Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 89: Life sentence for Russian soldier over Ukraine ‘war crimes’

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:

Over 6.5 million people have fled Ukraine since Russian invasion: UN refugee agency

At least 6.5 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion in late February, according to the latest United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) data.

In addition, more than 8 million people — nearly one in five of Ukraine’s pre-war population — are internally displaced after having been forced to flee their homes, according to the latest report by the International Organization for Migration.

A projected 8.3 million refugees are expected to flee Ukraine, the UNHCR announced in late April.

Ukraine says 13,000 alleged Russian war crimes being probed

Ukraine’s prosecutor general says the country’s authorities are investigating about 13,000 cases of alleged war crimes carried out by Russian forces.

“As of this day, we have more than 13,000 cases [being probed] only about war crimes,” Iryna Venediktova told US newspaper The Washington Post.

Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilians and accusations its forces have carried out war crimes during what it calls a “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Putin: Russia “withstanding impact of sanctions” despite gloomy forecasts

The Russian economy is “withstanding the impact of sanctions,” President Vladimir Putin said Monday, despite a gloomy economic outlook for the country following the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.

“Despite all the difficulties, the Russian economy is withstanding the impact of the sanctions, and withstanding it quite well,” Putin stated in a meeting with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi.

“This is according to all the main macroeconomic indicators,” he added.

“Yes, it’s not easy. Everything that happens requires special attention from the economic bloc of the government. On the whole, these efforts are having a positive effect,” he continued.

Russia’s Central Bank announced in late April the Russian economy is expected to shrink by 8 to 10% in 2022, noting a decline in economic activity in March after the imposition of international sanctions on Russia. Earlier the same month, the World Bank predicted that Russian GDP would shrink by 11.2% in 2022.

Russian rouble leaps to near seven-year high vs euro

The Russian rouble has firmed more than six percent against the euro to a near seven-year high, boosted by capital controls, strong oil prices and an upcoming month-end tax period.

By 13:38 GMT, the rouble had gained 6.3 percent to trade at 58.75 versus the euro, its strongest point since early June 2015.

It was also 4.6 percent stronger against the US dollar at 57.47, not far from 57.0750, its strongest mark since late March 2018, hit on Friday.

Overall, the rouble has firmed about 30 percent against the dollar this year despite a full-scale economic crisis in Russia. That makes it the world’s best-performing currency – albeit one that is artificially supported by controls imposed in late February to shield Russia’s financial sector from sweeping sanctions imposed by Western powers.

Russian diplomat to UN resigns over war in Ukraine

A veteran Russian diplomat to the United Nations office at Geneva says he handed in his resignation before sending out a scathing letter to foreign colleagues denouncing the “aggressive war unleashed” by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.

Boris Bondarev, 41, confirmed his resignation in a letter delivered on Monday morning at the Russian diplomatic mission after a diplomatic official passed on his English-language statement to The Associated Press news agency.

“For twenty years of my diplomatic career I have seen different turns of our foreign policy, but never have I been so ashamed of my country as on February 24 of this year,” he wrote, alluding to the date of Russia’s invasion.

The resignation amounts to a rare public admission of disgruntlement about Russia’s war among the Russian diplomatic corps, at a time when Vladimir Putin’s government has sought to crack down on dissent over the invasion.

Global food crisis could worsen if Ukrainian port of Odesa is not opened: UN official

The world faces a “perfect storm within a perfect storm” when it comes to the food crisis, according to the head of the UN World Food Programme, David Beasley.

Beasley explained that currently the world is facing a food pricing problem but with issues over fertilizer and food production we could “very well have a food availability problem.”

He added that if the port of Odesa is not opened, it will only compound the problem. There are 49 million people in 43 countries who are “knocking on famine’s door” and the world would face famine, destabilization and mass migration if we don’t get ahead of the problem, he said while speaking on a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Beasley stressed that “there are enough leaders in Davos this week to end world hunger.”

Biden administration considering sending US Special Operations Forces to protect its embassy in Kyiv

The Joe Biden Administration is in the early stages of potentially sending special operations forces (SOF) into Ukraine for the very limited mission of helping guard the US Embassy in Kyiv, according to several US officials.

The idea of using SOF is in very preliminary stages and has not yet been presented to Biden for a decision, the sources said.

The embassy was re-opened last week after being closed for about three months.

