Today's D Brief: Escalation in Kazakhstan; Kurilla to lead CENTCOM?; North Korea's MaRV; Pentagon restrictions return; And a bit more.

Violence is escalating in Kazakhstan, where the embattled autocratic president authorized his police and military to kill protesters just hours after Russian Spetsnaz arrived in the country’s largest city of Almaty on Thursday. 

“Shoot to kill without warning” is how President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev described the orders in a televised address to the nation on Friday, according to the Washington Post. “Those who don’t surrender will be eliminated,” he added. 

Rewind: “​​The Central Asian nation this week experienced its worst street protests since gaining independence from the Soviet Union three decades ago, and dozens have been killed in the tumult,” the Associated Press reports from Moscow. “The demonstrations began over a near-doubling of prices for a type of vehicle fuel but quickly spread across the country, reflecting wider discontent with authoritarian rule.”

Kazakh officials say they’ve killed 26 protesters so far. “Another 26 were wounded and more than 3,800 people have been detained,” AP reports. Eighteen security forces have been killed in the unrest, according to the Interior Ministry, and more than 700 others have been wounded. 

A note on Kazakhstan’s understated importance, and its dire economic straits: By itself, the country provides 40% of the world’s supply of uranium. But even though Kazakhstan is an “oil-rich nation, the minimum wage is less than the equivalent of around $100 a month,” according to the Wall Street Journal

Troops are now patrolling Almaty’s streets, where sporadic gunfire can still be heard, according to Reuters, which writes that the protesters “appear mainly to come from the city's poor outskirts or surrounding towns and villages,” and that “The violence has come as a shock to urban Kazakhs.”

About that Russian support: “Moscow said more than 70 planes were ferrying Russian troops into Kazakhstan, and that these were now helping control Almaty's main airport, recaptured on Thursday from protesters.” More here.

For the record: “This is the first time in the history of the [Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization] that its protection clause has been invoked,” the New York Times reports. And so far, some 2,500 CSTO troops have been called up for the Kazakh unrest. 

China’s Xi Jinping praised the tough response in Tokayev’s defense, saying in a statement, “You decisively took effective measures at critical moments to quickly calm the situation, which embodies your responsibility as a politician.” 

According to the State Department, U.S. officials “will be watching for any violations of human rights,” spokesman Ned Price told reporters Thursday. “We will also be watching for any actions that may lay the predicate for the seizure of Kazakh institutions…We call on the CSTO collective peacekeeping forces and law enforcement to respect human rights in order to support a peaceful resolution. We hope that the Government of Kazakhstan will soon be able to address problems which are fundamentally economic and political in nature.”

In related headlines:Russian troops deploy to Timbuktu in Mali after French withdrawal,” Reuters reported Thursday from Bamako. 

Meanwhile, NATO diplomats are meeting virtually today (watch here) ahead of a flurry of scheduled meetings with Russian officials next week. That includes Deputy State Secretary Wendy Sherman, who tweeted Thursday that the ultimate goal with those talks in Geneva and Brussels is “to deter Russia from unprovoked aggression against Ukraine.”

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Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson, with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1945, American Army Air Corps pilot Maj. Thomas Buchanan McGuire Jr. was killed in action during combat over the Philippines. McGuire was the second-most decorated U.S. pilot of the war with more than three dozen shootdowns. The following year, in March, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity over Luzon, Philippine Islands” about two weeks before his death, when he shot down seven aircraft in two days.  

We now have a good idea who might run CENTCOM next. Army Lt. Gen. Michael Kurilla of the Fort Bragg-based 18th Airborne Corps was quietly nominated on Wednesday, according to Congressional records, the Wall Street Journal’s Gordon Lubold and Nancy Youssef reported Thursday.
Departing: Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, “who has led the command since March 2019 and whose tenure is slated to end April 1,” Lubold and Youssef write.
“Kurilla spent every year from 2004-2014 in the CENTCOM AOR commanding conventional and Special Operations Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan,” according to his bio published by CENTCOM. The Journal reports he was shot multiple times in just the first two of those 10 consecutive years in region.
BTW: There are now less than 40,000 U.S. troops in the Middle East, which is a 50% reduction from two years ago, according to the Journal. Read on for what challenges could await Kurilla (including several rising-China references) should his nomination advance in the Senate, here.

The Balkan peninsula country of Albania will soon host U.S. special operations forces on a rotational basis, Special Operations Command Europe announced Thursday. The purported benefits include “increased interoperability with our Albanian allies, important access to transportation hubs in the Balkans, and greater logistical flexibility,” according to SOCEUR.
For what it’s worth, the U.S. already has 600 troops in neighboring Kosovo “to maintain the fragile peace more than two decades after the end of the Kosovo War in 1999,” Reuters reported Thursday from the Albanian capital city of Tirana.
Also in neighboring Kosovo: Camp Bondsteel, where hundreds of Afghans who have so far failed to gain authorization to enter the states have been staged at Bondsteel’s Camp Liya since at least August. 
Read more:Afghan evacuees remain at base in Kosovo for additional screening,” via Stars and Stripes, reporting Dec. 31.  

South Korea’s military says North Korea is exaggerating its missile claims from this week’s rocket launch into the East Sea, the Associated Press reported Friday from Seoul. The defense ministry also said the rocket fired this week could have been shot down by either U.S. or South Korean missile defenses.
ICYMI: The North says it was a hypersonic missile test. But Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies says it was a MaRV, or maneuverable reentry vehicle. He explained on Thursday what that means in a Twitter thread, here.
In regional headlines:

The U.S. Navy removed its commander of the USS Paul Ignatius guided-missile destroyer on Thursday, U.S. Naval Institute News reported.
Removed: Cdmr. Jeffery Servello, who was relieved after an investigation into mistakes the ship’s crew made during a 2021 exercise in the Atlantic, UNSI writes. Servello took command of the Ignatius, one of the Navy’s newest ships, in June, where he served as its first executive officer. Read on, here.

The U.S. Navy has booted 20 sailors for refusing the coronavirus vaccine, Stars and Stripes reported Thursday. The small group, made up of sailors who had just started their careers in the last few months, holds the dubious distinction of being the first to be removed from the sea service for failing to get vaccinated by the Dec. 15 deadline, writes Stripes’ Caitlin Doornbos.
FWIW: More than 5,000 active-duty and nearly 3,000 reserve sailors are still unvaccinated. More here.

Next week: The Pentagon will begin reimposing certain restrictions to entry, beginning on Monday when the building moves to “Health Protection Condition Charlie,” defense officials announced Thursday evening. The restrictions include reducing in-person staffing to 25 percent of normal occupancy, and limiting gatherings in the building to 10 or fewer people.
Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll catch you again on Monday!