Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 216

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:

Nord Stream leaks a ‘terrorist attack’: Zelensky adviser

Adviser to the Head of the Office of President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Mykhailo Podolyak, tweeted about the Nord Stream leaks, calling them a “terrorist attack.”

“Gas leak” from NS-1 is nothing more than a terrorist attack planned by Russia and an act of aggression towards EU, he said.

“Russia wants to destabilise [the] economic situation in Europe and cause pre-winter panic. The best response and security investment – tanks for Ukraine. Especially German ones,” he added.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, told reporters: “No option can be ruled out right now,” about possible sabotage and that the Kremlin was very concerned about the damage to the pipeline.

Partial ‘referendum’ results show over 96 percent in favour of joining Russia

First partial voting results from four Russian-occupied regions of Ukraine showed 96 percent of residents in favour of joining Russia, the Kremlin-backed Russian news agency RIA reported.

The so-called referendums were denounced as a “sham” by Kyiv and the West.

Moscow’s annexation plans could be announced as early as Friday.

Ukraine has repeatedly warned that Russian annexation of additional territories would destroy any chance of peace talks.

Ukraine urges EU to impose sanctions on Russia over ‘referendums’

Ukraine urged the European Union to impose economic sanctions on Russia as punishment for staging annexation votes in four occupied regions.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, after talks in Kyiv with French Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, said: “The softer the reaction to the so-called referendums, the greater the motivation for Russia to escalate and annex further territories.”

“In the content of the eighth [EU] sanctions package, we will see just how seriously the EU takes the problem of referendums,” he added.

Colonna stated French support for Ukraine was “massive” and included humanitarian aid, financial aid and military or diplomatic assistance totalling more than $2bn.

“Everybody can see Russia is sinking further into an impasse,” Colonna noted, “whether militarily or vis-a-vis its own people.”

Polish PM thinks it’s ‘clear’ Nord Stream leaks are act of sabotage

Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki noted the leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines were caused by sabotage.

“Today we faced an act of sabotage, we don’t know all the details of what happened, but we see clearly that it’s an act of sabotage related to the next step of escalation of the situation in Ukraine,” he stated during the opening of a new gas pipeline between Norway and Poland.

Danish authority establishes prohibition zones in Baltic after Nord Stream leaks

The Danish Defence Command has released video of what it said are gas leaks from Nord Stream in the Baltic Sea.

The video released by the authority shows bubbles and an area of disturbed sea.

It has also established prohibition zones around the Danish island of Bornholm, it said in a news release.

“Following the three gas leaks on the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, prohibition zones have been established around the leaks for the sake of the safety of ship and air traffic. Nord Stream 1 has two leaks northeast of Bornholm, Nord Stream 2 has one leak south of Dueodde. The leaks were discovered by the Danish Defence F-16 interceptor response unit,” the authority noted.

Denmark is sending two ships to an area in the Baltic Sea to make sure that no one enters the maritime zone affected by the leaks.

“The defense is supporting in connection with the authorities’ efforts regarding the leaks on the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea. The frigate Absalon and the pollution control vessel ship Gunnar Thorson are on their way to carry out water monitoring at the exclusion zones, and the Danish Defence are also supporting with a helicopter capacity. In addition, the patrol ship Rota was in the area last night,” according to the authority.

Too early to speculate cause of Nord Stream leaks: European Commission

The European Commission announced it was premature to speculate on the cause of leaks in the two Nord Stream pipelines.

A Commission spokesman told an EU news conference, “At this stage, it’s very premature to speculate on what the causes are … The member states are looking into this issue, we will remain in close contact with them, but it’s really not the moment to speculate.”

The spokesman said that the Commission is following developments on the leaks closely and does not see any effect on Europe’s supply.

Despite neither being in operation, both pipelines still contained gas under pressure.

Russians arriving into Georgia have doubled: Interior minister

The number of Russians arriving daily in Georgia has nearly doubled since Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a partial mobilization for the war in Ukraine, Georgia’s Minister of Internal Affairs Vakhtang Gomelauri told local media on Tuesday.

“Four to five days ago, 5,000-6,000 (Russians) were arriving in Georgia daily. The number has grown to some 10,000 per day,” Georgian public broadcaster, First Channel, quotes Gomelauri saying, adding, “We assume they are mostly people who want to evade military duty.”

Putin’s partial mobilization order of Russian citizens last week has prompted an exodus of Russians and backlash in the country, with demonstrations also breaking out in some ethnic minority regions.

