Today's D Brief: Biden at NATO HQs; At least 7K Russian deaths in Ukraine; Stoltenberg gets another year; N. Korea's new test; And a bit more.
Meeting of the minds in western Europe. NATO leaders are converging in Brussels today to discuss possible new ways to respond to Russia’s invasion of democratic Ukraine. The invasion is now in its fifth week, and Russia’s autocratic leader Vladimir Putin has little to show for his military’s efforts—short of several destroyed Ukrainian cities and thousands of dead Russian soldiers from eastern Kharkiv to southern Mariupol and up north of Kyiv.
New: Somewhere between 7,000 and 15,000 Russians soldiers have perished so far, the Associated Press reported Wednesday, citing NATO officials in Belgium. The Wall Street Journal got similar feedback from alliance officials in Brussels, and reported “up to 40,000 Russian troops have been killed, wounded, taken prisoner, or are missing in Ukraine.” Officials arrived at those estimates “Using statistical averages from past conflicts that for every casualty, roughly three soldiers are wounded,” according to the Journal. Officials seem to have less certainty when it comes to Ukrainian losses, which President Voldymir Zelenskyy put at 1,300 two weeks ago.
New: America’s top diplomat formally accused Russia of war crimes in Ukraine. “Russia’s forces have destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, critical infrastructure, civilian vehicles, shopping centers, and ambulances, leaving thousands of innocent civilians killed or wounded,” State Secretary Antony Blinken said in a statement Wednesday. “Many of the sites Russia’s forces have hit have been clearly identifiable as in-use by civilians. This includes the Mariupol maternity hospital,” as well as “a strike that hit a Mariupol theater, clearly marked with the word ‘дети’—Russian for ‘children’—in huge letters visible from the sky.” AP has more, here.
Intercepted radio communications from Russian troops around Makariv, west of Kyiv, suggest several chilling orders from Moscow’s invading forces, according to a thorough multimedia analysis published Wednesday by the New York Times. In one instance, “we hear the repeated order to cover the entire residential neighbourhood with artillery after the ‘property’ (хозяйство) has been removed—a likely codeword for Russian personnel or equipment,” according to Christiaan Triebert of the Times, who notes, “This could be a war crime.” Ukrainian forces appear to have pushed the Russians out of Makariv; but this week, the place looks like an absolute wasteland, as these images illustrate.
More: There’s an abundance of supporting imagery that seems to show additional war crimes, including this footage of a Russian military vehicle firing on and killing two elderly people stopped in a red sedan on the street in broad daylight. In terms of intercepted comms, perhaps unsurprisingly, Tribert adds, “we haven't noted Russian units discussing these incidents with civilians on the radio. Instead, we hear them talking about their own losses.” Dive into the rest of the Times’ superb reporting on these episodes, here.
New: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will stay on in his role for one more year, he said on Twitter Thursday morning. “As we face the biggest security crisis in a generation,” he said, “we stand united to keep our Alliance strong and our people safe.” (For the record, Stoltenberg has been on the job since 2014, making him the alliance’s second-longest serving secretary-general—behind Joseph Luns, who served from 1971-1984.)
Coverage continues below the fold…
From Defense One
US Mulls Larger Permanent Force in Europe, Sends More Missiles to Ukraine // Tara Copp: U.S., NATO will take "hard look" at European security footprint no matter how the Ukrainian fight goes, U.S. official says.
Army Replaces Decades-Old Fitness Test, But Keeps Age- and Gender-Based Scoring // Caitlin M. Kenney: Several years of experiments showed a single-standard approach to be detrimental to the overall force.
Chemical Weapons a ‘Real Threat’ in Ukraine, Biden Says // Jacqueline Feldscher: Russian rhetoric could be the precursor to an attack, NSA Sullivan says, as NATO plans to move more aid into Ukraine on Thursday.
What We Learned from Russia’s Assaults on Nuclear Plants // Ernest J. Moniz,Richard A. Meserve: Governments, international organizations, and nuclear plant operators have a lot of work to do.
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 1999, NATO warplanes began striking targets inside Yugoslavia, after the latter's ethnic cleansing of Albanians and subsequent refugee exodus threatened to destabilize Europe; strikes would continue until mid-June. NATO members had brought the matter to the United Nations Security Council for an authorization of military force, but Russia and China vetoed the proposal. Roughly two weeks into the campaign, an errant U.S. strike hit the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. The episode is a very sensitive one for Chinese diplomats, some of whom reference it—as did this Russian academic on Feb. 28—in a broader defense of Russia’s ongoing Ukraine invasion.
