Today's D Brief: Fireball in Moscow; China-Philippines standoff; Fighting ISIS in Iraq; Farewell to a whistleblower; And a bit more.

An alleged fireworks warehouse in Moscow exploded Wednesday in an enormous fireball caught on dashcam video. The explosion, which injured at least 50 people, occurred on the grounds of a factory that had been known to produce “precision optical equipment for the military” going back to at least the mid-1990s, according to the Associated Press. Post-detonation video captured near the scene revealed an aggressive security presence, including some toughs who roughed up the cameraman looking around. 

So far, Russian authorities are denying the explosion resulted from attacks originating in Ukraine. Instead, “The Investigative Committee, Russia’s top law enforcement agency, said in a statement it has launched a criminal inquiry on charges of violating industrial safety requirements at hazardous production facilities,” AP reports. Two other drones were allegedly intercepted over Moscow before hitting their targets, according to Russian officials. 

Developing: The U.S. will soon send Ukraine another $200 million in weapons, including “mine clearing equipment, TOW and AT4 anti-tank weapons, guns and ammunition, air defense interceptors,” Reuters reported Tuesday. 

Poland says it’s sending 2,000 troops to reinforce its border with Belarus, which is hosting a few thousand Russian mercenaries from the Wagner group, Reuters reported separately on Wednesday from Warsaw. 

Battlefield latest: At least some Ukrainian troops appear to have crossed a key river and into occupied territory in Kherson Oblast. Analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War caution these developments appear to show “a limited cross-river raid than a wider Ukrainian operation” in the area. The Guardian has a bit more, here

Related reading: 

Welcome to this Wednesday 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 1945, the United States dropped its second atomic bomb on Japan, killing at least 35,000 people in the southern coastal city of Nagasaki.

The China-Philippines standoff in the South China Sea drew the U.S. military’s attention on Tuesday, as Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin rang up his Philippine counterpart Gilberto Teodoro Jr. to discuss the Chinese “efforts to obstruct the Philippine resupply mission to Second Thomas Shoal on August 5,” the Defense Department said afterward. In the call, Austin reaffirmed the U.S.-Philippine defense alliance, and he “condemned the China Coast Guard's use of water cannons and other dangerous maneuvers, which put the safety of Philippine vessels and crew at risk,” according to the Pentagon. 

Notably, Austin told Teodoro that the two nations’ Mutual Defense Treaty “extends to Philippine public vessels, aircraft, and armed forces—to include those of its Coast Guard—in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea.”

Review a lengthy and “laughable” Tuesday statement from China’s embassy in Manila regarding the water cannon episode on Saturday. Regional security analyst Collin Koh broke down the statement on social media Tuesday, and isolated several instances of apparent hypocrisy and cognitive dissonance from the Chinese. Find that analysis, here

Austin and Teodoro also discussed Typhoon Egay recovery efforts, which involved the delivery of more than 32 tons of humanitarian supplies to remote islands off the coast of the Batanes island group and to residents in the mountain region of Cervantes Ilocos Sur. 

Changing winds: A new review of surveys and polling “indicates that the United States enjoys more soft power and popularity than China across most of the region,” the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies said in a report published Monday. “Even with major gaps in public polling, majorities in the most populous states—Indonesia, and especially the Philippines and Vietnam—prefer the United States to China,” Greg Poling and Andreyka Natalegawa of CSIS wrote. 

Caveat: Due to a lack of particularly robust polling data (emphasis added), “Most of the Indonesian and Philippine publics still view the United States as the leading strategic power in the region, but who knows whether their counterparts in the rest of Southeast Asia agree.” 

Their advice: “Growing concern regarding China’s behavior and intentions create diplomatic and economic openings across the region, and Washington should advance a positive political, security, and economic agenda to meet the moment.” Read the full report (PDF), here

With an eye on Iran’s navy, two of the U.S. military’s top Middle East commanders transited the Hormuz Strait in a guided-missile cruiser this week, the Tampa-based Central Command said Tuesday. 