For now, the embassy and its limited number of personnel are protected by State Department diplomatic security officials. The discussion centers around whether an increase in security is needed if the number of personnel increase, and whether SOF is best equipped to fulfill those requirements.

US Marines typically guard US embassies around the world but in Kyiv, for now, there is a general agreement that the typical Marine Corps embassy guard personnel may not be suited to the uncertain security picture in Ukraine without additional forces, officials say.

The US doesn’t believe Russia would overtly attack the Embassy. But the concern is that Russia air defenses or missiles could inadvertently target the compound and the situation could dramatically escalate the officials say. US officials say Russia has a thorough understanding on an official basis that the US uses military personnel to guard its embassies around the world and any presence should not be viewed as escalatory. Still an introduction of US forces into Ukraine could raise concerns that it could lead to a perception of US escalation since Biden has been adamant that US ground troops will not fight in Ukraine.

The concern is if special operations forces go into Ukraine then the US must be able to provide a rapid means of getting them and embassy personnel out of Ukraine in a crisis. Currently the only options are vehicle or rail transport to the border.

For now, there is no appetite at the Pentagon to provide air support such as helicopters or fixed wing transport. If that was done, it could rapidly escalate the US military footprint because of the need to then provide potential rescue and reconnaissance forces if a US pilot was to go down.

Starbucks closes all its cafes in Russia

Coffee giant Starbucks says it has exited Russia and will no longer have a brand presence there, according to a press release on Monday.

The coffee company announced it has been operating in Russia for 15 years and has now closed its 130 licensed cafes in the country.

Starbucks joins other companies like McDonald’s and Exxon Mobil in taking its business completely out of Russia.

Starbucks added it will “support” its nearly 2,000 workers in Russia, including pay for six months and assistance for partners to transition to new opportunities outside of Starbucks.

This comes after Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson stated in March that it had suspended all business activity in Russia, including shipment of all Starbucks products.

European armed forces will not give EU greater security: Kremlin

The implementation of the chief of European diplomacy Josep Borrell’s idea of creating a European army will not improve security on the continent, Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said.

“We know that Mr. Borrel is not a proponent of diplomatic methods of settling disputes. Contrary to the office he takes he constantly and publicly demonstrates his commitment to acting from the position of strength,” Peskov told the media on Monday.

He recalled Borrell’s statement to the effect the problem of Ukraine should be settled on the battlefield.

About Borrell’s statement in favor of creating a European army Peskov noted that “this idea implies the militarization of the EU and of beefing up Ukraine’s military potential.”

“This is precisely what will not promote security and stability on the European continent,” Peskov added.

In his Sunday blog Borrell said that the European Union needed an army of its own to take care of its security. In his opinion the current security environment was clear evidence the EU must assume greater responsibility for its security. For this, he added, the alliance needs an up-to-date and compatible European army, which will seek to build up its capabilities.

Kremlin: West triggered global food crisis with sanctions

The Kremlin announced on Monday that the West had triggered a global food crisis by imposing the severest sanctions in modern history on Russia over the war in Ukraine.

The war – and the West’s attempt to isolate Russia as punishment – have sent the price of grain, cooking oil, fertiliser and energy soaring.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated on Wednesday that he was in intense contact with Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, the United States and the European Union in an effort to restore grain exports from Ukraine as a global food crisis worsens.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin said, agreed with the United Nations assessment that the world faced a food crisis that could cause famine.

“Russia has always been a rather reliable grain exporter,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted.

“We are not the source of the problem. The source of the problem that leads to world hunger are those who imposed sanctions against us, and the sanctions themselves,” he added.

Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies.

Zelensky calls for “maximum” sanctions against Russia

The global community must impose “maximum” sanctions against Russia, including a full oil embargo, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urged in a video address to the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“The international community must be ready to use sanctions preventively, not to just respond” to threats in the future, he told world and business leaders in attendance.

If these sanctions had been in place in the first place, Russia would not have been able to invade Ukraine, he claimed, calling for full bans on Russian banks and a complete halt in trade.

“The aggressor would know the immediate consequences of its actions,” he added.

“We must set a precedent for sanctions,” he said, questioning whether a “large collection of responses” from institutions such as the United Nations and World Trade Organization is enough to respond to the threats of today.

