Today's D Brief: Ukraine FM to NATO; Eyes on Donbas; China's lessons learned; Boat blockade in Texas; And a bit more.

NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Brussels to discuss the future of support for Ukraine’s military. And more than anything at this stage of Russia’s ongoing invasion, that support means more and more weapons for Kyiv’s troops variously arrayed across the country. Estonia on Wednesday joined the U.S. in sending a host of new arms to Ukraine, including anti-tank missiles, howitzers, anti-tank mines, grenades and more worth at least €220 million. (The Pentagon announced $100 million in new weaponry Tuesday evening.) 

“My agenda is very simple ... it’s weapons, weapons, and weapons,” Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Thursday when he arrived in Brussels as a sort of special guest during week six of Russia’s invasion. “The more weapons we get, and the sooner they arrive in Ukraine, the more human lives will be saved, the more cities and villages will not be [destroyed],” he said. “I think the deal that Ukraine is offering is fair,” he added. “You give us weapons; we sacrifice our lives, and the war is contained in Ukraine. This is it.” The Associated Press has more from NATO, here; read over the NATO agenda here.

The latest Pentagon assessment: Russia’s northern tactical retreat appears to be complete. Moscow’s forces near Kyiv and Chernihiv “have completed their withdrawal from the area to re-consolidate and refit in Belarus and in Russia,” a senior defense official told reporters Wednesday. 

And the southern port city of “Mariupol remains isolated, but it has not been secured by the Russians despite some open-source reporting to the contrary of Ukrainians surrendering Mariupol,” the official said. 

But overall, Russia is still very much committed to this invasion. Of its “nearly 130 [battalion tactical groups] that they applied to this invasion, we still assess that they have, you know, a good many inside, you know, more than 80.” As for what’s next, the U.S. defense official said, “Our assessment is that they won't want to spend too much time on refit and resupply because they have made a very public show of saying that they're going to, you know, prioritize their efforts on the Donbas region.”

Why the intense interest in Donbas? Consider this rail map of Ukraine; it hints at the industrial output stretching out of Donbas. There’s also this bit of history from the Crisis Group

  • “Under the Soviet Union, Donbas was an industrial powerhouse, producing disproportionate shares of the Union’s coal and steel. Its population consisted largely of first- and second-generation migrants sent from other Soviet republics to staff its mines and factories. The region thus earned a reputation as one of the most ‘Sovietised’ parts of the Union—a place where pre-existing identities, languages and patterns of life had been supplanted by a multicultural society held together by common pride in industry, with Russian as the lingua franca.”

On the diplomatic front, Moscow is newly upset by Ukraine’s desire to negotiate over Crimea and the eastern Donbas, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a statement Thursday. During the last round of talks in Turkey, “the Ukrainian delegation proposed a 15-year negotiating process for Crimea, the peninsula that Russia seized in 2014,” the New York Times reports. And this week, Belarus’s own autocratic leader insisted future peace talks must include someone from his government, declaring, “There can be no separate deals behind Belarus’s back.”

The FBI just disrupted a major botnet campaign from Russian military hackers. The Justice Department announced the moves Wednesday, and said, “The operation copied and removed malware from vulnerable internet-connected firewall devices that [the hackers] used for command and control.” TechCrunch has more.

On the information war front, Russia is again threatening Wikipedia for not presenting only Moscow’s version of the invasion. The website already faced a threat from Russia in early March, and responded, “we will not back down in the face of efforts to censor and intimidate members of our movement.” ArsTechnica has more.

And Facebook just booted a Russia-based network of about 200 accounts that had sent thousands of false complaints against Facebook users “typically with the intention of silencing others,” the social media firm now known as Meta said in its latest quarterly threat report. “Their coordinated reporting increased in mid-February, just before the invasion of Ukraine. Likely in an effort to evade detection, the people behind this activity coordinated targeting of mass reporting in their cooking-themed Group, which had about 50 members when we took it down,” said Meta. 

POTUS44 on disinformation and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine: “I do think there’s a demand for ‘crazy’ on the internet that we need to grapple with,” former President Barack Obama said Wednesday at a disinformation and democracy seminar at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. “What we’re seeing is a reversion back to the old ways of thinking about power, place and identity.” The Chicago Times has more from that event.

For your ears only: The Middle East Institute considered “The Parallels of Ukraine and Syria” in a new podcast featuring Iulia-Sabina Joja and Charles Lister. 

Word of warning in terms of China’s possible lessons learned from this invasion: “Taiwan is 14,000 square miles, compared with Ukraine at 233,000 square miles,” writes former U.S. Navy undersecretary Seth Cropsey, in the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal. He argues in his column that “China would need to project power only 300 miles from its coast using long-range missiles and submarines to keep U.S. forces at arm’s length as it assaults Taiwan after disabling the island’s air defenses.” The U.S., by comparison, has much more distance to cover to meet that possible threat with the full support of its military. “Given America’s logistical issues, a long war may be China’s best bet,” he writes, and posits in parting, “A year of economic brutality and sustained combat might wear the U.S. down and force capitulation.” Read the rest, here.

Related reading: 


From Defense One

Sea-Air-Space 2022 Conference Wire: Ukraine Lessons // Caitlin M. Kenney: A former CNO looks at the Russian invasion, and and other news from the naval conference's Day 2.

Russia, Ukraine, and the Misuse of History  // Gian Gentile and Raphael S. Cohen: Strained analogies do nothing but mislead us about what comes next.

The Ukraine War Is Giving Commercial Space an ‘Internet Moment’ // Jacqueline Feldscher: Improvements spurred by Russia’s invasion will help the industry long after the fighting ends.

