take similar to ours here at NatSec Daily: “This is, no exaggeration, the greatest gaffe in history.”
— FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: IRANGA KAHANGAMA is joining the Department of Homeland Security, our own DANIEL LIPPMAN has learned, where he will serve as assistant secretary for cyber, infrastructure, risk, and resilience. He is currently the director for cyber incident response and policy within the NSC’s cybersecurity directorate.
— JUD CRANE is starting at the Defense Department as special assistant to the assistant secretary of Defense for readiness.
— NOMAAN MERCHANT, The Associated Press: “Spy Agencies Urged to Fix Open Secret: A Lack of Diversity”
— CRISTINA GALLARDO, POLITICO Europe: “The incredible shrinking Global Britain”
— MUIZZ AKHTAR, Vox: “The developing Covid crisis in Beijing, explained”
— Biden arrives in Seoul, where he will remain until Sunday, when he will travel to Tokyo.
— The Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, 5 a.m.: “Towards the First Meeting of States Parties to the TPNW: Goals, Agenda and Events — with EIRINI GIORGOU, ALEXANDER KMENTT, NADJA SCHMIDT and ELENA K. SOKOVA”
— The Stimson Center, 9 a.m.: “Japan’s Peacekeeping at a Crossroads: Assessing Japan’s Policy Trajectory — with HIROMI NAGATA FUJISHIGE, LISA SHARLAND, YUKI TATSUMI and TOMONORI YOSHIZAKI”
— The Truman Center, 9 a.m.: “TruCon2022: Local Action, Global Impact — with MIEKE EOYANG, ANGUS KING, MAREK MAGIEROWSKI, KAREN PIERCE and LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD and more”
— The Institute for Security and Technology, 10:30 a.m.: “Combating Ransomware: A Year of Action — with JEN EASTERLY, CHRIS KREBS and LISA MONACO”
Have a natsec-centric event coming up? Transitioning to a new defense-adjacent or foreign policy-focused gig? Shoot us an email at [email protected] or [email protected] to be featured in the next edition of the newsletter.
And thanks to our editor, John Yearwood, who said hiring us to write this newsletter was the greatest gaffe in history.