Thursday, February 22, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 350

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’s president to head to Paris after UK visit

President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to travel to Paris after his visit to the UK, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office says.

Macron will host his Ukrainian counterpart on Wednesday evening, his office announced, without providing details.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz is also expected to travel to Paris to meet with Zelensky and Macron, Scholz’s spokesman stated.

Russia says US has questions to answer over Nord Stream blasts

Russia’s foreign ministry says the United States has questions to answer about the explosions on the undersea Nord Stream gas pipelines last year.

Commenting on a report published earlier on Wednesday that said Washington was involved in the blasts, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova called on the White House to comment on the “facts” that had been presented.

European investigators say the attacks were carried out on purpose, but they have not said who they think was responsible. Moscow, without providing evidence, has blamed the explosions on Western sabotage.

UK seeks to train Ukrainian fighter pilots as soon as possible

The UK wants to start training Ukrainian fighter pilots as soon as possible, a spokesperson for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak says.

The spokesperson stated, however, that the UK had yet to decide on whether to supply fighter jets to Kyiv.

“The prime minister has tasked the defence secretary with investigating what jets we might be able to give, but to be clear, this is a long-term solution rather than a short-term capability, which is what Ukraine needs most now,” the spokesperson added.

Ukraine has appealed for combat aircraft from its Western allies as it continues to face down Russia’s nearly year-long offensive.

Zelensky pushes UK, Western allies for fighter jets

Ukraine’s president has urged the UK and its allies in the West to supply fighter jets to Kyiv.

Volodymyr Zelensky, wearing his trademark khaki military fatigues, told the UK Parliament that combat aircraft would be “wings for freedom”.

The president, who planned to meet later with King Charles III, noted that the British monarch was a qualified military pilot.

“The king is an Air Force pilot,” Zekensky continued, adding that “in Ukraine today, every Air Force pilot is a king”.

“I will be leaving Parliament today, thanking you all in advance for powerful English planes,” he stated.

Russian threat to Baltic security rising: Estonian intelligence report

Estonia’s Foreign Intelligence Service has announced it believes Russia still has the strength to exert “credible military pressure” on the Baltic region, where it assessed the security risk had risen for the medium and long term.

“A military attack against Estonia is unlikely in 2023” due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but “in the mid-to-long term, Russia’s belligerence and foreign policy ambitions have significantly increased the security risks for Estonia,” the Estonian service said in its annual report.

“Russia considers the Baltic states to be the most vulnerable part of NATO, which would make them a focus of military pressure in the event of a NATO-Russia conflict,” it added.

Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – the so-called Baltic states – have sharply boosted defence spending in response to Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

UK seeking ‘decisive military victory’ in Ukraine this year

The UK government wants to see a decisive military victory on the battlefield this year in Ukraine, Britain’s prime minister has said.

“Our objective remains to ensure a Ukrainian victory in this conflict,” Sunak told Parliament ahead of an anticipated address by Ukraine’s president, who is on a visit to the UK.

“We will continue to support Ukraine to ensure a decisive military victory on the battlefield this year,” he added.

UK announces new round of Russia sanctions

The UK government has announced further sanctions on Russia, targeting manufacturers of military equipment and individuals with ties to the Kremlin.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said the new measures would “accelerate the economic pressure on [Russian President Vladimir Putin] – undermining his war machine to help Ukraine prevail”.

The sanctions package, announced as Volodymyr Zelensky visited the UK, targets six organisations providing military equipment such as drones to Russia’s army.

It also includes new measures targeting eight individuals and one organisation connected to “nefarious financial networks that help maintain wealth and power amongst Kremlin elites”, the UK government announced in a statement.

Agriculture ministry data shows Ukraine grain exports depressed by war

Ukraine grain exports in the 2022/23 season are down nearly 30 percent due to a smaller harvest and logistical difficulties caused by the Russian invasion, agriculture ministry data shows.

Total exports for the season so far amount to 28.2 million tonnes. The season runs until June.

The volume to date included about 10.1 million tonnes of wheat, 16.2 million tonnes of corn and about 1.9 million tonnes of barley. Exports at the same stage of the prior season were 39.9 million tonnes.

Zelensky arrives in the UK for wartime visit

Ukraine’s president has arrived in the UK for only his second wartime visit outside of his home country since Russia launched its invasion.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak welcomed Volodymyr Zelensky as he touched down at London’s Stansted Airport.

