Friday, March 1, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 322

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:

Russia promotes general in military shake-up

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu appointed Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov as the combined forces group commander for what Moscow calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

Russia had previously promoted Sergey Surovikin, nicknamed “General Armageddon” by the Russian media for his reputed ruthlessness, to be its top battlefield commander only last October following a series of Ukrainian counter-offensives.

Surovikin will remain as a deputy of Gerasimov, the defence ministry announced.

Announcing the appointment, the defence ministry added the changes were designed to increase the effectiveness of managing military operations more than 10 months into the conflict.

‘Heavy fighting continues in Soledar’: Ukrainian official

Ukraine’s deputy defence minister says Russian forces are trying without success to break through defensive lines to capture Soledar as fierce fighting rages on.

“Heavy fighting continues in Soledar,” Hanna Maliar wrote on Telegram.

“The enemy has again replaced its units after sustaining losses, has increased the number of Wagner [mercenaries] and is trying to burst through our forces’ defences and fully seize the city but is not having success,” she added.

EU prepared for a long war: Sweden

The EU is prepared for a long war and will support Kyiv for as long as it takes, Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said.

“Despite Russia’s continued attempts to divide us, unity within the EU and across the Atlantic has been strong. The EU is prepared for a long war and will continue to stand by Ukraine’s side with political, economic, military and humanitarian support for as long as it takes”, Billstrom told a news conference.

He added that the EU would continue working on more sanctions against Moscow.

In December, the bloc passed the ninth package of measures since the start of the invasion in February 2022.

EU becoming a NATO vassal: Russia

Russia says the EU is becoming a vassal of NATO, citing the signing of a joint declaration in which the two organisations pledged to deepen their cooperation in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Earlier on Tuesday, NATO and the EU pledged to “take our partnership to the next level” in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated the move “confirms the complete subordination of the European Union to the tasks of the North Atlantic bloc, which is an instrument to guarantee US interests by force”.

She added that the Europeans faced “the unenviable fate of an American vassal, losing their positions in world politics and economics, falling into increasing dependence on Washington with every step”.

The statement is in line with Moscow’s previous comments that Western powers are involved in the war so they can see the fall of Russia.

Estonia tells Russia to reduce number of diplomats in Tallin

Estonia tells Russia to reduce the number of diplomats at its embassy in Tallinn by February, the foreign ministry said.

The ministry announced that Russia should cut the number of diplomats to eight, equivalent to the number of Estonian diplomats in Moscow.

“In light of the fact that during the war of aggression, the staff of the Russian embassy is not engaged in advancing Estonian-Russian relations, it is our view that there are no grounds for the current size of the Russian embassy,” the ministry added.

Moscow said the expulsions were the latest example of “Russophobia”.

“It is long been no secret that Estonia is one of the most hostile states towards Russia,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova stated.

“Russophobia has been elevated to the level of an official doctrine,” she continued, adding that Moscow would respond to any “hostile actions” taken by Tallinn.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Estonia has expelled three diplomats.

Putin says situation in annexed regions of Ukraine is ‘difficult’

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin said the situation in Ukrainian regions that Moscow illegally annexed is “difficult in places”.

Putin, speaking at a televised meeting with officials, also stated Russia had all the resources it needed to improve life in the four Ukrainian regions that Moscow unilaterally claimed to have annexed in September, Reuters reports.

Russia’s illegally annexed of the four territories last September, which together make up 15% of Ukraine, marked the largest forcible takeover of territory in Europe since the second world war.

Ukraine must ‘be ready’ at the Belarus border: Zelensky

Ukraine must “be ready” at the Belarus border even though it sees only “powerful statements” coming from its neighbour, President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Telegram.

Zelensky spoke after visiting the Lviv region, where he discussed border protection and the security situation in northwestern Ukraine.

“We discussed state border protection, the operational situation on the border with the Republic of Belarus, and counter-subversive measures in these territories,” he stated

“We understand that apart from powerful statements, we do not see anything powerful there, but nevertheless we must be ready both at the border and in the regions,” he added.

Kyiv has made multiple warnings that Russia may try to use Belarus to launch a new ground invasion of Ukraine from the north.

Zelensky’s office released footage of him at the coordination meeting and announced the president also took part in a ceremony honouring the memory of Ukrainian soldiers killed in battle following Russia’s invasion last February.

Moscow monitors reports alleging Turkey may have supplied cluster munitions to Kyiv

Moscow is monitoring information that alleges Turkey may have supplied cluster munitions to Kyiv, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday.

However, he stated that it remained “difficult” to determine the reliability of such reports.

“Of course, we are closely monitoring all this” but “it is difficult to speak about the reliability of these reports here,” Peskov noted during a daily call with reporters. “There are more fake news than truthful reports.”

“Everyone is well aware of the deliveries of Bayraktars to Ukraine from Turkey, as well as ammunition for Bayraktars,” he added.

Last year, Western and Ukrainian officials praised Turkey’s Bayraktar TB2 drones for playing a part in countering Russian attacks.

