Thursday, May 23, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 224

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:

Ukraine warns ‘Russian objects’ in occupied land will be treated as military targets

Any “Russian objects” on occupied Ukrainian territory will be treated as legitimate military targets, a senior Ukrainian presidential aide has said.

“Any Russian objects on occupied territories – legitimate military targets for attack by (Ukraine’s) Armed Forces,” presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter.

“Any counteroffensive and de-occupation of territories falls under the concept of defensive war. This is an absolute axiom for both the leadership of Ukraine and our allies,” he added.

No contradiction between annexation and military retreat: Kremlin spokesman

The Kremlin has announced there is no contradiction between incorporating Ukrainian territories into Russia, and Russia’s military retreats, saying that Moscow would press ahead with plans to annex four Ukrainian regions.

“They will be with Russia forever and they will be returned”, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

President Vladimir Putin formalised the annexation of four Ukrainian regions despite significant battlefield losses in recent days and global condemnation.

Zelensky discusses plans for “further liberation of Ukrainian territories” with military and security staff

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday met with his top military and security staff, and considered plans for “further liberation of Ukrainian territories,” according to the president’s office.

“Those present heard information from the intelligence, the headquarters of the Armed Forces of Ukraine and the commanders of the operational directions about the situation at the front and the latest actions of the enemy,” the readout of the meeting read.

“They also discussed the issue of stabilizing the situation in the newly de-occupied areas. Plans regarding further liberation of Ukrainian territories were also considered,” it added.

The participants also “focused on the issue of countering new types of weapons used by the Russian army.”

Among those present were Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov, Commander-in-Chief Valerii Zaluzhny, and Head of the Main Intelligence Directorate Kyrylo Budanov.

Ukrainian forces are making gains in the east as well as in the south, where they are piercing through Moscow’s defenses in the Kherson region.

Earlier Wednesday, Zelensky said that in the Kherson region the towns of Liubymivka, Khreshchenivka, Zolota Balka, Biliaiivka, Ukraiinka, Velyka, Mala Oleksandrivka and Davydiv Brid had all been liberated, “and this is not a complete list.”

Kherson is one of the four regions in Ukraine that Russia has announced it is annexing, in violation of international law.

EU member states reach “political agreement” on new sanctions against Russia

European Union member states have agreed on a fresh round of sanctions against Russia, according to the Czech Presidency of the EU Council.

“Ambassadors reached a political agreement on new sanctions against Russia — a strong EU response to Putin’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territories,” the Czech Presidency tweeted Wednesday.

The eighth package of sanctions against Russia — which was proposed by the European Commission last week — will include an oil price cap, among other measures.

The package will include prohibition of maritime transport of Russian oil to third countries above the oil price cap, an extended import ban on goods and a ban on providing IT, engineering and legal services to Russian entities, the presidency added.

It will also include new criteria for sanctions circumvention.

“Ambassadors have been working hard on this. Last night they were working, and the committee continued this morning,” the bloc’s top diplomat Josep Borrell stated at the EU Parliament earlier Wednesday.

The package is expected to be published later today.

The agreement follows a proposal from the European Commission last week, ahead of Moscow’s illegal annexation of four regions in Ukraine.

Other Western allies have also leveled new sanctions against Russia in the wake of Putin’s announcement.

The White House announced it was imposing “swift and severe costs” on Russia on Friday, including sanctions against the head of Russia’s central bank, Elvira Nabiullina, a figure the Biden administration said is key to the country’s economy.

The UK has unveiled new bans on exports of goods and services to Russia. On Tuesday, it also added Sergei Vladimirovich Yeliseyev, the deputy prime minister of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad and the head of Moscow-backed authorities in Kherson, to its list of sanctioned individuals.

Moscow must be involved in Nord Stream investigations: Kremlin spokesman

The Kremlin has announced that Russia must be part of the Nord Stream pipeline leaks investigations.

Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, told reporters that Russian involvement in investigating and examining the damage should be “mandatory”.

