Friday, May 17, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 119

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:

Lithuanian president says country is prepared for any “unfriendly actions” by Russia

Lithuanian President Gitanas Nauseda said his country is ready for some form of retaliation by Russia after it banned the transit of certain goods subject to European Union sanctions across its territory and into the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad.

“We are ready and we are prepared for some kind of unfriendly actions from the side of Russia, disconnection from the BRELL system or other actions,” stated Nauseda, speaking to Reuters in a video published Wednesday.

The BRELL system is a power grid shared between Russia, Belarus and Baltic states.

He added he does not believe Russia will challenge Lithuania militarily because his country is a NATO member.

Nauseda defended the decision to block the passage of some goods, saying they’re implementing what was decided on a European Union level.

“We just implement the sanctions, which were imposed on European Union level, and this has nothing to do with the bilateral relations between Russia and the Lithuania,” Nauseda said.

“We are looking forward to implement next stages of the sanctions, and it would be very good that European Commission explains the content of the sanctions to the Russian authorities and probably it will remove some tensions which are arising right now,” he added, warning that the escalation of tensions won’t benefit either side.

Earlier Wednesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov noted that retaliatory measures for Lithuania’s transit ban on European Union-sanctioned goods to Russia through Kaliningrad were being discussed. Peskov did not elaborate what those measures could entail and said there was no exact timeline for Moscow’s response.

All EU members will back Ukraine’s candidacy: Zelensky

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he believes all European Union members would back a proposal to grant Ukraine EU candidate status at a summit later this week.

“I do believe that all 27 European Union countries will support our candidate status,” he added, speaking at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy in Toronto via video link.

Putin signs decree on external debt service

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree on Wednesday establishing temporary procedures to fulfil foreign debt obligations, the Interfax news agency reported, as investors keep a close eye on a potential default.

The agency reported Putin had ordered the government to choose banks within 10 days to handle payments on Eurobonds under a new scheme.

‘Marshall Plan’ needed to rebuild Ukraine: Scholz

Ukraine needs massive financial help to rebuild after the devastation wrought by Russia’s invasion, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said, adding the reconstruction would be a “task for generations”.

Citing the US initiative to help western Europe rebuild after World War II, Scholz stated he had invited Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to participate in the G7 summit starting this Sunday, to “agree on what such a ‘Marshall Plan for Ukraine’ would look like”.

“And like war-destroyed Europe then, Ukraine needs a Marshall Plan for its reconstruction,” he said, ahead of back-to-back summits gathering EU, G7 and NATO leaders in the coming days.

While the European Union has already mobilised billions for Ukraine, the country will require many more billions in the next year, added Scholz.

The financial needs can only be covered with the participation of international organisations and other large donor countries, he continued.

Russia warns against Article 5 talk in Kaliningrad standoff

Russia’s deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov, has warned the west to stop talking about triggering NATO’s “Article 5” mutual defence clause in a standoff between Lithuania and Russia.

Ryabkov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying, “I would like to warn Europeans against dangerous rhetorical games on the topic of conflict.”

His comments come after the US government announced that its commitment to Article 5 of NATO’s founding treaty – which states that an attack on one member of the alliance is an attack on all – was “ironclad”.

Kremlin: EU sanctions that prompted Lithuania transit ban ‘unacceptable’

The Kremlin announced the EU sanctions that led Lithuania to impose a ban on the transit of some goods from mainland Russia to its exclave of Kaliningrad were “absolutely unacceptable”, and that Moscow was working on retaliatory measures.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated Moscow had yet to decide when it would impose countermeasures.

Russia says it is exchanging official signals with US on American fighters in Ukraine

Russia and the United States were exchanging official signals on the issue of American fighters in Ukraine, RIA news agency reported, quoting Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov.

Interfax cited him as saying that Moscow did not see Washington’s readiness to deal with the issue seriously.

Ukraine won’t get a VIP pass to join the EU: France

France has said Ukraine’s passage to join the European Union could take years to complete, reiterating its position that the country won’t be fast-tracked into the bloc despite widespread support among leaders for its efforts to join.

Ukraine will have to comply with strict rules as with any applicant, a French minister stated, ahead of a Brussels summit in which leaders will discuss Ukraine’s candidacy.

“There is no expedited procedure, there is no King’s Pass,” French Minister Delegate for Europe Clément Beaune said in an interview with French radio Europe 1, using a term for preferential treatment.

“They need to finish the war first, to rebuild the country, to meet all the democratic and economic requirements. This will take time. But we are giving this signal of openness,” Beaune added.

EU leaders will gather on Thursday and Friday to discuss whether or not to grant EU candidacy status to Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

The European Commission last week backed Ukraine’s candidacy.

