Today's D Brief: Moscow, Kyiv claim to hold Soledar; Russia losing 500 troops daily, Reznikov says; Patriot training to begin in Oklahoma; And a bit more.

Russia and Ukraine’s militaries both claim to hold the embattled eastern city of Soledar, about six miles from the Donetsk city of Bakhmut, which has seen fierce fighting since at least May. Moscow’s defense ministry claims to have “liberated” Soledar on Thursday evening using “air, missile, and artillery strikes,” followed by paratroopers who swept in thanks to a “stealth maneuver” to claim the territory, according to Lieutenant-General Igor Konashenkov. 

Ukraine’s military, however, described the action around Soledar as “hot,” and said battles there are ongoing. “The enemy threw almost all the main forces in the direction of Donetsk and maintains a high intensity of the offensive,” said Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar, writing early Friday on Telegram. “Our fighters are valiantly trying to hold the defense,” she said, calling this “a difficult phase of the war, but we will win.” 

The view from Washington: “The fighting in areas around Bakhmut and, now, this town called Soledar has been significant and severe, and the fighting has been sharp between both sides,” John Kirby of the White House’s National Security Council told reporters Thursday. “This is the Donbas area…It’s a lot like Kansas,” he said. “It's farmland. It's open ground. And so we want to make sure that we are providing the kinds of capabilities to Ukraine to be able to succeed in that environment. That's why Bradley Fighting Vehicles were part of the package” that the U.S. announced late last week. 

As for Soledar, “We believe that the Russian interest in it is sort of twofold,” Kirby said. “One, because they see securing it as key to their ability to secure and then to hold Bakhmut. There's also salt mines there. So we also think that there's a bit of an economic incentive” for Russia’s invasion forces to seize Soledar. 

“But even if both Bakhmut and Soledar fall to the Russians, it's not going to have a strategic impact on the war itself,” said Kirby. “And it certainly isn't going to stop the Ukrainians or slow them down.”

Meanwhile in Kyiv: Ukraine’s president says his military is now prioritizing “modern tanks and effective artillery…to drive the Russian army out of our land,” he said Friday to an audience of Lithuanian lawmakers. “And we need an international tribunal, which will bring to justice those whose evil minds gave birth to this crime, this war,” he said. “When the revanchists from present-day Moscow will face a fair trial, it will be a historic punishment for those revanchists who tried to break our freedom a generation ago.”

By the way: Ukraine’s military says Russia just “radically” updated how state-run media will cover the Ukraine war, alleging Friday that “the Russian Federation prepared [11] general recommendations” spelled out in “a special document that determines how Kremlin propagandists should cover the events of the war.” Some of the new approaches include “Refusal to mention PMC ‘Wagner’ in a positive context,” and advice to frame and explain strikes on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure as a “necessity.” Read the other nine via Facebook, here

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin rang his Swedish counterpart Thursday, ahead of next week’s Ukraine Defense Contact Group at Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Austin and Sweden’s Defense Minister Pål Jonson discussed that meeting (Sweden recently offered its Archer artillery system to Kyiv), and the “new phase of bilateral cooperation” between the two defense chiefs’ countries in the wake of Stockholm’s bid to join the NATO alliance. 

Coverage continues below…

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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 this newsletter, you can do that here. On this day in 2018, residents of Hawaii were accidentally sent an incoming ballistic missile alert that claimed “This is not a drill.” 

Ukraine’s military chief says the country has become a “de facto” member of the NATO alliance—“not de jure [or, by law],” Olesksii Reznikov told the BBC on Friday. But “Because we have weaponry, and the understanding of how to use it.”
Reznikov also claimed Russia is losing “approximately 500 or 600” people every day in Ukraine, while Kyiv is losing just a tenth of that. He also said Russia is “running out of missiles,” which is something we’ve heard for several months now. More here.
We forgot to mention this week: The Pentagon says it will soon train Ukrainians to use Patriot anti-missile systems in Oklahoma at Fort Sill, home to the U.S. Army’s Field Artillery School. The current plan involves “approximately 90 to 100 Ukrainian soldiers” who will be training over “several months” at Sill, Pentagon spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder told reporters on Tuesday. The training will begin “as soon as next week,” he said.
But a far-right Oklahoma Republican state senator is trying (likely in vain) to stop all that from happening, and using Trump-like rhetoric to plead his case. “These America Last policies of the current regime should not be tolerated in Oklahoma,” Sen. Nathan Dahm said Wednesday after filing a resolution to block the training. “We saw how recently the Ukrainian military fired a rocket into Poland killing two innocent civilians. We certainly don’t need them practicing here in Oklahoma where our citizens could be under the constant threat of a similar failure.” According to Dahm, his resolution “even encourages the governor, county officials, and law enforcement to use their powers to prohibit these foreign troops from being on Oklahoma soil.”

  • For what it’s worth, the same far-right lawmaker filed a separate resolution to declare Oklahoma a “sovereign state” in late December. Local Oklahomans tell The D Brief that Sen. Dahm has made a name for himself by being a loud, brash, and combative kind of “anti-statesman”—in the manner of Georgia’s Marge Greene and Colorado’s Lauren Boebert—with little to no apparent interest in pragmatic compromise.

Dahm’s new resolution doesn’t seem to have much hope of passing; indeed, seven other Republican state senators opposed Dahm’s latest proposal in their own statement the following day. “The resolution that was issued does not speak for the vast majority of the Oklahoma Senate, or Oklahomans, who welcome training exercises to defend the lands we love and our neighbors in other countries,” they wrote.
“To cut these ties would be akin to jeopardizing our national security,” Dahm’s fellow Republicans replied, and added, “We hope the troops from other countries currently training on our beloved military installations in Oklahoma feel welcomed and experience what makes our state the best in the country.” Oklahoma City’s KFOR news has a bit more, here.
While Ukraine’s supporters seem to be warming up to the idea of sending tanks to Kyiv, Ukraine’s military created a video (mostly for Americans) to help raise interest in the idea. You can find that 48-second clip via Twitter, here.
New: The United Nations says it will soon deploy inspectors to all of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, including the one in Zaporizhzhia currently occupied by Russian military forces. That’s according to the Wall Street Journal, reporting Friday ahead of International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Grossi’s trip to Ukraine next week. (The IAEA has had officials in Zaporizhzhia since September; this new plan would extend those assignments.)
Also new: Russia released a 35-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who was detained last April in Kaliningrad during an alleged visit to a music festival. His name is Taylor Dudley. And in case you’re curious, “There was no evidence that his plight became linked to that of the former U.S. Marine and corporate security consultant Paul Whelan, who was arrested in Moscow in December 2018 and convicted on espionage charges,” the New York Times reported Thursday after his release.
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That’s it for us this week. We’re off Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day. So we’ll see you again on Tuesday!