Today's D Brief: New explosions rock Russian-occupied Crimea; Grain ship sails for Africa; Pro-Trump extremism rising, DHS warns; F-35s fly again; And a bit more.

A series of explosions erupted in Russian-occupied northern Crimea on Tuesday, suspending rail traffic and setting fire to an electricity substation in an apparent attack that could hinder Moscow’s ability to resupply some of its invasion forces. Russian officials claim an ammunition storage depot was struck at about 6:15 a.m. local, injuring two civilians, and leading to the evacuation of some 2,000 people. 

Location: Near the Ukrainian city of Dzhankoi, according to Mykhailo Podolyak, who is an advisor to Kyiv’s President Volodymir Zelenskyy. Tuesday morning around Dzhankoi “began with explosions,” Podolyak tweeted, and added this derisive reminder: “Crimea of normal country is about the Black Sea, mountains, recreation and tourism, but Crimea occupied by Russians is about warehouses explosions and high risk of death for invaders and thieves.” Then, appropriating a line from Kremlin propaganda, he added that the explosions can be seen as “Demilitarization in action.”

Another of Zelenskyy’s advisors, Andriy Yermak, took a similar tone, tweeting, “The Ukrainian Armed Forces continue the filigree ‘demilitarization’ operation to fully rid our land of Russian invaders. Our soldiers are the best sponsors of a good mood.”

Russia’s military says the attacks were “sabotage” and not accidents, unlike Moscow alleged after last week’s series of explosions that rocked the Saki airbase in occupied Crimea, destroying at least eight Russian aircraft. “Power lines, power plants, railway tracks, and residential buildings” were destroyed in Tuesday’s explosions, Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement. 

In the waters near Crimea, the surface vessels from Russia’s Black Sea navy fleet have assumed “an extremely defensive posture, with patrols generally limited to waters within sight of the Crimean coast,” the British military says in its latest Ukrainian assessment. “This contrasts with heightened Russian naval activity in other seas, as is typical for this time of year,” said the country whose navy once helped it earn the nickname, “The empire on which the sun never sets.” But that was a different time.

Why Russia’s allegedly altered naval posture matters now: “The Black Fleet’s currently limited effectiveness undermines Russia’s overall invasion strategy, in part because the amphibious threat to Odesa has now been largely neutralized,” according to the Brits. “This means Ukraine can divert resources to press Russian ground forces elsewhere,” for example around Kherson City, as The Economist reported Sunday—extending several counteroffensive previews from the Wall Street Journal over the past month (see July 20, 24, 31, and August 1 reports, for example). 

Developing: Russia’s proxy forces seem to be losing their enthusiasm for a wider invasion, according to the Institute for the Study of War, flagging a recent alleged protest by troops from the occupied Luhansk People’s Republic, in eastern Ukraine. Other units “have previously recorded similar appeals when operating in Luhansk, Kharkiv, and Kherson Oblasts,” ISW writes, and notes, “This trend is particularly dangerous to Russian forces seeking to recruit still more new soldiers from Luhansk Oblast to make up for recent losses. Further division within Russian-led forces also threatens to further impede the efficiency of the Russian war effort.” More here

New: Ukraine’s first ship of humanitarian food is headed to Africa, which could help alleviate what the World Food Program calls a “global food crisis,” but one that’s particularly acute in Africa. On Tuesday, the Lebanese-flagged carrier Brave Commander and its 23,000 or so tons of wheat cargo departed Ukraine—and it’s expected to arrive in Djibouti in about nine days. 

Just three Ukrainian Black Sea ports are now exporting cargo, mostly grain, according to the terms of a deal struck in July between the United Nations, Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey, which hosts an inspection terminal for such vessels. Those ports are in Odesa, Chornomorsk, and Pivdennyi.

