‘We are all ghosts of Kyiv’

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KYIV — When the order comes in over his radio, the Ukrainian fighter pilot known as “JUICE” has mere minutes to scramble. So he’s never more than 200 meters from his MiG-29 these days and, as he put it, living in a “constant state of readiness.” Any delay could be the difference between successfully intercepting a Russian jet and another airstrike on the territory of Ukraine, between life and death.

Juice is a 29-year-old pilot from the eastern Donbas region, where Russian forces have refocused their military operation after failing to capture Kyiv. Speaking to POLITICO over Skype Thursday, he hid his face behind a flight helmet and asked that only his call sign be used to identify him for security reasons.

Juice’s words were cold and serious. To do his job effectively, he explained, he needed to be those things at all times. But he showed a rare bit of emotion and anger when discussing Russian pilots and his wingmen killed in action by them in recent weeks.

“They’re bombing cities and places where there are no military objects every day. It’s just stupid and it’s immoral,” Juice said of Russian pilots. “They’re just criminals.”

Juice is part of the small but mighty Ukrainian air force that has defied expectations and kept the Russians from controlling the skies over Ukraine since VLADIMIR PUTIN invaded the country on Feb. 24. Western governments and military analysts expected Russia’s air force to wipe out Ukraine’s air defenses and relatively meager air force in the first days, if not hours, of the invasion.

Instead, Russia’s strikes on airports and runways were limited or else failed to hit all their targets, and Juice and his fellow pilots for the most part held their own in the sky.

“We were expecting that they would be much better than they are at the moment. But they weren’t ready for a real, large war,” Juice said. He thinks Putin’s defining the war as a ‘special military operation’ led Russia’s air force pilots to think “that it would not be a full-scale war.”

“I think their understanding of the operations was on the level of Syria, where they had full air superiority without any real resistance,” Juice said. “They were not prepared for the resistance here.”

Russia has lost 200 of its roughly 1,200 combat aircraft and 162 of some 500 attack helicopters since the start of the invasion, Ukraine’s air force reported Friday.

MICHAEL KOFMAN, a Russian military expert, told POLITICO that the Russian air force, like much of the military, did not prepare or organize for this war expecting significant resistance.

“Generally speaking, the Russian air force is at least a generation behind Western counterparts and very poorly set up to attempt suppression or destruction of air defense missions,” he said. “Attempting to gain air superiority across the whole country was seen as both unnecessary and completely unfeasible given the limitations of Russian [air force]. It would have cost the Russian air force countless aircraft, and taken many months.”

“I can’t say we have air superiority. But Russians also don’t have air superiority,” Juice said. “They’re having a lot of problems.”

Juice chalked up Ukraine’s success in taking out Russian aircraft and helicopters to “pretty effective air-defense with our ground units.” Soviet-designed S-300 and Buk surface-to-air missile systems, as well as American-made Stinger anti-aircraft systems delivered to Kyiv, have helped. However, he said, those “haven’t been effective enough” to stop Russian planes from bombing Ukrainian cities.

The number of Ukrainian aircraft remaining in service isn’t public information, but Juice said their losses were significant.

Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY called for the West to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine in the first weeks of Russia’s invasion, as bombs and missiles rained down on cities and towns across the country. But the call went unanswered, as allies expressed concerns about angering Moscow and potentially touching off World War III. Poland offered to send MiG-29s to Ukraine, to the surprise of the U.S. But that idea was eventually shot down.

Juice said that sending more of what they have right now won’t tilt the balance in Ukraine’s favor. Speaking fluent English, he said that he and his fellow pilots need F-15s and F-16s to get the upper hand on the Russians. He estimated it would take roughly two weeks to learn to fly the US F-series jets.

In fact, said Juice, who was given his call sign while training with the California Air National Guard in Fresno in 2018 (he ordered fruit juice at a bar while the Americans ordered shots during an after-hours gathering), many Ukrainian pilots have been able to familiarize themselves with U.S. jets during joint exercises in recent years.

Juice said the “main mission” of his squadron is “to intercept all types of aerial threats like cruise missiles, bombers, ground-attack jets or helicopters.” But despite what people may think, "Top Gun"-style dogfights in the sky are extremely rare. In most cases, he said, he and his fellow pilots escort strike aircrafts and scramble to simply be present in the air over a certain area in order to make Russian pilots think twice about approaching.

