Monday, April 22, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 153

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:

Kremlin: Moscow to retaliate if Schengen visas denied to Russians

Moscow will react extremely negatively if Schengen visas are denied to Russians, this will entail retaliatory measures, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday.

“Of course, Russia will react extremely negatively to this. As far as we understand, so far, this decision has not found any, let’s say, application … Let’s hope that it will not. But, of course, any such actions against Russian citizens will entail countermeasures and response. It is quite understandable and predictable,” Peskov told reporters.

Moscow hopes for the sober thinking of the EU leadership regarding the issue, the official added.

The presidential spokesman’s statement comes as a response to European politicians who said that EU countries should stop issuing Schengen visas to Russian nationals. At the same time, the Foreign Ministry noted that several states – namely, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and Czech Republic – almost ceased to grant visas to Russians.

UK targets Russian officials in new wave of sanctions

The UK has sanctioned Kremlin-imposed officials in the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces in eastern Ukraine as well as 29 regional governors across Russia in response to Moscow’s invasion.

Vitaly Khotsenko and Vladislav Kuznetsov, the Russian-imposed Prime Minister and First Deputy Chairman of the so-called Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, were among the 42 new designations, which also included Russia’s minister and deputy minister of justice, and two nephews of Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov, who was himself sanctioned by the UK in March.

“Khotsenko and Kuznetsov have been sent to implement Russia’s policies across the invaded region, supporting Putin’s plans to illegally annex more of Ukraine and use sham referendums to falsely legitimise their occupation,” the UK foreign office said in a statement.

Russia to quit International Space Station ‘after 2024’: Space agency chief

Russia has decided to quit the International Space Station (ISS) “after 2024”, the newly-appointed chief of Moscow’s space agency has told President Vladimir Putin.

“Of course, we will fulfil all our obligations to our partners, but the decision to leave this station after 2024 has been made,” Roscosmos chief Yury Borisov stated in comments released by the Kremlin.

Russian cosmonauts on the ISS have received particular attention in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with early speculation that the crew’s choice to wear yellow and blue flight suits while boarding the station in March was a subtle show of Ukrainian solidarity.

That speculation was doused in July, when the Russian space agency released photos of the cosmonauts holding the flags of the Russian-backed breakaway regions of the Luhansk People’s Republic and the Donetsk People’s Republic, which are located in Ukraine’s Donbas region.

Monitoring centre for Ukrainian grain exports to open in Istanbul: Turkey

A joint coordination centre (JCC) for Ukrainian grain exports under a UN-brokered deal will be opened in a ceremony in Istanbul on Wednesday, Turkey’s defence ministry has noted.

Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the UN signed the accord last week to resume Ukraine’s grain exports, which had stalled after Russia’s February 24 invasion of its neighbour.

All parties will appoint representatives at the JCC to monitor the implementation of the plan.

EU countries reach deal on emergency gas cuts for this winter

European Union countries have agreed on an emergency regulation to curb their gas use this winter, as Europe prepares for a winter of uncertain supplies from Russia.

“This was not a Mission Impossible! Ministers have reached a political agreement on gas demand reduction ahead of the upcoming winter,” the Czech Republic, which holds the rotating EU presidency, wrote in a tweet.

Kyiv says Russian attacks pummel Ukraine’s Black sea coast

Ukraine has announced that Russian forces have launched multiple missile attacks at targets on the Black Sea coast near the southern port city of Odesa and in Mykolaiv.

The attacks come days after Russian raids hit the port of Odesa, threatening to chill a breakthrough deal to resume exports of grain from Ukraine disrupted by Moscow’s invasion.

“A massive missile attack, with the use of aircraft, was launched from the Black Sea on the south of Ukraine,” the country’s southern military command wrote on Facebook.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also published a video on Instagram showing debris scattered around heavily damaged houses in Zatoka, a popular resort village to the west of Odesa.

EU gas prices surge amid fears of Russian supply cuts

The price of natural gas in Europe has climbed to its highest level since March amid fears of a further reduction in Russian supplies. It comes after it was announced that another turbine at the Nord Stream 1 pipeline would be shut down.

On Tuesday, August futures on the TTF trading hub in the Netherlands reached $2,020 per thousand cubic meters or €188.68 ($192.5) per megawatt-hour in household terms.

The increase follows a statement by Gazprom on Monday that a second Siemens turbine at the Nord Stream 1 pipeline will be disabled and overhauled. As a result, supply through the route will not exceed 33 million cubic meters per day from July 27, corresponding to 20% of the pipeline’s capacity. This is a further cut from the reduction to 40% capacity last month that Gazprom announced was due to a sanctions-related delay with the return of another turbine from repairs in Canada.