The operators of the two pipelines between Russia and Germany noted they could not inspect the damaged sections because Danish and Swedish authorities imposed restrictions.

Last week, Danish and Swedish authorities reported a gas leak from the pipelines.

Kyiv dismisses annexation law as ‘worthless’

Kyiv has dismissed the laws that Russian President Vladimir Putin signed on Wednesday to formalise annexation as “worthless”.

“The worthless decisions of the terrorist country are not worth the paper they are signed on,” head of the Ukraine President’s Office, Andriy Yermak, said on Telegram.

“A collective insane asylum can continue to live in a fictional world,” he added.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address that he had signed a decree rendering void any of Putin’s acts designed to annex Ukrainian territories since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“Any Russian decisions, any treaties with which they try to seize our land — all this is worthless,” Zelensky added.

Ukrainian forces approaching Luhansk: British intelligence

Ukrainian armed forces have advanced into Russia’s defensive zone towards the town of Svatove in the Luhansk region, according to the British defence ministry.

“Politically, Russian leaders will highly likely be concerned that leading Ukrainian units are now approaching the borders of Luhansk Oblast, which Russia claimed to have formally annexed last Friday,” the ministry said in a daily bulletin.

The intelligence update added that it was likely that Ukraine could now hit the Svatove-Kremina road in the Luhansk region, and that Kyiv’s forces continued to progress on the southern front as well.

Putin appoints “acting heads” of four annexed Ukraine regions

Russian President Vladimir Putin has designated “acting heads” of four illegally annexed Ukrainian regions, according to Russian state news agency TASS.

The four newly appointed leaders will govern until official heads for the regions are elected in accordance with Russian law, TASS reported Wednesday.

All four acting heads are the same officials who led the regions under Russian occupation before Putin signed into law the annexation documents, which are in violation of international law.

Denis Pushilin became acting head of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Leonid Pasechnik is now acting head of the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), according to TASS. Yevgeny Balitsky will be the acting governor in the Zaporizhzhia region, and Vladimir Saldo is now the acting governor in the Kherson region.

The four officials signed the so-called treaties on the accession of the four respective regions into Russia on September 30 during a ceremony in the Kremlin.

Zelensky calls for “special tribunal” to pursue Russian leadership for crimes against Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday called for the creation of a “special tribunal” to pursue Russian political and military leaders for their role in the invasion of Ukraine.

“We must bring to justice those whose decisions started all this,” he told a conference in Paris, adding, “Those who committed the original crime. A crime in which all the evil shown by the Russian occupiers is concentrated.

“And we still do not have such an institutional basis to hold the Russian political and military leadership accountable for the crime of aggression,” the president noted.

Zelensky praised the work of the International Criminal Court for investigating alleged crimes committed by Russian troops on Ukrainian territory. But he stated that “for the original crime of armed aggression to receive a fair answer as well, we must supplement the activities of the International Criminal Court.”

“A special tribunal should be established for the crime of aggression against Ukraine. So that it can punish those who, unfortunately, cannot be reached by the International Criminal Court and all other available judicial institutions of the world,” Zelensky said.

“You all know how the leadership of Russia, hiding behind false stories about state sovereignty, avoids fair responsibility for what it has done. We have to overcome that,” he continued.

Ukrainian official urges West to forget “illusion” of Russian normality

A top Ukrainian official on Wednesday urged Western leaders to stop thinking about Russia through a lens of “normality,” in which negotiations are a possibility.

“Western politicians must get rid of ‘RF’s normality’ illusion, with the negotiating possibility,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the head of the office of the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, referring to the Russian Federation.

“Listen to Putin’s speeches. Imbued with contempt for Western world, traditional system of international relations and international law. His dream is Europe under the ‘Russian boot’,” he added.

Earlier on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed into law measures that claim to annex four Ukrainian regions into the Russian Federation. The claimed annexations of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are illegal under international law.

Putin signs laws claiming to annex four Ukrainian regions

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed into law measures that claim to annex four Ukrainian regions into the Russian Federation.

