Defense & National Security — Biden addresses US veterans missing in Ukraine

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President Biden said Friday that he has been briefed on several U.S. veterans that have reportedly gone missing in Ukraine.

We’ll look at what we know so far. Plus, a bipartisan bill seeks to overhaul U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

This is Defense & National Security, your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. For The Hill, I’m Jordan Williams. Subscribe here.

Biden briefed on vets reported missing in Ukraine

President Biden said Friday he has been briefed on the Americans reportedly missing in Ukraine and strongly discouraged others from traveling to the country to help fight the Russian invasion.

  • “I have been briefed. We don’t know where they are,” Biden told reporters at the White House before departing for Rehoboth, Del.

  • “I want to reiterate: Americans should not be going to Ukraine now,” Biden added. “They should not be going to Ukraine.”

Who’s missing? Families of two U.S. veterans, Alex Drueke and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, have told media outlets in recent days that they had gone missing in Ukraine after traveling there to fight the Russians. The families have expressed concerns that the two Americans may have been captured by Russian forces.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price told reporters Thursday that the Biden administration is aware of a third American possibly missing in Ukraine. CNN subsequently identified that American as Grady Kurpasi, a veteran of the U.S. Marines, citing his wife.

Is Russia holding them? Price said Thursday that the U.S. government had not confirmed the reports of the missing Americans but said officials were closely monitoring the situation.

  • The State Department has been in contact with the individuals’ families, the Ukrainian government and the Red Cross, Price said.

  • The U.S. had not spoken to Russia about their cases as of Thursday, Price said, and does not have reason to believe the individuals are being held by the Russians.

Don’t go to Ukraine: The White House and State Department have sought to dissuade Americans from traveling to Ukraine to aid the Ukrainians in their fight since Russia invaded the country at the end of February.

Thousands of foreign fighters are believed to have joined the war effort in Ukraine, but it’s unclear how many Americans have traveled to the country.

Read the story here.

Menendez, Graham propose Taiwan policy overhaul

Senate lawmakers on Friday introduced bipartisan legislation to overhaul U.S. policy toward Taiwan, defining key American commitments to the democratic island’s defense against a Chinese military invasion.

  • The legislation, called the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022, was introduced by Sens. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).

  • The lawmakers said the proposed bill represents the most comprehensive restructuring of U.S. policy toward Taiwan in more than four-decades.

A stark warning: The proposed legislation comes in the wake of reported statements last week from Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe that China will “not hesitate to start a war” and “smash to smithereens Taiwan.”

  • Beijing views the island as part of China but ruled by a rogue government and pushes back against any moves by foreign nations or international organizations that appear to legitimize Taiwan as an independent country.

  • U.S. intelligence officials have earlier warned there is an “acute” threat of China invading Taiwan by 2030 and that Beijing is weighing the risk of such action by watching closely the U.S. response to Russia’s invasion against Ukraine.

Defining America’s commitments: The Menendez and Graham legislation seeks to more clearly define America’s commitments to the island that have long been outlined by the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979.

  • The lawmakers call for $4.5 billion in security assistance for Taiwan over four years.

  • The bill also creates a new initiative to bolster Taiwan’s defense capabilities and to designate Taiwan a Major Non-NATO ally, a significant label that provides the island benefits in the areas of defense, trade and security cooperation.

THE BIGGER PICTURE

The Graham-Menendez legislation follows President Biden’s remarks that the U.S. would come to Taiwan’s defense militarily if China sought to take control of the island by force, most recently during a visit to Japan last month.

  • The remarks sparked confusion over whether it represented a change in U.S. policy, an historic stance of “strategic ambiguity,” where Washington provides Taiwan defensive, military support but does recognize the democratically-governed island as independent from Beijing.

  • White House officials quickly sought to clarify that the president was not announcing a change in U.S. policy.

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have expressed frustration with ambiguous U.S. policy, calling for Washington to more forcefully show its support for Taiwan and in light of increased threats and military posturing from Beijing.

Read the story here.

Republicans demand strong nuclear threat response

House Republicans are calling for President Biden to outline a stronger response to Russia’s threat of using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

In a letter to Biden sent Friday, the lawmakers say “every tool of national power should be leveraged to achieve deterrence of Russian nuclear aggression.”

  • “The U.S. cannot be a passive spectator as Russia uses nuclear intimidation,” reads the letter from Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas).

  • “If Russia uses nuclear weapons in Ukraine, the U.S. must act. This must be clear to Russia to deter their use of nuclear weapons in this unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine,” the letter adds.

Rhetoric from Moscow: Russia has repeatedly floated the possibility of using nuclear weapons during its invasion of Ukraine, which has gone on for over three months.

  • The lawmakers specifically pointed to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who in announcing the invasion threatened “those who stand in our way” saying the “consequences will be such as you have never seen in your entire history.” 

  • The letter also pointed to Aleksey Zhuravlyov, who is the deputy chair of the Russian Duma’s defense committee, who said in part “If the United States threatens our state, it’s good: here is the Sarmat for you, and there will be nuclear ashes from you if you think that Russia should not exist.”

What Biden has said: Biden and his officials have criticized Moscow’s rhetoric over nuclear weapons, but have also been mum on what the U.S. would do if Russia were to use nuclear weapons.

  • In an op-ed for The New York Times published May 31, Biden said the U.S. sees “no indication” that the Kremlin plans to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, but blasted its rhetoric as irresponsible.

  • “Let me be clear: Any use of nuclear weapons in this conflict on any scale would be completely unacceptable to us as well as the rest of the world and would entail severe consequences,” the president’s op-ed read.

Read the full story here.

WHAT WE’RE READING

That’s it for today. Check out The Hill’s Defense and National Security pages for the latest coverage. See you next week!

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