Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 300

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:

WHO: Risk of mental health disorder high in Ukraine due to war

The World Health Organisation says 10 million people, or approximately a quarter of Ukraine’s population, may suffer from a mental health disorder due to the war.

“WHO estimates that up to 10 million people are at risk of some form of a mental disorder, varying from anxiety and stress to more severe conditions,” Jarno Habicht, WHO’s representative in Ukraine, told a Geneva news briefing via video link.

Severe conditions include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Cases rise after 10 months of conflict, prompting a separate UN agency to launch online support services.

So far, at least 700 attacks on Ukraine’s healthcare system, WHO data shows, and Russia’s increased attacks on critical infrastructure since October have added to the challenges by causing blackouts.


Ukraine: Russia could prepare new offensive in Belarus

Ukraine’s defence minister says Russia could prepare an attack force in Belarus to launch a new offensive on Ukraine.

Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov and other Ukrainian officials suggested that Moscow could attempt a winter offensive after mobilising more troops.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Belarus, sparking fears of involving Belarus in the conflict in a more direct way.

Reznikov told Ukrainian television there was no evidence that Russia had already begun assembling an offensive-ready combat force in Belarus or that Minsk would be dragged into the war.

“I think it’s not in the interests of the leadership of Belarus to waste its military potential,” Reznikov continued, adding, “So I have hope that they will continue holding this balance”.


Russia will give Iran military components in exchange for drones: UK

British Defence Minister Ben Wallace said Russia intends to give Iran advanced military components in exchange for drones.

“Iran has become one of Russia’s top military backers,” Wallace told Parliament as part of a statement on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

“In return for having supplied more than 300 kamikaze drones, Russia now intends to provide Iran with advanced military components, undermining both Middle East and international security,” he added.


Zelensky: ‘We will endure and will not give up what’s ours’

President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the Bakhmut front line, which has become the site of the heaviest fighting, to award soldiers for their efforts in defending Ukraine.

On Telegram, Zelensky wrote: “Bakhmut Fortress. Our people. Unconquered by the enemy. Who, with their bravery, prove that we will endure and will not give up what’s ours.

“Ukraine is proud of you. I am proud of you! Thank you for the courage, resilience and strength shown in repelling the enemy attacks,” he continued.


Russia becomes China’s biggest oil supplier, overtaking Saudi Arabia

China’s crude oil imports from Russia rose 17 percent in November as Chinese refiners rushed to secure more cargoes in advance of the G7 price cap on December 5.

The jump made Russia the top oil supplier for China ahead of Saudi Arabia.

From December 5, the European Union banned imports of Russian crude oil, and G7 nations introduced a cap of $60 a barrel on Russian oil in an attempt to limit Moscow’s ability to finance the war in Ukraine.

But steep discounts of Russian crude oil still attracted Chinese buyers in November, especially the independent refiners in the oil refining hub of Shandong.

Although some state-owned refiners began scaling back purchases due to concerns about Western sanctions on Moscow.

China’s imports from Saudi Arabia totalled 6.62 million tonnes in November, or 1.61 million bpd.

That was down 11 percent from a year ago.


Three people killed in Russian gas pipeline blast

Three people have died after a blast ripped through a gas pipeline in central Russia that brings gas through Ukraine to Europe, local officials and TASS news agency reported.

Local officials said on Telegram that the flow of gas through the section of the Urengoy-Pomary-Uzhhorod pipeline had been cut as of 1:50pm (10:50 GMT).

TASS cited local emergency services as saying three people had died and one had been injured.

The Chuvashia regional Emergencies Ministry stated the pipeline had blown up during planned maintenance work near the village of Kalinino, about 150km (90 miles) west of the Volga city of Kazan.

The pipeline, built in the 1980s, enters Ukraine via the Sudzha metering point, currently, the main route for Russian gas to reach Europe.


