Today's D Brief: EU's von der Leyen visits WH; Bakhmut devastation, in photos; AUKUS sub deal; Bye-bye, Benning; And a bit more.
European Union Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is visiting the White House this afternoon for discussions on several issues with President Joe Biden. That includes, of course, Russia’s Ukraine invasion as well as green energy initiatives and incentive programs in the U.S. (von der Leyen fears European businesses may move some production to the states). The two also plan to discuss “challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China,” according to the White House’s preview. That’s slated to begin around 2 p.m. ET.
Get a detailed picture of the devastation inside and around the ruined eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut via a new slate of satellite imagery from Maxar. The firm just released a batch of 10 new photos taken Monday over Ukraine. You can observe dropped bridges, destroyed homes, devastated industrial infrastructure, attacked schools, and cratered roadways.
One important takeaway from the war presently: Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet service is critical to Ukraine’s ongoing defense. “I shudder to think about what the war effort would look like without Starlink; I’m being honest,” said Michael Kofman, scholar of the Russian military, who just returned from a recent trip to Ukraine, including around Bakhmut. Kofman spoke to Dmitri Alperovitch on the latter’s “Geopolitics Decanted” podcast. The latest episode is dedicated to “Debunking Common Misperceptions About the Ukraine War.” And that includes the fact that most of the Ukrainians trained by NATO member states have already been killed or injured and removed from battle, according to Kofman.
Perhaps surprisingly, HIMARS seem to be much less effective around Bakhmut, Kofman said. Artillery and mortar fire are much more common and effective in that region, he said. Kyiv’s priority across the country remains bolstering air defense units and restocking artillery ammunition. But Ukraine will have to continue training new troops at a breakneck pace to stay in the fight, he stressed. Listen to the full conversation, as well as prior episodes, here.
But M270 Multiple Launch Rocket Systems are doing impressive work against Russian invaders, the New York Times reported from the front lines on Friday. The tease: “When closed, the launcher’s appearance is nondescript: a compact steel box on tank treads. But it is surprisingly nimble. Seconds after firing its rockets, the truck had lowered its launching platform and sped off down the road, disappearing into a new hiding place.”
And in a curious dispatch from the legal front of Russia’s invasion, the U.S. military is blocking the White House from sharing certain evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine with prosecutors at The Hague, Charlie Savage of the Times reported on Wednesday. The reluctance comes from fears U.S. officials may set “a precedent that might help pave the way for it to prosecute Americans,” even though “The rest of the administration, including intelligence agencies and the State and Justice Departments, favors giving the evidence to the court.”
More reading from the margins of the conflict:
- “Fight for Bakhmut Becomes Moment of Truth for Wagner Founder,” the Wall Street Journal reported Friday;
- “Why Russia Has Such a Strong Grip on Europe’s Nuclear Power,” the New York Times reported Friday from London;
- “To see Russia’s secret antiwar art: Meet at a bus stop. At dark. Phones off,” the Washington Post reported Thursday from St. Petersburg;
- And “Fake bombs and failed coup: Moldova smolders on border of Russia's war,” Reuters reported Friday from Chisinau.
From Defense One
Pentagon Looking to Make Sure SpaceX Doesn’t Abandon Them in War // Patrick Tucker: Spooked by the company’s new limits in Ukraine, military leaders are mulling new types of contracts.
Biden’s $842B Pentagon Budget Proposal Would Boost New Weapons // Marcus Weisgerber: The spending plan also proposes industrial-base investments.
Where Will Space Command Land? Expect a Decision ‘Fairly Soon’ // Audrey Decker: Air Force secretary says Colorado-vs.-Alabama choice is imminent.
Army Targets Gen Z In New Ad Campaign // Sam Skove: The service released its new ads several months ahead of schedule to meet the “the most challenging recruitment environment in years,” Sec. Wormuth said.
Unfrozen: How the State Department Has Reversed Its ‘Draconian’ Cuts in Just Two Years // Eric Katz: Biden promised to revive a "hollowed out" federal workforce, and at one agency, he has.
Everyone Please Chill, Okinawa Governor Says Amid Pacific Tensions // Caitlin M. Kenney: Denny Tamaki says “peaceful diplomacy” will help maintain “balance.”