European gas prices have nearly tripled this year, having peaked at a historic high of $3,900 per thousand cubic meters in early March after Russia launched a military operation in neighboring Ukraine.

Ireland warns 15 percent gas use cut won’t overcome supply squeeze

A European Union proposal for countries to curb their gas demand by 15 percent will not be sufficient to get through the third-quarter of the year in the face of continued cuts to Russian gas supply, Irish environment minister Eamon Ryan has said.

“Fifteen percent will probably not be enough given what the Russians have just announced, a further reduction in their gas supplies through Nord Stream 1. But it’s better than not having it, and I think the signal it sends is also important,” he stated after arriving at the meeting of EU country ministers.

German minister: EU gas plan shows Russia ‘won’t split us’

An EU plan to require the bloc’s members to use less gas shows Russian President Putin that they are united, even if they have compromised to find common ground, German Economy Minister Robert Habeck has noted.

“Of course, there are a lot of compromises in this text now. This is the way Europe operates,” Habeck told reporters in Brussels.

“It’s a very important next step. It shows that Europe stays united, that Europe is able to find unity,” he continued, adding that the plan sent a signal to “Putin and to Russia: ‘you won’t split us’.”

Another Russian missile strike hits Odesa region

There’s been another Russian missile strike on the Odesa region, according to Serhii Bratchuk, spokesman for the Odesa regional administration.

Bratchuk said that at around 5 a.m. local time, air launched missiles had struck a civilian area and set off fires.

It took place at the coastal village of Zatoka, where Russian forces have previously targeted a bridge with missiles.

President Volodymyr Zelensky posted a video of the missile attack.

“An ordinary village of Zatoka. People rested and lived. Just lived,” Zelensky posted on Instagram.

“There are no bases, no troops. It’s just that terrorists from the Russian Federation WANTED TO SHOOT. They will be responsible for everything,” he added.

There are no details on casualties in the attack, but video shows a number of properties on fire.

Russian gas cuts ‘politically motivated’: EU energy chief

Gazprom’s announcement that it will further slash deliveries to Europe this week is politically motivated, the European Union’s energy policy chief has said, disputing the company’s claim it had cut supply because it needed to halt the operation of a turbine.

“We know that there is no technical reason to do so. This is a politically motivated step, and we have to be ready for that. And exactly for that reason, the preemptive reduction of our gas demand is a wise strategy,” Kadri Simson stated on her arrival at a meeting of EU countries’ energy ministers in Brussels.

Simson added she expected the ministers to reach a deal on emergency EU rules requiring countries to curb their gas demand.

Russia sees Ukraine’s anti-ship missiles as ‘key threat’: UK

Russia almost certainly perceives Ukraine’s anti-ship missiles as a key threat which is limiting the effectiveness of Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet, the United Kingdom’s defence ministry has said.

“This has significantly undermined the overall invasion plan, as Russia cannot realistically attempt an amphibious assault to seize Odesa,” the ministry added.

“Russia will continue to prioritise efforts to degrade and destroy Ukraine’s anti-ship capability,” the ministry noted in its defence briefing.

“However, Russia’s targeting processes are highly likely routinely undermined by dated intelligence, poor planning, and a top-down approach to operations,” it announced.

EU must act ‘as soon as possible’ against Gazprom gas threats

Gazprom’s plan to cut gas deliveries to Europe shows EU countries must agree to reduce their use of Russian gas this winter, a minister from the Czech Republic, whose country holds the EU presidency, has stated.

“Vladimir Putin will continue to play his dirty games in misusing and blackmailing gas supplies,” Czech Industry and Trade Minister Jozef Sikela said as he arrived to discuss the joint plan with the EU energy ministers in Brussels.

The Gazprom cut “is just an additional… proof that we have to take the game in our hands and we have to reduce the dependencies on Russian supplies as soon as possible,” he added.

Spain’s expects EU to agree on a lower than 15 percent gas use cut

Spain expects EU member countries to reach an agreement to cut natural gas use during the winter by less than the 15 percent previously proposed by the European Commission – and on a voluntary basis, Energy Minister Teresa Ribera has stated upon arriving at the energy meeting in Brussels.

The European Commission last week proposed emergency rules requiring each country to cut its gas use by 15 percent from August to March. The target would be voluntary, but the Commission could make it binding in a supply emergency.

The Spanish government opposes forcing consumers and companies to cut their gas use, arguing the country heavily invested in infrastructure to import and re-export natural gas to the rest of the EU.

EU countries were expected to approve a watered-down version of the earlier proposal.

