Today's D Brief: Biden to Poland; Putin's long war; Ukraine counters in E. Kyiv; Russian warship sunk?; Climate alarms; And a bit more.
U.S. President Joe Biden is flying to Poland today with ambitious plans to boost natural gas exports to the rest of Europe to try and help continental allies lower their dependence on Russian energy. Biden was joined by Ursula von der Leyen of the European Commission as he announced the plans Friday in Belgium.
Energy is one of the last fronts that the U.S. and its allies can try to damage Russia, which provides almost 40% of Europe’s natural gas, according to the Associated Press; but doing so without hurting Europeans has been a challenge since the Soviets began laying the pipe for that line back in the 1980s. The New York Times published an explainer Wednesday to bring us up-to-date on the history of the 3,500-mile line from Siberia to Germany. (And this week, we learned America’s top diplomat, Antony Blinken, wrote a book about this very subject way back in 1987.)
Caveat: Even “if all Europe’s facilities were operating at capacity, the amount of gas would likely be only about two-thirds of what Russia delivers through pipelines,” AP writes. That’s partly because “Import terminals are located in coastal areas, where there are fewer pipeline connections for distributing it.”
New: Ukraine troops are reportedly retaking towns east of Kyiv as Russian troops fall back from a counteroffensive near the capital. Ukrainian forces have pushed 35 kilometers east of Kyiv are “are likely to continue to attempt to push Russian Forces back along the north-western axis from Kyiv towards Hostomel Airfield,” according to the British Ministry of Defense.
Many Russian supply lines around Kyiv remain “overextended,” but others in the south aren’t in as bad a shape; Russians there “are still attempting to circumvent Mykolaiv as they look to drive west towards Odesa with their progress being slowed by logistic issues and Ukrainian resistance.” A bit more, here.
What Ukraine wants: 500 Javelin and Stinger missiles…per day. That’s according to CNN, which reported the numbers Thursday after obtaining a “wish list” from Kyiv.
Ukraine says it destroyed a Russian landing ship in the port of Berdyansk, west of Mariupol, early Thursday. The ship is known as the Orsk, and fire there “reportedly spread to other vessels as well as an ammunition depot and a fuel terminal in the port,” according to the BBC. “Footage from the scene appeared to show two ships sailing at speed from the port.”
Why it matters: “Capturing the towns of Berdyansk and Melitopol are part of Russia's bid to create a land bridge from Crimea to the Russian border, as well as establishing a route towards Zaporizhzhia,” the BBC reports. (For the record, it’s been about 12 years since a military ship was last destroyed by an enemy force; that would be South Korea’s Cheonan corvette that sank with 104 people onboard, killing 46 of them, when an apparent North Korean torpedo hit the vessel on March 26, 2010, in the Yellow Sea.)
New: U.S. officials say Russian precision-guided missiles are failing about half the time in Ukraine, though they “did not provide evidence to support the assessment and did not disclose what precisely was driving high Russian missile failure rates,” Reuters reported Thursday. The failure rate wasn’t always consistent, and it varied depending on the missiles under consideration.
One reason this is noteworthy: “Two experts interviewed by Reuters said any failure rate of 20% and above would be considered high.” Story here.
Update: At least 300 people died in Russia’s March 16 strike on a theater in Mariupol, the city council announced Friday. Several hundred people, including children, had gathered inside the theater for safety; at least 130 were rescued from a bomb shelter inside that withstood the blast. Officials at the theater had written the words “children” in large Russian letters on the ground in front of and behind the building before the strike, which you can see in before and after imagery via Maxar Technologies.
“Putin has already crossed the red line into barbarism,” said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday. “The more we can do to help Ukraine,” he told reporters in Brussels, “the faster this thing can be over.”
Russian mercenaries have been ordered to kill Ukraine’s president, the Brits also said Thursday (although “mercenaries” is probably putting it too generously). The Wagner Group is reportedly operating in Ukraine’s Donbas region, and some elements of the group are hunting Kyiv’s leader. The Wall Street Journal reported on the developments briefly Thursday, and admitted the Brits haven’t yet provided supporting evidence.
