Today's D Brief: US, Russia prisoner swap; DOD splits $9B cloud contract; Putin's nuclear first-use promise; Milley on how the Ukraine war ends; And a bit more.
Washington, Moscow agree to high-profile prisoner swap: The United States has just released notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout in exchange for the release of detained American basketball player Brittney Griner, U.S. President Joe Biden announced Thursday after Griner landed in the United Arab Emirates en route to the states.
“She’s safe; she’s on a plane. She’s on her way home,” Biden said in a video address from the White House on Thursday morning. Her release comes “after months of being unjustly detained in Russia, and held in intolerable circumstances…and the fact remains that she’s lost months of her life, experienced needless trauma, and she deserves space, privacy, and time with her loved ones to recover and heal from her time of being wrongfully detained.”
“We’ve not forgotten about Paul Whelan,” Biden said, referring to the former U.S. Marine who was detained in Moscow almost exactly four years ago on allegations of spying. “This was not a choice of which American to bring home. We brought home Trevor Reed when we had a chance earlier this year,” the president said.
“Sadly, for totally illegitimate reasons, Russia is treating Paul’s case differently than Brittney’s,” said Biden. “And while we have not yet succeeded in securing Paul’s release, we are not giving up. We will never give up.”
A senior White House official shed some light on the backroom negotiations in a call with reporters Thursday. “Through multiple engagements, the Russians made clear the only route for Brittney’s release was… Viktor Bout,” the official said. “This was not a situation where we had a choice of which American to bring home,” they continued; the Russians left them the choice to either bring home Griner or no one at all.
America’s top diplomat chimed in, too: “We will not cease in our efforts until Paul Whelan is back with his family, too,” State Secretary Antony Blinken said in his own tweet Thursday.
As for Viktor Bout, he’d been in U.S. detention since late 2010, about two years after he was initially arrested in Thailand. His globe-trotting exploits in the global arms trade have made him the subject of several film and TV treatments over the past two decades—including the 2005 action film, “Lord of War,” an episode of the 2015 TV series “Manhunt: Kill or Capture,” and the 2019 documentary series, “Spy Wars.” Read more on Bout in an obligatory explainer cranked out by NBC News on Thursday, here.
Coverage continues below the fold…
From Defense One
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Welcome to this Thursday 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. On this day in 1941, POTUS32 said that for Americans December 7 will forever be “a date which will live in infamy,” as he declared war on Japan for its attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor the day prior.
Stepping back from the brink: Russia’s autocratic leader ruled out using nuclear weapons first in a potential future conflict with NATO. Vladimir Putin delivered that promise Wednesday in remarks to Russian officials at an annual human rights council meeting. It’s worth noting, however, that “In the run-up to Wednesday's meeting, 10 members of the council who had expressed doubts about the [Ukraine] war were removed,” and “Pro-war replacements were brought in instead,” according to the BBC.
Putin also promised not to “run around the world brandishing [nuclear weapons] like a razor.” However, he added, “Such a threat is growing, [and] it would be wrong to hide it.” He also knocked the U.S. in his nuclear commentary, noting, e.g., “We do not have nuclear weapons, including tactical ones, on the territory of other countries; but the Americans do—in Turkey, and in a number of other European countries.”
He also claimed the Sea of Azov is Russia’s own “internal sea,” since half of it is flanked by legitimate Russian territory, and the other half is now flanked by Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory, like the port city of Mariupol and the Crimean peninsula. In the process, Putin yet again compared himself to Peter the Great—as he’s often done lately—saying even Peter wanted Azov for his own but was unable to take it militarily.
For the record: Russia still occupies about 18% of Ukrainian territory. Putin called that a “significant result” and pointed to the “new territories” Russia has annexed in the four Ukrainian regions of Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Luhansk and Donetsk.
Battlefield latest: “Despite growing losses,” Russian military commanders are “sending in waves of infantry” toward Bakhmut, the Wall Street Journal reports from the embattled city in the heart of occupied eastern Ukraine. Russia seems to be throwing in hundreds of new reserve troops to the region around Bakhmut, Reuters reported Thursday on location.
Here’s America’s top military officer on the current state of the war: “It's not a stalemate, per se; but offensive action by either side is limited in terms of distances,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley said at a Wall Street Journal event Tuesday evening. “You've seen two very successful Ukrainian offensives—one up around Kharkiv, and one down in Kherson. But there's still a significant amount of Russian occupied Ukraine, and there's still a significant amount of fighting to go. But right this minute the situation on the ground, the ground maneuver part of it, is the lines are stabilizing.”
Since mid-September, Russia has been “attacking the energy infrastructure of Ukraine,” and “there's no military value in that,” he said. “This is an attack on civilians—so the infrastructure of the elderly, the young, hospitals, etc. And that's just flat out unacceptable.”
“What they're trying to do is break the back [and] break the will of the Ukrainian people,” Milley said, and predicted, “I think what you'll see is not breaking the back, but an increased level of resilience, increased level of resistance on part of the Ukrainian people as a result of his Russian attacks.”
Britain’s top officer: “The brutality of this is fuelling an even stronger resolve in the Ukrainian people,” Adm. Sir Tony Radakin said at the same event Tuesday. And while it seems no one but Russia’s leader truly wants to fight a war right now, Radakin cautioned, “I think for both of us, it would be foolhardy to start to put timelines to this” conflict. After all, he added, “It's a sort of truism that when you unleash this level of violence, the idea of predictability becomes ever more difficult.”
- By the way, on Wednesday we asked the new, publicly-available artificial intelligence chatbot ChatGPT, “How long can the Ukrainian military hold off a Russian invasion?” Here was its fairly reasonable reply: “It is impossible to accurately predict how long the Ukrainian military can hold off a Russian invasion. The outcome would depend on a variety of factors, including the number of troops, the level of military preparedness, the level of support from other countries, and the level of military technology available to both sides.”
“People say what does success look like? How do you know when it's over? How do you know when it ends?” Milley told the audience Tuesday evening. “And in our case, the United States case, that's already been defined; and the President of the United States has already stated multiple times; the Secretary of State said it; the secretary of defense said it; many, many others have said it. And that is, at the end of the day, Ukraine must remain a free, independent, sovereign country with its territory intact. Simple as that. So that's what this whole thing is about.”
- “Ukraine Hit by Deadliest Single Russian Attack on Civilians in Weeks,” the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday;
- “Away From the Spotlight, a Debate Rages Over a Postwar Ukraine Economy,” via the New York Times, reporting Thursday from London;
- “US: Russia looking to Iran to supply more drones, missiles,” the Associated Press reported Wednesday;
- “Putin concedes Ukraine war may be ‘a long process’ but cites ‘serious’ gains,” the Washington Post reported Thursday;
- “Kremlin: Russia plans to 'liberate' parts of Ukraine that Moscow annexed,” Reuters reported Thursday from Moscow.