Today's D Brief: Ukraine’s main campaign; Coup in Niger; Russian jet hits US drone; More troops lose abortion access; And a bit more.

After weeks of preparation and initial assaults, Ukraine’s military has finally sent the bulk of its forces into battle for the long-anticipated counteroffensive to claw back land taken during Russia’s full-scale invasion that began 17 months ago. 

The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War described it as “a significant mechanized counteroffensive operation in western Zaporizhia Oblast” that appears “to have broken through certain pre-prepared Russian defensive positions south of Orikhiv.”

“This kind of penetration battle will be one of the most difficult things for Ukrainian forces to accomplish in pursuit of deeper penetrations,” ISW’s analysts wrote in their latest assessment. However, “Ukrainians appear to have rotated fresh forces into this area for the operation whereas Russian forces remain pinned to the line apparently without rotation, relief, or significant reinforcement in this sector.” Those dynamics “may allow Ukraine to begin pursuing more successful advances south of Orikhiv in the coming weeks,” ISW said. 

According to White House and Pentagon officials, “the new operation, if successful, [c]ould last one to three weeks,” the New York Times reported Wednesday evening. ISW was not so sanguine, and predicted, “Ukrainian forces can make significant gains in their counteroffensive operations, but that such gains are likely to occur over a long period of time and interspersed with lulls and periods of slower and more grinding efforts” as they work through dozens of miles of obstacles. More, here

The Ukrainian military’s “summer campaign is in full swing, and we are doing all we can to achieve success,” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov wrote on social media Tuesday. “Our partners stand with us and believe in Ukraine’s victory and just peace,” he said. 

Ukrainian officials are already planning their next steps, which include assembling “a list of de-occupation steps for Crimea,” President Volodymir Zelenskyy said in a video message Wednesday evening. That involves “security, economic, and social” steps so that “We can quickly reintegrate Crimea into the state fabric” of Ukraine, said Zelenskyy. “In fact, the occupiers should already consider that while the Crimean bridge is still somewhat operational, they should return home” to Russia. 

“Russia will lose this war, and no missile will save it,” Zelenskyy said. “Crimea, like the rest of Ukraine, will be free—free from all [Russian] evil, starting with Russian missiles and ending with every Russian occupier.” 

Zelenskyy dropped by southern Ukraine’s Dnipro region to discuss “the situation on the front,” he said Thursday on social media. “As always, we pay close attention to the supply of ammunition to our troops,” as well as “The efficiency of using the existing air defense systems and reinforcing the sky shield,” he said. 

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni is visiting U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office this afternoon. The White House says at least three items will be on the agenda: “our shared commitment to continue supporting Ukraine in the face of Russia’s aggression, developments in North Africa, and closer transatlantic coordination regarding the People’s Republic of China.” 

For her part, Meloni plans to discuss migration from North Africa as well as declining stability across the continent, according to Reuters

Additional reading: 

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. If you haven’t subscribed to this newsletter yet, you can do that here. On this day in 1953, representatives from the United States, China, and North Korea signed the Korean Armistice Agreement, effectively ending conflict on the peninsula even though the document was never signed by officials from South Korea. Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin released a statement marking the day, and you can read that here

Niger’s military detained its president overnight in what the New York Times reports is West Africa’s sixth coup of the past three years. Reuters says it’s the seventh coup if you include the Central Africa region; that number jumps to nine if you include attempted regional “power grabs” since 2020. 

Military officers leading the coup blamed the country’s worsening security, and said they’ve closed the country’s land borders until security improves. “This is as a result of the continuing degradation of the security situation, the bad economic and social governance,” Nigerien air force Col. Major Amadou Abdramane said on state TV. 

Niger’s army chief said the country’s ground forces support the coup, but that they want to avoid “a deadly confrontation... that could create a bloodbath and affect the security of the population.” 

Reminder: The U.S. maintains more than 1,000 troops in Niger for a regional counterterrorism mission. NBC News reported from a U.S. special operations outpost in Niger this week before the coup leaders detained the president. A coup now throws all that U.S. support “into the air,” said terrorism scholar Charles Lister from the Middle East Institute. One U.S. Army special operator who’d recently deployed to Niger told The D Brief, “It certainly wasn’t a surprise to see this.”

Washington’s reax: “We strongly condemn any effort to detain or subvert the functioning of Niger’s democratically elected government,” White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said in a statement Wednesday. “We specifically urge elements of the presidential guard to release President Bazoum from detention and refrain from violence,” he said. 

“[O]ur partnership depends on the continuation of democratic governance,” State Secretary Antony Blinken said in a statement in social media, and added that he “conveyed [U.S.] support for the democratically elected President of Niger.”

Nearby nations that have also been hit with coups include Burkina Faso (January 2020); Mali (August 2020); Chad (April 2021); and Guinea (September 2021). Sudan, in northeast Africa, was also hit with a coup in November 2021, which set the stage for “the catastrophic conflict between rival military factions that erupted in April this year,” the Times writes.

Worth noting: “Juntas in neighbouring Mali and Burkina Faso have grown closer to Russia since they took charge, in 2020 and 2022 respectively, and cut ties with traditional Western allies,” Reuters reported Thursday, and noted, “It was not immediately clear who would take over from [President] Bazoum.” 

Related reading: 

A Russian fighter jet damaged another U.S. drone over Syria, which was “the sixth reported incident this month, and the second in the past 24 hours, in which the United States has said Russian warplanes have flown dangerously close to American manned and unmanned aircraft,” AP reported Wednesday.

Lastly this week, Senate Democrats denounced military-promotions holds for five hours. On Wednesday evening, a dozen of the lawmakers took to the Senate floor to speak for a few moments on each of the 273 senior military officers whose intended jobs are going unfilled because of the indefinite hold placed by Sen. Tommy Tuberville, R-Ala., who objects to the Pentagon’s policy of providing transportation for female servicemembers who cannot get reproductive health care where they are stationed. You can, if you like, watch the entire thing, thanks to C-SPAN, here.

Some 46 percent of women on active duty now “have either severely restricted access or no access at all to abortion care—based on the state in which they are stationed—as a result of the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson in June 2022,” RAND analysts Kyleanne Hunter and Sarah Meadows wrote earlier this month. That’s up from about 40 percent last September, thanks to more states passing restrictive laws.

ICYMI: A provision in the House’s version of the 2024 defense authorization bill would kill the DOD policy. Hunter and Meadows argue this could undermine national security. “Women who serve in the military are exposed to a higher risk of sexual assault than their male peers, have limited access to the full suite of reproductive health care due to the inability to select the location of their assignments, and continue to experience stigma associated with being pregnant.” 

“What signal does revoking policies related to improved access to reproductive health care send to young women who are considering the military as a possible path for them?” the analysts wrote. “Given an already concerning recruiting environment, can we really afford to further alienate an entire gender when it comes to protecting our national security?” Continue reading, here

We’re off on Friday. So have a safe weekend, and we’ll be back again on Monday!