Today's D Brief: Russia's Ukraine buildup continues, NATO says; Wal-Mart and a bitcoin heist; Munich conference preview; And a bit more. - Defense One

NATO says Russia’s buildup around Ukraine is still growing. Alliance defense ministers are meeting in Brussels today and Thursday. And Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg set the tone early with his opening remarks, telling reporters, “So far, we have not seen any de-escalation on the ground,” referring to alleged Russian military movement after portions of its exercises with Belarus have concluded. 

“On the contrary, it appears that Russia continues the military build-up,” Stoltenberg said Wednesday. “We will continue to convey a very clear message to Russia that we are ready to sit down and discuss with them. But at the same time, we are prepared for the worst.”

When asked to elaborate, he repeated, “We have not seen any withdrawal of Russian forces.” And “That contradicts the message of real diplomatic efforts,” he told reporters at NATO headquarters. “It remains to be seen whether there is a Russian withdrawal. We are monitoring very closely what Russia does in and around Ukraine. They have increased the number of troops and more troops are on their way. So far, there is no de-escalation.”

Related reading: “Satellite Images and Experts Challenge Russian Withdrawal Claims,” via Defense One’s Patrick Tucker, reporting Tuesday. 

Stoltenberg also “welcome[d] the increased readiness of 8,500 U.S. troops ready to support the NATO Response Force,” he said while standing beside United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. “Your commitment [is] not only words but deeds; our alliance is of great importance and [the U.S. military’s role is] very much welcomed.” Check in on Brussels via the livestream and agenda over at NATO’s website, here.

Reminder: This is the day that U.S. officials last week predicted Russia would re-invade Ukraine. 

A window into President Biden’s thinking: If Russia does move forward with an attack, the U.S. will arm and assist Ukrainian forces, rally allies to condemn Moscow’s actions, and defend NATO members. But he won’t send American troops to Ukraine, Defense One’s Jacqueline Feldscher reported after Biden spoke Tuesday at the White House. 

“The United States is prepared no matter what happens,” Biden said Tuesday from the East Room. “Let there be no doubt: if Russia commits this breach by invading Ukraine, responsible nations around the world will not hesitate to respond.” 

And “If Russia targets Americans in Ukraine, we will respond forcefully,” Biden said. “If Russia attacks the United States or allies through asymmetric means, like disruptive cyber attacks against our companies or critical infrastructure, we are prepared to respond.” 

America’s top diplomat says there’s been “no meaningful pullback” of Russian troops from Ukraine’s borders, and that the threat of invasion remains very “real,” State Secretary Antony Blinken said Wednesday on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” 

One wonk cautions: “Stalin didn’t believe Hitler would invade. Saddam didn’t believe Bush would invade,” Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies tweeted Tuesday. “It’s genuinely difficult, sometimes, for people to see in real time what is obvious in retrospect.”

Sanctions check: White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan rang a key European Council official Tuesday. In that call, Sullivan and Frédéric Bernard reviewed “ongoing preparations by the U.S. and EU to impose severe economic consequences if Russia chooses further military escalation, and efforts to provide continued support to Ukraine, including through economic assistance,” according to the White House’s readout. 

Sullivan also thanked Poland for hosting more U.S. troops in a separate call Tuesday with Polish foreign affairs advisor Jakub Kumoch. 

From Defense One

 // Patrick Tucker: Photos show attack helicopters, jets, troops moving toward forward positions near Ukraine in the midst of aggressive legislative actions in the Russian assembly.

// Caitlin M. Kenney: Defense firm consolidations have killed competition for government contracts, a White House-ordered study finds. The industrial base must expand, says Hicks.

// Jacqueline Feldscher: President says invasion is still possible, warns Moscow ‘we are prepared to respond’ to cyber attacks on Americans or allies.

// Defense One Staff : The naval-themed conference is back in San Diego after a pandemic gap year.

// Jeff M. Smith: And it needs to talk more directly about China.

