Today's D Brief: Russia escalates in Kharkiv; Moscow's early stumble; Unprecedented sanctions begin; Germany's about-face; And a bit more.

We are five days into Russia’s Ukraine invasion, and Moscow appears to be dramatically escalating its missile and rocket attacks on Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv—even as the two countries have sent delegates to Belarus for negotiations to possibly change the direction of Russia’s war of choice. Already, at least 44 people have been killed in Monday’s attacks by Russia, the Associated Press reports. 

About the talks: Ukraine’s President Volodymir Zelensky said Sunday he was not optimistic that they would end the war, but he didn’t want his fellow countrymen to think he has not tried every avenue for peace with Russia’s autocratic leader Vladimir Putin. 

Two headlines that point to some of the early takeaways thus far in this “special military operation,” as Putin described it last week: 

New: The U.S. has suspended its embassy operations in Belarus, and all American personnel have left the country, according to Special Envoy for Belarus Ambassador Julie Fisher. “Belarus’ complicity in Russia’s war against Ukraine has shown the regime’s loss of sovereign decision-making,” Fisher said. 

The EU has closed its airspace to Russian aircraft, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen announced Sunday. (Canada, too—though a Russian plane has already violated that ban, Reuters reports. It’s unclear what the costs will be for that or future violations.)  

And quite surprisingly, the EU is paying to give Ukraine’s air force Russian-made jets, since that’s what Kyiv’s pilots already know. Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber explains what’s going on there, over here.

Germany’s about-face: Europe’s economic powerhouse just added $113 billion to its military, which is a dramatic turn of events for the nation that’s been so famously reticent to appear militant in the decades after the Second World War. The new defense spending surge puts Germany over the 2% GDP threshold U.S. presidents have been pressuring European nations to take for many years. The New York Times has more.

Heavy sanctions from the EU, U.S., and even Japan and Australia have begun hitting Russia’s economy this morning, sending the currency plummeting to historic lows, Reuters and the Wall Street Journal report. 

Said one wonk: “It’s a weird feeling to see almost every policy recommendation you’ve ever made implemented within the span of a week,” Paul Massaro tweeted on Saturday. 

Enormous protests against Russia’s invasion popped up in cities across the globe, as CBS News tallied in a Twitter thread with supporting photography on Sunday. From Madrid to Milan, Paris to Athens, Taiwan to Tbilisi, Chicago to New York City—and many more around the world. More here.

The Kremlin’s pre-invasion research into Ukraine was badly misleading, analysts at Britain’s Royal United Services Institute reported Friday after reviewing material provided by Ukrainian officials. Worth the click, here.

Another thing: Putin wrote a 7,000-word essay last summer in which the Wall Street Journal reports “he began making his current case for attacking Ukraine.” In it, “Putin outlined what he said was evidence that Ukraine is an artificially-created country infiltrated by foreign forces and overrun by nationalists who threaten Russia’s security.” And that sounds, of course, just like the two speeches he delivered last week—especially the Thursday one alleging “Nazis” are running the Ukrainian government in Kyiv. 

That essay “soon became so core to the Kremlin’s narrative on Ukraine that the Defense Ministry added it to the curriculum studied by all Russian service members,” the Journal reports, “including the 190,000 troops estimated to have massed near Ukraine’s borders ahead of Thursday’s invasion.” More here.

  • Related reading: State-run Russian media service RIA-Novosti appears to have prematurely published a “victory” website on Saturday, and deleted it shortly afterward. But several people saved screenshots for the WebArchive. “Now this problem is gone—Ukraine has returned to Russia,” it declares. That, here. (Hat tip to the BBC’s Alistair Coleman for spotting this one.)

Don’t look now, but 10 “Rambos” are heading to Ukraine from the U.S. and U.K., Buzzfeed News reported Sunday from Kyiv. For the record, they’re just 10 alleged special operations vets from those two countries and Germany, according to Buzzfeed’s Christopher Miller. “They want to be among the first to officially join the new International Legion of the Territorial Defense of Ukraine that Zelensky announced Sunday.” Story here.  

ICYMI: Ukraine’s Turkish-made drones are taking out Russian vehicles, though the munitions involved are inherently limited, as this video from the Ukrainian military, released Sunday, seems to illustrate. 

Turkey’s fine line: As a sort of gatekeeper to the Black Sea, Ankara has a special responsibility on the sidelines of Russia’s ongoing “war,” as Turkey’s foreign minister described it over the weekend. As a result of Moscow’s aggression, Turkey has decided to limit the number of ships allowed into the Black Sea—but it cannot completely block all Russian ships from transiting due to a clause in the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Straits. 

Said Turkey’s top diplomat on Sunday: “There should not be any abuse of this exemption. Ships that declare returning to their bases and passing through the straits should not be involved in the war,” Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu said. Reuters has more from Ankara.

