Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 324

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 denies fall of Soledar, says fighting still continuing

The spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command denies that Russia has seized control of the town of Soledar and says Ukrainian units are still there.

“Our units are there, the town is not under Russian control,” the spokesperson, Serhiy Cherevatyi, told the Reuters news agency by telephone.

Russia claims capture of Soledar

Russia’s Ministry of Defence says its forces have taken control of Soledar, the state-owned TASS news agency reports.

“On the evening of January 12, the liberation of the city of Soledar was completed, which is important for the continuation of successful offensive operations” in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region, the ministry announced.

Russia’s capture of the town would allow its troops to cut off Ukrainian forces from the nearby, much larger city of Bakhmut.

Top diplomat: EU must increase pressure on Russia

The EU needs to keep increasing pressure on Russia and supporting Ukraine, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said.

“We need to keep increasing the pressure on Russia, and we will continue, of course, our unwavering support for Ukraine,” she told a joint news conference with Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson in Kiruna, Sweden.

Von der Leyen stated that Russia had cut 80 percent of gas supplies to the EU since the start of the war but that the EU had compensated by diversifying.

“Hard work has paid off. Gas prices are lower now than before Russia’s invasion,” she added.

‘Ukraine De-Facto NATO Member’: DM

Ukraine’s defense minister has told the BBC that his country is a “de facto member” of the Nato alliance, as Western allies will continue to supply the country with weapons.

Oleksii Reznikov noted “things were changing” in allied countries who he suggested had previously been worried supplying arms would cause an escalation, and that he didn’t believe his comments would trigger a Russian response.

Under Article 5 of the Nato Treaty, an armed attack against any member should be considered an attack against all.

France hopes to deliver light combat tanks to Ukraine soon

France aims to deliver AMX-10 RC light combat tanks to Ukraine in two months, French Armed Forces Minister Sebastien Lecornu stated.

The statement contained a summary of his phone conversation on Thursday with his Ukrainian counterpart, Oleksii Reznikov.

Chancellor: Germany will consider ‘every step’ of arms deliveries to Ukraine

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz says he will “weigh every step carefully” and consult with allies on further weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

Critics have complained about Scholz’s hesitancy to take the next step regarding weapons deliveries, specifically on sending German-made Leopard 2 tanks, which Kyiv has asked for.

Scholz has insisted that Germany wouldn’t send such heavy armoured equipment to Ukraine on its own and pointed to a need to ensure that NATO doesn’t become involved in the war with Russia.

Scholz added Berlin would keep its “leading position” as one of Kyiv’s top supporters but signalled he had no intention of being rushed on “such serious things that have to do with peace and war, with the security of our country and of Europe”.

Russia says Belarus may enter Ukraine conflict if ‘invaded’

A Russian foreign ministry official has said Belarus may enter the conflict in Ukraine if Kyiv decides to “invade” either country.

In an interview with state media, Aleksey Polishchuk stated Russia’s joint drills with Belarus were designed to prevent escalation, but warned that Belarus may join the Ukraine conflict if it or Russia were invaded.

“From a legal point of view, the use of military force by the Kyiv regime or the invasion of the territory of Belarus or Russia by the armed forces of Ukraine are sufficient grounds for a collective response,” Polishchuk told TASS news agency.

Ukrainian forces holding out in Soledar: Deputy DM

Ukrainian forces are holding out against Russian forces after a “hot” night of battles in the eastern salt-mining town of Soledar, Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar says.

“The night in Soledar was hot, battles continued,” she wrote on Telegram.

“The enemy threw almost all the main forces in the direction of Donetsk and maintains a high intensity of offensive. Our fighters are bravely trying to maintain the defence,” she added.

Zelensky and general staff discuss reinforcements for Soledar

President Volodymyr Zelensky says that during a meeting with general staff on the topic of Soledar, they “analysed in detail what decisions are needed, what reinforcements are needed, what steps should be taken by commanders in the coming days”.

“We discussed the situation with the supply of weapons and ammunition to the troops, relevant interaction with our partners,” he stated.