Bigger picture: “Ukraine's grain exports are down 46%” compared to last year, Reuters reported on Monday. And officials in Kyiv project that, at best, their farmers will be able to harvest “at least 50 million tonnes of grain this year, compared with a record 86 million tonnes in 2021, because of the loss of land to Russian forces and lower grain yields.” More here

Rewind: U.S. intelligence officials knew in Oct. 2021 that Russia would invade, the Washington Post reports in a #LongRead tracing the “Road to War” in Ukraine, which was published Tuesday. And American spies knew this because they allege they “had penetrated multiple points of Russia’s political leadership, spying apparatus, and military, from senior levels to the front lines,” U.S. officials told the Post. That autumn analysis—featuring satellite imagery, communications intercepts, and human intelligence—was presented to White House officials, who reportedly dispatched CIA Director William Burns to Moscow to confront the Russians and warn consequences would result from an actual invasion. 

When briefed to NATO allies, Germany and France thought it was bogus, and cited the botched intelligence justifying America’s Iraq invasion two decades ago. However, the Brits and allies in the Baltics were convinced, according to the Post. Even Ukrainian officials were deeply skeptical at first, including Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba. 

One enormously tricky question, both then and still today: “How do you underwrite and enforce the rules-based international order…without going to World War III?” That’s how Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley reportedly framed the dilemma in his own notes from just a few months ago. Read the rest, here

  • And don’t miss the Post’s separate interview with Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy—who wants Ukraine’s allies to shut their borders to all citizens of the Russian Federation. “Just close the borders for a year and you’ll see the result,” he said. 

From Defense One

You Don’t Have to Be a Spy to Violate the Espionage Act // Tom Durkin and Joseph Ferguson, The Conversation: Two law professors outline how the Act has been used in the past, and what it could mean for former president Trump.

A Year After Kabul's Fall, Taliban’s False Commitments Are Fully Exposed // Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines, The Conversation: But the U.S. has few good options for counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson and Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. And check out other Defense One newsletters here

There’s been a concerning spike in domestic extremism over the past week in America, with at least two men reacting violently to the FBI raid on former President Donald Trump’s golf resort and residence, just north of Miami, after investigators learned he had allegedly stored classified information in violation of federal law. The latest apparent post hoc ergo propter hoc episode (that is, “after therefore because of”) concerns a 46-year-old man from Pennsylvania who now faces federal charges after threatening to kill FBI employees, but under a different name on the far-right social media site Gab. He thought that name change would shield him from investigation and prosecution; but Gab, when asked by federal officials, divulged his IP address, which helped lead to his arrest. That’s according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, which reported the story Monday afternoon.
A 43-year-old Navy veteran from Ohio attacked an FBI office in Cincinnati late last week before dying after retreating into a cornfield during a police pursuit. He had posted on another far-right social media site, former President Donald Trump’s Truth Social, that he thought he could break through bulletproof glass in the FBI office using a nail gun; fortunately, he was wrong in his assumption, and fled the scene while armed before he was killed by police in that cornfield after refusing to surrender. Read more at Cincinnati's WLWT news 5, here.
And a 29-year-old white man from Delaware killed himself Sunday in Washington, D.C., after ramming his car into the Capitol Complex. However, this episode would appear to be markedly different from the two above, since the deceased “suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, commonly known as a CTE or traumatic brain injury, from high school football,” according to the Delaware News Journal
Related reading: 

All of the U.S. Air Force’s F-35s are now back in the air after most inspections of the planes’ ejection seats were completed, Air Force Magazine reported Monday. The service’s Air Combat Command grounded its jets July 29 to speed up the inspection process; USAF’s other F-35s were not included in the stand-down, and the Navy and Marine Corps did not ground their versions of the jet.
And the Air Force just successfully test-launched an unarmed ICBM early Tuesday morning, days after delaying the test to not irk China as it put on post-Pelosi visit military drills around Taiwan last week. The Minuteman III ICBM traveled about 4,200 miles, from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California to the Marshall Islands. More details, here.

And lastly today: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has COVID again, he announced Monday, and is experiencing “mild symptoms.” He plans to keep up his regular work schedule from quarantine at home, he said.
Also newly positive: First Lady Jill Biden. Biden “began to develop cold-like symptoms” Monday after testing negative for COVID earlier in the day, her communications director, Elizabeth Alexander, said in a statement. She has since tested positive and is experiencing “mild symptoms”; she plans to stay in South Carolina, where she and President Joe Biden had traveled for vacation, until she has two back-to-back negative tests, Alexander said. President Biden recently recovered from his own bout of COVID.