WASHINGTON ― A key Russia expert and two other defense experts are being blocked from joining the Pentagon by GOP Sen. Josh Hawley, as the Biden administration struggles to solve the deepening Russia-Ukraine crisis and deploys thousands of U.S. troops to bolster European allies.
Hawley’s move on Thursday drags out the confirmation process for the National Security Council’s former Russia director and former U.S. Russia Foundation CEO Celeste Wallander, who is President Joe Biden’s nominee for assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Hawley’s objection to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s request to confirm Wallander sparked Senate floor drama, as Shaheen hammered Hawley’s tactics for “making us less secure.”
The delay for Wallander leaves a key Pentagon role unfilled amid heightened alarm about the prospect of Russia, which has amassed 100,000 troops near Ukraine, launching an invasion. A tripwire force of roughly 3,000 American troops is deploying to NATO countries to reassure allies, with another 8,500 on high alert to deploy if NATO’s 40,000-person response force is activated.
There’s been bipartisan criticism over Hawley blocking swaths of Biden’s foreign policy picks in recent months. After saying for weeks his blockade is aimed at pressing Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other top officials to resign over the administration’s chaotic Afghanistan exit last year, Hawley said Thursday he would relent if there are further public hearings on the withdrawal.
At about 11:30 a.m., Shaheen, D-N.H., requested unanimous consent to confirm Wallander; Melissa Dalton, who is the nominee for assistant secretary for homeland defense and global security; and David Honey, the nominee for deputy undersecretary for research and engineering. Shaheen argued that Dalton’s confirmation would be key to fighting cyberattacks, while Honey would aid in the Pentagon’s technology race with China.
Hawley objected, pointing to a U.S. Army probe of the Afghanistan withdrawal, reported by The Washington Post, that found the White House and State Department were too late in reacting to the Taliban’s final offensive. He also criticized the Biden administration’s objections to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany as too weak.
“The answer is there’s been no accountability, no one has been relieved of duty, no one has been shown the door,” said Hawley, of Missouri. “Now this administration has bumbled to the brink of another foreign policy crisis that they have helped create, having denied Ukraine military aid, lethal aid when it asked for it last spring, having stuffed dollars in [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s pockets by greenlighting the Nord Stream 2 energy pipeline.”
In response, Shaheen accused Hawley, who is said to be eyeing a 2024 presidential bid, of “trying to use the Senate process for his own personal ambitions” and in the process, “making us less secure.” She objected to Biden’s Afghanistan withdrawal plans and backed a commission to study the Afghanistan War, she said, but that was beside the point with the Ukraine crisis looming.
“He’s complaining about the problems we have with Russia-Ukraine, and he’s making it worse because he’s not willing to allow those nominees who can help with that problem to go forward,” she said. “He sits on the Armed Services Committee with me where he has access to the same information about our pressing national security challenges. And yet he’s holding up these nominees, he’s disregarding the threats that we face because he’d rather stand here and grandstand on Afghanistan.”
Hawley has supported sending U.S. aid to Ukraine but argued that focusing on Russia detracts from a more pressing challenge from China. After he called on the Biden administration to abandon support for Ukraine’s eventual admission to NATO, White House press secretary Jen Psaki last week accused him and likeminded conservatives of “parroting Russian talking points.”
Along similar lines, Shaheen said Hawley’s view that Russia poses more of a threat to Europe than the U.S. is “disturbing and shockingly uninformed” given Russia’s attempts to subvert democratic institutions in the U.S., and she said Hawley’s “stated sentiments are just what Vladimir Putin wants.” Shaheen also noted that America’s NATO allies came to its aid after Sept. 11, 2001.
“When the United States got attacked in 2001 ― and maybe he doesn’t remember 9/11 because he was too young ― the countries that came to our aid were our NATO allies,” Shaheen, who is 75, said of Hawley, who is 42.
There was some foreshadowing at Wallander’s Jan. 13 confirmation hearing, where Hawley voiced disagreement with her support for sending U.S. troops to bolster NATO’s eastern border and her support for Ukraine’s eventual NATO membership. To Hawley’s suggestion that cutting U.S. force levels in Europe would spur NATO allies to invest more in their own defense, Wallander seemed skeptical.
“As we face a heightened threat from Russia, this would not be the moment to put a reduction in American commitment to NATO on the table,” Wallander said at the time. “What I would favor, if confirmed, is looking at how the United States can provide some of its advantages in enablers and weapons systems in security cooperation with allies to ensure that we are properly resourcing the requirements in the Indo-Pacific, as you rightly point to, and yet sustaining defense and deterrence against Russia.”
Despite the holds, the Senate has confirmed several otherwise noncontroversial Biden nominees to the Pentagon in recent days.
On Wednesday, the Senate confirmed Douglas Bush, a former lead House Armed Services Committee staffer, to be the Army’s acquisition chief; Sasha Baker, a former adviser to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to be deputy undersecretary of defense for policy; and John Coffey to be the the Navy’s general counsel.
A week earlier, the Senate confirmed Andrew Hunter, a former director of the Pentagon’s Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, to be Air Force acquisition chief, and Gabriel Camarillo to be Army undersecretary.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.