Speaking in Brussels, its President Ursula von der Leyen noted the Commission recommends “that Ukraine is given candidate status. This is of course on the understanding that the country will carry out a number of further reforms.”

Moscow accuses Berlin of ‘Russophobic hysteria’

Russia’s foreign ministry has accused Germany of anti-Russian sentiment in a statement on the anniversary of the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi troops in 1941.

“Russophobic hysteria is systematically fuelled by almost daily public attacks against our country by members of the German government,” the ministry said, adding that authorities in Berlin undermine the process of “historical reconciliation” between Russians and Germans after World War II.

Russia, Turkey agree to more consultations on grain exports from Ukraine

Russia’s defence ministry says Russian and Turkish delegations have agreed to continue consultations on safe vessel departures and grain exports from Ukrainian ports.

Ukraine is one of the top wheat suppliers globally, but its grain shipments have stalled and tonnes of grain has been trapped in silos since Russia sent troops into the country. Moscow denies responsibility for the food crisis and blames Western sanctions for the shortage.

Heavy fighting rages in several areas of southern Ukraine

Heavy fighting is taking place in southern Ukraine along the borders of Kherson and Mykolaiv regions, according to Ukrainian officials.

Russians were shelling many districts of Mykolaiv, the government said Wednesday. For the second day in a row, the town of Bereznehuvate came under fire Tuesday, according to regional authorities. Shelling in adjacent rural areas set fire to crops, they added.

The government said heavy fighting was raging in several villages along the regional border.

In Kherson, which has been under Russian control since March, more activists, politicians and journalists are reported to have been abducted.

“There is no Ukrainian media in the region,” Ukrainian authorities added.

“The occupiers and local collaborators are making more and more loud statements about Kherson region joining Russia,” the government said, but added that “every day more and more Ukrainian flags and inscriptions appear in the city (of Kherson).”

Russia’s response to Lithuania over transit ban won’t be only diplomatic

Moscow’s response to Lithuania’s ban on the transit of goods sanctioned by the EU to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad will not be exclusively diplomatic but practical in nature, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry has announced.

“One of the main questions has been about whether the response would be exclusively diplomatic. The answer: no,” Maria Zakharova said at her weekly briefing.

“The response will not be diplomatic but practical,” she added.

Zakharova would not elaborate on the nature of the practical measures Russia planned to take against Lithuania.

Europe told to be ready for total cut of Russian gas

International Energy Agency (IEA) chief Fatih Birol has warned Europe to be prepared for the possibility of a complete shutdown of Russian gas exports this winter, calling on EU governments to widen the span of measures aimed at preparing for this scenario, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday.

“Europe should be ready in case Russian gas is completely cut off. The nearer we are coming to winter, the more we understand Russia’s intentions,” he said, as cited by the news outlet.

Commenting on Gazprom slashing 60% of gas supplies via the Nord Stream pipeline last week, which the Russian company stresses is purely technical, Birol said that the “cuts are geared towards avoiding Europe filling storage and increasing Russia’s leverage in the winter months.”

However, the IEA has been openly accusing Russia of manipulating gas prices since last year, when the cost of gas in Europe spiked to all-time highs.

“Emergency measures taken by European countries this week to reduce gas demand, such as firing up old coal-fired power stations, were justified by the scale of the crisis despite concerns about rising carbon emissions,” he stated, adding that, in his opinion, the return to coal-fired energy generation will be “temporary” and help keep enough gas supplies for the upcoming heating season.

Germany, Austria, Italy and the Netherlands announced their plans to step-up use of coal for power generation, while Sweden and Denmark said they would also launch emergency measures to curb the use of natural gas.

Birol warned, however, that current measures do not go far enough if Russian gas exports stop completely and suggested that European governments should step-up efforts to fill storage facilities, among other options.

“I believe there will be more and deeper demand measures [taken by governments in Europe] as winter approaches,” Birol added.

He noted that gas rationing is a possibility, which could help offset the consequences of losing Russian gas and offered the bloc to “consider postponing closures [of nuclear power plants] as long as the safety conditions are there.”

Ukraine journalist, soldier ‘coldly executed’: Press group

A Ukrainian photojournalist and a soldier who was accompanying him when they were killed in the first weeks of Russia’s invasion appear to have been “coldly executed”, Reporters Without Borders has said, after an investigation into their deaths.

The press freedom group said it went back to the spot where the bodies of Maks Levin and serviceman Oleksiy Chernyshov were found April 1 in woods north of the capital, Kyiv. It counted 14 bullet holes in the burned hulk of their car still at the scene.

The group announced disused Russian positions, one of them still booby-trapped, were found close by. Also found were the remains of food rations, cigarette packets and other litter seemingly left by Russian soldiers. A jerrycan for petrol was also found close to where Chernyshov’s burned body had been recovered, it added.

