The D Brief: SecDef Austin to Germany; Graves near Mariupol; UK training Ukrainians; and more

America’s Pentagon chief is heading to Germany’s Ramstein Air Base next week where he’s expected to review plans for possible next steps in U.S. and NATO support for Ukraine’s military on Tuesday. And a key Russian general said Friday the Kremlin plans to take control of Ukrainian cities along the Black Sea to choke off Kyiv’s “deliveries of the agricultural and metallurgical products to other countries,” according to state-run TASS. That’s the latest as we begin week nine of Russia’s invasion of its democratic neighbor, a “special military operation” that has so far fallen well below Vladimir Putin’s initial goals of toppling Kyiv’s leadership and absorbing the former Soviet republic. 

Austin’s hectic Thursday: U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hosted two distinguished visitors at the Pentagon, and held two separate phone conversations with his counterparts in Germany and France yesterday. Austin and Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal discussed the latest $800 million U.S. military support to Kyiv. His other Thursday visitor, Czech Defense Minister Jana Černochová, said she traveled all the way to Washington “to assure [the] United States that the Czech Republic is a reliable ally, and that we will fulfill our pledge to reach two percent GDP in defense spending by 2025.” Prague’s Černochová also visited “to officially confirm the Czech intention to sign the defense cooperation agreement that will strengthen our position as a good ally of the United States,” she said while standing beside Austin at the Pentagon. 

For some perspective and scale, the latest round of U.S. military aid to Ukraine, which President Joe Biden announced Thursday, “together with the 18 howitzers that were announced on the 13th of April, provide enough artillery now to equip five battalions for Ukraine for potential use in the Donbas,” Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters Thursday. “And we're going to continue to utilize all available tools to support Ukraine's Armed Forces in the face of Russian aggression,” he said. 

And regarding Austin’s Tuesday meeting in Germany: “Topics will range on the agenda from obviously the latest battlefield assessment of the renewed Russian offensive in eastern Ukraine to energizing the Defense Industrial Base in an effort to continue the steady flow of security assistance” and “taking a longer, larger view at Ukraine's defense needs going forward,” Kirby said, and added, “We think it's time to have that discussion as well.”

  • Speaking of defense industrial bases, our colleague Marcus Weisgerber reviewed the latest from U.S. and allied efforts to arm Ukraine in our newest Defense One Radio podcast. We also spoke with Tanisha Fazal of the University of Minnesota about her latest essay in Foreign Affairs, entitled, “The Return of Conquest? Why the Future of Global Order Hinges on Ukraine.” Listen to, or read a transcript from this week’s episode here.

Meanwhile near besieged Mariupol, thousands of people have allegedly been buried in mass graves around the city, like this one located by Maxar satellites Thursday. It’s located about 12 miles west, where Russian soldiers had reportedly been taking the bodies of people killed in Mariupol. “A review of our satellite images from mid-March through mid-April indicate that the expansion of the new set of graves began between March 23-26, 2022, and has continued to expand over the past couple of weeks,” Maxar said in a statement Thursday. “The graves are aligned in four sections of linear rows (measuring approximately 85 meters per section) and contain more than 200 new graves.”

Mariupol’s mayor: “We need only one thing—the full evacuation of the population. About 100,000 people remain in Mariupol,” Vadym Boichenko said Friday on national television, according to Reuters. Recall that an agreed-upon ceasefire collapsed this week when alleged Russian shelling shattered the temporary truce to allow women, children, and the elderly to evacuate the city. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Friday she’s unsure when another humanitarian ceasefire might be attempted for Mariupol. 

Coverage continues below the fold…

From Defense One

Pentagon Reorganizes Industrial Policy Office to Shore Up Defense Firms, Supply Chain // Marcus Weisgerber: The restructure gives two new deputies to the assistant secretary for industrial policy—and "dissolves" another.

AI Is Already Learning from Russia’s War in Ukraine, DOD Says // Patrick Tucker: Today’s battlefield data is helping smart machines model the wars of the future.

Kyiv Asked for a New Kamikaze Drone to Fight Russia. The Air Force Delivered Phoenix Ghost // Tara Copp: At least 121 of the new drones are headed to Ukraine as part of the latest $800 million security package.

