Sunday, April 14, 2024

Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 81: Finland officially decides to apply for NATO membership

Russia, wary of NATO’s eastward expansion, began a military campaign in Ukraine on February 24 after the Western-leaning Kiev government turned a deaf ear to Moscow’s calls for its neighbor to maintain its neutrality. In the middle of the mayhem, Moscow and Kiev are trying to hammer out a peaceful solution to the conflict. Follow the latest about the Russia-Ukraine conflict here:

US keeps veil of secrecy over its military-biological activity in Ukraine: Russia

Washington intentionally “plays down and keeps a veil of secrecy” over its military biological activity in Ukraine, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov has said.

“The circumstances that have emerged in the course of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine have provided an insight into what is happening in this field (military-biological activity in Ukraine) with the United States pulling the strings. Washington intentionally plays down this activity and keeps a veil of secrecy over it, thus denying a chance for the other members of the international community to at least sort things out and to see what that country has been doing, for what reasons, and for what purpose,” Ryabkov stated at a meeting of the parliamentary commission probing into the US specialists’ role in creating biological laboratories in Ukraine.

“The exposed evidence concerning military biological activity in Ukraine indicates that the functioning of biological laboratories on the territory of that country, including the central sanitary and epidemiological directorate of the Ukrainian Defense Ministry, was aimed at enhancing the pathogens of plague, anthrax, cholera and other deadly diseases in various ways, including the use of synthetic biology methods,” Ryabkov added.

He stressed that the Pentagon-related Military Threat Reduction Agency played the leading role in funding most military-biological experiments.

Ukraine claims Russians are suffering “significant losses” as they try to advance west

The Ukrainian military has claimed that Russian units have “suffered significant losses in manpower and equipment” as they try to advance westwards to the borders of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, according to a spokesman for the General Staff of the Armed Forces.

“In some areas, the staffing of [Russian] units, as a consequence of hostilities, is less than 20%,” the armed forces general staff said late Sunday.

“In the Popasna direction, due to heavy losses and the inability to act independently, airborne troops of the armed forces of the Russian Federation are teaming up with representatives of Russian private military companies for further action,” claimed Oleksandr Shtupun, the general staff spokesman.

The ruins of Popasna fell to Russian forces earlier this month but they appear to have taken little ground in the area since.

The Russians have also been trying to push south from Izium for several weeks, and the general staff announced Sunday that they were trying unsuccessfully to conduct offensive and assault operations towards two villages south of the town

The military also added that Russian forces north and east of the city of Kharkiv were trying to defend their positions to “prevent the advance of our troops to the State Border of Ukraine,” while continuing to shell towns and villages recently recaptured by Ukraine.

Sweden follows Finland in announcing NATO membership bid

Sweden has officially decided to apply for NATO membership, the country’s ruling Social-Democratic Party stated on Sunday.

“The Social Democrats will thereby work to ensure that Sweden, if the application is approved, expresses unilateral reservations against the deployment of nuclear weapons and permanent bases on Swedish territory,” the party announced in its statement.

Hours earlier on Sunday, Helsinki announced a similar NATO membership bid, with the government declaring “a new era” for the previously neutral country.

Sweden’s security needs are best served by NATO membership, Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson has said, after her party abandoned decades of opposition to joining the US-led alliance.

“The best thing for the security of Sweden and the Swedish people is to join NATO,” Andersson told a news conference.

“We believe Sweden needs the formal security guarantees that come with membership in NATO,” the PM added.

‘Ukraine can win war’: NATO chief

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has said he believes Ukraine can win its war against Russia, pointing out just how far from Moscow’s original plan its invasion had strayed.

“Ukraine can win this war,” Stoltenberg stated after attending a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Berlin.

The war in Ukraine was not going according to plan for Moscow, Stoltenberg said, noting that the offensive in the Donbas region had stalled and Russian troops were withdrawing from the area around Kharkiv.

“Russia is not achieving its strategic objectives,” Stoltenberg continued, adding “Ukraine stands. NATO is stronger than ever.”

Stoltenberg has stated if Finland and Sweden decided to apply for NATO membership it would be a “historic moment”, proving that “aggression doesn’t pay”.

