Today's D Brief: The problem with Belarus; Russia not invading Ukraine, Russia says; Qatar reps US in Afghanistan; And a bit more.

All eyes on eastern Europe. Turkey just banned travelers from Iraq, Syria, and Yemen who are trying to fly to Minsk, Belarus. That’s according to Ankara’s Civil Aviation General Directorate, which cited “the illegal border crossing problem between the European Union and Belarus” as the reason for the policy change. That means citizens from those three countries are “not to be sold tickets and not to be allowed on planes,” the directorate tweeted in English on Friday morning. 

Iraqi officials also joined in, announcing this week that it would soon begin “repatriation flights to bring back Iraqi citizens who wanted to return,” the New York Times reports.

Why now? There are reportedly at least 3,000 migrants stuck between the Belarus-Polish border. And “The Polish Border Guard said on Friday on Twitter there had been 223 attempts to illegally cross the border on Thursday,” Reuters reports from Warsaw.

NATO officials even chimed in on the tensions with Belarus, saying in a statement Friday that its North Atlantic Council “strongly condemns the continued instrumentalisation of irregular migration artificially created by Belarus as part of hybrid actions targeted against Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia for political purposes.”

“These callous actions endanger the lives of vulnerable people,” the alliance continued in its statement, and said that its members “call on Belarus to cease these actions, to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to abide by international law.”

And amid all this, the U.S. has been warning Russia could attempt to invade Ukraine since Moscow has kept equipment in place in Yelnya, about 160 miles from Ukraine, after a recent exercise, puzzling observers and officials like U.S. State Secretary Antony Blinken. “Our concern is that Russia may make the serious mistake of attempting to rehash what it undertook back in 2014 when it amassed forces along the border, crossed into sovereign Ukrainian territory, and did so claiming falsely that it was provoked,” Blinken said in a press conference beside his Ukrainian counterpart, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, in Washington on Wednesday.

For the record, Russia denied a new attempt to invade Ukraine, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov telling reporters Friday in Moscow that the allegations are “hollow and unfounded” and “The movement of troops on our territory shouldn't be a cause for anyone's concern.” However, he pointed to the recent deployment of U.S. Navy ships in the Black Sea and added, “We take measures to ensure our security when our opponents take defiant action near our borders. We can’t stay indifferent to that; we must be on our guard.” More from the Associated Press, here.

Kyiv’s warning: “We should all understand that what is unfolding in Europe now is a very complicated game with many elements in it—energy crisis, propaganda efforts, disinformation, cyber attacks, military buildups, an attempt of Russia to digest Belarus, elements of migration crisis,” Kuleba told reporters while standing beside Blinken. 

Indeed, U.S. President Joe Biden’s national security advisor met with Minister Kuleba on Wednesday, too. The two discussed a range of issues, including “the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to the White House. 

“It’s not exactly clear what the Russian intentions are. We obviously would like to better understand that,” said Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby to reporters on Wednesday. “And we don’t want to see any action further destabilize what is already a very tense part of the world.” 

When asked why he used the word “unusual” to describe the Russian activity, Kirby told CNN’s Barbara Starr, “It’s unusual because of the size and the scope, and it’s got our attention, no question about that.” He then added, “I would like to see the folks in Moscow get asked these kinds of questions and answer them honestly and transparently. That’s not happening, though, is it?”

A top White House cyber official spent three days this week talking about cybersecurity with EU and NATO allies in Brussels. Deputy National Security Advisory for Cyber and Emerging Technologies Anne Neuberger visited Belgium from Monday to Wednesday, where she “recommended areas where NATO Allies can work, both independently and collectively, to defend against, deter, and respond to the full spectrum of cyber threats,” according to the White House’s readout. A bit more to that, here.

Biden also phoned European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on the final day of Neuberger’s trip. The two discussed Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity,” as well as that other simmering crisis on Russia’s doorstep, “the humanitarian situation on the European Union’s border with Belarus and...irregular migration flows” from Belarus and to EU nations like Poland, e.g. 

From Defense One

What Worked, What Didn't at Army’s Second Connect-Everything Experiment // Patrick Tucker: Drone-shooting helicopters, robot reconnaissance teams, and a lot more people mark Project Convergence’s second year.

Poll: Veterans Say US Left Afghanistan Without Honor, and They Want to Talk About It // Tara Copp: 70 percent of Americans surveyed said they have “never” or “rarely” talked to a veteran about the war.

How Denmark Supports Its Veterans’ Families // Trine Bramsen: A new effort to help children and spouses could be a model for the United States.

Milley’s Hypersonic Hyperbole May Have Been His ‘Missile Gap’ Moment // William D. Hartung: The United States must avoid another arms race based on untested or distinctly false premises.

The World Is Fed Up With China’s Belligerence // Chris Horton, The Atlantic: Democracies are no longer as worried as they once were about offending a fragile Beijing.

Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief from Ben Watson and Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1893, British diplomat Mortimer Durand forged a deal with Afghan Emir Abdur Rahman Khan to accept a full-length border on the western edge of the British Raj (now Pakistan) that started in Iran, ended in China, and gave the Brits a sort of buffer zone to contain Russian influence just north of Afghanistan.

New: Qatar officials will represent U.S. interests in Afghanistan, Reuters reported this morning in an exclusive. The agreement, which U.S. officials said will be signed today, will take effect Dec. 31 and will help facilitate communication between the U.S. government and the Taliban, which the United States does not formally recognize.
What’s going on: “Qatar will assist the United States in providing limited consular services to our citizens and in protecting U.S. interests in Afghanistan,” a senior State Department official told Reuters. Those consular services could include accepting passport applications and offering notary services.
Qatar will also continue hosting up to 8,000 Afghan special immigrant visa applicants and their families, according to the U.S. official. More to all that, here.
Related reading:Every US citizen who wants out of Afghanistan offered departure, State Department says,” ABC News reported Friday morning, noting “fewer than 80 U.S. citizens [are believed to be] still in the country and seeking help.” 

About a dozen people were wounded when a bomb detonated at a Sunni mosque in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province on Friday. AP calls it “the third major mosque bombing in five weeks in Afghanistan” and put the casualty toll at 15. No one has yet claimed responsibility for the bombing, which differed from previous ISIS-K attacks on predominantly Shia mosques. Reuters has a tiny bit more, here.
In other Afghan news, the British military executed at least 17 Afghan men in February 2011, the BBC reported Thursday. But according to the UK Ministry of Defense, “the evidence is not new and has already been investigated.”
Background: “The court case follows a 2019 investigation by BBC Panorama and the Sunday Times that raised allegations of unlawful killings by special forces during the war in Afghanistan. The High Court is considering whether the allegations were investigated properly by the armed forces.” Read on, here.

Meanwhile in Iraq, ISIS appears to have carried out an “unusually cruel” attack on Shias late last month north of Baghdad. “Islamic State gunmen opened fire on a group of seven young men—four cousins, three friends—as they smoked nargilah pipes on a warm evening, residents of the mostly Shiite Muslim village said. Then the militants waited in the dark until a rescue party arrived and turned the guns on them too,” the Washington Post reported Friday from the Diyala governorate.
One apparent takeaway: “ISIS doesn‘t use car bombs there now,” an Iraqi counterterrorism official told the Post. “Instead they have snipers and night-vision goggles.” Read on, here.

And lastly this week: The U.S. Air Force has created something for its F-16s that it calls an “Angry Kitten Electronic Countermeasures Training Pod,” which is designed to use machine learning as it cycles through available jamming options to select the best one for pilots, according to the Defense Post, which spotted the oddly-named device. The USAF has more—including a photo—via its PR shop, here

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!