The D Brief: Putin, Kim sign treaty; IDF: we can’t destroy Hamas; New NATO chief?; Air-defense priority shift; And a bit more.

Is Israel's Rafah campaign winding down? Israeli military officials seem to suggest as much, flagging the alleged destruction of most of Hamas’s 24 battalions, including three of the four battalions believed to be operating inside Rafah. 

However, officials also admitted "lone fighters and small groups are still launching rockets into Israel and targeting troops, even in areas of the Gaza Strip already largely under Israel’s control,” the Washington Post reported Tuesday from Jerusalem.

In today's headlines: Israeli Military Says Hamas Can’t Be Destroyed, Escalating Feud With Netanyahu,” is the Wall Street Journal’s startling report on a rare public dispute between the Israel Defense Forces and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. 

The gist: “The armed forces’ top spokesman said Netanyahu’s aim of destroying Hamas in Gaza is unachievable. Military spokesman Daniel Hagari told Israeli television on Wednesday night, ‘The idea that we can destroy Hamas or make Hamas disappear is misleading to the public’.” More behind the paywall, here.

Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson with Bradley Peniston. Share your newsletter tips, reading recommendations, or feedback here. And if you’re not already subscribed, you can do that here. On this day in 1944, the Battle of the Philippine Sea ended with an American victory over the Japanese navy, crippling the Japanese carrier force.

Back in the USSR? The autocratic leaders of Russia and North Korea signed an alliance treaty during Vladimir Putin’s two-day visit to Pyongyang this week, the first for a Russian leader in more than two decades. 

Context: The two have become much closer since Putin’s full-scale Ukraine invasion started lagging after a few months of occupation, raising Moscow’s need for artillery shells, which North Korea for years has had in large quantities. The two leaders also met in person this past September in the Russian far eastern port city of Vladivostok, less than a month after U.S. officials claimed the two leaders had forged a new defense agreement to ship North Korean munitions to Russia via what has since numbered some 10,000 shipping containers. The first North Korean ballistic missiles were spotted inside Ukraine this past January, according to U.S. military and United Nations officials

According to the text of the treaty, “In case any one of the two sides is put in a state of war by an armed invasion from an individual state or several states, the other side shall provide military and other assistance with all means in its possession without delay,” North Korean state-run media KCNA reported Thursday. 

“It's a big deal,” said Cold War historian and Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Sergey Radchenko. He described it as “an actual treaty of alliance, which of course sets out the legal basis for what's already happening—North Korea's involvement in Ukraine.”

Historical echo: The language of the agreement also seems to be “very similar to Article 1 of the Soviet-North Korean treaty of alliance” (PDF) signed in Moscow back in July 1961, Radchenko added. And the wider theatrics of the visit were “so eerily reminiscent of Stalinism—the rhetoric, the adulation, the whole vibe,” he continued. “It's like [Putin] is trying Stalin's boots on, just to see how they fit.” 

Bonus autocrat trivia: The two leaders took turns driving each other around in a Russian-made limousine, Moscow’s state-run TASS reported. And a chorus of singers from both nations joined together to sing a song reportedly entitled, “Putin-Kim Jong Un.” Catch a 48-second video of that ditty, which called to mind the Soviet Red Army Choir from yesteryear, here. (H/t to Marc Bennets of the UK Times.

Bigger picture: “Putin is pursuing a coalition of friendly states with historically warm ties to the Soviet Union to act as an alternative to the West and the current world order,” analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War wrote in their Wednesday evening assessment. After his North Korean visit, Putin flew to Hanoi for talks with officials from Vietnam, where he wrote an opinion piece for the state-run newspaper celebrating the “heroic struggle against foreign invaders.” 

Action-reaction: South Korean officials are now mulling lethal aid to Ukraine, which they had previously opted against, Yonhap news agency reported Thursday from Seoul. “We plan to reconsider the issue of arms support to Ukraine,” South Korean National Security Adviser Chang Ho-jin said in a statement Thursday. 

“South Korea will also slap additional sanctions on four Russian ships, five organizations and eight individuals involved in the transfer of weapons and oil between Russia and North Korea,” Yonhap reports. 

New: The U.S. is temporarily halting the sale of Patriot air defense interceptors “to other nations so it can fast-track orders for Ukraine to bolster its air defences against Russian attacks,” the Financial Times reported Thursday. 

“This decision demonstrates our commitment to supporting our partners when they’re in existential danger, and our second message really is to Russia, which is that if they think they can outlast Ukraine in this war, they are mistaken,” a U.S. official told FT

“We are now effectively mobilizing our defense industrial capacity in order to get air defense interceptors that are rolling off the line straight to Ukraine,” a U.S. official told CNN. “If any of our partners were in an existential situation like the one that Ukraine is in right now, we would move heaven and earth to help them and it just so happens that right now that country is Ukraine,” the official added.

For what it’s worth: U.S. “air defence exports to Taiwan are not expected to be affected,” FT reports. 

Also new: Romania has decided to donate one of its Patriot systems to Ukraine, officials in Bucharest announced Thursday. Romania reportedly has at least four of the U.S.-made air defense systems; and other European nations (like Spain and Greece, e.g.) could still decide to offer theirs to Ukraine in the coming weeks. 

“Romania’s position is and will continue to be unequivocal in its multidimensional support of Ukraine, alongside the international community, in its legitimate right to self-defense against Russia’s illegal and unprovoked aggression,” said Romanian President Klaus Iohannis in a statement Thursday. The Associated Press has more. 

Message from Kyiv: “By putting an end to Russian terror now, Ukraine prevents potential aggression against Moldova, Romania, the Baltic states, and all of our neighbours,” Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskyy said on social media in a note of thanks Thursday. “It is critical for Ukraine to have the necessary tools to defeat Russian terror now so that no one else has to face Russia's aggressive actions on a larger scale in the future,” he added. 

For the record: “Ukraine has at least four Patriot systems at present, provided by the US and Germany,” FT reports. 

Developing: NATO appears poised to name a new chief—Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, according to Politico Europe, reporting Thursday from Brussels. If confirmed, Rutte would take over for Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who has been in the post since 2014 and has had the second-longest tenure of all alliance chiefs going back to 1949. 

Additional reading: 

Somalia asks African peacekeepers to slow withdrawal in the face of Islamist resurgence. The Somalia's government is “warning of a potential security vacuum, documents seen by Reuters show, with neighbouring countries fretting that resurgent al Shabaab militants could seize power. The African Union Transition Mission in Somalia (ATMIS), a peacekeeping force, is committed to withdrawing by Dec. 31, when a smaller new force is expected to replace it.” Reuters has more.

RIP, Willie Mays: Tuesday’s passing of the former U.S. Army soldier that some consider the best baseball player ever occasioned a statement from the commander-in-chief—and D1’s reposting of a 2021 essay by Tom Shoop, our former editor-in-chief.

“The Day Private Willie Mays Threw Out My Dad” describes how two lives intersected in a story of baseball, military service, and American society in the Korean War era. Don’t miss it, here.