When news broke on Tuesday that a missile had crossed into Poland and killed two people, fingers quickly pointed to Russia. But emerging assessments from Poland and NATO suggest that it was a Ukrainian air defense missile that fell just across the Polish border.
We’ll share the newest details on the investigation into the incident and what U.S. officials are saying, plus the sentencing of the three men accused in the
2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine, the results of the Pentagon’s latest audit and startling new figures on the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps instructors accused of sexual misconduct.
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 Ellen Mitchell. A friend forward this newsletter to you?
Zelensky not ‘100 percent’ certain what happened
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was not completely sure what happened with the missile blast that killed two people in Poland near the border with Ukraine.
Zelensky previously insisted that the rocket was not Ukrainian and wanted evidence if Ukraine’s air defense was responsible. But he softened his position at Bloomberg’s New Economy Forum in Singapore on Thursday, saying that Ukrainian military leaders told him that the crater from the blast site suggested that a Ukrainian anti-air rocket could not be solely responsible.
“I don’t know 100 percent — I think the world also doesn’t 100 percent know what happened,” he said. “We can’t say specifically that this was the air defense of Ukraine.”
An investigation: Representatives of NATO countries quickly gathered for an emergency meeting after two Polish people were killed in a village about 15 miles from Poland’s border with Ukraine.
- Following the meeting, preliminary investigations show the missile was likely the result of Ukrainian defense against Russian missiles.
- And Polish President Andrzej Duda said on Wednesday that it was “highly probable” that the strike resulted from Ukrainian air defense and appeared to be an accident.
The Pentagon’s view: At a press conference Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the U.S. is still gathering information but has “seen nothing that contradicts [Duda’s] preliminary assessment that this explosion was most likely the result of a Ukrainian air defense missile that unfortunately landed in Poland.”
“Whatever the final conclusions may be, the world knows that Russia bears ultimate responsibility for this incident,” he added.
A sigh of relief: The new assessments that have since emerged appear to calm worries that the strike would cause the nearly nine-month war to escalate, as it didn’t appear Russia had deliberately targeted Poland. Such an occurrence may have drawn NATO into the conflict under Article 5 of the alliance’s treaty, which states that an attack against one member is viewed as an attack on all.
Presenting evidence: Zelensky said Ukrainian investigators are traveling to the site in Poland, and Polish officials have said they will present their evidence to the Ukrainian government.
RUSSIAN MISSILE STRIKES TARGET UKRAINIAN ENERGY INFRASTRUCTURE
Russia’s military targeted energy infrastructure hubs in the city of Dnipro in central Ukraine and the northeastern region of Kharkiv in a new wave of airstrikes, officials said.
Ukrainian state energy company Naftogaz also said gas production facilities in eastern Ukraine were damaged or destroyed in the attacks.
The head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Andriy Yermak, called Russia’s latest attacks on energy infrastructure “naive tactics of cowardly losers.”
“Ukraine has already withstood extremely difficult strikes by the enemy, which did not lead to results the Russian cowards hoped for,” Yermak wrote in a Telegram post.
Russian airstrikes also hit a huge defense plant in Dnipro, Reuters noted, and targeted the Odessa region in southern Ukraine for the first time in weeks.
Three convicted over downing of jet over Ukraine
A Dutch court on Thursday convicted two Russians and one pro-Moscow Ukrainian separatist of murder for the deadly 2014 downing of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, sentencing all three to life in prison.
The court found that “only the highest appropriate prison sentence would be appropriate” for former Russian intelligence agents Igor Girkin and Sergey Dubinskiy and Ukrainian separatist Leonid Kharchenko for the murders of 298 people onboard who died in the downing of Flight MH17.
The verdict: The downing of the Boeing 777 — which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was brought down by a Russian Buk missile on July 17, 2014 — caused such “devastating consequences” that “a limited period of imprisonment will not suffice,” a press release from the Hague District Court stated.
Though the three defendants did not fire the missile at the plane, they were found to have helped move the weapon from Russia into Ukraine.
Justice served?: None of the three attended or took part in the trial in a courtroom at the Schiphol Judicial Complex in Badhoevedorp, the Netherlands, and were tried in absentia. They are believed to be in Russia and extradition is unlikely.
An international incident: The plane’s downing, which killed 15 crew members and 283 passengers from 17 countries, happened over territory held by rebels in eastern Ukraine early in the conflict between pro-Moscow separatists and Ukrainian forces.
