Friday, February 23, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 280

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:

NATO confirms it has no interest in settlement in Ukraine: Russia

The joint statement adopted at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Bucharest indicates that the alliance is not interested in a political, diplomatic settlement in Ukraine, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a news briefing on Wednesday.

“I cannot ignore the statement adopted by the foreign ministers of NATO member countries at their meeting in Bucharest between November 29 and 30. Its wording indicates that NATO is absolutely uninterested in a political and diplomatic solution in Ukraine,” she noted.

“NATO countries are trying to accuse the Russian side of criminal acts and atrocities, while in reality these are committed by Ukraine’s armed forces against the backdrop of total connivance by the Western sponsors of the Kiev regime,” she said.

NATO has continued to push ahead with the policy that took shape immediately after the coup d’etat in Ukraine in February 2014, a policy of “whitewashing the Kiev regime and, accordingly, demonizing Russia in order to justify the existence of the North Atlantic Alliance.”

NATO countries have been accusing Russia of disrupting global food supplies, “although it was Moscow that offered real solutions” to this problem.

“The attempt to make Russia responsible for the incident involving a Ukrainian missile that crashed on Poland’s territory looks outrageous,” Zakharova added.

Moscow will retaliate if EU confiscates Russian assets

Moscow will take adequate response measures if Russian assets in the EU get confiscated, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Wednesday.

“We once again warn that if it comes to the real confiscation of the property of Russian citizens, enterprises, state reserves of our country, then adequate measures will inevitably follow from the Russian side,” Zakharova told a briefing.

The diplomat said that there are currently no further details to Russia’s response measures.
“I cannot say now what they [measures] will be — mirror, symmetrical or asymmetric ones — because it will be necessary to look at the set of measures that will be taken against us, and what measures will be taken in response, but they will be reciprocal and real, there will be nothing left up in the air, and the responsibility for the consequences, including for the interests of European business, will lie exclusively on Brussels,” Zakharova added.

She noted that the decision of the EU Council to recognize circumvention of EU sanctions as a criminal offense is a brazen example of an arbitrary legal treatment.

“This is all from the category of pseudo-legal practices. If they are implemented, of course, this will finally bury the reputation of the EU as a reliable jurisdiction for doing business,” Zakharova continued.

Russian defense chief calls for ‘next-gen’ weapons use in Ukraine

The Russian military should deploy next-generation weapons in its campaign in Ukraine, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Wednesday.

“We need to continue upgrading and creating advanced systems with their subsequent application in the special military operation,” Shoigu stated at a ministerial board meeting.

Shoigu did not specify which types of innovative weapons systems he was referring to or whether this marked a strategic shift in Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine.

But his remarks follow months of battlefield setbacks that forced Russian troops to withdraw from territories it held in at least three Ukrainian regions.

He listed high-precision long-range weapons, drones and counter-battery warfare systems as key factors for “effectively defeating the enemy.”

“Missile forces and artillery play a significant role in this,” Shoigu added.

“Today we will discuss further steps to build up the combat capabilities of the missile forces and artillery, taking into account the experience gained,” the DM continued.

100,000 Ukrainian soldiers have died in conflict: EU

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has presented the total number of losses estimated to have been suffered by Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

“More than 100,000 Ukrainian military officers have been killed so far,” von der Leyen claimed on Wednesday, while adding that around 20,000 civilian lives have also been lost amid the fighting, which has continued since late February.

The head of the European Commission didn’t reveal the sources of the information she provided.

In late September, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu stated that Ukrainian losses had to date amounted to more than 61,000 troops, which was ten times higher than those of Russia.

Blinken: Putin’s attacks on Ukraine energy grid will not work

Russian President Vladimir Putin has focused his “fire and ire” on Ukraine’s civilian population, bombing more than a third of Ukraine’s energy system – water and electricity supply – in a strategy that will not work, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday.

“These are President Putin’s new targets. He’s hitting them hard,” Blinken stated after a NATO meeting in Bucharest.

“His strategy has not, and will not, work,” he added.

Electricity supply “is improving every day”: Ukrainian Energy Minister

Ukraine’s Energy Minister Herman Halushchenko has said that his country’s energy situation “is improving every day.”

