Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of independent Russian military analysts.

Gigantic military trucks are parked within sight of the roads, which have, strangely, remained open to public traffic.

news release to announce the redeployment of the naval landing craft closer to Ukraine, in case anybody was curious. The vessels sailed along rivers and canals connecting the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. The ministry posted pictures.

forces for a possible incursion.

But Mr. Burns said U.S. officials were still trying to determine if the Kremlin was preparing for military action or merely sending a signal.

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U.S. and Allies Plan Fight From Afar Against Al Qaeda Once Troops Exit Afghanistan

Daunting challenges face the American-backed Afghan security forces. Over the past year, they have lost territory from repeated assaults by the Taliban and have relied on U.S. air power to push back the insurgents.

With the Afghan government’s credibility waning, militias — once the main power holders during the days of the Afghan civil war in the 1990s — have rearmed and reappeared, even challenging Afghan security forces in some areas.

“If the president authorizes it, we will still be able to provide some level of military support to the Afghan national security forces after we depart the country,” William H. McRaven, the retired Navy admiral who directed the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, said in an interview on Wednesday.

For the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies, a key issue now is how readily counterterrorism operations can be carried out from beyond Afghanistan. The history of such operations has a decidedly mixed record. Cruise missile strikes launched from distant ships against terrorist targets in Afghanistan have had a low rate of success.

The United States maintains a string of air bases in the Persian Gulf region, as well as in Jordan, and the Pentagon operates a major regional air headquarters in Qatar. But the farther that Special Operations forces have to travel to strike a target, the more likely the operations are to fail, either by missing their mark or resulting in a catastrophic failure that could kill American service members or civilians on the ground, according to officials who have studied the record.

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, meeting with allies of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Brussels on Wednesday, cited the military’s ability to strike terrorist targets in far-flung hot spots “in Africa and other places” where few, if any, troops are stationed, apparently referring to drone strikes and commando raids in Somalia, Yemen and Libya in recent years.

“There’s probably not a space on the globe that the United States and its allies can’t reach,” Mr. Austin told reporters.

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Biden, Setting Afghanistan Withdrawal, Says ‘It Is Time to End the Forever War’

Mr. Bush opted not to publicly second-guess Mr. Biden’s decision.

“As he has maintained since leaving office, President Bush will decline to comment on private phone calls or his successors,” said Freddy Ford, his chief of staff.

A series of Afghan governments have failed to sustain control over vast sections of the country, the essence of the American military’s “clear, hold, build” strategy for years after the initial invasion. While a succession of Afghan leaders, supported by the United States and its allies, promised to fight corruption, end the drug scourge and establish stable governance, all of those gains have proved fragile at best.

Women have taken a more prominent role in the government, and girls have been educated on a scale not seen before the war began. But the future of those gains is in doubt if the Taliban gain more ground.

In a statement on Twitter, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said his country “respects the U.S. decision and we will work with our U.S. partners to ensure a smooth transition.” He added that his country’s security forces were “fully capable of defending its people.”

But in private, Mr. Ghani has fumed about the American decision, according to people who have spoken to him. He fears that it will embolden the Taliban, and give them little to no incentive to stick to the terms of the agreement they reached a year ago with Mr. Trump. And many around Mr. Ghani fear that his own government, already diminished in influence, could fall if the Taliban decide to try to take Kabul, the capital.

“Just because we withdraw from Afghanistan doesn’t mean the war ends,” said Lisa Curtis, a top Trump national security official who dealt with Afghanistan. “It probably gets worse.”

Mr. Biden is the first president to have rejected the Pentagon’s recommendations that any withdrawal be “conditions based,” meaning that security would have to be assured on the ground before Americans pulled back. To do otherwise, military officials have long argued, would be to signal to the Taliban to just wait out the Americans — after which they would face little opposition to taking further control, and perhaps threatening Kabul.

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NATO Is Expected to Confirm Its Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan

BRUSSELS — Now that the United States has decided to pull its troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, NATO’s foreign and defense ministers are meeting to discuss “a safe, deliberate and coordinated withdrawal of our forces from Afghanistan,” the American secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken, said on Wednesday at the alliance’s headquarters.

