Thursday, September 28, 2023

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 331

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:

Zelensky urges allies to speed up deliveries

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky urges Western allies to speed up the delivery of tanks to Ukraine.

Addressing the US-hosted meeting at the Ramstein Air Base, Zelensky said partners needed “not to bargain about different numbers of tanks but to open that principal supply that will stop evil.”

Make the meeting a “Ramstein of tanks”, Zelenskyy continued, adding, “It is in your power to guarantee such artillery.”

German DM says no decision yet on sending tanks to Ukraine and denies decision is tied to Abrams

Germany’s Defense Minister Boris Pistorius has denied that the country’s decision to potentially send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine is tied to whether the United States makes a similar move and sends M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine.

When asked about the issue during an interview with German public broadcaster ARD Thursday, Pistorius said he was “not aware of such an arrangement.”

According to Pistorius, no decision has been made as to whether Germany will send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.

The defense minister told reporters on the sidelines of a high stakes defense meeting at Ramstein Airbase on Friday that “we all cannot say today when a decision will be made and what that decision will be on Leopard tanks.”

German and US officials have been stuck in a deadlock over whether to send tanks following numerous appeals from Kyiv’s leadership. German officials indicated they won’t send their Leopard tanks to Ukraine or give permission to any other country with the German-made tanks in their inventory to do so, unless the US also agrees to send its M1 Abrams tanks to Kyiv.

“If America will decide that they will bring battle tanks to Ukraine, that will make it easier for Germany,” German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck told Bloomberg from Davos on Tuesday.

“They have us over a barrel,” a senior Joe Biden administration official told CNN Thursday, adding that the Germans are demanding tanks for tanks, and not budging on considering any other offers the US has made to spur Berlin to send the Leopards.

However, German government spokesperson Steffen Hebestreit denied these claims Friday.

“It’s hard for me to imagine a German chancellor dictating any conditions to an American president or making any demands,” Hebestreit stated.

The spokesperson added that Germany deems it “important” that Ukraine’s allies “act in a very unified and joint manner,” especially when it comes to the delivery of battle tanks.

Putin discusses ‘special military operation’ with security council

Russian President Vladimir Putin discusses Moscow’s “special military operation” with his Security Council, state media reported, citing the Kremlin.

According to the RIA news agency, the meeting was attended by former president Dmitry Medvedev, Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu, as well as other high-profile officials.

“During the meeting, there was an exchange of views on the progress of the special military operation,” RIA cited Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying, using the official term for Moscow’s invasion.

Provide ammunition for older weapons too: NATO chief

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said countries backing Ukraine need to focus not only on sending new weapons to Kyiv but also on providing ammunition for older systems.

“We need also to remember that we need to not only focus on new platforms but also to ensure that all the platforms which are already there can function as they should,” Stoltenberg told the Reuters news agency on the sidelines of a meeting of defence ministers on arming Ukraine.

Ukraine needs weapons, ammo and repair: DM

The Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov has laid out his country’s priorities for a meeting in Germany Friday where Kyiv’s allies will discuss sending more weapons to Ukraine.

“There are three priorities of Ukraine at #Ramstein … More air defence systems … Weapons for the offensive operations (tanks, howitzers, ammo) … Systematic ammo supplies [and] service [and] repair for armament and machinery,” he wrote on Twitter.

Some European countries ready to send tanks: EU’s chief

The EU’s top diplomat says some European countries are prepared to send heavy tanks to Ukraine.

“This is the discussion that will take place in Ramstein today, where the EU will be represented,” Josep Borrell told reporters in Madrid.

“We have to give Ukraine the arms necessary not only to repel, which is what they’re doing, but also to regain terrain,” he continued.

“I think Ukraine needs the combat arms and heavy tanks that it has asked for and some European countries are prepared to give, and I hope that is the decision that is taken,” he added.

Britain joins push to hold Russia ‘to account’ for actions in Ukraine

Britain says it has joined a group pursuing accountability for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“These atrocities must not go unpunished,” British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly stated in a statement, citing the deaths of soldiers and civilians and the displacement of millions of Ukrainians.

“That’s why the UK has accepted Ukraine’s invitation to join this coalition, bringing our legal expertise to the table to explore options to ensure Russia’s leaders are held to account fully for their actions,” he added.