Russians have fled to neighboring Georgia where they can stay for a year without a visa.

Ukrainian forces continue offensive east of Izium

The Ukrainian military is continuing its offensive against Russian forces east of Izium and has partially liberated the village of Pisky-Radkivski, according to local Ukrainian officials.

“The village of Pisky-Radkivski (the second largest settlement in the community, where about 2,000 people lived before the war), is already under the control of the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Borova village council said on its Facebook page.

It said that the Ukrainian military is “still detecting groups of Russian soldiers there” and is in the process of “clearing and demining.”

Ukrainian forces are currently pushing north along the Oskil River toward the occupied village of Borova, the council added.

“Fighting is underway,” it noted, adding, “The Armed Forces of Ukraine are pushing out the enemy, but the liberated territories are suffering from enemy shelling. The sounds of explosions are also constantly heard from the north, east and south. The occupation authorities left the community, almost all collaborators also fled.”

It said that some residents have been able to evacuate their homes, but many are still sheltering in their basements.

Izium, which sits near the border between the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions of Ukraine, was subject to intense Russian artillery attacks in April before it was occupied. It then became an important hub for the invading military during five months of occupation.

Ukrainian forces took back control of the city this month, delivering a strategic blow to Russia’s military assault in the east.

Regions that join Russia will have security implications: Kremlin

The Kremlin said that Moscow-controlled regions of Ukraine that voted to join Russia would have “security implications”.

“The legal situation will radically change from the point of view of international law, and that will also have consequences for security in these territories,” Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Nord Stream operator warns of “unprecedented” damage to its pipelines in Baltic Sea

The operator of the Nord Stream 1 pipeline from Russia to Germany has announced its pipeline system under the Baltic Sea sustained “unprecedented” damage in one day, according to Reuters.

“The destruction that occurred on the same day simultaneously on three strings of the offshore gas pipelines of the Nord Stream system is unprecedented. It is not yet possible to estimate the timing of the restoration of the gas transport infrastructure,” Nord Stream AG said, Reuters reported.

In September, Russia indefinitely halted deliveries of gas to Europe through Nord Stream 1 due to an oil leak at one of its compressor stations.

The Swedish Maritime Authority told CNN Tuesday that three leaks were identified in pipelines for Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2, near the Danish island of Bornholm.

The authority has warned vessels to maintain a distance of around 8 kilometers (5 miles) from the leaks and issued a warning for aircraft to keep a safety altitude of 1,000 meters (approximately 0.62 miles).

A spokesperson noted the first report of a leak was made Monday afternoon, with two more leaks identified in the evening.

The spokesperson stated that they had not investigated the cause of the leaks and had no information about any contact between Nord Stream and the maritime authority, noting that their responsibility was to warn ships about the leak.

Meanwhile, the Danish Prime Minister, who called the leaks “very concerning,” stated that they “highlight the urgency of increasing our energy security in Europe.”

Mette Frederiksen was speaking at event in Szczecin, Poland to celebrate the opening of a gas pipeline through the Baltic Sea.

On Monday, Nord Stream AG said it was investigating the reasons behind a drop in pressure in the pipeline. German authorities also reported a drop in pressure in the Nord Stream 2, the pipeline between Russia and Germany that has been dormant after the German government blocked its opening following the Ukraine war.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday they were “extremely concerned” about the news. When asked if it could have been an act of sabotage, Peskov added: “At the moment, no possibility can be ruled out. There is some destruction of the pipe, and what caused it — we cannot exclude any possibilities before the results of the research appear.”

Swedish seismologists registered explosions near Nord Stream pipelines: Report

The Swedish national broadcaster SVT reported that seismologists registered explosions near the Nord Stream pipelines in the last 36 hours.

Seismologists in Denmark and Sweden on Monday registered powerful blasts in the areas of the Nord Stream gas leaks, Sweden’s National Seismology Centre (SNSN) at the Uppsala University told public broadcaster SVT on Tuesday.

“There is no doubt that these were explosions,” SNSN seismologist Bjorn Lund told SVT.

Sabotage can not be ruled out for Nord Stream 1 damage: Kremlin spokesperson

After three offshore Nord Stream pipelines sustained “unprecedented” damage on Tuesday, the Kremlin said it did not rule out sabotage as a reason.