A Ukrainian team with metal detectors uncovered a bullet buried in the soil where Levin’s body had lain, it said. The group added that finding suggests “he was probably killed with one, perhaps two bullets fired at close range when he was already on the ground”.

Fire at Russian oil plant erupts after Ukrainian drone flight

A fire at Russia’s Novoshakhtinsk refinery in the Rostov region began after two Ukrainian drones were spotted over the plant, TASS cited an unidentified source in the local authorities.

“One of them made an impact, crashing into a heat transfer unit, after which the blaze started. The second one flew away,” the source told TASS.

The local emergency service said the blaze has been put out, Interfax news agency reported.

Russia only exists by attacking others: Kyiv adviser

Russia is expansionist and exists only by attacking other states, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak has said.

“It attacks in various ways, using its energy resources, its military, migration, using food as a weapon. Ukraine can never sign a deal with Russia in this context,” Podolyak told Al Jazeera in an interview.

After being asked about ceding land to Russia to prevent further death and destruction, Podolyak stated, “any surrender of Ukrainian territory would mean the war would continue with greater intensity and even greater scale”.

“We want to finish this war the right way and that means liberating our territories in full and reestablishing our sovereignty within internationally recognised borders,” he added.

Russia’s envoy to US says his office wasn’t contacted about captured Americans

Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, says his office hasn’t received any requests from Washington about the two Americans captured in Ukraine, Moscow’s state TASS news agency reports.

Antonov’s comments came after US State Department Spokesman Ned Price stated that Washington had been in touch with Russian authorities about the two US citizens, who were reportedly being held in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic.

“The embassy did not contact us. I do not confirm the receipt of any such contact from the Americans,” Antonov added, according to TASS.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov had earlier noted that death sentences for the two men could not be ruled out.

Russia preparing to deploy large number of reserves to Donbas: UK

Russia is highly likely preparing to deploy a large number of reserves to the front lines of the Donbas, the UK’s defence ministry has said, as heavy shelling continues in the east, around the Severodonetsk area.

Although Moscow hasn’t released its military casualty numbers, the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) publishes such figures for the DPR forces, the UK announced.

“As of 16 June, the DPR acknowledged 2128 military personnel killed in action, and 8897 wounded, since the start of 2022,” which is equivalent to around 55 per cent of its original force, the ministry said, adding this highlighted the extraordinary attrition numbers of Russia’s forces.

“It is highly likely that DPR forces are equipped with outdated weapons and equipment. On both sides, the ability to generate and deploy reserve units to the front is likely becoming increasingly critical to the outcome of the war,” the ministry added.

Biden says Russia’s war in Ukraine a “waiting game” as he prepares to meet with allies in Europe

US President Joe Biden says he isn’t afraid of the Western alliance fracturing as Russia’s war in Ukraine grinds ahead.

But he did warn of a protracted conflict and stated he would discuss the way forward with allies a next week’s NATO summit in Madrid

“I’m not afraid,” he said when questioned about the potential for fractures among US allies in Europe.

“I do think, at some point, this is going to be a bit of a waiting game,” he continued, adding, “What the Russians can sustain and what Europe is going to be prepared to sustain.”

“That’s one of the things we’re going to be speaking in Spain about,” he concluded.

Biden departs Saturday for a G7 summit in Germany followed by the NATO gathering in Spain.

Zelensky says military situation in Luhansk region is very tough

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated the military situation in the eastern region of Luhansk was very difficult as Russia stepped up an effort to evict Ukrainian troops from key areas.

“That is really the toughest spot. The occupiers are pressing strongly,” he added.

Estonia protests to Russia over violation of national airspace by helicopter

Estonia summoned the Russian ambassador to protest the violation of its national airspace by a Russian helicopter on June 18, the Baltic nation’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

“Estonia considers this an extremely serious and regrettable incident that undoubtedly causes additional tensions and is completely unacceptable,” the ministry added, repeating calls for Russian troops to leave Ukraine.

15 dead and 16 injured in Kharkiv region: Military administration

The Military Administration of Kharkiv claimed 15 people have died and 16 have been injured across the region.

In a post on Telegram, Oleh Syniehubov stated the dead included six in Chuhuiv, five in Kharkiv, three in Zolovhiv and an 8-year-old girl from Derhachi.

Russia has not provided US additional details on whereabouts of Americans captured in Ukraine

Russian authorities have not provided the United States any additional details on the whereabouts of two Americans captured in Ukraine, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price has stated.

Price told reporters the US is pursuing every channel and every opportunity to learn more and support the families of Americans missing in Ukraine.