‘It’s time to dig deeper’: US defence chief

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has called on allies to “dig deeper” to support Ukraine as a meeting of Kyiv’s supporters opened in Germany.

NATO and defence leaders are meeting at Ramstein Air Base for the latest in a series of arms-pledging conferences held since Russia invaded Ukraine nearly 11 months ago.

“Russia is regrouping, recruiting and trying to re-equip,” Austin said.

“This is not a moment to slow down,” he continued, adding, “It’s a time to dig deeper. The Ukrainian people are watching us.”

The US has announced an additional $2.5bn in military aid for Ukraine, including more armoured vehicles and ammunition.

Russia-US relations at an all-time low: Kremlin

The Kremlin says its relations with the US are at an all-time low halfway through President Joe Biden’s term and there is currently no hope of improvement.

Poor US-Russian ties have become even more strained in the past year since Russia sent its armed forces into Ukraine and Western countries responded with a barrage of economic sanctions and weapons shipments to Ukraine.

Kremlin: Western weapons will only hurt Ukrainians

The Kremlin announced Western countries supplying tanks to Ukraine will not change the course of the conflict but will add to the problems of the Ukrainian people.

A Kremlin spokesman made the comments as President Volodymyr Zelensky said his government was expecting “strong decisions” from NATO members and other countries meeting to discuss boosting Ukraine’s ability to confront Russian forces with modern battle tanks.

All eyes will be on Germany at the meeting as Berlin is yet to approve the use of its Leopard tanks in the war.

Russian forces claim to have control over Klishchiivka

Russian-backed forces in Donetsk say Russian troops have taken control of Klishchiivka, a small settlement south of Bakhmut.

Klishchiivka, which had a pre-war population of around 400 people, is located 6 miles (9km) south of Bakhmut, where the Wagner mercenary group has been locked in a battle with Ukrainian forces.

On Thursday, the Wagner Group also claimed it had taken Klishchiivka.

Finland announces $434m military aid package to Ukraine

Finland has announced a 400-million-euro ($434m) military aid package to Ukraine, including heavy artillery as well as munitions but no Leopard tanks.

“Ukraine continues to need support in defending its territory,” Defence Minister Mikko Savola said in a statement.

This is the largest aid package to date and the Nordic country’s 12th of defence materiel to Ukraine. The previous 11 had a combined value of 190 million euros ($205m).

Zelensky thanks US for ‘powerful’ $2.5 bn defence package

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky has thanked Washington for a new package of arms and munitions for Kyiv.

“Thank you” US President Joe Biden for providing Ukraine “with another powerful defense support package worth $2.5 billion,” Zelensky wrote in English on Twitter.

The Ukrainian leader hailed the Stryker armoured personnel carriers, Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles and Avenger air defence systems included in the package as an “important help in our fight against the aggressor”.

Russia blasts US asset expropriation scheme

Russia has denounced plans by the US government to give Ukraine assets confiscated from Russian citizens, warning the move will undermine confidence in the global financial system and erode the protection of private property.

In a statement issued on Friday, the Russian Embassy in the US accused Washington of an “obvious disregard of generally accepted legal norms” after the Department of Justice announced that it would transfer “forfeited” Russian assets to Kiev.

“Such dangerous precedents only serve to discredit the United States as a ‘bastion’ of free enterprise. Washington, with its own hands, is undermining confidence in both the American and international financial system, as well as the security of the dollar jurisdiction,” it said, calling the decision “a breach of fundamental American values which erroneously seemed unshakable.”

US President Joe Biden first proposed the asset transfer scheme in April, suggesting that any seized property thought to be “linked to Russian kleptocracy” should be used to “support Ukraine.” To make the plan work, Congress was required to amend several laws, and the DOJ confirmed on Thursday that those changes were included in a massive $1.7 trillion spending package passed late last year.

Washington and its allies have also frozen assets belonging to Russia’s central bank, totaling around $300 billion, but have so far found no legal justification to seize that property outright.

Last week, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova slammed the confiscation of assets as “a completely illegitimate measure, violating commonly acceptable standards of commercial and international law.” She warned that any attempt to take Russian-owned funds and redirect them to Ukraine would violate property rights and said Moscow would respond with “appropriate” countermeasures.

