Today's D Brief: Russian flagship sinks; Kyiv under attack; China steamed over Taiwan visit; Israel, LM have new lasers; And a bit more.
Ukraine’s capital city of Kyiv is under renewed Russian rocket attack after Moscow’s enormous Black Sea Fleet flagship, Moskva, officially sank on Thursday, according to state-run media TASS and RT. The Russians have made no mention of the warship being hit by Ukrainian munitions prior to sinking, as Kyiv officials allege. Instead, the Russian defense ministry today says it’s targeting munitions factories around Kyiv one day after the Moskva sank while being towed to port in a fierce storm on the Black Sea. (How fierce was that weather? Not very, judging by forecasts of the region during the time in question.)
In perspective: Moskva’s sinking is “the biggest by tonnage to fall in wartime since Japan’s legendary battleship the Yamato,” according to the Wall Street Journal. Others pointed out that it’s the first to fall in combat since the Falklands War in the early 1980s, when a British submarine torpedoed and sank an Argentine navy cruiser known as the General Belgrano.
Bigger picture: The sunken Moskva is now “a symbol of Putin's disastrous strategic gamble on war” with Ukraine, said Patrick Cronin of the Hudson Institute. “The Kremlin’s current story of losing the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet due to an accidental fire and ammunition explosion will, at minimum, likely hurt Russian morale and cannot be hidden from the Russian domestic audience,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War wrote Thursday evening. “Both explanations for the sinking of the Moskva indicate possible Russian deficiencies—either poor air defenses or incredibly lax safety procedures and damage control on the Black Sea Fleet’s flagship.”
New: Russia just warned the U.S. that “unpredictable consequences” may follow Washington’s arming of Ukraine, according to a “formal diplomatic note from Moscow,” the Washington Post reported Thursday evening—two days after the note allegedly passed from Moscow to Washington. Somewhat puzzlingly, Russia took particular offense to sharing “multiple launch rocket systems” with Ukraine; however, that weapon is not one the U.S. has sent or vowed to send. (Different story for U.S. allies, as Foreign Policy reported Friday.) There are howitzer long-range artillery systems; those were included in this week’s round of new weapon deliveries. But no analysts categorize them as a “multiple launch rocket system.”
Moscow says: “We call on the United States and its allies to stop the irresponsible militarization of Ukraine, which implies unpredictable consequences for regional and international security,” Russian officials wrote in their note. Entirely absent, of course, was any mention of Russia illegally invading another country, or shelling residential complexes and allegedly killing a minimum of 10,000 civilians in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol alone—and possibly more than 20,000, as Mayor Vadym Boichenko said this week.
Mariupol has not yet fallen, and “remains contested,” a senior defense official told reporters Thursday. “The Ukrainians are still fighting,” he added.
Otherwise, there have been “no major changes in positions for either side over the last 24 hours,” he said. “We continue to see Russia posture for offensive operations in the Donbas, and continue to see additional equipment arrive in western Russia and in that area to the north of the Donbas that we talked about, Valuyki and Rovenki, including, in fact, we've seen some additional helicopters make their way to be staged in that area for insertion.”
One former general’s forecast: Russia and Ukraine will likely turn their focus to key terrain like road and rail junctions, river crossings, and cities, former U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling tweeted Thursday. This means, perhaps as much as any time stretching back to late February, “resupply and logistics will be key,” he said. “Critical cities we will soon hear more about are Izyum, Sloviansk, Kramatorsk, Horlivka, and a few others,” Hertling predicted. He has much more to say in a Twitter thread, here.
Random question: “How long does it take to get from war crime to prosecution?” The answer is typically “anywhere from 5-30 years,” according to Alexa Koenig of the UC Berkeley School of Law. That’s one of the things you’ll learn in a new “Arbiters of Truth” podcast from Lawfare.
In the category of second- and third-order effects of Russia’s invasion, Tunisia’s 12 million people are experiencing a sharp spike in food prices since late February, the Washington Post reported Thursday from Tunis. “In March alone, food costs rose by 13 percent, reaching their highest level since the United Nations began tracking them in 1990. A basket of commodities including cereals, meat, and dairy products now costs 34 percent more than it did one year ago.”
