Today's D Brief: Ukraine, Russia escalate; Chinese fishing boats, unwanted; Small carrier, unneeded?; Lessons from Suez; And a bit more.

Ukraine says Russia is massing troops on its border, and “pro-Moscow separatists were systematically violating a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine,” Reuters reports from Moscow — the same day Kiev’s parliament officially declared an “escalation” in the east.

Just now catching up? “The war in eastern Ukraine...has escalated sharply in recent days,” the New York Times’ Andrew Kramer reported Tuesday from Moscow. “[F]our Ukrainian soldiers were killed and another seriously wounded in a battle against Russian-backed separatists in the Donetsk Region,” Kramer writes. 

What’s more, “the U.S. military’s European Command raised its watch level from possible crisis to potential imminent crisis — the highest level — in response to the deployment of the additional Russian troops.” New equipment has been seen among the Russian-backed rebels, too; artillery fire has increased as well. “And Russian negotiators have warned of a breakdown in peace talks that have been dragging on for years,” the Times reports. 

Russia’s reax: Point the finger at Kiev. “We express concern over the growing tension and express concern that one way or another the Ukrainian side could take provocative actions that would lead to war. We really don’t want to see that,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said today from the Russian capital. 

Russian hackers are believed to have snatched more State Department emails in a breach that happened last year at the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs and Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Politico reports.

ICYMI: Suspected Russian hackers accessed former Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf’s emails last year, too, the Associated Press reported Monday.  

And on the U.S. side, cyber defense is getting more difficult: “Staffers are worn out, money is tight and the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency is struggling to keep up with multiple competing crises, including the recently uncovered intrusions blamed on Russia and China,” Politico reported separately Tuesday.

One more Russian thing: A new report from Brookings says the U.S. military should anticipate “encounters” with Russian private military contractors in the field. “PMCs allow the Russian government to operate in places where it could not openly do so — at least not without drawing international retribution or sanctions. The Department of Defense (DoD) and U.S. military leaders must plan for this increased PMC presence. What measures must be taken to protect American forces and safeguard U.S. interests? And what procedures could the U.S. military implement to effectively counter PMC operations in certain countries around the world?” Some ideas, here.

PMCs in the CAR: “Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group, a private military contractor, have committed human rights abuses in the Central African Republic while fighting alongside government forces, according to a group of independent UN experts,” The Guardian reports. “The country has been racked by a renewed bout of civil war since an alliance of rebel factions launched an offensive.” More, here

  • And don’t miss our podcast from last year on Russian PMCs, over here

From Defense One

New Small Aircraft Carrier Unlikely, Admiral Says As US Navy Begins New Assessment // Marcus Weisgerber: Air warfare chief: “I believe the L-class ships operating with the F-35B fit that bill.”

A US Ambassador Ends His Service on the Front Lines in Syria // William Roebuck: Reflections on U.S. foreign policy in a wartorn state.

The Suez Grounding Was an Accident. The Next Blocked Chokepoint Might Not Be. // Scott Savitz: Military planners must bear in mind the tactic of blockships.

Here’s How Russia and China Are Helping the U.S. // Yasmeen Serhan, The Atlantic: Beijing and Moscow are filling the vaccine gap that wealthy countries helped create.

America’s Immigration Amnesia // Caitlin Dickerson, The Atlantic: Despite recurrent claims of crisis at the border, the United States still does not have a coherent immigration policy.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Send us tips from your community right here. And if you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1945, German test pilot Hans Fay defected to the Allies — but only when he learned his parent’s hometown of Lachenspeyerdorf was under U.S. control — and landed his Messerschmitt Me 262 A-1 jet fighter at Frankfurt/Rhein-Main Airfield. The Allies would have another 16 months to learn about its design before an Army Air Corps pilot crashed it after an engine caught fire during a test flight over Ohio in August the following year. 

Japan, South Korea security officials are headed to Annapolis. President Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will welcome his counterparts from Tokyo and Seoul to a “Trilateral National Security Advisors’ Dialogue” on Friday at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. The meeting comes on the heels of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s first overseas trip to both countries about two weeks ago.
Attending: Japan’s National Security Secretariat Secretary General Shigeru Kitamura, and South Korea’s National Security Advisor Suh Hoon.
Topics of discussion include “maintaining peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, and combating climate change...reflecting the importance we place on broadening and deepening our cooperation on key issues and advancing our shared prosperity across a free and open Indo-Pacific,” National Security Council Spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement Tuesday evening. 

Hundreds of Chinese fishing ships are ignoring Philippine requests (Reuters) to leave its 200-mile exclusive economic zone while they allegedly wait out a storm near the contested Whitsun Reef, where some 220 boats have been fishing against Manila’s wishes for the past several weeks.
About this place: “The reef, which Manila calls Julian Felipe, is a boomerang-shaped and shallow coral region about 175 nautical miles (324 kilometers) west of Bataraza town in the western Philippine province of Palawan,” AP reported 10 days ago.
About that storm: It’s hard to find, judging by video from the location in question, Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies points out on Twitter.
The Philippines’ defense chief says he’s deployed his air force to monitor the ships, and he’s requested China order the fishing vessels out of Manila’s EEZ, he said this weekend (al-Jazeera). “We are ready to defend our national sovereignty and protect the marine resources of the Philippines,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Saturday.
Stern talk: “Neither the Philippines nor the international community will ever accept China’s assertion of its so-called ‘indisputable integrated sovereignty’ over almost all of the South China Sea,” the Philippines’ task force on the South China Sea said in a statement today, according to Reuters, which called it Manila’s “strongest [statement] since President Rodrigo Duterte took power in 2016 and sought to befriend Beijing.” Read on, here.

“France immediately rejected” a UN report accusing Paris of killing 16 civilians at a wedding in Mali back in January, Reuters reports.
According to the UN, “a wedding celebration was held that brought together about 100 civilians at the site of the strike, among whom five armed individuals, presumed members of [alleged regional al-Qaeda affiliate] Katiba Serma, were present.” The strike is believed to have killed 19 people at that wedding, including three accused members of Katiba Serma.
According to the French military, “The only concrete sources on which this report is based are local testimonies. They are never transcribed, the identity of the witnesses is never specified, nor the conditions in which the testimonies were gathered...It is therefore impossible to distinguish credible sources from false testimonies by possible terrorist sympathisers or individuals under the influence (including threats) from jihadist groups.”
Quick background, via Reuters: “France has been embroiled in Mali’s conflict since 2013, when it intervened to push back Islamist militants who were advancing south after seizing the desert north. The conflict has since spread to neighbouring countries in the West African Sahel region like Burkina Faso and Niger, leading to rising criticism of French forces from local activists and some politicians.” More here.

The U.S. just pledged almost $600 million for Syrian refugees, America’s Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield announced Tuesday. That could help a “U.N.-coordinated effort [that] is seeking some $4.2 billion to help Syrians inside the country and $5.8 billion for countries hosting refugees,” the Wall Street Journal reports

Some of the alleged Capitol insurrectionists are now coming on hard times, and some are even apparently a bit sorry for stoking and participating in that insurrection on Jan. 6.
“Among the rude awakenings: No plea deals yet, though they may be in the works,” the Associated Press reports. “Given it was an attack on what many regard as the citadel of American democracy, the sentiment among prosecutors, judges and the public at large, at least for now, isn’t exactly lenient.” More — including a possible defense invoking “the psychology of crowds” — here.