More than 1,000 Russian entities and 1,300 individuals are currently under American sanctions, according to data from the Atlantic Council, a Washington, DC-based think tank with close ties to the NATO alliance. The total value of Russian assets held by the US government has not been made public, however.

France floats new military spending plan amid Ukraine war

French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to unveil his vision for modernising the military, taking into account the impact of the war in Ukraine and evolving threats around the world.

The spending plan for 2024-2030 is expected to include higher military spending in line with NATO expectations that members spend 2 percent of GDP on defence.

Macron will deliver his vision in a new year’s speech to civilian and military staff at the Mont-de-Marsan air base in southern France.

Wagner group commands up to 50,000 fighters in Ukraine: UK

Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group “almost certainly now commands up to 50,000 fighters in Ukraine and has become a key component of the Ukraine campaign,” the British Ministry of Defence has said.

The paramilitary group was formally registered on 27 December in Russia as a legal entity. The group declared their core activity as “management consultancy”, with no mention made of combat services.

“It is not yet clear to what extent the ‘PMC Wagner Centre’ entity will be used to administer Wagner’s paramilitary activity,” the ministry announced in its latest intelligence update.

Zelensky expects ‘strong decision’ on military aid

President Volodymyr Zelensky says his government is expecting “strong decisions” from the representatives of 50 countries meeting to discuss boosting Ukraine’s military aid.

The US and Germany have so far stopped short of granting Zelensky’s requests for their most modern battle tanks, which the Kremlin warned would amount to an “extremely dangerous” escalation if sent.

“We are, in fact, now waiting for a decision from one European capital, which will activate the prepared chains of cooperation regarding tanks,” Zelensky stated in a video address on Thursday night.

“We are preparing for the Ramstein meeting tomorrow. We are expecting strong decisions. We are expecting a powerful military aid package from the United States,” he added.

Israeli foreign minister pledges humanitarian aid to Ukraine

Israel’s new Foreign Minister Eli Cohen promised Ukraine continued humanitarian aid with a focus on restoring energy infrastructure and providing medical equipment, he has said after a call with Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba.

Cohen also said he would fully reopen the Israeli embassy in Kyiv within the next 60 days, after the first conversation between the two since the new Israeli government was sworn in late last year.

Germany won’t go at it alone on tanks: Defence minister

Germany’s new defence minister, Boris Pistorius, has confirmed that Berlin will not take unilateral action when it comes to providing Leopard 2 battle tanks to Ukraine.

“We’ll have to wait and see if that rolls along. We are in talks, especially with our transatlantic partner, the United States,” he told broadcaster RTL.

“Just as we have done in all other cases before, the point is not to go it alone,” he added.

Repeating the line taken by German officials for months, he said this was about “concerted” action, just as it had been recently with the Marder infantry fighting vehicles.

US Authorizes $2.5 Billion in New Ukraine Military Aid

The Joe Biden administration is authorizing a new $2.5 billion military aid package for Ukraine, including Bradley infantry fighting vehicles and Stryker armored personnel carriers among other equipment, the Defense Department (DoD) announced in a statement.

“This authorization, which is valued at up to $2.5 billion, is the Biden Administration’s thirtieth drawdown of equipment from DoD inventories for Ukraine since August 2021. It contains hundreds of armored vehicles, critical support for Ukraine’s air defense and other important capabilities,” the statement said on Thursday.

The package includes 59 Bradley and 90 Stryker vehicles, as well as a variety of artillery, anti-armor and small arms munitions, the statement said. The previous aid package included 50 Bradley, bringing the total to more than 100.

Additionally, the package includes eight Avenger air defense systems and ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems previously provided by the United States, the statement added.

The Thursday package is the second-largest announced by the Pentagon, increasing the US’ security aid to Ukraine to some $26.7 billion since the start of the special military operation.

Serbia to send Ukraine aid to support electricity system

Serbia’s government announced it will send Ukraine “humanitarian aid” to support its power grid.

“The Government of Serbia has decided to send humanitarian aid in priority equipment to Ukraine in order to support the country’s electricity system,” it said after a session of parliament.

Serbia, which aspires to become a European Union member, has resisted implementing Western sanctions on Russia because of its war on Ukraine.

IAEA head worries world getting complacent about Zaporizhzhia plant

The head of the United Nations’s nuclear watchdog says he is worried the world is becoming complacent about the considerable dangers posed by the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia atomic plant in Ukraine.

