Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 190

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:

Grossi says IAEA presence at Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant to last days

The head of the the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has said that part of the mission to the Russia-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southern Ukraine will stay at the facility “until Sunday or Monday”.

“There is a group that is going to be there [at the plant] until Sunday or Monday, continuing with the assessment,” Rafael Grossi, who is leading an inspection of the frequently shelled plant, told reporters after he returned with part of his 14-strong team to Ukrainian-controlled territory.

He did not specify how many people will be staying at the facility.


IAEA inspectors arrive at Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant

UN inspectors from have arrived at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southeastern Ukraine.

A Reuters reporter saw the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) team arrive at the plant in a large convoy with a heavy presence of Russian soldiers nearby.

The delegation had been delayed after reports of fighting earlier on Thursday around Europe’s biggest nuclear plant, which Russian has controlled since March.


Red Cross denied access to prisoners at Russian-held town Olenivka: ICRC chief

Red Cross officials have failed to secure access to Ukrainian prisoners of war held in the Russian-controlled town of Olenivka where dozens were killed in an attack in July, the head of the international aid group has said.

Ukraine and Russia have traded accusations over the missile strike or explosion in the front-line town of Olenivka in eastern Donetsk that killed prisoners held by Moscow-backed separatists.

ICRC Director-General Robert Mardini told reporters in Kyiv that the group was engaged in intense negotiations with Russian authorities, but had not been granted access to those POWs and also lacked security guarantees to carry out such a visit.

The Red Cross registered 1,800 people taken from the besieged Azovstal steel works in the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, with the understanding that it would be allowed to visit them, but that has not been possible, he told a news conference.


European officials to discuss energy price cap amid skyrocketing costs

The European Commission is currently considering options to cap energy prices and reduce electricity demand, as part of a strategy to deal with the steep rise in energy costs partly caused by fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“There’s a crisis now. I think we are all extremely aware and the energy prices both gas and electricity bills are high as we’ve never seen before,” said Mechthild Wörsdörfer, deputy director general of the commission’s energy department, on Thursday.

“There’s speculation, there’s uncertainty in the market and that’s why we are looking even more intensively right now what else needs to be done,” Wörsdörfer added.

Prices have jumped since Russia’s Gazprom announced that it would shut down the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline for three days starting Wednesday to perform maintenance work, reigniting fears that Moscow could completely shut off gas to Europe.

Europe is desperate to secure gas supplies that can’t be cut off at Moscow’s whim after the Kremlin signaled its willingness to punish the bloc for its support of Ukraine.

“There is work on emergency measures on electricity prices. There might be also something on demand reduction for electricity,” Wörsdörfer said during a European Parliament energy committee meeting on winter preparedness.

Wörsdörfer added that the European Commission is looking in the “medium to long term” to change their electricity market design, adding it “takes time.”

According to Wörsdörfer, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is expected to outline the commission’s plan to tackle energy prices on September 14.

Energy ministers of the European Union member states are scheduled to gather on September 9 in Brussels for an emergency meeting.


Russia denounces ‘absurd’ EU decision on visas

The Kremlin has denounced the decision by EU foreign ministers to suspend a 2007 visa facilitation deal with Russia over the conflict in Ukraine, which will make visas for Russians traveling to the bloc more expensive, while extending processing times.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov warned of possible countermeasures.

“This is bad for Russians. It will take longer and be more difficult to obtain visas,” he told reporters, saying this would “make the situation more difficult for Europeans as well.”

“Another ridiculous decision in a series of ongoing absurdities,” he added.


IAEA mission delayed en route to Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant: Spokesman

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission has been delayed on the Ukrainian-controlled side of the front line for about three hours en route to visit the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP), and IAEA spokesman has said.

“Director general Rafael Grossi has personally negotiated with Ukrainian military authorities to be able to proceed and he remains determined that this important mission reaches the ZNPP today,” Fredrik Dahl told CNN on Thursday.

Setting off for the plant from Zaporizhzhia city earlier Thursday, Grossi stated the mission would persevere despite the “inherent risks” his monitoring team would face.


Finland cuts tourist visas for Russians

Finland has slashed the number of visas issued to Russian citizens to a tenth of the regular amount, a decision announced in August that went into effect a day after EU foreign ministers agreed to make it more difficult for Russians to receive visas.

Finland, which shares the longest border with Russia of all European Union member countries, announced the decision in August amid growing pressure from politicians and ordinary citizens to restrict the movement of Russian tourists through the Nordic country.