The claimed annexations of Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are illegal under international law.

Leaders around the world have said they are the result of “sham” referendums held at gunpoint, and will never be recognized.

However, the move is an important step in Russia’s faltering effort to seize control in Ukraine, with Putin claiming that the will of occupied Ukrainians is to belong to Russia — offering a false pretext to his efforts to claim the occupied territories as Moscow’s.

Western officials have previously suggested that Putin will likely seek to reframe Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the four regions and any others as an attack on Russia sovereignty.

Russia does not fully control the regions it claims to have annexed and Moscow is losing territory to the Ukrainian military in the south and east of the country by the day. In some areas, such as Kherson, those losses are coming at a rapid pace.

The Kremlin does not even appear to be clear on the borders of the territory it is annexing. Spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Monday stated “we will continue consulting with the population of these regions.”

A regional Ukrainian official in the Zaporizhzhia region noted on Tuesday that Russia was trying to establish a “state border” at the Vasylivka checkpoint, which separates Russian-held territory from the rest of Ukraine, including the regional capital of Zaporizhzhia.

Zelensky: Ukraine forces made major advances in south and east, liberated dozens of regions

President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that dozens of regions in Ukraine have been liberated, seemingly confirming information from Russia’s maps that show Moscow’s forces withdrawing from eastern and southern Ukraine.

During an address today, Zelensky said that the country’s armed forces were making progress against Russian soldiers in the southern part of the country.

“Today we have good news from the front line. First: the Ukrainian army is making quite fast and powerful progress in the south of our country as part of the current defence operation,” he continued.

He also announced that dozens of regions have been reportedly released from Russian occupation: “Dozens of settlements have already been exempted from the Russian pseudo-referendum this week alone,” he added.

“This [happened] in Kherson region, Kharkiv region, Luhansk region and Donetsk region … In particular, according to the military reports from the Kherson region: the settlements of Lyubimivka, Khreshchenivka, Zolota Balka, Bilyaivka, Ukrainka, Velyka and Mala Oleksandrivka, and Davidiv Brid were liberated from the occupier and stabilised,” the Ukrainian president stated.

“We want to liberate all of our territory”: key Zelensky advisor

Ukraine intends to liberate all of the country’s territory, including Crimea which has been under Russian occupation since 2014, Mykhailo Podolyak, a key advisor to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told CNN.

“We are for western values. We want to liberate all of our territory,” Podolyak said, adding, “All the threats by the Russian Federation will not stop Ukraine in order to liberate our territory … including the occupied territories from back in 2014.”

He was unambiguous on Ukraine’s aims following successful counteroffensives in the east and in the south of the country.

“We are liberating cities and towns in all sorts of directions. In the south, in Kharkiv, in Luhansk. We will have to hold on to those territories,” Podolyak told CNN.

“Using western weaponry our partners have sent to us, it has proven to be more effective than all Russian repertory that the Russian army is using,” he continued.

“All of this mobilization panic that Russia is demonstrating shows the Russian army does not have enough soldiers,” he noted.

Podolyak was Ukraine’s lead negotiator in the last round of diplomatic negotiations between Ukraine and Russia earlier this year.

Ukrainian police claim to have uncovered “torture chamber” in formerly occupied town

Ukrainian police claimed to have uncovered a “torture chamber” in the formerly Russian-occupied town of Pisky-Radkivski in the eastern Kharkiv region.

Among the items found, according to police, was a container full of extracted gold teeth.

“After the liberation of the village of Pisky-Radkivski, local residents reported to the police that in the basement of one of the houses captives were kept – local residents, ATO [Anti-Terrorist Operation] soldiers and POWs from the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” Serhiy Bolvinov, head of the investigation department of the National Police in the Kharkiv region, said in a statement on Facebook.

Bolvinov noted that local residents heard constant screaming from the building.

“Investigators and prosecutors are working to establish all the facts that took place in this torture chamber,” he added.