Biden Announces Third $800M Weapons Package To Ukraine To Help Donbas Fight // Jacqueline Feldscher: The White House will ask Congress for more money next week to keep weapons flowing.

Satellite-Imaging Firm to Double Its High-Resolution Constellation // Patrick Tucker: Planet’s new sats will allow more photos of global hot spots per day.

Ukraine Endgame: Putin’s Bad Options // John Nagl and Paul Yingling: No matter which one he chooses, the Western response should be the same.

Welcome to this Friday 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 1954, the Army-McCarthy hearings from America’s so-called “Red Scare” era began airing on live television. 

Vlad the invader said Thursday that Ukraine’s city of Mariupol had been “liberated,” and that Ukrainians still holed up in a steel plant should be blocked off by Russia’s military “so that not even a fly can escape.” The Associated Press reports an estimated 2,000 Ukrainians remain at the plant. Agence France-Presse has a bit more on Moscow’s messaging, here

War crimes watch: So far, the United Nations says it’s received “more than 300 allegations of killings of civilians in towns in the regions of Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, and Sumy, all under the control of Russian armed forces in late February and early March,” UN Human Rights chief Michelle Bachelet said in a statement Friday. 

“International humanitarian law has not merely been ignored but seemingly tossed aside,” she said. Already, the UN “has recorded 114 attacks on medical establishments,” Bachelet continued, and warned, “the actual figure is likely to be considerably higher.”

Update: At least 5.1 million Ukrainians have fled the country, “making this the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II,” according to the UN’s refugee agency. Another 7.7 million people have been displaced internally because of Russia’s invasion. 

The U.S. is opening its doors to 100,000 Ukrainians beginning April 25, now that it’s streamlined some procedural hurdles. That’s according to an announcement Thursday from the Department of Homeland Security. “To be eligible, Ukrainians must have been residents in Ukraine as of February 11, 2022, have a sponsor in the United States, complete vaccinations and other public health requirements, and pass rigorous biometric and biographic screening and vetting security checks,” DHS says. After checking those blocks, “Ukrainians approved via this process will be authorized to travel to the United States and be considered for parole, on a case-by-case basis, for a period of up to two years. Once paroled through this process, Ukrainians will be eligible for work authorization.” 

For the record: The policy is “designed to discourage Ukrainians from traveling to Mexico to seek entry along the U.S. southern border, where U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) processed a record 3,274 Ukrainians in March alone, a jump of more than 1,100% from February,” CBS News reported Thursday. “U.S. immigration officials have processed nearly 15,000 undocumented Ukrainians in the past three months, most of them along the Mexican border.” Read more, here

New: The UK is training Ukrainian troops on British soil, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Thursday during a trip to India. The British have given Ukraine 120 armored personnel carriers, and they’re training the Ukrainians on those, as well as in use of anti-aircraft weapons like the Starstreak system. Tiny bit more from the Guardian, here.

China’s off-the-shelf drones are off-limits for Ukraine’s military. And that has presented a big opportunity for manufacturers from the U.S. and elsewhere—like Utah’s Fortem Technologies Inc., Washington’s BRINC Drones Inc. and California’s Skydio Inc., the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.

One big problem: Chinese-made drone detectors never turned on like they were supposed to at the start of the invasion, according to indignant Ukrainian officials. Those DJI-made systems are known as Aeroscopes, and they’re used to “identify and track other drones and their pilots,” the Journal reports. Meantime, “The Russians have successfully used the same AeroScope systems, Ukrainian officials say, to target Ukrainian drones and pilots.” Read on, here.

Related reading: 

And we leave you this week with some curious tech news that has nothing to do with Ukraine: “Do any of us want to live in a world where our laundry might be listening in on our conversations?” The Wall Street Journal’s Joe Queenan asks that question now that “scientists have developed a remarkable new fiber that can hear and transmit sound, including human speech,” he reported Thursday. 

For the national security world, he calls the new stuff “surveillance fabric” that could “be used to spy on America’s most nefarious adversaries overseas, who often wear cheap T-shirts.” But it also raises a host of by-now familiar privacy considerations, like the one posed in Queenan’s question above. Read on, here.

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!