Juice recalled losing several friends in recent weeks. Among them was Maj. STEPAN TARABALKA, who was shot down during a mission in March. He was later wrongly identified as the mythical “Ghost of Kyiv” by Western media.

Ukraine’s Air Force and Juice himself were frustrated about Tarabalka being mislabeled as the Ghost. Juice believes the Ghost legend is more helpful than harmful but he says there is not one single ghost of Kyiv — even though he admits to the legend stemming from one pilot whose MiG-29 was seen zipping over Kyiv region in the first days of the invasion.

“It’s a collective,” Juice said. “We are all ghosts of Kyiv.”

The Inbox

U.S. REVIEWING HOW IC ASSESSES FOREIGN MILITARIES: After failing to foresee the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan, and overestimating Russia’s military might (while underestimating Ukraine’s), the U.S. has launched a review about how the intelligence community understand the fighting power of foreign militaries.

“The Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday sent a classified letter to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Defense Department and the CIA pointing out that the agencies broadly underestimated how long the Ukrainian military would be able to fend off Russian forces and overestimated how long Afghan fighters would hold out against the Taliban last summer after the US withdrawal from the country,” multiple people familiar with the matter told CNN’s KATIE BO LILLIS and NATASHA BERTRAND.

“[T]he review and the push from Capitol Hill suggest a widespread acknowledgment within the US government that the intelligence community needs to reassess how it judges the strength of other nation's militaries — and underscore how high the stakes are when officials miss the mark,” they wrote.

As CNN pointed out, critics believe the U.S. might have armed Ukraine sooner had it assessed Kyiv could withstand the invasion.

SWEDEN LIKELY FOLLOWING FINLAND INTO NATO:The Swedish government released a reported Friday all but indicating Stockholm will seek to join NATO.

The report, titled “Deterioration of the security environment — implications for Sweden,” is an unflinching look at what Russia’s invasion of Ukraine means for the Scandinavian country.

“Russia’s actions give rise to a structural, long-term and significant deterioration of the security environment in Europe and globally, and raise questions about how Sweden can best guarantee its national security,” it reads. “It is not politically, financially or militarily realistic to develop bilateral defence alliances involving mutual defence guarantees outside existing European and Euro-Atlantic structures.”

The report doesn’t explicitly say Sweden will follow Finland into the alliance, but it’s hard to read the document and come away with any other conclusion. The question now is when Sweden will officially make the ask, and if all NATO members will welcome the two nations into the political-military bloc.

That’s not a guarantee. “We are following the developments regarding Sweden and Finland, but we don’t hold positive views,” Turkish President RECEP TAYYIP ERDOGAN said Friday.

Erdogan has called out Sweden and other Western European countries for the alleged presence of Kurdish and Arab militant groups, the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) and the People's Protection Units International (YPG), in those countries.

“Scandinavian countries are guesthouses for terrorist organizations,” Erdogan said in a Friday press conference. “Members of PKK, DHKP/C are hiding in Sweden and the Netherlands. They are even members of the parliament in some countries.”

Erdogan will push to make his case, former Italian Ambassador to NATO STEFANO STEFANINI told NatSec Daily, but eventually will not seek to block the membership.

“If he does he would trigger a major crisis in the Alliance with Turkey becoming NATO's pariah,” Stefanini said in an email. “Turkey needs NATO for its own security. Period. In [the] NATO context Turkey can, and is, ‘eccentric’ and gives a lot of headaches but needs to be in the Alliance.”

EU GIVING UKRAINE EXTRA €500 MIL:The European Union will provide Ukraine with an extra 500 million euros in financial support for its military, bringing the grand total of aid to 2 billion euros.

“I will announce that we as the European Union will provide a new tranche of €500 million to support Ukraine militarily,” EU foreign policy chief JOSEP BORRELL told reporters Friday, per POLITICO Europe’s HANS VON DER BURCHARD.

“The money is being provided via an EU fund for military assistance, called the European Peace Facility (EPF), and allows Ukraine to procure weapons and equipment for its fight against Russia’s invasion. A first package of €500 million was approved in late February and then topped up with two more packages worth the same amount. This fourth tranche of money brings the total support to €2 billion,” von der Burchard wrote.

The new assistance must be approved by the bloc’s members. European Council President CHARLES MICHEL tweeted his “full support” for the measure.

AUSTIN SPEAKS TO SHOIGU:Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN spoke with Russian Defense Minister SERGEI SHOIGU for the first time since Feb. 18. In a terse readout, Pentagon chief spokesperson JOHN KIRBY said Austin “urged an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication.”

