Today's D Brief: More Russian troops near Ukraine; The 'South Ossetian option'; $6B in tanks to Poland; Escalating for Taiwan; And a bit more.

Invasion watch continues: The number of Russian troops surrounding Ukraine has nearly doubled in the last three weeks, U.S. officials said Friday. “We assess that Russia probably has massed between 169,000-190,000 personnel in and near Ukraine as compared with about 100,000 on January 30,” said Michael Carpenter, the U.S. Ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. 

Also new: Russia says it will practice launching ICBMs on Saturday, and its autocratic leader Vladimir Putin will supervise the launches himself, Moscow’s Defense Ministry announced Friday. 

Why that’s notable: “In the past, Russia has held the annual strategic forces drills in the fall,” the Associated Press reports from Moscow. And as a result, “U.S. officials have voiced concern that Moscow shifted the exercise to February to coincide with a possible invasion of Ukraine.”

Meanwhile in Ukraine’s east, there were nearly 500 explosions heard on Thursday, and that’s more than four times the daily average going back to January, AP reported separately today from Kyiv. Amid those explosions, two separatist leaders are getting attention today for encouraging Ukrainians in the east to flee to Russia, claiming Ukraine is the one about to invade its own separatist region in the Donbas. “A temporary departure will protect life and health for you and your loved ones,” said Denis Pushilin of the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic in a televised address Friday. 

Beware of “the South Ossetian option.” Key officials are increasingly convinced Russia “is trying to goad the Ukrainian forces into hitting civilian targets,” the Wall Street Journal reported Friday. “The same strategy was used in 2008, when Russian troops invaded the republic of Georgia, citing as an excuse the Georgian shelling of the capital of South Ossetia, a Moscow-controlled breakaway statelet.” For their part, Ukraine’s troops are reportedly exercising abundant restraint so as to not feed into Moscow’s apparent intentions. 

“They may be trying to force our hand in negotiations, or attempting to provoke response fire and use that as a pretext to start a full-scale invasion. There are several options here, and the South Ossetian option is very probable,” Serhii Haidai, Kyiv’s governor of the Luhansk region, told the Journal on Friday. Read more, here.

SecDef Austin is in Poland today cheerleading a new $6 billion deal to sell Warsaw Abrams tanks. While in Poland, Austin thanked the nearly 3,000 U.S. troops staged there to reinforce NATO’s eastern flank. Read over the Pentagon’s obligatory readout of Austin’s visit, here; or catch his remarks alongside his Polish counterpart, via DVIDS, here.

Read more:Poland to Buy $6 Billion in US Tanks, Assault Bridges, Explosives,” via Defense One’s Tara Copp. 

BTW: Austin rang his Russian counterpart Thursday. In that chat, Austin “called for de-escalation, the return of Russian forces surrounding Ukraine to their home bases, and a diplomatic resolution,” according to the terse U.S. readout

VPOTUS Kamala Harris is in Munich today for the annual security conference. One key message she’s telegraphing from Germany: “We understand and we have made clear that we remain open to diplomacy” with Russia, she said Friday. “The onus is on Russia at this point, to demonstrate that it is serious in that regard.” Harris plans to meet with Ukraine’s president as well as Germany’s new chancellor on Saturday. Reuters has a bit more, here.

McGurk is back from Dubai and Riyadh. Former ISIS war envoy and current Middle East specialist at the White House Brett McGurk traveled to the UAE and Saudi Arabia this week to discuss the ongoing war in Yemen, and the possible fallout from another Russian invasion of Ukraine. In the Emirates, McGurk discussed “Iranian-enabled missile and UAV attacks” and “discussed the need to combine pressure on the Houthis in Yemen with a concerted UN-led effort to end the war there,” according to National Security Council spokeswoman Emily Horne.  

McGurk’s stop in Riyadh focused on what the NSC called a “collaborative approach to managing potential market pressures stemming from a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine.” The State Department’s Special Envoy for Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein joined McGurk on that Saudi stop. 

More high-level diplomacy is planned for next week, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Some observers read that meeting as an encouraging signal, suggesting perhaps Russia won’t invade Ukraine over the weekend. (See also this short clip of Vladimir Putin from the satirical cartoon “Family Guy” that’s been shared on social media lately. The Independent has more on its relevance and internet reach, here.) 

