Today's D Brief: Russia's new Ukraine war plan; Kyiv's terms; Biden 'not walking anything back'; $813B for defense; And a bit more.

Russia’s Ukraine invasion, day 35: Moscow says it will “fundamentally cut back military activity” targeting northern cities like the capital, Kyiv, and others in the Chernihiv Oblast, on Belarus’s southeastern border. That’s the latest from Moscow’s Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, who spoke to reporters Tuesday. (Max Seddon of Financial Times preserved a video of that message, via Twitter.)

Why now? Ostensibly to “increase mutual trust for future negotiations to agree and sign a peace deal with Ukraine,” according to Fomin. But it’s also been clear to observers that over the past few weeks, Russia’s northern axis of advance has been its weakest; offensives in the south and the east have progressed more steadily by comparison. As a result, Ukraine’s military has begun gaining an upper hand in select locations, especially around the capital city of Kyiv. Ukrainian forces have reportedly pushed Russian troops out of several neighborhoods in recent days, like Irpin, as the Institute for the Study of War illustrated late Monday; but, unlike that battered convoy lingering in shambles some 15 miles or so on the outskirts of Kyiv, Russian airstrikes and long-range artillery do not seem to have stopped.

Two wonks’ reax: “Although I've been saying for a while I didn't think there would be a battle for Kyiv,” Michael Kofman of CNA Corp. tweets, “I will be surprised if they completely withdraw forces from the north, because that will free UKR units to reinforce JFO in the Donbas and give UKR a significant victory in this war.” His partner in analysis, Rob Lee, largely concurred in his own Twitter thread, writing, “I wouldn't jump to too many conclusions yet, but arguably the most important battle in this war is the successful defense mounted by Ukrainian forces in the Hostomel, Bucha, and Irpin areas NW of Kyiv since Feb 24. It may ultimately be regarded as the decisive battle of the war.”

On the diplomatic front, ceasefire talks are underway today in Turkey. And Ukraine reportedly wants security guarantees from countries including the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey, China, and Poland that are very similar to NATO’s Article 5 collective defense clause, according to the Associated Press. “Ukraine would also be willing to hold talks over a 15-year period on the future of the Crimean Peninsula, which was seized by Russia in 2014, with both countries agreeing not to use their armed forces to resolve the issue in the meantime,” AP writes. It’s unclear how Russia will react to those requests, but there’s been no known interest from the Kremlin in giving Crimea back to Ukraine.  

U.S. President Joe Biden plans to ring up his French, German, Italian, and British counterparts today, the White House said Tuesday. One of those men, French President Emmanuel Macron, is expected to ring Russia’s Vladimir Putin today as well. 

BTW: Biden said Monday that he’s not taking back what he said about Putin this weekend when he adlibbed during a speech in Poland, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Reporters confronted Biden about the remarks right out of the gate Monday during a press conference on the White House’s new budget (more on that below the fold). 

“I’m not walking anything back,” Biden said. “But I want to make it clear: I wasn’t then, nor am I now, articulating a policy change. I was expressing the moral outrage that I feel, and I make no apologies for it.”

New: The U.S. military just sent six Navy EA-18G Growler aircraft (and about 250 related support troops) to the Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany. The jets, which ​​use jammers to confuse enemy radars, are flying in from Washington state’s Naval Air Station Whidbey Island, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said in a statement Monday.

“They are not being deployed to be used against Russian forces in Ukraine” and “not in response to a perceived threat or incident,” Kirby said. “They are being deployed completely in keeping with our efforts to bolster NATO's deterrence and defense capabilities along that eastern flank.” A bit more, here.

Today on Capitol Hill, America’s top military commander in Europe, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, is testifying before lawmakers with the Senate Armed Services Committee. Wolters is in charge of U.S. European Command, which means he is also NATO's Supreme Allied Commander for Europe. He’s joined by Transportation Command's Air Force Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost for that hearing, which began at 9:30 a.m. ET. Catch the livestream here.

Coverage continues below…

From Defense One

Flat Army Budget Request Would Fund a Smaller Force // Caitlin M. Kenney: Active-duty force set to shrink amid tight labor market as service leaders propose a 1.7% 2023 budget.

Boeing Defense CEO Retires After Six Turbulent Years // Marcus Weisgerber: Leanne Caret's replacement, Ted Colbert, will become the only Black chief executive among the top 50 U.S. defense firms.