Conflicting views in Russia over launching a counteroffensive: US

A senior state department official said there are conflicting views in Russia on whether or not to launch a counteroffensive in Ukraine.

“Certainly, there are some [within Russia] who I think would want to pursue offensives in Ukraine. There are others who have real questions about the capacity for Russia to actually do that,” the Reuters News agency reported the state department official as saying, on the condition of anonymity.

The official reiterated that Washington would continue its support of Kyiv regardless of which scenario plays out.

Ukraine’s top general, Valery Zaluzhnyi, told The Economist last week that Russia was preparing 200,000 fresh troops for a major offensive that could come from the east, south or even from Belarus as early as January, but more likely in spring.


Electricity supplies in Kyiv at ‘critical’ level: Governor

Electricity supplies in the Kyiv region are at a “critical” level, with less than half the capital’s power needs being supplied after more targeted Russian missile and drone attacks on civilian infrastructure, regional officials noted.

Kyiv Governor Oleksiy Kuleba stated 80 percent of the region was without electricity for a second day after Russian drones hit energy infrastructure on Monday.

“The situation with electricity supplies remains critical,” Kuleba said on Telegram, adding, “I want to stress that with every shelling by the enemy, the complexity and duration of the repairs increase”.

National power grid operator Ukrenergo said it could provide less than half the required consumption in the capital Kyiv.

“Supplies to critical infrastructure are a priority. We expect that today we will be able to turn on equipment to enable the security of supplies to be increased, reduce the capacity deficit and connect more consumers,” Ukrenergo added.


Russia-Ukraine gas pipeline hit in blast

An explosion hit the Urengoi-Pomary-Uzhhorod gas exporting pipeline, which leads from Russia through Ukraine, the RBC news outlet reported citing local officials.

The regional Emergency Ministry in Russia’s Chuvash Republic, where the incident took place near the Volga city of Kazan, said it has received a call about a fire at a gas pipeline without naming it.

It added that, according to preliminary information, no one had been injured.


Russia attacked Ukraine oil and gas facilities: Naftogaz

Ukraine energy company Naftogaz announced that Russia attacked Ukrainian oil and gas facilities in the country’s east overnight.

“Enemy missiles hit one of the facilities in the Kharkiv region. A large-scale fire broke out at the site, its elimination is currently under way. There are no casualties,” the company said in a statement.

Oleksiy Chernyshov, chief executive of Naftogaz, stated the damage would be assessed after emergency services finished their work and that everything damaged would be restored.

Chernyshov noted earlier this month that Russian attacks on Ukraine had damaged 350 natural gas facilities, but production should be restored by the end of the year.

He added that the loss of gas production capacity amounted to about $700 million.


Zelensky visits frontline city of Bakhmut

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has visited the frontline city of Bakhmut, in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have been locked in brutal battle for months.

Zelensky met with soldiers and handed out awards, according to his office. Video posted by state TV shows the president clad in fatigues and a flak vest presenting awards to troops.

Bakhmut has seen some of the most ferocious fighting in the whole of the country since Russian forces launched their siege on the city in earnest in May, turning it into ruins.

On December 11, the Ukrainian military announced the city was “holding on,” while fighting rages around it.

“Bakhmut is Ukraine. Bakhmut is standing, Bakhmut is holding on,” wrote the military on Telegram.


UN chief “not optimistic” about peace talks in “immediate future”

Russia’s war in Ukraine will not come to an end anytime soon, according to the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said on Monday he was not hopeful about the prospect of peace as the war looks set to grind into the new year.

“I am not optimistic about the possibility of effective peace talks at the immediate future,” stated Guterres at his end-of-year press conference.

“I do believe that the military confrontation will go on, and I think we will have still to wait a moment in which serious negotiations for peace will be possible. I don’t see them in the immediate horizon,” he continued.

This is why the UN is focusing its efforts on areas where movement is possible, such as the exchange of prisoners of war and the Black Sea grain deal, added Guterres.

