Today's D Brief: Zelenskyy to Bakhmut; BBC on the frontlines; DeSantis backpedals on Ukraine; USAF's Pacific plans; And a bit more.

Another wave of more than 50 Russian missile and drone strikes hit Ukraine’s infrastructure, including targets across the Zhytomyr and Kyiv oblasts on Wednesday. Ukrainian troops were able to shoot down 16 of 21 Iranian-made drones launched from inside Russia’s own Bryansk oblast, Ukraine’s military said Thursday. 

Outsider’s POV: “Russian forces conducted more intensive and wider-ranging strikes during the fall 2022 air and missile campaign, suggesting that Russian forces may now be rationing their use of high-precision munitions for these strike campaigns or may simply lack the necessary munitions to sustain strike campaigns at their earlier pace and intensity,” analysts at the Institute for the Study of War wrote Wednesday evening. 

Kyiv’s President Volodymir Zelenskyy visited frontline troops in a trip to the devastated and nearly encircled city of Bakhmut on Wednesday. While there, he presented awards to soldiers, visited a hospital, and listened to battlefield reports from regional commanders, according to Zelenskyy’s office. Shortly afterward, he traveled to another hospital in Kharkiv where wounded troops are also being treated. Zelenskyy also dropped by Kherson on Thursday for talks with local officials and a walkthrough of homes and energy facilities previously damaged by Russian airstrikes. 

“It is distressing to look at the cities of Donbas, to which Russia has brought terrible suffering and ruin,” the president told his fellow countrymen in his nightly address Wednesday evening. However, “Russia will lose this war,” he said, and promised, “We will do everything so that the blue and yellow colors continue their liberation movement—returning normal life to our entire land, from Donetsk to the border.”

Take a harrowing trip to the Donbas with the BBC’s Quentin Sommerville as he narrowly escapes Russian tank fire while cameraman Darren Conway keeps rolling for a surreal one-minute video report. “As we pass the infantry trenches, the clover begins to vanish, replaced by mud and bomb craters,” he writes from southern Donetsk. “Landmines and unexploded shells litter the ground. The treetops, still bare from winter, are now split and shattered.”

The Russians “simply have an unlimited amount of shells,” one Ukrainian soldier told the BBC. “They have entire warehouses full of [them]. They can shoot all day, and they won't run out of shells. But us? We'd run out of shells this year. So we're forming various assault brigades and we've been given tanks."

The Ukrainian said with the tanks they’ve been promised, “I think with those we'll win.” After all, he said, “We're Cossacks. So, brave guys, we can handle it.”

New report: Researchers have digitally recreated a March 2022 Russian airstrike on a civilian apartment building in the city of Izium for a new multimedia analysis published Wednesday by Human Rights Watch. The attack killed at least 44 people, including women and children who were sheltering in the basement of the building.

HRW notes, “Attacks that do not distinguish between military objectives and civilians or civilian objects, or in which the expected harm to civilians and civilian property exceeds the direct and concrete military gain anticipated, violate the laws of war.” And “People who carry out such attacks with criminal intent—that is, deliberately or recklessly—are responsible for war crimes.”

Said one 75-year-old U.S. lawmaker on Wednesday: ​​“Ukraine is the first just war that I have seen in my lifetime.” That was West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin speaking during a Senate Armed Services hearing.

Even Florida’s “wannabe autocrat” Ron DeSantis has changed his tune on Ukraine after learning the International Criminal Court has a warrant out for Vladimir Putin’s arrest for alleged war crimes, the New York Times reported Wednesday evening. DeSantis’s apparent change of heart also followed several days of top Republican opposition to DeSantis’s framing of the invasion as a mere “territorial dispute” in remarks to Fox’s Tucker Carlson last week.

For your ears only: Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley repeated his warning that booting all Russian troops from Ukrainian territory still feels like a near impossibility at this point—which is more than a year—into the conflict. He repeated that point in a discussion posted this week with the Eurasia Group Foundation’s Mark Hannah. Catch that 30-minute conversation in full, here

Coming up on Capitol Hill: The third hearing so far on Ukraine aid oversight is scheduled for next Wednesday morning with the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Inspectors General for the Pentagon, State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development are all expected to attend. The last two such hearings were on Feb. 28 before the House Armed Services Committee and the House Appropriations’ Defense Subcommittee.

