Today's D Brief: ICC issues warrant for Putin's arrest; China's Xi to Moscow; Helsinki inches closer to NATO; N. Korea's counterstrike drill; And a bit more.

China’s autocratic leader is visiting Moscow for a rare in-person meeting with his fellow autocrat Vladimir Putin, who has a new warrant out for his arrest by the International Criminal Court. The warrant was issued Friday, and is based on the documented abduction and forced relocation of Ukrainian children to Russia over the course of Putin’s Ukraine invasion, which has been ongoing for nearly 13 months. 

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that Mr. Putin bears individual criminal responsibility for the aforementioned crimes,” the court said in a statement Friday. His commissioner for Children’s Rights, Maria Alekseyevna Lvova-Belova, was also named in the arrest warrant for her quite public role in the unlawful deportation of Ukrainian children, many of whom were allegedly moved into re-education camps inside Russia. 

Putin now joins the ranks of Nazi leaders convicted in the Nuremberg trials after World War II; and he’s also in the same company as Sudan's former president Omar al-Bashir and Libya's Muammar Gaddafi, both of whom were indicted by the ICC while serving as head of state, as Reuters reminded us Saturday. 

For the record: 123 nations have signed the documents granting the ICC its authority. However, the United States is not among those 123 nations that have ratified the document. Republicans, in particular, have long been opposed to the court on the grounds that it could attempt to limit potential ways U.S. forces want to intervene abroad (think of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, e.g.). Former President Donald Trump even sanctioned the ICC’s top prosecutor for investigating alleged U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan, as Defense One’s Kevin Baron pointed out on Twitter on Friday. 

China, India, and Russia are also not among those 123 nations. Russia had been, until Putin withdrew Moscow’s support for the ICC when it called his 2014 Ukraine invasion and Crimea annexation an armed conflict; Putin initially portrayed it as merely a separatist movement spurred along by “little green men” who wore Russian military uniforms without any identifying insignia. 

What to expect: Putin may now choose to avoid travel to those 123 nations since they’re “obliged to detain and transfer Putin if he sets foot on their territory,” as Reuters noted. 

The view from Capitol Hill: Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Democrat Robert Menendez said he’s “Encouraged by the ICC’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for Putin’s mass deportation of Ukrainian children,” he tweeted Friday. “This is a critical step forward in holding the Butcher of Moscow accountable for atrocities in Ukraine,” he added. 

“The International Criminal Court has done the right thing by calling out the evil actions of the Putin regime against Ukrainian children,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., on Friday. “These atrocities are just another reminder that the Biden Administration should work to give Ukraine the full array of military capabilities it needs to secure victory.” 

His fellow Republican from South Carolina, Lindsey Graham, agreed on Friday and repeated his recommendation that Russia be designated a state sponsor of terrorism. “It is long past time to make Putin’s Russia politically and economically radioactive,” Graham said, and stressed that doing so would imperil potential future Chinese weapons sales to Russia. “Providing material support to a state sponsor of terrorism throws you into a web of deep sanctions,” said Graham. “We have a chance to deter China. Let’s take it.”

Coverage continues below the fold…

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What are Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping expected to discuss today? “[S]anctions evasion schemes and Chinese interest in mediating a negotiated settlement to the war in Ukraine,” according to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, writing over the weekend. This is partly because Xi visited Belarus about three weeks ago and “signed a package of 16 agreements on March 1 that may facilitate Russian sanctions evasion by channeling Chinese products through Belarus,” ISW said.
According to Putin, “We are grateful for the balanced line of [China] in connection with the events taking place in Ukraine, [and] for understanding their background and true causes,” he wrote in a sort of personal essay to Xi on Sunday, according to Reuters. Putin also emphasized that he “welcome[s] China's willingness to play a constructive role in resolving the crisis.”
Russian forces’ “spring offensive” may be coming to a close, ISW analysts wrote Sunday evening. Aside from stalling around Bakhmut to the east, “Russian forces are also notably struggling to secure operationally significant gains elsewhere along the frontline, particularly in the Avdiivka-Donetsk City and Vuhledar areas,” ISW wrote. More on that effort, here.
Russia launched a flurry of Iranian-made “kamikaze” drones at Ukraine late Friday. Kyiv’s military says it was able to shoot down 11 of the 16 drones, which targeted locations across Kyiv, Zaporizhia, Dnipropetrovsk, and Lviv oblasts, and reportedly hit a fuel warehouse in the southeastern Dnipropetrovsk Oblast.
Sync call: Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin, Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Mark Milley, and White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan collectively called their Ukrainian counterparts—Oleksii Reznikov, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, and Andriy Yermak—on Friday. The Ukrainians updated the U.S. side on the latest from the battlefield, and the Americans “reaffirmed the unwavering support of the United States for Ukraine as [it] defends its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to a White House readout.

Good news for Finland: NATO’s Nordic expansion is inching closer to reality. Turkey’s President Recep Erdoğan has finally decided to move forward with the ratification of Finland’s membership in NATO, which leaves the decision partly with Erdogan’s Turkish Grand National Assembly for ratification—and partly with Hungary’s parliament. (All other NATO members have ratified the decision.) Lawmakers in Budapest say they’ll vote on Finland’s accession to NATO next Monday, March 27. But that all means Sweden must wait a bit longer for approval from the relatively recalcitrant leaders of Turkey and Hungary.
“The most important thing is that both Finland and Sweden become full members of NATO quickly, not whether they join at exactly the same time,” alliance Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday—and repeated again in Brussels on Monday. He added, “Both countries have received bilateral security assurances from many NATO countries, including the US, UK, Germany, and France; so it is inconceivable that NATO would not respond should either Finland or Sweden come under attack. Their security matters to NATO,” Stoltenberg said.
By the way, Finland’s military chief and top diplomat are visiting NATO headquarters today in Brussels. That includes Foreign Affairs Minister Pekka Haavisto, and Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen. “President Putin invaded Ukraine with the goal of there being less NATO in Europe; he’s getting exactly the opposite,” said Stoltenberg on Monday.
“We feel in Finland that Sweden is our closest partner,” Minister Haavisto said Monday at alliance headquarters, “and we feel that our membership is not complete until Sweden is part of the NATO as well.” Defense Minister Kaikkonen concurred, and told reporters, “The sooner the better; we have to work hard to get Sweden in as soon as possible.”
The U.S. may sell Greece more than 60 Assault Amphibious Vehicles for about $268 million, the Defense Department announced Friday. “Greece contributes to NATO operations, as well as to counterterrorism and counter-piracy maritime efforts,” the Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency said in a statement, and noted, “This proposed sale will improve Greece’s capability to meet current and future threats by providing an effective capability to protect maritime interests and infrastructure in support of its strategic location on NATO’s southern flank.”
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Lastly: Groundhog Day in Pyongyang. North Korea practiced what it would do if attacked by the U.S. and South Korea, with drills that included the launch of a short-range missile from a buried silo, Reuters reported Monday. North Korean state media said the purpose of the exercises was to improve the nation’s “war deterrence and nuclear counterattack capability,” and also “aimed to demonstrate our tougher will to make an actual war response and send a stronger warning to the enemy who expand their war drills for aggression.”
That last part is a not-at-all-veiled reference to the U.S.-South Korea military exercises in the region that began March 13. The joint exercise, called Freedom Shield 23, has involved combined air exercises with U.S. B-1B and B-52 bombers.