The UN played a key role in brokering the agreement that guarantees safe passage for ships carrying vital grain exports from Ukraine, but Guterres struck a pessimistic tone on the future of the conflict.

“We have no illusions that a true peace negotiation would be possible in the immediate future,” he continued.


Rouble drops to seven-month low as sanctions rock Russia’s currency

The rouble has dropped to a more than seven-month low against the dollar as fears rise over the possible effect of sanctions on oil and gas on the Russian currency.

On Tuesday morning, the rouble was 2.2 percent weaker against the dollar at 69.19, its weakest mark since May 11.

It had lost 2 percent to trade at 73.54 versus the euro, its weakest since May 6, and shed 2.4 percent against the yuan to 9.89, clipping a near six-month low.

The rouble remains the world’s best-performing currency this year.

But, after the pressure of sanctions in recent weeks, Veles Capital said in a note, the weakening rouble makes sense, referencing the $60-per-dollar oil price cap and the ninth package of European Union sanctions against Moscow.

“On Monday, the pressure was seriously strengthened with information about preparations to introduce a ‘ceiling’ on the price of Russian gas from the start of 2023,” Veles Capital added.


IMF approves donor fund for Ukraine

The IMF says it has approved an economic monitoring program for Ukraine, which could help Kyiv secure donor funding.

The monitoring program “is designed to help Ukraine maintain stability and catalyze donor financing amid very large balance of payment needs and exceptionally high risks,” following the Russian invasion, the International Monetary Fund announced in a statement.

Ukrainian authorities are committed to economic and financial reforms, concerning in particular tax collection, the domestic debt market, transparency and the independence of the central bank, the IMF added.

They have four months to prove their progress as per the Program Monitoring with Board involvement (PMB) scheme, the statement read.

Ukraine needed between $40 billion and $57 billion to cover its budgetary and operating needs for 2023, said Gavin Gray, the IMF’s head of mission for Ukraine.


Russia violating most conventions of warfare: top Ukrainian minister

Ukraine’s defence minister has stated he will start acting on some of the violations Russia has committed in its war against the country.

“Russia spent hundreds of billions of dollars on the delusional idea of conquering Ukraine and became a terrorist state, violating most conventions on the rules of warfare. I will focus everyday on some of those violations,” Oleksiy Reznikov noted on Tuesday.


Putin says situation in annexed parts of Ukraine ‘extremely difficult’

Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, said the situation in four areas of eastern Ukraine – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – that Moscow illegally annexed in September was “extremely difficult”.

Russia’s illegal annexation of the four territories, which together make up 15% of Ukraine, marked the largest forcible takeover of territory in Europe since the second world war and was condemned by Kyiv and its western allies as illegal.

Russia has suffered acute setbacks in the areas, halting its ambitions.

“The situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions is extremely difficult,” Putin stated late on Tuesday in comments translated by Reuters.

Putin’s comments were made on Security Services Day, which is widely celebrated in Russia. Putin also ordered the Federal Security Services (FSB) to step up surveillance of Russian society and the country’s borders to combat what he deemed the “emergence of new threats” from abroad.


Reports of Putin using Belarus in Ukraine war ‘stupid’: Moscow

Reports suggesting President Vladimir Putin is going to push Belarus into a more active role in Ukraine war are “groundless” and “stupid”, the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

“Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone,” Peskov stated.

However, the US has refuted the claims from Moscow, calling it the “height of irony”.

“The reported claim from president Putin that he has no intention of, as you said, absorbing anyone in his talks with president – with Alexander Lukashenka, look, I think a statement like that has to be treated as the height of irony coming from a leader who is seeking at the present moment, right now, to violently absorb his other peaceful next door neighbor,” state department spokesperson Ned Price said.

“We’ve heard these statements from President Putin. At the same time, since the earliest days of this conflict and the weeks preceding this conflict, we have seen the Lukashenka regime essentially cede its sovereignty, cede its independence to Russia,” he added.