Ukraine receives short-range missile defence systems from UK: Army

The first six Stormer HVM (high-velocity missile) air-defence systems have arrived in Ukraine from the United Kingdom and are being used on the front line, Ukraine’s military has said, issuing a video of the systems which has been shared by Ukrainian media.

“The British ‘invisible’ Stormer HVM air defence systems can ‘see’ enemy attack aircraft at a distance of up to 18 km [11 miles],” Operational Command South announced in a Facebook post.

The military added the systems are called “invisible” because they cannot be detected by “onboard sensors on enemy helicopters and aircraft”.

Iranian dailies divided over Ukraine war

An Iranian daily, Jomhouri-e Eslami, has warned of efforts to hinge Iran’s fate on the outcome of the Russian war on Ukraine by claiming that a Russian defeat would backfire on the Islamic Republic as well.

Kayhan, another Iranian daily, showed a harsh reaction to the article by Jomhouri-e Eslami, castigating its suggestion for a ‘balancing act between the East and the West’ as a ‘passive stance.’

EU sounds alarm over Russian gas

The European Union should prepare for the worst-case scenario of a complete halt in natural gas supplies from Russia, the European Commission president warned in an interview with Germany’s DPA news agency.

When asked about the EC’s emergency energy plan presented last week, Ursula Von Der Leyen stressed the importance of making the bloc energy-independent from Russia, insisting that it was only a matter of time before Moscow decided to completely sever gas deliveries to the EU.

“The Kremlin is not a reliable partner for Europe’s energy supply. Gazprom has deliberately kept its storage levels low. In the meantime, Russia only supplies gas in part or not at all in twelve member states,” Von Der Leyen said, adding that “Europe must be prepared for the worst case scenario: a complete halt to gas supplies, sooner or later.”

The Commission chief noted that the EU aims to be completely independent from Russian gas by 2027 at the latest, and that some 300 billion euros will be invested under the REPowerEU plan, in order to save gas and accelerate “the switch to renewables.”

She went on to urge EU members that do not heavily rely on Russian gas imports to join the energy-saving effort. The EC president warned that even if these states barely receive any gas from Moscow, they could still be severely affected in case of a complete halt of Russian energy deliveries to the EU.

“It is therefore important that all member states curb demand, that all save more and share with those members who are more affected,” Von Der Leyen stated, noting that “energy solidarity is a fundamental principle of our European treaties.”

Last week, the European Commission introduced an emergency energy plan called the “Save Gas for a Safe Winter” proposal, which instructs all EU countries to lower their gas consumption by 15% by September – a limitation that is set to last until March 31, 2023. Member states are also asked to switch to renewable energy or even coal, oil and nuclear power to achieve this target, and to instruct their citizens to ration their gas usage.

The plan will be discussed by EU energy ministers on Tuesday. Von Der Leyen expressed her confidence that the scheme will be accepted by the ministers, who “understand their responsibility” to see Europe safely through the next two winters.

However, several EU states have so far resisted the plan, with Spain, Greece and Portugal, Italy, Poland and Hungary accusing the European Commission of failing to consult member states on the scheme.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has rejected the notion that Moscow could cut off gas supplies to the EU, stating last week that Russian energy giant Gazprom was “ready to pump as much as necessary” but that the EU had “closed everything themselves.” He previously called the bloc’s sanctions on Russia “insane and thoughtless,” and accused EU leaders of committing economic “suicide” under the orders of the US.

Russia intensifies airstrikes in Donetsk region: Ukrainian Officials

Russia has reportedly intensified airstrikes on settlements in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region, officials say.

Russian air attacks continue increasingly in the cities of Bakhmut, Kramatorsk, Chasiv Yar, Sloviansk and Kostyantynivka, as well as surrounding villages.

Missiles that targeted Bakhmut, Kramatorsk and Kostyantynivka in the last week have seriously damaged schools, homes, businesses, marketplaces, industrial areas and other structures in the region.

New explosions occurred in Bakhmut, Kramatorsk and Kostyantynivka on Sunday night and early Monday, Bakhmut Police Major Pavlo Diachenko told Anadolu.

Airstrikes on settlements and civilian structures under the control of the Ukrainian army have also increased in recent days, he stated.

EU countries seek deal on weakened plan to cut winter gas use

Energy ministers from European Union countries are set to approve a weakened emergency proposal to curb their gas demand on Tuesday, with opt-outs allowing them to follow different national paths to prepare for Russian supply cuts.

The European Commission last week proposed emergency rules requiring each country to cut its gas use by 15 percent from August to March. The target would be voluntary, but the Commission could make it binding in a supply emergency. However, the plan has faced resistance from a range of governments, and countries have redrafted it to include exemptions for numerous countries and industries.

