The D Brief: Russia pressures Kharkiv; Zelenskyy postpones travel; Putin to visit China; Army’s FPV drone plan; And a bit more.

With Russian invasion troops inching closer to the northern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, President Volodymir Zelenskyy just postponed his upcoming trips abroad so he can closely monitor at least two concerning fronts—around Kharkiv to the north, and Donetsk to the east—in Europe’s deadliest conflict since the Second World War. 

New: Ukrainian troops have withdrawn from some regions around Kharkiv, Lukyantsi and Vovchansk, “in order to save the lives of our servicemen and avoid losses,” Kyiv’s military announced Tuesday. 

Context: Vovchansk is located “just 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Russian border” and “Ukrainian and Russian troops battled in its streets [there] on Wednesday,” the Associated Press reports. “Oleksii Kharkivskyi, head of the city’s patrol police, said Russian troops were taking up positions in the city, while the Ukrainian General Staff said its forces were trying to flush them out.” Reuters reports “The assault [toward Kharkiv] keeps Ukraine's stretched and depleted forces off balance ahead of what Zelenskiy has said could be a big Russian offensive in the coming weeks.” 

However, according to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, writing Tuesday evening, “The pace of Russian offensive operations in northern Kharkiv Oblast appears to have slowed over the past 24 hours.” And that would seem to suggest “Russian forces are prioritizing the creation of a ‘buffer zone’ in the international border area over a deeper penetration of Kharkiv Oblast.” Relatedly, Ukrainian officials claim Russian forces in the vicinity of Vovchansk have lost up to 1,740 soldiers over a 24-hour period, “which would be a very high rate of losses,” ISW noted. 

But the White House is growing nervous. According to the New York Times, “the Biden administration is increasingly concerned that President Vladimir V. Putin is gathering enough momentum to change the trajectory of the war, and perhaps reverse his once-bleak prospects.”

“All of our forces are either here or in [the Donetsk city of] Chasiv Yar,” Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, told the Times separately on Tuesday speaking in a video call from a bunker in Kharkiv. “I’ve used everything we have. Unfortunately, we don’t have anyone else in the reserves,” he said. 

Expert reax: “Ukraine has spent several months fortifying Kharkiv, but storming the city is not how Russia intends to fight,” Jack Watling of the UK’s Royal United Services Institute wrote in a new analysis published Tuesday. “The Russian target this summer is the Ukrainian army, and against this target it has started to compound its advantages,” he said. 

Watling’s read: “Having stretched the Ukrainians out, the contours of the Russian summer offensive are easy to discern,” he writes. “First, there will be the push against Kharkiv. Ukraine must commit troops to defend its second largest city… Second, Russia will apply pressure on the other end of the line, initially threatening to reverse Ukraine’s gains from its 2023 offensive, and secondly putting at risk the city of Zaporizhzhia. Ukraine should be able to blunt this attack, but this will require the commitment of reserve units.”

Russia’s objective in Donetsk is “to cut Ukrainian supply lines connecting Kostiantynivka and Kramatorsk,” Watling continues. This is because “The Russians hope that once Ukraine loses these roads that give the [Ukrainian military] localised interior lines, they will be able to push north and south, stranding Ukrainian artillery on one axis or the other.”

A majority of Russia’s efforts now might be largely psychological: “Russia’s aim is not to achieve a grand breakthrough, but rather to convince Ukraine that it can keep up an inexorable advance, kilometre by kilometre, along the front,” says Watling. Read the rest, here.

Coverage continues below...

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Lauren Williams. 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 1988, and after nearly a decade of a costly invasion, the Soviets began withdrawing their 115,000-strong occupation force from Afghanistan. 

Ahead of his two-day trip to China, Putin says he likes Xi Jinping’s 12-point plan to end Russia’s Ukraine invasion, according to an interview published Wednesday by China's Xinhua news agency. “We are positive in our assessment of China's approach to solving the Ukrainian crisis,” the autocratic Putin is quoted as saying. Beijing “truly” understands the Ukraine invasion’s “root causes and its global geopolitical meaning,” said the man who often compares himself to Peter the Great. 

Rewind: Beijing released its Ukraine framework last February with little fanfare from Russia—and even less from Ukraine since it did not call for Russia ceding any invaded territory back to Ukraine. The White House, meanwhile, criticized the plan as China attempting to position itself as a peacemaker while also supporting Russia’s “false narrative” of extremists and “Nazis” in charge of Kyiv. Reuters has a bit more. 

One perspective from Berlin: “Russia is now locking itself into vassalage to China,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, speaking to the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday. “China is not only the more powerful partner, but also the one that has many more options than Russia and the war has exacerbated that,” he added. 

Meanwhile back stateside, Ukrainian government officials want the White House to lift restrictions on how it uses U.S.-provided weapons, Defense One’s Patrick Tucker reported Tuesday evening. Oleksandra Ustinova, a Ukrainian member of parliament, told reporters Tuesday that Russia’s new strategy of wiping out cities versus trying to occupy them necessitates a new approach. 