NATO just doubled its battle groups staged in eastern Europe, Stoltenberg announced Wednesday, and said more could be coming soon. “Along with our existing forces in the Baltic countries and Poland, this means that we will have eight multinational NATO battlegroups all along the eastern flank, from the Baltic to the Black Sea.” U.S. President Joe Biden called the new battlegroups “a strong signal that we will collectively defend and protect every inch of NATO territory,” he said in a statement Thursday. “Between now and the NATO summit in June, we will develop plans for additional forces and capabilities to strengthen NATO’s defenses.”
The Brits just announced 6,000 more missiles they’re sending to Ukraine’s military, along with £25 million (or about $32 million) in financial support. Most of the missiles are anti-tank rounds, along with some high-explosive rounds, according to UK officials. The Brits had previously sent about 4,000 such rounds; so this latest batch “more than doubles the defensive lethal aid provided to date to more than 10,000 missiles,” officials said late Wednesday.
“We cannot and will not stand by while Russia grinds Ukraine’s towns and cities into dust,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said in a statement. “One month into this crisis, the international community faces a choice. We can keep the flame of freedom alive in Ukraine, or risk it being snuffed out across Europe and the world.”
The UK also dedicated more than $5 million for the BBC World Service “as part of a cross-government effort to tackle disinformation in Russia and Ukraine, as well as new financial and policing support for the International Criminal Court’s investigation into war crimes.”
Not on Ukraine’s wishlist: A request for a no-fly zone from President Zelenskyy, White House officials said in a preview of events Thursday. More on some of the overall themes of the next few days—including a plea for China to do more to condemn Russia’s invasion—here.
A word of caution for Western officials: “Putin definitely knows how to build and exploit leverage,” Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warned Wednesday. “Take Putin's unexpected announcement that EU countries will now have to pay for natural gas shipments in rubles, not euros. That move, plus a Russian-directed shutdown of the Caspian Pipeline (1 mln/bpd), are pushing oil prices back to the $120 level today,” that is Wednesday.
Perhaps the biggest question, Weiss says, looms as large now as it did three weeks ago: “How long will it take to starve the Russian war machine?” And that suggests that “the West is entering a pain contest with Vladimir Putin. Can Joe Biden tolerate an uninterrupted spike in energy prices and the pass-through to inflation from other disruptions in global commodities markets and supply chains?”
Weiss’s framing is similar to what Lulu Garcia-Navarro of the New York Times described when she tweeted 11 days ago: “Putin is betting that the unity the democratic West is exhibiting will dissipate under the weight of refugees and high gas and food prices. The West is betting that sanctions and isolation will pressure the authoritarian Kremlin to buckle. This is a fight over which system will win.”
- “US to expand Russia sanctions, accept 100K Ukraine refugees,” via AP, out of Brussels;
- “Fertilizer Prices Surge as Ukraine War Cuts Supply, Leaving Farmers Shocked,” via the Wall Street Journal, reporting Thursday from Singapore, Argentina and Colombia;
- Russian “Steel Giant [Severstal] Set to Be First Major Russian Debt Default of Ukraine War,” also via the Journal, reporting Wednesday;
- “Nato countries set to give Ukraine kit to protect against nuclear and chemical attacks,” via the Guardian, reporting Wednesday from Belgium;
- “U.S. Makes Contingency Plans in Case Russia Uses Its Most Powerful Weapons,” via the New York Times, reporting Wednesday;
- And “Why Russian generals keep getting killed in Ukraine,” via Task & Purpose, reporting Wednesday.
North Korea appears to have test-launched its largest intercontinental ballistic missile yet. The ICBM was fired from near Pyongyang and traveled 684 miles, reaching an altitude of 3,728 miles, Reuters reported this morning. Officials in Seoul observed a higher-than-normal angle in the launch, possibly to avoid splashing down into Japanese waters, according to AP. It flew for 71 minutes and may have landed off the coast of the Japanese island of Hokkaido, according to Japanese officials.
“Today’s test is soups-to-nuts an ‘ICBM Test’ with a big-T,” Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tweeted Thursday in an illuminating thread. The missile launched may have been this sucker that Joseph Dempsey of the International Institute of Strategic Studies isolated on Twitter.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the launch “a brazen violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, and needlessly raises tensions and risks destabilizing the security situation in the region.” More here.
Today in events: Defense One’s virtual Intelligence Summit began at 10 a.m. ET and continues until 3:45 p.m. Register and tune in now to catch discussions on insider threats and the future cyber battlefield, among other topics.
Lastly today: A string of high-profile hacks have hit major tech firms like Microsoft and NVIDIA. Stop us if you’ve heard this before, but cybersecurity researchers reportedly “traced the attacks to a 16-year-old living at his mother’s house near Oxford, England,” according to Bloomberg, reporting Wednesday. Read more on this story at The Verge, Engadget or CNET.
See also TechCrunch, which widened the intrigue with this headline, “Microsoft confirms Lapsus$ breach after hackers publish Bing, Cortana source code.”