Russia’s Putin stops at Russian military base in Syria
MOSCOW (AP) — Declaring a victory in Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday visited a Russian military air base in the country and announced a partial pullout of Russian forces from the Mideast nation.
Putin’s visit marks his first trip to Syria, drawing a symbolic line under the campaign that has shored up President Bashar Assad’s government. It is also the first visit by a foreign head of state to war-ravaged Syria since its bloodletting started nearly seven years ago.
Putin’s brief stop at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia while on route to Egypt comes days after the Russian president declared his bid to run for re-election in the March 18 vote, helping encourage the feelings of pride about Russia’s revived global clout and prestige.
It also follows the Russian announcement last week that the Syrian army under the Russian air cover routed the Islamic State in eastern Syria and fully restored control over the border with Iraq.
In a televised speech to the Russian troops at the base, the Russian leader hailed their valor.
“You have shown the best qualities of a Russian soldier,” Putin said.
The Hemeimeem base, in the heartland of Assad’s Alawite minority, has served as the main foothold for the Russian military campaign in Syria.
In a speech to the troops, Putin said that he had ordered the military to withdraw a “significant part” of the Russian contingent in Syria.
“Friends, the Motherland is waiting for you,” Putin said. He added that “if the terrorists again raise their heads, we will deal such blows to them they have never seen.”
Russian television stations showed Putin walking off the plane, embracing and shaking hands with Assad at the air base.
Putin said that the Russian military will maintain their presence at the Hemeimeem air base and the naval facility in Tartus.
Syrian TV said Assad thanked Putin for his troops’ effective contribution to the fight against terrorism in Syria.
Russia launched its air campaign in Syria at the end of September 2015 when Assad’s government was teetering on the brink of collapse and quickly changed the course of the conflict in its favor.
Japan’s PM offers Ukraine support as China’s Xi backs Russia
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Prime Minister Fumio Kishida made a surprise visit Tuesday to Kyiv, stealing some of the attention from Asian rival President Xi Jinping of China, who met in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin to promote Beijing’s peace proposal for Ukraine that Western nations have already criticized.
The two visits, about 800 kilometers (500 miles) apart, highlighted the nearly 13-month-old war’s repercussions for international diplomacy as countries line up behind Moscow or Kyiv. Kishida, who will chair the Group of Seven summit in May, met President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and paid tribute to those killed in Bucha, a town outside Kyiv that became a symbol of Russian atrocities against civilians.
After talks with Xi, Putin said a Chinese peace plan could provide a basis for a settlement of the fighting in Ukraine when the West is ready for it, but he added that Kyiv’s Western allies have shown no interest in that.
U.S. officials have said any peace plan coming from the Putin-Xi meeting would be unacceptable because a cease-fire would only ratify Moscow’s territorial conquests and give Russia time to plan for a renewed offensive.
“It looks like the West indeed intends to fight Russia until the last Ukrainian,” Putin said after his talks with Xi. He said the latest threat is a British plan to provide Ukraine with tank rounds containing depleted uranium. “If that happens, Russia will respond accordingly, given that the collective West is starting to use weapons with a nuclear component.”
He did not elaborate. Putin has occasionally warned that Russia would use all available means, including possibly nuclear weapons, to defend itself, but also has sometimes backed off such threats.
Putin’s comment referred to remarks Monday by U.K junior Defense Minister Annabel Goldie, who wrote: “Alongside our granting of a squadron of Challenger 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine, we will be providing ammunition, including armor-piercing rounds which contain depleted uranium. Such rounds are highly effective in defeating modern tanks and armored vehicles.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the U.K. plan shows that the British “have lost the bearings,” and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said “it marked another step, and there aren’t so many of them left.”
But weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, former commander of Britain’s Royal Tank Regiment, said it was “reckless” of Putin “to try and suggest Britain is sending nuclear material” to Ukraine. He said depleted uranium is a common component of tank rounds, possibly even used by Russia.
“Putin insinuating that they are some sort of nuclear weapon is bonkers,” de Bretton-Gordon told The Associated Press. “Depleted uranium is completely inert. There is no way that you could create a nuclear reaction or a nuclear explosion with depleted uranium.”
Beijing insists it is a neutral broker in Ukraine, and Xi said Tuesday after his talks with Putin: “We adhere to a principled and objective position on the Ukrainian crisis based on the goals and principles of the U.N. Charter.” He added that the Chinese plan seeks to “actively encourage peace and the resumption of talks.”
In a joint statement, Russia and China emphasized the need to “respect legitimate security concerns of all countries” to settle the conflict, echoing Moscow’s argument that it sent troops into its neighbor to prevent the U.S. and its NATO allies from turning the country into an anti-Russian bulwark.
