Today's D Brief: Ukraine leak damage assessment; China rehearses attack on Taiwan; Navy's SCS transit irks Beijing; Jon Stewart on DOD 'corruption'; And a bit more.
Apparently leaked secretive documents on the Ukraine war have shaken military officials from Washington to Kyiv. The leak seems to have first surfaced publicly on the gaming platform Discord in early March, weeks ahead of an anticipated Ukrainian offensive to retake territory currently occupied by invading Russian forces. But the documents—including some dated 23 February and featuring “hastily-taken photographs” of annotated charts marked SECRET, as the New York Times reposted as part of its reporting on the matter—didn’t garner nearly as much attention until they were shared on Twitter and Telegram just last week. About 50 of them appear to have circulated on the web so far, and some of them are marked TOP SECRET, according to the Wall Street Journal.
At least one of the papers has been “crudely edited,” according to the Dutch investigative site Bellingcat and analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. The doctored page in question “reduce[d] reported Russian losses and inflate[d] Ukrainian casualty numbers,” ISW wrote in its Friday evening report. “Bizarrely, the Discord channels in which the documents dated from March were posted focused on the Minecraft computer game and fandom for a Filipino YouTube celebrity,” Bellingcat’s Aric Toler reported in a forensics overview published Sunday. From there, it appears they spread to 4chan and on to Telegram and Twitter.
Where did they come from? It’s unclear just yet. However, “Some documents were specifically marked for U.S. eyes only, increasing the likelihood that an American official leaked the information,” according to the New York Times. The apparent leaks could prove to be “one of the most damaging in decades,” U.S. officials told the Wall Street Journal.
Some seem to suggest Ukraine’s air defense systems will run out of ammunition by mid-April. This includes the S-300 and Buk systems, and was based on consumption rates from late February, according to the Times. Other documents seem to present a window into possible U.S. surveillance of allies like Israel and South Korea, which have both so far refused to share lethal weapons with Ukraine.
For what it’s worth, there is a precedent for this type of apparent leak posted to a video game chat platform, the Journal noted. “Last year, a player of the WarThunder military vehicle combat game posted real classified information on the British Challenger 2 tanks, while a year earlier another user posted a classified manual for the French Leclerc tanks.”
However, the four dozen or so docs from the Discord server seem to be much more detailed and widespread, including “information about the types of heavy weapons and equipment held by the nine Ukrainian brigades that the U.S. and allies are preparing for the coming spring offensive; precise details on the quickly dwindling ammunition of the Ukrainian air defense systems; the level of protection of critical infrastructure sites; and details on how many tanks, artillery pieces and military aircraft Ukraine operates,” according to the Journal.
Some pro-Russian writers say they’re skeptical of what the documents allege. According to ISW, writing Friday, “several prominent Russian milbloggers immediately rejected the validity of the documents and suggested that they are fakes.” Others “fixated on the possibility that the released documents are disinformation intended to confuse and mislead Russian military command.”
On the bright side for Kyiv, Ukraine is exporting energy for the first time since October, which is when Russia began attacking the country’s energy infrastructure with missiles and one-way exploding drones. The announcement from Kyiv came from Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko speaking Saturday. Such attacks on Ukraine’s infrastructure slowed noticeably by March, as the British military noted on Twitter and Russian state-run media acknowledged early in the month as well.
Happening Tuesday in Washington: Two experts are slated to discuss “Russian Grand Strategy in the Era of Great Power Competition” at the U.S. Institute of Peace. That begins at 10:45 a.m. ET. Details, registration, and livestream, here.
- “A pro-Russian hacking group may have targeted Canada’s energy infrastructure,” the New York Times reported over the weekend as part of its leak coverage;
- “Facing critical ammunition shortage, Ukrainian troops ration shells,” the Washington Post reported Saturday;
- “Russia plans air defence reform, to bolster defences near Finland,” Reuters reported Monday from Moscow;
- “The Ukrainian refugees making a living somewhere new,” the BBC reported Sunday;
- “Western curbs on Russian oil products redraw global shipping map,” Reuters reported Sunday; see also this feature from the Wall Street Journal on the same subject back in late January.
