Today's D Brief: NATO FMs meet in Romania; How Russia's military is evolving; B-21 preview; New Navy FONOP in the SCS; And a bit more.
How to help a friend in dire need? NATO foreign ministers are meeting today in the Romanian capital of Bucharest to drum up ways to assist Ukraine in repairing and rebuilding its gas and power infrastructure after two months of intense bombardment from the Russian military. And that means air defense systems are also one of the big topics today in Bucharest, the alliance’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters before discussions began Tuesday.
Russian leader Vladimir “Putin is trying to use winter as a weapon of war,” Stoltenberg said. But Ukraine isn’t the only focus of alliance diplomats in eastern Europe today. “We will also address [the] resilience of our critical infrastructure, and the challenges that China is posing to our security, to our values, and to our economy,” Stoltenberg said.
See how some ordinary Ukrainians are living their lives amid battered, spartan conditions via a series of posts from the president of Kyiv’s School of Economics, Tymofyi Mylovanov. He shared how he and his family are staying warm as they do typical pedestrian tasks like shopping and driving through town—while the city is almost entirely dark amid electricity blackouts from Russian missile and drone attacks. He even managed to visit a mall and enjoy sushi with his wife. “We are ready for another attack,” he said Sunday. “Every time damages get worse. No water and heat for days. But people are adapting,” he insisted. Check out his full 17-post Twitter thread, here.
An alleged 90% of Ukrainians polled say they’re ready to live with electricity shortages for two to three years if they see the prospect of joining the European Union. Ukraine’s First Lady Olena Zelenska shared those survey results (which we were unable to locate) in an interview with the BBC on Friday. Read or listen to that in more detail, here.
Developing: The Russian military is quietly but notably altering how it conducts war. And this has particularly been the case over the past three months, during which time “Russian forces in Ukraine have likely largely stopped deploying as Battalion Tactical Groups,” the British military said Tuesday. That so-called BTG approach “has played a major part in Russian military doctrine for the last ten years, and saw battalions integrated with a full range of supporting sub-units, including armor, reconnaissance and (in a departure from usual Western practice) artillery.”
That old approach is changing, the Brits say. And it’s changing because “Several intrinsic weaknesses…have been exposed in the high intensity, large-scale combat of the Ukraine war so far.” Those weaknesses seem to include Russia’s “relatively small allocation of combat infantry,” which the British insist “has often proved insufficient” in Ukraine. Complicating matters for the Kremlin: “Decentralized distribution of artillery has not allowed Russia to fully leverage its advantage in numbers of guns.” And a relatively inflexible command structure for Russian officers has apparently further stymied the BTG approach.
These are also changes that have been reviewed recently by scholars like Michael Kofman of CNA. He went over some of these points in a paywalled podcast over at War on the Rocks. See Kofman’s brief teaser for that one, via Twitter exactly one week ago, here.
Who benefits most from a cold and miserable winter—the Russian military, or the Ukrainians? Jack Watling of the UK’s Royal United Services Institute says Kyiv is best positioned to weather this one out. All the fuss over mud and tanks in the coming weeks? That’s rubbish (relatively speaking), Watling says. It would be more useful to focus on infantry and logistics, he argues, and proceeds straight to the urgency of battlefield sanitation, which “takes a lot of personal discipline,” he writes. Given the seemingly dire straits facing Russian military staffing, Watling anticipates “a high rate of death through hypothermia and disease” for the Kremlin during the winter ahead. Read the rest of his argument, here.
To better appreciate the urgency of staying clean and dry, take a look at these photos allegedly from three days ago around Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk oblast, which is especially close to the frontlines (if the dismal and gray, WWI-like charred landscape didn’t suggest as much). Russia’s invading forces are inching closer to Ukrainian-controlled Bakhmut from the east and the south, according to the latest assessment from the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. Elements of the ragtag Wagner militia group are also near Bakhmut, and have been for some time.
