Today's D Brief: Explosions rock 2 Russian airbases; When to talk with Putin?; More DPRK launches; DOD to drop Covid vax mandate?; And a bit more.

Russian airstrikes hammered Ukrainian cities again Monday, hours after reports of an explosion at two different Russian military airfields: Dyagilevo and Engels, which is where Moscow’s Tu-95MS and Tu-160 strategic bomber squadrons reside. Russia-watcher Rob Lee shared purported video of the airfield explosions on Twitter, here. Russian state media reported three deaths and six injuries from one of the incidents, which hit the Dyagilevo air base southwest of Moscow, near the city of Ryazan. “Another two people are reported to have been hurt in an explosion at an airfield [Engels] in the Saratov region,” the BBC reported. 

The Ukrainian port city of Odesa lost electricity and water from the Monday Russian airstrikes. “Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, drove a truck across a bridge linking his country to the Crimean Peninsula following its repair from a bombing in October that had embarrassed Moscow,” the Associated Press reported Monday from Kyiv. 

ICYMI: The U.S. and French presidents separately signaled their openness to some sort of discussions on peace in Ukraine—and almost immediately drew fire from others in the NATO alliance. Those U.S. and French signals came during Emmanuel Macron’s official state visit to the White House late last week, a first for a world leader during Joe Biden’s nearly two years in office.  

“We need to work on what could lead to a peace agreement,” said Macron to reporters Thursday at the White House. “But it is for [President Zelenskyy] to tell us when the time comes and what the choices of the Ukrainians are.”

“Let me choose my words very carefully,” said President Biden while standing beside Macron on Thursday. “I’m prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if in fact there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war.  He hasn’t done that yet.  If that’s the case, in consultation with my French and my NATO friends, I’ll be happy to sit down with Putin to see what he wants [or] has in mind.” However, Biden said, “He hasn’t done that yet.”

But Macron had more to say over the weekend, telling French TV in an interview, e.g., “We need to prepare what we are ready to do, how we protect our allies and member states, and how to give guarantees to Russia the day it returns to the negotiating table.”

Lithuania’s foreign minister was not at all pleased with that openness to negotiate with Putin any time soon. “Russia shouldn’t get invited to ‘peace’ negotiations as a reward for brutally invading, occupying and murdering its neighbours again and again,” Gabrielius Landsbergis tweeted Sunday. “That isn’t how the rules-based international order works,” he said, and also suggested perhaps some international institutions ought to be altered or removed entirely to account for this “new” phase of international relations brought about by Putin’s Ukraine invasion. 

“Some even suggest Ukrainian territorial concessions to the invaders as a gift,” Landsbergis added, and noted his strong disagreement. “First Russia has to face defeat on the battlefield. For that Ukraine needs all our help,” he said. And that means “All the weapons, all the assistance we can give. Otherwise Russia will continue trying to reinvent the continent according to its own imperialist world vision.”

“It is in Europe's interest to fight off and defeat the invader,” he said, and—flagging the League of Nations’ failure to prevent World War II—added, “After this defeat a new system needs to be created out of the lessons learnt from previous mistakes…And we should start creating this new system with Ukraine, not with Putin’s Russia.”

Finland’s former prime minister said he “fundamentally disagree[s]” with Macron, too, writing on Twitter Sunday, “The only security guarantees we should focus on are essentially non-Russian,” said Alexander Stubb. “Russia needs first to guarantee that it does not attack others. Only then can we begin discussions on Eur[opean] Sec[urity].”

To be clear, Russian leader Vladimir Putin “has not changed his political objectives” for invading Ukraine, U.S. Director for National Intelligence Avril Haines said this weekend at the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, Calif. And at any rate, she noted, the U.S. and its allies don’t see any interest from Ukraine’s military in halting its counter offensives against the Russian occupiers. 

Indeed, Ukraine’s military believes it can leverage “a series of successive operations to deprive Russia of the initiative, defeat the Russian military, and liberate more Ukrainian territory,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War wrote Sunday evening. 

As for what lies ahead, there’s a “hard freeze” expected in late December; and at that point, “Ukrainian forces will be again able to exploit the weather conditions,” according to ISW, which stressed, “Winter is usually the best season for mechanized warfare in Ukraine, whereas spring is the nightmare season for fighting in Ukraine.”

