Today's D Brief: Russia’s Ukraine invasion, 6 months on; Zelenskyy’s warning; McConnell on the ‘single most important thing’; USS John McCain collision, 5 years later; And a bit more.

It’s now been 180 days since Vladimir Putin ordered his unprovoked invasion of democratic Ukraine. And after nearly six months of missile and artillery barrages, Moscow is arguably more isolated today than at any point during the four-decade long Cold War—even as the Kremlin is believed to be still flush with cash and weapons. Kyiv, on the other hand, is more closely linked to leading Western democracies than it’s been in its entire 31-year history as an independent nation—even though Russian forces occupy more than a fifth of Ukrainian territory, and don’t appear ready to cede any of that ground anytime soon. 

Ukraine is set to mark its independence from the Soviet Union on Wednesday, but public celebrations have been called off for fear of Russian attacks via Moscow’s arsenal of long-range cruise missiles, which are routinely launched from both the Black Sea and the airspace above and around western Russia. 

“We have to be aware that this week, Russia may try to do something particularly nasty, particularly cruel,” Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy warned in a video address over the weekend. “Such is our enemy. But Russia has been doing this every week over these last six months, doing terrible and violent things.”

“The total number of various cruise missiles that Russia has used against us is approaching 3,500,” Zelenskyy said Monday. “It is simply impossible to count the strikes of Russian artillery—there are too many of them, they are too intense,” he said. “I am grateful to all our friends, all friends of freedom in different countries of the world, who promote the need to recognize the objective reality and legally define Russia as a terrorist state,” he said in his nightly video address. “And, dear Ukrainians, especially these days, when we celebrate the day of our flag and the day of our independence, if you are somewhere abroad, please [be mindful of] Ukraine there, be there with the Ukrainian flag and spread the truth about the crimes of the occupiers.”

In terms of tactics, Russia seems to be prioritizing improvised transport across Ukraine’s Dnipro river, “immediately beside the damaged Antonivsky road bridge” that links Russian-occupied Kherson and Ukraine’s east, the British military says in its latest assessment. “For several weeks, Russian forces and local civilians have relied on a ferry crossing of the waterway. If Russia completes the improvised bridge, it will almost certainly increase the capacity of the crossing point compared to the ferry,” the Brits say. However, they note, “A floating bridge would likely still be vulnerable to Ukrainian offensive action.”

Speaking of bridges, Ukraine’s military sent an ominous warning to those occupying the Crimean peninsula on Monday. Watch that cheeky video on Twitter, here

Coverage continues below the fold…

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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. On this day in 1958, at about 6:30 p.m. local time, the so-called “Second Taiwan Strait Crisis” erupted when Beijing’s army launched some 40,000 artillery shells at Taiwan’s Quemoy and Matsu islands, in the strait. About four years earlier, the U.S. had signed a defense treaty with Taiwan, and that treaty was put into action during this engagement—leading to U.S. Navy escorts of Taiwan’s supply ships traveling to Kinmen, beginning September 7. Around that time, the U.S. armed Taiwan with aircraft and artillery, shifting the conflict to the skies above the strait, where China lost more than 30 fighter jets to Taiwanese pilots flying with superior U.S.-provided Sidewinder missiles. A ceasefire was declared in October, but didn’t quite settle into a manageable agreement until early December. It would be almost four decades before the “Third Taiwan Strait Crisis” would begin anew; learn more about that one and the more recent tensions around the island just weeks ago in our podcast, “Decoding China’s Taiwan saber-rattling.” 

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv is “urg[ing] U.S. citizens to depart Ukraine now using privately available ground transportation options if it is safe to do so,” according to an alert posted Monday evening. That’s because “The Department of State has information that Russia is stepping up efforts to launch strikes against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and government facilities in the coming days,” possibly in response to a flurry of recent explosions across occupied Crimea, or possibly because the Kremlin doesn’t appear to have changed any of its initial goals with the invasion, which included “demilitarizing” and absorbing the entire country of Ukraine back into Russia’s borders, as in the Soviet days.
Meanwhile in Kentucky, the “single most important thing going on in the world right now is to beat the Russians in Ukraine,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday. “We need to stick with them,” he said at an event in Scott County, and emphasized, “It’s important to us, and to the rest of the world, that they succeed.”
Developing: Representatives from many of Ukraine’s allies met virtually today in an event called the “Crimea Platform,” while Ukrainians have been warned to work from home at least until Thursday, according to Reuters.
“Winter is coming, and it will be hard,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg during the Crimea Platform. He also encouraged allies to maintain their support to Ukraine in what is becoming a war of logistics, Defense One’s Jacqueline Feldscher reports.
One encouraging sign for Europe: A top German official, Klaus Müller, says the country’s natural gas storage facilities are now more than 80% full, which is somewhat uplifting news heading into the autumn and winter. In late June, German officials warned the country could soon face a gas “crisis” because of likely future shortages since Berlin’s main supplier for years has been Russia, through the Nord Stream-1 pipeline. The Associated Press has a bit more, here.
One sober update from Kyiv: Almost 9,000 Ukrainian troops have been killed in Russia’s invasion so far, said top military officer Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi. 

  • Reuters produced a separate explainer on Tuesday, purporting to tally up the “blood, treasure, and chaos” from Putin’s invasion. 

U.S. officials in Washington are getting fed up with Turkey’s opportunism, the Wall Street Journal reported from Istanbul on Monday—the same day U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Treasury Wally Adeyemo sent a letter to the American Chamber of Commerce in Turkey warning Turkish companies against working with sanctioned Russian individuals.
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Lastly: It's been five years since the USS John McCain collided with a tanker, killing 10 sailors. That crash occurred just two months after a different U.S. Navy destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, collided with a container ship, killing seven Navy sailors. So, are the conditions that led to those accidents any different today? Navy Times’ Megan Eckstein spoke to leaders who oversaw the investigations into those crashes, as well as other officials, about what happened, what has changed since then, and what challenges remain for the Navy’s surface fleet. Read that story, here.