Friday, December 1, 2023

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 154

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:

Russia ‘one of the last imperial colonial powers’: Macron

French President Emmanuel Macron has branded Russia “one of the last imperial colonial powers” over its invasion of Ukraine.

“Russia launched an offensive against Ukraine. It’s a territorial war the likes of which we thought had disappeared from European soil,” Macron said while on a visit to Benin which marked the second leg of a trip to Africa aimed at resetting Paris’s relations with the continent, where many nations are former French colonies.

“I speak on a continent that has suffered colonial imperialism. Russia is one of the last imperial colonial powers,” he added.

PM: Spain can become hub to export gas to neighbors to avoid being “hostage” to Putin

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez stated Wednesday his country can become a hub to export natural gas to European countries that seek to reduce their dependence on Russian energy.

“Spain is a solidary country, it’s a responsible country. And we will do everything we can, that’s what I told [Polish] Prime Minister [Mateusz] Morawiecki as well as the EU Commission and member states, so that Europe does not become an energy hostage to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” Sánchez said at a press conference with his Polish counterpart.

Sánchez added that 30 percent of Europe’s total re-gasification capacity currently resides in Spain, adding that the country has already increased its gas export capacity and was willing to increase it even further.

“Last June, 20 percent of the liquified natural gas imports that arrived to Spain were exported to other countries in the European Union,” Sánchez said, adding that Spain has asked the EU Commission and neighboring countries to increase the capacity for interconnectivity to be able to be better integrated and export more gas to the EU’s energy market.

Sánchez also noted the uncertainty and threat of Russia’s war in Ukraine should be countered by reinforcing the European Union.

“Today more than ever, it’s important to stay united around the common values that make up the essence of Europe and that Putin is questioning with his illegal, illegitimate and unjust invasion of Ukraine,” Sánchez continued.

Italian minister says ‘energy security guaranteed’ until February

Italy has enough gas supplies to avoid a supply crunch until the end of the coming European winter if Russia were to turn off the taps, according to the country’s ecological transition minister.

Italy has been building up storage and hopes to have facilities filled to 90 percent or more of capacity by the end of the year or before.

Roberto Cingolani stated such storage would be sufficient until February if Russia shuts off all gas exports to Europe at the start of winter.

“In the event of a deterioration in other gas supplies we can make a tougher savings plan, but at the moment energy security is guaranteed,” he told a news conference.

Ukraine accuses Russia of using Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant as a fortress

The mayor of the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar, Dmytro Orlov, has accused Russian soldiers of using the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant as a fortress from which to fire from.

“The occupiers began using heavy weapons near the Zaporizhzhia NPP, in residential areas. This situation has been observed during the last week. The occupiers are shelling the opposite coast of the river, the city of Nikopol,” Orlov told Ukrainian broadcaster Espreso TV.

“They know very well that the Ukrainian Armed Forces will not respond to these attacks, as they can damage the nuclear power plant,” he stated.

 “Therefore, the occupiers use the Zaporizhzhia NPP as a fortress,” he added.

Orlov is not inside Enerhodar, as the city has been under Russian occupation since the early days of the war, but says he remains in close communication with residents inside the city.

“The occupiers are using NPP workers and locals as hostages,” he continued, saying, “People are kidnapped for the purpose of obtaining money or other benefits. People are kept in basements.”

Polish PM says Russia cannot be trusted on Ukraine grain deal

Moscow cannot be trusted to honour the deal it signed to allow Ukraine to resume exporting grain from its Black Sea ports, Poland’s prime minister has said, citing Russian forces’ attack on Odesa shortly after the accord was brokered as evidence of the Kremlin’s insincerity.

“The day after the signing [of the agreement], the Russian armed forces… attacked Odesa,” Mateusz Morawiecki told a news conference.

“It follows that such agreements cannot be considered fully credible, because unfortunately that is what Russia is like,” Morawiecki continued.

Preparations are underway to allow grain exports from Black Sea ports: Ukrainian Navy

Work is underway at Black Sea ports to prepare for grain exports in accordance with the agreement signed by Ukraine and Russia in Istanbul last week, according to the Ukrainian Navy.

“Work has been resumed in the ports of Odesa, Chornomorsk and Yuzhny,” the Navy said, noting, “The departure and arrival of ships to seaports will be carried out by forming a caravan that will be accompanied by the lead ship.”

Navigation and hydrographic experts are working to ensure that channels from the three ports are safe, it added.

“Military and civilian specialists carefully search for underwater objects, install special means of navigation equipment that will help the safety of navigation,” the Navy added, stating, “Hydrographic survey work is also ongoing — determination of depth, approach channels, and recommended routes.”

