Sunday, April 21, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 234

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:

Germany warns Russia could use ‘people as weapons’

Germany’s foreign minister warned Saturday that Russia could seek to spark division in the West through refugees, as Moscow seeks to expand its “hybrid war”.

“This war is not only waged with weapons, it is also waged with energy and for that, we have found an answer. But it will also be waged with fear and division, and that is precisely what we have to prevent,” said Annalena Baerbock at a congress of her Greens’ party.

“In this situation, it is clear what will be next – refugees and not refugees from Ukraine… but because this war is hybrid, other countries are also participating,” Baerbock added, pointing to Serbia which she accused of letting in planeloads of migrants without visas.

Stressing that there cannot be a situation “where people are being used as weapons”, the minister stated Germany was in talks with the Czech Republic and Slovakia on the issue.

First Russian soldiers arrive in Belarus for joint force

The first Russian soldiers to take part in a new joint force with Belarusian troops have arrived in Belarus, Minsk’s defence ministry announced on Saturday.

“The first convoys of Russian servicemen from the regional force group have arrived in Belarus,” the ministry said, adding that their mission was “exclusively to strengthen the protection and defence of the border”.

West prepping nuclear crisis plans: Report

Western governments are drawing up plans to avoid panic among their citizens should a nuclear weapon be used in Ukraine, two major UK media outlets reported.

The alleged preparations come as NATO officials are fueling speculation about the possibility, and issuing repeated warnings that Moscow would face “severe consequences” if it deployed the bomb.

Asked whether options and crisis plans were in place to address the aftermath of a nuclear detonation in Eastern Europe, an unnamed Western official confirmed that such plans were underway, according to reports in the Times and the Guardian.

“As you would expect, the government is conducting prudent planning for a range of possible scenarios of which that is one,” the official told reporters, referring to a nuclear strike.

While the official offered few other details about what those options would entail, the reports speculated that leaflets could be distributed to inform citizens “how to survive a nuclear attack” or to avoid panic buying.

What The Telegraph described as a “nuclear war of words” between Russia and the West started last month, after Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed that Moscow would use “all the means” at its disposal if Russia’s territorial integrity was threatened. The statement was interpreted by the US and its allies as a “veiled threat” to deploy nuclear weapons during the conflict in Ukraine.

“Putin knows that if he uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine, it will have severe consequences for Russia,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday.

British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace similarly stated on Thursday that “if Russia were to use a nuclear weapon, there would be severe consequences,” while scolding French President Emmanuel Macron for revealing too much when he noted Paris would not respond with its own arsenal of nukes.

Around the same time, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that any nuclear attack against Ukraine would prompt a powerful answer from the West, which would see the Russian army “annihilated” – but also acknowledged it would not be a “nuclear answer.”

US President Joe Biden warned that the conflict in Ukraine could lead to “Armageddon” during a Democratic fundraiser last week, adding that nuclear tensions were at their highest level since the peak of Cold War brinkmanship in the 1960s. Biden’s comments triggered some alarm among Americans, but were quickly followed by clarifications from the White House and the Pentagon that, in fact, there was no intelligence or indication that “Putin has either made a decision to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, or has done anything to get closer to that decision making process.”

In the meantime, Poland – a major supplier of weapons to Kiev in its battle against Russian forces – has suggested that Washington expand its nuclear-sharing program and deploy warheads on its territory to serve as a deterrent against Moscow. President Andrzej Duda and deputy PM Jaroslaw Kaczynski have both floated the proposal in recent months.

Russian officials have repeatedly stated that a nuclear war should never be fought, while Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu in August made it clear that Moscow is not considering a nuclear strike on Ukraine, given that there are no targets warranting such drastic measures.

Ex-president: Russia to crank up drone production

Russia needs to ramp up the production of various types of drones after they have demonstrated their combat effectiveness in the ongoing military conflict between Moscow and Kiev, the Deputy Chairman of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev has said.

Writing on his Telegram channel, Medvedev, who previously served as the country’s president, said that “UAVs have proven their effectiveness in modern conflicts. Their use in the special military operation zone is an urgent need.”

He went on to state that Russia has yet to establish large-scale production of various types of drones.

Medvedev also added had recently visited the St. Petersburg “Special Technological Center” to conduct an inspection of the supply of ‘Orlan’ reconnaissance drones ordered by the Russian government.

Russia’s use of drones as well as this week’s massive missile strikes on targets across Ukraine have prompted the Kiev government to reiterate their demands that Western countries must supply the Ukrainian military with more anti-aircraft weapons.

“Our ability to close the skies is not sufficient,” President Vladimir Zelensky told the Parliament Assembly of the Council of Europe on Thursday, insisting Ukraine only has “10% of what we need” and he “would like” to receive “many times” more anti-aircraft defense systems from the West.

Many Russian reservists ‘likely’ buying own body armour: UK

Many Russian reservists called up to fight in Ukraine are probably having to buy their own body armour – and its prices have soared, the latest British intelligence briefing says.

