Monday, May 20, 2024

Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 212: Russia starts annexation vote in occupied parts of eastern Ukraine

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 knows there will be “severe consequences” if nuclear weapons are used in Ukraine: NATO chief

Russia knows there will be “severe consequences” if nuclear weapons are used in Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN’s Julia Chatterley on Friday.

“They know that there will be severe consequences. I will not elaborate exactly on how we will react, that depends on what kind of weapons of mass destruction they may use,” he said.

His comments come after Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the specter of using nuclear weapons in a speech on Wednesday.

“We are sending these messages and we’re making it clear to prevent that from happening,” Stoltenberg added.

“The thing is,” he continued, “the likelihood of any use of nuclear weapons is still low, but the potential consequences are so big, so therefore we have to take this seriously. And the rhetoric, the threats that President Putin [is] putting forward again and again increase tensions, are dangerous and are reckless.”

US has privately warned Russia against using nuclear weapons for several months: Officials

The US has privately communicated to Russia for the past several months that there will be consequences if Moscow chooses to use a nuclear weapon, according to US officials. It was not immediately clear how or when the warnings were sent.

The Joe Biden administration has also leaned heavily on intelligence channels to communicate sensitive messages to Moscow throughout the buildup and prosecution of Russia’s war in Ukraine, including recently in the negotiations over wrongfully detained Americans.

The warnings come as Russian President Vladimir Putin threatened to turn to nuclear weapons in a speech on Wednesday amid a series of embarrassing setbacks on the battlefield in Ukraine.

US officials have emphasized that this is not the first time Putin has threatened to turn to nuclear weapons since the start of his re-invasion of Ukraine in February, although some analysts have seen this threat as more specific and escalatory than the Russian president’s past rhetoric.

For now, top CIA officials have said publicly that they have seen no signs that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons. But some military analysts have been concerned that Russia may seek to use a so-called tactical, or battlefield, nuclear weapon in response to its poor showing in Ukraine — a tactic sometimes called “escalate to deescalate.” Intelligence officials believe Putin would likely only turn to that option he felt Russia or his regime were existentially endangered, and it’s not clear if he would feel that losing his war in Ukraine would fit that description.

Ukrainian officials say 436 bodies exhumed in Izyum, 30 showing signs of torture

Ukrainian officials say 436 bodies have been exhumed from a mass burial site in the eastern town of Izyum, 30 of them with visible signs of torture, according to a report by The Associated Press news agency.

The governor of the Kharkiv region, Oleh Synyehubov, and police chief Volodymyr Tymoshko told reporters in Izyum that three more grave sites have been located in areas retaken by Ukrainian forces in a counteroffensive this month.

There was no immediate reaction to their remarks from Moscow.

Kremlin hopes occupied regions will join Russia ‘quite quickly’

The Kremlin has said it expects the process for four occupied regions of Ukraine to join Russia to proceed quickly in the event Moscow-engineered referendums there return votes in favour of such a move.

“I am convinced that it will happen quite quickly,” Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Peskov added that Moscow will regard any Ukrainian attempts to retake the four regions as “attacks” on its own territory if the regions opt in favour of joining Russia.

“Immediately [after the decision to join Russia] the Constitution of Russia will come into force in relation to these territories,” he said, adding, “Everything is very clear on this score.”

Germany says Russian reserves do not want to fight in Ukraine

A spokesperson for Germany’s government has said that many Russian reserves being called up to fight in the war in Ukraine do not want to take part in the conflict, adding their reaction was welcome.

“Many Russians who are now being called up do not want to take part in this war … this is a good sign,” a government spokesperson told a regular news conference.

“A way must be left open for Russians to come to Europe and also to Germany,” the spokesperson added.

The spokesperson’s remarks came after the demand for flights out of Russia surged earlier this week in the wake of President Vladimir Putin’s move to order a partial mobilisation of the country’s reserve forces.

Chinese FM presses Ukrainian counterpart for ‘peaceful settlement’

China’s foreign minister has told his Ukrainian counterpart that all efforts conducive to a peaceful settlement of the war must be supported, according to reports by Chinese state media.

“Sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected,” Wang Yi reportedly told Dmytro Kuleba on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, adding that Beijing always stands on the side of peace.

Both diplomats last spoke to each other on a call in April.

China has refused to condemn Russia’s actions, but it has repeatedly stated that it supports the sovereignty of all countries in relation to Ukraine.

More than one million Ukrainians may have been forcibly deported: US envoy

The United States’s ambassador to the United Nations Human Rights Council has accused Russia of forcibly deporting between 900,000 to 1.6 million Ukrainians since it launched its invasion, citing unnamed sources.

“We urge the commissioners to continue to examine the growing evidence of Russia’s filtration operations, forced deportations and disappearances,” Michele Taylor told the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, referring to the UN-mandated commission of inquiry into Ukraine.

“Numerous sources indicate that Russian authorities have interrogated, detained and forcibly deported between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens,” she added.

There was no immediate reaction to Taylor’s remarks from Moscow.

UN-mandated inquiry concludes war crimes were committed in Ukraine

The chair of an independent, UN-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine says the probe has concluded that war crimes have been committed by Russian forces in Ukraine based on evidence gathered from four regions of the country.

“Based on the evidence gathered by the Commission, it has concluded that war crimes have been committed in Ukraine,” Erik Mose told the Geneva-based Human Rights Council.

Mose added that the atrocities included indiscriminate attacks with cluster munitions or multi-launch rocket systems and air attacks in populated areas, ill-treatment and torture of individuals unlawfully detained by Russian forces, and sexual violence.

“The Commission has documented cases in which children have been raped, tortured, and unlawfully confined. Children have also been killed and injured in indiscriminate attacks with explosive weapons,” he continued.

Mose’s address followed investigations by the commission in Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy which saw its inspectors visit 27 different locations and interview more than 150 victims and witnesses.

Senior official denounces Moscow-orchestrated votes in occupied Ukraine

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak has denounced the Moscow-orchestrated votes taking place in occupied regions of Ukraine on whether they should formally join Russia as illegal.

“Today, there is no legal action called a ‘referendum’ in the occupied territories,” Podolyak tweeted.

“There is only – 1. [A] Propaganda show for z-conscription. 2. The territory of Ukraine that needs an immediate release,” he added, citing the “Z” letter and symbol that has become synonymous with Russia’s offensive.

Russia starts annexation vote in parts of Ukraine

Russian state media reported that voting has begun in some of the regions of Russian-occupied territories of Ukraine where President Vladimir Putin announced referendums this week.

“Voting began at 08:00 in the DPR and LPR, as well as in the Kherson region and in the liberated territories of the Zaporozhye region,” the Tass news agency reported.

The “referendums” have been decried as illegal and a “sham” by Ukraine and the west.

Polling is set to take place over five days from Friday to Tuesday.

Ukraine ‘putting pressure on territory Russia considers essential to war aims’: UK

The United Kingdom’s defence ministry says Ukrainian forces are “putting pressure on territory Russia considers essential to its war aims” as Kyiv’s counteroffensive continues.

“In the last three days, Ukrainian forces have secured bridgeheads on the east bank of the Oskil River in Kharkiv Oblast. Russia has attempted to integrate the Oskil into a consolidated defensive line following its forces’ withdrawals earlier in the month,” the ministry announced in its latest daily intelligence update.

“To the south, in Donetsk Oblast, fighting is ongoing as Ukrainian forces assault the town of Lyman, east of the Siverskyy Donets River, which Russia captured in May,” it added.

Zelensky calls on Russians to ‘fight back’ against mobilisation

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has called on Russians to “protest” against the mobilisation announced by Putin, which sparked small protests and an exodus from the country.

Zelenskyy stated, “55,000 Russian soldiers died in these six months of war … Do you want more? No? Then protest. Fight back, run away, or surrender” to the Ukrainian army.

More than 1,300 protesters were arrested across Russia on Wednesday.