Halushchenko added that without any more waves of air strikes, “in the short term we will be able to stabilize and reduce the duration of the outage.”

He stated that while there would still be outages, the aim was to make them as planned as possible.

Speaking on Ukrainian television, Halushchenko outlined his vision for the future of the Ukrainian grid.

“We do not want to restore the system as it was before. We will make it modern,” he continued.

He spoke of two paths for Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, short term and long term. The short-term aim was to restore as much as possible quickly, while in the long term, the entire grid would have a “completely different look.”

Ukrenergo, Ukraine’s state-run energy operator, announced Wednesday that the country’s energy deficit stood at 27% as of 11 a.m. local time.

The update, posted on Facebook, said “capacity is gradually increasing, which will slightly reduce the deficit in the power system.”

It added that there are now consumptions limits for each region and that exceeding the consumption “limits leads to the need for emergency outages to avoid grid overload and ensure balance in the power system.”

Ukrenergo urged Ukrainians to continue limiting their electricity consumption so that engineers can focus on repairs.

Ukraine needs US Patriot missiles: FM

Ukraine needs the US-made Patriot missile defence systems to protect its civilian infrastructure, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said, adding he would be working with the German government on this issue.

On Tuesday, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev warned NATO against providing Ukraine with Patriot systems.

Kuleba also stated Ukraine would eventually become a member of NATO, adding that in the interim, its defence should be bolstered.

“The discussions on Ukraine’s NATO application should begin,” he said during a news conference following a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Bucharest.

Russia to invest in nuclear weapons infrastructure

Russia’s defence minister has said it will focus on nuclear arms infrastructure in 2023, including facilities to accommodate new missile systems.

Sergei Shoigu told a meeting of the board of the department on Wednesday that it would be a priority for Russia next year.

“When preparing the list of major construction facilities for 2023, special attention will be paid to construction in the interests of the strategic nuclear forces,” Shoigu was quoted by RIA news agency as saying.

On Monday, Russia postponed talks with the US on nuclear weapons, saying they would be rescheduled but not giving any reasons for the delay. The Start treaty will expire in 2026.

Shiogu noted 300,000 reservists, including volunteers, were trained in two months after Vladimir Putin’s partial mobilisation order was given, Russian news agency Tass reports.

The defence minister added more than 100 training camps were used in Russia and Belarus.

2,500 Kherson residents evacuated and given cash for humanitarian support

The Ministry of Reintegration of Temporarily Occupied Territories has said that 2,500 civilians have left Kherson to other safe regions around Ukraine.

People are moved through “proven routes” to Lviv and Khmelnytskyi, a statement said.

The Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, Iryna Vereshchuk, added that people leaving will receive “cash payments” when they arrive at train station: 2,000 UAH ($53) per adult and 3,000 UAH ($80) per child or person with disabilities.

“People count on cash support. Therefore, they receive it immediately upon arrival. This gives confidence that the state will take care of them in the new place,” Vereshchuk stated.

Those leaving are also issued IDP certificates and humanitarian aid.

US is focused on providing air defense systems to Ukraine: Secretary of state

The United States is “very focused” on providing air defense systems to Ukraine, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told CNN on Wednesday.

“We’re now very focused on air defense systems and not just us, many other countries,” Blinken told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

“And we’re working to make sure that the Ukrainians get those systems as quickly as possible but also as effectively as possible, making sure that they are trained on them, making sure they have the ability to maintain them, and all of that has to come together and it is. We have a very deliberate process established by the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Ramstein, Germany, that meets regularly to make sure that the Ukrainians are getting what they need, when they need it,” he added.

Blinken was speaking from Bucharest, Romania, where he is attending a meeting of NATO foreign ministers.

While Blinken would not elaborate on whether the Pentagon would provide the Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine, he told Amanpour that the United States had been working on making sure that “at any given time, [the Ukrainians] have the most effective systems possible to deal with the threat they are facing.”

“We just recently, for example, provided them with a very effective system called NASAMS that they are using very effectively. Before that of course, we had the HIMARS, which they used to great effect both in southern and eastern Ukraine,” Blinken added.

