Today’s D Brief: Ukraine war’s grim anniversary; Russia’s next move; Tallying Red Sea attacks; NATO’s next chief; And a bit more.

by Braxton Taylor

Saturday is the two-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which is believed to be Moscow’s most bloody conflict since the Second World War. “Two years later, we see even more vividly what we’ve known since day one: Putin miscalculated badly,” said President Joe Biden in a statement Friday. 

“Ten years ago, Putin occupied Crimea, and created puppet regimes in Ukraine’s Luhansk and Donetsk regions,” Biden said. “Two years ago, he tried to wipe Ukraine off the map. If Putin does not pay the price for his death and destruction, he will keep going. And the costs to the United States—along with our NATO Allies and partners in Europe and around the world—will rise.”

“The scale of Putin’s blunder is especially stark today,” said Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin in his own statement Friday, “The Kremlin’s forces failed to win the Battle of Kyiv, failed to topple Ukraine’s democratically elected government, and failed to crush the will of the Ukrainian people,” Austin said. 

But with an ammunition shortage, Ukraine’s outlook for 2024 is especially grim, according to most experts and observers. That outlook isn’t expected to change unless more U.S. military aid is approved by House Republicans, as Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, said Thursday in a call with reporters following his recent trip to the Munich Security Conference last weekend. 

“The Biden administration has run the well dry” in terms of helping Ukraine with more weapons, and not doing any more for Kyiv will virtually guarantee Ukraine loses, Murphy said Thursday. And most European officials in Munich knew this quite well, as Andrew DiSiderio of Punchbowl News reported last Friday from Germany. 

“Ukraine needs more supplies from the United States to hold the line against Russia’s relentless attacks, which are enabled by arms and ammunition from Iran and North Korea,” Biden said in his statement. “That’s why the House of Representatives must pass the bipartisan national security supplemental bill, before it’s too late,” he pleaded. 

“History is watching,” the president said. “Now is the time to prove that the United States stands up for freedom and bows down to no one,” he added. 

SecDef Austin: “Today’s grim milestone should spur us all to decide what kind of future we want for our children and grandchildren: an open, secure, and prosperous world of rules and rights, or the violent and lawless world of aggression and chaos that Putin seeks. We support Ukraine’s fight for freedom, both because it is the right thing to do and because doing so is central to America’s continued security,” he said.  

Additional reading: 

Welcome to this Friday 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 2008 and for the first time in the aircraft’s history, a B-2 Spirit stealth bomber crashed shortly after takeoff in Guam due to a weather-induced sensor malfunction. Fortunately, the two pilots ejected and survived the crash, which ruined the nearly $2 billion aircraft.

Who will be NATO’s next leader? For several months, insiders have seen outgoing Dutch Prime Minister as the likely frontrunner, which is expected to open in October when Jens Stoltenberg is slated to step down after 10 years on the job. Rutte has already won the support of Britain, France, Germany, and President Joe Biden in the U.S., Reuters reported this week. But on Thursday, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis tossed his name in the running, according to Bloomberg.

Rutte made headlines this past weekend in Germany when he encouraged Europeans to “stop moaning and whining and nagging” about the possibility of the U.S. re-electing Donald Trump in November. But some see Rutte’s management of Dutch finances in a time of austerity as a potential weakness since the Netherlands has not yet reached the alliance’s defense spending goal laid out 10 years ago after Russia’s initial invasion of eastern Ukraine, according to Politico.  

By the way: Stoltenberg’s decade-long tenure is the second-longest in the alliance’s history, behind the 13-year run of Joseph Luns, beginning in the 1970s. 

Sidenote about Stoltenberg: He was targeted in a 2011 car bomb attack by Norwegian right-wing terrorist Anders Breivik. Stoltenberg was unharmed, but eight others were killed and more than 200 injured before Breivik turned his sights on a youth camp two hours later, where he killed 69 people on the island of Utøya. (We were recently reminded of this grim episode while reading the first few chapters of, “God, Guns, and Sedition: Far-Right Terrorism in America,” which was published last month.) 

In some welcome news for the NATO alliance, top officials from Hungary and Sweden just agreed to a new defense pact ahead of Hungary’s promised vote on Sweden’s bid to join the alliance. Perhaps most notably, the deal will “expand Budapest’s fleet of Swedish-built [JAS 39 Gripen] fighter jets,” the Associated Press reported Friday from the Hungarian capital. The new deal will add four of those jets to Hungary’s fleet of 14. 

