Today's D Brief: Tragedy and uncertainty in Mariupol; Belarus says invasion is dragging; Bargaining in Taipei; Caution in Berlin; And a bit more.

Select civilian evacuations from the besieged Ukrainian steel plant in Mariupol picked up again on Wednesday. The first civilians were allowed out on Sunday. But today Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy is calling for a much wider ceasefire in the vicinity of Mariupol in order to literally dig the survivors—including children—out of the Azovstal factory. 

“It will take time simply to lift people out of those basements, out of those underground shelters,” Zelenskyy said in a statement early Thursday. “In the present conditions, we cannot use heavy equipment to clear the rubble away. It all has to be done by hand,” he added. Russian troops had allegedly attempted to storm the factory Wednesday, but they were “kicked out by our defenders,” one of Zelenskyy’s advisors, Oleksiy Arestovych, said on Ukrainian television. The Associated Press reported Thursday that “heavy fighting” is ongoing around the plant. 

The U.S. State Department is skeptical that any Russian ceasefire will endure around Mariupol. Spokesman Ned Price told reporters Wednesday, “What we have consistently seen, and we’ve seen this even in recent days, is the tendency on the part of the Russian Federation to embrace a so‑called humanitarian pause to cloak itself in the guise of an actor that has humanitarian concerns only to quickly and promptly resume shelling and violence, including against civilians who are trapped in besieged areas, including in Mariupol.”

“There are still hundreds of people who are trapped in the steel plant,” Price said Wednesday. “There are still thousands of people who are in the besieged city of Mariupol who have been once again subject to shelling, to violence. People need to be let out. Humanitarian aid needs to be let in. That dynamic needs to last. That’s what we care about.”

Update: Russia’s March 16 strike on the Mariupol theater “was in fact far deadlier than estimated, killing closer to 600 people inside and outside the building,” according to an investigation by AP, published Wednesday. “The AP investigation recreated what happened inside the theater on that day from the accounts of 23 survivors, rescuers, and people intimately familiar with its new life as a bomb shelter. The AP also drew on two sets of floor plans of the theater, photos and video taken inside before, during, and after that day, and feedback from experts who reviewed the methodology.” Read on, here.

America’s top military officer rang his Ukrainian counterpart, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, on Wednesday. But you’ll have to take a guess at what Zaluzhny and Joint Chiefs Chairman U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley spoke about since the Joint Staff’s readout was especially terse.

New: U.S. intelligence has been helping Ukraine target and kill nearly a dozen Russian generals, senior American officials told the New York Times on Wednesday. But that intelligence doesn’t include top officers like Gen. Valerie Gerasimov, who Pentagon officials say visited Russia’s front lines in Ukraine’s east just last week. 

Belarus’s autocratic leader says he didn’t expect the war to “drag on” as long as it has, according to an interview with AP on Thursday. “I am not immersed in this problem enough to say whether it goes according to plan, like the Russians say, or like I feel it,” said President Alexander Lukashenko, who added, “I want to stress one more time: I feel like this operation has dragged on.”

And a series of unexplained explosions inside Russia raises the specter of a wider war in the coming weeks, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday. That includes sabotaged rail lines, fires at ammunition depots, and apparent helicopter strikes on oil facilities just across the border from Ukraine. While officials in Kyiv deny any role in the incidents, some point to alleged divine intervention. 

On the global energy front, OPEC members decided to gradually increase the flow of oil it puts into world markets as Russia’s invasion continues to weigh down economic forecasts. According to the Associated Press, “The plan is to make those regular increases to restore cuts made in 2020 during the worst of the pandemic recession.” 

In case you were wondering, OPEC is sticking to its promise not to pump enough extra oil to make up for what’s lost by cutting oil sales with Russia. After all, AP writes, “Some OPEC members already can’t meet their oil production quotas.” More here.

POTUS46’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan rang up his Romanian counterpart, Ion Oprișor, on Wednesday. Most of the call concerned Ukraine, including Romania’s role supporting nearly a million refugees, as well as the country’s effort to “diversify its energy supplies away from Russian sources while assisting neighbors like Moldova in doing the same,” according to a White House readout

Additional reading: 


From Defense One

Task Force Gator Back to Training Ukrainians as the Battle Rages On For the Donbas  // Tara Copp: A Florida National Guard unit that withdrew just before Moscow invaded is back to teaching as Russia reveals its weak spots.

White House Sounds Alarm on Threat from Quantum Computers // Patrick Tucker: New directive orders the government to work with industry on security that can stand up to tomorrow’s quantum-powered decryption tools.

How to Gauge the Risk of a Nuclear Escalation with Russia // Maj. Shane Praiswater: Escalation theories can help NATO policymakers avoid nuclear war—but it is ultimately up to Putin.

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 1891, the New York City Music Hall opened and held its first public performance, with Russian composer Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky conducting the “Marche Solennelle” and his First Piano Concerto. Today the venue is known more popularly as Carnegie Hall.


Taiwan’s military appears to have dropped plans to buy 12 MH-60R anti-submarine helicopters from Sikorsky. “The price is too high, beyond the scope of our country's ability,” Defence Minister Chiu Kuo-cheng told parliamentarians Thursday.
Sales of howitzer artillery systems and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles are also delayed, and the war in Ukraine is slowing those plans even further, Reuters reports from Taipei.
Bigger picture: “Taiwan, claimed by China as its own territory, is undertaking a military modernisation programme to improve its capabilities to fend off a Chinese attack, including with precision weapons like missiles,” Reuters writes. The outlet published a series of highly-recommended explainers (here and here, e.g.) on Taiwan’s security amid the threat of Chinese invasion back in the fall.
Related reading: BAE Systems, Pentagon question reports of howitzer delay for Taiwan,” via Defense News, reporting Wednesday.

The German military is formally pulling out of coup-stricken Mali, where European troops had been helping train local forces for about a decade, and where a coup last May compelled soul-searching across Europe—especially in Paris, which had taken a lead role in regional counterinsurgency operations since 2013.
Russian-backed Wagner fighters have been working with Malian forces since at least December 2021. It didn’t take long for the group to be linked to massacres in Mali, including nine different incidents that led to the deaths of more than 450 civilians between January and mid-April, according to the Guardian.  
“We cannot support such a system [in Mali] any longer,” Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht said Wednesday, citing the recent “cruel violations of human rights.” Human Rights Watch has more on the allegations via their early April investigation into the matter, here.
Berlin’s also keeping a wary eye on Bosnia and the Western Balkans, which “faces an increasingly assertive Bosnian Serb separatist movement that analysts say has at least tacit support from Moscow,” Reuters reports from Sarajevo. 

And lastly, U.S. Army leaders are testifying on Capitol Hill this morning. Secretary Christine Wormuth and Army Chief Gen. James McConville are discussing the year ahead, as well as the service’s “Future Years Defense Program,” before lawmakers with the Senate Armed Services Committee in a hearing that began at 9:30 a.m. ET.
Reminder: The Army is asking Congress for $178 billion this fiscal year, which is about $3 billion more than last year. Read over Wormuth and McConville’s fairly comprehensive, 19-page joint opening statement (PDF) here.
Immigration and security at America’s southern border is the focus of another hearing this morning on the Hill. That one began at 10:15 a.m. ET. Details here; livestream via C-Span, here.

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