Today's D Brief: Cyber-defacing in Ukraine; 9 truths about NATO, Ukraine; Suspicion in the Baltic; North Korea's new launch; And a bit more.

With a Russian invasion looming, Ukraine has been hit with an apparent cyberattack that defaced several institutions today, including the Foreign Ministry and the Ministry of Education and Science. About 70 websites are believed to have been hit, according to the Associated Press; but “no critical infrastructure was affected and no personal data was leaked,” Ukrainian officials said. 

The latest from Ukraine: U.S. officials allege Russia is preparing a “false flag” operation as a pretense to re-invade Ukraine. CNN has more about the allegations, which would appear to be the follow-through on a promise made Thursday by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, here.

Possibly related: Ukraine’s intelligence service said it detained a Russian spy and saboteur earlier this week, as Buzzfeed News’s Christopher Miller noticed Monday on Twitter.

Under the radar: “Russia began moving tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, rocket launchers and other military equipment westward from their bases in its Far East” this week, the Wall Street Journal reports, following up on a raft of video (like this, e.g.) posted to social media over the past several days.

For what it’s worth, a top Swedish military official says he’s seeing Russian naval activity in the Baltic Sea that “deviates from the normal picture,” according to the Associated Press reporting from Stockholm. 

European Union foreign ministers are meeting today, which would be at least the fifth forum for European diplomacy in just a week (NATO officials met last Friday;  there were also U.S.-Russia talks in Geneva on Monday; NATO-Russia talks in Brussels on Wednesday; and Thursday’s meeting in Vienna between Russian officials and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). 

Next for the White House: “We will now reflect and consult with allies and partners on how to proceed,” NSA Sullivan told reporters at the White House Thursday. “We're prepared to continue with diplomacy to advance security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic. We're equally prepared if Russia chooses a different path.” Meantime, there are no future talks planned with Russia. “We're in communication with the Russians, and we'll see what comes next,” Sullivan said Thursday. 

The U.S. is still sitting on a draft of “severe economic measures” drawn up “in response to a further Russian invasion of Ukraine,” Sullivan continued. “We continue to work with Allies in NATO on changes in force posture and capabilities, especially on NATO's eastern flank, if that scenario arises. And we continue to support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in the defense of their sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Pentagon Chief Lloyd Austin called his Ukrainian counterpart Thursday. The two chatted over “Russia’s ongoing and unprovoked military build-up in and around Ukraine” and “diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions and committed to continuing their close coordination,” the Defense Department said in a statement Thursday afternoon. Coverage continues below the fold.

From Defense One

Impressed by 2022’s Record Research Budget? Wait ‘Til Next Year, DOD Undersecretary Says // Patrick Tucker: Heidi Shyu says lawmakers are eager to fund Pentagon’s tech priorities.

Here’s What DOD’s International Security Nominee Learned from Russia’s 2014 Seizure of Crimea // Jacqueline Feldscher: Send weapons faster, and prepare to boost U.S. forces in the region, Celeste Wallander told lawmakers.

DOD Grants First Religious Waivers for COVID Vaccine // Elizabeth Howe: Two Marines are the first successful applicants among the 18,500 U.S. troops who have sought exemption from the vaccination mandate by citing religious beliefs.

Unless Biden Acts Now, His Nuclear Policy Will Look a Lot Like Trump’s // Tom Z. Collina: The smart move is to declare a "sole purpose" policy and reverse the dangerous expansion of nuclear missions.

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 1943, President Franklin Roosevelt became the first sitting U.S. president to fly. Historian Michael Beschloss shared a picture of FDR on this day 79 years ago, via Twitter, here.

Today, the U.S. Army, Navy, and Air Force seem to all have aircraft in the air around Ukraine, likely on the lookout for telling indicators from Russian assets in occupied Crimea and inside Russia’s own borders.
Reminder: Cost-benefit calculations in Moscow probably look nothing like they do in Washington or Brussels. Or, as one think tanker warned Thursday, “Just because we think it’s a stupid, self-defeating move on the part of Russia [to re-invade Ukraine, e.g.] doesn’t mean they won’t do it,” said Emma Ashford of the Atlantic Council in Washington, to Max Fisher of the New York Times.
Quick summary of what Russia says it wants: 

  • A guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia will not be allowed into NATO; 
  • A promise that the U.S. won’t deploy new intermediate and shorter-range missiles in Europe; 
  • And a limit on “military activities in Europe.” And that’s all according to Russia’s Arms Control Delegation to Vienna, which tweeted out those three “solutions” Thursday. 

