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Jake Sullivan says the U.S. is engaging with allies, and Russia, on the space threat

National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, pictured at a White House briefing on Wednesday, spoke to <em>Morning Edition</em> about Russia's anti-satellite capability, U.S. aid to Ukraine and reports of the death of Alexei Navalny.
Anna Moneymaker
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National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, pictured at a White House briefing on Wednesday, spoke to Morning Edition about Russia's anti-satellite capability, U.S. aid to Ukraine and reports of the death of Alexei Navalny.

Updated February 16, 2024 at 10:03 AM ET

It's been a busy week for news involving the U.S., Ukraine and Russia.

It started with the Senate passing a bill that would send billions of dollars of aid to Ukraine, as well as Israel and Taiwan, despite warnings from House Republicans that they would not bring such legislation to their own floor.

Then an unusual statement from the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee about a national security threat prompted the Biden administration to confirm that Russia is working on a weapon that has the potential to threaten satellites.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan met with a group of lawmakers in the House of Representatives on Thursday to brief them on the issue. Moments before he dialed in to speak with NPR's Morning Edition about it on Friday, reports emerged from Russian authorities that opposition figure Alexei Navalny had died in prison after falling ill.

NPR has since confirmed Navalny's death at age 47 in a remote Russian prison, where he was serving a decades-long sentence for charges including extremism.

Sullivan described it as a "terrible tragedy" in an interview Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep.

"Given the Russian government's long and sordid history of doing harm to its opponents, it raises real and obvious questions about what happened here," he added.

In his first one-on-one interview since briefing lawmakers, Sullivan spoke with Inskeep about Russia's anti-satellite weapon, the continued need for U.S. aid to Ukraine and the state of the Israel-Gaza war.

Sullivan says the U.S. is responding to Russia's anti-satellite weapon

Sullivan is fresh off briefing lawmakers on Capitol Hill about the Russian security threat, which the Biden administration has been referring to as an "anti-satellite capability."

House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Turner, R-Ohio, drew attention to it on Wednesday, when he publicly called on Biden to declassify information "concerning a national security threat." Sullivan previously said he was surprised by Turner's decision, which he reiterated in his interview with NPR.

"I had put on the books days ago a meeting with House leadership on this to be able to talk to them privately," he said. "When we deal with serious threats like this that involve highly sensitive intelligence we like to do so behind closed doors."

Sullivan said that he would have liked the situation to play out differently. But he did not question Turner's motives for going public, as some of his fellow Republican lawmakers have, instead agreeing that this is an issue Congress should take seriously.

The White House said Thursday that while the development of such a capability is troubling, there is no immediate safety risk, nor could the capability "cause physical destruction here on Earth." But it could threaten astronauts in low orbit, as well as interfere with systems used for communication, transportation, meteorology and financial transactions.

What then is the difference between a capability and a weapon? Basically, Sullivan said, officials are trying to protect intelligence sources and methods by not saying too much publicly — and "anti-satellite capability" is the language that the intelligence community has approved.

"But an anti-satellite capability, of course, means something that the Russians could use to go against satellites," Sullivan added. "So if people wanted to characterize it using a different word of course they could do so."

The U.S., Russia and China already have the capability to attack satellites, but the use of nuclear weapons in space is banned by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. When asked if the deployment of this Russian capability would violate that treaty, Sullivan declined to say.

"It would violate long standing international obligations of Russia, but I can't go further than that today given the limitations on what I can share," he said.

Sullivan described his meeting with lawmakers as "deeply substantive," saying it covered the intelligence itself as well as what steps the Biden administration is taking to protect the American people.

"It was a bipartisan meeting," he said. "People focused — both Democrats and Republicans — on the substance, not on the politics or the public Sturm und Drang [turmoil], and I think we emerged with a good understanding of the way forward."

Sullivan said the U.S. is engaging with countries around the world, as well as Russia itself, "to try to ensure that things do not proceed in a way that end up destabilizing international peace and security."

He also made the case for aid to Ukraine, as the Senate bill hangs in the balance

Also present at the meeting was House Speaker Mike Johnson, who signaled earlier this week that he wouldn't bring the Senate's $95 billion bipartisan foreign aid bill to a vote in the House. His reason, he said in a statement, is that it lacked border security provisions.

