With help from Nahal Toosi and Joe Gould
When the U.S. Women’s National Team looks up at the stands during their World Cup match against the Netherlands tonight, they’ll find Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN cheering them on.
The chief U.S. diplomat’s stop in New Zealand is sandwiched between the dedication of a new American embassy in Tonga and a ministerial dialogue alongside Defense Secretary LLOYD AUSTIN in Australia. Per a State Department press release, there’s not much to Blinken’s visit except vague “important discussions on shared priorities with senior government partners.” It appears that Blinken, a lifelong fútbol fan, is dropping by “The Lord of the Rings” country in large part for the game.
It’s not the first time Blinken will kick it at a U.S. soccer match. He attended the men’s World Cup in Qatar last year, stopping in no other nations before or after. The secretary used his time there to shore up ties with the Middle Eastern country, meeting with its leaders and engaging in the fifth annual U.S.-Qatar Strategic Dialogue. Critics bashed Blinken’s attendance, though, arguing it signaled indifference to Qatar’s many human rights abuses.
After tonight, the secretary will be two-for-two in holding up a #1 foam finger for Teams USA (is it like “attorneys general”?) at World Cups. In his mind, it’s all part of the job.
“Sports diplomacy is an incredibly powerful thing, because sports, like the arts, takes down barriers. It connects people across languages, across cultures, across borders,” he told Fox Sports today. “And in my line of work, when you’re really trying to connect people and break through, it’s wonderful to have this team out there showing the best of our country.”
VEDANT PATEL, State’s principal deputy spokesperson, added on, telling us “beyond these important government-to-government meetings, we are always looking for ways to connect our policy and values directly to people around the world, reaching them in ways that speak to their interests and passions.”
Alongside alumni of the U.S. women’s squad, Blinken will participate in a soccer clinic in Wellington, similar to the one he joined in Doha with his Mexican and Canadian counterparts. The U.S., Mexico and Canada will jointly co-host the 2026 men’s World Cup.
No one in President JOE BIDEN’s administration expressed an iota of unease to NatSec Daily about Blinken’s appearances. But a few officials, some of them fairly senior, raised a figurative eyebrow at how the diplomat’s busy schedule has space in it for his fandom.
Asked last week at the Aspen Security Forum if his time in the Indo-Pacific region had something to do with soccer, Blinken replied, “just a little bit.”
World leaders often make a trip to watch the World Cup live, though usually the head of government or state attends a major match, like a final. Liberian President GEORGE WEAH received some pushback for watching games at last year’s men’s tournament featuring his son, American star TIMOTHY WEAH. (The elder Weah is the first and only African to be named the world’s best soccer player, long before he entered politics.)
Look, your host has been very open about his own soccer obsession — he’s even on TV talking about it. If he were secretary of State, he’d probably find a way to attend matches and cheer on the USWNT against a strong Dutch side, too.
BREACHING RUSSIAN DEFENSES: Ukrainian forces have fought their way into Russia’s first line of defense near Zaporizhzhia in the southeastern part of the country, CNN’s VASCO COTOVIO and OLGA VOITOVYCH report.
After several waves of attacks “with more than 100 units of armored vehicles, including tanks … the enemy managed to wedge in three sections of our first line of defense,” Russian-installed military official VLADIMIR ROGOV wrote on Telegram today. “There are heavy, fierce battles of high intensity going on in this area.”
News of the counteroffensive’s progress came after Russian lawmakers voted Tuesday to raise the top age for military conscription from 27 to 30 years old, the New York Times’ IVAN NECHEPURENKO reports. The bill also attempts to curb draft dodging by barring conscripts from leaving the country.
If approved by the full parliament, it’ll allow Russian President VLADIMIR PUTIN to bolster his troops’ numbers without issuing a larger mobilization order, which could threaten support at home for the war.
Meanwhile, Russia is actually on its own offensive along a 60-mile stretch in northeastern Ukraine, using heavy artillery, drones and ground assaults to make some gains.
“In recent days, the Russians have claimed small breakthroughs up and down the lines from Kupiansk to Kreminna 60 miles to the south. Kyiv is sending experienced units to reinforce the lines in the area. Ukrainian soldiers near the front say that Russian gains have been marginal and that they have counterattacked and regained some lost territory,” the NYT’s MARC SANTORA reports.
COUP ATTEMPT IN NIGER?: Niger’s presidential office claimed today that elements of the Presidential Guard tried to overthrow the West African nation’s leader.
“The palace and ministries next to it had been blocked off by military vehicles on Wednesday morning. Staff inside the palace were also unable to access their offices, according to reports. But there was calm elsewhere in Niamey,” the capital, Al Jazeera reports.
Nigerien President MOHAMED BAZOUM is, for now, safe and sound, and his office said the majority of his country’s forces were loyal to the government. “The Army and the National Guard are ready to attack the elements of the GP involved in this outburst if they do not return to their senses,” the office tweeted (ex’d?) this morning.
