Today's D Brief: Xi's nuclear warning for 'Eurasia'; Putin orders Kherson evacuation; 180 DPRK sorties; UK's F-35 problem; And a bit more.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin has ordered a civilian evacuation of the invaded Ukrainian city of Kherson, describing it as “necessary to relocate those who live in Kherson from the most dangerous zone,” according to the Kremlin’s state-run media, TASS. Putin otherwise spent Friday publicly marking a patriotic holiday on Moscow’s Red Square and citing 17th-century tales of olde Russian glory, back when “the country was on the verge of losing its sovereignty, but the people of Russia did not allow this, and…defended their homeland,” as TASS dutifully recounts.

Battlefield latest: Withdrawals are underway from northwestern Kherson Oblast, “but it is still unclear if Russian forces will fight for Kherson City,” the Institute for the Study of War wrote Thursday evening. “ISW has observed that Russian forces are continuing to prepare fallback positions on the left (eastern) bank of the Dnipro River while continuing to set up defensive positions northwest of Kherson City and transporting additional mobilized forces there,” the think tank added at the top of its latest analysis. 

New: China’s leader indirectly warned Russia against using nuclear weapons, according to a readout from Chinese state-run media, Xinhua, following a visit by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Friday. Without mentioning Putin or Russia, Xinhua said the two leaders “jointly oppose the use of, or threats to use, nuclear weapons”; and world leaders should “advocate that nuclear weapons cannot be used, a nuclear war cannot be waged, in order to prevent a nuclear crisis...on the Eurasian continent,” according to translations provided by Politico, Bloomberg, and Reuters.

  • ICYMI: Former U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz recommended Xi tell Putin “don't cross that [nuclear] line” in a Wednesday interview with Stephen Colbert of CBS’s “The Late Show.”

For his part, Scholz was willing to call out Moscow directly while in Beijing. “President Xi and I agree: nuclear threats are irresponsible and incendiary,” the chancellor told reporters after his meeting. “By using nuclear weapons, Russia would be crossing a line that the community of states has drawn together.”

And Xi didn’t go any further with his cautionary messaging to Moscow, choosing to remain silent about, e.g., the return of occupied Ukrainian territory, and the withdrawal of Russia’s occupying forces spread across the south and east of its invaded neighbor.

Update: Four and a half million Ukrainians are without electricity, President Volodymir Zelenskyy said in his nightly address on Thursday. “To endure Russian energy terror and such a challenge is our national task, one of the main ones now,” he said. 

American Senators Chris Coons, D-Delaware., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, visited Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Thursday. According to the president, “We talked primarily about an air shield for Ukraine, about how to speed up the liberation of our territory.” Coons spoke to CNN briefly about the disruption for ordinary Ukrainians living through the war, and you can catch that clip on Twitter, here. According to Portman, “I believe a Ukrainian victory is necessary to reaffirm the importance of the sovereignty of free nations and the importance of upholding international law around the globe.”

The lawmakers also discussed Iranian drones Russia is using to destroy Ukraine’s electricity grid. But those particular “challenges in the energy sector were discussed separately and in a very specific manner,” Zelenskyy said. His advice to fellow countrymen? “Please ensure that there is no unnecessary use of electricity in all cities and communities of Ukraine. Now is definitely not the time for bright showcases, signs, advertisements, and other such lighting,” he said in his nightly address. 

And prisoner exchanges continue to occur, Zelenskyy said. That includes “107 Ukrainians [who] were freed from Russian captivity” on Thursday. “Six of them are officers, 101 are sergeants and privates. Army, Navy, territorial defense, National Guard, border guards. Many of them were wounded, and very seriously,” the president said. 

Developing: Russian forces have allegedly deployed units whose job is to “shoot their own retreating soldiers in order to compel offensives,” according to the latest update from British military intelligence. “Russian generals likely wanted their commanders to use weapons against deserters, including possibly authorizing shooting to kill such defaulters after a warning had been given,” the British said Friday. “The tactic of shooting deserters likely attests to the low quality, low morale, and indiscipline of Russian forces.”

