The D Brief: Putin sacks defense chief; Israel expands Gaza fight; Ukraine’s ‘withering’ air defenses; Damaged B-2 won’t be fixed; And a bit more.

The D Brief: Putin sacks defense chief; Israel expands Gaza fight; Ukraine’s ‘withering’ air defenses; Damaged B-2 won’t be fixed; And a bit more.

Russia’s autocratic leader Vladimir Putin has sacked his defense minister, replacing the nearly lifelong bureaucrat Sergie Shoigu with the much lower-profile economist Andrei Belousov, the Kremlin announced in what Reuters referred to as a “surprise” move this weekend. 

What this suggests: Putin’s digging in for a long war. Indeed, putting “Belousov in a ministry with a budget of 7% of GDP hints at the Kremlin’s focus on the war and military-industrial complex as growth drivers,” Alexandra Prokopenko, former advisor at the Bank of Russia, wrote on social media. The last time Russia’s defense budget was that high was in the mid-1980s, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters. 

Context: “Military spending, which has surged to over 6% of gross domestic product this year, up from 2.6% before the war, has fueled much of the country’s economic growth, helping it weather the impact of Western sanctions,” the Wall Street Journal reports. Relatedly, “Factories producing shells and tanks have been working in multiple shifts to cope, boosting employment and wages.”

“Putin’s priority is war,” and a “war of attrition is won by economics,” Prokopenko said. Toward that end, “Belousov is in favor of stimulating demand from the budget, which means that military spending will at least not decrease but rather increase,” she explained. 

However, said the former Moscow finance advisor, when one considers the difficulty of sustaining an economy built so heavily on its military, these new personnel changes could “increase structural problems in the [Russian] economy.”  

A second (and concurring) opinion: “Putin’s goal is to enhance arms production effectiveness and optimally meet military needs,” said Tatiana Stanovaya of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Despite the surprising nature of these reshuffles (and it’s not the end), the overall policy and decision-making mechanisms will remain unchanged,” she added. 

Battlefield latest: Russia’s invasion troops are advancing toward the northern city of Kharkiv, the New York Times reported Sunday from the region. 

According to the BBC, “The Russians just walked in. They just walked in, without any mined fields” toward Kharkiv, one Ukrainian soldier said. One Ukrainian city nearby had a prewar population of 17,000 people. Today, less than 3,000 remain, the Associated Press reports. 

Expert reax: The current “Russian force is of insufficient size to seize a city the size of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city,” said former Australian general Mick Ryan. “It could however hold it at risk with increased artillery strikes,” he wrote this weekend on Substack. “This would seek to achieve one of Russia’s key aims, which is causing panic among civilians and depopulating eastern Ukraine…We will need to watch the degree to which Russia commits other ground and air forces here, compared to other axes of advance, before we have a better sense of just how perilous the Ukrainian position is in Kharkiv.” Read more, here. 

Coverage continues below…

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 1989, protesting Chinese students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, demanding greater freedoms across society, began a hunger strike and just two days before Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev would visit Chinese leaders in Beijing.

The U.S. is sending Ukraine’s military more Patriot and NASAMS air defense missiles, the Pentagon announced Friday. More High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems rounds are inbound as well. 

Also included: Boats, MRAPs, Bradley Fighting Vehicles, 155mm and 105mm artillery rounds, anti-radar missiles, unspecified precision-guided munitions, and more. 

Ukraine is also on the verge of purchasing three HIMARS launchers for about $30 million. The Pentagon’s arms export agency announced the pending sale Friday. Details here.

How battered are Ukraine’s air defenses? Check out this New York Times interactive. 

Developing: 11 House Republicans want the Pentagon to send U.S.-made drones to Ukraine, according to a letter submitted to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday. Ten members of the House Armed Services Committee were joined by Iowa Rep. Ashley Hinson in pressuring the Pentagon to use a portion of the nearly $14 billion recently allocated for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative to deliver unspecified “small, American-made drones in the next package of assistance” to Kyiv. 

“Without these drones, Ukrainian forces cannot conduct effective battlefield operations and must rely on insecure drones from China that are increasingly difficult to procure,” the conservative lawmakers said. Read their message in full, here. 

