Today’s D Brief: Russia’s two-year war on Ukraine; Airman self-immolates; China & Starlink; Sub waits 7 years for repair; And a bit more.

by Braxton Taylor

Airman dies after self-immolation protesting Israel’s Gaza war: An active-duty airman set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., on Sunday after setting a phone to livestream his final words, which included a declaration that he would “no longer be complicit in genocide” and a shouted “Free Palestine!” In the video, he identified himself as an active-duty airman named Aaron Bushnell. A LinkedIn profile for the same name indicates that he had served for just over three years and was a DevOps Engineer.

The man died of his burns at a local hospital. Air Force officials confirmed the death of an airmen but have not confirmed his identity, pending notification of next of kin. Read more at Task and Purpose or the New York Times.

Welcome to this Monday 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 1935, Scottish physicist Robert Watson-Watt carried out a secretive demonstration in the UK proving for the first time that radar technology was indeed possible.

Putin’s Ukraine invasion, two years on: At least 31,000 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion two years ago, President Volodymir Zelenskyy said over the weekend in his first official estimate of Ukraine’s troop losses. The number is believed to be a bit higher, however, since soldiers missing in action were not yet included. 

“31,000 Ukrainian military personnel have been killed in this war. Not 300,000, not 150,000—not whatever Putin and his deceitful circle have been lying about,” Zelenskyy said at an event Sunday in Kyiv. “But nevertheless, each of these losses is a great sacrifice for us,” he added. 

Ukrainian deaths in occupied territory would almost certainly raise those numbers substantially, the president admitted. But, Zelenskyy said, “I don’t know how many of them died, how many were killed, how many were murdered, tortured, how many were deported.” 

Second opinion: “US officials in August put the number of Ukrainian soldiers killed at 70,000 and as many as 120,000 injured,” the BBC reports. 

In terms of presumed Russian losses, at least 350,000 Russian troops are believed to have been killed or injured in the fighting so far, according to the British military’s latest public estimates. (BBC journalists have identified more than 45,000 Russians who have died from the invasion to date; however, they add, the total is likely much higher.) Pentagon officials 10 days ago estimated 315,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in Ukraine. Zelenskyy himself said Sunday he believed at least 180,000 Russian soldiers have died fighting in Ukraine since February 2022. 

Scenes from the front: Assess just some of the devastation wrought by more than 730 days of Russia’s military invasion in a new series of satellite imagery photosets published this weekend by Maxar. 

  • Review two dozen before and after images showing the scale of destruction across cities like Bakhmut, Avdiivka, around the Nova Kakhovka Dam, Petrivka, Oleshky, Robotyne, and more here. 
  • There are several images of Russian defensive fortifications in occupied territory, featuring zig-zagging trenches and tank obstacles known as dragon’s teeth. 
  • More than a dozen photos illustrate some of the ways Ukraine has managed to strike Russian positions in occupied lands—including the Black Sea Fleet in Crimea and the Kerch Bridge over the namesake strait—as well as some of the buildings Ukrainian drones have reached inside Russia. 
  • And you can observe the quite obvious expansion of Russian cemeteries near garrisons in occupied Crimea as well as mainland Russia, here. 

Russian officials largely stayed quiet on their invasion’s two-year anniversary, analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War wrote Sunday. Meanwhile, “most Russians are largely apathetic to the war, though most do not support a second wave of mobilization,” which Russia may need to advance further into occupied Ukraine in the months ahead, ISW warns. “Putin may, however, become less concerned about public sentiment after his reelection in March 2024 and determine that Russian force generation requirements outweigh the risks of widespread domestic discontent,” they add. 

A raft of Democratic senators released statements in support of Ukraine on the invasion’s two-year mark. That includes Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Ben Cardin of Maryland, Armed Services Chairman Jack Reed of Rhode Island, New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan (who visited Ukraine last week), Virginia’s Tim Kaine, Richard Blumenthal, and others. Republican senators, however, were much less likely to mention Ukraine in their weekend messaging. Most chose to fixate on abortion and immigration. John Cornyn of Texas was a notable exception. Lindsey Graham came in with a heavily-qualified lukewarm message of support. Florida’s Rick Scott was a less notable exception as his Ukraine remarks were not exactly supportive. 