This pain stems, at least in part, from Ukraine and Russia’s outsized role in providing fertilizer and grain, including a combined 29% of global wheat exports. “Tunisia is among the most vulnerable countries, relying on Ukraine and Russia for 56 percent of its annual wheat imports over the last five years…The dire outlook has many analysts warning of the potential for social unrest,” the Post reports. More here.
In video: Watch Russian embassy officials race to block a Ukraine flag beamed onto the face of Moscow’s embassy in Washington, D.C., Wednesday evening. Benjamin Wittes shared a clip of the event, which he, in our opinion, rightly calls a “cat and mouse” game with the Ruskies.
Additional Ukraine content:
- “Republican lawmakers call for reopening US Embassy in Ukraine’s capital,” via Stars and Stripes, reporting Thursday;
- “Russia’s Sunken Warship Moskva Recalls Great World War II Naval Battles,” via the Wall Street Journal, reporting Friday;
- “CIA Director William Burns decries Russia's ‘horrific’ crimes in Ukraine, calls out China as ‘silent partner in Putin's aggression,’” via CBS News, reporting Thursday;
- And don’t miss “The Struggles of the Russian Military in Ukraine,” an event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations, featuring former Air Force Gen. Phil Breedlove and British scholar Mark Galeotti.
From Defense One
China May Have Just Taken the Lead in the Quantum Computing Race // Peter W. Singer and Thomas Corbett: China’s record-shattering processor is 1 million times faster than what Google achieved three years ago–but we are years from the finish line.
New Navy Task Force to Protect Red Sea Region // Caitlin M. Kenney: Drug and weapons smuggling, as well as rocket attacks, undermine the security of the major shipping route.
Biden Rejects Unanimous NSC ‘More Often Than You Might Think’ // Jacqueline Feldscher: “We will prepare consensus recommendations and he’ll say, ‘I don’t buy that,’” Jake Sullivan said.
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 110 years ago, the 852-footlong Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean, killing more than 1,500 people.
China says the U.S. is sending the “wrong signals” when its lawmakers visit Taiwan. That’s the message from Beijing’s military Friday after a visit from lawmakers—including Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Bob Menendez, D-N.J.—on Thursday.
Taipei: “You're all true friends to Taiwan and I look forward to working with you to strengthen our countries’ partnership,” Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen tweeted upon their arrival Thursday.
In response, “China's military sent frigates, bombers, and fighter planes to the East China Sea and the area around Taiwan…in a statement released as the lawmakers were holding a news conference in Taipei,” Reuters reported Friday from the island. “This operation is in response to the recent frequent release of wrong signals by the United States on the Taiwan issue,” said Beijing's defense ministry, and added, “The U.S. bad actions and tricks are completely futile and very dangerous. Those who play with fire will burn themselves.”
Read more: “Document reveals $14 billion backlog of US defense transfers to Taiwan,” via Defense News, reporting Thursday.
Meanwhile, “supply lines are rupturing” as at least 44 Chinese cities are under either a full or partial Covid lockdown, CNN reported Friday, as China buckles from its largest-recorded outbreak to date, which is restricting the movement of about a third of its population, or about 373 million people. Beijing is taking these precautions in part because an estimated 40 million people over the age of 60 still have not been vaccinated against Covid, the New York Times reports.
One big part of the widening problem: “Getting supplies across the country has become a steep challenge, with some expressways closed, and truck drivers ensnared in quarantine or at thousands of highway health checkpoints,” CNN writes.
Urgency rising. A key Chinese official said three times this week that China must do more to support its relatively sagging economy. “Urgency is quickly replacing stability as the key word for authorities this year,” Bloomberg’s Sofia Horta e Costa reported Monday. According to the Times, “One economist has gone so far as to predict that China could go into recession in the coming months.”
Contributing to the pain: Chinese “Policy makers are also dealing with a downturn in real estate and a pullback in exports, as consumers world-wide buckle under the pressure of soaring commodity prices fueled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” the Wall Street Journal reported Friday from Singapore. “These and other headwinds mean many economists are skeptical the economy will meet the government’s growth goal of around 5.5% this year, in an important political year for Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who is set to break with recent precedent and seek a third term in power.”
U.S. Treasury Secretary issued a warning to Beijing on Wednesday: “China cannot expect the global community to respect its appeals to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity in the future if it does not respect these principles now when it counts,” Janet Yellen said at an event hosted by the NATO-focused Atlantic Council.