Ukrainian officials have said they hope the first shipments will leave by the end of this week. Merchant ships will have an escort to the edge of Ukrainian territorial waters.

Kremlin says Gazprom supplying as much gas to Europe as possible

Russian energy giant Gazprom is supplying as much gas to Europe as possible, the Kremlin has said.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that sanctions-driven technical issues with equipment were preventing Gazprom from exporting more.

“Gazprom supplies as much as needed and possible. We know that technical possibilities for supplies have decreased now,” he added.

Russia delivered less gas to Europe on Wednesday in a further escalation of an energy standoff between Moscow and the European Union that will make it harder and costlier for the bloc to fill up storage before the winter heating season.

The cut in supplies, flagged by Gazprom earlier this week, has reduced the capacity of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline – the major delivery route to Europe for Russian gas – to a fifth of its capacity, as Russia said another gas turbine needed a repair.

Joint coordination centre for grain exports deal opens in Istanbul

Turkey has formally opened a joint coordination centre to oversee Ukrainian grain exports under a UN-backed deal aimed at resuming shipments from the war-torn country’s Black Sea ports.

Turkish defence minister Hulusi Akar unveiled the monitoring centre in Istanbul at a ceremony held five days after Moscow and Kyiv signed the accord.

He told reporters the goal of the facility was to ensure the safe shipment of grains from three Ukrainian ports, with more than 25 million tonnes of grain waiting there.

Russia reduces gas flow to EU via vital pipeline

Gas supply through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline from Russia to Germany has been reduced further to one-fifth of maximum capacity, German gas network operator Gascade confirmed on Wednesday.

According to a statement released by Gascade, as of Wednesday morning, “1.28 million cubic meters per hour, or about 20% of Nord Stream’s maximum capacity, has been transported via Nord Stream 1 in accordance with nominations.”

Gazprom announced earlier that it would stop the operation of a second Siemens turbine on Wednesday as the pumping equipment was due for an overhaul.

The Russian gas giant said on Tuesday that after the switch off, supply through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline will not exceed 33 million cubic meters per day.

The reduction of supply from Russia has led to a spike in gas prices in Europe, which rose by more than 20%, to the highest levels since March to over $2300 per thousand cubic meters on Wednesday.

This follows a dispute over a Siemens turbine that had been sent to Canada for repairs and was not returned on time due to Ottawa’s sanctions on Moscow. Gazprom cited the delay as the reason for a 60% reduction in gas flow to Germany last month. The part is currently in Germany awaiting shipment to Russia.

According to an earlier report by business daily Kommersant, several turbines at the Portovaya compressor station are in need of servicing. The current licensing agreement allows Siemens Energy to accept five more turbines for maintenance work before the end of 2024.

Russian official says grain deal could collapse unless obstacles to Russian exports lifted

Russian deputy foreign minister Andrei Rudenko has warned that a UN-brokered deal to unblock Ukrainian grain exports if obstacles to Russia’s agricultural exports are not promptly removed, according to a report by Russia’s Interfax news agency.

Interfax cited Rudenko as saying that grain shipments from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports would resume soon, and that he hoped the grain deal would hold.

The agreement was almost immediately thrown into jeopardy on Saturday after Russia fired cruise missiles on the port of Odesa, Ukraine’s largest, just 12 hours after the accord was signed at a ceremony in Istanbul.

But both Moscow and Kyiv have announced they will push forward with the agreement – the first major diplomatic breakthrough in the conflict, now in its sixth month.

Turkey says Sweden has not yet extradited suspects despite NATO accord

Sweden has not yet extradited suspects Turkey seeks over “terrorism-related” charges despite the Nordic country’s pledge to do so in return for Ankara’s backing for its NATO membership bid, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has stated.

Finland and Sweden applied to join the transatlantic military alliance in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but were initially met with opposition from Turkey, which accused the Nordic countries of supporting groups it deems to be “terrorists”.

The three countries signed an accord at a NATO summit held in Madrid last month to lift Ankara’s veto in exchange for pledges on “counterterrorism” and arms exports.

Countries seeking to join the NATO alliance must have their membership applications approved by all 30 existing member states, and ratified by the countries’ respective parliaments.

Gas shortage in Germany still avoidable: Regulator

Germany’s gas regulator says a gas shortage is still avoidable, even as Russian supplies through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline into Germany are set to halve, but warns industry and consumers will have to work harder to save gas.

Klaus Mueller, head of Germany’s Bundesnetzagentur regulator, stated the country, which is heavily reliant on Russian supply, could still avoid a gas shortage that would require it to trigger the next phase of an emergency plan that would prompt rationing.

