Today's D Brief: Moscow's mood; Kyiv's forecast; N. Korea's testing blitz; Drawdown in Mali; And bit more.

Fourteen days. Ukraine’s top diplomat thinks the country can get about two more weeks of diplomacy from Russian officials before something perhaps less predictable may happen, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Thursday in Denmark—a day after Russian, Ukrainian, German, and French officials met in Paris for new talks. 

That timeline fits nicely with the second phase of Russia’s exercises in Belarus. The first phase is already underway and has focused largely on the rapid deployment of soldiers and equipment—more than 125,000 troops so far. The second phase begins on Feb. 10, and will reportedly feature “reinforcing sections of the state border against infiltration by armed groups or arms deliveries, and finding and destroying illegal armed formations and enemy sabotage and reconnaissance groups,” according to Reuters.

  • By the way: Russia’s military has finally “brought in many of the enablers it was lacking, including medical and logistics, to carry out a potential military operation against Ukraine,” a western intelligence official told Richard Engel of NBC News on Wednesday. 

Next: Advisers from those four-way talks in Paris Wednesday “agreed to meet in Berlin in two weeks, which means that Russia for the next two weeks is likely to remain on the diplomatic track,” Kuleba told reporters Thursday in Copenhagen, calling that the “good news.” 

The bad news, he said, is that “nothing has changed” as a result of the Paris talks. And as far as Kyiv is concerned, “Unfortunately, the biggest demand that Russia has is that Ukraine engages directly in talks with Russian proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk instead of negotiating with Russia. This will not happen,” Kuleba said in Denmark, and emphasized, “this is a matter of principle.”  

A note on timing: Germany’s new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, will be visiting the White House just three days before the resumption of four-way talks with Russia in Berlin. Chancellor Scholz and President Joe Biden plan to discuss “their shared commitment to both ongoing diplomacy and joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine,” the White House said Thursday in a statement. And three days before that meeting, the leaders of China and Russia will be in Beijing for the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics. There, the two are expected to hold an in-person summit—their first in nearly two years, according to the Wall Street Journal

New: Both the White House and NATO formally replied to Russia’s demands and ultimatums on Wednesday. Those included several—like cutting NATO membership down to its 1997 roster—that, when Russia pitched them publicly in December, were viewed as non-starters in both Washington and Brussels. That is still the case. 

The mood in Moscow today: “There is not much reason for optimism,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday. “It cannot be said that our considerations were taken into account or that any willingness to take into account our concerns was demonstrated.” However, he admitted, “No matter how diametrically opposed our views sometimes are, dialogue is always needed.” Reuters has more from Moscow, here.

From Defense One

US’ Written Response To Russia ‘Isn’t About Concession,’ Blinken says // Jacqueline Feldscher: NATO and U.S. officials proposed ideas to cooperate with Moscow, an attempt to avert conflict over Ukraine.

‘Every Window Will Shoot’: Experts Lay Out Potential Ukraine Conflict Scenarios // Patrick Tucker: If the Kremlin decides to push across the border, it has widely varying options.

SecDef Austin Summons Hypersonics CEOs // Patrick Tucker and Marcus Weisgerber: Face-to-face Pentagon meeting set for next week in race to outpace China and Russia.

What Removing FARC From Terrorist List Reveals About Biden's Foreign Policy // Jason M. Blazakis, The Conversation: What’s the use of terrorist lists?

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson, with Jennifer Hlad and Caitlin Kenney. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1916, the British parliament authorized a draft for men aged 18 to 41 in order to help fill the UK military’s ranks in World War I.  

North Korea appears to have fired a few more missiles into the sea on Thursday. And that makes the sixth known test this year, its most-ever in a single month. According to Seoul’s military, these latest rockets appear to have been short-range ballistic missiles that traveled about 190 kilometers with a peak altitude of 20 km, which Joseph Dempsey tweeted was “notably short and low.” If those stats are true, it could suggest the missile was in fact what U.S. officials might call a “close-range ballistic missile,” Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tweeted.
“Testing blitz” is how Agence France-Presse described developments out of Pyongyang. But some of this could be preparations for a few big events coming up, including “the 80th anniversary of the birth of [dictator Kim Jong-un’s] father, late leader Kim Jong Il, in February, as well as the 110th birthday of its founding leader Kim Il Sung in April.”
And in a bout of apparent irony, “North Korea will lead the United Nations' Conference on Disarmament in a rotational one-month presidency,” beginning in late May, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency reports. “North Korea is among six countries—along with China, Colombia, Cuba, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Ecuador—that will assume this year's chairmanship for four weeks each in alphabetical order.” More here.

Not just Taiwan: China is increasingly triggering intercepts from Japan’s air force, Stars and Stripes reported Thursday based on new data from the Japanese Defense Ministry.
Since April, Japan has intercepted Chinese aircraft 571 times (Russian aircraft elicited 199 intercepts during the same time period). And already Japan has conducted "113 more intercepts of Chinese aircraft this fiscal year, with three months remaining, than last fiscal year," Stripes writes. Continue reading, here

A mortar attack in Mali killed a French soldier and wounded an American on Saturday, Stars and Stripes reported separately Wednesday. The U.S. service member was airlifted to Germany for medical care, but their injuries are “not life threatening,” Stripes’ John Vandiver writes. France is leading counterterrorism efforts in Mali, with the support of a small number of U.S. troops.
Related: Denmark is pulling its 100-plus troops from coup-stricken Mali, and just nine days after the Danes arrived, Reuters reports. The contingent came as part of a wider European special forces mission called Takuba.
That may mean other planned deployments will be scratched, too. Norway, Hungary, Portugal, Romania, and Lithuania have each said they’d send troops to Mali later this year. More here.

Lastly today: 100% vaccinations are keeping U.S. Navy ships operational. Despite the wave of omicron infections causing a strain on medical resources, Navy officials said Wednesday the virus has not had a major impact on operations at sea because the sailors are all vaccinated, and mitigation practices are working. Given the apparent fact that at any time a few ships do have a small number of Covid-19 cases aboard, it’s “almost statistically insignificant,” Vice Adm. William Merz, the deputy chief of naval operations for operations, plans and strategy, said to reporters.
Meanwhile: Vaccine refusers kicked out. The Navy also announced Wednesday that it had separated 23 active-duty sailors who refused to get the COVID-19 vaccine, “all with an honorable characterization of service.” The sailors were all enlisted with less than six years of service, with pay grades between E2 to E5, said Lt. Travis Callaghan, a spokesman for the Chief of Naval Personnel.