Today's D Brief: Russia resumes Mariupol attacks; Finland reports GPS problems; Sweden's defense spending hike; And a bit more.
Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine invasion, day 15: Russia’s attacks on civilian infrastructure continue in places like Mariupol, which suffered an especially tragic strike Wednesday when Russian shelling hit a hospital in the port city, allegedly killing at least three people, including one child, according to Ukraine’s President Volodymir Zelenskyy.
More than 1,200 bodies have already been collected from the streets of Mariupol, the deputy mayor told the BBC Thursday morning. An additional “47 people had been buried in a mass grave as it was not possible to reach burial sites outside the city,” he said.
Half of Kyiv has left the city, according to the mayor, Vitaly Klichko, who also spoke to the BBC on Thursday.
Round three of negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian officials failed to result in a ceasefire. Those talks (photo here) were moderated by Turkey’s top diplomat, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, in the Turkish city of Antalya; and they involved Kyiv’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
“I insisted on the urgent need to allow humanitarian help for Mariupol and a 24-hour ceasefire,” Kuleba tweeted afterward. “Unfortunately, FM Lavrov seemed to have come to talk, not to decide. I hope he will convey Ukraine’s requests back in Moscow.”
From Kuleba’s POV, “Russia is not in a position at this point to establish a ceasefire,” he told reporters in Turkey. “They seek a surrender from Ukraine. This is not what they're going to get. Ukraine is strong, Ukraine is fighting…We are seeking a diplomatic solution to this war. But we will not surrender.”
And Lavrov? Here he is just outright lying during his visit to Turkey: “We are not planning to attack other countries. We didn't attack Ukraine in the first place.”
The leaders of Germany and France rang Putin today, though nothing substantive seems to have resulted from those conversations, according to Russia’s Foreign Ministry.
And Russia seems to be very upset about the multitude of air defense systems given to Ukraine by partners and allies like the U.S., U.K., and other EU members. As a result, Moscow’s Foreign Ministry appears to have issued something of a threat to European aviation on Thursday morning: “We call on EU & NATO countries to stop the thoughtless flooding of the unviable Kiev regime with the latest weapons systems in order to avoid enormous risk to intl civilian aviation & other means of transport in Europe & beyond.”
Today at the White House: President Biden is expected to call Turkish President Recep Erdoğan to talk about Russia’s Ukraine invasion.
Those two U.S. Patriot missile batteries have arrived in Poland, Vice President Kamala Harris said today during a visit to Warsaw.
Coverage continues below the fold…
From Defense One
// Caitlin M. Kenney: Secretary Del Toro wants to give “decision space,” but lawmakers want specifics.
Put US Boots in Ukraine to Defend a UN-Approved Security Zone // James Jeffrey: It worked in Syria.
Pentagon Could Need More Cash if Ukraine Support, NATO Border Mission Drags On // Marcus Weisgerber: Pentagon Comptroller Mike McCord also said allies are contributing more now than in the past.
Establish a Zone of Peace in Western Ukraine // Sam J. Tangredi: Sending foreign troops to defend so-far-uncontested territory is the only way to preserve a free Ukraine and prevent Putin’s next attack.
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 1876, the telephone was first successfully tested by Alexander Graham Bell.
Russian chemical weapons watch. Western officials warn Russia could soon resort to chemical or biological weapons use inside Ukraine as its stalled blitz to topple Kyiv’s leadership grinds on slowly along multiple fronts from the east, south, and (still less so) in the north.
Where that comes from: Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. On Wednesday, she claimed on Twitter that “components of biological weapons were being developed in Ukrainian laboratories in direct proximity to Russian territory,” including the plague, cholera, and anthrax. Read over an actual U.S. State Department fact sheet about the labs (PDF) here.
Why this matters: Such allegations in the past have followed a script of projection and disinformation, and have often come when Moscow’s military offensives—or those of its allies, like Syria, e.g.—begin to stall.
WH: “We took note of Russia’s false claims about alleged U.S. biological weapons labs and chemical weapons development in Ukraine. We’ve also seen Chinese officials echo these conspiracy theories,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki tweeted Wednesday. “This is preposterous,” she said. “It’s Russia that has a long and well-documented track record of using chemical weapons, including in attempted assassinations and poisoning of Putin’s political enemies like Alexey Navalny. It’s Russia that continues to support the Assad regime in Syria, which has repeatedly used chemical weapons. It’s Russia that has long maintained a biological weapons program in violation of international law.”
“Russia has a track record of accusing the West of the very violations that Russia itself is perpetrating,” Psaki noted. “In December, Russia falsely accused the U.S. of deploying contractors with chemical weapons in Ukraine. This is all an obvious ploy by Russia to try to try to justify its further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attack on Ukraine. Now that Russia has made these false claims, and China has seemingly endorsed this propaganda, we should all be on the lookout for Russia to possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them. It’s a clear pattern.”
Said the Pentagon’s top spox: “We are not developing biological or chemical weapons inside Ukraine. This is textbook Russian propaganda,” Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters Wednesday.
“We have seen Russia use these weapons before in fields of conflict,” British Foreign Minister Liz Truss said Thursday in London, “That would be a grave mistake on the part of Russia, adding to the grave mistakes already being made by Putin,” she said.
Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin rang his Ukrainian counterpart Wednesday. In that call, Austin and Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov talked about “the continued provision of defensive security assistance to the Ukrainian Armed Forces,” and Austin “commended [Ukraine’s] heroic efforts to repel Russia’s unprovoked, premeditated war,” according to the Pentagon’s readout.
