Today's D Brief: Russian pretensions are growing; Strykers to Bulgaria; Close calls in the Med; $800B for defense?; And a bit more.

As many expected, Russia seems to be drumming up a pretense for military action inside Ukraine, and on the same day that the United Nations Security Council plans to discuss the “notoriously ambiguous” ceasefire terms that Russia agreed to back in 2015 known as the Minsk Accords. Catch the livestream from UN headquarters, here.

“The evidence on the ground is that Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion,” America’s Ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, tweeted Thursday morning. “This is a crucial moment. Today’s Council meeting should not distract us from that. It should focus on what is happening right now in Ukraine.”

New today: Russia is telling the UN that Ukraine’s military has carried out a “genocide of the Russian-speaking population of Donbas,” according to documents seen by the Wall Street Journal Thursday morning. This is at least partly why America’s top diplomat, Antony Blinken, is headed to the UN in New York in an attempt to blunt the apparent disinformation from Moscow. 

Another worrying indicator: Alleged Russian-backed forces struck a kindergarten with artillery fire on Thursday in Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, Olga Tokariuk of the Center for European Policy Analysis flagged on Twitter, with a few supporting photos. Precise casualty numbers are unclear (the Journal reports two teachers were wounded); but fortunately, no one seems to have been killed in the attack. 

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, condemned the attack, which he attributed to “heavy weapons from the occupied territory of the Donbas,” he tweeted Thursday morning. “We call on all partners to swiftly condemn this severe violation of Minsk agreements by Russia amid an already tense security situation,” he added. 

Britain’s top diplomat just arrived in Kyiv. Almost immediately, Foreign Minister Liz Truss rushed to Ukraine’s defense, writing on Twitter, “Reports of alleged abnormal military activity by Ukraine in Donbas are a blatant attempt by the Russian government to fabricate pretexts for invasion. This is straight out of the Kremlin playbook. [The U.K.] will continue to call out Russia’s disinformation campaign,” she added. 

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin concurred, telling reporters Thursday in Brussels: “We’ve said for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict, so we’ll be watching this very closely.”

The view from the White House: “My sense is [an invasion] will happen in the next several days,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters Thursday morning. 

According to the Kremlin, the “situation near the borders of Russia can ignite at any moment,” spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned Thursday, via state-run TASS. He also alleged—without any specifics—that Ukraine’s military has taken “provocative actions that have only intensified in the last day or several days.” It’s worth noting, however, that that last line seems to have since been removed from TASS’s website, and is now apparently attributed to Russian-backed separatists in Luhansk, who allege (again, according to TASS) to have witnessed “heavy shelling by Ukrainian security forces, including the use of heavy weapons,” and that “the situation on the line of contact has escalated dramatically.” TASS also claims Ukraine’s president ordered the shelling, citing separatists in Luhansk. 

Said the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Carl Bildt: “When heavy artillery is used, it’s as a rule under direct Russian command rather [than] something by local hotheads.”

Coverage continues below the fold.

From Defense One

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Welcome to this Thursday 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 1974, U.S. Army Private Robert Preston, age 20, stole a Bell UH-1B helicopter from Maryland's Tipton Field and, after a chase with police and other helicopters, landed under fire on the South Lawn of the White House. He was quickly arrested and eventually court-martialed.