SecDef Lloyd Austin rang his Ukrainian counterpart on Thursday. The two discussed weapons that have arrived and others that are still expected. Tiny bit more from the Pentagon, here. (Austin was also on the line with his Japanese and Korean counterparts on Thursday as well. More on that below.)
Austin’s team has been trying to ring Moscow for the last several weeks, but those attempts have been rejected, the Washington Post reported Wednesday. That involves calls to Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, all of which have reportedly gone unheeded. CNN picks up the intrigue with a report Thursday about the curiously-absent Shoigu, who is allegedly in poor health.
Big picture: This is beginning to look like a long war, possibly more than a year. That’s just one observation Candace Rondeaux of New America explained in an interview Thursday for the latest episode of the Defense One Radio podcast.
What might an “off-ramp” for Putin look like? And what would a default on Russia’s debts mean for Moscow and the rest of the world? Paul Poast of the University of Chicago shared a few lessons from history in our second interview.
Perhaps more urgently, “I have a lot of concerns about the sustainability of the sanctions,” said Poast. “It's one thing to put on sanctions and have them go for two weeks, have them go for four weeks. But what if we’re starting to talk about two months, four months, six months, eight months? If we get into a situation where we have a protracted stalemate-type conflict, then this conflict is not going to end anytime soon. And if that's the case, what is going to be the willingness of countries to continue to have these sanctions put on Russia? Because that's the key…If it starts to fracture, which I think could very well happen, then that's going to create the type of relief, economic relief, if you will, that Russia needs to be able to keep the war machine going.” Read a transcript or listen to the rest of those conversations, here.
Message to U.S. Marines: Don’t try to visit Ukraine, Belarus or Moldova, service officials announced Thursday in a message entitled, “TRAVEL TO EUROPEAN THEATER.” Details here.
Back stateside, the U.S. unveiled charges against four Russian hackers who targeted the “global energy sector” from 2012 to 2018, according to the Department of Justice. Victims were spread across more than 135 different nations around the world—including nuclear installations, like one in Kansas.
Buried in those indictments: An impressively lengthy history of weapons manufacturing in St. Petersburg from the late 19th-century through 2009, hidden in a multi-page footnote (hat tip to Thomas Rid of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies).
What’s more, some of those hackers used U.S. Civil Defense docs from July 1969 for targeting specific locations and facilities. It could be this very document, or this one, as Rid unearthed and tweeted out. Read over the full DOJ indictments, here.
In more noise than news from Ukraine, Russian state media alleged Thursday that Ukraine’s “biolabs” are funded by Hunter Biden. The unfounded allegation traveled from Sputnik state-run media in the morning to Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox later that evening. Ben Collins of NBC News spotted the initial Sputnik story, and flagged it on Twitter; just 12 hours later Tucker was explaining the Kremlin’s propaganda line to his 3 million-plus viewers.
One former reporter’s advice: Do not look away from Ukraine, said Jane Lytvynenko of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media. Try not to “get bogged down in the sort of narratives Russia wants us to talk about,” she tweeted after the Kremlin’s talking points made it to Tucker’s show yet again. “Instead, give your attention to the people [of Ukraine], give your attention to what's happening to them, witness this war,” said Lytvynenko.
Russia, Ukraine, and the 2023 budget: It might be time to reconsider our previous understanding of what it takes to deter Russia’s military, Jon Wolfsthal former advisor to then-Vice President Joe Biden under POTUS44. “We may need more $ to defend Europe, but [it is] also possible we don't need as much since Russia [is so far] showing [it’s] not as capable as thought. Reassessment of Russia capabilities [is] needed, $ may be needed elsewhere.” More in his short Twitter thread Thursday, here.