The latest sanctions were announced earlier this month, when leaders of the G7 met virtually with Zelensky. The measures included new export controls against the Russian industrial sector and roughly 2,600 visa restrictions on Russian and Belarusian officials, as well as the first sanctions against executives of Gazprombank, the institution through which most of Europe buys Russian gas.

Azovstal fighters to face trial in breakaway region: Report

The leader of eastern Ukraine’s self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) has been quoted as saying that the Ukrainian fighters who surrendered at the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol will face trial in the breakaway region.

“The prisoners from Azovstal are being held on the territory of the Donetsk People’s Republic,” Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted Denis Pushilin as saying.

“Organising an international tribunal on the republic’s territory is also planned,” he added.

The report did not specify what charges the fighters would face.

Russian soldier sentenced to life in prison in first war crimes trial of Ukraine war

A court in Kyiv has found 21-year-old Russian soldier Vadim Shishimarin guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to life in prison.

Shishimarin is the first Russian soldier to be sentenced for war crimes since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated earlier on Monday that it was “concerned” about Shishimarin’s fate but added that Moscow did “not have the capacity to protect his interests in person”.

Up to 100 people killed each day fighting in eastern Ukraine: Zelensky

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says up to 100 people are being killed each day in fighting in eastern Ukraine, where Russia has centered its military efforts in recent weeks.

Zelensky made the comment Sunday while speaking to press alongside Polish President Andrzej Duda. He was responding to a question about an online petition to allow men of conscription age — between the ages of 18 and 60 — to leave Ukraine.

The petition, posted on the Ukrainian president’s official website, had gained more than 26,000 signatures as of Monday morning.

“I don’t quite understand whom this petition addresses. Does this petition address me? Or, maybe this petition should address the parents of those warriors, who lost these people, because they defended Ukraine at the cost of their lives?” Zelensky stated.

He added: “Today, from 50 to 100 people could be killed here in the most complicated area, in the east of our country.”

“They are defending our country and our independence about which so many [people] in the world are talking about, so many are talking, but we feel it personally very, very much,” the president said.

Zelensky added the petition would be considered according to the law, at the right time, and irrespective of whether he personally likes it or not.

Germany Ready to Support Embargo on Russian Oil to EU Without Hungary: Economy Minister

Germany is ready to support the EU’s embargo on Russian oil without the participation of Hungary, but the proposal should be put forward by the European Commission, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said on Monday.

“If head of the European Commission [Ursula von der Leyen] says, we will do it now as part of 26 [EU countries], without Hungary. This is the way I would go, but I have not heard about it from the EU yet. In this case, I would be ready to … The European Commission has taken the lead in the negotiations,” Habeck said in an interview with the Deutschlandfunk Kultur radio broadcaster.

Germany admits that some EU countries need a longer transition period to refuse oil imports from Russia, the minister stated. He added, commenting on Hungary’s position on the oil embargo, that each country has its own prerequisites, they depend to a different degree on energy imports.

“My guess is that the path will be as follows: as is always the case in Europe, some countries will receive special rights, and an agreement will be reached,” Habeck continued, noting that in this case, the decision on the oil embargo would be “a concerted European action, driven by Europe.”

When asked about the process of refusing Russian oil supplies, the official said that there is progress in the issue. In particular, two floating LNG terminals will start operating by the end of the year, while gas storage facilities are “slowly but steadily” being filled.

“We reduced our dependence on gas from Russia from 55% before the war [in Ukraine] to 35%. If all goes well, by Christmas or by the end of the year we will have two LNG terminals,” he added.

Poland to terminate Yamal gas pipeline agreement with Russia

Poland’s climate minister says Warsaw has decided to terminate an intergovernmental agreement with Russia regarding the Yamal gas pipeline.

“Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has confirmed the accuracy of the Polish government’s determination to become completely independent from Russian gas. We always knew that Gazprom was not a reliable partner,” Anna Moskwa tweeted.

Russia claimss it destroyed US-made M-777 howitzers

Russia’s defence ministry has claimed its forces destroyed a Ukrainian unit of US-produced M777 howitzers, a type of artillery weapon, according to a report by the RIA Novosti news agency.

Ukraine has deployed many of the M-777 howitzers supplied by Washington at the front lines, with the US claiming to have delivered all but one of the 90 artillery pieces they were due to send to Kyiv.

The M-777 howitzer consignment is part of a huge outlay of weapons from the White House to help Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion and is seen as particularly significant because of its long range and accuracy.