Sweden, Finland making progress towards NATO membership: Turkey

Turkey says Sweden and Finland have made progress towards NATO membership but still needed to do more to satisfy Ankara’s requests on tackling “terrorism”.

Sweden and Finland applied in May to join NATO in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Still, they encountered objections from Turkey, which accused the two Nordic countries of harbouring fighters from the banned Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and other groups.

Stockholm and Helsinki deny harbouring fighters but have pledged to cooperate with Ankara to address its security concerns fully and lift arms embargoes.

“The two countries took some steps, we recognise them. But there have not been any steps on extradition requests and freezing terror assets,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at a NATO gathering in Bucharest.

But Cavusoglu also praised Sweden’s new government for what he called “a more decisive, tougher stance on terrorism”.

Russian spy chief says he discussed Ukraine with CIA counterpart

Russian foreign intelligence chief Sergei Naryshkin has said he discussed nuclear issues and Ukraine in a meeting with United States Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns earlier this month.

Elizabeth Rood, charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Moscow, told Russia’s RIA news agency this week that Burns “did not negotiate anything, and he did not discuss a settlement of the conflict in Ukraine”.

Naryshkin told RIA, “For my part, I confirm Ms Rood’s statement. Additionally, I can note that the most frequently used words at this meeting were ‘strategic stability’, ‘nuclear security’, ‘Ukraine’ and ‘Kyiv regime’.”

He also confirmed Rood’s comments that the two countries had a channel to manage risks and that it could happen if there were a need for another such conversation.

‘New commitments’ on weapons from NATO: Ukraine

Ukraine’s foreign minister says NATO diplomats have given him a “number of new commitments” but declined to say whether that included Patriot missile batteries.

Equipping Ukraine with arms and equipment to rebuild its damaged electrical grid to survive winter under Russian bombardment has been a top issue at the NATO meeting of foreign ministers.

At the gathering, “we heard a number of commitments, new commitments, from various NATO members with regard to providing Ukraine with more defensive weapons and energy equipment,” Dmytro Kuleba told reporters.

Ukraine wants US-made Patriot missile batteries or other air defence systems that are more advanced than those it has gotten so far from the United States and other allies.

Kuleba did not respond to repeated questions from a reporter ahead of a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken about whether he had received any commitments on Patriots.

Ukrainian forces push back Russian troops in the Donbas region

The Ukrainian army has held off an advance by Russian troops at six different locations in the eastern Donbas region, the Ukrainian general staff in Kyiv announced.

All sections of the front in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions were under fire by Russian artillery, it added.

Fierce fighting has been reported from the Donbas for a long time, with little change in the course of the front in recent weeks.

Brussels proposes plan to confiscate frozen Russian assets

The European Commission on Wednesday said proposed a plan to confiscate Russian assets that have been frozen to punish Moscow for the invasion of Ukraine.

“We have blocked 300 billion euros of the Russian Central Bank reserves and we have frozen 19 billion euros of Russian oligarchs’ money,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Union’s executive, said in a statement.

She added that in the short term the EU and its partners could manage the funds and invest them. The proceeds would go to Ukraine so that ultimately would compensate for damages caused to the country.

“We will work on an international agreement with our partners to make this possible. And together, we can find legal ways to get to it,” she continued.

EU to try and set up court to investigate and prosecute Russian war crimes

The EU will try to set up a court, backed by the UN, to investigate and prosecute war crimes committed by Russia in Ukraine according to the European Commission’s president Ursula von der Leyen.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has brought death, devastation and unspeakable suffering. We all remember the horrors of Bucha. It is estimated that more than 20,000 civilians and more than 100,000 Ukrainian military officers have been killed so far,” she said.

“Russia must pay for its horrific crimes including for its crime of aggression against a sovereign state. This is why, while continuing to support the international criminal court we are proposing to set up a specialised court backed by the United Nations to investigate and prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression,” she continued.

“We are ready to start working with the international community to get the broadest international support possible for this specialised court,” von der Leyen added.

