Today's D Brief: 10-year war?; Counteroffensive advances; Wartime deception; Speeding arms exports; And a bit more.

Developing: The war in Ukraine could last for 10 years, said Alex Bornyakov, the country’s deputy minister from the digital ministry, in an interview this week with Defense One’s Samuel Skove. Stay tuned later today for additional details from that conversation, which is part of this week’s Defense One Tech Summit event coverage. 

  • If you haven’t yet registered for this year’s Tech Summit, you can do that right here.  

Russian leader Vladimir Putin sounded somewhat awkward in public remarks Tuesday while hosting about a dozen military bloggers at the Kremlin. For example, at one point he told his private audience that in the face of Ukraine’s current counteroffensive, his personal goals with the invasion “are changing in accordance with the current situation; but in general, of course, we will not change anything, and they are of a fundamental nature for us.” He also said about recent cross-border attacks in Belgorod, Russia, “Of course, there is nothing good in this. But, in principle, one could assume that the enemy will behave in this way, and one could probably better prepare.”

It’s especially notable that the Russian leader spoke with the ensemble of nationalistic bloggers, despite thousands of military officers inside Ukraine that he could have reached to assess the progress of his invasion, Rob Lee of the Foreign Policy Research Institute wrote Tuesday on Twitter. The meeting, which is not the first of its kind, “indicates that [Putin] wants a different source of information on the war than his intelligence and military commanders,” said Lee. 

Counteroffensive latest: Reuters claimed Tuesday that it was the first media outlet to independently confirm Ukrainian military advances during its long-anticipated counteroffensive to retake territory occupied by Russian forces. The outlet reported on the ground from Neskuchne, in western Donetsk. There the country’s “blue and yellow flag flew over a ruined grocery store and Russian soldiers lay dead in the street,” Reuters correspondent Vitalii Hnidyi reported from the village, which had a prewar population of just a few hundred. But on Tuesday, “Not a single resident could be found in Neskuchne, one of a cluster of settlements on the Mokry Yali river,” Hnidyi writes. “The scene was silent, apart for the crump of artillery fire in the distance.”

The BBC’s James Waterhouse also visited Neskuchne Tuesday, and reported that it sits “at the most northern point of a protruding Russian front line.” According to Waterhouse, “The only remnants of civilisation come in the form of a blown out pharmacy and food store,” and “A makeshift wooden bridge over a river is all it takes to take us into territory Russia has held for so long.” Read more from his dispatch, here. The Associated Press has a bit more on Ukraine’s latest alleged gains, here

Counteroffensive caveat: “[W]e must refrain from premature pronouncements of success or failure,” Jack Watling of the London-based Royal United Services Institute warned in a new report published Tuesday. Watling has visited the battlefields of Ukraine several times since Russia’s full-scale invasion first began nearly 16 months ago. Now 476 days into that invasion, he says “The fighting will likely get tougher” since, in part, “Kyiv has yet to commit the bulk of its forces as its lead elements try to set the conditions for a breakthrough.”

Watling also highlighted what he considers to be three main goals for Kyiv presently: 

  • “Firstly, there is an intense counterbattery duel being fought, with both sides trying to strike each other’s logistics, command and control, reconnaissance, and artillery systems”;
  • “Secondly, the Ukrainians are trying to get the Russians to commit their reserves, moving troops from the third defence line to bolster sectors under pressure”;
  • And “Thirdly, the Ukrainian military is trying to put pressure across the front to advance through the first line of defences in as much breadth as possible” 

Meantime, “the summer is likely to be deeply uncomfortable” for Ukraine’s allies, Watling writes. “Losses will mount and success will take time,” he predicts, but adds, “It is vital, however, that there is no diminution in the strengthening of the training programmes allowing Ukraine to continue to generate combat units, or the mobilisation of defence industry to put supply to the Ukrainian military on a sustainable basis.” Read on, here

A second opinion: “Significant losses are sadly to be expected in a large-scale offensive like the one Ukraine is currently conducting,” John Hardie, deputy director of the Russia Program at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, tells The D Brief. “That’s particularly true given that Ukraine lacks air superiority and is facing a well-entrenched enemy that enjoys advantages in artillery and in the air,” he writes, and notes—like Watling—that “It’s important to remember that Kyiv has yet to introduce the bulk of its forces set aside for the offensive, including most of its nine new Western-equipped brigades. Ukraine has achieved some initial tactical successes. The question is whether it can build and sustain momentum.”