One reason Bakhmut is proving elusive for Putin’s forces so far: “[C]laimed Russian positions closest to Bakhmut in Klishchiivka and Pidhorodne lead directly into prepared Ukrainian defenses in Bakhmut and its western and northern satellite villages,” ISW writes. A closer look at defending Ukrainians nearby reveals that “Russian forces in Klishchiivka, in order to advance any further, would have to cross three kilometers of fields with little cover and concealment.” And “in their current degraded state, [Russian forces] are likely unable to be able to accomplish this task quickly,” ISW predicts.
New: The White House just approved $320 million in missiles for Finland. That includes 40 AIM 9X Block II tactical missiles; four AIM 9X Block II tactical guidance units; 48 AGM-154 Joint Stand Off Weapons; training missiles; and more. Congress can still block the sale, but no one anticipates that happening. Read more from the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency, here.
- “Estonia says European nations should double defense expenditure,” Reuters reported Monday from Kyiv;
- “Kremlin Adds Kalashnikovs, Patriotism and Respect for Soldiers to School Curriculum in Soviet-Era Throwback,” the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday from Moscow;
- “Russian Retreat Reveals Signs of an Atrocity in a Ukrainian Village,” the New York Times reported Tuesday from the town of Pravdyne;
- And don’t miss how “Ukraine Is Biden’s Defining Issue, and His Biggest Economic Challenge,” via the Times as well, alongside similar Tuesday coverage from the Wall Street Journal.
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Welcome to this “Giving Tuesday” 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 1987, Korean Air Flight 858 exploded in midair over the coast of Myanmar while flying from Baghdad to Seoul, killing all 115 passengers and crew on board. Two North Korean secret agents were later discovered to have planted the bomb in an overhead cabin, then departed the aircraft during a stopover in Abu Dhabi. The two tried to flee to Rome, but were apprehended in Bahrain when their passports were revealed as forgeries. Both attempted suicide by ingesting a cyanide pill, but only one perished; the survivor, a 25-year-old woman, later confessed to the plot and was sentenced to be executed before Seoul’s President Roh Tae-woo granted her a pardon in 1990.
An indignant U.S. Navy insists China’s leaders are “misrepresent[ing] lawful U.S. maritime operations” around the South China Sea. That allegation comes after the U.S. Navy’s guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville sailed a freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands on Tuesday.
According to China’s military, the “USS Chancellorsville trespassed into the waters adjacent to islands and reefs of China's Nansha Islands without the approval of the Chinese government.” China says it then dispatched “air and naval forces to track, monitor, and warn” the crew of the Chancellorsville—whose alleged “illegal behavior seriously violated China's sovereignty and security, and served as a new irrefutable proof of the U.S. military's practice of navigation hegemony,” which sounds ridiculous to your D Brief-ers, “and militarization of the South China Sea,” which sounds an awful lot like projection to your correspondents.
According to the U.S. Navy, “The operation reflects our continued commitment to uphold freedom of navigation and lawful uses of the sea as a principle. The United States is defending every nation's right to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows, as USS Chancellorsville did here. Nothing the [People’s Republic of China] says otherwise will deter us.”
Flashback: The commander of 7th Fleet, Vice Adm. Karl Thomas, spoke just last month about the importance of these types of freedom of navigation operations. “If you don’t push back, and if we don’t take a stand, they’ll just continue to move the ball down the field,” he said. Read more, here.
Just around the corner: “UK parliamentary committee to visit Taiwan this week,” Reuters previewed Tuesday from London.
And lastly: If North Korea conducts a new nuclear test, the response from South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. “will be something that has not been seen before,” South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol told Reuters on Monday. Yoon did not elaborate on what that unprecedented response may be.
He also urged China to get involved and influence North Korea to stop pursuing nuclear weapons. “What is sure is that China has the capability to influence North Korea, and China has the responsibility to engage in the process,” Yoon said. Read on, here.