There were also reports of a mass exodus following the announcement. Flights out of Russia to the neighbouring countries that allow Russians visa-free entry were nearly entirely booked, while prices skyrocketed.

The Kremlin dismissed as “fake” reports that Russians eligible for mobilisation were rushing for the exit.

Putin was ‘pushed’ into Ukraine war: Italy’s Berlusconi

President Vladimir Putin was “pushed” into the war on Ukraine to install a new government in Kyiv, former Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi has said, in comments likely to concern Western allies ahead of Italy’s election.

Berlusconi, a personal friend of the Russian leader, downplayed Putin’s warmongering instincts after he threatened to use nuclear weapons in the wake of suffering setbacks in Ukraine.

“Putin was pushed by the Russian people, by his party, by his ministers to invent this special operation,” Berlusconi added, using the official Russian wording for the war.

Berlusconi, whose Forza Italia party belongs to a right-wing coalition expected to win the general election on Sunday, is not new to defending Putin’s actions in Ukraine. His comments highlight cracks in the coalition over the war.

Foreign ministers discuss special tribunal to punish Russia for atrocities in Ukraine

In a meeting moderated by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, foreign ministers of Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Ukraine on Thursday discussed allegations of atrocities committed in the conflict in Ukraine and the possible establishment of a special international tribunal to judge the crime of aggression.

“Russia has to pay,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said during the event, which was held on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

He called for the establishment of a special tribunal, echoing a call made by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last night.

“We continue to believe that justice must be served in a way that will not leave space for impunity for the crime of aggression,” Kuleba added.

Clooney, who is advising Kyiv on finding accountability for Ukrainian victims, called for world leaders to help Ukrainians rebuild by supporting a draft UN resolution to establish a framework for a compensation commission.

“Ukraine may need up to $1 trillion to repair the damage. Documenting losses should start now,” she stated.

A compensation fund proposed by Ukraine would draw on Russian assets abroad that had been seized and appropriated by foreign governments, according to Ukraine’s Deputy Minister of Justice Iryna Mudra, who was also in attendance.

Several other foreign ministers were in the audience and took the podium to voice support for Ukraine, including representatives from the UK, Poland, Canada and Estonia.

Congress urges Pentagon to speed up review of Ukraine drone request

Seventeen members of US Congress have told Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to speed up a Pentagon security review of a Ukrainian request for large drones that can be armed, according to a letter seen by Reuters.

The Joe Biden administration’s plan to sell four such drones to Ukraine hit a snag in June because of a fear the unmanned aerial system’s sophisticated surveillance equipment might fall into enemy hands, sources had previously told Reuters.

“Thorough risk assessments mitigation should not come at the expense of Ukrainian lives,” said the letter, signed by a bipartisan congressional group.

Ukrainian official says exchanged prisoners show signs of torture

Many of the Ukrainians exchanged in the largest prisoner swap with Russia since the beginning of the invasion show signs of violent torture, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence has said.

Ukraine had announced the exchange of 215 imprisoned soldiers with Russia, including fighters who led the defence of Mariupol’s Azovstal steelworks that became an icon of Ukrainian resistance.

“Many of them have been brutally tortured,” Kyrylo Budanov stated during a news conference, without providing further details.

Some of the detainees “are in a more or less normal physical condition, except for chronic malnutrition due to bad conditions of detention”, Budanov added.

The prisoners were detained in Ukrainian territories occupied by Russian troops, as well as in Russia itself, according to the high-ranking official.

During the same news conference, Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky noted “absolutely all” of the Ukrainian prisoners swapped “need psychological rehabilitation”.

“Echoes of Nuremberg should be heard today”: ICC prosecutor for Ukraine tells UNSC

International Criminal Court Prosecutor Karim Khan on Thursday stated that he believes alleged war crimes have been committed in Ukraine after he visited the country three times to investigate the war.

“One has seen a variety of destruction of suffering, and that fortifies my determination. And my previous finding that there are reasonable grounds to believe the crimes within the jurisdiction of the court have been committed,” Khan said to members of the United Nations Security Council during their meeting Thursday.

