Today's D Brief: Putin's saber rattling again; Russia's dire economic forecast; Army pulls new video ad; USAF chief, in conversation; And a bit more.

After more than a year of failing to invade and annex Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said he’s putting nuclear weapons in Belarus. The Russian autocrat’s nuclear saber rattling is arguably one of the Kremlin’s most effective moves during the entirety of the ongoing 13-month long conflict. It’s the source of countless YouTube videos decrying the possible start of World War III, and it’s one of the chief motivations behind far-right celebrities in the U.S. advocating for a much more isolationist foreign policy from the White House. 

Putin framed the decision as a response to armor-piercing rounds the Brits are sending to Kyiv that contain trace quantities of depleted uranium. From the U.S. perspective, “This kind of ammunition is fairly commonplace,” and has “been in use for decades,” John Kirby of the National Security Council told reporters in a phone call late last week. “I think what’s really going on here is Russia just doesn’t want Ukraine to continue to take out its tanks and render them inoperative,” Kirby said. 

“And if that’s really the concern,” Kirby continued, “If the Russians are very concerned about their tanks staying fully operational, they can just take them across the border back into Russia and take them out of Ukraine; they don’t belong there in the first place. That would be my recommendation if they’re concerned about threats to their tanks.”

Putin also said the U.S. stages nuclear weapons in Europe, which it has done for decades—including in sites at Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey; so by Putin’s purported logic, adding Russian nukes to Belarus now is fair game.

The White House was unsurprised and unshaken by Putin’s threat. “We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement, according to the Associated Press. “We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance,” she added. 

The leaders of the U.S. and Canada met in person Friday in Ottawa, and again affirmed their “unwavering support for Ukraine for as long as it takes” in a joint statement. 

“As we head into the second year of Russia’s brutal invasion, our unity is not going to break,” U.S. President Joe Biden said in remarks to reporters Friday. “We’re going to keep the pressure on Putin through our historic sanctions and tariffs,” he added. 

The China dilemma: Biden and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also said they “acknowledge the serious long-term challenge to the international order posed by the People’s Republic of China, including disruptive actions such as economic coercion, non-market policies and practices, and human rights abuses.” The two leaders promised to cooperate with Beijing when it comes to climate change, and they vowed to “cooperate on countering foreign interference in our societies in a manner that reflects our shared democratic values.”

New: Russia’s economic forecast for the decade is quite grim, according to a study released last week by the Social Policy Institute at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. Across all of its models, “one can expect the deterioration of the middle class and of the population's social and psychological well-being,” according to the report. And that’s because, as Reuters reported Friday, “real incomes would only exceed 2021 levels by 2% by the end of the decade,” which means “A middle class that has grown since Vladimir Putin became president in 2000 would shrink markedly.” 

The war in Ukraine has attracted lots of suspect bros from the U.S., including several with an extensive history of lying, another former Army soldier who allegedly defected to Russia, and other veterans who just can’t seem to get along with one another. That’s according to the New York Times, reporting Saturday from a warzone where vetting procedures were lacking in the early months of the conflict. 

Additional reading: 

From Defense One

Amid Pentagon Focus On China, Indo-Pacific Command Says It Has $3.5B Budget Shortfall // Marcus Weisgerber: This “unfunded list” comes on top of the $9.1 billion the Pentagon requested for “Pacific deterrence” in its 2024 spending proposal.

Defense One Radio, Ep. 120: Air Force chief Gen. Charles Q. Brown // Marcus Weisgerber: Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown sat down with Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber to discuss priorities for the year ahead, lessons from Russia’s Ukraine invasion, and more.

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad and Sam Skove. If you’re not already subscribed to this newsletter, you can do that here. On this day in 1945, the U.S. military began deliberately bombing Japan's ports and waterways in a highly effective mission called Operation Starvation.

The U.S. Army has temporarily pulled its new “Be All You Can Be” ads after the star of those ads, actor Jonathan Majors, was arrested on assault charges. The ads were designed to reach the Gen Z audience by appealing to young people’s interest in community and a sense of purpose, Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said when the ads were unveiled. The Army struggled to meet its recruiting target last year, and had hoped Majors—who was attractive to Gen-Z recruits, according to polling—would help them reach this year’s target of 65,000 recruits.
Related reading: 

Developing: The U.S. military seems to be preparing for a missile intercept test near Hawaii this coming weekend. Dutch astronomer Marco Langbroek noticed the navigation warning alert posted last week, and flagged it on Twitter Friday. The U.S. Navy seemed to be hauling out a bit of gear for the task, as one observer noted separately on Twitter on Thursday. 

Lastly: Monitoring officials at NORAD spotted a weird object on their radars as the object flew over central Texas on Saturday. So the U.S. military sent an aircraft to check it out, only to discover it was “likely a hobbyist Pico balloon” that “posed no immediate military threat or safety of flight hazard,” the command said in a statement this weekend.
Reminder: Using an F-22, the U.S. military is believed to have shot down a different hobbyists’ Pico balloon near Alaska in early February amid the Sinophobic uproar over alleged Chinese balloon surveillance of sensitive military sites. Aviation Week has more on that prior hobbyist balloon incident, here.