The incident drew international condemnation and the world watched in horror as images emerged of smoldering plane wreckage and bodies and luggage strewn across fields.
DOD fails another audit, but makes progress
The Defense Department has failed its fifth-ever audit, unable to account for more than half of its assets, but the effort is being viewed as a “teachable moment,” according to its chief financial officer.
After 1,600 auditors combed through DOD’s $3.5 trillion in assets and $3.7 trillion in liabilities, officials found that the department couldn’t account for about 61 percent of its assets, Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord told reporters on Tuesday.
An expected outcome: McCord said the department has made progress toward a “clean” audit in the past year, but later added “we failed to get an ‘A.’”
“I would not say that we flunked. The process is important for us to do, and it is making us get better. It is not making us get better as fast as we want,” he said.
This year’s outcome was not unexpected.
Some background: Federal law since the early 1990s requires mandatory audits for all government agencies, and since fiscal year 2013 all but the DOD have been able to satisfy that requirement.
- The sheer size and scope of the department — which makes up for more than half of the U.S. discretionary spending and has assets that range from personnel and supplies to bases and weapons — makes it difficult to audit.
- In December 2017, defense officials set out to scrutinize DOD’s books, the first comprehensive audit of the agency in its history. That effort failed the next year, and the four that followed.
A herculean undertaking: McCord said the most recent audit required 220 in-person site visits and 750 virtual site visits by Pentagon officials and independent public accounting firm personnel.
What they found were several new weaknesses in how DOD accounted for its assets, which include nearly 2.9 million military personnel; equipment and weapons including 19,700 aircraft and more than 290 ships; and physical items including buildings, roads and fences on 4,860 sites worldwide.
Abuse in JROTC more extensive than was known
U.S. lawmakers looking into the military’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) program found that at least 60 instructors were accused of sexual misconduct against high school cadets in the past five years, a figure far beyond what was previously known.
Of those 60 allegations, 58 were substantiated, according to a congressional memo released Wednesday by the House Oversight and Reform Committee’s majority staff ahead of a hearing on the JROTC program.
An earlier investigation: The New York Times released a sweeping investigative report in July that found dozens of retired service members who became leaders in JROTC programs targeted, groomed and sexually abused or harassed underage girls.
The Times investigation found at least 33 such instructors who were criminally charged with sexual misconduct involving students — in addition to many others who were accused but never charged — over a five-year period.
Digging deeper: The report prompted Oversight Committee Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.), chairman of the committee’s national security subpanel, in August to write letters to the Pentagon asking for information on how the military services conduct oversight of their respective JROTC corps.
After that, an initially reported figure of 33 nearly doubled when the Pentagon this month acknowledged there were 60 allegations of sexual abuse, harassment and other sexual misconduct made against JROTC instructors during the past five years.
A ‘disturbing picture’: “The information our Subcommittee is releasing today paints a disturbing picture of how some JROTC instructors are using their positions of authority to exploit and abuse students who have placed their faith and trust in the U.S. military,” Lynch said in a statement accompanying the new information.
“What we have learned from the department is truly alarming,” Maloney said at the national security subcommittee hearing Wednesday. “Our investigation has exposed that a lack of Pentagon oversight appears to have enabled the predatory behavior of some of the JROTC instructors. Any allegation of sexual assault, abuse or harassment in this program is one too many and needs to be addressed.”
ON TAP FOR TOMORROW
- The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs will hold a discussion on “Russia’s New Emerging State Ideology,” at 10 a.m.
- Army Secretary Christine Wormuth will speak at the Center for a New American Security on “Recruitment, Retention, and Quality of Life in the Force” at 10:30 a.m.
- The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research will hold a conversation on the book “The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink,” at 2 p.m.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- Marjorie Taylor Greene unveils resolution to audit Ukraine aid funds
- Milley tried to speak with Russian counterpart on Tuesday but was ‘unsuccessful’
- Jan. 6 panel forms subcommittee on criminal referrals, unresolved subpoenas
- Wray tells lawmakers that FBI conducts cyber offensive operations
- Detained WNBA star Brittney Griner transferred to Russian penal colony
- NATO chief: Missile blast in Poland likely caused by Ukrainian air defense system
- Ex-Trump defense chief: ‘He’s unfit for office,’ shouldn’t run
- Russia’s cyber forces ‘underperformed expectations’ in Ukraine: senior US official