Russian troops have destroyed 177 Ukrainian combat aircraft, 990 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), 3,226 tanks and other armored vehicles and 421 multiple rocket launchers since the beginning of their special military operation in Ukraine, Russian Defense Ministry Spokesperson Major-General Igor Konashenkov said on Monday.

“Overall, the following targets have been eliminated since the beginning of the special military operation: 177 aircraft, 125 helicopters, 990 unmanned aerial vehicles, 319 surface-to-air missile systems, 3,226 tanks and other combat armored vehicles, 421 multiple launch rocket systems, 1,643 field artillery guns and mortars and 3,106 special military motor vehicles,” the spokesman added.

Ukrainian presidential adviser rules out ceasefire or concessions to Russia

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak has ruled out a ceasefire with Russia and said Kyiv would not accept any deal with Moscow that involved ceding territory.

“The war will not stop (after any concessions). It will just be put on pause for some time,” he told Reuters in an interview in the presidential office on Saturday.

Podolyak said making concessions would backfire on Ukraine because Russia would hit back harder after any break in fighting.

“After a while, with renewed intensity, the Russians will build up their weapons, manpower and work on their mistakes, modernize a little, fire many generals … And they’ll start a new offensive, even more bloody and large-scale,” Podolyak added.

“Russia can’t be left halfway because they will (develop) a ‘revanchist’ mood and be even more cruel,” he continued.

Podolyak also dismissed calls for an urgent ceasefire that would involve Russian forces remaining in territory they have occupied in Ukraine’s south and east, noting “the (Russian) forces must leave the country and after that the resumption of the peace process will be possible.”

Head of the Ukrainian President’s Office Andriy Yermak echoed Podolyak’s words, tweeting Sunday that “the war must end with the complete restoration of Ukrainian territorial integrity and sovereignty.”

Russian death toll in Ukraine “likely similar” to Soviet war in Afghanistan: UK Defense Ministry

Russia has “likely suffered a similar death toll” in the first three months of its invasion of Ukraine to that of the Soviet Union during its nine years of war in Afghanistan, the UK Ministry of Defence claimed Monday.

“A combination of poor low-level tactics, limited air cover, a lack of flexibility, and a command approach which is prepared to reinforce failure and repeated mistakes has led to this high casualty rate, which continues to rise in the Donbas offensive,” the ministry announced in an intelligence update.

Tuesday marks three months since Russia launched its assault on Ukraine on Feb. 24. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ran from December 1979 to February 1989.

The official Soviet death toll during the Afghan War was around 15,000 soldiers. In March, senior NATO officials estimated that as many as 15,000 Russian soldiers may have been killed in Ukraine in just one month alone.

Biden: Russia must pay ‘long-term price’ for Ukraine invasion

President Joe Biden has noted that Russia “has to pay a long-term price” for its “barbarism in Ukraine” in terms of sanctions imposed on Moscow by the United States and its allies.

He stated that if, after any future rapprochement between Russia and Ukraine, “the sanctions are not continued to be sustained in many ways, then what signal does that send to China about the cost of attempting to take Taiwan by force?”

Russia ready to continue talks with Ukraine: Presidential aide

Russia is ready to continue talks with Ukraine, which have been frozen at Kiev’s initiative, Russian presidential aide Vladimir Medinsky said.

“We, on our part, are ready to continue dialogue. But I would like to stress that the ball of further peace talks is in Ukraine’s court. The freezing of the talks was a totally Ukrainian initiative,” he stated in an interview with Belarus’ ONT television channel.

“Russia has never refused from talks, including at the top level. [Russian President] Vladimir Putin has repeatedly reiterated that. The matter is that serious preparations are needed for a top-level meeting, a meeting between the presidents,” Medinsky noted, adding that documents should be drafted for such a meeting.

“The heads of state should meet to reach final agreements and sign documents, but not to take photos,” he explained.

According to Medinsky, a month ago the Russian side referred to the Ukrainian side a draft agreement and a number of its major positions had already been agreed.

“We wanted to move on. But since then we have seen no intention to continue dialogue on the part of Ukraine. So, our negotiators took a pause,” he stated.

“It looks like they (Ukraine) are in ho haste. The ball is in their court,” he continued.