Russian forces captured the plant, Europe’s largest, in March and it has repeatedly come under fire in recent months, raising fears of a nuclear disaster. Rafael Grossi, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), is working to set up a safe zone around the facility.

Speaking to reporters in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, Grossi stated a nuclear accident could happen any day and reiterated that the situation at the plant was very precarious.

“I worry that this is becoming routine, that people may believe that nothing has happened so far, so is the director general of the IAEA crying wolf?” he noted when addressing reporters during a visit to Ukraine.

“It [an accident] can happen any time and my duty is to do everything I can to prevent that from happening,” he added.

Western tanks no ‘silver bullet’ for Kyiv: NATO commander

A senior NATO commander has warned that Western tanks will not be a “silver bullet” for Ukraine in its fight with Russia, despite Kyiv’s new arsenal outperforming Moscow’s weaponry.

“There is not a particular weapon system that is a silver bullet. A balance of all systems is needed,” said US General Christopher Cavoli, supreme allied commander in Europe, after a meeting of NATO military chiefs.

But he added that “it’s clearly the case that modern Western technology is outperforming Russian technology” on the battlefield in Ukraine.

Countries to announce plans to send tanks to Ukraine: Lithuanian DM

Several countries will announce plans to send German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine on Friday at a meeting at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany, Lithuania’s defence minister has said.

“Some of the countries will definitely send Leopard tanks to Ukraine, that is for sure”, Arvydas Anusauskas told the Reuters news agency about the pledges, speaking after a preparatory meeting of 11 nations in Estonia.

The total number of armoured vehicles pledged at Ramstein will run into the hundreds, he added.

CIA head briefs Zelensky on ‘Russia’s next steps’

CIA Director William Burns quietly visited the Ukrainian capital for a classified meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky and his intelligence apparatus, multiple outlets reported on Thursday. Besides sharing Washington’s intelligence analysis, the official also allegedly warned that US military aid could wane in the coming months amid opposition from Republicans, who recently took control of Congress.

Burns arrived in Kiev sometime late last week and discussed “his expectations for what Russia is planning militarily in the coming weeks and months,” emphasizing “the urgency of the moment on the battlefield” for Ukrainian forces, according to the Washington Post.

“Director Burns traveled to Kiev where he met with Ukrainian intelligence counterparts as well as President Zelensky and reinforced our continued support for Ukraine in its defense against Russian aggression,” an unnamed US official confirmed in a statement to Reuters.

During the talks, Ukrainian officials reportedly raised concerns about US support and asked how long they could expect the aid to continue. Burns allegedly acknowledged that “at some point assistance would be harder to come by” with Republicans again holding a majority in the House, as a number of conservative lawmakers have grown increasingly critical of the American largesse.

Since taking office, President Joe Biden has authorized more than $27 billion in direct military assistance to Kiev, with the latest $2.5 billion aid package approved on Thursday.

Last week’s trip was not Burns’ only visit to Ukraine over the last year, having met with Zelensky in January 2022 – weeks before Russia sent troops into the neighboring state – and again in November. He is said to be a “respected figure” among officials in Kiev due to his intelligence briefings, which have included warnings about plots to assassinate the Ukrainian leader and information about Russia’s military plans.

According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Burns also met with the head of Moscow’s Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), Sergey Naryshkin, in Turkey last November, around the same time he visited Kiev. While Lavrov stated “no revelations” were made during the talks, he noted that the sit-down came at Biden’s request. Naryshkin, meanwhile, noted he is ready for another round of talks with Burns earlier this week, provided the two sides can agree on the details.

A career-long diplomat before becoming CIA director, Burns previously served as the US envoy to the Russian Federation under President Barack Obama. As ambassador, he issued warnings behind the scenes about NATO’s continued expansion toward Russia’s borders, penning a 2008 memo obtained by WikiLeaks which discusses the subject in detail. Nonetheless, Burns remains vocally critical of Moscow in public comments, telling PBS last month that Russia is not “serious” about “real negotiation” to end the conflict with Ukraine.

Group of nine nations pledges ‘unprecedented’ military support for Ukraine

A group of nine nations including the United Kingdom, Poland and the Netherlands has pledged to pursue providing Ukraine with an “unprecedented set of donations” including battle tanks to help it fight off Russia’s invasion.