Ministers from NATO member countries, many of them attending the Wednesday meeting virtually, are expected to formally back the American withdrawal date. The alliance’s mantra has always been “in together and out together,” so the ministers are expected to confirm that their troops will leave alongside the Americans, though some smaller contingents may leave before.

At the moment, of the 9,600 NATO troops officially in Afghanistan, about 2,500 of them are American, though that number can be as many as 1,000 higher. The second-largest contingent is from Germany, with some 1,300 troops.

“We have achieved the goals we set out to achieve,” Mr. Blinken said. “Now it’s time to bring our forces home.”

liberate women, help girls to attend school and shift agriculture away from growing heroin poppies.

After the attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, “Together we went into Afghanistan to deal with those who attacked us and to make sure that Afghanistan would not again become a haven for terrorists who might attack any of us,” Mr. Blinken said. Those goals have been achieved, he asserted.

Some current and former American officials agree that Afghanistan is not expected to emerge as a terrorist threat to the United States in the short term, but they say that the question is more difficult to assess in the long run.

Even as the Atlantic alliance withdraws its troops, Mr. Blinken said, “our commitment to Afghanistan and its future will remain.”

The German defense minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, referring to NATO, told the German television station ARD on Wednesday: “We always said, ‘We’ll go in together, we’ll leave together.’ I am for an orderly withdrawal and that is why I assume that we will agree to that today.”

a buildup of Russian troops at the border with Ukraine, the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, said on Wednesday, appearing alongside Mr. Blinken. “Russia must end this military buildup, stop provocations and de-escalate,” Mr. Stoltenberg said.

a visit to Israel and Germany.

After the gathering, Mr. Blinken will meet with the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, the other members of “the Quad,” to discuss Afghanistan, Ukraine and the continuing talks in Vienna about how to restore the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran.

the blackout at the Natanz nuclear enrichment plant in Iran, which was reportedly the result of an attack by Israel, and by the responses from Tehran, which have included an attack on an Israeli ship and a vow to begin enhancing uranium enrichment from 20 percent to 60 percent, levels banned under the accord and closer to weapons-grade.

The Iranian moves were criticized in a joint statement from the British, French and German foreign ministers on Wednesday.

“This is a serious development since the production of highly enriched uranium constitutes an important step in the production of a nuclear weapon,” the statement said.

The statement called Iran’s moves “particularly regrettable” when the Vienna meetings had made progress. “Iran’s dangerous recent communication is contrary to the constructive spirit and good faith of these discussions,” it noted.

Iran maintains that its nuclear program is purely civilian.

The German Foreign Ministry said that the main topic of the separate meeting of foreign ministers from the Quad would be Afghanistan. Although France pulled its troops out of Afghanistan years ago, the country remains deeply involved in the Iran talks. The Vienna negotiations are trying to bring both the United States and Iran back into compliance with the accord, from which President Donald J. Trump withdrew in May 2018. In response, Iran began to breach enrichment levels, calling its actions “remedial.”

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Italy Expels Russian Envoys Over Accusations of Espionage

Italy expelled two Russian diplomats on accusations of espionage on Wednesday after investigators say they observed an Italian Navy official giving the envoys classified documents in exchange for money.

The Italian official, assigned to a Defense Ministry department dealing with national security and foreign relations, handed over classified documents to a Russian envoy in a Rome parking lot on Tuesday night, the carabinieri, Italy’s national military police, said in a statement. Italy’s intelligence services had raised concern over the officials, investigators said, prompting them to be placed under surveillance.

The two were charged with “serious crimes tied to spying and state security,” the carabinieri said, prompting outrage among lawmakers in Rome and leading Italy’s foreign minister to order the immediate expulsion of the Russian envoy and another diplomat, both military officials.

Investigators said that the Italian official, identified as Capt. Walter Biot, had accepted 5,000 euros, about $5,800, and handed over images of classified documents on a USB stick. Mr. Biot, a 56-year-old expert in fighter jets, had worked in the Defense Ministry’s press office in the past.

reported. But the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told journalists in a conference call that Russia hoped to maintain good relations with Italy despite the incident.