Russia’s new Black Sea Fleet flagship heads to Odesa: Ukraine army

Ukraine’s army says Russia is strengthening its position in the Black Sea with a new addition to its fleet, the frigate Admiral Makarov. Ukraine says the ship has left the Crimean port of Sevastpotol and is heading towards Odesa.

Russia’s news agency TASS had previously reported a source from occupied Crimea’s intelligence agency saying the Admiral Makarov would be the new flagship of the Black Sea Fleet. It would replace the Moskva warship, which sank in mid-April after Ukraine said it hit it with two missiles.

Ukraine’s army announced with the Makarov entering the fold, the risk of missile strikes from the Black Sea had increased.

Russia’s imports down to 2020 levels: Official

Imports into Russia have fallen 2020 levels due to “measures from unfriendly states”, which have led to logistical difficulties, a deputy head of Russia’s customs service has said, state agency RIA news reports.

Ruslan Davydov stated deliveries from the north-west had seen the highest decrease due to port closures and bans on Russian ships.

“In addition, we see that in the Baltic countries and Poland, cargoes are artificially slowed down and subjected to 100% inspection,” Davydov continued, adding that this represented an “economic war” against Russia.

He noted imports had increased from countries to Russia’s east and south, in particular China and Kazakhstan.

NZ sending 30 army personnel to train Ukraine soldiers in UK

New Zealand will send 30 defence force personnel to the UK to help train Ukrainian soldiers in operating L119 light field guns.

“Our training team has been requested to help train members of Ukraine’s Armed Forces in the use of the weapon system until the end of July,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said.

New Zealand’s Chief of Defence Force Air Marshal Kevin Short stated 230 Ukrainians would be trained and it would take about a week for each training session.

Ardern made it clear the NZ soldiers would be based in the UK and would not enter Ukraine.

Ukraine ends taxation agreement with Russia

Ukraine’s parliament has voted to end a double taxation agreement with Russia, which had been in place since 1995 and in which Russian residents operating in Ukraine were exempt from paying Kyiv’s taxes and could be taxed by their home country only, Interfax has reported.

Ukraine’s finance ministry said that now “all income of residents of the Russian Federation received from sources in Ukraine will be subject to a general tax rate of 15% established by the Tax Code of Ukraine,” instead of preferential rates established by the double taxation agreement.

The ministry also added Ukrainian residents operating in Russia will equally no longer be able to pay Moscow’s taxes.

More than 100mn people forcibly displaced in the world: UN

More than 100 million people have been driven from their homes around the world, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) has said, citing new data and adding the war in Ukraine was one of the factors propelling millions to flee.

The UNHCR added that protracted conflict in places like Ethiopia and Democratic Republic of Congo were other factors behind the high numbers.

Nearly 6.5 million people have now fled Ukraine due to the war.

Johnson discussed Russia’s blockade of Odesa with Zelensky

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Sunday discussed with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s shipping port Odesa, a Downing Street spokesperson said.

Johnson resolved to redouble efforts to provide vital food and humanitarian aid to the people of Ukraine and ensure the country was able to export to the rest of the world, the spokesperson added.

US and France discuss how to support Finland, Sweden’s bids to join NATO

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken and France’s new Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna discussed the NATO alliance including how best to support Finland and Sweden’s membership bids in a call, the US Department of State has announced in a statement.

Blinken and Colonna also agreed on the importance of continuing support to Ukraine and maintaining “significant costs” on Russian President Vladimir Putin over the invasion of Ukraine, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price stated.

EU’s weapons stockpile depleted: Top diplomat

The EU needs to take more responsibility for its security and compensate for the shortfalls that have been underlined by the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, the bloc’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borell has said.

“The most obvious example” of such shortfalls are “the depleted stockpiles resulting from the military support we provided to Ukraine” Borrell wrote in his blog on Sunday.

But there were many others “inherited from past budget cuts and underinvestment,” he added.

According to Borrell, the combined defense spending in the EU has increased by only 20% from 1999 to 2021, compared to 66% for the US, 292% for Russia and 592% for China.

The events in Ukraine have resulted in “a tectonic shift of the European security landscape,” the diplomat insisted, noting, “Now it is clear that Europe is in danger.”

In such circumstances, “the EU needs to take on more responsibility for its own security,” which would require creating “modern and interoperable European armed forces, looking at the higher-end of the spectrum and also striving to scale up capabilities and forces,” he pointed out.

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