“We commit to collectively pursuing delivery of an unprecedented set of donations including main battle tanks, heavy artillery, air defence, ammunition, and infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine’s defence,” the countries announced in a joint statement.

The statement, published on the UK government’s website, was made by the defence ministers of Britain, Estonia, Poland, Latvia and Lithuania, and representatives from Denmark, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Slovakia following a meeting in Estonia.

EU Council president says West ‘must’ deliver tanks to Ukraine

The president of the European Council has called for Ukraine’s Western allies to supply it with tanks as it faces down Russia’s offensive.

“I firmly believe that tanks must be delivered,” Charles Michel said in a post on Twitter following talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.

“We want to support you because we are aware that the next few weeks may be decisive for what comes next,” he added.

Denmark to supply Kyiv with Caesar howitzer artillery systems

Denmark will donate 19 French-made Caesar howitzer artillery systems to Ukraine, the country’s defence minister has said.

“We have been in continuous contact with the Ukrainians about the Caesar artillery in particular and I am happy that we have now received broad support from the Danish parliament to donate it to Ukraine’s freedom struggle,” Jakob Ellemann-Jensen said in a statement.

His announcement came after fellow Nordic nation Sweden earlier on Thursday announced a new package of military aid to Ukraine worth 4.3 billion Swedish crowns ($419m).

The package includes armoured infantry fighting vehicles and the Archer artillery system as well as light, portable NLAW anti-tank weapons, mine-clearing equipment and assault rifles.

UK to send 600 Brimstone missiles to Ukraine

The United Kingdom will send 600 Brimstone missiles to Ukraine to support the country in its fight against Russia, defence secretary Ben Wallace has stated.

“If [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin is banking on us getting bored this year, he’s wrong. We will plan for this year and next year and the year after and beyond,” Wallace said at a meeting with other European defence ministers at the Tapa army base in Estonia.

Russia considers slashing oil discounts

The discount on Russian oil has grown but it should be reduced as the situation on the market stabilizes, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Novak announced on Thursday.

He noted that the recent increase in the oil discount was “natural” because buyers had been taking into account risks related to Western sanctions on Russian exports.

An EU embargo on seaborne Russian crude went into effect on December 5 along with a $60 price cap on oil exports as part of Ukraine-related sanctions imposed on Moscow. A ban on EU imports of petroleum products such as diesel and kerosene originating from Russia will come into force on February 5. In response, Russia has banned sales of its crude and petroleum products to nations supporting the price ceiling.

“We will look at how further sales of our export products will be ensured. Our companies [are working out] all the necessary logistics routes, and constantly working on the issues of insurance and purchases,” Novak added.

Russia’s Urals oil blend traded at an average price of $46.82 per barrel between December 15 and January 14, after trading at $57.5 per barrel a month earlier, making an almost 19% drop, according to the country’s Finance Ministry data.

Earlier this month, Novak attributed high discounts on Russian oil compared to other world grades to soaring freight prices.

The official insisted that Russian oil was still in high demand despite sanctions, adding that production and supplies in January remained unchanged from December levels as “we account for a large share in the global export.”

Novak pointed out that the world’s energy balance could not be secured without Russian oil.

US ‘poised’ to transfer seized Russian assets to Ukraine: DOJ

The US will soon send the first batch of funds from confiscated Russian property to Ukraine, the head of the Department of Justice (DOJ) special sanctions task force, Andrew Adams, revealed on Thursday.

Adams said the move should inspire US allies to do the same, and insisted the unprecedented practice is not just possible and permissible under international law, but “imperative” given the current conflict.

“We’re also poised to begin the transfer of forfeited assets for the benefit of Ukraine,” Adams stated at an event hosted by the Hudson Institute, a DC think tank.

“It’s not a silver bullet, but it’s something that nevertheless makes me hopeful,” Adams continued, adding that the relatively minor sums are important as “a model to our foreign partners” and to establish a legal precedent going forward.

US President Joe Biden proposed the scheme last April, and Adams hinted it was in the works in September, but said Congress needed to amend several laws to make it work. On Thursday, he confirmed those changes were indeed inserted in the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill, passed by Congress in the final days of 2022.

The new laws give the DOJ power to “direct forfeited funds to the State Department for the purpose of providing aid to Ukraine,” stated Adams.

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