“A big provocation” is how Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described the shelling of that school on Twitter. He then emphasized, “It's important that diplomats and the OSCE remain in Ukraine; their monitoring activities are an additional deterrent.” He also called for “an effective mechanism for recording all ceasefire violations,” which is a bit harder this week after monitors pulled out of some eastern cities, as Reuters reported on Sunday.
Zelenskyy visited Ukrainian troops in the coastal city of Mariupol on Wednesday. “We are not afraid of any predictions, we are not afraid of any people, any enemies,” he said, according to a transcript from his office. “We are not afraid of any dates, because we will defend ourselves on February 16, 17, March and April, September and December…The war has been going on for eight years. We have become just as many times stronger.”
The Russian military’s message today: Don’t mind us, because we are making our “marches to permanent deployment points in a combined way,” military spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov said in a statement Thursday. Other Russian troops still in Belarus will stay and practice shooting some things Thursday and Saturday as part of its ongoing “Union Courage 2022” exercises with Belarus. So, in other words: Nothing to see here, folks.
Brits warn: “We have seen no evidence that Russian forces are withdrawing from Ukrainian border regions,” the Ministry of Defense tweeted Thursday, and emphasized, “Russia could conduct an invasion without further warning.”
An analyst from Janes agrees: “There are no indicators that a large-scale drawdown has begun,” Thomas Bullock of Janes said Wednesday. “Russian actions, specifically the movement of Western Military District assets in Belgorod, Central Military District forces in Bryansk, and Eastern Military District forces in southeastern Belarus, are inconsistent with a drawdown, with all forces appearing to be moving closer to the Ukrainian border.” What’s more, Bullock said, “Some recent footage posted to social media also indicates Russia is still moving forces west towards the border from deeper inside Russia.”
What’s past is prologue? Rewind to 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia that August. Just eight days before the invasion began, Russia’s commander in the rebel region of Abkhazia promised reporters “all the personnel and all the equipment will be sent away from here,” according to Reuters, reporting July 31from Georgia.
Estonia expects at least a “limited” military attack on Ukraine, the country’s intelligence chief, Mikk Marran, told reporters Wednesday. “Right now, our assessment is that they would avoid cities with large populations, as it takes a lot of troops to control those areas. But there is no clear understanding of what avenue the Russian troops might exploit,” Marran said.
Estonia’s big worry: “If Russia is successful in Ukraine, it would encourage it to increase pressure on the Baltics in the coming years,” Marran said Wednesday. “The threat of war has become [the] main policy tool for Putin.” Tiny bit more from Reuters.
New: The U.S. military is adding a Stryker company to Bulgaria, where Defense Secretary Austin said Thursday that the troops will train alongside their NATO counterparts.
Related reading: 

The White House could request more than $800 billion for defense in this year’s budget request, “three sources familiar with the negotiations” told Reuters on Wednesday. That figure includes about $770 billion for the Defense Department, and a bit more when you include money for nuclear energy and weapons maintenance and modernization, which is expected to push that total over the somewhat unfathomable $800 billion mark.
Recall, of course, that “The national defense budget request crafted during Trump's final year in office was for $752.9 billion,” Reuters reminds us. “Congress then increased that number by $25 billion, ultimately landing at $778 billion for fiscal 2022.” More here.

France will pull its 2,400 troops out of coup-stricken Mali and move them to Niger, Agence France-Presse reported Wednesday, less than a month after Denmark pulled its 100-plus contingent of troops out of Mali. The move is expected to take as many as six months to complete, according to officials in Paris.
Context: French troops have been in the country for the past eight years, and it’s lost 59 soldiers in various incidents around the country since 2013. But “Ties have worsened since Mali’s military junta went back on an agreement to organise elections in February and proposed holding power until 2025,” Reuters reported Wednesday. “It has also deployed Russian private military contractors, which some European countries have said are incompatible with their mission.”
Said a Mali military spokesman: “I think that there has been no military solution, because terrorism has engulfed the entire territory of Mali.”
Worth noting: France still has at least five other locations across Africa where it stages troops, including in Chad, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Gabon. A formal announcement on the Mali mission is expected later Thursday, before an EU-Africa summit in Brussels.

And lastly: Hezbollah’s leader says the group’s armed drones are up for sale, “and whoever wants to buy them, submit an order,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised speech Wednesday. He also claimed the group has rocket-making facilities in Lebanon that can crank out precision-guided missiles, Reuters reported from Beirut.
Background: “Israel last week published the names of three Lebanese companies that it accused of supplying materials for Hezbollah's precision-guidance missile project, a move designed to generate international economic pressure on the Shi'ite Muslim group,” Reuters writes. Israel’s defense minister promised a “resolute” response to Hezbollah’s alleged Lebanese facilities. Read on, here.