“The crucial thing is to save gas,” Mueller continued, adding, “I would like to hear less complaints but reports [from industries saying] we as a sector are contributing to this,” he told broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.

Russian firm Wagner has likely made ‘tactical advances’ in Donbas: UK

Russian private military company Wagner Group has likely made “tactical advances” around the Vuhlehirska power plant and the nearby village of Novoluhanske in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, the UK’s defence ministry has said.

The ministry added in its latest intelligence update, posted on Twitter, that some Ukrainian forces had likely withdrawn from the area.

It also noted Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s trip to Africa, where he is visiting several countries as Moscow aims to shore up its overseas support.

“Russia will highly likely seek to exploit the visits to blame the West for the international food crisis and win the support of African states which have otherwise remained neutral about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” the ministry said.

“Since 2014, Russia has made significant efforts to secure influence across Africa, with Wagner frequently deploying as one of its favoured tools of influence in the region,” it added.

Ukraine says planned Russian referendum in occupied areas ‘null and void’

Russia’s efforts to “absorb” Ukrainian territories are “null and void”, the spokesperson for Ukraine’s foreign ministry has told the Reuters news agency.

Oleg Nikolenko specified that it would be “totally untrue” if residents in the Russian-occupied Zaporizhia and Kherson regions were to vote in a referendum that could happen in September.

“People living in Kherson region stand against the occupation. They are not joining schools, local administrations, police forces,” Nikolenko continued.

He added that Russia does not allow Ukrainian humanitarian aid into occupied territories, and is trying to establish local administrations to introduce the Russian rouble as currency while simplifying the procedure for obtaining Russian citizenship.

Bridge closed in Russia-held Kherson after HIMARS shelling: Reports

Moscow-installed authorities in the Russian-controlled Ukrainian city of Kherson have closed the city’s only bridge across the Dnieper River after it came under fire from US-supplied high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), according to Interfax and TASS reports.

The Antonovsky bridge has been closed for civilians but its structural integrity has not suffered from the shelling, Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Russian-appointed city administration, told Interfax.

Separately, Russian state news agency TASS quoted the official saying that HIMARS had targeted the bridge.

A Ukrainian counteroffensive to recapture the southern region from Russia could potentially benefit from the destruction of the bridge.

Nearly 40,000 Russian soldiers killed: Zelensky

About 40,000 Russian soldiers have been killed in the war in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky has claimed.

“This number is already almost 40,000 – that is how many killed people the Russian army has lost since February 24. And tens of thousands more were wounded and maimed,” he stated in his nightly address.

He said Russia is deliberately cutting natural gas supplies to impose “price terror” on Europe and has called for more sanctions on Moscow.

“In particular, today’s news about another provoked increase in gas prices on the European market above $2,000 per 1,000 cubic metres is already a sufficient reason to expand sanctions against Russia. Because it is clear to everyone that this is a deliberate price terror by Russia against Europe,” the president added.

“Using Gazprom, Moscow is doing all it can to make this coming winter as harsh as possible for the European countries. Terror must be answered – impose sanctions,” he continued.

European gas prices surged 30 percent in two days after Gazprom announced it would cut flows through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to Germany to a fifth of capacity. Prices are more than 10 times higher than the average between 2010 and 2020, the Financial Times reports.

Ukraine aims for $15-20bn IMF loan by year-end: Central bank governor

Ukraine aims to strike a deal for a $15-20 billion program with the International Monetary Fund before year-end to help shore up its war-torn economy, the country’s central bank governor Kyrylo Shevchenko has told Reuters.

Ukraine faces a 35-45 percent economic contraction in 2022 and a monthly fiscal shortfall of $5 billion and is heavily reliant on foreign financing from its Western partners. A $20 billion program would be the second largest currently active loan from the IMF after Argentina.

Shevchenko, 49, speaking during his visit to London, also said he hoped to agree on a swap line with the Bank of England “within weeks”, though he did not specify the amount.

Kyiv had already submitted its request to the IMF, the governor said, and was now in consultation with the fund over the new financing that he hoped would provide as much as $20 billion over two or three years in form of a Stand-By Arrangement (SBA) or an Extended Fund Facility (EFF).

Biden-Xi call expected to cover Taiwan, Ukraine: White House

The White House’s national security spokesperson has said that topics for an upcoming phone call between US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping are expected to include tensions over Taiwan and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In a briefing for reporters, John Kirby stated managing the competition between the two countries is also expected to come up in the call, which Biden said on Monday is expected later this week. It will be the fifth call between the two leaders.

Kirby added there are “issues of tension in this relationship” but also areas where cooperation is possible, such as on climate change.