Happening next week: Pentagon officials and top defense industry execs will meet to discuss the effects of Russia’s Ukraine invasion, as well as supply chain issues and “workforce challenges,” Reuters reported Friday. Background: “The Pentagon plans $500 million in workforce training and retention programs coupled with over $2 billion in supply-chain investments in the coming years as part of an effort to tackle the problems,” Mike Stone of Reuters writes. “But Russia's invasion of Ukraine has prompted countries like the United States and Germany to raise their defense spending budgets to record levels.”

Additional reading:

From Defense One

Pentagon To Launch New Study On How to Get at Hard, Deeply Buried Targets // Patrick Tucker: A senior defense official explains the thinking behind the Biden Administration’s nuclear policy document.

How the Air Force Is Preparing for Good and Bad Comms in the Pacific // Lauren C. Williams: The service’s top lab is also working on commercial cloud offerings and facilitating classified software development.

Army Criminal Division Reviewing Thousands of Cases for Errors // Elizabeth Howe: At least 1,900 soldiers saw their careers slowed or ended by incorrect tagging in the service’s criminal database.

The Naval Brief // Caitlin M. Kenney: More life for missile subs?; UUV ‘motherships’; Drone threats; and more.

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 1956, invading Soviet tanks and artillery opened fire on the Hungarian city of Budapest to crush a rebellion that had begun two weeks earlier with student protests. After hostilities ended on 10 November, 2,500 Hungarians had been killed, 22,000 were imprisoned, and an estimated 200,000 had fled the country. Hungary would remain a vassal of the Soviet Union for another three decades, until the latter’s dissolution in 1989. 

North Korea’s military sent jets on at least 180 flights “over its inland areas as well as off the western and eastern coasts” on Friday, and just hours after launching 80 artillery rounds in response to joint military drills between the U.S. and South Korean militaries this week, according to Seoul’s Yonhap news agency. It’s unclear how many different aircraft were involved in those flights, but their activity—which included target practice for Pyongyang’s bomber aircraft—occurred “without approaching close to the inter-Korean border,” the South Korean military said.
South Korea scrambled 80 aircraft in response, and that group included F-35s. Meanwhile, “about 240 jets participating in the Vigilant Storm air exercises with the United States continued their drills,” Reuters reported Friday from Seoul.
New: South Korea’s military chief issued a stern warning to Pyongyang Thursday, saying during a meeting at the Pentagon that “any nuclear attack by the DPRK, including the use of tactical nuclear weapons, is unacceptable and result in the end of Kim Jong-un regime.” That’s what Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup said standing beside his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin. Lee promised reporters, “Secretary [Austin] and I will work on response options towards all possible nuclear use scenarios by the DPRK,” and “pledged to encourage DPRK to choose denuclearization and the path for a brighter future.” Given the heightened nature of North Korean rhetoric over the past several years, it’s doubtful Lee’s words Thursday will have much tangible impact on the future of peninsular relations. Read over the full transcript from the Pentagon, here

Undermanned and over equipped. The United Kingdom has bought 27 F-35s but doesn’t have enough pilots to fly them all, Britain’s Sky News reports. The problem is the training process, according to UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace. “Our pilot pipeline is not in a place I would want it to be,” he said.
The UK had originally planned to buy 138 of the fifth-generation fighter jets. Now, because three of the planes are in the U.S. and one crashed last year, Britain has 23 in-country. 

And lastly: The boom broke off one of the Air Force’s newest tankers while it was refueling an F-15 and “slammed back into the KC-46” Air Force Times reported Thursday after receiving confirmation of the accident, which happened in mid-October. The troubled KC-46 Pegasus has long had issues with its boom, as well as other problems, resulting in significant delays getting the plane into the fleet. It was just cleared for worldwide deployments in September, as Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber reported. “We are ready to use this aircraft globally in any fight, without hesitation,” Air Mobility Command head Gen. Mike Minihan said at the time.
The Air Force “does not suspect any systemic problems with the boom,” and it’s not clear whether the accident is related to the boom design issues that have plagued the tanker, Air Force Times’ Rachel Cohen reports. 

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!