Navy Gets Budget Bump But Fleet Would Shrink Under Biden Request // Bradley Peniston: Increasing spending by just 5 percent and cutting two dozen ships, the Navy asks for modest budget changes as it wraps up a new fleet plan expected to be heavy on uncrewed vessels.

New Tech Budget Request is the Defense Department’s Largest Ever // Patrick Tucker: Pursuing China, the Pentagon aims to bump spending for artificial intelligence and 5G.

Space Force Gets Roughly 40% Increase in Biden Request // Tara Copp: A constellation of satellites will track ground vehicles, improve launch trajectories, and better nuclear command-and-control.

Let Us Retire 50-Year Old Radar Planes, Air Force Asks Congress  // Marcus Weisgerber: The E-7 Wedgetail is the “leading candidate” to replace the oft-grounded E-3 Sentry, if Congress approves the president’s 2023 budget request.

More Nuclear, Less Ground Attack in Biden’s Air Force Budget Request // Marcus Weisgerber and Tara Copp: The 2023 spending proposal calls for retiring 150 planes, shifting funds, and reconfiguring for possible war with China or Russia.

Biden’s $773B Request for Pentagon Stays Focused on China // Marcus Weisgerber: As war rages in Europe, 2023 budget proposal continues the military’s shift from ground combat to high-tech weapons.

Welcome to this Tuesday 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 18 years ago, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia were all added as members of NATO, raising the alliance’s membership from 19 to 26 nations.

Nearly four million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded. The United Nations’ latest count (from Monday) comes in at 3,901,713 men, women, and children now living as refugees in neighboring countries like Poland (with 2.3 million), Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia, and Belarus. 
At least 5,000 civilians have been killed by Russian strikes in Mariupol, the city’s mayor said Monday. That includes more than 200 children. Before the invasion began, Mariupol was a city about the size of Portland, Ore., with around 430,000 people. Today, only 170,000 are estimated to remain; and at least 40% of the city has been completely destroyed, according to Mayor Vadym Boichenko. Reuters has more.
The U.S. Treasury says it’s begun going after people who help Russian oligarchs hide their wealth, the Wall Street Journal reports from London, where U.S. Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo is today on business. “To those considering assisting these elites in hiding their ill-gotten wealth: We will find you,” Adeyemo said Tuesday in a speech at the UK's Chatham House. “And let me be clear: We are prepared to sanction those providing material support to sanctioned Russian elites and will hold them accountable for their role in enabling this unjustified war of choice.”
On the software and technology front, the Brits are warning citizens today that they don’t have to drop Russia’s Kaspersky computer protection and anti-virus suite—but it may be a good idea to do so anyway. “Russian law already contains legal obligations on companies to assist the Russian Federal Security Service, and the pressure to do so may increase in a time of war,” the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre warned in a blog post Tuesday. This follows similar advice from Italy and Germany. More from Reuters, here.
Related reading: 

The White House just unveiled the largest peacetime defense budget in history, with $773 billion for the Defense Department, including a 4.6% pay raise for service members, according to Reuters’ framing Monday. Including money across the Department of Energy as well as the FBI, the budget comes in at $813 for overall national defense, which is $35 billion more than what Congress agreed upon last year.

  • Read over Defense One’s coverage via any of the eight links above. 

What next? Lawmakers have several options for what to do now that they’ve gotten their hands on the White House’s budget plans. As Politico’s Connor O’Brien pointed out on Twitter Monday, they could “use it as a basis for writing appropriations bills, declare it dead on arrival, throw it in a recycling bin, or put it in an industrial shredder.”

Lastly today: A fire that started out on a range at Fort Hood “spiraled out of control” Sunday and will likely burn for several more days, Texas and U.S. military officials said Monday. The fire is the largest ever on the post, and has burned about 15 percent of Fort Hood’s land, according to the local paper, the Killeen Daily Herald. “We did put some fire on the ground to contain the fire, and also it ran on us,” Fort Hood Fire Chief Andrew Lima said at a news conference Monday. “With the wind, it came out like a train, it was moving on us.”
In other Fort Hood news, two Army veterans are facing possible prison time after stealing night-vision gear, PEQ-15 lasers, thermal scopes, and a lot more last June. The charges were unveiled by the Department of Justice’s Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Texas last week. The two vets used an acquaintance as a proxy as they tried to sell the gear online; investigators found the stolen items on eBay just days after the theft. Army Times has the rest of the story, here.