Just days earlier, Senate Republicans blocked a bill that included both the foreign aid and border security measures that the House GOP had asked for months ago, after mounting pressure from former President Donald Trump. Democrats say that was a political calculation, aimed at prolonging chaos on the border to help Trump campaign on immigration in his reelection bid.

The Senate's foreign aid bill is now effectively stuck in the House. Sullivan said that Johnson told him directly on Thursday that he would like to see a vote on the aid.

"How that happens, when that happens, that's a matter of enormous interest to myself, to President Biden and to the Ukrainian people," Sullivan said. "Because every day that passes that we are not providing this aid to Ukraine they have less ammunition to defend themselves, less capability to take Russian missiles out of the sky that are terrorizing Ukrainian cities and less of the kinds of tools and resources they need to defend [Ukrainian] sovereignty and territory."

Nearly two years and billions of dollars into Russia's war in Ukraine, U.S. support for continued military assistance has dwindled. Many Republican voters, and House Republicans, are increasingly opposed to sending more aid.

The Biden administration has stressed that U.S. aid is instrumental in arming Ukrainians, helping them push back against Russian forces in what has essentially become a war of attrition.

Sullivan said U.S. support is "indispensable," adding there are certain resources and capabilities that only it can provide for Ukraine. But he acknowledged it is "not inconsistent with asking Europeans to step up and do more," acknowledging that European allies have contributed a substantial amount of assistance.

Earlier this month, the European Union approved $54 billion for Ukraine over the next three years. Ahead of a meeting of NATO defense secretaries in Brussels this week, NATO Secretary General Jans Stoltenberg urged the U.S. House to pass an aid bill as "an investment in our own security."

Sullivan made a similar argument.

"It is an obligation we have to to help defend a people fighting for their freedom, to help support European security, and to avert a situation where if [Russian President Vladimir] Putin wins in Ukraine, all of Europe is in threat," he added. "And the likelihood that the U.S. gets dragged into a conflict goes up."

Sullivan says the U.S. hasn't yet seen Israel's plan to protect civilians in Rafah

Meanwhile, in the Middle East, mediators met in Cairo this week for another round of talks about a potential cease-fire in Gaza and the release of the more than 100 Israel hostages being held there by Hamas.

The high-stakes discussions started after Israel signaled it will launch a ground invasion in Rafah, a city on the southern tip of Gaza where more than 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering in cramped conditions.

Biden pushed back on the potential operation in a call with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu over the weekend, telling him it should not proceed "without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for" the people seeking shelter there.

Sullivan said such a plan would include measures to protect civilians, move them to safety and ensure that they have access to basic necessities. He said the U.S. has not seen that plan yet, though the Israelis have insisted they will not proceed without one.

"That is an ongoing conversation between us and them," Sullivan added.

More broadly, Sullivan acknowledged that Biden and Netanyahu do not see eye to eye on many issues, with each holding their own long-standing position.

That fissure has been increasingly evident in recent weeks, with Biden describing Israel's offensive as "over the top," sanctioning West Bank settlers who attack Palestinians and pressing for a path to Palestinian statehood, which Netanyahu has rejected.

Sullivan stressed that Biden believes Israel has the right to go after Hamas, the terrorist group responsible for the "worst slaughter of the Jewish people since the Holocaust," but must do so in a way that protects civilians and respects international law.

He said Biden has raised those concerns with Netanyahu.

And he also credited Biden's interventions, and American diplomacy more broadly, with facilitating things like the temporary cease-fire in late November and the flow of humanitarian assistance to Gaza through its Rafah border crossing, though he acknowledged the U.S. would like to see more.

"The Israeli government's making its own decisions about how it proceeds, and then the United States makes decisions about how we respond," he said. "And that's how it's been since the beginning. That's how it will continue to be. And we will work closely with other partners as well to make sure that we are both helping Israel defend itself against the very real threats it faces and stand up for our principles."

The broadcast interview was produced by Ben Abrams and edited by Jan Johnson and Lisa Thomson.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman
Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.