The top US state department official stated that the world saw Russian forces “mass inside what should have been sovereign Belarusian territory.”

“We’ve seen attacks launched from what should be sovereign Belarusian territory. And now we hear these comments from president Putin and from Lukashenka, but I think the track record speaks much louder than anything these two leaders could say,” he continued.


Putin tells security services to find ‘traitors and spies’: Report

Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered the strengthening of Russia’s borders and instructed security services to keep greater control of society and root out “traitors, spies and saboteurs”, the country’s news agencies have reported.

Speaking on Security Services Day, widely celebrated in Russia, Putin instructed his security officials to protect the borders, increase control of society, and maximise their “use of the operational, technical and personnel potential” to prevent risks coming from abroad and internal traitors.

“Maximum composure, concentration of forces is now required from counterintelligence agencies, including military intelligence,” the TASS state news agency cited Putin as saying.

“It is necessary to severely suppress the actions of foreign special services, quickly identify traitors, spies and saboteurs,” he continued, adding that Russia’s borders must also be strengthened.

“Work must be intensified through the border services and the Federal Security Service [FSB],” Russia’s state-owned RIA news agency cited Putin as saying.

“And it [the border] must be reliably covered. Any attempts to violate it must be thwarted quickly and effectively using whatever forces and means we have at our disposal, including mobile action units and special forces,” he noted.


US diplomat: Russian attacks on power grid did not break resolve of Ukrainians

Waves of Russian attacks on Ukraine’s electrical grid have failed to dim the country’s determination to resist Moscow, but Washington and its allies need to do more to help the country keep the power on, a senior US diplomat said.

“I think this strategic bombing campaign … has clearly failed in its attempt to break the will of the Ukrainian population,” Assistant Secretary of State Geoffrey Pyatt told Reuters three days after returning from talks in Kyiv.

The attacks, which began in October as Russia suffered a string of battlefield defeats following its February war, have destroyed at least 50 percent of the country’s power infrastructure, according to the UN.


Lavrov: Zelensky does not understand seriousness of situation

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has accused President Volodymyr Zelensky of a “lack of understanding of the seriousness of the moment and lack of concern for his people.”

“He is just bubbling with ideas,” Lavrov said in an interview with the Belarus 1 TV channel in Minsk.

Zelensky’s ideas, which Lavrov did not specify, in turn, revealed the “racist character” of the leadership in Kyiv.

The Ukrainian head of state had recently repeatedly pushed the idea of an international tribunal, before which all responsible politicians and military officers from Moscow would answer for the war in Ukraine and the war crimes committed there.


Kremlin says EU gas price cap ‘unacceptable’

The Kremlin announced the price cap for natural gas of 180 euros ($191) per megawatt hour agreed on by EU energy ministers after months of wrangling was “unacceptable”.

“This is a violation of the market price-setting, an infringement on market processes, any reference to a [price] cap is unacceptable,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was cited as saying by Russian state-run news agencies.


Russia and Belarus vow closer cooperation to overcome western sanctions

At the end of a visit to Minsk, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia and Belarus are working closely to mitigate the effect of western sanctions against both countries.

Speaking at a news conference with his Belarus counterpart, Alexander Lukashenko, Putin said, “Russia and Belarus are working together to overcome the illegitimate steps and sanctions against Russia and Belarus,” and were “working with great confidence in this direction.”

Putin added: “Our countries are closest allies and strategic partners.”

He stated there was joint defense planning between Russia and Belarus and that Russia “will do everything for the joint safety of our countries.”

“Such measures are necessary because of the tense situation on the outer borders of the Union state,” he noted — an apparent reference to the conflict in Ukraine and possibly the fractious relationship of both countries with Poland.

Putin confirmed that Russia was currently conducting military exercises on the territory of Belarus and that Russia and Belarus were also jointly developing weaponry.