Deception and subterfuge in wartime: Russian drones were recently dispatched to destroy Ukrainian military gear, and succeeded in hitting their targets—but those targets were mere wooden decoys. Watch video of those two strikes, curated and shared by Lee on Twitter, here

And according to Ukrainian officials, Russia’s hypersonic missile was traveling only about a third of what Russia claims it flies when it was shot down by the U.S.-made Patriot air defense system in early May. The Economist has more, here. (And “arms control wonk” Jeffrey Lewis has a short note explaining briefly what’s going on, writing on Twitter Tuesday, here.)

Digital deception is a thing, too: France says Russia created a fake version of Paris’s Foreign Ministry website and at least four major news outlets—Le Parisien, Le Figaro, Le Monde and 20 Minutes—as part of a “hybrid strategy that Russia is implementing to undermine the conditions for peaceful democratic debate and therefore undermine our democratic institutions,” French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna said Tuesday. One of the false headlines in Le Monde, claimed “French minister supports murders of Russian troops in Ukraine.” 

But the deception wasn’t limited to France: German news outlets Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Der Spiegel, and Bild also had their websites “spoofed” to mislead online readers. The technique used the same spelling for most of the website, but differed only in the concluding domain letters—.ltd instead of .fr, for example, according to France24. It’s also not the first time Russian-affiliated actors have deployed similar tactics to deceive online users, which some have called “typosquatting.” 

NATO latest: Turkish President Recep Erdogan continues playing hardball with Sweden’s bid to join the 31-member alliance, Reuters and the Associated Press report Wednesday from Ankara, where officials from Sweden, Finland, and NATO met to discuss Erdogan’s impasse over Sweden’s accession (though Hungary, too, has yet to approve Sweden’s alliance bid).

Context: “Turkish-Swedish tensions were most recently fuelled by an anti-Turkey and anti-NATO protest in Stockholm last month,” Reuters reports, “when the flag of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militant group, outlawed in Turkey as well as in the European Union, was projected on to the parliament building.” AP has more, here

Additional reading: 

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Happy 248th to the U.S. Army, which marks its birthdays from the Continental Congress’s vote in 1775 that “six companies of expert riflemen, be immediately raised in Pennsylvania, two in Maryland, and two in Virginia” and “as soon as completed, shall march and join the army near Boston, to be there employed as light infantry, under the command of the chief Officer in that army."

For the U.S. military, broadening the sales role of regional combatant commands is one option the Pentagon is exploring as it seeks to streamline U.S. arms exports. “Oftentimes, our COCOM commanders, who are closest to the issues and closest to the partners, may be hearing about challenges or timing issues or desire on the part of one partner to sort of maybe reorder their own priorities,” Sasha Baker, deputy defense undersecretary for policy, told reporters on Tuesday.
“Speed has become an extra concern of late as the U.S. and its allies have sought to arm Ukraine against Russia, and is looking to do the same with Taiwan to help fend off a possible invasion by China,” writes Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber. Assembly lines for key munitions are largely maxed out, and many companies are still experiencing pandemic-related supply chain problems. Read on, here.

The two-day Defense One Tech Summit kicks off today with an all-virtual lineup that includes:

  • Noon: Air Force Research Laboratory CTO Timothy Bunning
  • 12:40 p.m.: CENTCOM innovation, featuring the command's CTO Schuyler Moore and AI advisor Andrew Moore
  • 1:35 p.m.: Poland's ambassador to NATO Tomasz Szatkowski
  • 2:20 p.m.: Ukrainian battle tech with Alex Bornyakov, Ukraine's Deputy Minister of Digital Transformation for IT Industry Development; CNA's Samuel Bendett; and Brave1's Nataliia Kushnerska
  • 3:20 p.m.: Lt. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, Commander, Air Forces Central Command

Get the whole agenda for today’s and tomorrow’s sessions, which will be live at Ronald Reagan Building in downtown D.C. as well as streamed online. Registration required (but it’s free), here

And lastly today: A question for you, dear readers. While we at Defense One brace for what seems to be a contentious summer in defense appropriations (CQ Roll Call), and ahead of a particularly unusual presidential election season (ABC News), we’d love to hear what kind of military and defense coverage you’d like to read more about in the months ahead.
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