Today's D Brief: Russia's 9 paths to invasion; Investors' optimism; Denmark's openness; Rare earths warning; And a bit more.

New White House messaging: U.S. troops will not be evacuating Americans from Ukraine, President Joe Biden told NBC News this week in an interview set to air in full on Sunday. “It’s not like we’re dealing with a terrorist organization,” Biden said in a teaser clip NBC released Thursday. When NBC’s Lester Holt asked Biden if there was any way he could envision sending U.S. troops for an evacuation mission in Ukraine, the president replied, “There’s not. That’s a world war when Americans and Russia start shooting at one another.”

“We’re dealing with one of the largest armies in the world,” Biden told Holt, and added, “things could go crazy quickly.”

The view from the State Department: “Simply put, we continue to see very troubling signs of Russian escalation, including new forces arriving at the Ukrainian border,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday during a meeting with “quad” allies in Australia. 

And those four-way talks Thursday in Berlin? Officials from Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France made no progress, as expected, according to Reuters. One key sticking point involved Moscow’s demand that Kyiv negotiate directly with Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s east; Kyiv has so far adamantly refused, especially since the separatist movement there wasn’t much of a movement until Russia invaded in 2014.

America’s top military officer called his Belarusian counterpart for the first time on Thursday, the same day “phase two” of joint Russian-Belarus drills began around Ukraine. 

The ostensible purpose of that call: “to reduce chances of miscalculation and gain perspectives on current European security,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley’s staff said in a rare statement Thursday. 

Russia has at least nine different paths it could take if it wanted to re-invade Ukraine, NBC News reported separately Thursday, citing U.S. military and intelligence analysts. Read over all those, which predict a march on Kyiv in just 48 hours, here.

FWIW: Investors seem to be signaling a Russia-Ukraine war won’t happen, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday. That’s in part because “The Russian ruble and Ukrainian hryvnia have strengthened against the dollar in recent days, appreciating 3% and 1.5% this month so far, respectively. The currencies traded at multiyear lows in the last week of January.” Both countries’ bonds have rallied back since late January, too. On the other hand, however, the first analyst the Journal quoted seemed to disagree strongly with the newspaper’s own headline and argument. Continue reading, here.

Related reading:White House tells chip industry to brace for Russian supply disruptions,” via Reuters reporting Friday. 

Developing: Denmark is signaling its interest in one day hosting U.S. troops, Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said Thursday. Granted, none of what might lie ahead has been finalized, she cautioned; and it’s allegedly got nothing to do with Russia’s saber-rattling on Ukraine’s borders. Still, she called it “a breakthrough after many decades” of U.S.-Danish talks. 

Worth noting: Denmark sits in a historically strategic location at the mouth of Baltic Sea. It’s not a heckuva lot of real estate, but it’s been enough to maintain the world’s oldest kingdom, based in Copenhagen, since about 900 CE. 

But don’t expect anything like a U.S. military base on Danish soil, Defense Minister Morten Boedskov said Thursday. Should such negotiations proceed, one could expect something more akin to America’s troop deal with Norway, which allows U.S. troops on its soil—just not nuclear weapons, landmines or cluster bombs. The Associated Press has a bit more, here.

From Defense One

Biden Seeking To Split $7B In Afghan Money Between Humanitarian Aid, 9/11 Families // Jacqueline Feldscher: Any transfer of money will need to be approved by the courts because of the pending legal cases brought by families of terrorist victims.

The Near Future of Military Autonomy Isn’t Robotanks, But ‘Microservices’ // Patrick Tucker: Instead of commanding killer robots, most troops will get helping hands from things like driving assistance software.

Why the US Ramped Up Its Information War With Russia // Max Boot, Council on Foreign Relations: Pre-buttals may become a standard part of the American playbook.

FBI: Ransomware Attackers Are Taking Aim at Critical Infrastructure // Mariam Baksh: A joint advisory with CISA, the NSA, and their counterparts in the UK and Australia offers advice for defenders.

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 2011, nearly three weeks of Arab Spring protests in Cairo led to the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and left the military in charge of the country. 

The White House is trying to use half of about $7 billion in Afghan Central Bank funds to help pay victims of the 9/11 attacks; and it wants to move the rest of the money into a trust fund “designed to provide a path for the funds to reach the people of Afghanistan, while keeping them out of the hands of the Taliban and malicious actors,” officials said Friday after the New York Times broke the news.
Background: “When the Taliban took over the country in August, Afghanistan’s central bank had received more than $9 billion from international assistance from other countries, but about $7 billion of that sum is held at American financial institutions,” Defense One’s Jacqueline Feldscher reports. Biden’s new executive order is requiring that $7 billion be transferred into a consolidated account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.
Caveat: “It will ultimately be up to the courts to decide if the victims have a claim to the $3.5 billion the administration is allotting for them through the trust fund,” AP reports. The court’s decision on the transfer could take “several months,” a senior official told reporters in a call on Friday. During that time, the administration will set up a trust fund to ensure that none of the humanitarian aid benefits the Taliban, and will also consult with allies about where the money should go.
Read over POTUS46’s executive order initiating these moves, here. Reuters has still more on Afghanistan’s dire economic straits, here.
Related reading: Top D.C. lobbying firm reps company alleged by former employees to have paid off Taliban,” via Politico’s Daniel Lippman, reporting Thursday. 

And lastly: Think tankers warn the U.S. must overtake China in the rare earths game in 10 years or risk losing its military and economic edge. That’s according to Emily de La Bruyère and Nathan Picarsic of the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, based in Washington. In addition to the security implications, overtaking Beijing will also “produce benefits in terms of technological development, environmental impact, and defense of human rights,” de la Bruyere and Picaric write.
Their plan emphasizes four main efforts, including a DOD stockpiling program, tax incentives for the private sector, working with allies and partners to build “trusted supply chains,” and leveraging “economic and military tools.” Read over their full report, entitled “Elemental Strategy,” here.
Related: Gain a deeper understanding of “China’s online campaign to shift the narrative on Xinjiang” in an event hosted by the Atlantic Council at noon ET. New York Times journalist Paul Mozur headlines that one. Details and livestream, here.

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