Today's D Brief: Another Ukrainian naval strike; Air war evolves; China’s rocket-forces purge; Niger junta digs in; And a bit more.

Ukrainian forces struck another Russian vessel in the Black Sea over the weekend, Moscow says. Russian officials said on Telegram that the oil tanker Sig was hit just after midnight Saturday morning by a Ukrainian naval drone boat similar to the one that struck a Russian amphibious landing ship, Olenegorsky Gornyak, early Friday. The Sig tanker was among several vessels sanctioned by the U.S. back in 2019 for providing jet fuel to Russian forces in Syria. 

No oil was spilled and no one was reportedly hurt in the strike, which “created a hole in the vessel’s engine room at the waterline on the starboard side, forcing the 11-strong crew to fight the water intake,” according to CNN, citing Russian officials. 

Either extremely discerning or incredibly lucky: “The nature and location on the ship of the attack suggest that Ukrainian forces intended to disable the ship without generating significant ecological consequences,” analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War wrote Saturday evening. 

Ukrainian intelligence official Vasyl Malyuk said Saturday on Telegram that Ukraine’s naval strikes are a “logical” defense, and Russia should “leave the territorial waters of Ukraine and our land” if it wants the attacks to stop. 

New: Ukraine’s maritime authority on Friday warned commercial ships using six Russian Black Sea ports that they’d be considered military targets. The ports include Anapa, Novorossiysk, Gelendzhik, Tuapse, Sochi, and Taman. ISW noted Ukraine’s warning follows weeks of Russian strikes on Ukraine’s vital Black Sea port city of Odesa and on grain facilities along the Danube river, very close to Romania. Ukraine’s military wrote on social media after the announcement, “Two can play that game,” without elaborating. View a map illustrating the locations of the six ports, here

Evolving airwar dynamics: “At the start of Ukraine’s southern counter-offensive from June 2023, Russian attack helicopters proved effective,” the British military said Monday on social media. Take, for example, mid-July New York Times reporting on the early days of the counteroffensive when some Ukrainian forces found themselves quickly bogged down attempting to traverse minefields, which then made them sitting ducks for Russian helicopter attacks. 

But both sides have adjusted tactics, and “in recent weeks, Russia appears to have been less able to generate effective tactical airpower in the south,” the British said Monday without elaborating. 

The British have given Ukraine customized trucks specially designed to shoot down Iranian-made exploding drones. The UK’s Times reported the development late last week in a dispatch describing how U.S.-made Patriot air defense systems have proven to be a bit more effective than initially thought. Find imagery of the British Supacat trucks in question, here

U.S. and German-provided Patriot and IRIS-T air defense systems are “very effective,” and helped Ukraine fend off Russian attacks from “65 different missiles and 178 attack drones” last week, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Sunday. 

On the ground, however, Ukraine’s fight remains a tough slog and there hasn’t been much progress over the last few days, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar wrote Monday on Telegram. Russian artillery shelling has temporarily escalated; meanwhile, “The enemy is seriously strengthening its defensive lines,” she said Monday morning. “And our troops are now faced not only with mining, but also with concrete engineering fortification of key commanding heights.”

What to watch for in the days ahead: Can Ukraine “push Russian forces to [a] breaking point?” Jack Watling of the UK’s Royal United Services Institute posed that question for his own update on the counteroffensive published Friday by the Financial Times. The question he poses is an especially tall order since, for example, “If Kyiv’s forces get across the minefields and into the trenches, the Russians often abandon their fighting positions and detonate prepositioned charges to kill the first wave of attackers.”

Looking ahead with some optimism, “At some point, Russia’s infantry might be spread too thin and, with insufficient artillery and armoured support the defence could crumble,” Watling speculated. Meanwhile, “Dry weather will allow Ukraine to continue its push until the beginning of November. This will be a critical point: from then on, progress will depend on which side has made better preparations for winter fighting.” Read the rest, here

Ukraine’s military wrote a message to Americans over the weekend: “[O]n this Sunday, we wanted to once again thank our ally, the United States of America, and the American people for their unwavering support to our people and our country,” the defense ministry wrote on social media. “We will never be able to fully express our gratitude for your help,” it continued, and added, “May God bless the United States of America!”