Dmitry Peskov told a conference call with reporters when asked if sabotage was the reason for the damage, “No option can be ruled out right now.”

He also added the Kremlin was very concerned with the situation, which requires a prompt investigation as it was an issue for the energy security for the “entire continent”.

Controversial referendum’s enter final day of voting

The final voting day began in Russia-held Ukraine regions, which was rejected as a ‘sham’ by Kyiv and its Western allies.

Authorities in the Russian-occupied areas had announced they would open polling stations Tuesday after going door to door in some areas, trailed by rifle-carrying troops.

France’s FM makes unannounced “solidarity” visit to Kyiv

French foreign minister Catherine Colonna arrived in Kyiv on an unannounced visit on Tuesday, where she’s due to visit her counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, and President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“Good morning Ukraine, it’s good to be back,” Colonna tweeted on Tuesday.

It is the third time that Colonna has been to the Ukrainian capital, according to a statement from the Foreign Affairs Ministry in Paris.

“In the context of the irresponsible statements of the Russian authorities and the illegal organization of mock referendums on the territory of Ukraine, the minister wishes to express France’s solidarity with the Ukrainian people and its full determination to strengthen its support for Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the ministry’s statement said.

Russia has right to defend with nuclear weapons: Ex-President

Former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said that Moscow has the right to defend itself with nuclear weapons if it is pushed beyond its limits and that this stance is “certainly not a bluff”.

His words echoed Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilisation speech last week.

Medvedev, deputy chairman of Russia’s Security Council, also warned that Moscow has the right to respond “without much consultation” as tensions rise with the West over annexation referendums held in large swathes of Russian-occupied Ukrainian territory.

Medvedev is a controversial figure in Russian politics who regularly issues aggressive statements on the West and Ukraine.

Putin could declare annexation ‘vote’ results on Friday: UK

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is expected to address both houses of the Russian parliament on Friday and could declare the annexation of the regions, the British Defence Ministry said in a daily intelligence meeting.

The internationally-condemned votes in the Russian-held regions end on Tuesday.

The ministry announced, “Russia’s leaders almost certainly hope that any accession announcement will be seen as a vindication of the ‘special military operation’ and will consolidate patriotic support for the conflict.”

“This aspiration will likely be undermined by the increasing domestic awareness of Russia’s recent battlefield (setbacks) and significant unease about the partial mobilisation announced last week,” it added.

Occupied area of Kherson region “completely closed for entry and exit”

The occupied area of Kherson has been “completely closed for entry and exit” following a so-called “referendum” on the region’s accession to the Russian Federation held by separatist authorities, the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine announced on Tuesday.

On Monday, the deputy head of the Russian-backed administration in the Kherson reported that there was enough of a margin to approve a vote which would see controlled areas secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

Travel in and out of the occupied portion of the neighboring Zaporizhzhia region is also very difficult for civilians and near-impossible for men ages 18 to 35, Ukraine’s National Resistance Center – a unit of the Defense Ministry – claimed.

In recent days, Ukrainian officials have reported that travel for young men out of Russian-occupied areas across the country has become extremely challenging, since the partial mobilization effort to conscript some 300,000 soldiers for Russia’s invasion was announced by the Kremlin.

Humanitarian corridors in Ukraine’s south – including Kherson – have been affected and in some cases effectively closed, according to Ukrainian government sources.

Zelensky: Donetsk is Ukraine’s top priority

President Volodymyr Zelensky has described the military situation in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region as difficult and said it was the country’s “No 1 goal” because it was the same for Russia.

“The situation in the Donetsk region is particularly severe,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address.

“We are doing everything to contain enemy activity. This is our No 1 goal right now because Donbas is still the No 1 goal for the occupiers,” he added.

Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in late February, they have occupied nearly all of the Luhansk region and are slowly advancing through the Donetsk region — the two provinces making up Donbas.

White House: US prepared to impose “severe economic costs” on Russia if they move forward with annexation

The United States will “never recognize” Russian-occupied territory as “anything other than… part of Ukraine,” the White House said, as separatist leaders in four regions of Ukraine say that referendums are underway on whether to secede from Ukraine and join the Russian Federation.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told CNN’s Kaitlan Collins at a Monday press briefing that the “sham referendum” was a “flagrant violation of international law.”

“We will continue to work with our allies and partners to hold Russia accountable and support Ukraine for as long as it takes,” Jean-Pierre added.

“As far as what we are doing, we are prepared to impose additional swift and severe economic costs on Russia, along with our allies and partners, in response to these actions that we’re seeing currently if they move forward with annexation,” she said.

She added, “you will hear more from us in the coming days on this.”

Putin considering talks with Kiev: Ankara

Russian President Vladimir Putin is considering resuming talks with Ukraine, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu stated.

According to Cavusoglu, Putin floated the idea during a conversation with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the recent summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan.

“In the course of negotiations with our president, Putin announced the possibility of returning to negotiations with Kiev, but on new conditions that have appeared,” Cavusoglu was quoted as saying. He didn’t elaborate on the “conditions” specified.

The minister also reiterated Ankara’s desire to stage direct talks between Putin and Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky.

“Our president will continue his contacts with Putin and Zelensky. Our aim is to bring the two leaders together to ensure that decisions are made at the level of the leaders,” Cavusoglu added.

US officials are closely watching referendums in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine and preparing to act

White House officials are watching closely and preparing their potential response Monday as four Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine continued to vote in referendums that are being effectively carried out at gunpoint and have been dismissed by the West as a “sham.”

With the results of the Russian-organized voting expected to be announced as soon as tomorrow, US officials anticipate Russia could move quickly to annex the four areas, potentially within days.

If and when they do, it would prompt a swift response from the US, which has pledged not to recognize the results, one official said.

The US is not currently expected to respond until Russia has moved to annex the regions, the official stated, and when Russia ultimately attempts to do so remains to be seen.

British foreign secretary James Cleverly noted in recent days that Russia has already decided in advance what will happen after these referendums are finished, stating that by “the end of the month, Russia’s intention will be to formalize the annexation of the four regions into the Russian Federation.”

As they monitor the referendums, top Joe Biden administration officials have become more vocal in recent days about warnings they have delivered in private to Russian officials about the potential use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

“Russia understands very well what the US would do in response to the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine because we have spelled it out for them,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a television interview Sunday, though he declined to characterize who received those warnings or what the consequences would be.

While officials have still not seen indications that Russia is planning to use nuclear weapons in the near term, they are more concerned about the possibility now than they were six or seven months ago, one official confirmed to CNN, though they still maintain that the likelihood of Russia doing so is low.

US State Department: No indication China is preparing to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

The US State Department announced they have not seen any indication that China is preparing to assist Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine or assist Russia in evading sanctions.

“We are looking at every single bit of information we have,” State Department spokesperson Ned Price stated.

“We have seen nothing as of yet at least to indicate that the PRC is taking a different approach when it comes to security assistance, when it comes to efforts to systematically help Russia evade sanctions,” he continued.

Price added the US is “continuing to watch” what China does on Ukraine, and said that remarks by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi indicate that China has “a degree of unease with what Russia is doing in Ukraine.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Yi on Friday at the United Nations and “highlighted the implications if the PRC [People’s Republic of China] were to provide support to Moscow’s invasion of a sovereign state,” according to the State Department readout of the meeting.

Ukraine urges EU to support plans for permanent export routes

Ukraine has urged the European Union to support its plans to make the emergency paths for grain exports through the bloc permanent.

Ukraine’s Agriculture Minister Mykola Solsky told EU counterparts and the European Commission his country needed financial support to reduce its reliance on Black Sea exports that Russia had blocked and could hinder again.

Kyiv is calling for the EU to invest in at least five border terminals and a pipeline through which sunflower oil would flow.

Grain and sunflower seed exports have risen from 200,000 tonnes in the month after Russia’s February 24 invasion to 4.5 million tonnes in August, helped by a July deal to unblock ports, but most shipments still follow overland corridors through Europe.

“We think these corridors should become stable and permanent,” Solsky told a news conference after a meeting in Brussels.

Five border terminals should be built, costing $25-30m each. The cost of a sunflower oil pipeline would depend on its route.

Russia: No decision yet on sealing borders to stop reservist exodus

The Kremlin announced that no decision had been taken on whether to seal Russia’s borders to stop an exodus of military-aged men fleeing the country, after days of chaotic scenes during its first military mobilisation since World War II.

Asked about the prospect of the border being shut, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters: “I don’t know anything about this. At the moment, no decisions have been taken on this.”

Reports that Russia might close the frontier have contributed to turmoil since President Vladimir Putin gave the order last week to call up hundreds of thousands of reservists in the biggest escalation yet of the seven-month Ukraine war.

