Today's D Brief: China's Xi heading to Moscow; Tomahawks for the Aussies; Ukraine refusing to give up Bakhmut; Trump vs. DeSantis; And a bit more.

The autocratic leaders of Russia and China will meet next week in Moscow, officials from both countries confirmed Friday. Russia’s Vladimir Putin is eyeing a “comprehensive partnership and strategic co-operation,” according to Russian officials; and China’s Xi Jinping is looking to “play a constructive role in promoting talks for peace” when it comes to Putin’s Ukraine invasion, which has been ongoing now for 387 days.

One year ago, the two men vowed their friendship had “no limits.” This year, Moscow says they’ll sign documents declaring their relationship is entering a “new era,” Agence France-Presse reports. 

  • Apropos of nothing: China’s new artificial intelligence apps won’t talk about the country’s Communist Party leader, the Wall Street Journal learned this week as it tested four new AI-powered chatbots from Beijing. 

Remember that China recently released a 12-point “plan for peace” in Ukraine; but that plan very deliberately makes no mention of Ukraine’s sovereignty or Russia withdrawing from occupied territories. From the United States perspective, a Chinese-brokered ceasefire now would be “effectively a ratification of Russian conquest,” John Kirby of the White House’s National Security Council said Friday in a phone call with reporters. “It would, in effect, recognize Russia’s gains and its attempt to conquer its neighbor’s territory by force…Russia would be free then to use a ceasefire to only further entrench their positions in Ukraine, to rebuild [and] refit,” he warned.  

Companies in China have reportedly sent Russia 1,000 assault rifles, as well as drone parts and body armor, between June and December of last year, according to Politico, reporting Thursday, citing “trade and customs data.” There could be benefits to such sales, analysts at the Institute for the Study of War wrote Thursday evening; but those benefits aren’t terribly widespread, given the apparent small quantities believed to be involved. Read more, here

Pentagon reax: “We have not seen the transfer yet of any lethal assistance from China to Russia for use on the battlefield,” spokesman Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters at the Defense Department on Thursday afternoon. “It's something that we're keeping a very close eye on,” he said, and noted “[T]here's some press reports out there talking about some trade deals; that in and of itself is not unusual. China and Russia share a trade relationship, but the key point being, is that as of right now, we've not seen any lethal assistance transferring from China to Russia for use on the battlefield in Ukraine.”

WH POV: These deals appear to be “pre-existing, long-standing business transactions here between Chinese companies and Russia,” Kirby said Friday; and “we don’t have anything specific that indicates that those rifles are intended for use on the battlefield,” he added. 

Get smart on the Taiwan question via a new report unpacking a few ways China can avoid military force and still achieve its goals in Taiwan. In short, “persuasion, compellence, and coercion” appear likely to do the trick for Beijing, according to a joint analysis published this week by the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War. Their advice: “The US must urgently rethink its defense of Taiwan so that it blocks all three roads to Chinese victory.” 

From the region: The U.S. could soon sell Australia around 200 Tomahawk missiles for about $895 million, the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced Thursday. The possible sale includes “up to 200” Tomahawk Block V All Up Rounds, and “up to 20” Tomahawk Block IV All Up Rounds, along with related maintenance and equipment. 

“Australia is one of our most important allies in the Western Pacific,” the agency said, and stressed that “The strategic location of this political and economic power contributes significantly to ensuring peace and economic stability in the region.” Selling Canberra Tomahawks “will improve Australia’s capability to interoperate with U.S. maritime forces and other allied forces as well as its ability to contribute to missions of mutual interest,” according to DSCA.

Also in the neighborhood: North Korea on Thursday launched another intercontinental ballistic missile in an effort to show a "tough response posture" to military drills by the U.S. and South Korea, according to state media from the hermit kingdom. The missile, which North Korea also said was its largest ICBM, was fired into the waters between Korea and Japan on Thursday, Reuters reported Friday from Seoul.

By the way: U.S. and South Korean troops on Monday began an 11-day military exercise dubbed Freedom Shield. United States Forces Korea “remains committed to maintaining a ‘Fight Tonight’ level of readiness and providing a combined defense posture to protect and defend the Republic of Korea against any threat or adversary,” the U.S. military said in a press release about the training. 

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From Defense One

Air Force Should Double Its B-21 Purchase Plans, Think Tank Says // Audrey Decker: The service also needs to buy the stealth bombers more quickly, a new Mitchell Institute report says.

Threats in the Mideast Are Rising, CENTCOM Chief Says // Sam Skove: ISIS-K will be able to launch attacks abroad in less than six months, Gen. Kurilla told lawmakers.

The Army Is Putting All Its Network Efforts Under One Roof // Lauren C. Williams: By October, Program Executive Office Command, Control, Communications-Tactical is expected to absorb network portfolios from its sister PEO for enterprise services.