During his update to the Security Council, Khan spoke candidly of the brutal horrors he had seen in Ukraine.

“When I went to Bucha and went behind St. Andrew’s Church, the bodies I saw were not fake. When I walked the streets of Borodyanka, the destruction that I saw of buildings and schools was all too real,” Khan noted, adding, “When I left Kharkiv, the bombs I heard land, gave a somber insight and a very small insight into the awful reality that is faced by well many of our brothers and sisters and children that are in a war zone.”

Making reference to the Nuremberg trials that prosecuted defeated Nazis after World War II, Khan said, “The echoes of Nuremberg should be heard today.”

“Failure to uphold the promises of Nuremberg, we have seen over the last many decades to act as a reproach on all of us as leaders, not to despair or to despondency, but acts as a catalyst for further action to galvanize us as a council as international organizations and as humanity.” he added.

Ukrainian FM calls out Lavrov for insulting Zelensky with inappropriate slang at UN

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba blasted Russia’s top diplomat on Thursday for “inappropriate slang” after he called Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky “a son of a b*tch.”

Although Kuleba didn’t directly mention anyone by name, his comments came after his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, spoke at a United Nations Security Council meeting. In his speech, Lavrov attacked the Ukrainian president with a series of dismissive insults while making outlandish claims about who was responsible for the war in Ukraine.

The policy of the US and its allies toward Zelensky is… ‘he is a son of a b*tch, but he is our son of a b*tch,'” Lavrov said.

In response, Kuleba described Russia as shameless, stating, “Russian diplomats are directly complicit because their lies incite these crimes and cover them up.”

He added, “The Russians are confident that they can get away with anything and they are entitled to do anything they want.

“They think it allows them to shell nuclear power plants and seize them. They think it allows them to unleash missile terror on civilians and critical infrastructure. They think it allows them to threaten the world with the use of nuclear weapons,” Kuleba said, adding “They must be held accountable for all of this.”

Kuleba noted Ukraine was not worried about any increase in Russian troop numbers following a partial mobilization this week.

“Vladimir Putin announced mobilization but what he really announced before the whole world was his defeat. You can draft 300 or 500,000 people, but you will never win this war,” he continued.

Kuleba urged UN member states to help his country fight Russian aggression and win justice by holding Russia accountable for its invasion of Ukraine, echoing remarks Wednesday by Zelensky in his UN address.

NATO slams Russia’s ‘sham referenda’ in Ukraine

NATO has condemned plans to hold “referendums” in Russian-occupied regions in Ukraine, describing them as Moscow’s “blatant attempts at territorial conquest”.

Earlier this week, four Russian-occupied Ukrainian regions announced their plan to hold votes on joining the Russian Federation.

Ukraine and the West have indicated they will not recognise the annexations – and that Russia’s new territorial claims will not hinder Ukraine from reclaiming its sovereign territory.

NATO said in a statement: “Sham referenda in the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia, and Kherson regions of Ukraine have no legitimacy and will be a blatant violation of the UN Charter.”

“NATO allies will not recognise their illegal and illegitimate annexation. These lands are Ukraine,” it added.

Aid to Ukraine will not be affected by Putin’s nuclear rhetoric: US Defense Department

The Defense Department announced that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rhetoric threatening the possible use of a nuclear weapon would not affect the aid the US is providing to Ukraine.

“In terms of the statements or the announcements coming out of Russia, it does not affect the department’s commitment to continue working with our international partners and our allies on providing Ukraine with the support that it needs in their fight to defend their country,” said Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder at a briefing.

Putin on Wednesday spoke about the possibility of using nuclear weapons.

“The territorial integrity of our homeland, our independence and freedom will be ensured, I will emphasize this again, with all the means at our disposal. And those who try to blackmail us with nuclear weapons should know that the prevailing winds can turn in their direction,” he stated.

Ryder noted that Putin’s threats would not affect discussions on the kinds of lethal aid the US would provide.