Stoltenberg, who did not attend the meeting in person but spoke by video link as he recovers from a COVID-19, added the Nordic nations’ joining NATO would “increase our shared security” and demonstrated the bloc’s door was open.

Sweden has also already taken steps toward joining the alliance, while Georgia’s bid is again being discussed despite dire warnings from Moscow about the consequences if its neighbour becomes part of NATO.

Stoltenberg has said he does not expect the anticipated accession of Finland and Sweden to the defence alliance to be delayed by Turkey’s objections.

Turkey had made it clear that it did not want to block accession, Stoltenberg added.

“I’m confident that we will be able to address the concerns that Turkey has expressed in a way that doesn’t delay the membership or the accession process,” Stoltenberg continued.

Ukraine deputy PM says she hopes the country’s application for NATO is considered fast

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Olga Stefanishyna said she hopes Ukraine’s application to join NATO is considered fast and there are lessons learned following Finland and Sweden considerations to join NATO.

“We will see with the now position of Sweden and Finland who have decided to apply for NATO membership, and the response from the allies that this application will be considered and fulfilled immediately,” she stated.

“It only serves one very obvious argument that NATO has learned from the political mistakes which has been done back in 2008 by making promises without delivering on decisions and membership which has basically led to three wars, two of which are now happening in Ukrainian territory,” she continued.

“We hope when it comes to the consideration of the Ukrainian application, it will also happen much faster,” she added.

Earlier on Sunday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said he hopes that the ascension process for Sweden and Finland into NATO is “faster than we have seen before.”

“My intention is still to have a quick and swift process,” he noted, adding that while the ratification process will take time — as it is standard when going through 30 parliaments — “this is a historic opportunity we need to seize.”

Blinken: US to maintain pressure on Russia over war

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated NATO wants an end to the war in Ukraine “as soon as possible”.

Speaking in Berlin, Blinken said the US would continue to defend the country’s sovereignty.

Earlier on Sunday, on the sidelines of the meeting, Blinken met with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, to discuss the impact of the war and how to get Ukraine’s grain to international markets.

Sweden to continue talks with Turkey on NATO membership

Sweden was unable to reach a solution with Turkey about its expected NATO membership application, but will continue negotiations, the Swedish foreign minister has said, following an informal meeting in Berlin.

Noting that Sweden was unable to agree with the Turkish side “because of the formation in the north of Syria,” Ann Linde stressed: “We accept that the PKK is a terrorist organisation.”

“We don’t think the same about the formation in northern Syria, and neither do many NATO countries,” she added.

“Like the US and other NATO countries, we have met with Kurdish organisations in northern Syria,” she said.

Russia’s behaviour amounts to repudiation of agreement with NATO: Germany

Russia’s behaviour amounts to the unilateral repudiation of a 1997 cooperation agreement with NATO, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has said.

“The Russian government has made it clear that the NATO-Russia Founding Act is no longer worth anything to it. So we now have to acknowledge that this basic act was also unilaterally terminated by Russia, not by NATO,” Baerbock told reporters at the end of a NATO foreign ministers meeting.

The agreement was designed to build trust and limit both sides’ force presence in eastern Europe. NATO suspended practical cooperation with Russia in 2014 following Moscow’s seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula. Russia suspended its mission to NATO and closed the alliance’s office in Moscow in October, 2021 in response to expulsions of Russian diplomats.

Ukraine: Russia ‘drops phosphorus bombs’ on Azovstal steelworks

Ukraine has accused Russia of dropping phosphorus bombs on the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.

An aerial video shared on social media on Sunday showed a missile detonating in mid-air before releasing an array of ‘sparks’ – a grouping of incendiary munitions – that fell to the ground over the plant and ignited.

The footage appears to show numerous explosions on the ground following the munition drop.

Ukrainian officials stated that Russian forces used 9M22C incendiary shells with thermite layers in the attack. The temperature of combustion for the bombs is around 2-2.5 thousand degrees Celsius.

Petro Andriushchenko, the adviser to Mariupol mayor Vadym Boychenko, said specialists will assess the area and make a conclusion on the nature of the attack.