“The war in Ukraine and sanctions against Russia highlight the pivotal role of China,” Yellen said. “China has long claimed to hold sacrosanct key international principles—including those enshrined in the U.N. Charter with respect to sovereignty and territorial integrity. Whatever China’s geopolitical aims and strategies, we see no benign interpretation of Russia’s invasion, nor of its consequences for the international order.” Reuters has more, here; or read the full transcript via the Atlantic Council, here.
Related reading: Putin’s invasion + an ongoing pandemic + climate change = a forecast of disrupted “global trade patterns for years to come,” the New York Times reported Thursday off a new assessment from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers.
Israel says it has a new laser weapon that can shoot down rockets, mortars, and anti-tank rounds. It’s called the “Iron Beam,” like the more well-known “Iron Dome” system used so often against Hamas militants.
“It may sound like science fiction, but it's real,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted Thursday, along with a demonstration video. “This is the world’s first energy-based weapons system that uses a laser to shoot down incoming UAVs, rockets & mortars at a cost of $3.50 per shot,” he said. According to the Associated Press, “Little is known about the laser system’s effectiveness, but it is expected to be deployed on land, in the air, and at sea. The goal is to deploy the laser systems around Israel’s borders over the next decade to protect the country against attacks.” Tiny bit more, here.
Speaking of lasers, Lockheed Martin says it shot down a drone with a laser over New Mexico back in February. It’s known as LM’s “Layered Laser Defense” system, and U.S. Navy researchers announced the test from the White Sands Missile Range on Wednesday.
Why it matters: “The February demonstration marked the first time the U.S. Navy used an all-electric, high-energy laser weapon to defeat a target representing a subsonic cruise missile in flight,” according to the Office of Naval Research.
But curb your enthusiasm, acquisition specialists. That’s because “there’s no plan to field the LLD,” but ONR says “it offers a glimpse into the future of laser weapons. It is compact and powerful, yet more efficient than previous systems,” and it “incorporat[es] artificial intelligence to improve tracking and targeting.” Read more, here.
There’s been a quietly dramatic update from the U.S. military regarding an attack in Syria 8 days ago. The April 7 “explosions in Green Village were not the result of indirect fire,” as initially suspected and reported; instead they appear to have resulted from “the deliberate placement of explosive charges by an unidentified individual(s) at an ammunition holding area and shower facility,” officials from Combined Joint Task Force–Operation Inherent Resolve said in a statement Thursday. There’s little else to report from the base located in the Syrian countryside, east of Deir-ez-Zour; and the incident is under investigation, CJTF-OIR said. (Hat tip to CNN’s Barbara Starr for noticing this one.)
A former ISIS member was convicted of hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit murder in a Virginia court on Thursday. The six-week trial came to an end after four hours of jury deliberation over the fate of 33-year-old El Shafee Elsheikh, one of the four British ISIS members referred to as the Beatles. His charges “carry a potential death sentence, but U.S. prosecutors have advised British officials that they will not seek the death penalty,” according to Reuters.
In Tennessee, an active-duty Air Force general has been chosen as director of a county school system just outside of Knoxville.
The new hire: Four-star Gen. Arnold Bunch. He’s expected to retire from the Air Force in the coming months after 37 years in uniform, our colleague Marcus Weisgerber reports. Bunch grew up in Morristown, the county seat of Hamblen County. According to Tennessee’s Citizen Tribune, Bunch admitted in his interview (video here) that “he has no real-world experience in the educational field, but offered the 81,000 individuals under his command in the U.S. Air Force as representation of his leadership skills.”
For the record, “Before becoming the head of Air Force Materiel Command in Ohio, Bunch was the Air Force's top uniformed acquisition official at the Pentagon, where he oversaw multibillion-dollar weapon programs,” Weisgerber adds. Read more at the Tribune, here.
Here are a few headlines this week from the margins of national security reporting:
- “I Trained to Become a Fake Cop with COVID Conspiracists,” via Vice News, reporting Thursday from London;
- Texas Gov. Greg “Abbott's border operation has led to $88M in contracts with little oversight. Some say he's abusing his powers,” the Houston Chronicle reported Thursday;
- “WWII-era ship tilting into Lake Erie in Buffalo, New York, naval park,” via CNN, reporting Thursday; however, the park’s president vowed Thursday, “This ship will rise again, and failure is not an option,” according to BuffaloNews.com.
Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!