“Russia must also pay financially for the devastation that it has caused. The damage suffered by Ukraine is estimated at €600bn. Russia and its Oligarchs have to compensate Ukraine for its damage and for the costs for rebuilding the country,” the European Commission’s president noted.

She proposes the EU could seize Russian money in Europe, invest it, and use it to finance the rebuilding (see 8.02am).

“Russia’s horrific crimes will not go unpunished,” she stated.

Russia has denied targeting civilians and claimed it has not committed war crimes, despite evidence of a massacre in Bucha. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said that more than 400 war crimes were committed in Kherson during the occupation of the city.

NATO FMs reiterate solidarity with Ukraine and pledge to assist with infrastructure repairs

NATO foreign ministers said Tuesday in a joint statement they remain steadfast in the “commitment to Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity” and pledged allies will assist Ukraine as it repairs its energy infrastructure amid Russian attacks.

“Russia’s unacceptable actions, including hybrid activities, energy blackmail, and reckless nuclear rhetoric, undermine the rules-based international order,” according to the statement.

“We condemn Russia’s cruelty against Ukraine’s civilian populations and violations and abuses of human rights, such as forcible deportations, torture, and barbaric treatment of women, children, and persons in vulnerable situations,” it added.

“We also remain resolute in supporting Ukraine’s long-term efforts on its path of post-war reconstruction and reforms, so that Ukraine can secure its free and democratic future, modernize its defense sector, strengthen long-term interoperability and deter future aggression,” according to the statement.

Ukraine has been experiencing blackouts as Russia continues to bombard energy infrastructure.

“We will continue to strengthen our partnership with Ukraine as it advances its Euro-Atlantic aspirations,” the ministers read.

G7 justice ministers condemn Russia’s use of “winter as a weapon” as a “war crime”

The G7 ministers of justice condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin’s use of “winter as a weapon,” the German justice minister said at a meeting with his counterparts in Berlin.

Minister Marco Buschmann told a news conference that Ukrainian civilians had been living in freezing temperatures as a result of Russia’s strikes on civilian infrastructure, adding the ministers had agreed this was “a terrible war crime that is aimed at ensuring that many people fall victim to winter.”

The group vowed to coordinate criminal investigations into war crimes, which they agreed was “of the highest priority,” Buschmann stated, adding Ukrainian authorities had so far documented nearly 50,000 instances of war crimes and listed around 600 suspected war criminals.

It is a shared goal of the G7 countries “to achieve maximum accountability and to deliver justice for victims and survivors,” according to a statement published after the meeting.

“There can be no impunity for war crimes and other atrocities,” he continued.

The “entire Russian leadership” should be investigated in the International Criminal Court for “crimes against humanity” Buschmann told the press conference.

Ukraine’s PM says winter season will be challenging, but 70% of power needs have been met

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said that the second winter season of the war “will be very challenging.”

He told a government meeting that Russia “will further shell the energy infrastructure; their goal is to freeze Ukraine and commit another genocide of the Ukrainian people.”

Shmyhal stated that “all regions of Ukraine, except Kherson region, are supplied with power. Currently, electricity production in the country covers 70% of consumption needs.”

He added the onus was now on regional power companies not to exceed the limits provided by state electricity provider NPC Ukrenergo and to minimize uneven disconnection of consumers.

There is sufficient energy, he said, to evenly distribute the load of forced outages so that people can turn on lights for at least five to six hours a day, Shmyhal said.

Shmyhal noted the situation required a strong air defense and quick repairs of damaged power equipment.

“Regarding air defense, over the past month, there has been significant progress, first of all, thanks to the supply of modern Western systems,” he continued, adding obtaining additional power equipment was also a priority, he said.

“Lithuania alone has given us 114 transformers. Other countries allocate funds and equipment to help Ukraine survive the winter. Not only Europe, but also the USA, Canada and Japan provide us with substantial support,” he said.

Shmyhal stated Ukraine’s energy resources are adequate for the winter months: “We are entering the winter with 14 billion cubic meters of gas in our storage facilities and 1.3 million tonnes of coal in storages. This resource will be quite enough to get us through the winter stably.”

