Today's D Brief: Zelenskyy greets frontline troops; Putin flies to occupied Ukraine; US modernizes Turkey's F-16s; Another ISIS leader killed in Syria; And a bit more.

Ukraine’s president visited frontline troops in the eastern city of Avdiivka on Tuesday—the same day Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s state-run media publicized his recent visit to two occupied Ukrainian cities far from the conflict’s front lines. A Kremlin spokesman on Tuesday insisted his leader’s visit occurred the day prior, after reporters lightly questioned the truthfulness of the same Putin regime that told the world it had no plans to invade Ukraine just days before it invaded Ukraine to disastrous effect 14 months ago.

Ukraine’s President Volodymir Zelenskyy dropped by Donetsk in part to present awards to troops serving in Avdiivka, and to memorialize soldiers who’ve been recently killed by Russian shelling, according to his press team. “I have the honor to be here today, to thank you for your service, for defending our land, Ukraine, our families,” Zelenskyy told his troops. “I wish good health to all of you and your families, and I am sincerely grateful on behalf of every Ukrainian for the great path that you overcome every day,” he said. 

Putin visited the farther-east Luhansk region, which borders Russia and is at least 200 kilometers from Avdiivka. Putin also flew via helicopter to the occupied southern region of Kherson, which is just north of the occupied Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea. During his visit, he gave some of his invading troops an icon once owned by “one of the Russian Empire's most successful defense ministers,” according to state-run media RIA. Max Seddon of Financial Times said on Twitter that the icon seems to be clearly “reinforcing the [Kremlin’s] narrative [that] Russia is fighting an imperialist holy war.”

For what it’s worth, Putin’s top two military officers—Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov—didn’t accompany him to Ukraine, but instead watched via video conference during the two stops, Kremlin spokesman Dmetry Peskov claimed Tuesday in Moscow. 

Battlefield latest: Russian forces continued making incremental progress in the embattled eastern city of Bakhmut, as allegedly geolocated video from Russian state-run media appeared to illustrate Monday. 

Tactical analysis: Gain a more nuanced understanding of how attrition plays a central role in both Ukraine and Russia’s apparent strategy for the conflict, which is about to enter its 420th consecutive day this week. Michael Kofman of the Washington-based CNA Corp. and Franz-Stefan Gady of the International Institute of Strategic Studies teamed up for a recent academic paper published in the latest issue of the journal “Global Politics and Strategy.” 

Looking to the weeks ahead, the two academics warn, “Even with more effective wide-scale combined-arms training and precision strikes, as contemplated, future Ukrainian gains are likely to be incremental and costly unless the Russian military significantly misspends combat power in its own offensive operations.”

Big picture considerations: “Western assistance has brought Ukraine to an impressive point, but it’s not clear that it can yield a fires [or, artillery] advantage for Ukraine sufficient to ensure further operational breakthroughs or strategic gains,” Kofman and Gady write, and advise, “Pentagon and allied defense ministries [should] try to scale up combined-arms training and provide additional types and greater numbers of precision-guided weapons.” More here.

The latest from those Discord leaks: “Egypt paused a plan to secretly supply rockets to Russia last month following talks with senior U.S. officials and instead decided to produce artillery [152mm and 155mm] ammunition for Ukraine,” the Washington Post reported Monday evening, citing “five leaked U.S. intelligence documents.”

Programming note: The Post last week claimed to be sitting on nearly 300 of those leaked documents—at least one of which had been altered—and most of those have not yet been reported out. So this trickle of alleged U.S. intelligence assessments can be expected to continue for the next several months. 

By the way: Newsweek on Sunday posted nearly four dozen of the leaked documents, justifying their decision by stating the photographs of apparently classified assessments “are already in the public domain.”

New: Ukraine’s military chief spoke to his U.S. counterpart by phone on Monday, the Pentagon said. That conversation happened just ahead of this week’s meeting of the U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which met for the first time almost exactly one year ago and has grown to involve more than four dozen allied nations. 

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also met with his British counterpart Monday at the Pentagon. The two spoke to reporters afterward, where Austin reminded his audience, “The Kremlin has chosen a path of aggression and atrocity, but the Ukrainian people and military have responded with incredible courage. And I'm going to keep on saying it—we will support Ukraine in its fight for as long as it takes.”

Said British Defense Minister Ben Wallace: “Without U.S. leadership, we would be in a worse place, whether that is in the Pacific, whether that is in Ukraine, whether that is in European defense, or…in the Middle East around Iran.”

Next up for SecDef Austin: A flight to Sweden to meet with officials after their recent and historic accession to the NATO alliance; then he’s off to Germany for that meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group. 

The U.S. is on the verge of selling Turkey some upgrades for their F-16 jets, according to an alert Monday from the Pentagon’s arms export wing, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. The updates include avionics, as well as “classified and unclassified software and software support” at a cost of about $260 million. 

Fine print: Turkey has been trying for months to “buy billions of dollars worth of F-16s,” but that deal “remains in limbo amid continuing opposition in Congress,” Reuters reported Monday. The deal is reportedly being held up for several reasons—including “easing tensions with Greece for good, refraining from an invasion in northern Syria, and enforcing sanctions against Russia,” Reuters reported. More, here

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Welcome to this Tuesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Jennifer Hlad. On this day 35 years ago, and near the end of the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. Navy sank an Iranian frigate and damaged another in the one-day Operation Praying Mantis. The U.S. mission was ordered in retaliation for Iran mining the Persian Gulf during its conflict with Iraq; those mines in the gulf struck an American warship, the guided missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts, four days prior. Defense One’s Bradley Peniston has written a book about all this, and you can find it here

Deadly fighting in Sudan’s capital has paused for now, after nearly 200 people have been reportedly killed before two rival factions agreed to a 24-hour ceasefire at Washington’s request, Reuters reported Tuesday from Khartoum. But the brief respite will not last beyond those 24 hours, a member of Sudan’s ruling military council has said. And a shorter ceasefire that had been agreed to for Sunday did not actually happen.
Rewind: The violence began late last week, when two generals who had previously carried out a coup together began a fight for control, BBC explains in this detailed look at Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.
Latest: At least 185 people have died so far, and the United Nations is warning of a massive humanitarian crisis in the country.

U.S. forces killed a senior ISIS Syria leader who planned terror attacks in the Middle East and Europe, U.S. Central Command announced Monday. Abd-al-Hadi Mahmud al-Haji Ali was killed in a helicopter raid in northern Syria, after “intelligence revealed an ISIS plot to kidnap officials abroad as leverage for ISIS initiatives,” CENTCOM said.
From the region: 

And lastly, Alaska residents were the lucky witnesses of a strange phenomenon visible in the night sky early Saturday morning near Fairbanks. Resting high in the atmosphere beside “the green bands of light” known as the aurora borealis sat a “light baby blue spiral resembling a galaxy,” the Associated Press reported Monday from Anchorage.
The blue spiral lasted only a few minutes, and could have been mistaken for “an alien invasion or the appearance of a portal to the far reaches of the universe,” AP writes. The truth, however, is that “It was simply excess fuel that had been released from a SpaceX rocket that launched from California about three hours before the spiral appeared.”
What’s going on: Sometimes rockets have to ditch excess fuel. And “When they do that at high altitudes, that fuel turns into ice,” Don Hampton, a research associate professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute, told AP. “And if it happens to be in the sunlight, when you’re in the darkness on the ground, you can see it as a sort of big cloud, and sometimes it’s swirly.” Read more, or see the spiral for yourself, here.