Andrew E. Kramer contributed reporting from Moscow.

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How an Alleged RussianSpyRing Used Cold War Tactics

BURGAS, Bulgaria—In early December, a high-ranking Bulgarian Ministry of Defense official sat down at his desk, took out a black Samsung smartphone and spent the next hour and 20 minutes snapping photographs of classified military documents on his work computer. The photos, allegedly intended for the leader of a Russian spy ring, included sensitive information about F-16 jet fighters, according to video intercepts released by Bulgarian authorities.

“You provided a lot of material last time. Four batches,” the purported ringleader told the official in another intercept. “I saw what you had on the flash drive. Good stuff.”

Last week, authorities in Bulgaria, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, said they broke up a Russian spy ring that was gathering information for Moscow on the NATO military alliance, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, Ukraine, and the conflict in the disputed South Caucasus territory of Nagorno-Karabakh.

Five men and one woman, including the alleged ringleader, were arrested and charged with espionage in what Bulgarian prosecutors call the country’s biggest spy bust since the Cold War.

Russia has used longstanding ties and sympathies with the smaller and more vulnerable members of NATO and the European Union to cultivate spy networks and get access to Western secrets. The intercepts released by prosecutors indicate that in an era of sophisticated cyberspying, Moscow still values human intelligence.

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Blinken’s Welcome by NATO Doesn’t Hide Differences on Key Issues

BRUSSELS — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken sought to smooth alliance feathers ruffled by the previous U.S. administration on a trip to NATO and the European Union this week, but his diplomatic calm did not completely mask deep-seated issues.

Mr. Blinken appeared to hit all the right soothing notes, talking of the American desire to “revitalize the alliance” and consult and coordinate with America’s Western allies “wherever and whenever we can.” He met with the E3 — the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany — and those of the Visegrad Four — Romania, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He met with his Baltic colleagues.

He praised NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who has faced internal criticism for his sometimes awkward efforts to flatter former President Donald J. Trump and keep him from blowing up the alliance with bombastic threats. Mr. Blinken also offered nice words for embattled European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and the bloc’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell Fontelles.

And he scheduled meetings with his Belgian counterpart and a virtual thank-you to the staff of the three American embassies in Brussels.

the troop withdrawal agreement it struck with the Taliban last year is coming due. A decision is coming soon, and “in together, adjust together and, when the time is right, leave together” remains the NATO position, even if it is becoming clearer that the original withdrawal deadline of May 1 is likely to slip by several months.

Mr. Blinken said that he had provided NATO colleagues “the president’s thinking.” But just as important, he insisted, were their views, which he had shared with the White House Tuesday night, he said.

“We will consult with our friends, early and often,’’ he said, describing it as “a change from the past that our allies are already seeing.’’

He gave no indication of when a decision on how many troops to withdraw, and when, might be coming. But it seemed clear that Washington and NATO will want to give time, perhaps as much as six months, for a new effort at getting the Afghan government and the Taliban to reach a power-sharing government. The risk is that after May 1, the originally agreed date for American troops to leave, the Taliban will renew attacks on NATO forces.

China is also an undercurrent of strain. European allies are reluctant to be pushed into an American-led confrontation with China. Those countries, and especially large export-driven economies like Germany, are more dependent on China for trade.

But Mr. Blinken promised that “the United States won’t force our allies into an ‘us-or-them’ choice with China,” despite Beijing’s “coercive behavior,” he said, that “threatens our collective security and prosperity” and its efforts “to undercut the rules of the international system and the values we and our allies share.”

At the same time, Mr. Blinken said, Washington would seek to work with China on issues like climate change and health security, and do the same with Russia, despite its own aggressive actions, on nuclear arms control, “strategic stability” and climate.

And then there is the Nord Stream 2 natural-gas pipeline, a Russia-owned project that will take Russian gas to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and Poland. Mr. Biden has made no secret of his opposition to the pipeline and his intention to follow legal requirements to impose sanctions on any company or institution that aids in its construction.

Mr. Blinken repeated that position to Foreign Minister Heiko Maas of Germany at the start of their bilateral meeting. At the same time, he emphasized that Germany is among America’s most important allies, that the pipeline is “an irritant in an rock-solid alliance,’’ and that Germany has some choices to make.

