Today's D Brief: Iranians are in occupied Crimea, WH says; New EU, UK sanctions on Tehran; Natsec review for Musk?; New drills near RoK; And a bit more.
The White House says Iranian troops are in occupied Crimea directly advising Russian forces during drone attacks inside Ukraine. “Russian military personnel that are based in Crimea have been piloting Iranian UAVs, using them to conduct strikes across Ukraine, including strikes against Kyiv in just recent days,” retired Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby of the National Security Council said Thursday. “We assess that Iranian military personnel were on the ground in Crimea and assisted Russia in these operations,” he alleged in a call with reporters.
Kirby also flagged allegations Moscow is acquiring ballistic missiles from Tehran. The U.S., he said, is especially “concerned that Russia may also seek to acquire advanced conventional weapons from Iran, such as surface-to-surface missiles that will almost certainly be used to support the war against Ukraine.”
“The fact is this: Tehran is now directly engaged on the ground and through the provision of weapons that are impacting civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine,” Kirby said Thursday. “In fact, they are killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure in Ukraine,” he said, drawing attention to the seemingly deliberate campaign to destroy or significantly degrade Ukraine’s electricity grid, as we’ve noted several times in our newsletter this week.
However, “We don’t believe it’s going to change the course of the war,” the former Pentagon spokesman said. “And the other thing that’s not going to change is our determination to continue to provide Ukraine with the security assistance and financial assistance that they’re going to need to defend themselves.”
So, what will the U.S. do about it? Military officials are looking into ways to deliver air defense systems to Ukraine securely, but Kirby cautioned, “I can’t tell you today what that’s going to look like.” (One system to watch: a counter-drone kit known as the Vampire, from L3Harris Technologies, Inc.; but the Wall Street Journal reports it’s not at all clear how soon that will even be available.) In the interim, “We’re going to continue to vigorously enforce all U.S. sanctions on both the Russian and Iranian arms trade,” he said. “We’re going to make it harder for Iran to sell these weapons to Russia; we’re going to help the Ukrainians have what they need to defend themselves against these threats. And we’re going to continue to stand with our partners throughout the Middle East region against the Iranian threat.”
The British just added new sanctions on Iran for its drone attacks in Ukraine, which violate United Nations Security Council resolutions (2231, in particular). “By supplying these drones Iran is actively warmongering, profiting off Russia’s abhorrent attacks on Ukrainian citizens, and adding to the suffering of the people and the destruction of critical infrastructure,” the British said in a statement Thursday. The new sanctions target three military officials as well as the drone manufacturer, Shahed Aviation Industries. Details here.
The European Union added its own sanctions to the same batch of entities, the bloc announced Thursday as well. “This is our clear response to the Iranian regime providing Russia with drones, which it uses to murder innocent Ukrainian citizens,” Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said Thursday. Read over the sanctions here.
The EU also just donated €175 million in humanitarian aid to help Ukraine “get through the winter,” Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Thursday. It’s also “providing emergency shelter [to Ukrainians] in the Rivne, Bucha and Kharkiv regions,” she announced on Twitter.
New: The cold weather predictions are here. Agence France-Presse and the New York Times both published forecasts for what might lie ahead in Ukraine over the next six months or so on Thursday. AFP noted that “heavy mud, snow, and freezing cold that will make operations more difficult for both sides,” which could make frontlines “more static” until the spring thaw. According to the Times, “Winter snow will not slow the fighting, but the mud of late fall, what Russians call rasputitsa, will.” But after that, “Once the ground hardens in February, around the first anniversary of the invasion, the armies can once again move more quickly,” Julian Barnes of the Times writes.
But more immediately, “if Ukraine’s forces can take control of the Route 66 highway in Luhansk in the coming weeks, they can cut off a key road that Russia has been using to supply its troops in occupied areas,” Barnes reports. Continue reading, here.
The latest: Ukrainian forces are approaching the southern city of Kherson, and artillery has reportedly struck a key ferry after destruction to the nearby Antonivsky bridge. According to the Wall Street Journal, “The only alternative bridge, over the sluices of the Nova Kakhovka dam upstream, has also been destroyed, significantly complicating the logistics of Russian forces in the Kherson area, the only part of Ukraine that they occupy west of the Dnipro River.”
Why it matters: “If Russia’s military is forced to abandon [Kherson], it would be a significant blow to the Kremlin, removing for the foreseeable future Russia’s ability to threaten Mykolaiv, Odessa and the rest of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast,” Yaroslav Trofimov writes. Read more, here.
Coverage continues below…
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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. And check out other Defense One newsletters here. On this day in 1854, English nurse Florence Nightingale was dispatched to the Crimean War in support of the Ottomans and the French, who would eventually defeat Russian forces in the vicinity of contemporary Ukraine. Nightingale’s resourcefulness and her attention to the wounded and the facilities in which they were held would soon revolutionize field medicine—introducing, e.g., practices like frequent handwashing to help prevent the spread of disease and infection. As a result, she’s often referred to as the founder of modern nursing.