US says NATO commitment to Lithuania ‘ironclad’ after Russia threat

The US has announced it stood firmly behind Lithuania and NATO commitments to defend it after Russia warned the EU member country over restrictions on rail transit.

“We stand by our NATO allies and we stand by Lithuania,” State Department Spokesperson Ned Price told reporters.

“Specifically our commitment to NATO’s Article Five – the premise that an attack on one would constitute an attack on all – that commitment on the part of the United States is ironclad,” he added.

White House: Putin is weaponising food by blocking Ukraine grain exports

President Vladimir Putin is weaponising food by blocking Ukraine grain exports and President Joe Biden is examining options on how to get the grain out, the White House has said.

“President Putin is, no kidding, weaponising food. Let’s just call it what it is, he’s weaponizing food,” John Kirby, a White House national security spokesperson, told reporters.

Russian forces capture several more settlements in Luhansk region

Russian forces have captured several settlements near the embattled cities of Lysychansk and Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region, the regional governor and Ukraine’s general staff have said.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai told Ukraine’s national broadcaster that Russian forces had captured the settlement of Toshkivka to the south of Severodonetsk, confirming previous reports.

“Unfortunately, the enemy threw at it huge amounts of armaments and soldiers and captured Toshkivka,” Haidai added.

US says conveyed to Russia detained Americas should be protected under Geneva Conventions

The United States disagrees “vigorously” with the Russian position that the US citizens captured in Ukraine are not covered by the Geneva Conventions, a senior Department of State official has said, adding that Washington has conveyed its stance on the issue to the Russian government.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, interviewed by the US television network NBC news on Monday, stated two Americans detained in Ukraine while fighting on the Ukrainian side of the war were mercenaries who endangered the lives of Russian servicemen and should face responsibility for their actions.

White House says it’s “appalling” Russia won’t rule out executing detained Americans

The White House says it is “appalling” Russia won’t rule out applying the death penalty on two American citizens detained after volunteering to fight in Ukraine.

“We still are trying to learn more about these two individuals,” stated John Kirby, the coordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council.

“It’s appalling that a public official in Russia would even suggest the death penalty for two American citizens that were in Ukraine. And we’re going to continue to try and learn what we can about this,” he added.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Monday the Geneva Convention — the charter which sets out how soldiers and civilians are treated in wartime, including banning execution of prisoners of war — does not apply to the two detained US citizens.

Peskov added the death penalty could not be ruled out, but that it was a decision for a court and not the Kremlin.

Kirby said he wouldn’t try and get into Peskov’s or Vladimir Putin’s heads. But he noted no matter whether the prospect of the death penalty was real or hypothetical, it was troubling no matter what.

“Either way, it’s equally alarming, whether they actually mean what they’re saying here and this could be an outcome, that they could levy a death penalty against two Americans in Ukraine,” he continued, adding, “Or that they just feel it’s a responsible thing for a major power to do, to talk about doing this as a way of signaling the president of the United States and the American people. Either one of them is equally alarming.”

Russia will “absolutely not” return to pre-war status quo: US

Russia will “absolutely not” go back to the pre-war status quo, a senior State Department official told reporters Tuesday.

This official did not speak explicitly to the future of diplomatic relations with Russia, noting they were already strained prior to the war starting in February. The official said US Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan speaks less frequently with the Russian foreign ministry than before, but there is still contact on the issues of the US Embassy’s “staffing woes” and the detained Americans.

“That’s a frequent topic multiple times a week, on behalf of various detainees and not just the most high-profile ones, which are obviously Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, but there are other Americans who are detained there who deserve the same level of treatment as any American citizen does, who’s detained in a foreign country,” the official added.

The official also explained how challenging it is to work with the Russians on the issue of detained Americans, because the Russians put convoluted processes in place that prevent any quick contact with the detainees.

“Oh, well, we moved detainee X last week. He’s on the other side of Moscow and you’re gonna need a different form, in triplicate, but that but the office that issues it is closed until next Thursday. But if you come after five on Friday, then maybe we’ll take care of you, but only bring blue pens,” the official stated, describing the kinds of hoops that the Russians make US officials jump through.

Sullivan has not “engaged on Ukraine policy with the Russian government since mid-February,” the official explained.

The official spoke of the commercial impact the war has had in Russia, noting that there were more than 1,000 US companies that did business in Russia last year and “it’s a fraction of that now.”

The official said the US ambassador had previously dealt a great deal with helping US businesses in Russia that had gotten in trouble over regulatory or potential criminal matters. They said Sullivan had “a lot of interaction” with the minister of Trade and Industry and they “developed a pretty good relationship.”

The official added the outcomes weren’t often positive but “the issues were treated seriously and sometimes we got good outcomes, more often than not we didn’t, but that’s all stopped.”

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