“Russia welcomes China’s readiness to play a positive role in the political and diplomatic settlement of the Ukrainian crisis” and the “constructive ideas” contained in Beijing’s peace plan, the statement said. It added: “The parties underline that a responsible dialogue offers the best path for a lasting settlement … and the international community should support constructive efforts in this regard.”
Kishida laid flowers at a church in Bucha for the town’s victims.
“Upon this visit to Bucha, I feel a strong resentment against cruelty,” he said. “I would like to represent the people in Japan, and express my deepest condolences to those who lost their loved ones, were injured as a result of this cruel act.”
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel noted the “two very different European-Pacific partnerships” that unfolded Tuesday.
“Kishida stands with freedom, and Xi stands with a war criminal,” Emanuel tweeted, referring to Friday’s decision by the International Criminal Court to issue an arrest warrant for Putin, saying it wanted to put him on trial for the abductions of thousands of children from Ukraine.
Kyiv’s allies pledged more support. Washington is accelerating its delivery of Abrams tanks to Ukraine, sending a refurbished older version that can be ready faster, U.S. officials told The Associated Press on Tuesday. The aim is to get the 70-ton behemoths to the war zone in eight-to-10 months, the officials said on the condition of anonymity because the plan has not yet been announced.
Putin is keen to show he has a heavyweight ally and market for Russian energy products under Western sanctions. He said he wants to expand bilateral economic ties, noting Russian-Chinese trade rose by 30% last year to $185 billion and is expected to top $200 billion this year.
Russia stands “ready to meet the Chinese economy’s growing demand for energy resources” by boosting deliveries of oil and gas, he said, while listing other areas of economic and cultural cooperation, including aircraft and shipbuilding industries and other high-tech sectors.
The Russia-China front against the West was a prominent theme of Xi’s visit. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov accused NATO of seeking to become the world’s dominant military force. “That is why we are expanding our cooperation with China, including in the security sphere,” he said.
Whether China’s support of Russia will extend to military support is a key question. Western officials “have seen some signs” that Putin also wants lethal weapons from China, though there is no evidence Beijing has granted his request, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in Brussels.
“China should not provide lethal aid to Russia,” Stoltenberg said. “That would be to support an illegal war and only prolong the war.”
Meeting Tuesday with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, Xi said he invited Putin to visit China this year to discuss a regional initiative that seeks to extend Beijing’s influence through economic cooperation.
Moscow and Beijing have both weathered international condemnation of their human rights records. The Chinese government has been widely condemned for alleged atrocities against Uighur Muslims in its far western Xinjiang region. The allegations include genocide, forced sterilization and the mass detention of nearly 1 million Uighurs. Beijing has denied the allegations.
Kishida rode a train from Poland to Kyiv just hours after he met with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi and a week after a breakthrough summit with South Korean President Yoon Suk Yoel.
Both China and Japan have enjoyed recent diplomatic successes that emboldened their foreign policy.
Japan, which has territorial disputes over islands with both China and Russia, is particularly concerned about the close relationship between Beijing and Moscow, which have conducted joint military exercises near Japan’s coasts.
Beijing’s diplomatic foray follows its recent success in brokering a deal between Iran and its chief Middle Eastern rival, Saudi Arabia, to restore relations after years of tensions. The move displayed China’s influence in a region where Washington has long been the major foreign player.
Kishida, the only G-7 leader who hadn’t visited Ukraine, and was under domestic pressure to do so. He became Japan’s first postwar leader to enter a war zone.
Due to its pacifist principles, Japan’s support for Ukraine has been limited to equipment and humanitarian supplies.
Japan has contributed more than $7 billion to Ukraine and accepted more than 2,000 displaced Ukrainians, a rare move in a country with a strict immigration policy.
Tokyo joined the U.S. and European nations in sanctioning Russia over the invasion. By contrast, China has refused to condemn Moscow’s aggression and criticized Western sanctions against Moscow, while accusing NATO and Washington of provoking Putin’s military action.
Japan was quick to react because it fears the possible impact of a war in East Asia, where China’s military has grown increasingly assertive and has escalated tensions around self-ruled Taiwan, which Beijing claims as its territory.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said of Kishida’s trip: “We hope Japan could do more things to deescalate the situation instead of the opposite.”
Netanyahu allies in Israel plow ahead on legal overhaul
JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli parliament on Monday advanced a bill that would make it harder to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the corruption charges against him, as it plowed ahead with a broader plan to overhaul the country’s legal system in defiance of mass protests.
Lawmakers in the Knesset gave preliminary approval during a late-night vote on the bill, which would allow the parliament to declare a prime minister unfit to rule only for physical or mental reasons.
The body was expected to vote later on a measure that would allow the Knesset to overrule Supreme Court rulings and enact laws that had been struck down. Both bills require additional votes before being enshrined into law.
The steps were the latest in a series of moves by Netanyahu’s coalition to overhaul Israel’s legal system. The prime minister and his allies say the effort is aimed at reining in an activist court. Critics say the drive would upend the country’s democratic checks and balances and concentrate power in the hands of Netanyahu and his parliamentary majority.