Around 1,000 Ukrainian soldiers remain trapped in the besieged steelworks, their last remaining stronghold in the Russian-controlled port city, following weeks of intense fighting.

On Saturday night, a large convoy of cars and vans evacuating civilians from Mariupol arrived in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia after waiting days for Russian soldiers to allow them to leave.

Finland open to discuss with Turkey over its NATO bid

Finland is ready to talk with Ankara on problems raised by Turkey on NATO membership, says Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.

Turkey has repeatedly criticised Sweden and Finland for its handling of organisations deemed to be “terrorists” by Ankara, including the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Before the start of the NATO’s top diplomats meeting, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stressed that the two countries’ support of the PKK “negatively affects the feeling of our people,” Anadolu Agency quoted him as saying.

UK MoD: Russia has lost a third of its forces in Ukraine

Russia has likely lost around a third of the ground forces it deployed to Ukraine, British military intelligence said on Sunday.

The Ministry of Defence wrote on Twitter: “Despite small-scale initial advances, Russia has failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the past month whilst sustaining consistently high levels of attrition.”

“Russia has now likely suffered losses of one third of the ground combat force it committed in February,” it announced.

The MoD added that Russia was unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days.

Finland announces it wants to join NATO

Finland announced the Nordic country intends apply for membership in NATO, paving the way for the 30-member Western military alliance to expand amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin made the announcement at a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki.

The Finnish parliament is expected to endorse the decision in coming days, but it is considered a formality. A formal membership application will then be submitted to NATO headquarters in Brussels, most likely at the some point next week.

NATO sees Russia’s ‘brutal invasion’ faltering

A senior NATO official says Russia’s military advance in Ukraine appears to be faltering and he expressed hope that Kyiv can win the war.

Top NATO diplomats are meeting Sunday in Berlin to discuss providing further support to Ukraine and moves by Finland, Sweden and others to join the western alliance in the face of threats from Russia.

“The brutal invasion [by] Russia is losing momentum,” NATO Deputy-Secretary General Mircea Geoana told reporters, adding, “We know that with the bravery of the Ukrainian people and army, and with our help Ukraine can win this war.”

More weapons on way to Ukraine: FM

More weapons and support is coming to Ukraine, the country’s top diplomat Dmytro Kuleba has said following a meeting in the German capital, Berlin, with his American counterpart Antony Blinken.

“More weapons and other aid is on the way to Ukraine,” Kuleba wrote on Twitter.

The two countries also committed to work closely together to ensure “Ukrainian food exports reach consumers in Africa and Asia,” he added.

Germany says all ready for quick ratification of Finnish, Swedish NATO membership

Germany has taken all preparations for a quick ratification process should Finland and Sweden decide to apply for NATO membership, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said, while stating both countries’ need for security guarantees.

“If they decide to join they can join quickly…We must make sure that we will give them security guarantees, there must not be a transition period, a grey zone, where their status is unclear,” she told reporters in Berlin.

She was referring to the ratification period that can take as long as a year, during which the two countries will not yet be protected by NATO’s article 5 which guarantees that an attack on one ally is an attack on all.

NATO deputy chief confident consensus can be found on Finland, Sweden membership

NATO’s Deputy Secretary Mircea Geoana stated he was confident Turkey’s concerns over Finland and Sweden joining the defensive military alliance could be addressed.

“Turkey is an important ally and expressed concerns that are addressed between friends and allies,” Geoana said, adding he was confident allies will find “all conditions for consensus to be met” if the two countries decide to apply for membership.

His comments came as Sweden and Finland are poised to come out in favour of entering NATO – a move that Turkey, a member of the alliance, was opposed to. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused the Scandinavian countries of being “guesthouses for terrorist organisations”.

Russia’s oil revenue soars despite sanctions

Russia’s oil export revenue has jumped some 50% since the beginning of 2022, Bloomberg reports, citing data from the International Energy Agency (IEA).

According to the agency’s monthly market report, Moscow has earned some $20 billion each month this year from sales of crude oil and oil-related products.

