Today's D Brief: Wagner chief, dead?; Ukraine’s strategy; Arms for Taiwan; N. Korea’s failed launch; And a bit more.

Two months to the day after Yevgeny Prigozhin led his private army in a race to Moscow to kill the country’s top two military officials, the head of the Wagner convict-mercenary group reportedly died in a plane crash in western Russia on Wednesday, according to Russian state media. 

It’s still unclear exactly how his plane went down, but footage on social media appeared to show the plane spiraling downward as smoke billowed from the fuselage. 

The Kremlin hasn’t taken responsibility for the crash, Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reports. But Grey Zone, a Telegram channel associated with Wagner, on Wednesday claimed that Prigozhin’s jet had been shot down while traveling from Moscow to St. Petersburg. Publicly available flight records add to the intrigue, as Aric Toler of Bellingcat illustrated in a thread on social media. A separate Wagner-affiliated Telegram channel claimed that Dmitry Utkin, Wagner’s first commander, is among the nine others dead. 

If confirmed, Prigozhin’s death would throw several operations around the globe into uncertainty, including Wagner’s exploitation of fragile regimes in Africa as well as its frontline work in occupied Ukraine. Another man believed to be on the plane was Valery Chekalov, head of Wagner’s security service. “He reportedly headed up Wagner's sizable contracts in Syria's oil and phosphate sectors,” Middle East scholar Charles Lister said. Chekalov’s apparent “death could feasibly place those contracts in jeopardy,” said Lister. 

“Wagner may be easier for the Russian [military] to control with Prigozhin, Utkin, and other top figures out of the picture,” said John Hardie of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. “But without its core commanders, it won’t be the same organization.” What’s more, “[T]heir deaths could lead some Wagner fighters to grow disillusioned with service altogether.” 

What to watch for: “It will be interesting to see the status of Andrei Troshev, the senior Wagner figure who goes by the call sign ‘Sedoy,’” said Hardie. “Recall that at his meeting with Wagner commanders after the mutiny, Putin says he offered for them to continue serving under Troshev.”

Wagner’s tent camp in Belarus has also been reduced over the course of August, satellite imagery from Planet Labs shows. However, the dismantling began well before Prigozhin’s plane crashed, and likely occurred after Wagner recruits were “sent home because they didn't fit the strict rules of a new call to work on Prigozhin's Africa projects,” Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty’s Mark Krutov said. He preserved the images on social media Thursday, here

Developing: Ukraine’s military claims to have landed naval troops in Russian-occupied Crimea, which would be a surprising development after nine and a half years of Russian occupation of the Ukrainian peninsula. The military’s intelligence directorate posted grainy video footage of the alleged naval landings on Telegram Thursday morning. 

“Special units on watercraft landed on the shore in the area of Olenivka and Mayak settlements,” Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence department said. During their approach, “the Ukrainian defenders engaged in combat with the units of the occupier,” and “As a result, the enemy suffered losses among personnel, enemy equipment was destroyed.” 

The military also claimed “the state flag flew again in the Ukrainian Crimea,” though there was no supporting evidence for this claim. “At the end of the special operation, the Ukrainian defenders left the scene without casualties,” Ukraine said, without elaborating. 

CODEL to Kyiv: U.S. Senators Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., visited Kyiv on Wednesday, President Volodymir Zelenskyy’s office said.

New: Portugal says it will join the F-16 program to help Ukrainian pilots fly the fighter jets in the coming months. Zelenskyy thanked Portugal’s President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa Thursday during a meeting in Kyiv. 

Counteroffensive latest: “The situation in all eastern directions is tense and very dynamic,” said Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar. “In the Kupyan direction, the enemy does not stop trying to advance,” she said, and added, “It is no less hot in the Limansky direction.” Still, she said, “we are gradually advancing even in the face of desperate enemy resistance.” 

Ukraine’s advance is slow because its forces are too spread out, anonymous U.S. officials tell the New York Times. “The main goal of the counteroffensive is to cut off Russian supply lines in southern Ukraine by severing the so-called land bridge between Russia and the occupied Crimean Peninsula. But instead of focusing on that, Ukrainian commanders have divided troops and firepower roughly equally between the east and the south, the U.S. officials said.”

Ukraine denies that they’re doing it wrong. “What's important is the very fact that despite everything, we're moving forward even though we have fewer people and fewer weapons,” Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar told Reuters.

“We do not assess that the conflict is a stalemate,” Jake Sullivan, the White House’s national security adviser, said on Tuesday in the face of repeated questions about the alleged stalemate from reporters. Sullivan elaborated considerably, but his main point remained the same. You can read the transcript of that conversation, here

Surovikin watch: Has Gen. Sergei Surovikin, once the commander of Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine, been dismissed as head of the country's aerospace forces? Several outlets say so.

Meanwhile in Russia: “Aren’t you a man?” For four months, the New York Times has tracked the Russian state’s recruiting campaigns on Russian state television and social media, “and found that recruitment messages focused on the Kremlin’s official rationale for the invasion — an existential threat from the West against Russians — played only a supporting role. Rather, there were frequent appeals to masculinity...” Read on, here.

And lastly: It’s Ukraine’s 32nd anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union. Zelenskyy presented awards to troops in Kyiv, and said, “The world hears and supports Ukraine. The world's majority stands with Ukraine,” which he said, “we will not allow to be torn apart.” 

POTUS: “As Putin continues his brutal war to erase Ukraine’s independence and redraw the map of our world by force, Americans all across the country stand united with the people of Ukraine,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “I sincerely hope that next year, Ukrainians will be able to celebrate their Independence Day in peace and safety, knowing how their extraordinary courage inspired the world. May Ukraine’s Independence Day be a reminder that the forces of darkness and dominion will never extinguish the flame of liberty that lives in the heart of free people everywhere.”

