Today's D Brief: Putin's 'war of choice'; Sanctions hit Moscow; China's Russian risk; Milestone moment for COVID-19; And a bit more.

“This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine,” U.S. President Joe Biden said Tuesday from the White House. “And if we listen to [Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s] speech” Monday night from Moscow, “he's setting up a rationale to go much further.”

That’s why the Pentagon is routing some of its European-based assets to NATO’s eastern flanks in Poland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, the Defense Department announced Tuesday. That includes an 800-person infantry battalion task force from Italy, “up to eight” F-35 Joint Strike Fighter jets and 20 AH-64 helicopters from Germany, and a dozen more AH-64s moving from Greece to Poland. 

“Let me be clear: These are totally defensive moves on our part,” Biden said Tuesday. “We have no intention of fighting Russia. We want to send an unmistakable message, though, that the United States, together with our Allies, will defend every inch of NATO territory and abide by the commitments we made to NATO.” 

“Mr. Putin can still avoid a full-blown, tragic war of choice,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday at the Pentagon. But, he added while standing beside Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, “The U.S. support for Ukraine's self-defense, sovereignty, and territorial integrity is unwavering.” Those newly routed U.S. troops and equipment are expected to be in place at their new destinations by the end of the week. Read more about recent U.S. military assistance to Ukraine in a Pentagon fact sheet (PDF) published Tuesday.

Ukraine just declared a state of emergency and began mobilizing reservists, the Wall Street Journal reports from Kyiv. While those are certainly notable initial steps, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stopped short of mobilizing the full military, as well as the general civilian population; and he asked everyone else to try to continue with their normal lives.    

The U.S. and its allies began sanctioning Russian officials and banks shortly after Russian tanks and equipment began pouring into Ukraine’s east once more following Putin’s Monday speech. “We’re implementing full blocking sanctions on two large Russian financial institutions: V.E.B. and their military bank,” President Biden said Tuesday. “And because of Russia’s actions, we’ve worked with Germany to ensure Nord Stream 2 will not—as I promised—will not move forward.” Biden also promised more to come should Russia escalate further inside Ukraine. 

New: The EU is about to sanction Russia’s military chief, Sergei Shoigu, the Wall Street Journal reports. The bloc is also adding sanctions to Moscow’s infamous “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency. The EU hasn’t yet sanctioned Vladimir Putin himself; that’s one of those measures that (like the U.S.) European officials want to reserve, if Russia escalates.

Also targeted in EU sanctions: Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who (at least to your D Brief-ers) bears a striking resemblance to Die Hard 3’s secondary villain, Katya. And perhaps unsurprisingly, Zakharova is already posting graphic pictures of bodies she alleges are from a “genocide” in Ukraine’s Donbas. (Hat tip to Jennifer Griffin of Fox for flagging that one on Twitter on Wednesday.)

Not sanctioning Russia: China. Its foreign ministry spokesman said Wednesday, “Sanctions have never been a fundamentally effective way to solve problems.”

One skeptical wonk’s POV: “The expectation that even the most brutal economic sanctions are going to stop a great power from trying to obtain territory that its leader seems hellbent on acquiring is a fiction,” Tufts University’s Daniel Drezner told the Washington Post.

Coverage continues below the fold… 

From Defense One

Putin Is Preparing to Take More of Ukraine by Force, Biden Says, Announcing New Sanctions  // Tara Copp: NATO’s Stoltenberg says Russian forces are flowing into Ukraine breakaway regions.

​​Above Ukraine, a Cold War Spy Plane Is Finally Tracking a Russian Invasion // Marcus Weisgerber: Air Force officials had already started retiring 30-year-old E-8C JSTARS.

Russia’s Ukraine Claims Don’t Convince Europe, US Officials Say  // Patrick Tucker: The chairman of Europe’s largest intergovernmental security group calls Putin’s moves “a breach of international law.”

Russia Is Choking Off Air Travel to Ukraine  // Elisabeth Braw: Moscow doesn’t need troops and roadblocks to isolate a target country.

National Guard Troops Requested to Help During Possible Trucker Protests // Caitlin M. Kenney: One convoy organizer said they plan to shut down the Capital Beltway.

To Stop Iran’s Proxy Terrorists, Stop Iran  // Bradley Bowman, Ryan Brobst, and Joe Truzman: The U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia, and UAE must do more to stop Tehran together.

Welcome to this Wednesday 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 1886, American chemist Charles Martin Hall (who was just 22 years old at the time) discovered a remarkably cheaper way to produce aluminum, which revolutionized the industry and later helped launch Alcoa, with Hall as one of the founders. Learn all about “The Uneasy Alliance Between Aluminum and Warfare” at the MIT Press Reader, here.

The view from Capitol Hill: “An attack on freedom” is how the Democrat and Republican leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee—Jack Reed of Rhode Island and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, respectively—described Russia’s re-invasion of eastern Ukraine in a joint statement on Tuesday.
“Putin, in his unending quest to expand his authoritarian regime, has trampled on Ukraine’s sovereignty and jeopardized the peace that was forged in the aftermath of the Cold War,” Reed and Inhofe write. “But we should be clear: Ukraine, NATO, and the international community are not, and have not been, the aggressors. Putin has chosen armed violence against the sovereignty of Ukraine. America and our partners and allies around the world will continue to provide robust security, economic, and humanitarian assistance to the government of Ukraine.”
Says one Putin-watcher: The Russian dictator is not mad, nor is he brilliant, argues Mark Galeotti of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies. Instead, Galeotti writes in The Telegraph, Putin “is a remnant of the last true Soviet generation, unable to come to terms with the end of his old world, unwilling to understand the new.”
China’s message to the world: Calm down, Taiwan is not next. “Taiwan is not Ukraine,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday. “Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China. This is an indisputable legal and historical fact.” Reuters has a tiny bit more.
Worth noting: China has still not recognized Russia’s 2014 annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula. But beyond that congruence with the West, China’s coziness with Putin’s Russia may not be sustainable beyond the current decade, warn Jude Blanchette and Bonny Lin of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.
Related reading: 

The Iran nuclear deal could soon return in a significant way, and Israel is deeply concerned about that, AP reported in a nifty explainer from Jerusalem on Wednesday.
Food for thought: “Anybody gearing up to destroy a revived JCPOA has now got to explain how the US can deal w/an acceleration of tensions w/an Iran racing for the bomb at the same time as a newly belligerent Russia, even as it invests in its supposed Indo-Pacific priority,” tweeted Mike Mazarr of Rand Corporation. “If it comes through, this would be a classic example of strategic wisdom: Mitigate and manage some risks while you focus on others,” he continued. “Pushing white-hot confrontations with Russia, China, and Iran all at the same time is a recipe for failure.” 
From the region: Lebanon says it thwarted an ISIS bomb plot targeting three Hezbollah locations in Beirut, Agence France-Presse reports. “Lebanon's Internal Security Forces (ISF) said the instructions for the bomb plot came from an IS operative based in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ain al-Hilweh, who is in touch with fellow Sunni extremists in Syria.” An alleged undercover agent intercepted the plans before they materialized in the city once known as the “Paris of the Middle East.” Read on, here.

Milestone moment in global health: Nearly 700 days since the pandemic started, COVID-19 vaccine supply has finally exceeded demand at the UN’s global vaccine program, COVAX. But it’s not necessarily cause for celebration, Reuters reports. Though only a third of people in low-income nations are vaccinated, compared to more than 70 percent in wealthier countries, those poorer countries only asked for 100 million vaccines out of the 436 million available in the latest allocation round, in part because of problems with distribution networks, storage, and vaccine hesitancy, Reuters writes. More, here.