Don’t Expect Navy Robots In South China Sea Anytime Soon, CNO Says // Patrick Tucker: Navy pursues big AI ambitions with gradual approach.

Ukraine’s Cyber Defense Offers Lessons for Taiwan // Annie Fixler and Lt. Col. James Hesson: Washington should work with Taipei to stiffen the island's defenses against network attacks.

Is the LPD-17 Flight II Amphib Worth It? Depends Who You Ask // Caitlin M. Kenney: Navy officials say the amphibious ship is too expensive, while the top Marine calls it “affordable.”

Welcome to this St. Patrick’s Day 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

Ukrainian troops continue to hold “Fortress Bakhmut,” and are not yet withdrawing as Russian forces continue to slowly encroach further and further into the city’s eastern edges—extending an effort begun last May by mercenaries of the ragtag Wagner Group, Reuters reported on location Thursday. 
Pakistan appears to have sent mortars to Ukraine, as was reportedly in the works as recently as December. It’s a notable break from Pakistan’s nuclear-armed neighbor, India, which has not sent any arms to Ukraine—but has sent at least a dozen shipments of humanitarian aid since Russia’s invasion began 13 months ago. India, you may recall, continues to abstain from voting against Russia’s invasion on the floor of the United Nations, including the most recent occasion marking the invasion’s one-year anniversary. (Pakistan, too, abstained from voting; but that doesn’t appear to have stopped the mortar shipment.)
Poland may soon purchase 800 Hellfire missiles from the U.S., the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced Thursday. “Poland intends to use these defense articles and services to modernize its armed forces and expand its capability to strengthen its homeland defense and deter regional threats,” DSCA said. The package would cost Warsaw only about $150 million. Details, here.
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As several investigations close in on former President Donald Trump, he released a dimly-lit video Thursday claiming America’s national security community is not to be trusted, that the NATO alliance needs “reevaluating,” and “USA-hating” Americans are the enemy, “not Russia.”
“The greatest threat to Western Civilization today is not Russia,” Trump said. “It's probably, more than anything else, ourselves and some of the horrible, U.S.A. hating people that represent us.”
GOP reax: “Republicans need to rebuke this. Full stop,” said Olivia Troye, a former advisor to Trump’s Vice President Mike Pence. She also called the video a “Horrifying Pro-Putin message from Trump with ongoing dangerous implications for our national security and the future of our country.”
All doom and gloom for this guy: In case you missed it, Trump released a separate dimly-lit video earlier this week claiming the United States is “doomed” and bound for “oblivion” unless he’s re-elected. “World War III is looming like never before in the very dark and murky background,” he said. “We have to take back the White House or our country is doomed,” he added, and finished with, “Thank you very much.”
What else is on Trump’s mind? His main political rival—Florida Governor and “wannabe autocrat” Ron DeSantis, as Vanity Fair described him one month ago. As this newsletter went to press this morning, eight of Trump’s last 10 posts on Truth Social are fixated on the governor, whom Trump variously calls “RINO Ron DeSanctimonious” and “Ron DeSanctus.” Trump even claimed on Tuesday that DeSantis is trying to copy him, “following what I am saying…Whatever I want, he wants,” Trump said.
Indeed, shortly after Trump said he’d let Russia “take over” parts of Ukraine, DeSantis this week declared helping Ukraine is not in America’s “vital interests.” With those declarations circulating, “Why then should anyone—especially their hawkish fellow Republicans—think that, if elected president, either of them would defend Taiwan from China?” asked Defense One’s Kevin Baron, writing Wednesday. But the implications of dropping Ukraine extend much further, Baron noted. “Even if you live in a country that is a treaty ally of the United States, get worried. It’s not unreasonable to believe that nobody is coming to help you either, if Trump and DeSantis voters get their way.”
Bigger picture: “Incumbent presidents have huge advantages, so perhaps Biden will safely win reelection and this will soon be discarded [as] alarmist rhetoric by two desperate presidential hopefuls,” Baron writes. But Trump and DeSantis are leaders of the pack when it comes to likely GOP nominees for the presidency next year. And their public alignment on abandoning Ukraine’s sovereignty while thousands of its citizens are killed “is still another example of how large percentages of Americans are not aligned with the nation’s national-security leaders, nor are they concerned by the Pentagon’s list of threats, nor are they as willing to fund, fight or die for other peoples’ freedom,” says Baron. Under such circumstances, “If DeSantis would hand Ukraine over to Moscow on a silver platter so easily, Taiwan is Beijing’s next meal.” Read the rest, here.
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And lastly: Three ISIS fighters were detained in Syria during two separate operations exactly a week ago, the U.S.-led military alliance announced Friday. Those men: Hussein Khalil al Hussein, a “known ISIS operative”; Addul Jabbar Emad Mukhlif, an ISIS cell leader; and Khamr Mohammad Al-Rawi, a known ISIS aid facilitator, according to the press release.
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Have a safe weekend, everyone. And we’ll see you again on Monday!