The UK Ministry of Defence also announced in its daily update that “endemic corruption and poor logistics” remained a cause of Russia’s “poor performance” in Ukraine.

The ministry added the average amount of personal equipment Russia was providing to its mobilised reservists was “almost certainly lower than the already poor provision of previously deployed troops”.

It tweeted: “Many reservists are likely required to purchase their own body armour, especially the modern 6B45 vest, which is meant to be on general issue to combat units as part of the Ratnik personal equipment programme.”

The ministry said the vest had been selling on Russian online shopping sites for 40,000 roubles (about US$640 or £570), up from about 12,000 roubles in April.

It added that in 2020 Russian authorities announced that 300,000 sets of the Ratnik armour had been supplied to its military – “ample to equip the force currently deployed in Ukraine”.

US to provide an additional $725 million in military assistance to Ukraine

The US is providing additional military assistance valued at up to $725 million to Ukraine, the administration announced late Friday.

Citing the recent Russian bombardment of targets across Ukraine and “the mounting evidence of atrocities by Russia’s forces,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Kyiv government would receive additional arms, munitions and equipment from the Pentagon.

It will bring total US military assistance for Ukraine to more than $18.3 billion since the beginning of the Biden administration, Blinken added.

The Pentagon broke down the assistance as follows:

  • Additional ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS);
  • 23,000 155mm artillery rounds;
  • 500 precision-guided 155mm artillery rounds;
  • 5,000 155mm rounds of Remote Anti-Armor Mine (RAAM) Systems;
  • 5,000 anti-tank weapons;
  • High-speed Anti-radiation missiles (HARMs);
  • More than 200 High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicles (HMMWVs);
  • Small arms and more than 2,000,000 rounds of small arms ammunition;
    Medical supplies.

Russia launched hundreds of missiles at mainly civilian targets this week: US military official

Russian forces have launched hundreds of missile strikes in Ukraine over the past week, most of them at civilian targets, a senior US military official said.

“Since the attack at the Kerch Strait bridge last week, we’ve seen the Russians continue to retaliate. The use of precision guided munitions in a very imprecise way has continued over the course of the week,” the official stated, adding, “I think it’s fair to say we’re in the hundreds in terms of the number of missiles that the Russians have launched against Ukrainian targets.”

The official said Russians are mainly targeting civilians, especially civilian infrastructure including “electricity or bridges or otherwise.”

“They have been used at civilian targets either indiscriminately or certainly in a deliberate way as it relates to infrastructure targets like electricity or bridges or otherwise,” the official added.

Viewed as retaliation for the bridge blast, the wave of deadly missile attacks began Monday and caused major damage to power systems across Ukraine, forcing people to reduce consumption to avoid blackouts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that there is no need for more “massive” strikes against Ukraine “at least for now.” He also added he had no regrets for his actions.

Russia continues to face international backlash for the war and global outrage at its targeting of civilians. European lawmakers voted overwhelmingly Thursday to declare Russia a “terrorist” regime.

Saudi leader pledges $400 million in humanitarian aid for Ukraine and offers mediation

Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday to pledge $400 million in humanitarian aid to “alleviate the suffering of Ukrainian citizens in the wake of the crisis,” according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency.

The crown prince also said that Saudi Arabia’s position was to support “de-escalation” and that the kingdom stood ready to “continue efforts of mediation,” between Ukraine and Russia.

Last week, OPEC+, the oil cartel led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, agreed to slash production by 2 million barrels per day, twice as much as analysts had predicted, in the biggest cut since the Covid-19 pandemic. An intense pressure campaign by the US to dissuade its Arab allies from the cut ahead of the decision seemingly fell on deaf ears.

US officials expressed displeasure at the OPEC move and President Joe Biden told CNN on Tuesday that Washington must now “rethink” its relationship with Riyadh.

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir denied that there were political motives behind the cuts.

“Saudi Arabia is not siding with Russia,” he told CNN, adding, “Saudi Arabia is taking the side of trying to ensure the stability of the oil markets.”

EU undecided on more Iran sanctions over alleged drone supplies to Russia

European Union foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday would not take any decisions on additional Iran sanctions after reports of drones delivered from Tehran to Moscow, Reuters has reported, citing an unnamed senior EU official.

The official added that the 27-nation bloc is still trying to find independent evidence for the alleged use of Iranian drones by Russia in Ukraine.

Iran, which blames NATO as the root of the Ukraine conflict, has denied supplying arms to Russia.

Broader coalition not needed for Russia oil price cap: US

The G7 is still working on setting a price cap on Russian oil but enrolling more nations in the scheme is not necessary for it to succeed, US Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen has said.

Australia recently joined the Group of Seven wealthy democracies and the European Union in backing the move aimed at depriving Moscow of a key source of cash for its war in Ukraine, as well as cooling soaring energy prices.

Yellen stated a broader coalition was not needed as the cap would be set by requiring Western financial services and insurance firms to abide by a maximum price in contracts for Russian oil shipments.

