Today's D Brief: Aid trickles to Ukraine; Russia’s arms dumps grow; House shutdown vote; Austin testifies on absence; And a bit more.

Some U.S. military aid is still trickling into Ukraine via arms dealers, contracts suggest. All $18.9 billion in the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative—one of two ways the Pentagon has been funding aid to the wartorn country—has been “committed” since November, but that only means that officials have decided what to buy with it. More than one-third of that sum has yet to be awarded to the contractors that will supply the materiel. 

Recent contract announcements for “special arms and ammunition,” a phrase that has been attached to aid for Ukraine, suggest that funds are still flowing, Defense One’s Sam Skove reports.

Millions of N. Korean artillery shells are flowing into Russia, CSIS researchers report after studying satellite images of shipping activity and the expansion of munitions dumps across the country. 

Their report also contains policy recommendations, such as: “While denuclearization of the DPRK remains the goal of U.S. policy, stopping North Korea’s munitions transfers should become the proximate priority given its implications for the war in Europe and Indo-Pacific security.”

Welcome to this leap day 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 in 2020, Trump administration officials signed an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. and allied troops from Afghanistan by May 2021. Afghan government officials from Kabul were excluded from these secretive talks, which took place in Qatar and became known as the Doha agreement or the Doha Accord. Taliban attacks against government troops rose dramatically in the months to follow, which—along with the allied troop withdrawals—accelerated the complete collapse of the Kabul government by August 2021.

Russian leader Vladimir Putin delivered his annual state address Thursday before the Federal Assembly of lawmakers. It clocked in at just over two hours, which would make it one of Putin’s longest such to date, and just ahead of nationwide elections in about two weeks—elections that Putin is widely expected to win, especially since he has disqualified or seemingly had murdered any notable opposition figures. 

Putin warned of a nuclear war if NATO sends troops to Ukraine to help fight Russian invaders. French President Emmanuel Macron clumsily alluded to that possibility in recent days as part of what some have claimed is an example of Macron’s “strategic ambiguity” when it comes to confronting the threat from a revanchist Putin who has declared his intent to restore the old glory and territory of the Russian empire dating back to Peter the Great. 

Macron’s NATO allies in Germany, Italy, and the UK swiftly rejected his idea, as the BBC reported Tuesday. But Putin seized on it as another opening for some of the nuclear saber-rattling that was more common in the weeks surrounding the launch of his full-scale Ukraine invasion two years ago.  

“We remember the fate of those who sent their troop contingents to the territory of our country,” Putin said Thursday, referring to Napoleon’s failed Moscow invasion in 1812. “Now the consequences for the potential invaders will be far more tragic.”

“We also have the weapons that can strike targets on their territory,” said Putin. “And what they are now suggesting and scaring the world with, all that raises the real threat of a nuclear conflict that will mean the destruction of our civilization.” The Associated Press and Reuters have more.

A possible deal to temporarily avert a government shutdown is slated for a House vote today. Washington Post: “Lawmakers planned to move quickly Thursday to pass yet another short-term government spending bill, delaying a shutdown deadline past the weekend to buy more time to finish delicate negotiations.”

'Please pass an actual budget,' three service undersecretaries said yesterday, though not in so many words, and to reporters, not lawmakers. Army Undersecretary Gabe Camarillo, Navy Undersecretary Erik Raven, and Kristyn Jones, the acting Air Force undersecretary described what more financial and planning damage might be wrought if Congress can’t pass a fiscal 2024 budget. Defense One’s Patrick Tucker has details, here.

Elsewhere on Capitol Hill, the commanders of America’s Space and nuclear forces are discussing their budget plans for the upcoming year in a Senate hearing before the Armed Services Committee. Space Force Gen. Stephen Whiting and Air Force Gen. Anthony Cotton of Strategic Command began their testimony at 9:30 a.m. ET. Catch the livestream via SASC, here

And lastly: Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is testifying before House lawmakers on the Republican-led Armed Services Committee regarding the notification process around Austin’s hospitalizations in late December and early January. We previewed the hearing at the bottom of Wednesday’s newsletter. 

An early indication of how things are going: “Someone needs to be held accountable,” said HASC Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Alabama. And the apparent fact that Austin went three days in the hospital in late December without the White House being made aware “suggests Secretary Austin’s advice is not sought or heeded in the White House,” said Rogers. 

“Either the president is aloof or you are irrelevant,” insisted Indiana Republican Jim Banks to Secretary Austin. 

On the other hand, ranking HASC member Adam Smith of Washington used some of his time before the microphone to lambast the Republicans for neglecting Ukraine’s defense in the face of a growing Russian invasion while calling a full committee hearing over Austin’s hospitalization. 

“This is an opportunity to address an important issue,” said Smith, acknowledging the gravity of clear communications between the Pentagon, White House, and Congress. But, he added, “I would challenge any member on the other side of this aisle to claim that the secretary of defense not fully informing the president for three days is somehow more important than walking away from that obligation that we have made and that the whole world is watching us on,” said Smith. 

For the latest from the hearing or to watch from the beginning, you can catch HASC’s livestream on YouTube, here