Developing: Kyiv’s attention is turning to a key dam and hydroelectric plant on Ukraine’s Dnieper River, about 40 miles east of the occupied southern city of Kherson. According to the Institute for the Study of War, Moscow’s military may be planning to destroy the dam “partially in an attempt to cover their retreat further into eastern Kherson Oblast.” Russian forces have allegedly mined approaches to the Kakhovka plant and dam, Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy warned European leaders Thursday—the same day Switzerland’s president visited Zelenskyy in Kyiv in a show of solidarity. The two discussed repairing Ukraine’s telecom industry in formerly occupied regions, among other topics, Zelenskyy said.
Three U.S. House lawmakers visited Kyiv Thursday, too: Reps. Mike Turner, R-Ohio; James Himes, D-Conn.; and Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. The three discussed Ukraine’s growing need for air defense systems, as well as “the need for prompt restoration of the energy infrastructure that was destroyed,” Zelenskyy’s office said afterward.
Rising urgency in the Baltics: “Russia must be held accountable for horrific war crimes committed in Ukraine,” Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nausėda said Thursday, and called “for the establishment of [a] Special Tribunal to investigate Russian crimes of aggression.”
Baltic foreign ministers said much the same in a joint statement five days ago, emphasizing Russia’s “deliberate targeting of civilian homes, schools, and playgrounds,” the top diplomats for Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania write.
Like Nausėda, the three foreign ministers called for a special tribunal to “complement the role” of the International Criminal Court, with a “core responsibility” to investigate “the crime of aggression” they say Russia is guilty of—that is, invading Ukraine and subjectiving innocent civilians to the brutalities of war. The ultimate goal, the foreign ministers said, is to “bring Russia’s top political and military leadership to account” over the invasion and subsequent atrocities in places like Bucha, outside Kyiv, e.g.
Speaking of Russian atrocities in Ukraine, Human Rights Watch on Wednesday announced that it discovered at least seven different locations inside the formerly occupied northeastern city of Izium where Moscow’s forces allegedly abused and tortured Ukrainians—including with the use of “electric shock, waterboarding, severe beatings, threats at gunpoint,” sexual violence, and more.
Russia forces were pushed out of Izium around 9 Sept., after about six months of occupation. Three weeks later, HRW officials “spoke with over 100 people in Izium…Almost all said that they had a family member or friend who had been tortured, and 15 people, 14 men and one woman, described being tortured themselves.”
What the Russians seemed to have been looking for: “All those detained said they were ordered to reveal the names of Izium residents who served in the police force, the Territorial Defense Forces, or were veterans of the 2014 Ukrainian military and security force operations in the Donbas region,” HRW writes. And this is far from an isolated series of incidents, as the monitoring group noted in other recent reports from formerly occupied regions of Ukraine, where executions, disappearances, and more torture has been uncovered.
ICYMI: Greece is sending Ukraine 40 Soviet-era BMP-1 fighting vehicles as part of a wider tank swap with Germany that was first made public in May. Euractiv first reported the latest developments, which included the arrival of six German Marder tanks to Athens earlier this week. And Cyprus officials may be considering a similar arrangement, according to the New York Times, reporting 10 days ago.
Amid political fallout in the UK, Elon Musk seemed to tweet support for Russia and Vladimir Putin’s objectives invading Ukraine on Thursday on the very social media site he’s in litigation to either buy or back down from buying (TBD).
New: White House officials are reportedly “discussing whether the US should subject some of Elon Musk’s ventures to national security reviews,” Bloomberg report. And that includes the pending “deal for Twitter Inc. and SpaceX’s Starlink satellite network,” Jennifer Jacobs and Saleha Mohsin wrote Thursday evening. Twitter shares plummeted on the news Friday morning, and Musk has spent the last few hours tweeting his thoughts about a recession in China and Europe after shares at his electric car company Tesla fell more than six percent Thursday. Reuters has more.
- “How to respond if Putin goes nuclear? Here are the economic and political options,” via former U.S. Treasury and sanctions officials Brian O’Toole and veteran diplomat Ambassador Daniel Fried, writing Thursday for the Atlantic Council;
- “Germany Is Arguing With Itself Over Ukraine,” Anne Applebaum wrote Thursday in The Atlantic;
- And “Mark Hamill sent 500 drones to Ukraine in past month,” The Hill reported Thursday after a recent Bloomberg interview with the actor.
And lastly: Around 100 U.S. military aircraft, including Marine Corps F-35Bs and Army helicopters, will fly with about 140 South Korean aircraft and an Australian tanker in a five-day exercise that kicks off on Halloween, Stars and Stripes reported this week. The training, now named Vigilant Storm but previously known as Vigilant Ace, was planned months in advance, a military spokesperson told Stripes—the implication being that it is not a reaction to any recent events.
FWIW: “F-35As from the U.S. and South Korea drilled together in July, the first time the stealth fighters from both countries were used in an exercise in South Korea,” Stripes noted.
- “US F-16 maintenance commander fired at South Korean base,” Air Force Times reported Thursday;
- “North Korea fires artillery shells near border with S. Korea,” AP reported Tuesday;
- And “‘Yankees, Go Home!’: Seoul Gets Squeezed Between the U.S. and China,” the New York Times reported from South Korea Wednesday concerning support for the U.S.-made missile interceptor known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system.
Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!