Today's D Brief: North Korean artillery headed to Russia, WH says; Nuclear chatter in the Kremlin; Pyongyang fires 23 missiles; Space Force gets a new leader; And a bit more.
New: North Korea is allegedly hiding artillery sent to Russia “by trying to make it appear as though they are being sent to countries in the Middle East or North Africa,” White House National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications John Kirby told CNN Wednesday—though he did not offer evidence to back up the claim. “We will continue to monitor whether these shipments are received,” Kirby said in a phone call with reporters shortly after CNN’s reporting.
Sound familiar? “We had indications that Russians were reaching out to the North Koreans” about this artillery, Kirby said; and those allegations were first publicized in early September. What’s new is that now “we have seen indications that North Korea is covertly supplying artillery shells to North Korea,” and those shells “are on the move,” according to Kirby.
“We’re not talking dozens here; it’s a significant number of artillery shells,” Kirby said in that call. “We don’t believe these shells are going to change the course of the war,” he said. But the wide range of “sanctions on [Russian leader Vladimir] Putin have had an effect on his industrial base,” apparently forcing him to resort to sources like North Korea and Iran to keep up his Ukraine invasion, which is now in its ninth month.
Nuclear watch: Russian military officials considered going nuclear in Ukraine, the New York Times reported Wednesday, citing a U.S. intelligence report passed around the White House in mid-October—back when Moscow’s foreign ministry claimed Ukrainian forces were planning a “dirty bomb” attack inside their own country, which according to the Kremlin’s accusatory logic, would then be blamed on Moscow.
Notable: “President Vladimir V. Putin was not a part of the conversations,” Helene Cooper, Julian Barnes, and Eric Schmitt of the Times report. “But the fact that senior Russian military leaders were even having the discussions alarmed the Biden administration because it showed how frustrated Russian generals were about their failures on the ground.”
“We’re mindful that we may not pick up every available indicator,” the White House’s John Kirby said Wednesday, and added, “I wouldn’t describe it as fear,” but “This is all deeply concerning to us.” More from the Times, here.
By the way: The U.S. does not yet believe that Iran has supplied surface-to-surface missiles to Russia, as Iranian officials alleged to Reuters in mid-October. “We don’t have any indication that that transfer has been made effective,” Kirby said Wednesday.
Developing: Russian officials want to relocate some 70,000 Ukrainians from the occupied southern city of Kherson, the Wall Street Journal reports—calling it a “mandatory transfer” of people out of the city. Ukrainian officials claim the alleged civilian mandate is a cover for retreating Russian military forces.
Update: Two days after quitting a UN-brokered grain deal, Russia says it’s rejoining it now in order to allow ships of wheat and corn to once again sail out of select Ukrainian Black Sea ports and to markets around the world. Moscow had withdrawn from the arrangement over the weekend after an alleged attack on its navy in occupied Ukrainian Crimea. That “grain agreement brought down global food prices about 15% from their peak in March,” and the bulk of it went to lower or lower-middle income countries, the Associated Press reports, citing UN officials.
NATO’s chief is visiting Turkey for three days, beginning Thursday. While there, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has planned visits with President Recep Erdoǧan; Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.
- “Russian mercenaries jockey for influence amid military struggles in Ukraine,” CNN reported Wednesday;
- “Germany tells Serbia: you have to choose between EU and Russia,” Reuters reported Tuesday from Berlin;
- “War and peace collide in Ukraine's recaptured ruins,” Agence France-Presse reported Wednesday just west of the occupied city of Kherson, in the south.
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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 1914, the teetering Russian empire declared war on the Ottomans. Less than three years later—after German and Ottoman control of the Black Sea had almost completely severed Russia’s economic sea lanes, helping send inflation to devastating new levels—Emperor Nicholas II abdicated the throne amid a growing revolution that would see Vladimir Lenin rise to power.
New and concerning: North Korea launched nearly two dozen short range missiles Wednesday, from both of its coasts and at different times—17 in the morning, and six in the afternoon. Pyongyang also fired about 100 artillery rounds at an eastern maritime buffer zone created in 2018 to help reduce tensions with South Korea. View a map of the region, illustrated with Wednesday’s launch data, via Agence France-Presse.
Context: The North’s launches occurred as the U.S. and South Korean militaries are exercising together for what Reuters called their “largest ever air drills,” known as Vigilant Storm, featuring more than 240 aircraft in sorties scheduled to run through Friday.
One of the North’s missiles crossed the “de facto maritime border with South Korea for the first time since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War,” Yonhap news agency reports, citing Seoul’s military, which called the combined volleys “very rare and intolerable,” and responded with three precision-guided missile launches of its own on Wednesday.
Also: The 23 missiles launched in a single day appears to be a new record, the Associated Press reports. Already, the North had set a new record this year for annual missile launches, with more than 40; now that number is closer to 60, Ankit Panda of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tweeted, noting that the “Previous annual launch record (27 launches in 2019) [has] now [been] doubled.” U.S. military officials called the Wednesday launches “reckless,” but cautioned “this event does not pose an immediate threat to U.S. personnel or territory, or to our allies.”
An air raid alert sounded on South Korea’s Ulleung island as a missile traveled about 100 miles from the island, causing citizens to head to underground shelters. Yonhap has a bit more, here.
Big picture: “In all seriousness, trendlines between the two Koreas over the last 8 or so weeks are deeply concerning,” Ankit Panda wrote on Twitter, once all the North Korean tests were tallied. “We’re heading to a real bad place, I’m afraid,” he added.
For the record, the White House is still hoping it can “denuclearize the entire Korean peninsula,” John Kirby said Wednesday in a call with reporters. He said he’s waiting on North Korean officials to take up that offer from the U.S. for denuclearization talks—even though Pyongyang has said for years it has no interest in giving up its nuclear weapons. In the meantime, Kirby said the U.S. military intends to keep up a high degree of readiness should hostilities between the two Koreas appear to be on the verge of breaking out in the weeks and months ahead.
Happening today: Space Force change of command. America’s first chief of space operations and the Space Force’s first-ever member, Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, is handing the reins of the fledgling service to Chance Salzman this morning before retiring from 38 years of service to the Air Force and Space Force. Watch that ceremony live, here. Salzman, who until this morning served as deputy chief of space operations for operations, cyber, and nuclear, will be promoted to four-star general as part of the transition.
ICYMI: SpaceX just launched its first Falcon Heavy rocket carrying a national security payload. It carried two classified satellites for Space Force’s USSF-44 mission into orbit on Tuesday; Defense News has more, here.
- “Senate Democrat wants national security investigation of Saudi Arabia's role in Elon Musk-Twitter deal,” CNN reported Monday;
- “Saudi Arabia, U.S. on High Alert After Warning of Imminent Iranian Attack,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday.