Today's D Brief: Zelenskyy visits liberated Izyum, vows to take back Crimea; Iranian drone downed in Ukraine; China’s Xi goes abroad; Bolduc advances; And a bit more.

Hoist that flag. President Volodymir Zelenskyy raised Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow national flag over the recently liberated city of Izyum on Wednesday. “Earlier, when we looked up, we always looked for the blue sky, the sun,” the president said from the city’s central square. “And today, looking up, we and especially the people in the temporarily occupied territories are looking for only one thing—the flag of our state. It means that the heroes are here. It means that the enemy is gone, ran away.”

Zelenskyy: “It is possible to temporarily occupy the territories of our state,” the president said from Izyum on Wednesday. “But it is definitely impossible to occupy our people, the Ukrainian people.” 

And for folks living in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimean peninsula: “It is a terrible tragedy that they have been under occupation for more than eight years,” Zelenskyy said, then promised, “I don't know when exactly. But we have plans, and we will return there, because this is our land and our people.”

Russian state-run media acknowledged Zelenskyy’s visit shortly afterward, but had little to say about it Wednesday, according to TASS. Moscow’s defense ministry on Tuesday claimed its forces withdrew from Kharkiv to regroup, “but this false narrative faced quick and loud criticism online,” wrote analysts at the Institute for the Study of War. Perhaps more notably, “Kremlin sources are now working to clear [Russia’s autocratic President Vladimir] Putin of any responsibility for the defeat, instead blaming the loss of almost all of occupied Kharkiv Oblast on under-informed military advisors within Putin’s circle.” 

  • Review certain underappreciated dynamics of Kremlin spin via Anna Arutunyan of the Wilson Center, writing on Twitter Monday, here. (Her tease: Russia’s “definition of ‘winning’ is in flux and can simply be invented,” she argues.)
  • Dig a little deeper into why Russia seems to have faced such stunning recent setbacks via historian Chris Owen, who even brought Napoleon into his discussion, in a 41-tweet thread on Sunday.
  • Then consider what a smart Ukrainian commander may be pondering at this point in Kyiv’s counteroffensive—as detailed by former U.S. Army three-star general Mark Hertling, a CNN analyst, in his own 18-tweet thread from Tuesday. In short, he emphasizes pacing, fatigue, and the need to account for unpredictability. 

For your eyes and ears: Take a virtual trip to recently de-occupied Balakliya, in Kharkiv via a six-minute video report (in English) from Kyiv’s messaging and fundraising outlet, United24, published Wednesday. 

New: Ukrainian forces obtained fragments of what appear to be an Iranian-made drone, a Shahed-136 UAV, near Kupyansk, where Kyiv’s forces are carrying out a counteroffensive (purported image here). It’s unclear whether the drone was downed or detonated during targeting. “The Shahed-136 is a one-way attack UAV with a claimed range of 2,500 kilometers,” the British military said in its latest battlefield assessment, and added that, “The loss of a Shahed-136 near the front lines suggests there is a realistic possibility that Russia is attempting to use the system to conduct tactical strikes rather than against more strategic targets farther into Ukrainian territory.”

Developing: Noted former U.S. hostage negotiator Bill Richardson attended meetings in Russia this week, a source close to the former New Mexico governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations told Reuters on Wednesday. Russia has detained professional basketball player Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, and reportedly U.S. officials have floated a possible exchange involving incarcerated Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. Read more at Reuters.

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ALERT: Don’t miss a live interview this morning with America’s top Navy officer, Adm. Mike Gilday. Defense One’s Bradley Peniston speaks to the CNO at 11 a.m. ET; register for your spot online here.
Later today, Virginia Democratic Rep. Elaine Luria sits down with our colleague Jacqueline Feldscher at about a quarter till noon. Review additional discussions in our full agenda, here

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Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Kevin Baron. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here. And check out other Defense One newsletters here. On this day in 1939, and two weeks after the Nazis invaded Poland, a Polish submarine, Orzeł, and its crew docked in then-neutral Estonia after sustaining damage from German minesweepers. After eight days of increasing tensions with the Estonians, who were believed to be pressured by the Germans, the crew of the Orzeł carried out a daring nighttime escape from port in Tallinn. The vessel sustained some light damage, but was able to flee to the Baltic Sea—and eventually made it all the way to Scotland on 14 October. The Soviets, however, claimed the Estonians conspired with the Polish in the escape, and used the incident to insist on militarily occupying bases throughout Baltic nation—bases which were later used to invade and annex Estonia the following June. 

China’s Xi Jinping is visiting Kazakhstan for his first trip abroad since the pandemic was declared in March 2020. Kazakhstan, AP reports from the capital city, “is a major oil and gas producer,” and “China is a leading customer.”
Xi’s three-day trip includes a planned visit with Putin in Uzbekistan Thursday for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in Samarkand. Putin is also expected to meet with his counterparts from India, Pakistan, Turkey and Iran, according to the BBC.
Meanwhile in Washington, a key official from Taipei hosted around 60 elected officials from around the world on Tuesday, in part “to persuade fellow democracies to stand against China since Russia's invasion of Ukraine heightened concerns that Beijing could attempt to take the island by force,” Reuters reports. The group of parliamentarians from across Europe, Asia and Africa are known as the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China; and they’re expected to release a public pledge later this week. Read more, here.
Related reading: 

And lastly: A former U.S. special operations forces officer just won the GOP senate primary in New Hampshire. Retired Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc (photographed here in Kandahar 12 years ago) appears to have edged out his opponent, state Senate President Chuck Morse, for the state’s Republican Senate nomination this November. Bolduc has reportedly become something of a Trump-like conspiracy theorist, according to NBC News.
Bolduc faces an uphill battle to unseat Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat who is listed as a likely winner, according to the Cook Political Report. Reuters notes that Bolduc “has echoed Trump’s false claims about 2020 election fraud and questioned whether the Federal Bureau of Investigation should be abolished following its August search of Trump’s Florida estate, where agents found a cache of classified documents. He has courted Trump, but Trump has not endorsed him.” And according to the New York Times, “Morse was endorsed by Gov. Chris Sununu and helped by $4.5 million from national Republicans, who were worried that a victory by Mr. Bolduc would forfeit what they saw as a winnable seat in the quest for Senate control this fall.” Politico has more, here.