UN: Russia’s annexation of Ukraine territory will worsen human rights violations

Russia’s claimed annexation of Ukraine territory will only exacerbate human rights violations, the UN rights office has announced as it outlined the “unspeakable suffering and devastation” inflicted on Ukrainians.

Christian Salazar Volkmann, presenting a report on rights in Ukraine to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, said UN experts had documented “a range of violations of the rights to life, liberty and security”.

“The Russian Federation’s wide-scale armed attack has resulted in a dire human rights situation across Ukraine,” the UN rights office’s field operations chief added.

The office’s Human Rights Monitoring Mission, which has been present in Ukraine since 2014, had documented more than 6,000 civilian deaths since Russia’s invasion on February 24, stressing that “the real figures are likely considerably higher.”

And he warned that the situation would only worsen as Russia pushes forward with annexing the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia, following hastily arranged referendums dismissed as a “sham” by the West.

“With the purported annexation … the Russian Federation has taken steps which deepen rather than resolve the conflict, and exacerbate the human rights violations associated with it,” Salazar Volkmann noted.

UK sanctions head of Russian-backed authorities in Kherson region

The UK government has added Sergei Vladimirovich Yeliseyev to its list of sanctioned individuals.

The 51-year-old is the deputy prime minister of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, as well as “head of the Russia-backed government in the temporarily controlled territory of Kherson,” according to the entry added to the UK government’s sanctions list on Tuesday.

Yeliseyev is “involved in destabilizing Ukraine or undermining or threatening the territorial integrity, sovereignty or independence of Ukraine,” the UK government added.

Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, which Russia has claimed to annex, is only partially controlled by Russian forces. The Ukrainian military has been making significant advances in that region in recent days.

White House: No indication Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons

The United States has no indication that Russia is preparing to use nuclear weapons, despite “nuclear saber-rattling” by Russian President Vladimir Putin, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has said.

Putin has escalated the seven-month war in Ukraine with a military mobilisation and warnings of nuclear weapons use.

“We take any nuclear weapons or nuclear sabre-rattling very seriously here, but I do want to say … that we have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture, nor do we have any indication that Russia is preparing to imminently use nuclear weapons,” Jean-Pierre told reporters.

New US military aid to Ukraine to include HIMARS, Howitzers

President Joe Biden has announced that Washington would give Ukraine an additional $625m in security aid.

The package includes four HIMARS, howitzers, mortar rounds and more.

Russian defence ministry maps suggest rapid pullbacks in Ukraine: Report

Newly published Russian defence ministry maps appear to show rapid withdrawals by Moscow’s forces from areas in eastern and southern Ukraine where they have been under severe pressure from a Ukrainian counteroffensive, the Reuters news agency has reported.

The ministry’s daily video briefing made no mention of any pullbacks, but on maps used to show the location of purported Russian attacks, the shaded area designating Russian military control was much smaller than the day before, Reuters reported.

In northeastern Ukraine, where Russia suffered a rout last month, its forces along a front line running some 70 kilometres (43 miles) southward from Kupiansk along the River Oskil appeared to have retreated some 20km (12.5 miles) to the east, as far as the border of the Luhansk region, according to the news agency.

Such movement would mean they had vacated the last remnants of Ukraine’s Kharkiv province – where Russia for several months maintained an occupation administration – but for a small patch between the town of Dvorichna and the Russian border.

In southern Ukraine’s Kherson province, Russia’s line of control on the right bank of the Dnieper River had shifted 25km (15.5 miles) southward on the map, to a line running westward from the riverside town of Dudchany.

Ukraine has been reporting advances in both areas, albeit without giving full details.

Modi tells Zelensky India is ready to contribute to peace efforts

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that India is ready to contribute to peace efforts in Ukraine during talks by phone between the pair.

“He [Modi] expressed his firm conviction that there can be no military solution to the conflict and conveyed India’s readiness to contribute to any peace efforts,” the Indian prime minister’s office said in a statement after the discussions.

The “Prime Minister emphasised the importance India attaches to the safety and security of nuclear installations, including in Ukraine,” the statement added.