US approves treatment of wounded Ukrainian soldiers

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin approved the treatment of wounded Ukrainian soldiers at a US military hospital in Germany, according to a memo obtained by CNN and confirmed by two US defense officials.

The plan allows for the treatment of up to 18 wounded soldiers at a time a Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, the massive hospital in Germany where the military has, for years, treated US service members who suffered injuries in combat.

Austin offered verbal guidance on May 26 to begin offering treatment to wounded Ukraine soldiers, according to the memo. On June 29, Austin formalized the verbal guidance and in a memo entitled “Guidance for Medical Treatment of Wounded Ukrainian Service Members.”

Despite the plan receiving final approval nearly one month ago, Landstuhl has not yet received Ukrainian service members for medical care.

An official from US European Command told CNN, “We have not treated any Ukraine troops at Landstuhl.”

The official added the purpose of the memo was to remove any red tape that would slow down the process of offering treatment if the need arose.

The plan would permit treatment if there was no facility available in Ukraine or in a closer country. Landstuhl is approximately 700 miles (more than 1,000 kilometers) from the Ukrainian border.

If Landstuhl were to receive wounded Ukrainian troops, the service members would have to leave Ukraine by train or car, which has no troops in Ukraine, before the US could evacuate them by air to Ramstein Air Base.

On Monday, Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to the Minister of Internal Affairs of Ukraine, posted a video on Twitter showing Ukrainian soldiers receiving prosthetic legs at a hospital in Chicago. A second video posted Tuesday showed the soldiers walking on the prosthetic limbs.

But this would appear to be the first authorization for Ukrainian troops to receive treatment of military facilities instead of civilian hospitals.

In late-April, a bipartisan group of lawmakers wrote a letter to Austin and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the administration to do more to support the “struggling healthcare systems” in Ukraine and Poland.

One of the requests was to “scale-up” Landstuhl Regional Medical Center to treat sick and wounded Ukrainians. The authors said it would follow the US decision to offer treatment to Afghan refugees who transited through the adjacent Ramstein Air Base last year. The letter also urged the administration to send armored ambulances and establish a several military field hospitals along the Poland-Ukraine border.

“You have a unique opportunity to showcase American leadership by providing medical support to Ukrainians that will inspire other NATO states to follow suit,” the authors wrote.

John Kirby, then serving as the Pentagon press secretary, stated Austin had received the letter dated April 22 and would “certainly take it seriously and respond appropriately.”

Kirby noted that any decision to provide field hospitals or US humanitarian support would be done in consultation with the host country.

On the day Austin issued verbal guidance to begin offering treatment to Ukrainian soldiers, the top US general spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart. A readout of the conversation between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Commander-in-Chief of the Ukrainian Armed Forces Gen. Valery Zaluzhny makes no mention of opening up US military medical facilities to Ukrainian service members

One month later, Austin formalized the verbal guidance on a day he spoke with Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov. According to a readout of the call, Austin gave an update on US security assistance efforts, but there is no mention of offering treatment to Ukrainian soldiers.

Russia doing better than expected under sanctions: IMF

Russia’s economy appears to be weathering the storm of Western-imposed sanctions better than expected, as it benefits from high energy prices, the IMF has announced.

The sanctions were meant to sever Russia from the global financial system and choke off funds available to Moscow to finance the war.

But the International Monetary Fund’s latest World Economic Outlook upgraded Russia’s GDP estimate for this year by a remarkable 2.5 percentage points, although its economy is still expected to contract by six percent.

“That’s still a fairly sizeable recession in Russia in 2022,” IMF chief economist Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas told the AFP news agency in an interview.

Hungary only EU member to vote against “unfounded, unenforceable” gas rationing deal: FM

Hungary was the only European Union member state on Tuesday to vote against a deal to ration its natural gas this winter to prevent a severe supply shock, according to the Hungarian government.

“The EU gas savings regulation is unfounded, unenforceable and completely disregards the interests of the Hungarian people, which is why the Hungarian government was the only member state to vote against its adoption,” Hungary’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó said in Brussels according to the office of the international spokesperson for Hungary’s Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister.

On Tuesday, EU energy ministers agreed to a voluntary target to reduce gas usage by 15% between August and March 2023. The votes of each member state were not made public by the European Commission.

For Hungary, “this decision is completely unacceptable and its implementation is out of the question. The proposal completely ignores the interests of HU[ngary], but it is also more painful for other EU citizens than for those against whom it is being made,” Zoltan Kovacs, the international spokesman for Hungary’s Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, posted on Twitter quoting Szijjártó.

Brussels “has made another step towards war economy,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán stated Tuesday, according to Kovacs.

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