“It’s important that we show that at the same time when Ukrainians are suffering, normal tourism shouldn’t continue business as usual,” Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said during EU foreign ministers meeting meeting in the Czech capital Prague on Wednesday.

On top of its visa decision, the Finnish Foreign Ministry announced the government is currently exploring the possibility of helping Russian human rights defenders, civil society members and journalists critical to the Kremlin by establishing a new kind of humanitarian visa enabling them to access the Nordic country.


EU chief to outline ideas for energy price caps in September

European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen will outline the European Commission’s ideas on capping energy prices in a speech on September 14, a senior official has said.

“Mrs von der Leyen, our president, will outline that in more detail on the 14th of September,” Mechthild Woersdoerfer, deputy director-general of the commission’s energy department, told a meeting of the European Parliament’s energy committee.


UK medic killed volunteering in Ukraine: Foreign ministry

A British man has been killed in Ukraine while volunteering as a medic, the foreign ministry has said.

The sister of Craig Mackintosh stated he had been killed in action on August 24, and has launched an online fundraiser to repatriate his body.

“Our brother bravely volunteered to go … as a medic to help save lives in this war-torn country,” Lorna Mackintosh wrote on the GoFundMe page, adding, “In the line of duty, helping others he lost his life. This selfless man is currently stranded in a morgue in Ukraine and there is no help to get him home.

“He needs to come back home to have the service he deserves. A true hero’s service surrounded by his family and friends,” she continued.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said it was supporting the family of Mackintosh, who came from Norfolk in east England.


Russia warns Moldova about threats to peacekeepers

Russia’s foreign minister has warned that any actions seen as endangering a Russian peacekeeping contingent in a separatist region of Moldova would be considered an attack on Russia itself.

Sergey Lavrov’s statement in an address at Russia’s top foreign affairs school underlined concerns that Moldova’s Transnistria region, which borders Ukraine, could be drawn into the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

Russia has stationed peacekeepers there since the 1992 end of a three-month war that left Transnistria outside Moldovan control. Russian forces also guard a large ammunition dump in the region. In April, tensions in Moldova soared after a series of explosions in Transnistria.


Ukrainian official accuses Russian forces of trying to disrupt nuclear plant inspection

A Ukrainian presidential adviser on Thursday accused Russian forces of trying to disrupt the visit of UN nuclear inspectors to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant by shelling the nearby city of Enerhodar.

“The Russians shelled Enerhodar and the territory of the ZNPP,” said Andriy Yermak, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine.

“They want to disrupt the visit of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission. These are the actions of a terrorist state, which is afraid that the world will learn the truth,” he added.

Shelling has been ongoing in Enerhodar since Thursday morning, according to Ukrainian and Russian-installed regional officials as a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) traveled to the plant for a planned inspection of the facility in southeastern Ukraine, which has been held by Russian forces since March.

“It is Russia that is responsible for everything that happens at the ZNPP and Enerhodar. Criminals must be stopped,” Yermak stated.

Setting off for the plant from Zaporizhzhia city earlier Thursday, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said the mission would persevere despite the “inherent risks” his monitoring team would face.


Shelling in city near Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant as UN watchdog travels for inspection

Shelling in the city of Enerhodar near the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power has been ongoing since Thursday morning, according to Ukrainian and Russian-installed regional officials.

“Since 5 a.m. [local time], constant mortar shelling has not stopped,” Enerhodar’s Mayor Dmytro Orlov said in a Telegram post, adding that “helicopters” had been circling over the city.

“One can hear automatic weapons. It is known that several civilian facilities were hit. There are victims! We are clarifying how many,” he continued.

The Russian-appointed military-civilian administration of Enerhodar also claimed there had been “at least three” civilian casualties and five injuries, including a child.

The reports come as a team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) traveled to the nuclear plant for a planned inspection of the facility in southeastern Ukraine, which has been held by Russian forces since March.

In a separate report, the head of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia regional military administration Oleksandr Starukh accused Russian forces of “shelling the pre-agreed route of the IAEA mission from Zaporizhzhia to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.”

Setting off from Zaporizhzhia city earlier Thursday, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi acknowledged the “inherent risks” his monitoring team would face after leaving the “gray zone” where the last line of Ukrainian defenses end but said the mission would persevere.


Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant shuts down another reactor due to shelling

The fifth reactor at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant was shut down and its emergency protection system activated on Thursday due to shelling, Ukraine’s nuclear operator Energoatom said in a statement.

The shutdown comes as a team of international experts were traveling to the Russian-occupied plant in southeastern Ukraine for a planned inspection amid fighting in the area that has sparked fears of a nuclear accident.