“We will continue to have those conversations and we’ll continue to think through not only what they need in the medium to long term, but also what they need now,” Ryder continued, adding, “So I don’t see those conversations being impacted by this situation.”

Long lines of traffic seen at some of Russia’s land borders

Social media videos and photos from Russia’s land borders with several countries show long lines of traffic trying to leave the country on the day after President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization.”

There were queues at border crossings into Kazakhstan, Georgia and Mongolia. One video showed dozens of vehicles lining up at the Zemo Larsi/Verkhny Lars checkpoint on the Georgia-Russia border overnight Wednesday. That line appears to have grown longer Thursday. One video showed a long queue stretching into the mountains behind the crossing, with a man commenting that it was five to six kilometers long.

Another posted Thursday showed long lines at the Khaykhta crossing into Mongolia.

One man spoke over video recorded at the Troitsk crossing into Kazakhstan, where dozens of cars were lined up Thursday morning.

“This is Troitsk, queues of trucks and passenger vehicles … you can’t see the start or the end of this queue … everyone, everyone is fleeing Russia, all sorts,” he said.

A senior Kazakh official, Maulen Ashimbaev, had stated Kazakhstan could not restrict the entry of Russian citizens into the country, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported earlier Thursday. But Ashimbaev, the speaker of the upper house of the Kazakh parliament, noted that in order to obtain a residence permit, applicants must have a set of documents that comply with the law.

It is difficult to compare the current flow of traffic to the average in the absence of official data.

Flights from Russia to countries that do not require visas continue to be very busy and frequently sold out. A search on the Aviasales website showed there were no seats available on Moscow-Istanbul one-way economy flights until Sunday — with the lowest price almost $2,900.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Thursday dismissed reports of airports crowded with people trying to leave Russia following the announcement, calling it “exaggeration” and “fake news.”

Prices of air tickets out of Moscow soar

Prices for air tickets out of Moscow have soared above $5,000 for one-way tickets to the nearest foreign locations, with most tickets sold out, Reuters has reported.

A tourism industry source told the news wire that there was desperation as people sought to find air tickets out of Russia, following Putin’s mobilisation announcement.

Social media groups popped up with advice on how to get out of Russia while one news site in Russian gave a list of “where to run away right now from Russia”.

The Russian national airline, Aeroflot, meanwhile said it would refund people who were unable to fly as planned because they had received a call-up.

Russia’s partial mobilization unlikely to ‘dramatically shift tide of war’: Institute for Study of War

An analysis by researchers from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) concludes that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a partial mobilization is unlikely to “dramatically shift the tide of the war.”

The analysis says that it will take weeks or months to bring reservists up to combat readiness, that Russian reservists are “poorly trained to begin with,” and that the “deliberate phases” of deployment outlined by Russia’s Defense Minister are likely to preclude “any sudden influx of Russian forces that could dramatically shift the tide of the war.”

“Putin’s order to mobilize part of Russia’s ‘trained’ reserve, that is, individuals who have completed their mandatory conscript service, will not generate significant usable Russian combat power for months,” the analysis reads.

“It may suffice to sustain the current levels of Russian military manpower in 2023 by offsetting Russian casualties, although even that is not yet clear,” it added.

“Russian mandatory military service is only one year, which gives conscripts little time to learn how to be soldiers, to begin with. The absence of refresher training after that initial period accelerates the degradation of learned soldier skills over time,” it noted.

The analysis downplays any “explicit threat” of the use of nuclear weapons by Putin.

“Putin emphatically did not say that the Russian nuclear umbrella would cover annexed areas of Ukraine nor did he tie mobilization to the annexation,” the analysis reads.

“He addressed partial mobilization, annexation referenda in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, and the possibility of nuclear war in his speech – but as separate topics rather than a coherent whole. The fact that he mentioned all three topics in a single speech was clearly meant to suggest a linkage, but he went out of his way to avoid making any such linkage explicit,” it added.

The ISW researchers say that they do not believe that the speech should be read “as an explicit threat that Russia would use nuclear weapons against Ukraine if Ukraine continues counter-offensives against occupied territories after annexation.”

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