ICYMI: Ukraine shot down another Russian A-50 long-range radar detection aircraft last week, which is the second such shootdown in just over a month (14 January). Russia uses these planes to act as a sort of quarterback for coordinating airstrikes. 

Read more: 

A cargo ship attacked by Yemen’s Houthi terrorists last week has now left a nearly 20-mile long oil slick in the Red Sea, U.S. defense officials said this weekend, with a supporting satellite image via Planet Labs. 

The ship is the Belize-flagged, British-owned bulk carrier known as the M/V Rubymar. The Iran-backed Houthis attacked it with anti-ship ballistic missiles on Sunday, Feb. 18. One of the missiles missed, but one impacted, which caused the crew to evacuate. 

“The M/V Rubymar was transporting over 41,000 tons of fertilizer when it was attacked,” military officials at the Tampa-based Central Command said Sunday. CNN reported Friday that it’s unclear exactly what substance is causing the apparent oil slick. But in addition to the streak, officials at CENTCOM said they fear that fertilizer will leak soon “and worsen this environmental disaster” in what is typically one of the world’s busiest and most important waterways. 

The ship has taken on water and is partly submerged, but it hasn’t yet sunk. Its operator plans to tow the vessel to a nearby port, but it’s unclear which one, according to the New York Times.  

New: U.S. and British forces carried out more joint airstrikes against 18 different Houthi targets across Yemen on Saturday. “The targets included Houthi underground weapons storage facilities, missile storage facilities, one- way attack unmanned aerial systems, air defense systems, radars, and a helicopter,” CENTCOM said afterward. As with previous joint strikes, Australia, Bahrain, Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, and New Zealand were credited in unspecified supporting roles.  

U.S. forces otherwise continued their whack-a-mole campaign shooting down Houthi drones and missiles this weekend, including two drones and a ballistic missile Saturday, and seven cruise missiles prior to launch on Friday. 

China is building its own Starlink, even as questions surround Musk’s constellation. A look at launch logs and other open-source information reveal China’s plans to loft its own satellite constellation for internet and sensing, write Peter Singer and BlueLabs’ Thomas Corbett and Matt Bruzzese in the latest edition of The China Intelligence. Chinese analysts and industry experts note many obstacles—and yet “the last three decades show that when China decides to catch up in a technology area, it succeeds more often than not,” Read on, here.

U.S. lawmaker slams SpaceX for lack of service around Taiwan. Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., wants Elon Musk to testify about “several” reports that the Pentagon’s contract with SpaceX’s Starshield secure internet service won’t work around the self-governing island. Read, here.

Former Trump-administration officials say their old boss is likely to undermine U.S. intelligence agencies if he regains office. Politico: “Trump, who already tried to revamp intelligence agencies during his first term, is likely to re-up those plans — and push even harder to replace people perceived as hostile to his political agenda with inexperienced loyalists,” write Erin Banco and John Sakellaridis, who “talked to 18 former officials and analysts who worked in the Trump administration, including political appointees from both parties and career intelligence officers, some who still speak to the former president and his aides and had insight into conversations about his potential second term.”

“He wants to weaponize the intelligence community. And the fact is you need to look with a 360-degree perspective. He can’t just cherry-pick what he wants to hear when there are so many U.S. adversaries and countries that don’t wish the U.S. well,” said Fiona Hill, a top Russia adviser on the National Security Council in Trump’s administration who has regularly criticized his policies. “If he guts the intel on one thing, he’ll be partially blinding us.”

Others cited Trump’s handling of classified information. He has been charged with 40 felony counts related to taking and improperly revealing secrets; a trial is set for May.

And lastly: Repairs may soon start on attack submarine, seven years late. The Navy has issued a $1.17 billion contract to HII’s Newport News Shipbuilding for repairs on USS Boise (SSN-764), which returned from its most recent deployment nine years ago. USNI News’ Sam LaGrone has the whys and wherefores.

“This is all on the Navy. This wasn’t something that private industry does,” analyst Bryan Clark told LaGrone. Improved Los Angeles-class submarines “were all coming in for their last major overall. It wasn’t sneaking up on the Navy. They knew it was coming.” Read, here.

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