“Member states have to make sure that their targets are feasible given their domestic situation,” a senior EU diplomat said.

Another diplomat stated ministers appeared likely to approve the plan, now that many had won exemptions or softer rules.

“There should be a broad consensus,” the diplomat added.

Czech gas storage hits 80% capacity ahead of winter: PM

The Czech Republic’s gas stores are 80 percent full, Prime Minister Petr Fiala has stated, as the country and other European Union member states continue to boost storage to protect against risks of a halt to Russian supplies.

The EU aims to have gas storage facilities across the bloc 80 percent full by November 1.

Fiala said in a Twitter post that Czech gas storage levels were at a record level, adding, “We are working to be as well prepared as possible for the winter.”

The Czech Republic was nearly wholly dependent on Russia for gas before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in February pushed it to seek alternative supplies.

Austria on track to hit gas storage target: Energy minister

Austria is on track to reach its target of topping up its natural gas storage to 80 percent of capacity by the start of the country’s winter heating season, the energy minister has said.

“I have to assume that this was a political announcement,” Leonore Gewessler told broadcaster ORF after Gazprom announced it would cut gas supplies to 20 percent.

“For Austria, this means that we are on course to achieve our storage target. If that changes, we will of course take measures, but we see that Nord Stream 1 is not the central supply route for us. This is different from Germany,” she added, noting that one storage facility run by Austrian energy company OMV had already reached the 80 percent target.

Even when Nord Stream 1 was fully shut down for maintenance, Austria was able to keep topping up storage using non-Russian gas and supplies from Russia via Ukraine, she continued.

Ukraine says Russia increased gas pipeline pressure without prior notice

Russian gas giant Gazprom has sharply increased pressure in the pipeline that delivers Russian gas to Europe without prior notice, the Ukrainian state pipeline operator company has said.

Such pressure spikes could lead to emergencies, including pipeline ruptures, and pipeline operators are obliged to inform each other about them in advance, the Ukrainian company added.

Gazprom could not be immediately reached for comment.

Turkey’s president urges all sides in Ukraine grain deal to act responsibly

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has urged Russia and Ukraine to act responsibly and honor agreements they signed in Istanbul last week regarding the export of Ukrainian grains.

“We expect everyone to own their signatures on the agreement and act according to their responsibilities they undertook. We want everyone to avoid actions that are against the spirit of the agreement,” he said, speaking to Turkish state broadcaster TRT.

Reacting to Russian missile strikes that hit the southern Ukrainian port of Odesa just one day after Kyiv and Moscow signed a deal brokered by Turkey and the United Nations to allow shipments, Erdogan stated that Istanbul has increased its diplomatic efforts to avoid any fallout from the attack in Odesa.

“It saddens us that something like that happened. This kind of failure would be harmful for all of us. We’re determined to implement this agreement with all of its components and our efforts in this regard continues,” he continued.

During the interview with TRT, the Turkish president also reiterated his threat to block Sweden and Finland’s bid for NATO accession, if the Nordic countries don’t comply with the agreements signed in Madrid in late June between Istanbul, Stockholm and Helsinki.

The trilateral memorandum led Turkey to conditionally agree to their accession bid, following which, Sweden and Finland made the historic decision to formally apply for NATO membership, ending decades of neutrality. Their bid now requires ratification from all 30 member states’ parliaments and legislatures.

Ankara had announced Helsinki and Stockholm agreed to not provide support to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, also known as YPG, and the separatist militant Kurdistan’s Workers Party, also known as PKK, both of which Turkey considers as a terrorist organizations.

“What happened in Madrid is an invitation, not an approval. Result of that invitation will depend on their actions. If you continue to allow these terrorists to march on your streets with protection, well we follow that,” Erdogan said on Monday.

“It’s not just about Sweden and Finland; Germany, France, England, Italy, all of the Scandinavian states are all the same. I told these things to their leaders in my bilateral meetings. For instance, I asked Emmanuel (Macron) what are you going to do, will you continue like this and he laughed. If it is going to be like this, sorry but our parliament wouldn’t look positively on this issue,” he warned.

EU’s bank approves $1.62 billion in financial assistance for Ukraine

European Investment Bank (EIB), also known as the European Union’s bank, is providing an additional 1.59 billion euros ($1.62 billion) of financial assistance for Ukraine amid the devastating impact from the Russian invasion, the European Commission said Monday in a statement.

Of the new amount pledged, 1.05 billion euros ($1.07 billion) will be made available immediately, it added.

