Today's D Brief: Modest Ukrainian gains; More arms for Taiwan?; Russia’s spy malware; Tomorrow’s SOF gear; And a bit more.

Ukrainian forces claim to have clawed back three square miles of occupied territory around the southeastern edge of the destroyed city of Bakhmut on Wednesday. Russian invaders have been trying to take control of the city for almost an entire year. They nearly encircled it in January, but Ukraine’s military has held firm across several blocks on the city’s western edges in the weeks and months since. 

The New York Times reported this latest alleged advance, and noted that, “If confirmed, it would be the first significant gain for Ukraine in the fight for Bakhmut since pushing Russian forces off a key access road two months ago.” It remains to be seen, however, if either side’s gains and losses in the region can be sustained. 

The Ukrainian claim was effectively seconded by Russian mercenary mouthpiece Yevgeny Prigozhin, who runs the Wagner convict fighting units trying to help Moscow’s fumbling ground forces inside Ukraine. Prigozhin said Tuesday that Ukrainian forces broke through a Russian flank near Bakhmut recently. “Everyone fled and exposed a front almost two kilometers wide and 500 meters deep,” he said of Russian military ground forces there. He also claimed his forces rushed to the vacancy and filled it enough to stop a further push by Ukraine’s military. 

“A screaming comes across the skyTake a look at a Ukrainian intelligence map of recent Russian missile strikes across Ukraine, including their approximate launch points and impact or shootdown locations. The image comes from a visit to the offices of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, as photographed Tuesday by Nicole Tung of the Times.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry shared video of an alleged Russian soldier surrendering recently from among the trenches. Ukraine’s military air-dropped instructions to the soldier to follow a drone to safety, and the soldier reluctantly does—despite being allegedly shot in the back by his own Russian comrades in the process. 

Ukraine’s military called drones “the best friends of the artillery and the eyes of the infantry,” in a Facebook post Tuesday. “Every crevice in which the invaders hid is under their watchful eye…So, target by target, centimeter by centimeter, Ukrainian aerial scouts are making Victory.”

China’s new top diplomat is visiting Europe this week very openly trying to charm officials in three key cities, including Berlin, Paris, and Oslo—while also warning Europeans against too closely aligning with Washington. 

That top Chinese official, Foreign Minister Qin Gang, also met with Washington’s Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns in Beijing on Monday. According to a readout from Qin’s office, “The top priority is to stabilize Sino-US relations, avoid a downward spiral, and prevent accidents between China and the United States.” He also stressed Beijing’s hope “that the U.S. side will reflect deeply, meet China halfway, and push China-U.S. relations out of the predicament and back on track.”

But Europeans are not yet ready to de-emphasize the China-Russia relationship, especially as Russia continues to show no signs of retreating from its disastrous Ukraine invasion. For example, Qin’s German counterpart, Annalena Baerbock, said Tuesday while standing beside Qin in Berlin, that “Neutrality means taking the side of the aggressor, and that is why our guiding principle is to make it clear that we are on the side of the victim.” For his part, Qin responded blandly, “China did not cause this, nor is it a party; but we are committed to peace negotiations.” Read more at Agence France-Presse, or Deutsche Welle.

By the way: We have an updated picture of how China and Russia are cozying up economically since Russia’s full-scale Ukraine invasion began nearly 15 months ago. According to the latest public customs data released by Chinese officials, overall trade between the two countries is up 41%, with Russian exports to China up 25% (at $39.5 billion) and Chinese exports to Russia up 67% (at $33.7 billion). Hat tip to Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Endowment. 

From Defense One

Blame ‘Global Demand,’ Parts Shortages for Taiwan’s Tardy F-16s, US Says // Audrey Decker: Lawmakers are frustrated by the delays in arming the island against China.

Tomorrow’s Hyper-Enabled Special Operator Will Be Less Iron Man, More 007 // Patrick Tucker: But first, SOCOM must reverse a trend of “falling behind, not just linearly but exponentially.”

Talk More, Urges Pentagon's New Science Strategy // Lauren C. Williams: “We are prepared to accept more risk to share more information with allies and partners,” it says.

It's Official: No More COVID Vaccine Mandate for Pentagon Workers and Contractors // Amelia Gruber: The move comes just days before the end of the public health emergency for COVID.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1775, the “Green Mountain Boys” militia, led by Ethan Allen and not-yet-traitor Col. Benedict Arnold, routed a British garrison and captured Fort Ticonderoga, a battle that the U.S. Navy has commemorated by naming five warships for it.

New: The FBI says it dismantled a major Russian cyberespionage campaign that had been active for two decades with victims known across at least 50 countries. The campaign used “sophisticated malware, called ‘Snake’, that the U.S. Government attributes to a unit within Center 16 of the Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation,” or the FSB, according to the Department of Justice, which announced the operation Tuesday. Targets included NATO members as well as journalists; and the Russians are alleged to have infected computers with the malware, then used those computers to route stolen data and files back to Russian intelligence while making it seem like infected users were the guilty parties.
Cyber analysts at the Bureau designed their own tool, which they called “PERSEUS” to disable the long-running operation. Using that FBI tool, the U.S. agents “issue[d] commands that cause[d] the Snake implant to disable itself without affecting the host computer or legitimate applications on the computer,” the Department of Justice explained.
Another thing: “The operation to disable Snake did not patch any vulnerabilities or search for or remove any additional malware or hacking tools that hacking groups may have placed on [the] victim,” the FBI said. So, in other words (and as always), patching and updating your computer systems remains your responsibility. The National Security Agency released its own statement on the Snake malware, along with recommendations for systems analysts; and you can read that over, here.
In allied weapons deals: The U.S. could soon sell Slovakia 192 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles for about $250 million. The deal includes the top-mounted weapons system, the .50 caliber machine guns, MK19 40mm grenade launchers, M2A1 machine guns, and more. The Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency has more about that likely sales, which involves Wisconsin-based Oshkosh Defense, here.
The U.S. is also on the verge of selling Poland about $125 million in sniper pod systems for FA-50 fighter aircraft that Warsaw is buying from South Korea. Orlando-based Lockheed Martin is the principal contractor for that deal. Details via DSCA, here.
Related reading: 

Report: New Taiwan arms package coming soon. Bloomberg: “The Biden administration is pulling together a $500 million weapons package for Taiwan, using for the first time a fast-track authority that it has relied on to speed arms to Ukraine.” The arms would come from existing Pentagon stocks. A bit more, here.
GOP lawmakers have been pressing the administration to do more to arm the self-governing island against China. Their impatience has been stoked by last Thursday’s revelation that Taiwan won’t start getting the new F-16 jets it has ordered until 2024, a year later than planned.
The F-16 delay is due to spiking global demand for weapons and lingering pandemic-related supply problems, a U.S. Air Force spokesperson told Defense One’s Audrey Decker. The Pentagon has sent some people to Lockheed Martin’s F-16 production plant in Greenville, South Carolina, to discuss the delay with company executives, the spokesperson said.
Can Lockheed speed things up? Decker asked company officials, who declined to answer. Read on, here.
Related reading: 

Lastly today: As we await the naming of Gen. Mark Milley’s successor as Joint Chiefs chairman, Task & Purpose has a profile of Milley as a young Army officer—including the time he ran across a booby-trapped bridge to stop a pair of U.S. tanks from crossing. Read that, here.