“We are not trying to sign up additional countries to a coalition,” Yellen told a news conference at the International Monetary Fund’s annual meetings, in Washington, DC.

US extends battalion in Lithuania

The United States will extend its rotation of a heavy tank battalion in Lithuania, which sees no reduction in the threat from Russia since Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, Lithuanian officials have said.

Lithuanian Defence Minister Arvydas Anusauskas noted the battalion, in the town of Pabrade since 2019, will stay at least until the start of 2026.

In a statement after meeting US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Brussels, Anusauskas stated the decision implements “one of the most essential objectives put forward by the sitting government: We have a persistent military US presence in Lithuania”.

Ukraine completes exhumation of soldiers at Lyman mass grave

Ukrainian investigators have completed the exhumation of soldiers in one of two mass graves discovered after Russian troops retreated from the town of Lyman in the eastern Donetsk region, police have announced.

“Police have removed the bodies of 34 Ukrainian defenders from the mass grave,” Donetsk regional police said in a statement, adding, “Work continues at a second location where more than 120 civilians are buried. The fate of each person who died will be determined.”

The soldiers’ bodies have all been transferred to a morgue and will be returned to their relatives for burial once identification has taken place and the cause of death is determined, the police noted.

Since September 29, Donetsk police said they have found the bodies of 144 people, 85 of them civilians, with 108 exhumed from makeshift graves and the rest found in buildings or on the streets.

Sweden shuns joint investigation of Nord Stream leaks

Sweden has rejected plans to set up a formal joint investigation team with Denmark and Germany to look into the recent ruptures of the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines, a Swedish prosecutor investigating the leaks has said.

Mats Ljungqvist, who is investigating the leaks in the Swedish economic zone, noted Sweden was already co-operating with Denmark and Germany on the matter.

He added Sweden had rejected the proposal for a Joint Investigation Team, from judicial cooperation agency Eurojust, because such an investigation would include legal agreements under which Sweden would have to share information it deemed confidential.

“This is because there is information in our investigation that is subject to confidentiality directly linked to national security,” Ljungqvist told Reuters.

Ukraine sets fire to Russian electrical plant in Belgorod: Governor

An electric substation in the Russian town of Belgorod, near the Ukrainian border, was set on fire by a Ukrainian attack, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov has stated.

“An electric substation … caught fire after a strike on Belgorod,” Gladkov said on Telegram, adding it would take “up to four hours” to activate a backup system and restore power.

He did not specify how many people had lost power in the city of 330,000, which until now has rarely been hit by Ukrainian fire, unlike the surrounding Belgorod region.

“We’re going to try to repair all the damage as soon as possible,” added Gladkov.

Images and videos posted on social media showed the moment of the impact, with the facility in flames.

The fire was brought under control around 17:00 GMT.

Ukraine wants financial crime watchdog to expel Russia

Ukraine’s central bank chief has announced he plans to ask the global financial crime watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), to expel Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

Andrii Pyshnyi, the newly appointed chairman of the National Bank of Ukraine, said on Facebook that he would make the request on behalf of the bank in a letter to the FATF before the organisation’s plenary session on October 18.

Russia is a member of FATF but Ukraine is not.

Pyshnyi accused Russia of “creating serious threats to the security and integrity of the world’s financial system” and demanded Moscow be made to “feel the price” for its invasion of Ukraine.

Kyiv says it will find solution to keep Starlink working

Kyiv will find a solution to keep the Starlink internet service working in Ukraine, the presidential adviser has said.

“Let’s be honest. Like it or not, @elonmusk helped us survive the most critical moments of war. Business has the right to its own strategies,” Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter.

“Ukraine will find a solution to keep #Starlink working. We expect that the company will provide stable connection till the end of negotiations,” he added.

Elon Musk has said his space exploration company SpaceX cannot indefinitely fund its Starlink internet service in Ukraine, which has helped the country’s civilians and military stay online during the war against Russia.

“SpaceX is not asking to recoup past expenses, but also cannot fund the existing system indefinitely *and* send several thousand more terminals that have data usage up to 100X greater than typical households. This is unreasonable,” Musk wrote on Twitter on Friday.

“We’ve also had to defend against cyberattacks & jamming, which are getting harder,” he added.

Musk’s Twitter comments came after a media report that claimed SpaceX had asked the Pentagon to pay for the donations of Starlink. Pentagon noted the Department of Defense “continues to work with industry to explore solutions for Ukraine’s armed forces as they repel Russia’s brutal and unprovoked aggression”.

Hungary starts survey over EU’s Russia sanctions

Hungary has published a national consultation survey asking citizens to agree or disagree with the government’s opposition to EU sanctions against Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.

“We believe that the sanctions are destroying us,” reads a statement on the government’s Facebook page, where the taxpayer-funded survey comprising seven questions is published.

“We always ask people the most important questions … have always tried to create a national consensus on certain issues,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban said during an interview.

Orban also slammed “the European elite” on Friday for deciding on the sanctions, which all EU members have approved.

But Orban argues they are hurting Europe more than Russia by endangering energy supplies and price stability.

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