White House had Pentagon delay a hypersonic missile test before Biden-Putin summit

With help from Paul McLeary and Daniel Lippman

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With less than a week to go before President JOE BIDEN met Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN for a June summit in Switzerland, the White House ordered the Pentagon to delay a long-planned hypersonic missile test so as not to raise tensions with Moscow.

According to three people who spoke to Alex and LARA SELIGMAN, including a defense official and a senior congressional aide, a high-level White House staffer contacted the office of the secretary of Defense to request that the test be postponed. Biden at the time was preparing for a tough discussion with his Russian counterpart, and officials worried that launching such a provocative weapon right before it could send the wrong signal or sabotage the meeting altogether.

The defense official did note, however, that the Russians likewise “didn’t do [provocative] things in advance of that summit. This is not unusual at all for the sake of table-setting.”

The sources spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. A White House spokesperson said our account is “not accurate.” The Pentagon declined to comment. No one would detail who in the White House made the request or who in DoD received it.

Putin clearly didn’t get the message the administration was trying to send him, even after in-person talks with Biden. Russia’s Defense Ministry announced on July 19 — a month after the summit — that it tested a hypersonic missile long praised by Putin. Russia has since continued to launch more and more of those weapons, with the U.S. failing a hypersonic missile test of its own earlier this month. (China also conducted one of their own tests this summer, to Washington’s great concern.)

The Pentagon isn’t sugar-coating their view on the threat Putin poses. “Russia is still the most imminent threat [today], simply because they have 1,550 deployed nuclear weapons, plus or minus, deployed against us today,” Vice Chair of the Joint Chiefs Gen. JOHN HYTEN told reporters — including our own PAUL MCLEARY — at a breakfast Thursday morning.

Russia has deployed tactical nuclear weapons that puts U.S. and allied troops across Europe at risk, “because the risk of escalation with a quote-unquote tactical nuclear weapon — which is the dumbest term in the history of the world — is real,” Hyten said. “We have to worry about that and we have to worry about that in the near term.”

Just before the summit, Russia sent warships off the coast of Hawaii, leading the U.S. to scramble F-22s and a carrier already near California to “monitor” the situation, a different defense official told POLITICO. The White House was “curious” as to the nature of the exercise particularly since it was around the time of the presidential summit but gave no specific direction to DoD commanders.

Now Biden is heading to Europe for a meeting of the G-20 in Rome and a major climate summit in Glasgow, but Putin won’t personally be at either event, though he may participate virtually for the environmental gathering. In the meantime, Microsoft reported this week that the hacking group backed by the Russian foreign intelligence service, or SVR, and behind the large-scale SolarWinds hack in 2020 is actively looking to score another major hack.

That effort is part of a much broader espionage campaign, as Microsoft reported that it had informed 609 customers that they were the victims of 22,868 Nobelium cyberattacks between July 1 and Oct. 19 — including those related to the SolarWinds-like campaign. That’s more than the 20,500 total cyberattacks in the three years prior to July 1 by the SVR-tied group.

ANNE NEUBERGER, deputy national security adviser for cyber and emerging technology, gave a brief update today on the status of joint U.S.-Russia cybersecurity talks first announced at the end of the Biden-Putin summit in June. She warned again that Moscow “is accountable for criminal activity coming from within its borders that achieves a disruptive national security impact and that affects the strategic stability between our countries.”

“We have had an open, direct and candid dialogue — a number of times, a number of discussions — to outline our expectations in that area, to pass information regarding individual criminal activity. And there have been some initial steps,” Neuberger said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event. The United States, she added, was “really looking for continued, real action, and to continue this direct and candid discussion to achieve those outcomes.”

FIRST IN NATSEC DAILY –– NATSEC PROFESSIONALS WANT ‘SWIFT’ CONFIRMATIONS: 338 former national security officials sent a letter to top Senators urging them to expedite the confirmation of State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development nominees held over by Republicans.

“We urge you to exercise decisive leadership to swiftly facilitate committee hearings and votes for all pending State Department and USAID nominees,” the professionals wrote. “If unanimous consent agreements cannot be obtained to expedite votes, we ask that you once again dedicate the floor time necessary to approve these nominations by regular order.”

The letter — sent to Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER, Senate Minority Leader MITCH MCCONNELL, Senate Foreign Relations Chair BOB MENENDEZ (D-N.J.) and ranking member JIM RISCH (R-Idaho) — was organized by the left-leaning Foreign Policy for America advocacy group. The signees include retired ambassadors and flag officers and former top officials who served throughout the government, many of whom are big names like WILLIAM WEBSTER, MICHÈLE FLOURNOY, VINCENT STEWART and ROSE GOTTEMOELLER.

As of today, the Biden administration has nominated 73 people to be ambassadors, but only six have been confirmed — a historically low rate of 8 percent.

ANDREW ALBERTSON, the executive director of Foreign Policy for America, lays the blame for the delay in confirmations at the feet of Sen. TED CRUZ (R-Texas). “What Sen. Cruz is doing is incredibly dangerous. This is a full blown crisis,” he told NatSec Daily in an interview. “If the Senate needs to stay through weekends to clear some of these and to make him pay a price for messing up his colleagues’ travel plans, so be it.”

Former Senate Majority Leader TOM DASCHLE (D-S.D.), who is on the group’s advisory board, told us that a few lawmakers holding up the president’s nominees — and Senate leadership’s unwillingness to prioritize ramming them through — “sends a terrible message around the world.”

ERIN PERRINE, Cruz’s communications director, responded to the letter and the criticism. “Three hundred national security professionals haven’t been paying attention or don’t know how the Senate works. Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer are the reason that so few nominees have been confirmed. Until the last couple of weeks, they had only managed to bring a handful of ambassadors to the floor — which they exclusively run,” she sent in a text to NatSec Daily. “Their focus is on woke gender politics and blaming Sen. Cruz for their incompetence. Real experts who aren’t liberal hacks know to direct their complaints to the White House.”

4 INTEL AGENCIES DIDN’T PREDICT KABUL’S FALL: The Wall Street Journal’s VIVIAN SALAMA and WARREN STROBEL have a huge story today about how multiple leading U.S. intelligence agencies didn’t foresee the swift collapse of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

“A month after President Biden announced his decision to withdraw all U.S. troops, for instance, the Central Intelligence Agency issued a May 17 report titled ‘Government at Risk of Collapse Following U.S. Withdrawal.’ The report estimated that the government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani would fall by year’s end, according to a summary,” they wrote. “Less than a month later, the agency issued another analysis titled: ‘Afghanistan: Assessing Prospects for a Complete Taliban Takeover Within Two Years,’ according to a summary.”

“A June 4 Defense Intelligence Agency report, meanwhile, said the Taliban would pursue an incremental strategy of isolating rural areas from Kabul over the next 12 months, according to a summary. In an ‘Executive Memorandum’ on July 7, the DIA said the Afghan government would hold Kabul, according to a person familiar with the report,” Salama and Strobel continued.

POLITICO has previously…

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