Related reading: 

From Defense One

WEST 2022 Conference Wire: Comms Challenges // Defense One Staff : PacFleet commander wants better information-sharing with allies, while a lawmaker wants more clarity in Navy messaging.

US Companies Warned to Prepare for Russian Cyber Attacks // Patrick Tucker: DOJ’s Lisa Monaco warns industry to harden defenses; Ukraine’s foreign weapons systems are a likely target for Russian hackers.

The Navy’s Messaging Choke Point // Bradley Peniston: Some say the service needs to stop using jargon like “littoral operations” and “sea denial” if it wants to connect with more Americans.

Reports of Sexual Assault, Harassment at Military Academies Spike // Elizabeth Howe: The number of reports likely still represents only a small portion of actual instances of sexual assault and harassment.

Biden Says Russia Will Attack Within ‘Several Days;’ Blinken Lobbies For Peace at UN // Tara Copp and Jacqueline Feldscher: Russians “edge closer to that border,” with troops, combat aircraft, ships, and blood supplies, says Austin at NATO HQ.

The Naval Brief: More parental leave; Carriers sailing with unmanned vessels; Dangerous encounters; and more...  // Caitlin M. Kenney

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 2014, nearly 80 Ukrainian protesters were killed when demonstrations against the pro-Russian president at the time, Viktor Yanukovych, turned violent and police responded with grenades, bullets and tear gas. Three days later, Yanukovych faced possible impeachment in parliament, and chose to flee the country. Less than a week after that, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. 

Is Somali withdrawal regret beginning to set in for the U.S.? Then-President Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Somalia and the subsequent decision by President Biden to stop most air strikes there has led to the beginnings of an al-Shabab resurgence, Stars and Stripes’ John Vandiver reported Thursday, citing unnamed U.S. senior officials.
“It probably is not an effective long-term strategy,” one of the officials said. U.S. forces are now “outgunned” in the African country, Vandiver writes, and the reduced pressure on the terrorist group has allowed greater “freedom of movement and therefore the ability to attack more often.” Read on, here.

Should Taiwan copy the Palestinians’ diplomatic policy? Three think tankers argue United Nations recognition could be a game-changer for Taipei leaders looking to avoid some of the isolation Chinese leaders encourage with diplomatic pressure campaigns around the globe. “This approach can weaken Beijing’s stranglehold on multilateral institutions and boost Washington’s leverage in increasingly tense disagreements over Chinese efforts to ‘reclaim’ Taiwan and other territories,” Jonathan Schanzer, Richard Goldberg, and Mark Montgomery write in a new report from the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Also from FDD: An apparent “escalate to de-escalate” plan for Taiwan. Wisconsin Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher says he has a better idea than the Pentagon’s current strategy toward China, which he believes cannot meaningfully stop its military from trying to retake Taiwan by 2025. So he’s proposed 10 steps to change Beijing’s calculus, beginning with a rapid and robust expansion of airfields and U.S. military bases all along China’s proximity in the Pacific—from Alaska to American Samoa, and pretty much every U.S. island possession in between.
He also suggests sending a lot more long-range missiles to the area, and hiding as many as possible from the watchful eye of satellites in order “to create operational unpredictability and exacerbate the associated challenges.” According to Gallagher, the Philippines would be a great place to put them since there are “​​more than 7,000 islands and dense conceal and disperse long-range missiles within range of contested waters around Taiwan.”
Other steps include “Prepar[ing] Taiwan for a Protracted Siege,” and “Harden[ing] Targets in the United States,” since—of course—we’re flirting with the idea of a major world conflict here. Read the rest at FDD.

Lastly this week: There seems to be a draft of a possible new Iran nuclear deal floating around, Reuters reported in an exclusive on Thursday.
Involved (so far): “Iran suspending enrichment above 5% purity…unfreezing about $7 billion in Iranian funds stuck in South Korean banks under U.S. sanctions, as well as the release of Western prisoners held in Iran, which U.S. lead negotiator Robert Malley has suggested is a requirement for a deal.”
But no one knows yet how soon any of this could formally move forward. Continue reading, here.

Have a safe holiday weekend. And we’ll catch you again on Tuesday!