Niger is home to yet another African military that the U.S. has extensively trained. NBC News this week ran a rare inside look at how American soldiers helped Nigerien forces prepare to take on terrorists, including house-to-house clearing operations. The U.S. currently has around 1,100 troops in the country.
In a statement, national security adviser JAKE SULLIVAN said the U.S. “strongly condemn[s] any effort to detain or subvert the functioning of Niger’s democratically elected government, led by President Bazoum.”
Rep. GREGORY MEEKS (D-N.Y.), the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told our own JOE GOULD that “my heart was somewhat broken when I saw what was taking place, and I hope that is not even contagious to other parts of western Africa, because we’re trying to make sure that we securing all the time to stop the culture of military takeovers.”
He wants a briefing from the State Department to get answers to his questions: “Did we see anything happening or maturing? Was this a surprise to them, as it was to me? What is the group, who are they, where did they come from and what equipment did they have?”
HOLD YOUR HORSES: While U.S. officials have said they’re pushing to provide Ukraine with fighter jets, Western partners have yet to even agree on a plan to train Ukrainian pilots to fly the promised jets, three U.S. officials familiar with the talks told our own LARA SELIGMAN.
Denmark and the Netherlands are leading a coalition of 11 nations to support the training, but so far no country has publicly committed aircraft to the program. One training proposal that has been discussed involves bringing Ukrainian pilots to the U.S. to receive instruction from the 162nd Air Wing, an Air National Guard unit based in Tucson, Ariz., that already trains foreign partners on the F-16.
But that idea has had little traction, two of the U.S. officials and a European official said. Another plan involves sending U.S. military pilots to Europe to train the Ukrainians somewhere outside of that country. Still, nothing is off the table, and no final decisions have been made, two of the U.S. officials said.
IT’S WEDNESDAY: 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 @mattberg33.
While you’re at it, follow the rest of POLITICO’s national security team: @nahaltoosi, @PhelimKine, @laraseligman, @connorobrienNH, @paulmcleary, @leehudson, @magmill95, @johnnysaks130, @ErinBanco, @reporterjoe, @JGedeon1 and @ebazaileimil.
TRAIN TAIWAN: Republican presidential candidate VIVEK RAMASWAMY got a standing ovation from attendees at the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting for proposing that the U.S. arm and train every Taiwanese household to defend themselves against China, the Washington Post’s DYLAN WELLS reports.
“You want to stop XI JINPING from invading Taiwan, put a gun in every Taiwanese household!” he exclaimed.
Republicans and Democrats have long pushed to further arm the democratic island ahead of a potential invasion attempt. But NatSec Daily can’t recall a proposal to put guns in the hands of more than 20 million Taiwan residents. It’s unclear how Ramaswamy would distinguish between the households that would resist a Chinese invasion, welcome one, or flee with the U.S.-provided weapon.
Read: Meet ‘Da Vek’: Vivek Ramaswamy’s Eminem-inspired, rap artist alter ego by ALEX ISENSTADT.
AI WARFARE: Artificial intelligence-equipped weapons have made leaps since the war in Ukraine started, a crucial component for Kyiv to fend off Moscow’s larger and better-equipped forces, the Washington Post’s JOHN HUDSON and KOSTIANTYN KHUDOV report.
With drones in particular, advancements in speed, flight range, payload capacity and other areas have been made by Ukrainian troops, likely shaping how and what weapons are used in future conflicts.
“This is a 24/7 technology race,” Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister MYKHAILO FEDOROV told WaPo. “The challenge is that every product in every category must be changed daily to gain an advantage.”
CHINA TO USE AI FOR CYBERATTACKS: FBI Director CHRISTOPHER WRAY said today that China is exploiting AI technologies to step up its widespread hacking campaigns, part of a larger effort by other nation states like Russia and cyber criminals to harness new capabilities, our own MAGGIE MILLER reports (for Pros!).
“We assess AI will enable threat actors to develop increasingly powerful, sophisticated, customizable, and scalable capabilities — and it won’t take them long to do it,” Wray said in a speech at the FBI Atlanta Cyber Threat Summit. “That goes double for China, which as I mentioned earlier has spent years stealing both our innovation and massive troves of data that’s perfect for training machine-learning models.”
Wray warned China is poised to “use the fruits of their widespread hacking to power, with AI, even more powerful hacking efforts.”
CHIPS ON THE TABLE: The Commerce and Defense Departments announced today they are expanding collaborative efforts to invest in the domestic defense semiconductor sector and increasing information sharing between their agencies as they work to implement the CHIPS Act and support U.S. semiconductor production.
Defense and Commerce Department officials framed the announcement as an important move that will ensure better coordination for national security and defense.
