Today's D Brief: CNO retires sans replacement; Ukraine inches forward; Niger junta mixes messages; DC Guard shakeup?; And a bit more.

The U.S. Navy would have a new chief today, but it won’t thanks to the continued block on officer promotions put in place by a single Republican lawmaker from Alabama: Sen. Tommy Tuberville. 

Departing: Adm. Michael Gilday, who graduated from the Naval Academy in 1985, and will depart the Navy after 38 years of service. 

“This is a proud day—but I want to take a moment to mark a painful milestone,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Monday morning at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. “More than 300 nominations for our outstanding general and flag  officers are now being held up in the United States Senate. That includes our top uniformed leaders—and our next chief of naval operations.”

“Because of this blanket hold, starting today, for the first time in the history of the Department of Defense, three of our military services are operating without Senate-confirmed leaders,” Austin said. “This is unprecedented. It is unnecessary. And it is unsafe.” (The Army and Marine Corps are the other two.) 

“This sweeping hold is undermining America’s military readiness,” said Austin. “It’s hindering our  ability to retain our very best officers. And it’s upending the lives of far too many American military families. Our troops deserve better. Our military families deserve better. Our allies and  partners deserve better. And our national security deserves better.”

Said former Black Hawk pilot and Army officer Brad Bowman: “It's a horrible precedent to punish service members and hurt readiness because one doesn't like an administration's policies,” he wrote on the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. “Introduce a bill. Make an argument. Build consensus. Cast a vote. But don't use military members for leverage in a political fight. That's NOT right.”

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 1954, Stanley Allen McCrystal was born into a military family at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He would later graduate from West Point in 1976 before beginning nearly three decades of service in America’s secretive special operations forces. His final appointment, in the summer of 2009, placed him in command of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan. He lasted just 12 months in the job before an unflattering profile in Rolling Stone entitled “The Runaway General” caused such a stink that he was compelled to resign. McCrystal retired the following month, in July 2010. 

Ukrainian troops inched forward along a few different axes over the weekend, including in the southern Zaporizhzhia region and on the edges of the eastern Donetsk oblast. “Ukrainian counteroffensive operations appear to be forcing the Russian military to laterally redeploy Russian forces defending in western Zaporizhia Oblast, indicating that the Ukrainian effort there may be significantly degrading Russian defenses,” the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War noted over the weekend. 

Ukraine’s president fired his military recruiting chiefs as part of a wider campaign to root out corruption, particularly after allegations arose that draft-eligible men were being driven out of the country from the southern Odesa region. Reuters has more, reporting Friday from Kyiv. 

In a new first, Russia’s navy fired warning shots at a commercial ship in the Black Sea on Sunday morning. The Palau-flagged vessel Sukru Okan was forced to stop for a Russian navy inspection as it headed to the Ukrainian port of Izmail at about 6:40 a.m. local. 

“The dry cargo ship’s captain did not respond to the demand to stop for an inspection of the potential carriage of prohibited goods,” Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement. As a result of the failure to stop, “The Russian combat ship fired warning shots from automatic small arms to forcibly stop the vessel,” the ministry said. Russians then searched the Sukru Okan after a Ka-29 helicopter dropped them onto the vessel, Moscow’s state-run media TASS reported. 

A top presidential advisor in Kyiv called the episode a “clear violation of international law of the sea, an act of piracy, and a crime against civilian vessels of a third country in the waters of other states.” Yet it remains unclear precisely what recourse Ukraine has for possible future occurrences. 

Worth noting: Russia’s navy did not interdict three other civilian vessels that visited ports in Ukraine on July 30. “The Russian naval posturing in the Black Sea is likely intentionally ambiguous and seeks to create a chilling effect on civilian maritime traffic to Ukraine without requiring Russian forces to commit Black Sea Fleet assets to the enforcement of a naval blockade,” analysts at ISW wrote Sunday evening. 

Developing: On the economic front, Russia’s currency is rapidly declining to depths not seen since the weeks immediately after its full-scale Ukraine invasion nearly a year and a half ago. This means the costs of Russia’s war are rising and it’s getting harder to shield their citizens from those costs, which help send inflation soaring, the Wall Street Journal reports. 

Much of this is attributed to soaring government spending on the war (weapons and ammunition, e.g.) along with the gradual effect of sanctions on Russia’s tech sector in particular; the costs of those sanctions are believed to accumulate over the long term. 

“The Russian economy is not sustainable in the long term,” one former Russian bank official told the Journal two weeks ago. “It all reminds of the Soviet times and we know how the Soviet economy went.” 

Speaking of Soviet times, amid a growing nationwide labor shortage, “in the industrial region of Sverdlovsk, a local tank factory recently has had to contract hundreds of inmates from local prisons to try to meet its targets,” the New York Times reported in a similar economic dispatch published in late July. 

One tough reality for Ukraine and its allies: “Russia’s sheer size makes it impossible to cut it off from the world economy,” Nicholas Mulder, a professor of history at Cornell University, said. That’s in part because “It remains a major source of raw materials for advanced economies, while for the developing world it is a crucial supplier of food and fertilizer.”

However, “So far this year, the ruble has lost almost 30% of its value against the dollar,” the Journal reported Monday. “Only a handful of currencies including the Turkish lira, Nigerian naira and Argentine peso are having a worse year.” More behind the paywall, here. Or read nonpaywalled coverage via CNN, Reuters, or the Associated Press.

China’s military chief is visiting Russia for the second time in four months. Defense Minister Li Shangfu has also planned to visit Belarus during his travels this week, which follow a meeting with Russia’s navy chief in Beijing just last month. AP has more, here

Also: Russia’s defense industry has apparently begun producing Iranian-designed Shahed-131 and -136 drones, analysts at Conflict Armament Research reported last week. CAR reached this conclusion based on evident modifications to recently downed Russian drones inside Ukraine, which revealed changes in the airframe as well as inside the navigation system. Read more, here

Related reading: 

Pentagon leaders are looking to reshape the DC National Guard in a bid to fix problems that appeared during the 2020 protests over the murder of George Floyd and the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol. Citing “several current and former officials familiar with the talks,” AP reports: “The changes under discussion would transfer the District of Columbia’s aviation units, which came under sharp criticism during the protests when a helicopter flew dangerously low over a crowd. In exchange, the district would get more military police, which is often the city’s most significant need, as it grapples with crowd control and large public events.” Read on, here.

Lastly today: Niger coup leaders say they’re open to talks with West African leaders but also that they plan to prosecute their country’s democratically elected president for “high treason,” AP reports

ECOWAS’ deadline has come and gone. The regional bloc had given the junta a week to restore President Mohamed Bazoum or face military intervention. That hasn’t happened yet, but: “The African Union Peace and Security Council is meeting on Monday to discuss Niger’s crisis and could overrule the decision if it felt that wider peace and security on the continent was threatened by an intervention. But as time drags on there’s growing uncertainty and mixed messages are mounting.” More, here.