Today's D Brief: US-Russian talks begin in Geneva; Kazakh death toll rises; UN eyes suspect Iranian port; And a bit more.

Big week in Russia-Ukraine developments. Senior diplomats from Russia and the U.S. are meeting in Geneva to try to bring some sort of resolution to Moscow’s fear and anger over the possible future of its western neighbor, Ukraine. 

There are three big meetings this week on Ukraine’s future. 

  1. U.S. and Russian officials first met informally for dinner in Geneva on Sunday evening, with related meetings planned through Monday;
  2. NATO and Russian officials plan to meet afterward in Brussels on Wednesday; 
  3. And the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe has scheduled a meeting with Russian diplomats in Vienna on Thursday.

You may be wondering: Where are Ukraine officials in all these talks? As far as anyone can tell publicly, “the Ukrainian government has been sidelined and is instead quietly pursuing separate negotiations with Moscow,” Andrew Kramer of the New York Times reported Sunday. And more than 150 Ukrainians protested against Russia in Kyiv on Sunday, holding signs reading, “SAY NO TO PUTIN,” according to Reuters.

The tactical situation: “Russian forces now surround Ukraine on three sides,” the New York Times data-viz team reported Friday in a series of three detailed maps. 

  • See and hear Ukrainian troops working in trenches near the southeastern city of Avdiivka, via Agence France-Press’s 80-second video posted to Twitter this morning, here.

Big picture: “Russian troops are on Ukrainian borders in 2022 to force NATO’s borders back to 1990,” Cold War historian Mary Elise Sarotte of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies tweeted Sunday to explain the significance of the NATO-Russia Founding Act.

A second opinion: “Russia's most pressing issue is that it now regards Ukraine as a semi-permanent hostile neighbor that is strengthening its conventional deterrence, which incentivizes a preemptive move,” Rob Lee of the Department of War Studies at King’s College London tweeted Sunday in pessimism. “Russia wants to stop further NATO defense coop[eration] with Ukraine as a starting point,” he adds. But “That isn't politically palatable for Washington or Kyiv and is very unrealistic… Even if that happens, Kyiv will continue developing long-range missiles domestically, which is a Russian red line.” And that all suggests “The US can't make a concession that solves Moscow's long-term problem,” and “Even if there are some agreements, the risk of a Russian escalation will remain.”

Read over what “sticks” and “carrots” that U.S. officials could attempt to leverage in this week’s talks, as gathered and listed by Dmitri Alperovitch of the Silverado Policy Accelerator. 

ICYMI: NATO formally refused Russia’s demand to stop expanding, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday, the Associated Press reported from Brussels. 

Not to be overlooked: Sweden says its entire security strategy would be completely undermined if NATO agrees to stop expanding, Stockholm’s top commander said Friday, according to Reuters.

Strategic considerations for the U.S. include possible cuts to American forces in Eastern Europe, NBC News reported Friday. But, “For any change in the U.S. military presence in Europe, Russia would have to take reciprocal, equivalent steps to scale back its forces, and pulling back Russian troops from Ukraine would not be sufficient, the current and former officials said.” 

One wonk’s forecast for the week ahead: “Proposing a bunch of regional arms control ideas to run out the clock on Russia’s decision making for use of force in [Ukraine] is the most expected U.S. approach,” says Michael Kofman, who directs Russia Studies at the CNA think tank in Arlington, Va. “It will work if Moscow wants an offramp with minimal gains,” he added, but emphasized, “I am skeptical that this is the case.”

Another forecast: “Escalating events in 2022 and Putin's need to set conditions ahead of the Russian Presidential election in 2024 will likely force the Kremlin to either double down upon or pull back from these efforts,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War wrote on Friday. Hear more in ISW’s “Overwatch” podcast on SoundCloud, here.

One last (kinda big) thing: Putin says he’s kept Kazakhstan from falling apart, and is claiming “victory” this morning one week after unrest swept across the authoritarian former Soviet state, according to Reuters. “The events in Kazakhstan are not the first and far from the last attempt to interfere in the internal affairs of our states from the outside,” Putin told a virtual meeting of the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation Monday in Moscow, without any evidence of foreign interference except by CSTO troops. 