CENTCOM chief Army Gen. Michael Kurilla and the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet commander Vice Adm. Brad Cooper hopped aboard the USS Thomas Hudner (DDG-116) before Kurilla went on to attend meetings with military officials in the United Arab Emirates, including Emirati Army chief Lt. Gen. Issa Sayf Mohammed al-Mazrouei. Kurilla also stopped by Bahrain for discussions with King Hamid bin Isa Al Khalifa and other top military officials like Defense Minister Abdullah bin Hassan Al Nuaimi. 

Back in DC, Iraq’s Defense Minister Thabit al-Abbasi visited Pentagon officials, including SecDef Austin, for two days this week. U.S. military officials lauded the event as the inaugural U.S.-Iraq Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue, which they described as “part of a comprehensive, 360-degree partnership.” 

An “Iraqi-led enduring defeat of ISIS” remains one of the primary goals of the U.S.-Iraq military relationship, the Pentagon said in its readout. The delegates also stressed “the urgent need to repatriate displaced persons and detainees currently in northeast Syria to their countries of origin.” But other mid- and long-term objectives were discussed in Washington, including “expand[ing] the educational opportunities available to Iraq's military professionals,” and possible future arms sales. 

Reminder: The U.S. and its allies “have liberated more than 50,000 square kilometers of territory and more than 4.5 million Iraqis have now been freed from the tyranny of ISIS,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said while standing beside al-Abbasi at the Pentagon on Monday. 

By the way: The U.S. military and its partner forces detained two dozen alleged ISIS fighters and killed two others in 20 operations carried out inside Iraq during the month of July. Eleven other counter-ISIS operations were conducted inside Syria, which led to the deaths of three alleged fighters and the arrest of six others, last month, according to CENTCOM

“[W]e have seen a dramatic reduction in ISIS activity and effectiveness across our area of operations,” said the U.S. military’s top commander in Iraq, Army Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane, citing “the efforts of our Coalition-supported partners.” That’s a notable difference in tone from CENTCOM commander Kurilla’s assessment of ISIS in Afghanistan this past March, when he told U.S. lawmakers he believed the group could strike outside the country by September. 

GOP presidential contenders are sowing distrust in the military, the New York Times reports. “As [Donald] Trump escalates his attacks on American institutions, focusing his fire on the Justice Department as he faces new criminal charges, his competitors for the Republican nomination have followed his lead. Several have adopted much of Mr. Trump’s rhetoric sowing broad suspicion about the courts, the F.B.I., the military and schools. As they vie for support in a primary dominated by Mr. Trump, they routinely blast these targets in ways that might have been considered extraordinary, not to mention unthinkably bad politics, just a few years ago.”

A sample, from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis: “The military that I see is different from the military I served in,” the former Navy lawyer told Fox, a few weeks after he declared on the campaign trail that if elected, he would need a defense secretary who “may have to slit some throats” of Defense Department employees. 

That’s on the heels of attacks by Tucker Carlson, the now-fired Fox host who told millions of viewers that uniformed leaders were out to weaken the armed forces and the country itself. ICYMI, here.

A Gallup poll released in July found record-low levels of public confidence in major American institutions, including the military, police, schools, big business and technology. The decline in trust in the military was particularly sharp among GOP voters. Read on, here.

This trend is a few years old, as Defense One wrote in April: “Halfway through the Trump administration, Americans’ regard for and trust in the military began to nose-dive. The share of respondents who told a Reagan Forum poll they had “a great deal of confidence” in the military plunged from 70% in 2018 to 63% the following year, and 56% in early 2021. (It bottomed out at 45% during the Biden administration’s first winter, and rose in the most recent poll to 48%.)”

And lastly: We say goodbye this week to U.S. Army Maj. Ian Fishback, a special forces officer and whistleblower from the early years of the Bush administration’s 2003 Iraq invasion. He passed away from a cardiac arrest in November 2021, but was finally laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery this week. 

Former Marine officer C.J. Chivers describes Fishback as “a dissident-in-uniform who ultimately set aside a sparkling military career to become a philosopher before entering a dizzying mental health spiral.” The New York Times Magazine detailed that tragic spiral this past February in a #LongRead that you can find here. Read Chivers’s much shorter dispatch from Arlington, published Tuesday in the Times here.