The earnings growth came despite Western sanctions over Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. As part of these penalties, the US banned all Russian oil imports, the EU and UK announced plans to scrap all purchases of Russian crude by the end of the year, and international oil giants such as Shell and TotalEnergies vowed to stop buying oil from the country.

However, according to the IEA, Russian shipments have only increased – by some 620,000 barrels per day compared to March to 8.1 million in April, returning to their average before the Ukraine crisis and the ensuing sanctions. Due to increased demand, more shipments were directed toward Asia, with China and India claiming supplies that were previously destined to go elsewhere, according to the agency. In addition the EU, despite its stance, has so far remained the largest market for Russian fuel with 43% of the country’s oil exports going to the bloc in April, the IEA announced.

According to the agency, global energy markets, already tight due to uncertainty over Russian crude, may encounter further headwinds, with the combination of a European embargo on Russian oil and a demand rebound from China as Covid-19 lockdowns are lifted. The agency estimates that global supplies, which were already down by around 1 million barrels a day last month, might lose three times as much in the second half of the year.

Russia denies Ukraine forces damaged navy ship in Black Sea

Russia has dismissed Ukraine’s claim it had damaged a modern navy logistics ship in the Black Sea and showed photos of what it said was the vessel with no signs of damage.

In an online post, the Russian defence ministry published photos it said had been taken of the ship in the Crimean Black Sea port of Sevastopol.

“It is now clear from the photographs that the ship is not damaged at all,” it added.

Military authorities in the southern Odesa region claimed that Ukrainian naval forces had struck the Vsevolod Bobrov, setting it alight.

Russia dismisses G7 support of Ukraine territorial integrity

Former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev has dismissed a declaration by the Group of Seven to “never” recognise border changes brought about by Moscow’s war on Ukraine.

“To put it mildly, our country doesn’t care about the G7’s non-recognition of the new borders,” he stated on his Telegram channel.

Arguing that the will of the people living in a region was all that mattered, Medvedev called the G7’s promise to continue supplying Ukraine with weapons a continuation of its “covert war against Russia.”

Envoy says Russian diplomats in US threatened, enticed by FBI, CIA

Russia’s envoy to the US says Russian diplomats in Washington are being threatened with violence and US intelligence services are trying to make contact with them, according to the TASS news agency.

“It’s like a besieged fortress. Basically, our embassy is operating in a hostile environment … Embassy employees are receiving threats, including threats of physical violence,” TASS quoted Ambassador Anatoly Antonov saying on Saturday.

“Agents from US security services are hanging around outside the Russian embassy, handing out CIA and FBI phone numbers, which can be called to establish contact,” the ambassador told TASS.

Russia and the US have been locked in a dispute over the size and functioning of their respective diplomatic missions since before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Zelensky calls for official recognition of Russia as a ‘terrorist state’ in meeting with US senators

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with US senators Saturday, and called for Russia to be officially recognized as a “terrorist state,” he said in his nightly address.

“I held talks today with a delegation of US senators led by Senate Republican Minority Leader Mitchell McConnell in Kyiv,” he said, adding, “I believe that this visit once again demonstrates the strength of bipartisan support for our state, the strength of ties between the Ukrainian and American nations.”

Discussions of US support for Ukraine and tightening sanctions on Russia also took place during the meeting, according to Zelensky.

“I expressed gratitude for the historic decision to renew the Lend Lease program. I called for the official recognition of Russia as a terrorist state,” Zelensky stated.

US President Joe Biden signed into law the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 on May 9. The new law, which eases some requirements for the US to lend or lease military equipment to Ukraine, passed with a bipartisan majority in the US House and Senate. Its sponsors said the legislation gives Biden much broader authority to help Ukraine defend itself against Russia and addresses how the US can get weapons to Ukraine faster.

The Ukrainian president also highlighted in his nightly address food security, an issue he said he deals with on a “daily basis.”

“More and more countries around the world are realizing that Russia, by blocking the Black Sea for us and continuing this war, puts dozens of other countries at risk of a price crisis in the food market and even famine,” Zelensky said.

“This is another incentive for our anti-war coalition to act more decisively together,” he added.

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