Kazakhstan’s embattled president says troops are still fighting “terrorists” throughout the country, and he asserted that those protesters’ “main goal was to undermine the constitutional order and to seize power. We are talking about an attempted coup d'etat,” President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev said Monday. He also said he’d provide supporting evidence sometime later. Meanwhile, a famous regional musician, Vikram Ruzakhunov, “was shown in a video on Kazakh television saying that he had flown to the country to take part in protests and was promised $200,” AP reports from Moscow. However, “In the video, apparently taken in police custody, Ruzakhunov’s face was bruised and he had a large cut on his forehead.”

More than 160 people have been killed so far, and nearly 8,000 have been detained, according to Kazakh authorities and AFP. The death toll was just over a dozen on Friday, before Tokayev authorized “shoot-to-kill” action by his security forces. 

Related reading: 

From Defense One

Who’s in Charge of US Space Policy? // Jacqueline Feldscher and Marcus Weisgerber: Space professionals worry the National Space Council is ceding its defense portfolio.

US Will Make ‘No Firm Commitments’ In Russia Talks This Week, Admin Official Says // Jacqueline Feldscher: Everything discussed at the meeting will also need to be considered by Washington and allies, the official said.

Who’s Afraid of an ICBM Review? // William D. Hartung: It’s worth spending five figures to assess whether to move ahead with a program that could cost more than a quarter-trillion dollars.

Common Office Desk Phone Could Be Leaking Info to Chinese Government, Report Alleges // Patrick Tucker: Phones by Yealink have been observed sending encrypted messages to Chinese servers three times a day.

Defense Business Brief // Marcus Weisgerber: Defense Business Brief: Foreign arms sales plummet; F-35 deliveries rise; Leidos to sponsor NASCAR driver; and more.

Welcome to this Monday 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 2007, U.S. President George W. Bush announced a “surge” of American troops for his war in Iraq, almost four years after he ordered the invasion based on trumped-up intelligence.

Iran sanctioned more than 50 Americans on Saturday for their role in the 2020 assassination of Tehran’s Gen. Qassem Soleimani. According to Reuters, “The step lets Iranian authorities seize any assets they hold in Iran, but the apparent absence of such assets means it will likely be symbolic.”
Included: Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley, as well as former White House national security adviser Robert O’Brien.
If this sounds familiar, Tehran did the same thing last year for former President Donald Trump, under whose watch Soleimani was killed.
White House reax: “Make no mistake: the United States of America will protect and defend its citizens,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement Sunday. “This includes those serving the United States now and those who formerly served…Should Iran attack any of our nationals, including any of the 51 people named yesterday, it will face severe consequences.” A bit more from Times of Israel, here

A single Iranian port has helped feed the war in Yemen over at least the past several months, according to a draft report from the U.N. Security Council’s panel of experts on Yemen, which the Wall Street Journal obtained and unpacked on Sunday.
Location: Jask, on the Sea of Oman, across from Dubai. “Once an obscure port that exported fruits and vegetables to Oman, Jask is a small town in Iran’s southeast that has grown in significance in the past decade,” the Journal reports. A single vessel that was intercepted in May after leaving Jask contained “164 machine guns and 194 rocket launchers,” as well as “2,556 assault rifles, and 292 general-purpose machine guns and sniper rifles made in China.” There are several more such episodes, which the Journal describes in greater detail, here.

Last week: American and Moroccan sailors, along with Spanish rescue coordinators, together rescued more than 100 migrants in distress about 40 nautical miles west of Morocco, the U.S. Navy’s Italy-based 6th Fleet announced in a statement. The three U.S. Coast Guard ships that assisted in the rescue are on a “routine deployment,” coinciding with the escort of Sentinel-class Coast Guard cutters across the Atlantic as they make their way to their new homeport in Bahrain. 

And finally today: A U.S. soldier serving in Germany in 1945 sent his mom a letter, saying he thought he’d see her in a month or two. He returned home to Massachusetts after the war, but his letter didn’t make it—until last month, the New York Times reported Saturday.
The letter was sent with a 6-cent stamp and delivered to John A. Gonsalves’ widow almost exactly 76 years after he wrote it. Gonsalves died in 2015 at the age of 92; he wrote the letter before he met Angelina, the woman who would be his wife for 61 years. Read about the lengths the post office took to find Gonsalves’ family, here.