India, Pakistan exchange fire; Trump, Kim share dinner, laughs; No military threat on border, says NORTHCOM; STRATCOM on New START; And a bit more.

India and Pakistan claim to have shot down each other's warplanes, and now the two nuclear-armed countries’ leaders are kinda-sorta looking for ways to save face before stumbling into greater conflict.

What’s going on: Pakistan’s airspace is closed and an Indian pilot is in Pakistani custody after his MiG-21 was shot down during cross-border airstrikes against jihadists. India says it shot down a Pakistani jet carrying out retaliatory airstrikes intended as a show of force, but Pakistan denies it lost any aircraft. And this all came after overnight artillery fire by both sides along the Kashmir Line of Control, according to the Indian foreign ministry and this purported video at the LOC.

The larger situation: “Tension has been running high since a suicide car bombing by Pakistan-based militants in Indian-controlled Kashmir killed at least 40 Indian paramilitary police on Feb. 14,” Reuters writes, “but the risk of conflict rose dramatically on Tuesday when India launched an airstrike on what it said was a militant training base… A senior Indian government source said that 300 militants were killed in Tuesday’s strike. Pakistan says no one was killed.”

Worth noting: India’s crossborder strikes on the alleged Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) locations were the “first on Pakistani soil since the neighbours fought a war in 1971 — when neither had nuclear weapons,” Agence France-Presse writes.

Also: India’s national elections are about three months away.

Said a Pakistani military spox of their own show-of-force strikes: “This was not a retaliation in true sense, but to tell Pakistan has capability, we can do it, but we want to be responsible, we don’t want an escalation, we don’t want a war.”

Brandishing social media in wartime. The alleged captured pilot was shown in a video from Pakistan’s official government Twitter account this morning. In it, we see his “face is bloodied and blindfolded,” Reuters writes of the scene, and he “gives his name and service number, before telling a man questioning him: ‘I’m sorry sir, that’s all I’m supposed to tell you.’”

About those leaders: "History tells us that wars are full of miscalculation. My question is that, given the weapons we have, can we afford miscalculation. We should sit down and talk," warned Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in an address televised nationally.

What a 21st-century demarching looks like: This from New Delhi’s Foreign Ministry; it was presented about an hour ago. An excerpt: “It was clearly conveyed that India reserves the right to take firm and decisive action to protect its national security, sovereignty and territorial integrity against any act of aggression or cross-border terrorism. India also strongly objected to Pakistan’s vulgar display of an injured personnel of the Indian Air Force in violation of all norms of International Humanitarian Law and the Geneva Convention. It was made clear that Pakistan would be well advised to ensure that no harm comes to the Indian defence personnel in its custody. India also expects his immediate and safe return.” Read it in full, here.

Cautions Vipin Narang of MIT: “Modi overshot the upper limit of what Pakistan would take by hitting in KPK and forced Pakistan’s hand. Neither side wants a war but with this spiraling neither side wants to back down. This is getting ugly quickly. Need off-ramps and now.”

Where is the U.S. — either the State Department or the Pentagon? Monitoring and staying in touch, as each wrote in a public statement Tuesday, with “the priority of de-escalating current tensions” for Foggy Bottom, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford’s check-in phone call with his Pakistani counterpart, per Reuters’ Idrees Ali’s reporting.

Here’s one big picture consideration from Ankit Panda: “With the end of INF, the release of the MDR, and Putin's celebration of new Russian strategic systems—and now with India-Pakistan tensions and a North Korea summit—last 60 days really feel like a collision between what may be the tail-end of the 2nd nuclear age and the new 3rd.”

And if you’d like to learn a bit more about that so-called “second nuclear age,” The Atlantic’s Uri Friedman told us all about it in episode 34 of Defense One Radio, Averting War with North Korea.

From Defense One

No Military Threat on Southern US Border, Says NORTHCOM Commander // Marcus Weisgerber: But the head of Northern Command says barriers have “some ramifications” for national security.

Top Nuke General: Russia Is Exploiting Gaps In Key Arms-Control Treaty // Patrick Tucker: The leader of U.S. Strategic Command sees New START as vital, flawed, and in danger.

What to Watch as Trump-Kim II Gets Underway // Paulina Glass: Let's review how we got here — and why some observers say the stakes are even higher this time around.