Flights out of Russia have sold out and cars have piled up at border checkpoints.

NATO states begin air force drills in Baltic Sea

A number of NATO member states have begun to conduct air force drills in the Baltic Sea.

Air forces from Turkey, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and other countries will take part in military training over water and on land in an effort to boost eastern defences.

“For the first time we are including both air- and surface-based integrated air and missile defence activities in our drills,” said exercise planner Squadron Leader Craig Docker from Combined Air Operations Centre Uedem.

“This underlines how the allies are shielding the eastern flank and – at the same time – prepare for meaningful execution of NATO’s deter and defence concept in the Baltic region,” he added.

US sanctions fourth Iranian cargo plane serving Russia

The US Department of Commerce has said it added a fourth Iranian cargo plane serving Russia to a list of aircraft believed to violate US export controls under Joe Biden administration sanctions.

The department added three Iranian cargo planes to the list on September 19. The fourth plane belongs to Saha Airlines, owned by Iran’s air force, the department announced in a statement.

The plane added to the list on Monday has flown into Russia without proper Commerce Department authorisation, the statement said.

Netherlands to increase support for Ukraine: Dutch PM

The Netherlands will increase its support to Ukraine and will back new sanctions against Russia, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said.

Following a call with President Volodymyr Zelensky, Rutte announced he would step up the response to Russia’s mobilisation and referendum.

“More weapons, more sanctions, more isolation of Russia. Due to the mobilisation and sham referendums by Russia,” he wrote on Twitter.

UK sanctions Russians linked to ‘sham’ referendums

The United Kingdom has announced a new raft of sanctions in response to what it described as Russia’s “sham” referendums in four occupied regions of Ukraine.

“The Russian regime has organised these sham referendums in a desperate attempt to grab land and justify their illegal war,” the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) said in a statement.

“The process reflects their approach in Crimea in 2014, combining disinformation, intimidation, and fake results. These referendums do not represent the demonstrated will of the Ukrainian people and are a severe violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and political independence,” it added, citing Moscow’s seizure of the Black Sea peninsula eight years ago.

The FCDO announced the measures will specifically target individuals behind the votes in Kherson, Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhia on whether to join Russia, including several Moscow-installed officials in the occupied regions, a number of oligarchs, board executives from major state-owned banks and IMA Consulting, a firm described as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “favourite PR agency”.

Record number of Russians entered Finland by land over weekend: Finnish border guard

The number of Russians who entered Finland via its land border with Russia on Sunday was double that of the previous Sunday, the Finnish border guard said.

On Sunday, 8,314 Russians entered Finland via the Finnish-Russian land border — double the number than (the) week before, tweeted Matti Pitkäniitty, the border guard’s head of international affairs.

Including Saturday’s numbers,16,886 Russians arrived in total, with “many in transit to other countries,” he added.

Following the Kremlin’s announcement of “partial mobilization,” Russia saw nationwide protests and an exodus of citizens fleeing the country.

Last Wednesday, Finnish Defense Minister Antti Kaikkonen stated the country was closely monitoring the situation.

Finland and Russia share a land border that stretches for 1,340 kilometers (about 830 miles), and there are several border crossing points available.

Satellite images show large lines of traffic wait to cross from Russia into Georgia

Satellite images from Sunday provided by Maxar Technologies show long lines of traffic on the Russian side of the border with Georgia.

Maxar says the northernmost image shows traffic queuing about 16 kilometers (nearly 10 miles) north of the border crossing, and adds that “the traffic jam likely continued further to the north of the imaged area.”

CNN reported earlier Monday, that images and social media video from the border crossing between Russia and Georgia have shown long lines of stationary traffic through a mountain pass. Drone video uploaded from the area Monday suggests there are hundreds of vehicles gathered on the Russian side, with witnesses saying that people are waiting up to 48 hours to cross into Georgia.

Several videos show additional Russian security forces arriving at the border in an armored personnel carrier.

Queues have built up at the Verkhnii Lars crossing from North Ossetia into Georgia and other border crossings since the announcement last week by President Vladimir Putin of a partial mobilization.

Videos show some families and many men on their own among those waiting to cross at Verknii Lars Hundreds of people are approaching the crossing on foot, pulling suitcases.

Amid the sudden influx, “we have been pushing government to introduce visas and/or close the borders,” an opposition politician in Georgia, Nona Mamulashvili, told CNN.

At the moment, the border appears still to be open.

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