EU to integrate aid for Ukraine into 2023 budget

European Union finance ministers have agreed to integrate the EU’s support payments to Ukraine into the bloc’s 2023 budget to make disbursements more structured and predictable, the vice president of the EU’s executive arm says.

Speaking to journalists after a meeting of the ministers, the European Commission’s Valdis Dombrovskis admitted this year’s payments to Kyiv had been irregular.

“It is important to have a more predictable flow for Ukraine next year, so our intention is to integrate it into the EU budget discussions for 2023 and in this way make it a more steady flow,” Dombrovskis stated.

Blinken authorises new military aid package to Ukraine

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has authorised Washington’s 22nd package of military aid of American arms and equipment for Ukraine since August 2021.

In a call with President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier in the day, President Joe Biden pledged a new $625m security assistance package that includes additional weapons and equipment, including HIMARS, artillery systems and ammunition, and armoured vehicles.

The package “includes additional arms, munitions, and equipment from US Department of Defense inventories. This drawdown will bring the total US military assistance for Ukraine to more than $17.5 billion since the beginning of this administration,” Blinken said in a statement.

Blinken added that recent developments from Russia’s “sham referenda and attempted annexation to new revelations of brutality against civilians in Ukrainian territory formerly controlled by Russia only strengthens our resolve”.

US to supply Ukraine with more rocket launchers: Biden tells Zelensky

US President Joe Biden has told his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky that Washington will provide Kyiv with $625m in new security assistance, including High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) launchers, the White House said.

Biden was joined in the call by Vice President Kamala Harris, the White House said in a statement. The president underscored that Washington will never recognise Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory, it added.

Biden “pledged to continue supporting Ukraine as it defends itself from Russian aggression for as long as it takes”, the statement read.

He “also affirmed the continued readiness of the United States to impose severe costs on any individual, entity, or country that provides support to Russia’s purported annexation”.

Putin can be “quite dangerous and reckless” if he is cornered: CIA director

Russian President Vladimir Putin can be “quite dangerous and reckless” if he is cornered, CIA Director Bill Burns told CBS in an interview.

Putin has “gotta be concerned, not just about what’s happening on the battlefield in Ukraine, [but] what’s happening at home and what’s happening internationally,” Burns told CBS.

He noted in particular that despite a pledge from China in February of a “friendship without limits,” Beijing has declined to offer military support that Putin has requested and “controlled their enthusiasm for Russia’s conduct of the war.”

Russia’s rising challenges have left Putin with fewer options, making him potentially more dangerous, Burns suggested.

“Putin cornered, Putin who feels his back is against the wall, can be quite dangerous and reckless,” Burns added.

Leader of Belarus says his country is “participating” in war but is not an active military party

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said Tuesday that his country has been caught up in the Russia-Ukraine war but that it is not an active military party to the conflict.

“As for our participation in a special military operation in Ukraine, we are participating. We do not hide it. But we are not killing anyone. We are not sending our military anywhere. We do not violate our obligations,” Lukashenko stated during a military meeting, according to a video recording of the meeting by the state news agency Belta. Russia also calls its war in Ukraine a “special military operation.”

He then noted that his country is “participating” in the war by preventing its spread into Belarus and by preventing “a strike on Belarus under the guise of a special military operation from Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.”

“As I said, no one will shoot Russians in the back from the territory of Belarus. That’s our participation,” the Belarusian leader continued.

He added that Belarus is also caught up in the conflict as a point of entry for refugees.

“Yes, treat people if necessary. Yes, we feed people. And not only Russians. We feed most of all those refugees, beggars, poor people who come to us from Ukraine,” Lukashenko said, adding, “… How not to feed them, how not to treat them? This is our participation in this military operation. There is no other way and there won’t be.”

He stressed that Belarus is not planning to announce any mobilization but that it intends to learn from Russia’s experience.

Lukashenko has been a close ally of Russian leader Vladimir Putin, and Belarus was used as a launch point for Russian troops in February.

The Belarusian leader has previously announced his country was “being dragged” into the war.

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