Why Withdrawing from Syria and Afghanistan Won’t Save Much Money // Rick Berger: The president’s desired troop drawdowns aren’t even penny-wise, and they’re probably pound-foolish.

Microsoft Stands By Its $480 Million Pentagon Contract // Jack Corrigan, Nextgov: The company reaffirmed its commitment to provide the Army with augmented reality headsets despite resistance from employees.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Thanks for reading! And if you’re not subscribed, you can do that here. On this day four years ago, “Dozens of pro-Russia gunmen seized government buildings in Ukraine’s Crimea region, which houses Russia’s Black Sea fleet, and hoisted a Russian flag,” The Guardian reported on that day.

Trump-Kim Summit: The two leaders had an apparently friendly dinner ahead of the formal talks due to take place on Thursday.
Not invited: the press, according to Bloomberg’s Laura Litvan: “WH banned reporters from Bloomberg, AP, Reuters & LA Times from covering the Trump-Kim dinner. Sarah Sanders said due to ‘sensitivities over shouted questions in the previous sprays.’”

NORTHCOM: No military threat coming at the U.S. southern border. That’s what Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy told Congress Tuesday. As leader of U.S. Northern Command, O’Shaughnessy is in charge of defending the United States from foreign attacks. The general instead pointed to “very real” military threats from Russia and China. D1’s Marcus Weisgerber reports.
Reminder: More than 5,000 military troops are deployed to in support of federal law enforcement along the border.  
Border votes: "There are nine congressional districts that encompass the land along the U.S.-Mexico border. None of the nine representatives voted to sustain President Trump's 'national emergency' declaration," University of Texas Law Professor Steve Vladeck noted Tuesday evening.

Today in nothing-to-see-here news. Defense One’s Patrick Tucker noticed that on Friday, assailants broke into the North Korean embassy in Madrid "tied [up] the staff," and stayed four hours before making off with computers. That’s according to Spanish newspaper El Confidencial.  
Responded Spain’s Ministry of Interior: "We do not have time to talk, we leave it at that.”

For the record: via the Wall Street Journal’s Nancy Youssef, “Examples so far this week where DoD refused to release once public information:

  1. SECDEF domestic travel (to El Paso),
  2. Number of troops to stay in Syria.
  3. Naval flag officers nominated for promotion.
  4. Ship movements.
  5. How it has advised WH on nat emergency.”

Trump’s former personal lawyer: POTUS45 pursued a real-estate deal in Moscow after taking office. In a written statement given to the New York Times ahead of his expected testimony before the House Oversight and Reform Committee later today, Michael Cohen says that Donald Trump:

  • Continued to seek a Russian real-estate deal after he took office. “I lied to Congress about when Mr. Trump stopped negotiating the Moscow Tower project in Russia. I stated that we stopped negotiating in January 2016. That was false – our negotiations continued for months later during the campaign.”
  • Knew in advance about the Wikileaks dump of stolen Democratic National Committee emails.
  • Knew in advance about his son’s June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians about “dirt on Hillary.”

Watch: Cohen’s testimony began at 10 a.m., live-streamed on the committee’s YouTube channel, here.

The Pentagon cut off a Russian troll farm’s Internet access during the 2018 election, the Washington Post reported Wednesday. The Kremlin-connected Internet Research Agency, which special counsel Robert Mueller has charged with interfering in the 2016 election, employs hundreds of people to create and spread extreme messages at the far ends of the political spectrum,” as NBC News put it.
According to the Post: “The operation marked the first muscle-flexing by U.S. Cyber Command, with intelligence from the National Security Agency, under new authorities it was granted by President Trump and Congress last year to bolster offensive capabilities. The president approved of the general operation to prevent Russian interference in the midterms, officials said.” Read on, here.

And finally this morning: A rare glimpse inside the Taliban. A CNN reporting team spent a day and a half with Taliban fighters in and around Mazar-e Sharif: “Our 36 hours with them provided an extraordinary window into a desolate world frozen in time. We found few indications that the militant group’s insular and austere ideology has changed. At times, as foreign women, our presence was incredibly uncomfortable. But, as peace talks in Qatar with the US gather momentum, the Taliban believes that victory is within its grasp and, perhaps as a result, there are signs the group is showing greater pragmatism.” Read and/or watch, here.