This is the second financial package provided by the bloc since the invasion began and will help Ukraine “repair the most essential damaged infrastructure and resume critically important projects addressing the urgent needs of Ukrainian people,” the commission announced.

The European Union continues to stand by Ukraine and its people in the face of Russia’s brutal aggression,” Valdis Dombrovskis, EU executive vice president for an economy that works for people, said in the statement.

He added that the commission “will keep working with EU Member States and our international partners to support Ukraine on every level — for as long as it takes.”

Serhii Marchenko, Ukraine’s Minister of Finance, expressed his gratitude to the EIB and the European Union for their support.

“With this financial support, we will keep working on restoring damaged infrastructure, resuming the provision of municipal services, including transport services, and preparing for the coming heating season,” Marchenko noted.

US official: Odesa attack “flies in face” of Russia’s claim they’re good-faith participants in grain deal

John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communication, called reports Russia hit the Ukrainian port city of Odesa just 24 hours after signing a deal committing to the safe passage of grain through the port “pretty disconcerting” on Monday.

He told CNN the move “sure flies in the face of what they say is their commitment to be good-faith participants in this arrangement to get — to get grain out.”

“We have some indications that they certainly got close to some grain terminals — whether they damaged those grain terminals or not, we haven’t seen exact battle damage assessment,” Kirby told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an interview.

“So we’re going to be watching this very, very closely. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this out of the Russians before — you can go back, even into the war in Syria, where they were hitting humanitarian aid shipments that were meant for Syrian citizens and Syrian refugees. So, this is just something unfortunately, we seen out of their playbook. And hopefully, this won’t happen again, and that they will actually participate in good faith in Istanbul,” he added.

Ministers from both Ukraine and Russia signed an agreement, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey in Istanbul that would allow the resumption of vital grain exports from Ukrainian Black Sea ports, a major diplomatic breakthrough aimed at easing a global food crisis sparked by the war. However, just one day later, two missiles hit the infrastructure of the port, while two were shot down by Ukraine’s air defense, according to officials.

Kirby stated officials are in talks with the Ukrainians “literally every day,” and are “continuing to explore with Ukrainians in near real-time what their capabilities are and trying to get them those capabilities as fast as we can,” touting delivery of an additional four Highly Mobile Advanced Rocket Systems (HIMARS) missile systems, which he told Wolf “are being used very, very effectively by the Ukrainians in the field.”

Zelensky: Europe should ‘hit back’ with tougher Russia sanctions over ‘gas war’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says Russia is waging an “overt gas war” against Europe, which he stated must “hit back” with tougher sanctions.

“Even despite the concession regarding the Nord Stream turbine, Russia is not going to resume gas supplies to European countries, as it is contractually obligated to do. All this is done by Russia deliberately to make it as difficult as possible for Europeans to prepare for winter,” Zelensky noted in his nightly address.

Zelenskyy went on to say the latest move by Moscow was part of a wider scope of actions.

“They don’t care what will happen to the people, how they will suffer – from hunger due to the blocking of ports or from winter cold and poverty,” he continued, adding, “These are just different forms of terror.”

Turkey to Ukraine: Grain shipments must begin as soon as possible

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar has told Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov that it is important for the first grain shipments to begin as soon as possible.

“[Minister Akar] expressed his satisfaction with the announcement that the grain shipment will start this week, [and] it is important that the first ship starts sailing as soon as possible,” the Turkish defence ministry said in a readout of the call.

Akar also vowed Turkey would continue to live up to its part of the deal, and assured Kyiv that the work of the [Istanbul-based] joint coordination centre was continuing “intensively”.

Ukraine official: Russian FM’s Africa trip ‘quintessence of sadism’

The Ukrainian government has criticised Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s trip to several African countries, with a senior official calling it “the quintessence of sadism”.

“You arrange an artificial hunger and then come to cheer people up,” Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the Ukrainian president’s chief of staff, tweeted on Monday.

“With one hand you sign the Istanbul initiative, with the other attack Odessa sea port,” he noted.

“Whether Moscow wants or not, [Ukraine’s] grain will get to the world,” Podolyak said, adding, “We know well what an artificial famine prescribed by scriptwriters in the Kremlin is … all needed is for [Russia] to stop lying and start fulfilling the commitments made in Istanbul.”

First ships to export Ukraine grain may move within days: UN

The first ships to export grain from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports may move within a few days under a deal agreed on Friday by Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations, a UN spokesperson said on Monday.

Deputy UN spokesperson Farhan Haq stated a joint coordination centre will liaise with the shipping industry and will publish detailed procedures for ships in the near future, according to Reuters.

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