The plant, which was disconnected from the country’s power grid last Thursday, has six reactors, only two of which have been functioning — number five and number six.

“Today, September 1, 2022, at 4:57 a.m., as a result of another mortar shelling by the Russian occupying forces at the site of the Zaporizhzhia NPP, the emergency protection was activated and the operating 5th power unit was shut down,” the Energoatom statement added.

“In addition, the backup power supply line 330 kV for own needs of the ZNPP was damaged. In the transition mode, the non-working power unit No. 2 was de-energized with the start-up of diesel generators,” it read.

Energoatom announced the remaining reactor “continues to work in the energy system of Ukraine and at the same time feeds the ZNPP’s own needs.”

Nuclear plants use a number of auxiliary safety systems, such as diesel generators and external grid connections, to keep reactors cool. Zaporizhzhia also uses a spray pond, a reservoir in which hot water from inside the plant is cooled. If those systems failed, then the nuclear reactor would heat up swiftly, triggering a nuclear meltdown.

Ukraine has accused Russian troops of using the plant as a shield, risking a potential disaster at the plant. The Kremlin has in turn repeatedly accused Ukrainian forces of shelling the plant.


Russia facing “severe” military personnel shortages: US officials

The US believes that Russia is facing “severe” shortages of military personnel in Ukraine and is seeking new ways to beef up its troop levels, two US officials told CNN.

“The Russian military is suffering from severe manning shortages in Ukraine. We believe that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) is seeking to recruit contract service members to make up for these personnel shortages, including by compelling wounded soldiers to reenter combat, acquiring personnel from private security companies, and paying bonuses to conscripts,” a US official told CNN.

The latest US assessment is based on downgraded intelligence and confirmed to CNN by two US officials. It is the latest effort by the Biden administration to downgrade and publicly release intelligence findings about Russia’s war effort.

The officials also said that the US has “credible reporting” that Russia’s Defense Ministry is “likely to begin” recruiting convicted criminals in Ukraine “in exchange for pardons and financial compensation.”

As with previous releases of downgraded intelligence, the officials did not provide additional details about the intelligence behind these assessments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week ordered the military to increase the number of troops by 137,000, though it was not clear how the Russian Defense Ministry intended to reach that target.

The Pentagon estimated earlier this month that as many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded during the war in Ukraine.


US war-gamed with Ukraine ahead of counteroffensive: Sources

In the buildup to the current Ukrainian counteroffensive, the US urged Kyiv to the keep the operation limited in both its objectives and its geography to avoid getting overextended and bogged down on multiple fronts, multiple US and western officials and Ukrainian sources tell CNN.

Those discussions involved engaging in “war-gaming” with Kyiv, the sources said — analytical exercises that were intended to help the Ukrainian forces understand what force levels they would need to muster to be successful in different scenarios.

The Ukrainians were initially considering a broader counteroffensive, but narrowed their mission to the south, in the Kherson region, in recent weeks, US and Ukrainian officials continued.

Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told CNN that “the United States has routine military-to-military dialogue at multiple levels with Ukraine. We will not comment on the specifics of those engagements. Generally speaking, we provide the Ukrainians with information to help them better understand the threats they face and defend their country against Russian aggression. Ultimately, the Ukrainians are making the final decisions for their operations.”

Officials say they believe there is now increased parity between the Ukrainian and Russian militaries. But western officials have been hesitant to label the nascent Ukrainian operation — which appeared to begin on Monday in the southern province of Kherson — a true “counteroffensive.”

How successful Ukraine is likely to be in regaining lost territory remains an open question, sources familiar with the latest intelligence tell CNN. Ukrainian officials have already stated this offensive will likely be a slow operation, and punishingly cold winter weather is coming and then an early spring mud, both of which could force pauses in the fighting.


More security assistance for Ukraine will be announced in the days ahead: US official

John Kirby, the United States’ National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, said Wednesday to expect another announcement of military aid for Ukraine in the coming days.

“We … committed more than $13 billion of security assistance to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and we will continue to do that. And there will be announcements of future security assistance in the coming days,” he told reporters.

This would come after US President Joe Biden announced $2.98 billion in military assistance for Ukraine last Wednesday. The US has provided approximately $13 billion in military aid to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began Feb. 24, a National Security Council official told CNN.

Since the beginning of the war, the US has provided $7 billion in grants for direct budget support and over $1.5 billion of humanitarian aid for Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees, the official said.


Ukrainian Energy Minister urges IAEA to consider security conditions at nuclear plant

The Ukrainian Energy Minister, Herman Halushchenko, says he hopes that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant goes beyond the technical and examines the security threats at the plant.