He also added that the Economy Ministry foresaw no shortages of fuel and diesel, which would be required for the hundreds of generators being imported.

German chancellor pledges delivery of more anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has pledged the delivery of more Gepard anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine.

“We will continue to work to provide that very efficient system,“ Scholz said during a joint news conference with world financial and economic organizations.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Scholz in a phone call on Tuesday about Russian airstrikes on civilian infrastructure, water and electricity supplies, according to a government news release. The chancellor condemned the ongoing shelling and assured Ukraine of further short-term assistance, government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit stated in a news release.

“The Ukrainian president has expressed his gratitude for Germany’s very comprehensive support in monetary terms, but also in terms of weapons deliveries, because the artillery and air defense systems that we provide have a very significant impact on Ukraine’s ability to guarantee its own integrity and sovereignty,“ Scholz told journalists.

To date, the German government has provided short-term financial assistance to repair energy infrastructure in the amount of approximately 56 million euros (about $58 million), Hebestreit said in the news release. Germany is also providing over 350 generators as Ukraine suffers power outages due to the Russian shelling.

The chancellor reiterated Germany’s continued support to Ukraine, including air defense and long-term reconstruction.

Scholz added that the German offer of its Patriot air defense system to Poland was not off the table, after stray missiles hit the country on Nov. 15.

US considering sending Patriot air defense systems to Ukraine: Senior US defense official

The US is considering sending the Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine to support their air defense capabilities against incoming Russian attacks, a senior US defense official told reporters Tuesday.

“All capabilities are on the table,” the official said when asked if the US was considering sending Patriot batteries specifically to Ukraine. “Patriot is one of the air defense capabilities that is being considered,” the official added.

The Patriot air defense missile system – Patriot stands for “Phased Array Tracking Radar to Intercept of Target” – is designed to counter and destroy incoming short-range ballistic missiles, advanced aircraft and cruise missiles.

Air defense of Ukraine is the US’s “top priority,” the official continued.

“We’re looking at all the possible capabilities that could help the Ukrainians withstand Russian attacks, so all the capabilities are on the table, and we are looking at what the United States can do, we’re looking at what our allies and partners can do, and looking at combinations of capabilities that would be useful,” the official stated.

However, later on Tuesday, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters during a briefing that the US has “no plans to provide Patriot batteries to Ukraine” right now.

“We discuss a wide variety of capabilities and support with Ukraine, we regularly consult with Ukraine, we regularly consult with our allies and our partners on what their defense needs are,” Ryder said, adding, “Right now, we have no plans to provide Patriot batteries to Ukraine, but again we’ll continue to have those discussions, and when and if there’s something to announce on that front, we will.”

Part of the challenge with sending Patriot batteries or other advanced weaponry to Ukraine is those systems require a “pretty significant maintenance and sustainment tail as well as a training tail on those things,” Ryder said.

“None of these systems are plug and play, you can’t just show up on the battlefield and start using them, so those are the kinds of things that are taken into account when it comes to more advanced systems,” Ryder noted.

Ukraine’s air defense remains a “priority” to the US, Ryder added.

“We’ll continue to look at working with allies and partners in terms of what we can get to Ukraine as quickly as possible so they can start employing those capabilities immediately,” Ryder continued.

US will provide $53 million to Ukraine to support its electrical system

The United States will provide $53 million to support Ukraine’s electrical system as it faces a barrage of attacks from Russia.

The funding will go toward “the acquisition of critical electricity grid equipment,” which “will be rapidly delivered to Ukraine on an emergency basis to help Ukrainians persevere through the winter,” according to a media note from the US State Department.

“This supply package will include distribution transformers, circuit breakers, surge arresters, disconnectors, vehicles and other key equipment,” the note said.

The funding adds to the United States’ existing $55 million in emergency energy sector support. It was announced by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a meeting of the G7+ Tuesday, which took place on the margins of the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in Bucharest, according to the media note.

US and European officials have strongly condemned Russia’s strikes on Ukrainian civilian populations and infrastructure, accusing Moscow of deliberately targeting Ukraine’s energy grid in an effort to leave people without electricity and heat – an act that they say would amount to a war crime.

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