From Defense One
Some Ukrainian Troops are Still Using Soviet Methods, Despite US Training // Sam Skove: One year into conflict, younger officers still strain against older leaders’ ways, military experts note.
Treasury Launching New Pressure Campaign To Halt Russian Smuggling, Sanctions Evasion // Patrick Tucker: Russia’s smuggling efforts are providing diminishing returns, Treasury Department officials say.
The Army Should Be Looking for a Few Older Soldiers // Ryan Haberman and Michael Pollard: Recruiters should widen their focus beyond high school and college students—and not just to make quotas.
China Gears Up for Cognitive Warfare // Peter W. Singer and Josh Baughman: Like the U.S. military, the PLA is working on wearable sensors and other ways to hone and maintain troops' fighting spirit.
Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. On this day in 1971, the American Table Tennis team became the first official U.S. delegation to visit China's capital city of Beijing since 1949 (Greenbow, Alabama’s fictional Forrest Gump did not actually make the trip). The occasion has since been referred to as “ping-pong diplomacy,” which helped pave the way for President Richard Nixon's historic visit to Beijing in February of the following year.
China practiced hitting Taiwan with precision missiles Sunday, during the second day of military drills staged in response to Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen meeting with U.S. Speaker of the House Rep. Kevin McCarthy. China showcased the simulated strikes fired from the air, land, and sea, in a “short animation” on social media, Reuters reported, with two of the pretend missiles “exploding in flames as they hit their targets.”
But Taiwan isn’t the only target of the simulated strikes, a source told Reuters: “It’s very provocative,” the source said, noting that China had been practicing attacks on “foreign military targets” in the waters southwest of Taiwan.
Those Chinese military drills are now over, and BBC reported they were not as big as the drills that followed then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island last fall. But they did involve 12 warships—including the Shandong aircraft carrier—and 91 aircraft, as well as a simulated “sealing off” of the island, according to BBC. China said the fighter planes that participated had live ammunition on board, and “carried out multiple waves of simulated strikes on important targets.”
Also today: A U.S. Navy guided-missile destroyer sailed near one of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea on Monday, the Navy’s Japan-based Seventh Fleet announced. The “USS Milius (DDG 69) asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands, consistent with international law,” the Navy said in a lengthy statement. The transit of the “Milius demonstrated that Mischief Reef, a low-tide elevation in its natural state, is not entitled to a territorial sea under international law,” the Seventh Fleet said. China’s military responded by insisting the Milius “illegally” carried out its mission; Reuters has more on that messaging war, here.
This afternoon in Washington: Philippine Foreign Minister Enrique Manalo is visiting the Center for Strategic and International Studies for a discussion with Greg Poling and Victor Cha. Manalo is also in town for a Tuesday meeting with Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin and Manalo’s U.S. counterpart, State Secretary Antony Blinken. The last time such a meeting was held was back in 2016. Manalo’s discussion at CSIS begins at 2 p.m. ET. Details and livestream, here.
From the region:
- “Japan urges peace in Taiwan Strait as Beijing simulates attack,” Reuters reported Monday from Tokyo;
- And “A punch in the face for Xi caricature: Taiwan air force badge goes viral,” Reuters reported separately on Monday from Taipei.
Lastly today: Questioning from comedian and talk show host Jon Stewart raised eyebrows last week during his interview with the Pentagon’s Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks. The two spoke at The War Horse Symposium in Chicago; C-Span preserved the exchange in question, which you can watch via Twitter, here.
Stewart hammered Hicks on the defense budget and Pentagon audit, with Stewart suggesting that failing an audit was indicative of waste, fraud, and abuse, despite Hicks’ responses to the contrary. “If you can’t tell me where it went, then what am I supposed to think?” he asked. “I can’t figure out how $850 billion to the department means that the rank and file still have to be on food stamps. To me, that’s fucking corruption,” Stewart said. The full symposium video is available here.