Today's D Brief: Russia's nuclear wargames begin; NATO's nuclear wargames wind down; Norway's spy problem; Seoul's new attitude; And a bit more.
Russia’s military is practicing responding to a nuclear attack with a planned exercise known as Grom (or “thunder”) 2022, featuring ballistic and cruise missile tests, according to state-run media TASS. For the U.S. military, there’s no need for anxiety since, as Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told reporters Tuesday, “The U.S. was notified, and, as we’ve highlighted before, this is a routine annual exercise by Russia.”
But the nuclear rhetoric from Russian officials has been escalating since Sunday, when Moscow’s military chief called his counterparts in the U.S., the UK, France, and Turkey to accuse Ukraine of using a dirty bomb in the days to come. Russian diplomats took their case to the United Nations on Tuesday, though they do not seem to have convinced anyone on the merits of their argument, as Ankit Panda’s reaction to Russia’s letter suggested Tuesday.
For POTUS, when it comes to the dirty bomb allegations, “I spent a lot of time today talking about that,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters Tuesday. “Let me just say: Russia would be making an incredibly serious mistake for it to use a tactical nuclear weapon. I’m not guaranteeing you that it’s a false-flag operation yet; I don’t know. But it would be a serious, serious mistake.”
The view from Brussels: “Russia often accuses others of what they intend to do themselves,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday. “We have seen this conduct before, from Syria to Ukraine.”
“President Putin is failing on the battlefield,” Stoltenberg said Wednesday in Brussels. “He’s responding with more indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian cities, against civilians, and against critical infrastructure—and with dangerous nuclear rhetoric.”
“We’ve also seen Russia accuse Ukraine of preparing to use a radiological dirty bomb. This is absurd,” said the NATO chief. “Allies reject this blatantly false allegation, and Russia must not use false pretexts to escalate the war further.”
- BTW: Stoltenberg on Tuesday visited the U.S. Navy Aircraft Carrier USS George H.W. Bush during the alliance’s Neptune Strike 2022.2 exercise happening this week in the Mediterranean Sea. Nineteen different nations are represented during these drills, which are intended to help alliance members (and in this case, Finland also) “plan and execute multi-domain real-world vigilance activities” using “carrier strike and amphibious strike capability,” NATO says. More, here.
NATO is still in the midst of its long-planned nuclear exercises known as “Steadfast Noon,” which are expected to end on Sunday. “Training flights will take place over Belgium, which is hosting the exercise, as well as over the North Sea and the United Kingdom,” the alliance said two weeks ago in a preview.
New: Australia is sending 30 more Bushmaster vehicles to Ukraine, which would raise that particular total to 90 so far on behalf of Canberra. And “sometime in January,” it’s sending as many as 70 military trainers to the UK to help train Kyiv’s forces there, Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announced Wednesday. On top of the Bushmasters, the country “has donated six M777 towed howitzers and ammunition, 28 M113 armored vehicles as well as anti-armour weapons and other weapons,” according to Australia’s ABC news.
Norway just arrested an accused Russian spy who studied “hybrid threats” at the University of Tromsø. Turns out, this alleged spy’s gig didn’t last long—he first showed up at the Norwegian institution this past December, posing as a Brazilian researcher named José Assis Giammaria. According to The Guardian, “Giammaria’s behaviour had raised suspicion among colleagues at the university, [one] source said, and he once made a joke to Giammaria, asking him whether he was a spy.” (By the way: Several recently alleged Russian spies have been using South America as a cover, as Bellingcat’s Aric Toler pointed out Tuesday on Twitter.)
Also new: The identity of several alleged Russian soldiers responsible for cruise missile strikes inside Ukraine have been revealed this week by investigators at Bellingcat, The Insider, and Der Spiegel. The three outlets published a deep-dive into the alleged unit of missile programmers after some creative digging by Bellingcat’s Christo Grozev.
For your eyes only: PBS/Frontline just turned in a nearly 90-minute documentary on the necessary task of documenting war crimes in Ukraine, a project produced with journalists from the Associated Press. Check it out, here.
So far, AP and Frontline have documented 539 incidents involving potential war crimes inside Ukraine, including 176 direct attacks on civilians. Read more at AP’s war crimes watch hub, here.
Snapshots of an occupying army in disarray: More than 1,000 pages of Russian military documents were left behind at an abandoned military base in northeastern Ukraine, near the city of Balakliia, southeast of Kharkiv. Reuters journalists obtained the documents recently, and explained their apparent contents in a special report published Wednesday. According to the papers, some of which were found half-burned in a furnace, the Russians fretted over U.S.-provided HIMARS long-range artillery, and officers struggled with desertions and casualties on the front lines.
“Morale was deteriorating,” Reuters’ Mari Saito discovered. What’s more, “An officer wrote on July 24 that someone called Shtanko was a ‘bastard’ facing disciplinary action because he ‘pulled back his platoon.’” Saito says he was able to locate Shtanko and his dad, who said Shtanko refused an order to “send his men into artillery fire.”
Amid a wave of HIMARS strikes, one battalion is revealed to have had only 49 personnel instead of the usual 240. Reporters also found spreadsheets and documents describing in detail certain pay discrepancies between Russian troops and those taken from the local population in formerly-occupied Balakliia. More to that story, here.