// Chris Riotta: Federal agencies tasked with critical infrastructure risk management aren’t measuring improvements made by the adoption of new guidelines, according to a watchdog report.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson, with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. On this day in 1804, the youngest American naval officer to make the rank of captain, Stephen Decatur, pulled into the Ottoman harbor at Tripoli, where the 36-gun frigate, the USS Philadelphia, sat captured after it ran aground four and a half months earlier during the First Barbary War. Decatur and 60 of his men hid below decks as their merchant ship approached with British colors and an Arabic-speaking pilot from Sicily to obscure their intent. After pulling beside the Philadelphia at nightfall, Decatur’s crew of U.S. Marines quickly boarded the gunboat and determined it couldn’t be towed; so they set it ablaze (igniting munitions onboard in the process) and eventually managed to escape back to Italy without losing a single crewmember. Almost overnight, Decatur was celebrated as a hero back in the states, and British Admiral Horatio Nelson called his Tripoli mission “the most bold and daring act of the age.”

This weekend: VPOTUS Kamala Harris is dropping by Germany for the annual Munich Security Conference, which began in 1963 and this year spans three days, starting Friday. Thirty-five heads of state are expected in Munich this weekend, but there will be no top officials from China or Russia. Beijing’s foreign ministry, however, is reportedly sending a pre-recorded video message.
One message we can expect out of Munich: “overlapping crises” and calls for resilience. According to former German Ambassador to the U.S., and current MSC Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, “I cannot recall a time when there were so many overlapping crises,” he told German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle on Monday.
Each conference comes with an annual report, and this year’s theme is “Turning the Tide—Unlearning Helplessness.” The title is from a psychology term “describing the feeling that nothing one does can effect positive change,” the authors warn. “Societies, too, may come to believe that they are unable to get a grip on the challenges they are facing.” (Last year’s theme was “Beyond Westlessness,” which referred to “the sense that the world, but also the West itself, was getting less Western, less rule-based, less value-oriented.”)
“2021 could not in any way be characterized as a year of geopolitical optimism,” this year’s 180-plus page report declares in its opening sentence. “New crises hit the headlines on a more-or-less monthly basis, contributing to the sensation that a growing wave of crises was threatening to overwhelm us.”
The big question that now looms over our collective future, the authors write, would seem to be this: “Will our stressed and overburdened societies end up accepting what they see as their fate, although they have the tools and resources to change it?” 
Their big-picture advice: “Transatlantic leaders need to revive the optimism and momentum palpable in the early days of the Biden administration and demonstrate that both democracy as a system and alliances based on liberal values can deliver for their states’ citizens and the world at large. Collectively, they have the chance to turn the tide. Individually they risk being swept away.”
Other chapters include: 

Read over the report in full (PDF), here.

Back in the states: For the first time, a gun-maker was held liable for a U.S. mass shooting when officials at Remington agreed on Tuesday to settle with family members of the Sandy Hook shooting for $73 million. “The settlement comes over seven years after the families sued the maker of the Bushmaster XM15-E2S semiautomatic rifle that was used in the 2012 mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut,” ABC News reported.
“Every day is a realization that he should be there, and he is not,” two parents of victim Noah Posner said in a statement Tuesday. “What is lost remains lost. However, the resolution does provide a measure of accountability in an industry that has thus far operated with impunity. For this, we are grateful.”
Related reading: “Remington’s Sandy Hook Settlement Is a Blueprint for More Lawsuits,” the New York Times reports this morning in their “Dealbook” newsletter.

And lastly: A Wal-Mart gift card played an unsuspecting role in the recent arrest of cybercriminals who stole a record $4.5 billion in a bitcoin heist back in 2016. Believe it or not, “Despite its reputation as hard to trace, analysts say [bitcoin] is sometimes easier to track than hard currencies,” the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. “Every transaction is public, leaving a permanent trail. The trick is tying that money to real people.”
But what hurt the pair of criminals perhaps most seems to have been the changing nature of the bitcoin industry itself—closing avenues initially left open to launder money when the heist took place and few knew what blockchain and bitcoin really was. That’s no longer the case, and the pair were forced to use gift cards and registered accounts to eventually access some of their illicit funds.
Then in May 2020, “Three purchases were conducted online using Ms. Morgan’s name, using one of her emails, and the couple’s apartment address was provided for delivery,” the Journal reports. Read the rest, here.

This content was originally published here.

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