Top Russian officials repeatedly declined to hold calls with Austin or Gen. MARK MILLEY, the Joint Chiefs chair, in the first month of the war. Contact has remained sparse to nonexistent — until now. It’s unclear if Shoigu’s decision to pick up the phone signals any change in Russian political or military posture, though it’s unlikely.

IT’S FRIDAY. WELCOME TO THE WEEKEND:Thanks for tuning in to NatSec Daily. This space is reserved for the top U.S. and foreign officials, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, the experts and the people like you who care about how the natsec sausage gets made. Aim your tips and comments at [email protected] and [email protected], and follow us on Twitter at @alexbward and @QuintForgey.

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Flashpoints

GRINER’S DETENTION EXTENDED: BRITTNEY GRINER has had her pre-trial detention in Russia extended for another month, the WNBA superstar’s attorney told The Associated Press.

ALEXANDER BOYKOV told The Associated Press he believed the relatively short extension of the detention indicated the case would come to trial soon. She has been in detention for nearly three months,” the AP reported.

“We did not receive any complaints about the detention conditions from our client,” Boykov said.

The Biden administration says Griner has been unjustly detained and is working to secure her release. It’s unclear if any progress has been made. If Griner is not released, she could face up to 10 years in prison for allegedly trying to pass through airport security with vape cartridges containing cannabis-derived oil.

Keystrokes

EUTELSAT KEEPS RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA ONLINE:French satellite operator Eutelsat is a key reason why Russian propaganda still blasts into the homes of many around Europe, Wired’s JUSTIN LING reported.

“The simple fact is that a French-based satellite operator ensures that Russian-controlled media reaches millions of Russians. If Eutelsat decided to cancel that lease and offer the space to independent Russian and Ukrainian news outlets, it could disrupt Russian television broadcasting overnight,” he wrote.

Removing the Russian channels, and replacing them with free-to-air programming with hard news, could help in stopping the spread of Kremlin-fed propaganda. Moscow might retaliate, but their options to do so aren’t particularly good.

“Beyond signal jamming and Moscow’s usual roster of cyber and information operations tactics, they might not have a better way to retaliate without cutting off their own television networks,” per Ling.

The Complex

‘ALL THE TOOLS’: Navy Secretary CARLOS DEL TORO gave a full-throated defense of the Biden administration's decision to defund a developmental nuclear-tipped cruise missile that would go aboard attack submarines, per our friends at Morning Defense (for Pros!).

"I agree with the president's budget. I believe that we should zero out the SLCM line," Del Toro told SASC on Thursday. "I believe the president has all the tools in his toolkit necessary to deter and deal with the threat."

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. MIKE GILDAY also told HASC this week that he supports continuing some research funding for the missile should it be needed in the future. But he added on Thursday that other weapons could fill a "gap" of tactical nuclear capability versus Russia and, increasingly, China.

"The question is how do you best close that gap?" Gilday said. “SLCM-N has been offered as a single-point solution. I would offer that there are others to think about, including low-yield nuclear weapons that we deploy right now."

Sub optimal: Gilday also blasted the nation’s two biggest shipbuilders on Thursday, complaining the companies are “over cost and way over schedule” on submarine maintenance.

Gilday’s broadside before SASC comes as the Navy is trying to get more subs in the water to confront the rapidly growing Chinese fleet. But the public admonishment of Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls came as a bit of a surprise.

The two private shipyards are critical to the Navy’s ability to keep ships and subs at sea, Gilday said, and they’re also the only companies who can do this kind of work. “Because we need them, we need to hold their feet to the fire to those contracts,” Gilday said. “They need to pay penalties when they don’t meet their requirements.”

On the Hill

PAUL BLOCKS UKRAINE AID...: Sen. RAND PAUL (R-Ky.) on Thursday blocked a fast-tracked vote on a $40 billion aid package to fortify Ukraine’s defenses, meaning the measure won’t reach Presidet JOE BIDEN’s desk this week, report our own CONNOR O’BRIEN and JENNIFER SCHOLTES.

Democratic and Republican leaders sought to clear the bill with enough time to head off a lapse in U.S. weapons shipments to Eastern Europe that’s expected next week. But Paul demanded that the leaders include a provision designating a special federal watchdog to oversee how the new money is spent.

Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER and Minority Leader MITCH MCCONNELL proposed to hold a vote on Paul’s amendment, which would give a special inspector general oversight of the funds, with a 60-vote threshold. That offer did not appease Paul, however, who is demanding his proposal be incorporated into the bill before it passes. “It’s irresponsible to shovel $40 billion out the door without knowing where it goes,” Paul told reporters.

Broadsides

…AND KULEBA IS UNHAPPY:Ukrainian Foreign Minister DMYTRO KULEBA lashed out at the Kentucky senator on social media this morning, tweeting that his country “could have already started using the new U.S. assistance package to more effectively save lives of Ukrainians who defend the democratic world.”

“@POTUS, @SecBlinken, @SenateGOP, @SenateDems and American people were in strong support, and @RandPaul delayed so much needed support,” Kuleba wrote.

FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY — ‘DOWNGRADED HUMAN RIGHTS’ TOWARD SYRIA: The Biden administration supports a regional energy deal that will give the regime of Syrian President BASHAR AL-ASSAD $40-$50 million, bending a human rights law to strike the agreement, the Foundation for Defense of Democracy’s DAVID ADESNIK wrote in an analysis memo.

"Even though the Assad regime would receive payments worth tens of millions of dollars, senior Biden administration officials have repeatedly insisted the [energy] agreements would not violate the Caesar Act,” FDD’s senior fellow wrote. “Despite its tacit approval of Arab engagement with Damascus, the administration does not want to acknowledge it has downgraded human rights in its policy toward Syria."

Critics say the energy deal, which sends natural gas from Egypt to Lebanon through the Arab Gas Pipeline that traverses Jordan and Syria, helps legitimize the Assad regime instead of keeping him as an international pariah.

Adesnik argues that Assad not only gets to be part of a multinational deal, he gets to reap the rewards from it. But the U.S. can reverse its decision by enforcing human rights-related sanctions mandated by the Caesar Act, not waiving them, he wrote. If the administration doesn’t, the U.S. cannot claim to be putting human rights at the center of its foreign policy.

On Thursday, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a license authorizing “specific economic activities in certain non-regime-held areas of northeast and northwest Syria.” According to the State Department, the measure “supports the Biden Administration’s strategy to defeat ISIS by promoting economic stabilization in areas liberated from the terrorist group’s control.”

Transitions

— FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: The National Security Council is promoting CARA ABERCROMBIE to serve as coordinator for defense and arms control, which restores the Obama-Biden model of having someone lead both directorates. Abercrombie is currently senior director for defense.

— FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY: The NSC also is hiring PRANAY VADDI as senior director for arms control. Vaddi, currently at State, replaces MALLORY STEWART, who was recently confirmed as the assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance.

— FRANK LARKIN has been named chief operating officer of the Troops First Foundation and will serve as chair of its Warrior Call initiative, which focuses on curtailing suicides among active-duty service members and veterans. He currently serves as vice president of corporate development at SAP National Security Services (SAP NS2).

What to Read

— RUSSELL BERMAN, The Atlantic:Why the Right Went Quiet on Ukrainian Refugees

— AARON MEHTA, Breaking Defense:Norway’s Chief of Defense: Finland, Sweden in NATO ‘Opens up a Lot of Possibilities

— ISABEL COLES, The Wall Street Journal:‘I Cannot Imagine My Life Without Parents.’ A Boy’s War Diary Tells of Grief in Ukraine.

Monday Today

Biden welcomes Greek Prime Minister KYRIAKOS MITSOTAKIS to the White House.

— The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, 9 a.m.:Schriever Spacepower Forum — with STEPHEN N. WHITING

— The East-West Center, 12 p.m.: India and the Sino-Russian Reorder in Eurasia — with SATU P. LIMAYE and JAGANNATH P. PANDA

— The National Defense Industrial Association, 12 p.m.: 2022 Special Operations Forces Industry Conference — with LESLIE BABICH, GLEN CULLEN, TROY FREDETTE, BILL INNES, FAROOQ MITHA and more”

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 1 p.m.:On the Future of the Marine Corps: Assessing Force Design 2030 — with MARK CANCIAN, PAUL VAN RIPER, ROBERT WORK, DOV ZAKHEIM and ANTHONY ZINNI

— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 3 p.m.:The Future of Quantum: Driving Innovation and Security from the Government — with JONAH FORCE HILL, JAMES ANDREW LEWIS and CHARLES TAHAN

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, Ben Pauker, who’s telling everyone who’ll listen that he’s the real ghost of Kyiv.