Today's D Brief: Xi, Zelenskyy talk; Cluster-munitions silence; Taliban vs. ISIS; Carlson vs. the brass; And just a bit more.

Exactly 61 weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, China’s autocratic leader finally spoke with Ukraine’s elected president by phone on Wednesday. In the call, China’s Xi Jinping reportedly conveyed a shared “respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity,” calling that key pillar of the United Nations charter “the political foundation for China-Ukraine relations,” according to Beijing’s Foreign Ministry. However, China’s readout of the call never once refers to the Crimean peninsula, which Russia has illegally occupied since 2014. 

“China stands for peace,” Xi purportedly told Ukraine’s President Volodymir Zelenskyy. “Dialogue is the only way out,” the Chinese leader said, “and no one wins a nuclear war.” 

“With rational thinking and voices now on the rise,” Xi said, “it is important to seize the opportunity and build up favorable conditions for the political settlement of the crisis.” He also promised “China will continue to facilitate talks for peace and make its efforts for early ceasefire and restoration of peace,” including sending an envoy to Ukraine “to have in-depth communication with all parties on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.”

Context: The call came as China worked to quell condemnation of its ambassador to France, who on April 22 appeared to question the sovereignty of former Soviet republics such as Ukraine.

Zelenskyy described the call as “long and meaningful,” but didn’t say a lot more—aside from sharing his impression that “this call, as well as the [upcoming] appointment of Ukraine's ambassador to China, will give a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relations.”

White House POV: “We want to see the war end; if it can’t end by Putin pulling his troops out, it should end in a negotiated settlement. And the only negotiated settlement that we think is worth pursuing is one that President Zelenskyy thinks is worth pursuing,” said Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby in a phone call with reporters Wednesday morning. 

“The central, principal, fundamental ideas here” are “Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Kirby said. And those principles form the backbone of Zelenskyy’s 10-point peace plan released publicly in November. 

  • “If Russia stops fighting, the war ends,” Kirby said. “But right now, if Ukraine stops fighting, Ukraine ends.” 

Putin’s sinking stock: For the first time in the history of Gallup polling, “the majority of the world disapproves of Russia’s leadership,” the analytics firm announced Tuesday (relevant polling data extends back to 2007). That comes from a 19-point rise in median disapproval among 137 different countries surveyed; and among those 137 nations, majorities in 81 disapproved of Putin’s leadership in 2022. 

It’s worth re-emphasizing, however, that in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, “the shift toward disapproval of Russian leadership was less pronounced,” Gallup noted. A similar trend of lukewarm disapproval also largely held across India and southeast Asia. Details, here

And don’t miss: The prime ministers of Poland, Czech Republic, and Slovakia warn “The Free World Must Stay the Course on Ukraine [because] A Frozen Conflict or Partial Victory Will Solve Nothing,” in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs

From Defense One

As Pressure Builds, US Keeps Mum on Ukraine’s Cluster-Munitions Request // Sam Skove: Proponents and military leaders note their tactical benefits, but strategic concerns may quash the deal.

How Tucker Carlson Helped Turn Americans Against the Military // Kevin Baron: The partisan firebrand made it safe to believe that uniformed leaders were out to weaken the armed forces and the country itself.

‘No Deal is Certain’: Raytheon CEO Says of Aerojet’s Pending Sale to L3Harris // Marcus Weisgerber: After slamming an earlier proposal for the rocket maker, Chris Hayes is taking a different tack.

Welcome to this Wednesday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1986, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred near the Ukrainian city of Pripyat.

South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol is visiting the White House for the second time during President Joe Biden’s tenure. The two will speak privately before hosting a press conference in the Rose Garden, U.S. officials told reporters in a preview Wednesday morning.
Yoon and Biden will announce a plan to send U.S. nuclear subs to RoK for the first time in 40 years, the Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. That’s part of an imminent “Washington Declaration” the two leaders are expected to announce, which includes plans to expand joint military exercises over the coming months—as well as an agreement that Seoul will not build or acquire its own nuclear weapons “in exchange for a greater voice in planning for a potential U.S. nuclear response to a North Korean attack,” according to the Journal.
ICYMI: Republican strategist and America’s real-life “Yosemite Sam” John Bolton said this week the U.S. should put tactical nuclear weapons back on South Korean soil to scare North Korea from using its own nuclear weapons against Seoul. But the forthcoming “declaration” does not include putting U.S. tactical nuclear weapons on the peninsula, U.S. officials said Tuesday.
From the region: Taiwan drills to focus on piercing blockade, get 'Five Eyes' intelligence link,” Reuters reported Wednesday from Taipei.

Developing: A second American citizen has died as fighting in Sudan continues, John Kirby of the White House’s National Security Council said Wednesday morning. (The first U.S. citizen was killed last week early in the fighting; to our knowledge, neither person’s identity has yet been released publicly.)
“We’re still moving naval assets in the region along the coast” and around Port Sudan, where evacuation efforts are concentrated, Kirby said. Those include the USS Lewis B. Puller, an expeditionary sea base ship whose missions include civilian evacuations, and the destroyer USS Truxtun.
Otherwise, a 72-hour ceasefire the State Department announced Monday evening seems to be largely holding, despite sporadic reports of gunfire around Khartoum, according to Kirby.
The wider forecast does not look good, however. And the UN’s special envoy to Sudan, Volker Perthes, said Wednesday neither side in the conflict appears seriously ready to negotiate. Reuters has a bit more from the UN, here

And lastly: The Taliban says they’ve killed the ISIS leader who attacked U.S. forces at Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate on August 26, 2021. The attack killed 13 American troops and 170 Afghan civilians gathered near the airport in the hopes of evacuating the country. “It was unclear whether the Taliban were specifically targeting the insurgent or he was killed in one of the increasing number of attacks between Taliban and Islamic State fighters,” the New York Times reported Tuesday, citing U.S. officials.
“This was a Taliban operation; we were not involved in any way,” John Kirby of the White House said Wednesday. He otherwise declined to share the alleged ISIS leader’s identity, as well as how White House officials are convinced he is now deceased. Read more at the Times, here.