“Turkey has its obligations as a NATO member country, its bilateral relations, we also know this. But at the same time, Turkey and [Russia] are united by very partnership relations based on mutual benefit, understanding, respect and mutual willingness to discuss the most difficult problems,” Peskov continued.

NATO, EU to launch joint task force to protect critical infrastructure

NATO and EU to launch a task force to boost protection of critical infrastructure in response to last year’s attack on the Nord Stream gas pipelines and Russia’s “weaponising of energy”.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the sabotage of the gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea last September showed the need “to confront this new type of threat”.

“This is a task force where our experts from NATO and the European Union will work hand-in-hand to identify key threats to our critical infrastructure, to look at the strategic vulnerabilities that we do have,” she stated in Brussels, speaking alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

Western and Russian officials have traded blame over the Nord Stream blasts.

Stoltenberg noted, “Resilience and the protection of critical infrastructure are a key part of our joint efforts, as we have seen both with President Putin’s weaponising of energy and … the sabotage of the North Stream pipelines”.

Russian airborne units surround Soledar: DM

Russia’s defence ministry says its airborne units have surrounded the Ukrainian town of Soledar, which has been the focus of intensified fighting for months, from the north and the south.

At the same time, Russia’s air force struck Ukrainian positions in the city, Russian agencies reported.

In its daily briefing, the defence ministry added assault units were fighting for Soledar.

Kremlin currently sees no prospect for peace talks with Ukraine

No prospect for peace talks with Ukraine can be seen as long as dialogue with Russia stays banned by Ukrainian law or unless the West allows Kiev to be flexible on the issue, Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday.

Commenting on a statement by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu who said Russia was willing to hold talks with Ukraine, Peskov stated, “In a situation when Ukraine’s president is banned from contacting us or somehow engaging with us by Ukrainian law and when the West is obviously reluctant to allow Kiev any flexibility here, there is no discussing any prospect [for dialogue] at this point.”

“Russia has always been ready to settle issues through negotiations,” the Kremlin spokesman emphasized.

“And [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin has repeatedly said that we are still ready for this.” “Of course, we would prefer to attain our goals through peaceful and diplomatic ways,” he added.

Peskov admitted that no talks were currently possible as long as there was a legislative ban on negotiations with Russia in Ukraine.

Ankara supports Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s previously proposed plan on a peaceful settlement, Turkey’s top diplomat Cavusoglu noted on Tuesday.

The Wall Street Journal reported on December 22, citing anonymous American and European sources, that Kiev was working on the final details of their peaceful conflict settlement proposal, which could be made public this February.

Earlier, Zelensky told a joint meeting of the US Congress, following his talks with American President Joe Biden, that the two had discussed Kiev’s proposals to settle the Ukrainian conflict. According to Zelensky, Biden supported Ukraine’s initiative to hold a global peace summit to discuss these proposals.

Russian officials have repeatedly warned that any “peace plan” on Ukraine should take the new realities into account, namely the accession of four new regions to Russia.

No cases of price cap losses: Kremlin spokesperson

The Kremlin says it has not yet seen any cases of price caps on Russian oil imposed by the West last month in comments about possible losses.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov added that Russia would do everything to protect itself from G7 plans to impose two sets of price caps on Russian oil products.

A G7 official stated on Tuesday that they would seek to set two price caps in February, one for products trading at a premium to crude oil and the other for those trading at a discount.

Russia does not have control over Soledar: Ukrainian military

Ukraine’s military denies that Russian forces have taken control of Soledar and added that the intensity of battles in the area could be compared to fighting in World War Two.

Serhiy Cherevatyi, the spokesperson for the eastern military command, told Ukrainian television the battle for Soledar was essential and that Ukrainian forces had not allowed Russian forces to break through the front lines.

“The town is not under the control of the Russian Federation. There are fierce battles going on now”, he said, noting, “There is a complicated situation there”.

He added that the military command was “working now on how to stabilise the situation with the maximum impact for the enemy and minimum losses for Ukraine”.

“The intensity of battles near Bakhmut can be compared with World War Two”, he stated.

US Patriot training confirms participation in Ukraine conflict: Russian diplomat

US plans to train Ukrainian servicemen in the use of Patriot missiles provides further proof of Washington’s participation in the Ukraine conflict, Russia’s ambassador to the United States has stated.

“The decision of the US defence department to organise a training course at Fort Sill in Oklahoma is yet another confirmation of Washington’s de facto participation in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of Kyiv’s Nazi criminals,” Anatoly Antonov said in a statement posted by his embassy.

Antonov added the real aim of the US administration was to “inflict as much damage as possible on Russia on the battlefield by the hands of the Ukrainians”.

Soledar ‘is and always will be Ukrainian’: Ukraine military

Kyiv has denied that forces from Russian mercenary group Wagner had taken the important gateway town of Soledar in east Ukraine, whose capture would pave the way for further gains in Donbas.

“Soledar was, is and will be Ukrainian,” the strategic communications branch of the Ukrainian military said in a statement, adding pictures released by the Wagner fighting group that Russian media announced were taken in Soledar had been taken elsewhere.

Wagner leader claims Russians have taken control of “entire territory of Soledar”

The founder and head of the Russian mercenary group Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, says the group has taken control of the “entire territory of Soledar.”