U.S. defense chief Lloyd Austin rang his Polish counterpart Mariusz Błaszczak on Friday. The two reviewed the war in Ukraine as well as “Poland’s response to the August 1 incursion into Polish airspace by Belarusian aircraft,” and they “discussed the Wagner Group’s new presence in Belarus” after the Russian mercenaries’ aborted mutiny in late June, according to the Pentagon’s readout

Delegates from more than 40 countries gathered in Saudi Arabia this weekend to discuss peace in Ukraine. Representatives from China and India were involved, but the meeting ended Sunday without any tangible results “beyond a commitment to further consultations,” Reuters reported. 

Additional reading: 

Welcome to this Monday 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 1782, George Washington first ordered the military award that would later become the Purple Heart. 

Purges among China’s top rocket-forces leaders suggest Xi Jinping is still grappling with corruption. The Chinese leader “likened himself to a physician” as he consolidated power, seeking to leech corruption and disloyalty from the Communist Party, the NYT writes. “His signature project for over a decade has been bringing to heel the once extravagantly corrupt military leadership. But recent upheavals at high levels of the People’s Liberation Army forces suggest that Mr. Xi’s cure has not endured.

Last week, he abruptly replaced two top generals in the Rocket Force, an unexplained shake-up that suggests suspicions of graft or other misconduct in the sensitive arm of the military that manages conventional and nuclear missiles.” More, here.

Philippines: China blocked, shot water cannon at troops in South China Sea. Reuters: On Saturday, a boat chartered by the Philippine military was attempting to resupply Ayungin Shoal, “a submerged reef where a handful of its troops live on a rusty World War Two-era U.S. ship that was intentionally grounded in 1999,” when a Chinese coast guard vessel maneuvered to block the boat and then fired at it with a water cannon, the Armed Forces of the Philippines said.

China responded on social media: "We urge the Philippine side to immediately stop its infringing activities in this waters." Beijing’s claims of sovereignty in the area have been rejected by international bodies. More, here.

On Okinawa, several Marines were injured amid the high winds and flooding of Typhoon Khanun, Capt. Brett Dornhege-Lazaroff, spokesman for the III Marine Expeditionary Force, told Stripes on Monday. He said he had no further details, but added, “Readiness was not impacted by the storm.”

Kadena Air Base saw some power outages and flooding but no injuries, Marine Air Wing spokesman Lt. Col. Raymond Geoffroy told Stripes earlier on Monday. Geoffroy said engineers were working to restore power to a few remaining facilities around the base and that the wing was preparing to resume “normal flying operations.” A bit more, here.

And lastly: Niger’s coup leaders ordered reinforcements to the capital city in anticipation of military force threatened by members of the regional Economic Community of West African States. “A convoy of about 40 pick-up trucks arrived at nightfall on Sunday evening, bringing troops from other parts of the country to both reassure a nervous public and prepare for potential battle,” CNN reported Monday from Niamey. 

The junta also closed Niger’s airspace in anticipation of that military threat, the BBC reports. ECOWAS had insisted coup leaders release detained President Mohamed Bazoum by Sunday; and it would seem that fellow coup-stricken Burkina Faso sent a plane to Niamey after the airspace was closed, suggesting that country’s junta has followed through on its own vow to support Niger’s junta with military support. 

“What comes next is unclear,” CNN reports. “Italy and Germany have both called for an extension to the deadline to reinstate President Bazoum so that a diplomatic solution can be found,” the BBC notes. The Associated Press reports ECOWAS leaders now want to meet Thursday to decide their next move. 

Officials from Nigeria, Guinea, and Algeria opposed an invasion of Niger. And it remains unclear what will happen with the French and U.S. military troops inside Niger, which together total more than 2,000 forces. Read on, here.