From a safe distance: Watch two Ukrainian explosives techs defuse a massive Russian bomb (that appears to be a high-explosive incendiary), via Twitter, here.
Finland’s largest airline reports GPS disruptions around Kaliningrad, which many Finnish planes fly over en route to both European and Asian destinations. What’s more, “Some 10 aircraft have also reported unusual disturbances in GPS signals near Finland’s eastern border with Russia since last Sunday,” according to Reuters.
FWIW, “Electromagnetic radiation from the sun and signal jamming are the only two reasons that could explain such long-lasting disturbances that affect several planes,” an analyst said. A bit more to that one, here.
ICYMI: “The two most pressing issues today are the situation in Ukraine and the security and defense of Europe,” Finland’s defense chief, Antti Kaikkonen, said Wednesday during a visit to the Pentagon. “Particularly with Ukraine, in Finland we have been shocked by Russian aggression,” he added, “but unfortunately the attack against Ukraine is a continuation of Russia’s aggressive behavior in the region,” Kaikkonen said, after noting his prior stops to Lockheed Martin facilities in Texas and another stopover at Eglin Air Force Base, in Florida.
“The war in Ukraine has profound implications for European security, for E.U., for NATO, for Finland,” he said while standing beside SecDef Austin at the Pentagon on Wednesday. “But as both of our presidents have stressed, this is not a European crisis, this is a global crisis. In these troubled times, Finland stands ready to work together with the United States.”
By the way: Sweden just vowed to raise defense spending to 2% of GDP “as soon as possible,” Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson said Thursday in Stockholm. Currently, the Swedes spend 1.3% of GDP on defense, which comes to about 70 billion Swedish crowns, or $7.18 billion. A 2% defense budget would translate to a 42 billion crown increase, according to Reuters.
Review British military support to Ukraine, including a new round of air defense systems known as Starstreak, via Defense Secretary Ben Wallace’s Wednesday address to the House of Commons.
Regarding global oil supplies, the UAE just changed its tune on Wednesday when Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s ambassador to Washington, told the Financial Times: “We favor production increases and will be encouraging OPEC to consider higher production levels.”
Related reading: “How a Playground for the Rich Could Undermine Sanctions on Oligarchs,” via the New York Times, reporting Wednesday about the UAE.
Professorial reax: “It is fascinating to see that the very secrecy, laissez faire business attitude, intermediary/brokering role, and regional financial hegemony that the U.S. has assiduously cultivated for Dubai are also the very things that it is now complaining about,” tweeted Laleh Khalili of Queen Mary University in London.
And in Russia, lawmakers want to seize the property of companies that leave the country or suspend operations, unless they agree to staff two-thirds of personnel and keep operations running for at least a year. Reuters has more.
ICYMI: Russia expedited mass burials for its military in late December, as Radio Free Europe reported.
For your ears only: We’ve rounded up a few of our favorite recent podcasts about Russia’s Ukraine invasion. They include (1) “The Media Show,” via the BBC, which looks at Russia's portrayal of events; (2) a great Sunday evening conversation with Dmitri Alperovitch, Rob Lee, and Michael Kofman; and (3) WNYC’s “On the Media,” which looked at the far-right appeal of Vladimir Putin. Let us know what you’re listening to by sending us an email.
- “China blames NATO for pushing Russia-Ukraine tension to 'breaking point',” via Reuters, reporting Wednesday from Beijing;
- “Putin’s World War Z Has Created a New Swastika,” via The Daily Beast reporting Monday;
- “The 'Z' spotted on Russian vehicles in Ukraine has become the Kremlin's pro-war meme,” via Task and Purpose, reporting Wednesday;
- “Construction of Aegis Ashore in Poland nearing completion,” and that could be this calendar year, but U.S. officials aren’t specifying, according to Defense News;
- “Satellite images show flooding north of Kyiv in possible sign of ‘hydraulic warfare’,” via the Washington Post, reporting Wednesday;
- And “Russia’s techies flee country they fear is ‘flying into an abyss’,” via FT, reporting Wednesday from London and Brussels.
South Korea has a new president: Yoon Suk-yeol, the conservative candidate, won in Wednesday’s election, which was the tightest race since 1987, according to the New York Times.
Two things to know about Yoon: “He insists that U.N. sanctions should be enforced until North Korea is completely denuclearized, a stance that aligns more closely with Washington’s” than his predecessor. And “Yoon has also called for ratcheting up joint military drills between South Korea and the United States—which were scaled down under Mr. Moon—another stance likely to rile North Korea, which may now raise tensions through more weapons tests.” More here.
And lastly today: 107 years after it sank, Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance has been found off the coast of Antarctica. The wooden ship became trapped in dense ice in 1915, “forcing Shackleton and his crew to make a stunning escape,” NBC News reported Wednesday, and now has been found “virtually intact”—even the ship’s name is still visible on the stern. The team that found the sunken ship used undersea drones to search for it, and had been looking for more than two weeks when they located the 144-foot ship, more than 10,000 feet down in some of the iciest waters on Earth, the New York Times reports. But despite the remarkable condition of the ship, it cannot be disturbed in any way because of its status as a designated monument under the international Antarctic Treaty, the BBC reports. Instead of removing any artifacts, the discovery team took extensive photos and video of the ship.