Additional reading: 

From Defense One

Pentagon’s No. 2 Civilians Fire Back in ‘Woke’ Wars  // Caitlin M. Kenney: “There's been no detraction from the primary mission,” Navy Undersecretary Erik Raven told dubious GOP senators.

Soldiers Can Now Steer Robot Dogs With Brain Signals // Patrick Tucker: A small sensor tucked neatly behind the ear allowed soldiers to mentally guide robotic quadrupeds.

A Slim Rhetorical Wedge Could Drive China and Russia Apart // Artur Kalandarov: U.S. officials must skip no opportunity to remind Moscow that it is Beijing's junior partner.

The Air Force Is Rebuilding Its Pacific Plans Around the B-21 // Patrick Tucker: A “daily flyer” bomber that’s also an intel-and-communications hub will make the entire service less vulnerable in a potential war with China, officials say.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. If you’re not already subscribed to this newsletter, you can do that here. On this day 40 years ago, President Ronald Reagan used a nationally televised address to announce his desire to build a futuristic space-based missile defense system in a program known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. There was just one little problem he did not mention: The technology did not even exist to pull off what he pitched to the American people on this day in 1983. Learn more about the history and scare tactics informing Reagan’s announcement via a 25-minute audio review from the Ronald Reagan Foundation, released two weeks ago, here; or you can watch a discussion on SDI recorded three days ago and featuring the Hudson Institute’s Rebeccah Heinrichs along with Reagan historian Will Inboden, here.

Russian pilots have significantly increased the number of flights they’re taking over a U.S. military installation in Syria, with armed jets violating U.S. airspace “roughly 25 times so far this month,” versus 14 times in January and none at all in February. Those numbers are from Air Force Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, the combined forces air commander for U.S. Central Command, and were reported by NBC News’s Courtney Kube.
“They’re regularly flying directly overhead of our units, and I’ve defined directly overhead as within about a mile, no more than a mile offset one side or the other, while we’ve got forces right there on the ground at [At Tanf Garrison],” Grynkewich said. “So it’s an uncomfortable situation.” Besides being uncomfortable, the flights are also a violation of an agreement between the U.S. and Russia.
Grynkewich in February told reporters, including one of your D Briefers, that U.S. aircraft were “literally wingtip to wingtip with Russian aircraft over Syria on … certainly a weekly basis, sometimes a daily basis, where those aircraft will fly over our positions trying to put pressure on our… presence in Syria. And frankly, it's a bit distracting.”
Also: The Pentagon is sending A-10 Warthogs to the Middle East to free up newer aircraft for operations in the Pacific, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday, citing U.S. officials. 

China said it monitored and then drove away a U.S. Navy destroyer that sailed into China’s territorial waters in the South China Sea, but the U.S. Navy, of course, is disputing that account. The USS Milius was “conducting routing operations in the South China Sea and was not expelled.” Seventh Fleet also said in a statement that the U.S. “will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” Reuters reported on the incident and has a few more details, here.
Related reading: 

And lastly: A 3D-printed rocket launched off Florida’s coast last night, but it failed to reach orbit after its upper-stage engines shut down and sent the whole thing into the Atlantic Ocean. About 85% of the 110-foot rocket came from Relativity Space’s 3D printers in California, the Associated Press reports. However, the company did pass “a key milestone to demonstrate the vehicle's in-flight strength,” Reuters reported Wednesday as well.
The rocket reached space when the engines “failed to achieve thrust,” as Reuters described it, which doomed the relatively modest mission—place into orbit Relativity’s first metal 3D print, fabricated six years ago. “While we didn't make it all the way today, we gathered enough data to show that flying 3D-printed rockets is possible," Relativity’s Test Program Manager Arwa Tizani Kelly said on a livestream of the launch.