Fighting intensifies in Ukraine; USSOF have been doing 12 raids a day; ISIS shifts pitch from utopia to all-out war; Why the US finally accused N. Korea of cyber attack; and just a bit more...

President Trump has approved (some) lethal weapons for the conflict in Ukraine, the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported Wednesday, writing “The move was heavily supported by top Trump national security Cabinet officials and Congress but may complicate President Trump’s stated ambition to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin.”

Weapons involved: "Model M107A1 Sniper Systems, ammunition, and associated parts and accessories" at a value of $41.5 million.

Worth noting: “There has been no approval to export the heavier weapons the Ukrainian government is asking for, such as Javelin antitank missiles.”

Said Rand Corp analyst Samuel Charap: “The way it was not rolled out tells you something, that they are concerned about the perception of this. They are not trumpeting this as a major policy shift or signature policy priority.” Read on, here.

While you were sleeping: “The war in rebel-held eastern Ukraine has escalated sharply this week, with the heaviest fighting in nearly a year,” The New York Times reports this morning from Moscow. See some images of the shelling targets via the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, here.

“The fighting broke out in the midst of a snowstorm overnight Tuesday and has continued unabated since, the observers say. While skirmishes are common, the heavy artillery barrages have been the thickest since a flare-up in February. Ukrainian authorities linked the escalation to the Russian military's decision to withdraw officers from a joint Russian and Ukrainian liaison group that had assisted in monitoring the shaky cease-fire deal, known as the Minsk 2 agreement.”

Russia’s foreign ministry blamed Ukraine for intimidating that now-departed Moscow contingent, saying ''all responsibility for possible consequences lies fully on the Ukrainian side.''

President Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, called the overnight shelling Tuesday  ''one of the most violent nights'' of the war.

From Defense One

Here's Why the Trump Administration Called Out North Korea's Cyberattacks // Joseph Marks: The attribution announcement made three big arguments and North Korea's culpability was only one of them.

Pentagon Full Steam Ahead with Major Cloud Acquisition // Frank Konkel: Despite industry criticism, the agency clarified its aggressive cloud strategy will continue as planned.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson. Email us. And if you don’t subscribe already, consider subscribing. It’s free. OTD1970: First flight of the F-14 Tomcat. (Video.)

For the fourth time this year, a North Korean soldier has defected to the South, and we got one of our first indications of that last night when Yonhap News agency reported South Korean soldiers had fired some 20 warning shots at Pyongyang troops looking for a possible defector. This morning The New York Times writes that a “‘low ranking’ soldier was manning a guard post along the DMZ when he fled through thick fog,” according to South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"The soldier who fled Thursday was not fired upon," the Times adds. "South Korean soldiers later fired 20 warning shots at North Korean border guards who were searching for the defector, which was followed 40 minutes later by gunfire in the North."
Related reading: Japanese officials are having a hard time returning the remains of dead North Korean sailors found adrift on shores, Japan Times reported Wednesday. “The number of vessels that have been found washed up on the coast or drifting in the Sea of Japan, which separates Japan from the Korean Peninsula, stood at 89 this year as of last Friday, topping the highest annual figure since comparable data became available in 2013, according to the Japan Coast Guard. Bodies found in or near the boats totaled 25.” Read on, here.

BTW: South Korea plans to add 20 F-35As to their plan to purchase 40 of the fifth-generation aircraft, Reuters reports in a short hit here.
And Russia has reportedly upgraded its air defenses — from S-300s to S-400s — in its Primorsky territory, near the Korean peninsula, National Interest reported Wednesday.