On Iran, Mr. Blinken insisted that the E3, participants in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, were aligned with Washington in demanding that Iran make the first move to restore compliance with it. Mr. Blinken said that Washington remained open to restart diplomatic talks with the Iranians on nuclear issues, but that “the ball is in their court.’’ Iran has rejected that stance, arguing that the United States abandoned the deal under Mr. Trump, reimposing harsh sanctions, and should remove them first.

Mr. Blinken also encouraged NATO allies to continue to spend more on defense as they have promised, saying that a more modern and adaptable NATO needs more resources. “When our allies shoulder their fair share of the burden, they will have a fair say in the decisions,’’ he said.

But he also had a veiled warning for NATO allies who are regressing in democratic practices, like Hungary, Poland and Turkey. Without naming them, he said, “some of our allies are moving in the wrong direction.” NATO allies must “all speak up when countries take steps that undermine democracy and human rights,’’ he said.

He further warned that to maintain and sustain American support, the alliance must also serve American interests.

“We can’t build a foreign policy that delivers for the American people without maintaining effective alliances,’’ he said. “And we can’t sustain effective alliances without showing how they deliver for the American people.’’

Of course the other 29 countries in the alliance have voters, too. But this week’s visit was about restoration and revival, not open criticism.

As Mr. Stoltenberg said: “We have now a unique opportunity to start a new chapter in the trans-Atlantic relationship,” adding: “Secretary Blinken, Tony, once again welcome to NATO. You are here not just among allies, but also among friends.’’

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Defense Secretary Austin Makes Unannounced Visit to Afghanistan

WASHINGTON—Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan Sunday ahead of a coming deadline for President Biden to draw down U.S. troops in America’s longest war.

The Pentagon said Mr. Austin met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani along with U.S. military and diplomatic leaders in the country as part of the visit, the first by a top Biden administration official and amid the latest efforts by the U.S. and international powers to end the two-decade war.

U.S. officials haven’t said whether they will meet a May 1 deadline for departing Afghanistan, set under the Trump administration as part of talks with leaders of the insurgent Taliban movement. But Biden administration officials have indicated repeatedly that removing troops by then will be difficult, given the levels of continued violence.

The U.S. is part of a multi-prong international effort seeking to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for extremist groups, drug smuggling or other forms of instability to the region.

The future of the Afghan conflict also will be a key subject for U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken later this week at a meeting in Brussels of foreign ministers from North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries.

“We went in together. We will adjust together as we have over the years. And when the time is right, we will leave together,” Philip Reeker, acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters last week.

America’s Longest War

The talks about the long-running Afghanistan war are the latest foreign policy challenge for the Biden administration. Mr. Blinken and White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan clashed with Chinese counterparts over a range of issues during meetings last week in Alaska.

Earlier last week, Russia recalled its U.S. ambassador in a signal of unhappiness over critical remarks by Mr. Biden and the release of a U.S. intelligence assessment blaming Russian President Vladimir Putin for seeking to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election.

During a previously scheduled Afghan peace conference hosted by Moscow last week, four nations—including the U.S., China, Russia and Pakistan—called on the Taliban to reduce violence and begin talks for a power-sharing deal with the U.S.-backed Afghan government, led by Mr. Ghani.

In addition, the Ghani government has agreed to attend a U.S.-proposed international peace conference in Istanbul next month that will include Taliban representatives. Those talks are aimed at carving out a power-sharing government between the Taliban and Kabul.

“There’s always going to be concerns about things one way or the other, but I think there is a lot of energy focused on doing what is necessary to bring about a responsible end and a negotiated settlement to the war,” Mr. Austin told reporters traveling with him before arriving Sunday in Kabul.

There are at least 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan and 6,500 NATO troops, and those allies have said they would depend on U.S. logistical support to withdraw troops.

The Trump administration last year agreed to draw down the remaining American troops in Afghanistan by May 1 as part of a deal with the Taliban. But amid fears that the withdrawal could lead to rising violence and the restoration of an Islamic emirate under the Taliban, the Biden administration has said it hasn’t made any final decision on withdrawing troops.