SecDef Austin: “Today, as Ukraine commemorates another year of independence, the United States remains steadfast in our commitment to ensure that it can celebrate many more,” Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin said in his own statement. “We will support Ukraine for as long as it takes in its fight for its security and freedom,” he added. 

Extra 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 1912, the U.S. Navy launched the collier Jupiter, its first ship powered by electric motors. A decade hence, the ship would be recommissioned USS Langley, the service’s first aircraft carrier.

The White House just approved another $500 million in weapons for Taiwan, including infrared search tracking systems and other items for F-16 fighter jets. Congress could object to the deal, but that’s unlikely. 

According to the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency, “The proposed sale will improve the recipient’s capability to meet current and future threats by contributing to the recipient’s abilities to defend its airspace, provide regional security, and increase interoperability with the United States through its F-16 program.”

“These will help to target [China’s] J-20 stealth fighter over the Taiwan Strait in the future,” Taipei’s deputy defense minister Po Horng-huei told reporters after the announcement, according to Reuters

Short term context: This latest announcement “follows an angry Chinese reaction to the transit through the United States of Taiwanese Vice President William Lai on his way to and from an official visit in Paraguay last week,” the Associated Press reports. 

New: Taiwan’s president wants to spend another almost $3 billion to buy weapons next year, which comes on top of a 3.5% increase in defense spending announced Monday. That amounts to roughly 2.5% of its gross domestic product, Reuters reported Thursday from Taipei. About half of next year’s defense spending is expected to go toward acquiring fighter jets, and the rest is expected to be used for buying more naval assets. 

Germany says it’s giving the Philippine coast guard surveillance drones to better defend against China’s maritime shenanigans, like the way China’s coast guard tried but ultimately failed to stop the Philippines from resupplying their troops in a contested region of the South China Sea, CNN reported Wednesday. The announcement this week came more than a year after Berlin first said it would give Manila two Trinity F90+ drones, which are unarmed and have an hour long flight time. 

“We are offering two drones so far,” said German Ambassador to the Philippines Andreas Michael Pfaffernoshke on Wednesday. Regarding that water cannon episode from China’s coast guard, the ambassador said, “Germany is an enthusiastic defender of the international world order, based on the charter of the United Nations,” and “The law is clear that the West Philippine Sea is part of the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.” 

“We are a trading nation,” Pfaffernoshke said. “We depend on world trade. We depend on the freedom of navigation, including in the South China Sea.” 

The U.S. Department of Transportation just newly warned port facility managers to be on the lookout for Chinese-made “security inspection equipment at key logistic nodes,” like U.S. ports. This includes scanners from a state-owned firm known as Nuctech Company, Ltd.

“Nuctech equipment capabilities include x-ray, backscatter, and thermal platforms; explosives detection,” as well as baggage and parcel inspection and facial recognition capabilities, Transportation officials said Wednesday. Nuctech equipment could also access “biometric information, personally identifiable information, patterns of life and/or behavioral migrant patterns, cargo information, proprietary data, and geo-locational metadata.”

“Several countries have raised concerns about contracts for security scanning equipment due to the company's state ownership and ties to the Chinese Communist Party and the People’s Liberation Army,” U.S. officials said in their warning Wednesday. 

If this sounds familiar, it may be because the Wall Street Journal in March reported the “Pentagon Sees Giant Cargo Cranes as Possible Chinese Spying Tools,” which followed a similar DOT alert in February.  

Related reading: 

North Korea again failed to put a spy satellite into orbit, which was the country’s second botched effort this year. Launching these kinds of objects into orbit requires powerful ballistic missile technology, which for North Korea is a violation of United Nations sanctions. White House officials called the failed launch on Wednesday “a brazen violation” of those UN sanctions, and said the three-stage projectile “risks destabilizing the security situation in the region and beyond.” North Korean state-run media said the launch went awry in its third stage, “due to an error in the emergency blasting system.”

Japan’s military said afterward that the satellite launch vehicle’s first stage fell outside a warning drop zone in the Yellow Sea southwest of North Korea. The second stage fell in the East China Sea, and the third stage flew over the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako before landing approximately 600 km east of the Philippines.

“North Korea's series of actions, including its repeated ballistic missile launches, threaten the peace and security of Japan, the region, and the international community,” the Japanese defense ministry said in a statement. “In particular, North Korea's recent launch of a missile over the Japanese archipelago is extremely problematic from the standpoint of ensuring the safety of not only aircraft and ships, but also of nearby residents,” it added.

“This is a serious safety issue,” the military said, and promised to “work closely with the United States, South Korea, and other countries concerned” regarding the safety of these launches. 

“The door has not closed on diplomacy, but Pyongyang must immediately cease its provocative actions and instead choose engagement,” White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement. “The United States will take all necessary measures to ensure the security of the American homeland and the defense of our Republic of Korea and Japanese allies,” she added. 

North Korea promised to try again in October. Read more at AP or Reuters

By the way: Iran hosted a “defense industry day” this week in Tehran. Delegates from more than three dozen countries reportedly attended, including at least one from North Korea who chose to hold a handgun up to his temple for a highly unusual photo

Iran also unveiled a new drone that it says can reach Israel. According to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, “the Mohajer-10 can carry a greater diversity of weapons and has a longer range and double the payload capacity than the Mohajer-6, which is the previous variant of this platform.” Al-Jazeera has a bit more on the drone from the messaging out of Iran’s state-run media, here

That’s a wrap for us this week. We’re off on Friday. But if there’s anything you think we should know about, don’t hesitate to send us an email. Have a safe weekend, and we’ll catch you again on Monday.