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 1945, U.S. Navy bombers and torpedos sank Japan’s unprecedentedly-large Yamato battleship, built in the late 1930s to defeat the U.S. at sea and bolster Japan’s planned imperial expansion throughout the region. 


Happening now on the Hill: Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley are testifying this morning before the Senate Armed Services Committee, extending Tuesday’s House hearing on the Defense Department’s new $773 billion budget request. Catch the livestream via the Pentagon, here.

The Texas National Guard has been ordered to rehearse with riot gear and “form boat blockades in the Rio Grande” as many observers expect a steep rise in immigration late next month, Stars and Stripes reported Wednesday after an announcement from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. He’s preparing for the end of a strict, Trump-era pandemic-related border policy called Title 42, which is set to end on May 23. “The order, which allows federal immigration officials to turn away migrants, including those seeking asylum, has been used roughly 1.7 million times to expel migrants over the past two years,” the New York Times reports.
For the record: Seeking asylum is a right under U.S. law. That’s significant here because a “large amount of migrants apprehended along the southern border surrender to law enforcement and look to seek asylum, which is legal,” as North Texas KERA news reported Wednesday.
Bigger picture: Abbott’s measures have come at enormous costs, and include “miles of fencing and other barriers [as well as]...thousands of National Guard members [deployed] along the border, a mission that is expected to cost $2 billion annually,” the Times writes. What’s more, “The leaders of the Texas Military Department said this week that the effort, which began last year, had been costlier than anticipated and that they would need an additional $500 million to keep it running.”
By the way: Immigration is actually a fiscal net-positive for Texas. Indeed, “for every dollar the Texas state government spends on public services for undocumented immigrants, new research indicates, the state collects $1.21 in revenue,” according to a 2020 study from Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.
Related reading:Ex-Trump officials urge Texas to declare border 'invasion,’” via AP, reporting Wednesday from San Antonio.

Amazon just got a greenlight to launch three new heavy-lift rockets into space as part of its Project Kuiper effort to send more than 3,000 satellites into orbit beaming broadband internet across planet Earth. Amazon says its “secured up to 83 launches from three commercial space companies—Arianespace, Blue Origin, and United Launch Alliance—to provide heavy-lift capacity for the program,” according to a statement Tuesday. “These agreements mean we have enough capacity to carry into space the majority of the 3,236 satellites that make up our satellite constellation.”
The idea is to “serve individual households, as well as schools, hospitals, businesses, disaster relief efforts, government agencies, and other organizations operating in places without reliable broadband,” Amazon says. The BBC has a bit more, including a comparative look at other firms like SpaceX that have similar and loftier ambitions, here.

Meanwhile in Iraq, Rockets are still occasionally falling on Irbil, in northern Kurdistan. Rudaw news reported Wednesday that three “Katyusha rockets landed in an area within the borders of Khabat and Kawergosk subdistricts in Erbil province.”
Fortunately, no one was harmed and no infrastructure was damaged, according to Rudaw. Similar rockets have been launched by Iran-backed militias in the region in the past; a local mayor Wednesday said the barrage came from Nineveh province, where Iran-backed Hashd al-Shaabi fighters are known to reside, and the attack appeared to target a refinery west of Irbil. The man who owns that refinery was allegedly “targeted by Iranian missiles last month” at his personal residence. More here.  

Admin note for events people: The Air Force Association is officially taking on space—and changing its name, the organization announced Thursday. “After 76 years as the preeminent voice for American air and space power, AFA today announced it is changing its name to better match its mission and will henceforth be known as the Air & Space Forces Association,” it declared on Twitter
For the record: “AFA will retain its three-letter acronym that has served the Association since its start,” according to an explanatory note on their website. “But the new name and a distinctive new Star-Delta logo will redefine what those letters stand for. These changes ensure those new to the association understand the breadth of its mission: To educate the public about air and space power, to advocate for the world's most capable, most lethal, and most effective Air and Space Forces, and to support Airmen, Guardians, and their families.” More here.

U.S. Marines’ “Trinity” leadership fired. The commander and command sergeant major of Hawaii-based 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marines—part of 3rd Marine Division—have been relieved, Task & Purpose was first to report Tuesday. The commanding officer, Lt. Col. Benjamin Wagner, first enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1995, and became an officer after graduating from the Naval Academy in 2002, according to his official biography. He was replaced by Lt. Col. Felix Guerra, while Sgt. Maj. Jayson Clifton was replaced by Sgt. Maj. Timothy Eldredge. The battalion is part of what the Marine Corps recently redesignated as 3rd Marine Littoral Regiment; that redesignation was made as the Corps moves forward with Commandant Gen. David Berger’s Force Design 2030 modernization plan.
The decision to fire Wagner and Clifton was made after an investigation triggered by anonymous complaints to the Inspector General, Marine spokesman Maj. Kurt Stahl told Task & Purpose. In an email to Defense One’s Jennifer Hlad, Stahl said the commander of 3rd Marine Division relieved the two on March 31 “due to a loss of trust and confidence in their abilities to continue leading in their assigned duties. Wagner was reassigned to the headquarters of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Pacific, while Clifton’s next assignment “is pending.”
And lastly: RIP Marine veteran Kate Thomas, who served in Fallujah, Iraq in 2005 and developed terminal breast cancer as a result of her exposure to burn pits. Thomas died Tuesday at 42. She was an outspoken advocate for legislation to help and recognize military victims of toxic exposure, and had appeared on Capitol Hill to lobby for legislation for other victims of toxic exposure. She was unable to attend the most recent rally because she was in hospice care. President Biden has called caring for victims of toxic exposure a “sacred obligation,” but Congress is still working on legislation to help those veterans.

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