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 morning in 1945, and after attempts at precision bombing had failed, the U.S. military firebombed Tokyo, killing more than 90,000 people.
Australia will buy as many as five Virginia-class submarines from the United States in the 2030s as part of the so-called AUKUS agreement, Reuters reported Wednesday. U.S. President Joe Biden will meet with Australian and British leaders Monday in San Diego to discuss the deal, which is designed to counter threats from China. If this all sounds a bit familiar, that’s because the deal to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines was first announced in 2021 when the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom agreed to the trilateral pact.
The new subs will be “based on a modified British design, with U.S. parts and upgrades,” Bloomberg reported Wednesday. And as those subs are being built, the U.S. may base some U.S. submarines in Australia, according to Bloomberg.
The program appears to be “a goat rodeo in the making,” said nuclear scholar James Acton, writing Wednesday evening on Twitter. This is because Australia, “which has never operated an SSN before, now plans to operate two different classes. Plus modifying [British]-built Astute SSNs and introducing U.S. technology will add significantly to the technical risk.”
As expected, China’s autocratic leader Xi Jinping just won an unprecedented third term as “state chairman.” His parliament in Beijing approved the new five-year term by a unanimous vote of 2,952 obedient delegates to zero opposed.
Context: “The presidency is largely ceremonial, and Xi's main position of power was extended last October when he was reconfirmed for five more years as general secretary of the central committee of the Communist Party,” Reuters reports from Beijing. “Real power resides in the positions of head of the party and military, two key roles that Xi also holds and was reappointed to at a key Communist Party congress in October,” CNN noted Friday.
Stability forecast: Xi is facing a few significant challenges in the months ahead, including “sluggish economic growth and political fallout from his abrupt pivot from harsh Covid controls,” according to the Wall Street Journal. However, “barring a full-blown financial crisis or other such catastrophe, his domestic position appears secure.”
Get a better handle on Chinese officials’ hopes, fears, and strategies for the future via a new project from scholars at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, which recently opened a special archive translating Chinese speeches, research papers, and government documents.
In terms of foreign policy, Xi’s guidelines for party officials seem to be markedly more confrontational compared to one of his key predecessors, Deng Xiaoping, who ruled when China gradually began opening its markets to the global economy in the 1980s. Moritz Rudolf of the Yale Law School parsed Xi’s recent language in a Twitter thread this week, here.
New: China’s major oil providers Iran and Saudi Arabia just agreed to resume diplomatic relations in what observers call both a “breakthrough” and a concerning development from the perspective of U.S. diplomats—especially since Chinese officials brokered the deal after four days of secretive talks, according to Reuters.
What this means: “Iran and Saudi Arabia will reopen their embassies and missions on each other’s soil within two months, and both affirmed noninterference in the internal affairs of other states,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Possible points of divergence include “the turmoil now tearing at Lebanon and in the rebuilding of Iraq after decades of war,” according to the Associated Press. The New York Times has more, here. And France24 has the view from Paris, here.
In case you’re curious, “The Saudis did keep [the U.S.] informed about these talks that they’re having…but we weren’t directly involved,” White House National Security Council Coordinator John Kirby told reporters in a phone call Friday. “We support efforts to de-escalate tensions in the region,” he said, and added, “The president is committed to managing the strategic competition with China, as well as looking for opportunities where there could be some alignment and collaboration.”
Lastly this week: The U.S. Army’s airborne and infantry training base at Fort Benning will get a new name in May, base officials announced Wednesday. The base was built in 1909 and had been named for the treasonous Confederate one-star general Henry Lewis Benning.
Its new name will be Fort Moore, named for Army Lt. Gen. Harold “Hal” Moore and his wife, Julia Moore. The Moores became a bit of a household name in the wake of the 2002 Mel Gibson film “We Were Soldiers,” featuring the Vietnam exploits of then-Lt. Col. Hal Moore. “Fort Moore recognizes Hal Moore’s life as a decorated and highly regarded commander of the Vietnam War and his wife, Julia Moore, who was equally distinguished as a leader of Army family programs who changed how the military cares for the widows of fallen Soldiers,” service officials said.
Several other buildings and roads on base will be renamed, too, as Congressionally mandated. “These changes will be completed by January 2024,” according to the Army.
Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!