In an interview last week with ABC News, Mr. Biden hinted that the U.S. and allied troops could stay. Asked whether the withdrawal would take place, Mr. Biden said, “It could happen, but it is tough.” He added that if the withdrawal deadline is extended, it won’t be by “a lot longer.”

The unannounced stop in Afghanistan marked the end of Mr. Austin’s first international trip as defense chief, which included stops in Japan, South Korea and India.

While in New Delhi, Mr. Austin met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Indian national security adviser Ajit Doval and his Indian counterpart, Rajnath Singh, in a bid to deepen defense ties between the two countries, in a bid to counter a more aggressive China.

The two countries signed agreements to allow sharing of encrypted military intelligence and geospatial data, and using each other’s bases for security forces to replenish materiel and fuel.

In Doha, Qatar, U.S. and Taliban leaders signed a deal that aims to end years of fighting. Photo: Hussein Sayed/Associated Press

Write to Nancy A. Youssef at and Ken Thomas at

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

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Boris Johnson Pins UK Future on US Ties, as European Bonds Loosen

LONDON — Having cast off from the European Union, Britain wants to bind itself closer to the United States in a perilous world, according to a long-awaited blueprint for its post-Brexit foreign policy, released on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson presented the document — which grew out of a lengthy review of security, defense, development and foreign policies — as an argument for how Britain will stay relevant globally. One way, he said, is to help the Biden administration face down challenges from Russia and China.

“In all our endeavors, the United States will be our greatest ally and a uniquely close partner in defense, intelligence and security,” Mr. Johnson said in Parliament. “We will stand up for our values as well as for our interests.”

The prime minister and his allies have long argued that Brexit would liberate Britain to act as an agile maritime power on the world stage — a concept they called “Global Britain,” in language more suited to marketing than diplomacy. This 100-page report was an effort to put some meat on the concept.

a diplomatic backlash.

“It is structurally inevitable, given our other relationships, that we should turn to America,” said Simon Fraser, a former head of Britain’s Foreign Office. “For Biden, that is a big opportunity.” Still, he added, the review was a “serious effort to think through the risks and opportunities.”

Critics said some of Mr. Johnson’s initiatives seemed grandiose for a country that is now essentially a midsize power off the coast of Europe. The deployment of the carrier to Asia, for example, harkens to Britain’s imperial past, as does the government’s emphasis on rebuilding its presence in the Indo-Pacific region.

The prime minister took note of that criticism, insisting, “Global Britain is not a reflection of old obligations, still less a vainglorious gesture, but a necessity for the safety and prosperity of the British people in the decades ahead.”

abandoned by the United States after former President Donald J. Trump took office.

The transition from Mr. Trump to President Biden had once seemed fraught with risk for Britain. Unlike Mr. Trump, Mr. Biden opposed Brexit and has displayed little interest in pursuing a trade agreement with Britain. Mr. Trump had dangled a trade deal with the United States as a reward for Brexit.

But Mr. Johnson has worked hard to cultivate Mr. Biden, announcing policies on climate change and global health, as well as military spending, which dovetail with the priorities of the new president.

In November, Britain will play host to the United Nations’ climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland. That is expected to give Mr. Biden a stage to showcase the renewed American commitment to the Paris climate accord. Britain’s military spending is a fillip to NATO at a time when Mr. Biden also hopes to shore up the alliance.

But there are still places where Britain and the United States could part company. The lack of emphasis on Britain’s relationship with the European Union will disappoint some in the Biden administration, who are trying to revive international cooperation after the unilateral approach of the Trump years.

Britain’s decision to expand its nuclear arsenal may also cause tensions. In its last defense review in 2015, the government disclosed the numbers of missiles and warheads that it planned to carry on submarines. In this review, Britain said it would no longer give numbers for its operational stockpile.

“The decision to reduce the level of transparency on the U.K. nuclear stockpile will not go down well with U.S. officials who want to signal an openness to more progress on nuclear disarmament,” said Malcolm Chalmers, the deputy director general of the Royal United Services Institute, a think tank in London. “The U.K. decision on this would have been easier to sell to the Trump administration.”

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