The Russian Defense Ministry said earlier Monday, that “The final assessment of the combat capability and combat readiness of the units will be given by the command at the final stage of coordination — after the battalion tactical exercises have been conducted.’

Taking questions at the news conference, Putin said: “Russia and Belarus will create one unified defense space.”

Russian forces have been based in Belarus for much of the year. In October, the Belarus defense ministry announced that 9,000 Russian troops were moving to the country as part of a “regional grouping” of forces to protect its borders. Russian combat aircraft are stationed at or frequently visit several Belarus air bases. Some of the recent cruise missile attacks on Ukraine have originated in Belarus, according to Ukrainian officials.

Putin noted that Russia remains the largest investor in Belarus, to the tune of some $4 billion.

For his part, Lukashenko stated that 2022 had been a record for Russian-Belarusian relations on all levels and claimed that “sanctions had a painful boomerang effect on their initiators.”

The European Union and the United States have imposed a range of sanctions on Belarus, principally against senior officials of Lukashenko’s government as well as air travel and some exports.

“Because the collective West has reared its ugly head at us, we must coordinate our efforts,” Lukashenko continued.

Lukashenko added, “Russia can do without us, but we can’t do without Russia.”


EU ministers agree to price cap

European Union countries approve a cap on gas prices which would be triggered if benchmark gas prices spike to 180 euros ($191) per megawatt hour, according to officials and a document by the Reuters news agency.

The EU gas price cap will come into play if prices on the front-month Dutch Title Transfer Facility gas hub contract exceed 180 euro per megawatt hour for three days.

The cap can be triggered from February 15 onwards and will not apply to over-the-counter trades initially.


Germany freezes Russian assets worth more than $5bn

Germany has frozen nearly 5.05 billion euros ($5.36bn) in Russian assets as part of the EU’s sanctions over the Ukraine war.

The government in Berlin released the figure in response to a question by Christian Gorke, a member of parliament for the hardline socialist Die Linke (Left Party).

The government says nearly 2.21 billion euros ($2.35bn) of the frozen assets are funds that were reported to the central bank, the Bundesbank, by German banks. In addition, there are “moveable assets” worth nearly 1.1 billion euros ($1.17bn).

The government did not give more precise figures.


UN is ‘probably only platform’ for Russia and Ukraine: UN chief

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stated the UN is “probably the only platform” that can speak to both sides of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, adding that it would continue to try to be helpful to “minimise suffering” in Ukraine, including helping prisoner exchanges.

“We are very interested in accelerating the exchange of prisoners of war, especially when we are approaching Christmas and both sides celebrate Christmas. How dramatic it is to be a prisoner of war in another country, with the kind of war we are witnessing in Ukraine,” the UN chief noted.


Putin says “Russia has no interest in absorbing” Belarus

Russian President Vladimir Putin stated Russia does not plan to “absorb” Belarus, in response to a question during a press conference in Minsk on Monday with his Belarus counterpart Alexander Lukashenko.

“Russia has no interest in absorbing anyone. It is simply not advisable today,” Putin said in response to a reporter’s question about alleged rumors that Russia wants to absorb Belarus.

“These unscrupulous critics from the outside either do not understand what they are talking about, or talk about it on purpose, misleading people who are not immersed in it. The issue is not a takeover. The issue is the coordination of economic policy,” Putin added.

“Everything else is nonsense. These are attempts by our ill-wishers to slow down our integration process. And they do this only in order not to get effective and dangerous competitors in the world markets. That’s all,” the president continued.

State Department spokesperson Ned Price noted that Putin claiming he does not intend to absorb anyone “has to be treated as the height of irony.”

“We’ve heard these statements from President Putin, at the same time since the earliest days of this conflict and the weeks preceding this conflict, we’ve seen the Lukashenka regime essentially cede its sovereignty, cede its independence to Russia,” Price added.

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