Ukrainian officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky in his nightly address thanked Ukrainian soldiers “for their bravery and steadfastness in defending Soledar.”

Prigozhin said in a short comment on his Telegram channel that the center of Soledar is “like a cauldron, where urban fighting is taking place.”

He added that it was only Wagner units fighting for control of the city, not the Russian Armed Forces.

The capture of Soledar – a salt mining town in eastern Ukraine – would have military and commercial value for Russia. Ukrainian troops have repelled a previous Russian attempt to capture the town, Zelensky’s deputy defense minister had said on Monday.

“There will be no third world war:” Zelensky’s message of hope at Golden Globes

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appeared in a video message during the Golden Globes telecast to thank his allies in the “free world.”

Sean Penn introduced the Ukrainian comedian-turned-politician with nods to ongoing protests in Iran, during which several citizens have been executed, and the women’s rights movement in Afghanistan. The Oscar winner previously met with Zelensky in Kyiv and gifted him one of his Academy Awards, asking the president to return it when the war ends.

Zelensky told the Hollywood crowd that the “war in Ukraine is not over yet, but the tide is turning, and it is already clear who will win,” to some applause.

“There are still battles and tears ahead,” Zelensky said in a recorded message, adding, “But now I can tell you who was the best in the previous year – you in the free world, who united around support of free Ukrainian people.”

Zelensky recalled the Golden Globes of the early 1940s, before World War II had ended.

“There will be no third world war,” he continued, stating, “It’s not a trilogy.””

Zelensky has previously appeared virtually at the Cannes Film Festival and the Grammy Awards to discuss the conflict and thank those in the entertainment industry who’ve raised awareness of it. Some honorees at the 2022 Screen Actors Guild Awards also name-dropped him as an example of a courageous leader.

Russian human rights council records complaints about soldiers returning to war without proper medical rehab

A Russian government consultative body established to protect “human rights and freedoms” has been reviewing doctors’ complaints about sending cured soldiers back to the frontlines without proper rehabilitation, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.

A member of the Presidential Council for Civil Society and Human Rights, established to assist the Russian president “in the exercise of his constitutional responsibilities to guarantee and protect human rights and freedoms,” told RIA Novosti that there have been cases, in which soldiers, who had not fully recovered from injuries, have been sent back to the frontlines to fight.

“We learned about a situation in which soldiers who received high-tech medical care with recommendations for rehabilitation and aftercare were immediately sent to the frontlines instead of rehabilitation,” council member Olga Demicheva said.

“As a result, the treatments they received simply go down the drain, and instead of healthy people, we could get people with disabilities,” she added.

According to Demicheva, the council has received two appeals from the staff at medical institutions in Donetsk and Moscow.

Work is already underway to resolve the issue, Demicheva told RIA Novosti.

Pentagon confirms US will begin training Ukrainian soldiers on Patriot missile system in Oklahoma

The Pentagon confirmed that the US will begin training 90 to 100 Ukrainian soldiers on the Patriot missile system as soon as next week at Fort Sill in Oklahoma.

“Once fielded, the Patriot… will contribute to Ukraine’s air defense capabilities, and provide another capability to the Ukrainian people to defend themselves against Russia’s ongoing aerial assaults,” said Pentagon press secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder at a press briefing.

Ryder also confirmed that the previously announced combined arms training program for Ukrainian battalions in Europe will also begin as early as next week and “will not require a significant or any increase in terms of US trainers” deploying to Europe.

Ryder did not have any details about how Germany intended to handle training on the Patriot system it committed to sending Ukraine and whether Berlin would wait for training to complete on the US system before sending its own.

The US announced it was sending Ukraine the Patriot missile system in late December when the country’s President Volodomyr Zelensky visited Washington, DC, and met with President Joe Biden.

The US is providing one Patriot battery, which includes power generating equipment, computers, an engagement control system and up to eight launchers. The battery is operated by roughly 90 soldiers and takes months to train up on.

Though the Patriot is broadly seen as one of the most advanced and effective air defense systems, experts cautioned that it is “not a game-changer” because of its limited range and the amount of time it will take for Ukrainians to be able to utilize it.

German FM promises more weapons to Ukraine during surprise trip to eastern city of Kharkiv

Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock made a surprise trip to the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv on Tuesday and confirmed that Berlin had promised to send more weapons to the country, according to a statement on the ministry’s website.

Ukrainians “should know that they can rely on our solidarity and support,” she said.

This comes after Germany’s ambassador to the US had announced Thursday that Berlin would provide Ukraine with Marder infantry fighting vehicles and an additional Patriot air defense battery.

“I have no doubts further German military aid will come,” tweeted Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba who accompanied Baerbock to Kharkiv.

Baerbock also spoke about Ukraine’s long-term goal of joining the European Union.

The Ukrainians, “see their future in Europe, in the EU,” she stated.

“That is why I would also like to talk about the progress made in the accession process. As the Federal Government, we want to make very concrete offers to Ukraine in order to make progress in strengthening the rule of law, independent institutions and the fight against corruption, as well as in aligning with EU standards,” she added.

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