About that first bullet point: “What’s so hard about admitting the truth when it comes to NATO candidacy and membership?” asked Samuel Charap of RAND, writing in Financial Times on Thursday. In this instance, one unspoken truth—“While Ukraine is free to pursue membership, the alliance is not offering it membership at present”—could help avert serious conflict. “This is hardly a major concession,” Charap tweeted Thursday. “It concedes nothing to declare that NATO is not planning to do something it has no intention of doing anyway. If acknowledging this reality averts a conflict that might destroy Ukraine and destabilise Europe, that seems like a small price to pay.”
More where that came from: Here are eight additional truths that U.S. and NATO officials seemingly can’t speak publicly, according to Olga Oliker of the Crisis Group: 

  1. “Ukraine & Georgia are nowhere near joining NATO.”
  2. “Crimea isn't going back to Ukraine.”
  3. Linking peace in Ukraine with the return of Crimea “is a way to keep the war going forever,” argues Oliker, but notes that “Ukraine & its friends don't say this because see 2.”
  4. “Plausible weapons provisions to Ukraine won't change the military balance.”
  5. “Military advisory missions from most European states also aren't making the Ukrainians more capable.”
  6. “There is no NATO infrastructure in Ukraine,” which is a point Russia doesn't need repeated since it blunts one of Moscow’s chief gripes—that NATO inside Ukraine is a threat;
  7. “NATO missile defenses don't threaten Russia's nuclear deterrent.”
  8. “NATO missile defenses don't actually do much of anything, from a military standpoint. Ostensibly, they're there in case Iranian or North Korean missiles threaten Europe.”
  9. “One reason NordStream II would benefit Germany is it would mean its energy supplies won't be held hostage to Russian-Ukrainian tensions. This would obviously hurt Ukraine. But to say this so bluntly is awfully awkward.”

Top GOP lawmakers to the White House: You’re running a “campaign of appeasement,” said the ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services and Foreign Affairs Committees—Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama; Michael McCaul of Texas; Sens. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and Jim Risch of Idaho—in a letter dated Wednesday.
Their advice: “We should impose sanctions on Nord Stream 2 now and immediately provide additional lethal aid to Ukraine, including anti-air and anti-ship weapon systems, as well as reinforce the Eastern flank of NATO.”
They also want to refuse any offer of a “missile deployment moratorium or a reduction in [military] exercises,” calling such offers “a mistake by this administration to incentivize Putin’s bad behavior with front-loaded unilateral capitulations.” Read on, here.

Russia wants us to believe it will soon add automated gun turrets for base defense at multiple military installations across the country, robotics-watcher Sam Bendett noticed at the Russian-language site Izvestia and flagged on Twitter Thursday.
Granted, Russian officials have said such things before, including, e.g., four and a half years ago, as Bendett notes. So take this development with a grain of salt as you review a few of the allegedly related robots at Izvestia, here.
In other news:Russia backs away from unpopular anti-coronavirus measures,” AP reports from Moscow.

North Korea just launched another rocket, though this one appears to be a little bit slower than the last one (Mach 6 vs. Mach 10 last time), according to South Korea’s military (via Yonhap News).
The launch follows a new round of U.S. sanctions targeting officials in Pyongyang. “These actions are in line with U.S. efforts to prevent the advancement of the DPRK’s WMD and ballistic missile programs and impede attempts by Pyongyang to proliferate related technologies,” the U.S. Treasury Department announced Wednesday. The new sanctions “also follow the DPRK’s six ballistic missile launches since September 2021, each of which violated multiple United Nations Security Council Resolutions,” Treasury added.
U.S. military reax: “We are aware of the ballistic missile launch and are consulting closely with our allies and partners,” officials at U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement Friday. “While we have assessed that this event does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies, the missile launch highlights the destabilizing impact of the DPRK’s illicit weapons program. The U.S. commitment to the defense of the Republic of Korea and Japan remains ironclad.” Read more from AP, here

Denmark says Russia, China, and Iran are more active espionage threats than outsiders might believe, Reuters reported Thursday from Copenhagen. “The threat from foreign intelligence activities against Denmark, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands has increased in recent years,” Denmark’s top intelligence official, Anders Henriksen, said in a new report. According to Reuters, “The report cited a 2019 incident of a forged letter purporting to be from Greenland's foreign minister to a U.S. senator [Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton] saying an independence referendum was in the offing.” Read on, here.
Related reading: “MI5 warns UK MPs against ‘political interference’ by Chinese agent,” via Financial Times reporting Thursday. 

And lastly this week: Feds unveiled charges of “seditious conspiracy” (PDF) for 11 members of the far-right Oath Keepers militia on Thursday. They were the first such charges to stem from the Jan. 6 insurrection that left five people dead, including one police officer.
Also charged: Oath Keeper’s founder and former Army paratrooper, 56-year-old Stewart Rhodes. He was arrested Thursday in Phoenix, Ariz.
According to AP, “The indictment alleges Oath Keepers for weeks discussed trying to overturn the election results and preparing for a siege by purchasing weapons and setting up battle plans.” The men charged “repeatedly wrote in chats about the prospect of violence and the need, as Rhodes allegedly wrote in one text, ‘to scare the s—-out of’ Congress.” AP has much more (including a separate deep dive on “seditious conspiracy”) here.

Have a safe long weekend, everyone. And we’ll catch you again on Tuesday!