Haines also said she expects a slowed pace to the war in Ukraine over the coming winter. “We’re seeing a kind of a reduced tempo of the conflict already,” she said Saturday. Most of the fighting “has slowed down with the withdrawal of Russia from the sort of western Kherson area to the east of the [Dnipro] river. And we expect that’s likely to be what we see in the coming months.” 

For Haines, March and April seem to be the next critical windows for more accurately judging what direction the conflict might take next, she said. Meanwhile, the business of refitting and resupplying Ukraine and Russia’s troops is likely to dominate activity for both militaries in the weeks to come. 

New satellite imagery from Maxar reveals Russian military efforts to hide and move beyond some of the destruction its rockets dealt across Ukraine's port city of Mariupol. For example, there seems to be some kind of tall obstructing wall that’s been installed around the theater Russian airstrikes destroyed in mid-March. 

There also appears to be a “new Russian military compound” that’s been built “in the north-center of the city (complete with a Russian Army slogan on the top of the roof),” according to Maxar. See also “significant expansion” at the city's main cemetery, as well as entire apartment blocks that have been completely destroyed and turned into dust.  

Take a ride down the escalator to visit one of Kyiv’s bomb shelters in this 27-second video taken from Instagram and shared by the local news source, New Voice of Ukraine. 

A congratulatory tip of the hat early this week to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who was just named the Financial Times’ “person of the year” for 2022. According to the paper, “The 44-year-old has earnt a place in history for his extraordinary display of leadership and fortitude” during the first nine months of Russia’s Ukraine invasion. 

Related reading: 

From Defense One

Austin Urges Congress to Pass a Budget, Citing China Threat // Marcus Weisgerber: But the secretary left inflation, supply chain, and worker woes out of his speech to the Reagan National Defense Forum.

Air Force Unveils New B-21 Stealth Bomber After Seven Years in the Making // Marcus Weisgerber: Hundreds of VIPs and thousands of Northrop employees applauded as tail number 0001 was shown off with help from lasers and fog machines.

Ukraine Pushes Government Digitization As War Rages // Patrick Tucker: New services help citizens access services, ID Russian war criminals, and reassure foreign supporters.

Expect AR/VR on the Battlefield, Air Force CIO Says // Lauren C. Williams: Augmented- and virtual-reality gear will become more than just a training tool, Knausenberger says.

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. What are your questions or concerns as the week begins? Let us know by dropping us an email. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1831, and just three years away from a failed reelection bid, former U.S. President John Quincy Adams took his seat as a member of the House of Representatives, becoming the first and only president to do so in the lower chamber; he served there for 17 years until his death at the age of 80. 

North Korea launched another 130 artillery rounds into waters east and west of the isolated country on Monday, Seoul’s Yonhap news agency reported. South Korea’s military alleged “multiple rocket launchers” were used for some of the launches, which capped the North’s busiest rocket-testing year to date with more than 60 ballistic missiles fired in dozens of tests since January.
North Korea said it fired the artillery in a “tit-for-tat” gesture following South Korean military drills near its border with the North. Voice of America’s William Gallo relays that message, here.
From the region: 

New: The Biden administration is considering a proposal by Rep. Kevin McCarthy to ditch the military’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, Reuters reported Saturday. The Republican leader had said he has bipartisan support for a proposal to end the edict, as part of the National Defense Authorization Act. Still, the White House has not made a decision—only said it would “consider” the proposal, according to a White House spokesperson.
“The secretary of defense has recommended retaining the mandate, and the president supports his position. Discussions about the NDAA are ongoing,” Olivia Dalton said.
ICYMI: A group of Republican Senators last week said they will try to block the NDAA if they are not given the chance to at least vote on removing the vaccine mandate. Read more on that from Defense One’s Caitlin Kenney, here

And lastly: Most of a North Carolina county is still without power after two electrical substations were damaged by gunfire Saturday night. A state senator called the attack “intentional, willful, and malicious,” but authorities are not clear on the motive, the New York Times reported Monday morning. Moore County, home of Pinehurst Resort, was under curfew Sunday night and closed schools Monday, Reuters reported. Officials believe power may not be restored until Thursday; the FBI and local agencies are investigating.