“This agreement will enable our teams to coordinate the national security review of applications, produce semiconductor chips in America that our military relies on, and bolster our domestic supply chain resiliency.” MICHAEL SCHMIDT, the director of the CHIPS Program Office at Commerce, said in a statement.
IRAN ENVOY PROBE: The State Department on Friday will brief two top House members following lawmakers’ demands for details about the investigation that led the Biden administration to put its Iran envoy on leave.
The classified briefing will take place Friday at 8:45 a.m., according to a Republican aide. It will be for House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Rep. MIKE McCAUL of Texas and the panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York.
The FBI and Diplomatic Security are looking into whether the envoy, ROB MALLEY, should have access to classified information, people familiar with the issue have told POLITICO. Malley denies any wrongdoing.
‘DEVIL’ IN THE WAY: Rep. TIM BURCHETT (R-Tenn.) wants more intel about UFOs to be declassified, and a House Overnight subcommittee hearing today was a step, he said. But lawmakers apparently had to overcome some dark spirits to get there, Matt reports.
“The devil has been in our way through this thing. We’ve run into roadblocks from members from the intelligence community, the Pentagon,” said Burchett, who has been the subcommittee’s most vocal advocate for investigating UFOs.
More than 110,000 people tuned in to the highly anticipated hearing that featured three former service members who claim they witnessed “unidentified aerial phenomena.” Not much new intel was spilled, with questions focusing on the natsec implications of over-classifying UFOs — and lawmakers accusing the Biden administration of orchestrating a “cover up.”
ZERO TOLERANCE POLICY: Ukrainian President VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY warned Ukrainian officials yesterday that his government will not tolerate corruption in its ranks, as Kyiv once again cracks down on officials and lawmakers suspected of “betrayal” and “personal enrichment,” according to the Financial Times’ CHRISTOPHER MILLER.
“No one will forgive MPs, judges, ‘military commissars’ or any other officials for putting themselves in opposition to the state,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly television address.
Corruption has been a sticking point for Ukraine amid its ongoing war with Russia. NATO Secretary-General JENS STOLTENBERG cited concerns about good governance at last month’s NATO summit as a major reason why the country was not ready to join the alliance. Similar concerns have been raised in Brussels, as Ukraine positions itself to enter the EU, and in Washington amid congressional debates on Ukraine aid packages.
In response, Ukraine’s government has initiated several corruption crackdowns, arresting officials accused of self-dealing and taking bribes, and implementing more oversight measures over military aid from allies.
— Biden tapped Gen. DAVID ALLVIN to be the next chief of staff of the Air Force, our own CONNOR O’BRIEN scooped. Allvin would succeed Gen. C.Q. Brown, who is Biden’s pick to be the next chair of the Joint Chiefs.
— Biden has nominated PAUL MARTIN as USAID’s inspector general and CARDELL RICHARDSON, SR. as State’s inspector general. Martin has been NASA’s IG since 2009 and Richardon is currently the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency IG.
— Cambodian Prime Minister HUN SEN will step down in August, handing the position to his oldest son HUN MANET, the Associated Press’ SOPHENG CHEANG and DAVID RISING report. Manet attended West Point and New York University.
— AYODELE OKEOWO is now director of intergovernmental affairs for CHIPS for America at the Commerce Department. He previously was an intergovernmental affairs adviser for the Internet for All program at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
— KEA MATORY is the chief external relations officer at Purdue Applied Research Institute. She was the director of legislative policy for the National Defense Industrial Association.
— FRANK AUM, The Washington Post: The West has the power to restart dialogue with North Korea
— ELAINE McCUSKER, Military Times: It’s past time to unleash the defense commissaries
— BETO O’ROURKE, The New York Times: One person can end cruelty at the border
— The Atlantic Council and the Women’s Foreign Policy Group, 9 a.m.: Sports diplomacy during war.
— The Center for Strategic and International Studies, 9:30 a.m.: Why Korea matters.
— House Foreign Affairs Oversight and Accountability Subcommittee, 10 a.m.: A failure to plan: examining the Biden administration’s preparation for the Afghanistan withdrawal.
— Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues, 10 a.m.: Haiti: next steps on the international response.
— Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 11:15 a.m.: Safety in numbers: improving cyber capacity building.
— The Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, 12 p.m.: Lessons learned from oversight of war and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
— The Atlantic Council and the New Lines Institute, 1:30 p.m.: Multilateral asset transfer: a proposal to ensure reparations for Ukraine.
— House Foreign Affairs Indo-Pacific Subcommittee, 2 p.m.: Illicit IT: bankrolling KIM JONG UN.
CLARIFICATION: Yesterday’s newsletter was updated to clarify that letters condemning Sen. Tommy Tuberville’s hold on military promotions would be sent to all senators except the Alabama Republican.
Thanks to our editor, Emma Anderson, who no one would ever watch play soccer.
We also thank our producer, Gregory Svirnovskiy, who we consider a “keeper.”