From the department of desperate Russian personnel needs, Afghan commando veterans are reportedly being offered gigs fighting for Moscow inside Ukraine, Foreign Policy’s Lynne O’Donnell reported Tuesday. Story, here.
- “What does ‘lose’ look like for the Russia-Ukraine war? We need room to discuss how this ends,” The Telegraph asked in a useful inquiry on Tuesday;
- “How Belarusian hospitals concealed Russia’s military casualties in the Ukraine war,” via CNN, reporting Tuesday;
- “Mercedes-Benz to quit Russian market, sell shares to local investor,” Reuters reported Wednesday, following similar news from U.S. automaker Ford Motor Co.;
- And “House progressives retract Russia-diplomacy letter amid Dem firestorm,” Politico reported Tuesday after the clownshow of poor messaging from the House Democrats’ progressive wing of some 90 lawmakers, 30 of whom signed that letter we described in Tuesday’s newsletter.
From Defense One
Aides Recall How Ash Carter Changed Pentagon’s Weapons Buying // Marcus Weisgerber: Over decades, the physicist-turned-defense leader worked to speed up and streamline arms procurement.
The Worst Thing About the Progressives’ Ukraine Letter // Joe Cirincione: It revealed a deeply flawed conception of diplomacy.
Welcome to this Wednesday 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 1892, American investigative journalist Ida B. Wells published a speech that unified much of her work into one pamphlet entitled, “Southern Horrors: Lynch Law in All its Phases.” 128 years later, in 2020, Wells was posthumously awarded a Pulitzer Prize special citation for her work investigating those lynchings across the American South.
The U.S. military in Africa carried out an airstrike against alleged al-Shabab fighters in Somalia on Sunday. That strike is believed to have killed two militants, who “were attacking Somali National Army forces near Buulobarde, Somalia, about [135 miles] north-northwest of Mogadishu,” U.S. Africa Command officials announced on Tuesday.
- See where U.S. airstrikes have targeted Shabab militants each year since 2007 in this chart and map maintained by the folks at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank in Washington.
Big picture: “Despite some setbacks in recent years, Shabaab continues to be one of al Qaeda’s most effective branches,” Bill Roggio of FDD wrote in early October. Shabab also “maintains significant control over much of southern Somalia and retains the ability to strike in Mogadishu, Kenya, where it also controls territory, and against heavily fortified bases in both Somalia and Kenya.”
Developing: Almost a million of Somalia’s most needy people live in Shabab-controlled territory, and another six million live in drought-affected lands throughout the rest of the country, according to the United Nations’ special representative for Somalia, James Swan. The UN is considering declaring a “famine” in the troubled Horn of Africa nation of more than 16 million people—nearly a million of whom have been displaced from their homes since last year due to the effects of climate change in the region, but especially in Somalia, as the UN said over the summer.
Why flag the current famine? “Al-Shabab’s hostility to aid efforts during a famine in Somalia a decade ago was a factor in the deaths of a quarter-million people,” the Associated Press reported Wednesday from neighboring Kenya. What’s more, “Somalia, like other countries with long-running humanitarian crises, saw support from many donors drop this year as the focus swung to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”
Related reading: “Death Toll Climbs to 11 Following al-Shabab Hotel Attack in Somalia,” Voice of America reported Tuesday, two days after that attack in Kismayo, about nine hours south of the capital.
New warning: North Korea should expect a response on an “unparalleled scale” if it detonates another nuclear bomb soon, representatives from the United States, Japan, and South Korea said Wednesday in a joint press conference in Tokyo. Some observers expect Pyongyang to detonate another bomb—their first since 2017—possibly before midterm elections in the U.S., Reuters reports.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman: “We hope indeed that everyone on the Security Council would understand that any use of a nuclear weapon will change the world in incredible ways.”
ICYMI: China and Russia in May vetoed U.S.-led sanctions against North Korea before the UN. The country has recently increased the frequency of missile tests and military drills, shooting off more than two dozen ballistic missiles so far this year.
The latest: Seoul may be on the verge of a significant defensive pivot. South Korea’s defense minister said Wednesday that “it’s time to change our strategy” from stopping North Korea from developing nuclear weapons to preventing them from using those weapons, Yonhap News Agency reports.
“The priority should be on deterring the use of nuclear weapons by giving them a clear sense that if North Korea attempts to use nuclear weapons, it will bring about an end to the North Korean regime and it will disappear completely,” said Lee Jong-sup. He also said the south should strengthen its defenses, and find an “institutional device clearly guaranteeing the U.S. extended deterrence commitment.”
Rewind: See all of North Korea’s missile tests since 1984 via this database by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.
And lastly: China’s autocratic leader Xi Jinping awarded himself a third five-year term as leader of China’s Communist Party, and that is likely to mean “more tension with China over trade, security, and human rights” for everyone else, the Associated Press reported Monday.
Xi’s message is that “The world system is broken and China has answers,” William Callahan of the London School of Economics told AP. “More and more, Xi Jinping is talking about the Chinese style as a universal model of the world order.”
And don’t miss: “Mar-a-Lago classified papers held U.S. secrets about Iran and China,” via the Washington Post, reporting Friday.