Hungary is the last NATO member to approve Sweden’s accession to the alliance. Lawmakers there have waited more than 18 months to schedule a vote, which has further isolated Budapest’s right-wing leader, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, in the eyes of many NATO members in Europe. But after the recent deal with Stockholm, Orbán said he now expects his fellow parliamentarians to take up a vote on Sweden’s bid as soon as Monday. 

CODEL’s cold reception in Budapest: “No one from the government would meet with us while we were in Hungary,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., after returning from a recent trip to Europe last week. “None of us had ever been to a country that is an ally where the leadership in that country refused to meet with representatives from the United States congress,” Shaheen added. So they decided to meet with “members of the opposition parties” instead, said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., who joined Shaheen on that congressional delegation. 

On the other hand: “For the first time in a number of years,” Turkish President Recep Erdogan agreed to meet with the U.S. lawmakers, which Shaheen and Murphy interpreted as a positive sign in U.S.-Turkey relations, which has been lagging over the past couple of years following Erdogan’s 2019 acquisition of a Russian-made S-400 air defense system as well as gradual democratic backsliding. 

Is Russia planning to escalate its involvement in Moldova? Analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War aren’t ruling that out after news this week from Moldova’s pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria. Officials there say they “may call for or organize a referendum on Transnistria’s annexation to Russia” as early as next Wednesday, ISW warned in an alert Thursday. 

Why now? It’s unclear precisely. However, European Union leaders agreed to launch membership talks with Moldova in December. And Ukraine’s warming to the EU 10 years ago helped convince Vladimir Putin to begin his initial invasion of eastern Ukraine, which grew to a full-scale invasion exactly two years ago. 

“The Kremlin has geopolitical ambitions to control all post-Soviet states, including Moldova, and considers Moldova to be a part of Russia’s rightful historical territory,” ISW wrote in its Thursday report. And relatedly, “Russian state media intensified efforts to set information conditions aimed at destabilizing Moldova by framing Russia as a protector of allegedly threatened Russian-language speakers in Moldova in December 2023.” 

In the days ahead, “The Kremlin will likely intensify information operations accusing the West of waging an anti-Russian hybrid war against Moldova and / or accuse Moldova of preparing to attack civilians in Transnistria,” ISW warned. That approach is “very similar to those that the Kremlin used before its invasions of Ukraine in 2014 and 2022,” said ISW. Defense One’s Patrick Tucker has more, here. 

U.S. forces in the Middle East destroyed more drones and missiles before launch from Yemen on Thursday and Friday. That includes “four Iranian-backed Houthi unmanned aerial vehicles and two mobile anti-ship cruise missiles” potentially targeting ships in the Red Sea, officials at Central Command announced Friday. And early Friday, “CENTCOM forces shot down three Houthi one-way attack UAVs near several commercial ships operating in the Red Sea,” officials said. “There was no damage to any ships,” they added. 

You may wonder: How many ships have been hit by likely Houthi missiles and drones in the Red Sea? According to data from CENTCOM and Ambrey Analytics, at least 44 ships have been targeted and 25 have been hit. (That number of targeted ships is possibly a bit larger since on Friday, CENTCOM said “several commercial ships” were targeted in that morning attack, though none were hit.) 

FWIW: The leader of the Houthis on Thursday claimed to have attacked 48 ships.  

At least nine U.S. ships have been targeted since Houthi attacks in the Red Sea began in mid-November. As far as we know, none have been hit or damaged. 

Point of clarification: We noted in Thursday’s newsletter Mississippi is home to Ingalls Shipbuilding; but we incorrectly added that submarines are at least partly built at the facilities in Pascagoula. However, it is the Navy’s guided-missile destroyers and amphibious warships that are assembled there. U.S. submarines are assembled elsewhere and more generally along the east coast, including at Virginia’s Newport News. 

And lastly: Another U.S. sailor has been charged with spying, Task and Purpose reported Thursday. The service member was working at Yokosuka, Japan, when at least some of the activity—involving “photographs including images of a SIPR [Secret Internet Protocol Router Network] computer screen”—is alleged to have occurred. 

If this sounds familiar, “Two sailors were arrested in 2023 for allegedly sending pictures, videos, and technical manuals to China’s intelligence agency,” Jeff Shogol writes. “One of the sailors, Navy Petty Officer Wenheng Zhao, aka Thomas Zhao, was sentenced in January to just over 2 years in prison.” Read more, here. 

Have a safe weekend, everyone. And you can catch us again on Monday.

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