The nuclear plant — the largest in Europe — is occupied by Russian forces but operated largely by Ukrainian technicians.

Halushchenko stated on Urainian television Wednesday, “We hope that the IAEA representatives will have a slightly broader view of the situation. For example, in addition to purely technical functions, the mission should show security threats posed by the presence of armed forces at a nuclear facility, the presence of weapons and heavy equipment at the blocks themselves, mining. There are actually many things that need to be evaluated in terms of their impact on nuclear safety.”

He added IAEA specialists are “really professionals” and that he hopes no pressure or manipulation from Russian soldiers affect their work.

Halushchenko reiterated that in the Ukrainian view, the key results of the mission should be deocupation of the power plant, to return it to full Ukrainian control, and to demilitarize the area around the plant.


Russia warns EU of consequences over visa agreement suspension

Russian on Wednesday warned the European Union of consequences over the bloc moving to fully suspend the visa facilitation agreement between the European Union and Russia, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.

“Violation, circumvention or withdrawal by the EU from the visa facilitation agreement with Russia won’t be left without consequences. We will decide for ourselves whether the measures will be symmetrical, asymmetric or something that the EU does not expect,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko told the news agency.

“If Brussels decides to shoot itself in the foot again, then it is their choice,” he added.

Following a two day informal meeting in Prague, EU’s foreign ministers on Wednesday reached political consensus to fully suspend the visa facilitation agreement between the European Union and Russia.

EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the decision “will significantly reduce the number of new visas issued by the EU member states” given that the process would become more difficult and take longer.

Visas were already restricted to some categories of Russian nationals.

Borrell noted that this is not a legal text but only a political agreement at this point.


Ukraine needs more heavy weapons: UK

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who is running for prime minister, said Ukraine needs more MLRS and heavy weapons to confront Russia.

The Russian Federation previously sent a note to NATO countries due to the supply of weapons to Ukraine. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted that any cargo that contains weapons for Ukraine will become a legitimate target for Russia. The Foreign Ministry of the Russian Federation stated that the NATO countries are “playing with fire” by supplying weapons to Ukraine. Press Secretary of the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Peskov noted that pumping Ukraine with weapons from the West does not contribute to the success of Russian-Ukrainian negotiations and will have a negative effect.

“Ukraine needs more (MLRS) … more heavy weapons to effectively fight Russia,” Truss stated during recent election speeches in London, broadcast on the Youtube channel of the Sun newspaper.

In addition, in her opinion, the UK should also introduce more anti-Russian sanctions.

Truss also added that if she wins the election, her first call will be a conversation with Volodymyr Zelensky, she will also try to visit Kiev as soon as possible.


German defence chief warns do not underestimate Russia’s military strength

Germany’s chief of defence has warned that the West must not underestimate Moscow’s military strength, saying Russia has the scope to open up a second front should it choose to do so.

“The bulk of the Russian land forces may be tied down in Ukraine at the moment but, even so, we should not underestimate the Russian land forces’ potential to open a second theatre of war,” General Eberhard Zorn, the highest-ranking soldier of the Bundeswehr, told Reuters in an interview.

Beyond the army, Russia also has a navy and air force at its disposal, he added, “Most of the Russian navy has not yet been deployed in the war on Ukraine, and the Russian air force still has significant potential as well, which poses a threat to NATO, too.”

Zorn, speaking before the start of a Ukrainian offensive in the south, stressed that Russia continued to have substantial reserves.

“As concerns its military, Russia is very well capable of expanding the conflict regionally,” the general continued, adding, “That this would be a very unreasonable thing for Russia to do is a different story.”

Referring to the military situation in Ukraine, Zorn said the dynamic of Russia’s attack had slowed down but Russia was still pressing steadily ahead.


Estonia aims to stop most Russians from entering country within weeks

Estonia aims to stop most Russians from entering the country within weeks, if possible acting in concert with its regional partners, Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu has stated.

“It takes some time, but I think timing is also critical, looking at these vast numbers of Russian citizens entering,” Reinsalu told Reuters in Prague.

The minister’s comment came after European Union foreign ministers decided to make it more expensive and complicated for Russians to obtain visas to travel to the bloc, but stopped short of agreeing to the EU-wide visa ban that Ukraine and several member states had called for.

It is not clear, though, what unilateral measures Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Finland, which have land borders with Russia, could take to restrict access to Russian visitors.

Reinsalu said Estonia was going to work out a solution in its region through cooperation and based “on our national competence on the grounds of national security”.

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