“They destroy everything,” Ustinova said of Russia’s use of FAB-1500 glide bombs that weigh more than a ton and can be deployed from aircraft 60 kilometers away. Meanwhile, Ukraine is struggling to intercept missiles. Continue reading, here

Related reading: 

The U.S. Army wants to add first-person and tethered drones to future kits for soldiers as soon as next year. The service is “aggressively” looking to add first-person drones for infantry platoons and tethered ones for armored units, Lt. Col. Michael Brabner, the Army’s lead for small-drone requirements in the Army’s Maneuver Capabilities Development and Integration Directorate, told Defense One’s Sam Skove. “It's going to be a multi-tool in terms of lethality at that small tactical squad or platoon level,” he said. 

Lawmakers want to slash the Pentagon’s F-35 purchase by 10 aircraft, according to a draft version of the bill released by the House Armed Services Committee. The move would allow for better testing to fix ongoing issues with the fighter jet, such as with its radar by using digital twins, a new flight  testbed plus a software integration lab. The proposal would also bar the Pentagon from buying 10 more planes until congressional defense committees endorse changes to acquisition, research, and production issues. Defense One’s Audrey Decker has more here.

India just inked a deal with Iran to build a port in Chabahar despite U.S. warnings of “potential risks.” ​​India’s Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar told reporters the deal was “actually for everyone's benefit” and that “people should take a narrow view of it,” the BBC reported. Jaishankar said the Iran deal would improve the port’s operations. The port, which is on Iran’s south-eastern coast, is meant to help transport goods and its build has been slowed by U.S. sanctions on Iran, Reuters reported

China has built the world’s first carrier just for drones—and it’s existed for two years. The carrier, which was designed and launched in secret, has a smaller form than a traditional aircraft carrier, Naval News reported. The carrier “doesn’t appear to be space for a typical aircraft hangar” which would mean a limited capacity for aircraft. But it does have a flight deck, which indicates intention to have aircraft land and take off, according to the report. 

Additional reading:Chinese ambassador summoned by UK Foreign Office after three face spying charges,” the BBC reported Tuesday.

Today on Capitol Hill, some of the Pentagon’s top acquisition programs are under the microscope in a hearing before Senate appropriators that began at 10 a.m. ET. Programs will likely include U.S. munitions production, shipyards and shipbuilding programs, F-35 assembly and sales, the Air Force’s Sentinel weapon system (formerly known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent), and more. Chief weapons buyer Bill LaPlante is present for that one, along with Andrew Hunter of the Air Force, the Army’s Doug Bush, and the Navy’s Nickolas Guertin. Video here

At the same time, former Navy admirals and Defense Department civilians are testifying before Senate budgeters about the national security costs of climate change. 

That lineup includes retired Vice Adm. Dennis McGinn, who had previously served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Energy, Installations, and Environment; retired former Navy Oceanographer Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet; and Director of the Center for Climate and Security Erin Sikorsky, who has over a decade of experience in the U.S. intelligence community. Details and livestream, here

And the Army’s Doug Bush returns in the afternoon for a different hearing about Army modernization efforts before a Senate Armed Services subcommittee. Army Futures Command’s Gen. James Rainey and Deputy Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Karl Gingrich is also expected to testify. That’s slated for 4 p.m. ET. Details here

Got time for a national security-related top 10 list? Virginia-based tech consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton just published a compilation of what it says are the “Top 10 Emerging Technologies” for the Pentagon and U.S. national security in the months and years to come. 

The list emphasizes “dual-use technologies” to encourage “a more strategic approach to successfully harness emerging technology to meet the missions of today and tomorrow,” said Senior Vice President Brian MacCarthy. 


  • AI accelerator chips;
  • Multimodal AI (that is, programs or systems combining different kinds of data—like text, imagery, audio, and video);
  • Generative AI software;
  • Post-quantum cryptography;
  • High-density energy storage (better, more efficient batteries, e.g.);
  • Alternative Positions, Navigation, and Timing (alternatives to GPS);
  • Space domain awareness technology; 
  • Autonomous swarms;
  • Non-kinetic counter-drone systems;
  • And hypersonic technology.

Related reading: Senate Group Recommends Spending Billions on AI,” the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday; read more from the lawmakers themselves, here; or you can find the working group’s “AI roadmap” (PDF) here

And lastly: Recently-departed Republican Rep. Mike Gallagher has joined a Microsoft venture capital firm that’s teamed up with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers in Gallagher’s home state of Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported Monday. The organization is known as TitletownTech, and it initially launched five years ago. 

Gallagher is a Marine veteran who left congress in April after eight years representing Wisconsin’s northeastern 8th district. He most recently served as chairman of the House Select Committee on Strategic Competition between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party. Back in February, he told the Journal Sentinel his next job would “be an extension of that mission” as committee chairman.