Today's D Brief: Avdiivka’s costly loss; Russia’s Biden disinformation; Red Sea missile duels; Space hotline; And a bit more.

As many as a thousand Ukrainian forces may have been captured or lost after the Saturday withdrawal of troops from the eastern city of Avdiivka, which Russian invasion forces have been trying to capture since at least October, the New York Times reported Tuesday citing “senior Western officials and soldiers fighting for Ukraine.” 

Ukrainian forces reportedly left hundreds of wounded troops behind as they left Avdiivka following “the largest-ever frontal assault with columns of armored vehicles they’ve seen from Russia thus far,” the Kyiv Independent reported Wednesday. 

Why it matters: “American officials have said in recent days that morale was already eroding among Ukrainian troops, in the wake of a failed counteroffensive last year and the removal of a top commander,” the Times writes. “Because of those problems, the officials said, Ukraine’s military has struggled with recruitment.”

Russia’s top general Valery Gerasimov allegedly visited his invasion troops inside Ukraine recently, state-run Russian media reported Wednesday. However, it’s unclear precisely when the visit occurred, Reuters notes. 

A prominent Russian soldier and blogger was found dead Wednesday after reporting Russia's military lost 16,000 troops and 300 tanks and armor since October while trying to invade the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka. His name was Andrey Morozov, but he wrote his blog as “Murz.” He was allegedly found to have committed suicide. 

And about 60 Russian troops were reportedly killed Tuesday when Ukrainian artillery struck a formation that had gathered in an open field in occupied Donetsk, according to the BBC

In a new first, the U.S. transferred nearly $500,000 in forfeited Russian money to Estonia “for the purpose of providing aid to Ukraine,” the Department of Justice announced Saturday. “The funds were forfeited by the United States following the [March 2023] breakup of an illegal procurement network attempting to import into Russia a high-precision, U.S.-origin machine tool with uses in the defense and nuclear proliferation sectors,” the Justice Department said. 

“The goal here is not only to detect, prosecute and ensure justice, but to direct illegal income to the victim, i.e. Ukraine,” said Estonia’s top justice official Tõnis Saar. “I hope that this will become the new normality for sanctioned crimes in other countries in the future,” he added. 

China has offered to help Hungarian law enforcement officials and counterterrorism forces as part of a series of newly-signed security cooperation agreements, Reuters reported Saturday after Chinese state-run media initially relayed the developments. 

By the way: “Hungary is home to Huawei Technologies' largest logistics and manufacturing base outside China, despite European Commission warnings that the telecom giant poses a risk to EU security,” Reuters notes. The South China Morning Post has more. 

ICYMI: Republicans’ long-discussed case against the Biden family’s alleged role in Ukraine crumbled last week when the former F.B.I. informant, Alexander Smirnov, was charged with lying about the bribery allegations. According to Smirnov’s own account, “officials associated with Russian intelligence were involved” with passing him information, which he later shared with others.

A window into the informants’ unreliability: According to the New York Times, “Prosecutors did not specify which story Russian intelligence is said to have been fed to Mr. Smirnov, an Israeli citizen. But they suggested they could not believe anything he said. And they had many tales to choose from.” Read more from ABC News. Or you can review the most recent Tuesday court filing (PDF), here

Additional reading: 

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback for the year ahead here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day two years ago, Russian leader Vladimir Putin fraudulently announced the independence of two eastern Ukrainian regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, in a transparent attempt to justify his full-scale military invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. military destroyed a surface-to-air missile launcher in Yemen on Monday, defense officials at Central Command announced Tuesday. About two hours after that strike, a Houthi aerial drone hit the bulk carrier ship, M/V Navis Fortuna, causing minor damage before the ship continued on to its destination in Italy. Less than an hour later, U.S. forces located and destroyed another drone before launch into the Red Sea from western Yemen. 

Earlier Monday, the Houthis fired two anti-ship ballistic missiles at another bulk carrier, M/V Sea Champion, which was loaded with grain bound for the Yemeni port city of Aden. That ship sustained minor damage after one of the missiles detonated near the vessel, according to CENTCOM. But the Sea Champion continued on its course for what would be its 12th time hauling humanitarian aid to Yemenis over the past five years. 

Early Tuesday, U.S. and allied forces in the region shot down 10 more probable Houthi drones fired toward ships in both the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden during a four-hour period that ended just after midnight. Mere minutes after those engagements ended, the U.S. Navy shot down an anti-ship cruise missile that seemed to be targeting sailors and crew onboard the USS Laboon. 

Also: The French navy said it shot down two drones off Yemen on Monday. It’s likely those engagements were part of the 10-drone shootdown mentioned above.

Space Force wants a hotline to China. As orbital space grows more strategically important and more contested, norms and definitions of space conflict are failing to keep up. It’s a situation ripe for misunderstanding and miscalculation, which is why Brig. Gen. Anthony Mastalir, commander of U.S. Space Forces Indo-Pacific, is proposing a hotline to the Chinese military for space issues. 

Rules of engagement in space remain “somewhat immature,” Mastalir told reporters at the Air & Space Forces Association Warfare Symposium last week. “When you think about a hostile act or demonstrating hostile intent in space, what does that look like? And do all nations have a shared understanding of what that looks like?” 

Reminder: U.S. and Chinese military leaders only recently restored communications, more than a year after China broke them off following then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s 2022 visit to Taiwan. D1’s Audrey Decker has a bit more.

UK Trident missile test fails, again. On Jan. 30, HMS Vanguard attempted to test-launch one of its (unarmed) nuclear ICBMs, which crashed after its booster rockets failed. It was the second straight failure of a UK Trident, following a 2016 test-launch from HMS Vengeance off Florida, the BBC reports.

It’s unclear how significant this is, said Matthew Harries, director of proliferation and nuclear policy at the Royal United Services Institute: "There could be a variety of explanations for something going wrong in what HMS Vanguard was doing in test-launching this missile, and there isn't enough information on what exactly that was. The missiles the UK uses are drawn from a common pool that the US and UK both use, and the US has conducted multiple tests without these kind[s] of problems.” Read on, here.

First flight for Turkey's indigenous fighter. The Wednesday takeoff of the KAAN combat aircraft was a milestone for the eight-year-old effort to develop the jet, a partnership between Turkish aerospace firm TUSAS and Britain's BAE Systems. (Reuters)

Speaking of BAE: The company saw a 14% jump in revenue last year, with record backlogs “driven by new submarine contracts and demand linked to Ukraine,” Reuters reports off a press conference with CEO Charles Woodburn.