U.S. special forces in Afghanistan conducted an average of 12 raids each day between June 1 and November 24 — for a total of 2,175 ground operations, Bloomberg reports off the Pentagon’s most recent biannual status report to Congress, released December 15. More data from that report, via Bloomberg:

  • 420 ground operations as well as 214 airstrikes against Islamic State forces, resulting in more than 174 killed. One of these was Abu Sayed, the head of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria-Khorasan, in a strike on the group’s headquarters in Kunar province on July 11, Dana W. White, the Pentagon’s chief spokeswoman, said in a statement at the time;
  • 1,644 ground operations and 181 airstrikes against the Taliban, resulting in 220 killed;
  • 68 ground operations and 28 airstrikes against members of the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani Network, with 34 killed;
  • 43 ground operations against other insurgent networks with 36 killed.

Also inside the Pentagon report: Not one, but two estimates of civilian casualties. “From June 1, 2017, to November 27, 2017, the [Resolute Support Civilian Casualty Mitigation Team] documented more than 4,474 civilian casualties, of which approximately one-third were deaths and two-thirds were injuries. This represents an approximately 13 percent increase compared to the same time one year ago.”
And the second estimate, from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan put the figures at "8,019 civilian casualties, of which 2,640 civilians were killed and 5,379 civilians were wounded, a 6 percent decrease from the same three-month time period the previous year... While CCMT and UNAMA report differing numbers due to different collection methodology, both sources attribute the largest portion of civilian casualties to the actions of insurgents.” Read the rest of Bloomberg’s report, here. Or check out the full report for yourself over here.

The Islamic State’s propaganda machine has shifted from visions of utopia to all-out war rhetoric as the group has shifted into a survival mode, terrorism scholar Charlie Winter writes in a new report in Wired.
The short read: “The Islamic State was framed as a place you could go to live and thrive, not just somewhere to die as a martyr. Fast forward two and a half years, and the brand had transformed to become distinctly less appealing. Today, depictions of the caliphate ‘utopia’ have all but evaporated and no less than 92 percent of its propaganda revolves around war, and war alone.” Much more to Winter’s analysis — supported by charts and more data — here.

Now that Iraq’s war on ISIS is officially over, Shiite militias that helped defeat the group (and which are backed by Iran) are gunning for a seat in the parliament after upcoming elections in the spring, The Wall Street Journal reports from Baghdad. "The militias—known collectively as the Hashd al-Shaabi, or Popular Mobilization Forces... now have about 140,000 members... Many are skeptical of the militias’ intentions, despite recent vows by commanders to disown their armed followers." Story, here.

Retaliatory strike in Yemen kills 11 civilians. The Saudi-led coalition carried out airstrikes in north Yemen Wednesday in response to the Houthi rebels firing another ballistic missile toward Riyadh on December 19. “The Saudi-led strikes killed 11 civilians in the Huthi stronghold of Saada, a tribal chief and witnesses said,” Agence France-Presse reported Wednesday. “The pro-Huthi television channel Al-Masirah gave the same death toll and added that women and children were among those killed, while 19 people were wounded. Witnesses and a security source said other coalition air raids targeted a rebel camp south of Sanaa and a second camp to the west.”

CENTCOM flagged some of its work in Yemen for 2017 in a long release on Wednesday. Inside, we were reminded several leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula have been killed by U.S. attacks this year. Those include: Mujahid al-Adani, AQAP Shabwah leader, whose death was previously announced; Abu Layth al-Sanaani, Al-Bayda governorate AQAP facilitator, whose death was also announced before; Ruwahah al-Sanaani, also a facilitator; and Ubaydah al-Lawdari, emir of Lawdar district. More from The Hill, here.

And finally today: a #LongRead in defense of democratic values. Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell calls this read “the first piece that I have seen that offers a comprehensive game plan for how we defend our democracy from Putin’s attacks.” The prescribed six steps include:

  1. First, the strength and security of democracy must be understood as a national-security issue, and we must resume treating it as such.
  2. Second, we need a coordinated approach to dealing with these challenges both within the United States and with its democratic partners and allies around the world.
  3. Third, we need to take steps to strengthen ourselves so we are less vulnerable to interference in the first place.
  4. Fourth, government action alone is not enough, and technology companies have an especially important role to play. Read on for five and six, here.