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What We’re Watching: Putin in Mariupol, Xi in Moscow, Israeli-Palestinian talks, Trump fearing arrest, Kosovo-Serbia agreement

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with local officials in Sevastopol, Crimea March 18, 2023.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with local officials in Sevastopol, Crimea March 18, 2023.

Sputnik/Russian Presidential Press Office/Kremlin via REUTERS

A defiant Putin heads to Mariupol

Vladimir Putin visited the port city of Mariupol in eastern Ukraine on Sunday, two days after the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for both him and Russia’s children’s commissioner for the mass abduction of at least 1,400 Ukrainian children. The court claims that some Ukrainian orphans have been forcibly resettled with Russian families, while others were sent to “re-education camps” in Russia with their parents' consent but have not been returned.

This is the closest Putin has gotten to the front lines since the war began in Feb. 2022. The strategic city of Mariupol, which became a symbol of Ukraine’s protracted struggle after Russian forces started pounding the city at the start of the war, was taken last May in a brutal offensive that killed at least 20,000 people.

Putin’s Mariupol visit came a day after his stop in Crimea, where he marked the ninth anniversary of Russia's annexation of the territory — and both publicized visits likely served as symbolic shows of defiance against both the ICC and the West.

While Putin is unlikely to be in the dock anytime soon, the ICC warrant is a major geopolitical blow for the Kremlin. It increases Putin's physical isolation – Germany, for example, has already said he’ll be arrested if he visits -- and it's less than ideal for him to be labeled a war criminal as he tries to keep nonaligned countries onside.

Xi's choice

China’s Xi Jinping on Monday touched down in Moscow for his first trip since Russia invaded Ukraine. The stakes, to put it mildly, are pretty high.

As the US continues to fret that China might abandon its so-called "pro-Russia neutrality” in the conflict to arm the Russians, Xi says he only wants peace. Likely emboldened by the success of China's role in mediating a recent détente between longtime foes Iran and Saudi Arabia, Beijing sees an opening to cast itself as a global peacemaker in Ukraine. But Xi's 12-point peace plan was rejected outright by NATO, while Ukraine says it is open to Chinese mediation but will not compromise with Russia on its territorial integrity. (This week, China's leader also intends to speak with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky for the first time since the war started.)

And what about Vladimir Putin? Before Xi's arrival, the Russian president put on a show of affection for his "good old friend." After all, Xi has met Putin more times than any other world leader since he came to power in 2013. But as the war drags on with no end in sight, Putin knows that Xi must now decide whether to risk a full-blown proxy conflict with the US to help Russia win at all costs ... or rather give Putin an off-ramp to end the war the Ukrainians will accept.

Israeli-Palestinian de-escalation talks

With Ramadan starting later this week, Palestinian and Israeli mediators met on Sunday in the Egyptian town of Sharm el-Sheikh – along with Jordanian, Egyptian, and US representatives – to try and de-escalate tensions in Israel and the West Bank.

After talks in Jordan last month failed to make progress, this weekend's summit aimed to halt the cyclical flare-ups at flashpoint sites that Jerusalem has seen during Ramadan and Passover in recent years.

Both sides agreed on Sunday to set up a mechanism to thwart violence. But reports of a shooting near the town of Huwara in the northern West Bank, which gravely injured one Israeli, cast doubt on the success of the talks. Indeed, it’s the same town where two Jews were killed in a Palestinian terror attack several weeks ago, prompting Jewish settlers to pillage the village and burn scores of Palestinian homes in retaliation.

Crucially, the most recent shooting came after reports that a senior member of Palestinian Islamic Jihad was assassinated in Syria. Still, Israel committed “to stop discussion of any new settlement units for four months.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean much: The same sentiment appeared in a communique after last month’s meeting, but PM Benjamine Netanyahu then came out and said that his right-wing government was not committed to a settlement freeze.

Meanwhile, inside Israel, nationwide protests against the government’s proposed judicial reforms, now in their eleventh week, show no signs of abating. In a phone call with his Israeli counterpart on Sunday, President Biden too expressed deep concern over the judicial overhaul.

Will Trump be arrested?

ALL CAPS are back! Taking to social media on Saturday, former President Donald Trump called on his supporters to take to the streets, claiming that he would be indicted by a grand jury in New York, and arrested, in the coming days.

Writing on Truth Social – his own social media platform – Trump said that he’ll likely be detained on Tuesday on charges linked to a 2016 payment to an adult film star in violation of campaign finance rules.

Though it’s widely assumed that an indictment against Trump, who recently turned down an opportunity to testify before a grand jury, could be imminent, the Manhattan district attorney’s office has remained mum on details.

Still, the DA is clearly worried about the fallout and has urged staff not to be intimidated by the former president’s social media shtick. New York City police are also on high alert to ensure the DA's office is protected.

We’re watching to see how other Republican presidential candidates react to the developments. While Trump’s legal woes could help his opponents, dissing the former president might not land well with much of the GOP base.

Kosovo and Serbia take the next step

Serbia and Kosovo reached a tentative agreement on Saturday to implement an EU-backed deal to normalize relations after years of tensions threatened to reignite war. Sound convoluted? Well, it is.

The two sides began negotiating with the EU shortly after Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008. (For background on the conflict and where things currently stand, see our explainer here.)

While EU foreign policy chief Joseph Borrell said a deal had been reached, both sides said big disagreements remain. Essentially, the two sides agreed they would maintain “good neighborly relations” and recognize the other’s state symbols – including license plates! Crucially, it would prevent Serbia from blocking Kosovo's membership in the UN and other international organizations.

Why now? Both countries are vying to join the European Union, and the bloc has made it clear that cannot happen without the normalization of ties. What’s more, maintaining stability in the Balkans has renewed importance since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While this is a big step, critics say that without full mutual recognition, implementation – and adherence – of this EU-backed deal could be a long shot.


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