Netanyahu and his ultranationalist and religious coalition allies have pledged to plow ahead with the legal changes despite demonstrations by tens of thousands of Israeli protesters over the past two months. Business leaders, legal experts and retired military leaders have joined the protests, and Israeli reservists have threatened to stop reporting for duty if the overhaul passes.
In a late-night vote, the Knesset moved forward a bill that would protect Netanyahu from calls to oust him, replacing current law that opens the door for a leader to be removed under other circumstances. The new bill would require approval by three-quarters of the government, and could be overridden by the prime minister.
The measure has personal importance to Netanyahu, who returned to power late last year after Israel’s fifth election in under four years. He is on trial on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, and denies the allegations. The proceedings have dragged on for nearly three years.
Good governance groups and other critics have called on the country’s attorney general to deem Netanyahu unfit for office.
Speaking to members of his Likud party on Monday, Netanyahu lashed out at the Israeli media, saying they are broadcasting a “never ending tsunami of fake news” against him. He reiterated his claim that the legal overhaul will strengthen Israeli democracy.
Opposition lawmaker Orna Barbivai said the bill was “a disgrace, which says the the prime minister is above the law.”
Israel’s Palestinian minority, which makes up some 20% of the population, has been largely absent from the protests, in part because they suffer from discrimination in Israel and and because of Israel’s treatment of their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.
King Charles III picks France, Germany for 1st state visits
LONDON (AP) — King Charles III will travel to France and Germany for his first state visits since becoming monarch, Buckingham Palace said Friday, underscoring Britain’s efforts to build bridges with its European neighbors following years of strained relations caused by Brexit.
Charles and Camilla, the queen consort, are set to visit the European Union’s two biggest countries March 26-31, hosted by Presidents Emmanuel Macron of France and Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany, the palace announced.
“The visit will celebrate the U.K.’s relationship with France and Germany, marking our shared histories, culture and values,″ the palace said. “It is also a chance to look forwards and show the many ways our countries are working in partnership, whether that be to tackle climate change; respond to the conflict in Ukraine; seize trade and investment opportunities or share the best of our arts and culture.″
Highlighting the significance of the trip is the fact that it will be the first state visit by a British monarch since 2015; the late Queen Elizabeth II, Charles’ mother, stopped traveling abroad in her later years.
The announcement came just days after Charles met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at Windsor Castle and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a breakthrough in talks to resolve the dispute over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Sunak will be anxious to use the soft power of the monarchy to highlight the thaw in relations between the U.K. and the EU, which have been strained by Britain’s decision to leave the bloc.
The trip to France and Germany is being made at the request of the British government and at the invitations of the two governments, the palace said.
The royals will travel first to France, where they will be greeted by Macron and take part in a ceremony of remembrance at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Charles will later meet with members of the National Assembly and Senate and attend a state banquet at the Chateau de Versailles.
The French leg of the trip will also include traveling to Bordeaux, which is home to a large British community. The royal couple plan to visit an organic vineyard and one of the areas devastated by wildfires last summer.
Charles and Camilla are scheduled to travel to Germany on March 29, where they will be greeted by Steinmeier and Charles plans to address the Bundestag, Germany’s parliament. Steinmeier will also host a state banquet for the royal couple.
Charles will also meet with Ukrainian refugees in Germany, visit a joint U.K.-German military unit and travel to Hamburg, where he will visit sustainable energy projects.
While Britain’s royals have ceded most of their powers to the nation’s elected leaders, the aura of the monarchy and the pomp and ceremony of royal visits are still seen as a way to burnish the U.K.’s image and bolster ties with nations around the globe.
This role was epitomized by Elizabeth, who made 121 state visits during her 70-year reign, leading royal historian Robert Hardman to dub her “Queen of the World.”
When Charles met with von der Leyen on Monday, Buckingham Palace was quick to stress that he was working in concert with the government.
“The king is pleased to meet any world leader, if they are visiting Britain, and it is the government’s advice that he should do so,” the palace said before that meeting.
The French leg of the trip may have a particular significance for Charles, who is said to have formed a close relationship with Macron because of the two men’s shared focus on protecting the environment and fighting climate change.
Mutual respect also was expressed by Germany’s president. In a video message, Steinmeier said he last met Charles at Elizabeth’s funeral and invited him to visit Germany as king. He said that Charles’ decision to visit half a year later shows how much the king values the friendship between Germans and Britons.
The German president said Charles’ decision to travel to Germany and France “is also an important European gesture.”
“I would like to say to him, but of course also to all Britons: We in Germany, we in Europe, want close and friendly relations with the United Kingdom after Brexit as well,” Steinmeier said.
In November, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa made the first state visit to Britain of Charles’ reign. But the visit had been in the works before the late queen’s death.