He added that the paratroopers of the 77th and 46th air brigades continue to hold their positions in Soledar.

Zelensky has promised that Ukrainian forces defending Bakhmut and Soledar in the east will be armed with everything they need to keep Russian troops at bay in some of the bloodiest battles of the war.

“I want to emphasise that the units defending these cities will be provided with ammunition and everything necessary, on time and without interruption,” the president continued.

Military troubles led to command shake-up: Pentagon

The Pentagon says Russia’s continuous troubles in Ukraine likely led to the latest shake-up in military leadership.

On Wednesday, Moscow appointed Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov to oversee the military campaign in Ukraine. It was only October when Russia had put Sergey Surovikin in that position, who will now remain a deputy of Gerasimov.

“It likely does reflect some of the systemic challenges that the Russian military has faced since the beginning of this invasion,” Brigadier General Patrick Ryder told a news briefing.

“We’ve talked about some of those things in terms of its logistics problems, command and control problems, sustainment problems, morale and the … failure to achieve the strategic objectives that they’ve set for themselves,” he added.

Zelensky says others may follow in sending Leopard tanks

President Volodymyr Zelensky stated Poland offering Leopard tanks to Ukraine could lead other countries to follow its example.

The president spoke a day after Poland announced it would send the tanks.

“A company of Leopard tanks will be handed over as part of coalition-building,” Polish President Andrzej Duda said during a visit to the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, adding, “We want it to be an international coalition.”

Kyiv has been requesting heavy military vehicles, such as the German-made Leopard 2, which would represent a significant step-up in Western support to Ukraine.

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged Germany to supply Leopard tanks during his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock’s visit to the city of Kharkiv this week.

Top EU officials to visit Ukraine

More than a dozen senior European Union officials will visit Ukraine’s capital Kyiv on February 2 to meet members of the Ukrainian government, a day before the EU-Ukraine summit, according to the European Commission spokesperson.

The visit demonstrates “the extent of our work with Ukraine” and shows the EU’s support for the country, Dana Spinant said.

Spinant told the AFP news agency that “around 15 commissioners” – out of 27 – could visit Kyiv for the meeting.

President Volodymyr Zelensky will meet European Council and European Commission Presidents Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen on February 3 to discuss financial and military support for their fight against Russia.

Ukraine war contributed to the rise of Germany’s borrowing in 2022

The German government’s net borrowing rose to 115.4 billion euros ($124.5bn) in 2022 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, according to the Finance Minister, Christian Lindner.

Government borrowing in 2022 was at its third-highest level in the country’s history, following a record 215.4 billion euros ($233.7bn) in 2021 and 130.5 billion ($141.6bn) in 2020, according to the finance ministry.

“We are not exhausting all borrowing possibilities by hook or by crook, but only as far as necessary,” Lindner said.

Germany spent 481.3 billion euros ($522.3bn) last year, 14.5 billion euros ($15.7bn) less than planned, according to the finance ministry. This compared with an expenditure of 557.1 billion euros ($604.5bn) in 2021.

The German parliament suspended the constitutionally enshrined debt brake between 2020 and 2022 to allow for extra spending in response to the pandemic and the effects of the war in Ukraine.

Russian-installed official says Ukrainian ‘resistance’ persists in Soledar

A Russian-installed official in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region has said “pockets of resistance” remain in the town of Soledar, according to a report by Russia’s state-owned TASS news agency.

TASS quoted Andrei Baevsky, a deputy of the parliament of the breakaway, self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, as saying the western part of Soledar was now fully under the control of Russian forces as fighting for the rest of the town continued.

“At the moment, indeed, there are still separate small pockets of resistance in Soledar, [but] our guys continue to crush the enemy in these places,” Baevsky noted.

“In general, the operation [has] developed successfully and the western outskirts of Soledar are already completely under our control,” he added.

Al Jazeera could not independently verify the battlefield reports. Ukrainian officials said earlier on Thursday that Kyiv’s forces were battling to retain control of Soledar but admitted the situation there remained “difficult”.

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