- “How Russia and Right-Wing Americans Converged on War in Ukraine,” via the New York Times, reporting Wednesday;
- “Russia signals scaled-back war aims as Ukrainians advance near Kyiv,” via Reuters, reporting Friday;
- “Snake Island sailors are freed as Ukraine and Russia conduct a prisoner exchange,” via NPR, reporting Thursday;
- “Philadelphia City Council votes against calling for no-fly zone in Ukraine,” via the Washington Examiner, reporting Thursday;
From Defense One
Deter Russia’s Use of Chemical Weapons in Ukraine // Andrea Stricker and Anthony Ruggiero: How Biden handles threats will dissuade Moscow and other adversaries from using these weapons—or encourage it.
NATO Ignores Zelenskyy’s Plea For 1% of Its Tanks, Jets // Jacqueline Feldscher: Alliance announces four new battlegroups as GOP calls for more direct aid to Ukraine.
How Strategic Messaging Can Help Turn Putin Around // Dell Dailey and James P. Farwell: Cracks in the Russian leader's popular support can be deepened with careful appeals to the nation’s history and sense of greatness.
A Proposed NATO Peacekeeping Mission to Ukraine Could Deepen the Conflict // Jan Gerber: NATO should continue to support peace talks, while staying out of the war.
Welcome to this Friday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1865, treasonous Confederate officer Robert E. Lee led his final attack of the American Civil War, at the conclusion of what's known as the Siege of Petersburg. Lee formally surrendered two weeks later.
North Korea’s ICBM test Thursday was the “Largest liquid propellant missile ever launched from a road-mobile launcher. Ever. Anywhere,” said Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace—after Pyongyang released a batch of imagery from its latest test.
Word of advice: U.S. policy officials need to confront the difficult but apparent fact that Kim Jong-un has learned a key lesson from the demise of both Saddam Hussein and Muamar Gaddafi, says Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute in Monterey, Calif. “Unlike them, he's not going to disarm,” Lewis tweeted Thursday, following the North’s recent test. “He's going to continue to develop the ability to nuke the crap out of us if we attempt to invade…He's not building these missiles to trade them away, he's building them to deny Washington the ability to remove him from power.”
FWIW: “Google says it thwarted North Korean cyberattacks in early 2022,” via Engadget, reporting Thursday.
From the region: The Solomon Islands and China have drafted a defense pact that had been secretive but isn’t anymore after it was allegedly leaked online Thursday by opponents of the plan, the New York Times reports from Sydney.
And lastly this week: The world is “sleepwalking to climate catastrophe.” That’s how U.N. Secretary General António Guterres described the situation to attendees of Monday’s Economist Sustainability Summit. Despite some progress toward efforts to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius over pre-industrial levels, “the main problem was not solved – it was not even properly addressed,” Guterres said. “Keeping 1.5 alive requires a 45 percent reduction in global emissions by 2030 and carbon neutrality by mid-century.”
Broad, deep UN survey of climate data rings alarms. Guterres spoke three weeks after the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its sixth climate report, the final version of the 2018 report credited with jolting the global community into at least some action. It is “the first comprehensive U.N. update to the state of climate science in eight full years, since before the Paris accords,” and it is, well, a doozy.
AP’s lead: “Deadly with extreme weather now, climate change is about to get so much worse. It is likely going to make the world sicker, hungrier, poorer, gloomier and way more dangerous in the next 18 years with an ‘unavoidable’ increase in risks, a new United Nations science report says.” Full story from AP, here.
Crisis into opportunity? The energy crunch touched off by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would seem the perfect launchpad for a mighty effort to move America to renewable energy and end the vulnerability that has driven so much of its security policy for a half-century. “Unlike during previous crises, renewables and electric vehicles are now mature technologies that could be deployed immediately to cut oil demand. We no longer have to dream,” the Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer reports. “But instead of seizing it, lawmakers are sitting around. For the first time in many years, America has no credible plan for how to maintain its energy security in a geopolitical crisis.” Read on, here.
Have a safe weekend, and we’ll see you on Monday!