Related reading: 

Canadian Defense Minister Bill Blair is dropping by the Pentagon at 11 a.m. ET for talks with SecDef Austin. Blair will also be visiting the NATO-focused Atlantic Council think tank in Washington in the afternoon Monday. That one’s slated for 2 p.m. ET. Details and livestream link, here. 

ICYMI: Two leading Canadian defense experts recently published a “Strategic Outlook” for Ottawa. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza dominated considerations for the year ahead, followed by climate change and cumulative challenges to multilateralism. 

Notable: Like the U.S., Canada is also suffering from falling military recruiting and rising attrition. And those dynamics are affecting how planners schedule unit rotations and annual readiness training. Making matters more complicated, Canada’s fighter jet fleet is viewed as “not credible in a NATO context,” due partly to aging airframes and dwindling personnel, as one British study pointed out. 

What to do from here? Read through 26 total recommendations for Ottawa via that April report (PDF), here.

Additional reading: 

Israel pushes deeper into Rafah—and also resumes fighting in northern Gaza. Reuters: “Israeli forces pushed deep into the ruins of Gaza’s northern edge on Monday to recapture an area where they claimed to have dismantled Hamas months ago, while in the south tanks and troops pushed across a highway into Rafah.” Get the latest from AP, CNN, New York Times.

Top U.S. officials call Israeli counterparts. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “reaffirmed the U.S. opposition to a major military ground operation in Rafah” in a call with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant one day after criticizing the move in televised interviews. In the interviews, Blinken said the United States has worked with Arab countries and others for weeks on developing “credible plans for security, for governance, for rebuilding’’ in Gaza, but ”we haven’t seen that come from Israel….We need to see that, too.” AP has more, here.

And national security adviser Jake Sullivan “reiterated President Biden’s longstanding concerns over the potential for a major military ground operation into Rafah,” in a call with his Israeli counterpart. The White House said Sullivan pressed Tzachi Hanegbi to consider alternatives to an invasion of the city “to ensure the defeat of Hamas everywhere in Gaza.”

Iran is trying to use the Gaza war to win power in eastern Syria, writes Nanar Hawach of The International Crisis Group. “Armed groups aligned with Iran have stepped up a campaign aimed at pushing the U.S. to end its military deployments in Iraq and Syria. After mounting a series of direct attacks on U.S. bases in south-eastern Syria, which prompted a wave of retaliatory strikes, Iran shifted its focus to loosening the already shaky hold of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are allied with Washington, on lands east of the Euphrates River.” Read on, here.

Sudan’s descent into chaos sets stage for al-Qaida to return to an earlier stronghold. A year of brutal civil war has now plunged Sudan into the kind of chaos in which terrorist groups thrive,” writes Sara Harmouch, a Lebanese national and doctoral candidate at American University’s School of Public Affairs. “The risk of al-Qaida gaining ground in Sudan is now very real and imperils, I believe, not only the country itself but also regional – and potentially global – security.” Read her argument here.

Tuesday @ CSIS: “Operations in the Red Sea: Lessons for Surface Warfare,” a conversation with Rear Adm. Fred Pyle, the Navy’s director of surface warfare in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations. Registration is free.

B-2 fleet to shrink to 19 as Air Force decides not to repair damaged jet.  The Pentagon’s 2025 force structure change report says the jet will be retired “due to a ground accident/damage presumed to be uneconomical to repair.” Aviation Week seems to have spotted it first (paywall); The War Zone has more context, including a guess that the B-2 in question is the one that landed hard in 2022, blocked the runway at Whiteman AFB in Missouri for weeks, and grounded the entire fleet for five months.

ICYMI: this April photo of 12 B-2s getting underway is really something.

Spy agencies must protect consumers’ sensitive data, ODNI says. Not all their data, mind you; the U.S. remains far behind the EU in establishing data-privacy rights. Instead, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence is talking about the data that spies buy from brokers as part of their job. It’s part of the ODNI works on a set of guidelines for the ethical use of data. Read on at D1, here.

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