Kosovo now wants a permanent U.S. military base, and to become a NATO member as soon as it can, its defense minister said Sunday on Facebook. “Accelerating Kosovo's membership in NATO and having a permanent base of American forces is an immediate need to guarantee peace, security, and stability in the Western Balkans,” said Defense Minister Armend Mehaj.

Don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. Kosovo is a nation born from NATO’s 1999 intervention in Serbia; and—in addition to Russia and Serbia—four NATO members still don’t recognize Kosovo’s 2008 independence, Reuters reported Sunday.

You may remember the U.S. already has at least one small base in Kosovo. Several dozen Afghan evacuees who failed security screenings are currently being held at a U.S. base in Kosovo called Camp Bondsteel, as Stars and Stripes reminded us in late December.

From Defense One

Putin Puts Nuke Forces on Higher Alert; Zelensky Agrees to Peace Talks // Tara Copp: Ukrainian leader to meet Russian negotiators at Belarusan border as invasion enters 5th day.

What Just Happened With Putin’s Nuclear Forces? Here’s What Experts Say // Bradley Peniston and Caitlin M. Kenney: Whatever it is, U.S. officials are calling it escalatory–but not “high alert.”

Germany Pledges Defense Spending Boost as EU Vows to Send Arms to Ukraine // Marcus Weisgerber: Both developments are big changes.

Can Ukraine Really Use Donated Fighter Jets? That Depends // Marcus Weisgerber: After EU says it will send some aircraft to Ukraine, a retired U.S. fighter chief explains how that might work.

Welcome to this Monday 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 1991, Operation Desert Storm came to an end. 

The U.S. Navy sent a destroyer through the Taiwan Strait on Saturday, U.S. officials at 7th Fleet announced over the weekend. China, as usual, called the transit a “provocative act,” whereas Taiwan said it monitored the ship as it sailed north through the Strait “and observed nothing out of the ordinary,” Reuters reported from Beijing.
In case you’re curious, Taiwan is in a heightened state of alert because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Reuters noted. 

Both North Korea and China launched satellites over the weekend, though Pyongyang only launched one, whereas Beijing just broke its previous record and launched 22 in a single shot, according to
For North Korea, the Sunday launch marked the eighth time this year it has sent a projectile up and into the East Sea—though this time the trajectory was notably different from the others (300-km distance, at a peak altitude of 600 km, which is quite high). After some speculation by specialists here in the states, North Korean officials announced Sunday that they’d tested “cameras to be installed on [a] reconnaissance satellite.”
“I don't exactly understand what the value added here is,” said Jeffey Lewis of the North Korean test. However, he adds, this launch does “remind us that Kim Jong Un committed to launching a military reconnaissance satellite at the last meeting of the Worker's Party Congress.” And that suggests “we should expect a North Korean space launch sooner or later,” Lewis tweeted Sunday evening.
About China’s launch: Two research institutes and seven commercial imaging firms sent hardware into orbit on Sunday. At least two of the satellites “carry imagers and automatic identification system receivers for maritime surveillance,” SpaceNews reports. China also sent a few more satellites into orbit on Saturday, marking its third and (with Sunday’s launch) fourth orbital missions for the calendar year.
For the record: “China set a new domestic record of 55 launches in 2021, far surpassing the previous record of 39 launches conducted by China in 2018 and 2020,” SpaceNews reports.
In fact, nations around the world launched more satellites in 2021 than any year prior, with 133 successes out of 144 orbital launches attempted, according to Ars Technica, reporting in January. 1967 and 1976 were the two other comparably busy years for satellite launches and launch (or orbital) successes. Read more, here.

The Taliban say they’re doing house-to-house security sweeps in Kabul, al-Jazeera reported from the Afghan capital on Monday. Those sweeps are supposed to be targeting “kidnappers, thieves, and looters who have weapons in their hands and threaten the lives of the people,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, but many people are worried the Taliban is also looking for people who worked with the previous government or the United States.
FWIW: Mujahid said they have arrested six suspected ISIS members, nine kidnappers, and 53 “professional thieves” in the operation, al-Jazeera reports.

And lastly today: Temporary fencing is going back up around the U.S. Capitol ahead of Tuesday’s State of the Union address in Washington—an event that participants of the far-right “trucker convoy” have vowed to disrupt by attempting to obstruct traffic around the nation’s capital. “At least four groups of truckers,” including one from California and several from the East Coast, seem to be headed to DC, Bloomberg reported Sunday, though an official said they couldn’t be sure about truck numbers or timing.
The decision to put the fence back up was made “out of an abundance of caution,” Capitol Police Chief Tom Manger said. CBS News has a bit more, here.