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What We're Watching: Russia strikes Ukraine amid dueling wartime trips, Boris Johnson’s ‘Partygate’ showdown, Israeli settlements U-turn

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a reception at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 21, 2023.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a reception at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 21, 2023.

Sputnik/Pavel Byrkin/Kremlin via REUTERS

After Xi-Putin summit, Moscow strikes Ukraine

Over the past few days, Vladimir Putin pulled out all the stops to entertain his "good old friend" Xi Jinping in Moscow, during what was perhaps the most geopolitically significant bilateral summit of the year so far.

Seven-course dinner — check. Insanely long red carpet at the Kremlin — check. Putin doing Xi the rare courtesy of showing up on time — check.

But beyond the pomp, ничего особенного (nothing much). The summit ended with a joint press conference featuring boilerplate statements about Sino-Russian cooperation. There was no mention of China potentially supplying arms to Russia, and no call for a ceasefire in Ukraine, although Putin did say that Xi's peace plan could be a first step toward a negotiated settlement “once the West and Kyiv are ready for it."

But then right after Xi's visit on Wednesday, the Kremlin launched fresh drone and missile strikes on Ukrainian cities, killing at least four people in a residential area outside Kyiv.

While President Volodymyr Zelensky has so far tried to remain open to Beijing's intervention, he tweeted that "every time someone tries to hear the word 'peace' in Moscow, another order is given there for such criminal strikes."

Is Putin feeling emboldened? From Putin's perspective, a visit from Xi, who’s been something of a homebody himself since the pandemic, lets Putin show that although the US and its allies have blackballed him, he is still far from isolated globally – and that the Russia-China friendship “without limits” is an axis of power Washington has to reckon with.

We're watching to see how — or if — Beijing responds to the latest onslaught that comes on the heels of Xi's whirlwind diplomacy.

Kishida in Kyiv

All things considered, it’s not surprising that Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida went to Ukraine to visit President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday. Kishida was the only leader of a G7 nation that hadn’t yet made the trip, and Japan is chairing the group’s summit in Hiroshima in May. But it is striking when he chose to visit and where he traveled while there.

Arriving in Kyiv on a day when Chinese President Xi Jinping was visiting Vladimir Putin in Moscow was striking. Kishida also visited a mass grave in the town of Bucha to pay respects to the Ukrainian victims of alleged Russian war crimes, offering a none-too-subtle comment on Putin’s recent indictment by the International Criminal Court.

Japan’s foreign ministry said the trip underscored Kishida’s "absolute rejection of Russia's one-sided change to the status quo by invasion and force.” It also follows last week's dramatic breakthrough in Japan’s relations with South Korea, another move signaling that, while Japan must continue to carefully balance its relations with China, Kishida will be more assertive and outspoken on foreign policy than most of Japan’s recent prime ministers.

Could this be the end for Boris Johnson?

Boris is back … in the news! On Wednesday, the former British PM will appear before the parliamentary Privileges Committee to determine whether he deliberately lied to parliament over the Partygate saga. Recap: That’s when Downing Street hosted a string of parties (including some attended by the PM) while millions of Britons were subject to strict COVID lockdowns.

What happens now? It’s up to the committee, made up of MPs from three political parties, to decide how to proceed. It could decide that Johnson didn’t mislead parliament, which is unlikely given the trail of evidence. But even if it judges that he did, punishments could vary. Best case scenario? He’s given a wrist slap. Worst case? He’s suspended from parliament.

But wait, there's more! If the suspension is for more than 10 days, it'll trigger a recall vote in Johnson's district, which only requires 10% of ballots to pass. And that in turn will be followed by a by-election for the same seat ... in which Boris can still run!

What does this mean for the Tories? The rank-and-file is divided between diehard Boris fans, who want Johnson to make another bid for the top job, and those who think he’s a political liability. Either way, it’s bad timing for PM Rishi Sunak, who is trying very hard to convince Britons that the wildly unpopular Conservative Party is more than an agent of chaos.

Israeli government’s settlement policy shift

The far-right Israeli government, a magnet for controversy in recent weeks, has just reversed a 2005 law that ordered the dismantling of four settlements in the northern West Bank.

The Israeli army will no longer have the power to forcibly remove settlers from these areas. (In 2005, former PM Ariel Sharon unilaterally disengaged from settlements in the Gaza Strip and the northern West Bank in a move that right-wing ideologues deemed an injustice.)

Tuesday’s move – which the US said it was “extremely troubled” by before the State Department summoned Israel's ambassador to express its dismay – will legalize construction at these outposts, one of which had previously been deemed private Palestinian land by Israel’s High Court. Many right-wing and religious Jews believe that the West Bank is part of greater Israel, according to the Old Testament, and that Jews have a responsibility to settle on the land. Conversely, land seized by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967 is deemed occupied Palestinian territory, according to international law.

Critics say the recent government decision will lead to more violence in the West Bank and is a step towards illegal annexation.

This comes after Israel’s Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich created a firestorm this week by saying “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people” while standing in front of a map of so-called greater Israel that included … Jordan. (The Hashemite Kingdom, with which Israel has enjoyed a cold peace since 1994, was not pleased.)

Amid fears that the government’s actions are endangering the Abraham Accords, a senior delegation from the United Arab Emirates is set to meet in Jerusalem with President Isaac Herzog to voice its concerns over recent events.


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