A large convoy of vehicles left the airport shortly after the plane landed for the drive to central London, where Zelensky will hold talks with Sunak at his official Downing Street residence.

Zelensky will also address the UK parliament and meet with King Charles III and British military chiefs during his visit.

EU price cap ‘exemptions’ show Russian oil is still in demand: Moscow

European Union moves to add “exemptions” to its price cap on Russian oil products show that the commodity is still in demand, Russia’s deputy prime minister has stated.

“Yesterday we saw another change to the European Union’s regulations, the exemptions,” Alexander Novak said in comments published by the state-run TASS news agency.

“This once again emphasises that our oil products are in demand in Europe, once European politicians indicated that their actions defy any logic and take such decisions and think how to get out of this situation,” he added.

The EU announced last week it agreed to set price caps on Russian refined oil products to limit Moscow’s ability to finance its war in Ukraine. However, the bloc has also introduced several exemptions to the way its price cap works.

UK government launches training program for Ukrainian pilots using NATO-standard fighter jets

The UK government announced Wednesday that it will start training Ukrainian pilots on NATO-standard jets.

This would be the first official training program for Ukrainian pilots on Western fighter aircraft.

However, there was no mention of providing Ukraine with fighters, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has asked.

The announcement came on the day Zelensky is set to visit the UK for the first time since Russia’s full-scale invasion began on February 24 last year. It will be only his second trip outside Ukraine since then.

“As part of today’s talks, the Prime Minister will offer to bolster the UK’s training offer for Ukrainian troops, including expanding it to fighter jet pilots to ensure Ukraine can defend its skies well into the future,” Downing Street’s Wednesday announcement said.

“The training will ensure pilots are able to fly sophisticated NATO-standard fighter jets in the future,” it added.

The US has not yet launched any training program for Ukrainian pilots, Brigadier General Pat Ryder confirmed last month.

Also on Wednesday, the UK government announced that it will provide Ukraine with “longer range capabilities,” without going into details.

“This will disrupt Russia’s ability to continually target Ukraine’s civilian and critical national infrastructure and help relieve pressure on Ukraine’s frontlines,” it noted.

Zelensky to visit UK on Wednesday: Downing Street

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will make his first visit to the United Kingdom on Wednesday since the Russian invasion of his country, Downing Street has announced.

Zelensky will use his surprise visit to Britain to see his country’s troops being trained by British armed forces. He is due to address MPs in parliament.

Ukraine’s FM speaks with Blinken ahead of Russian invasion anniversary

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated that he had spoken with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken about preparations for the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of his country.

“Focused call with Secretary Blinken on new military aid, new sanctions on Russia, and the preparations of important events as Russian full-scale invasion nears one-year mark,” Kuleba said on Twitter.

“Russia would be making a grave mistake if it thought anyone would get tired of fighting the evil it brings,” he added.

Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, sending troops into its former Soviet neighbor from three fronts and firing missiles on several locations near the capital, Kyiv.

Ukraine dismisses Russia’s claims of controlling several settlements in Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia region

The Defense Intelligence of Ukraine on Tuesday dismissed Russia’s claims that it has taken control of several small settlements in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions.

Ukraine said “their capture by the enemy has not been confirmed at this time” and that “the Ukrainian Defense Forces continue to defend each of these areas.”

Earlier on Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated Russia’s “operations are successfully developing” near the key towns of Bakhmut and Vuhledar, and that Russian forces have taken control of several small settlements in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions.

Shoigu also added Russia has full control of Soledar, which the Ukrainian Armed Forces already announced their withdrawal from in January.

The Defense Intelligence of Ukraine also criticized Shoigu for touting the “achievements” of the Russian Armed Forces, arguing that the Russian private military contractor Wagner is actively involved in combat in those areas.

Leopard 2 tanks will be ready for Ukraine at the end of March: German army

Leopard 2 battle tanks from Germany will be ready for Ukraine to use at the end of March, the German army said in a tweet Tuesday.

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius visited Kyiv Tuesday, where he met with soldiers who will soon go to Germany to train on Leopard 2 tanks.

He added he was “deeply impressed” by the “determination” and “solemn faces” of the Ukrainian soldiers.

Germany, Denmark and Netherlands will send more than 100 tanks to Ukraine by spring 2024

Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands will send more than 100 Leopard 1 battle tanks to Ukraine by spring 2024, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius announced during an unannounced visit to Kyiv Tuesday.

A contingent of 20 to 25 Leopard 1 tanks will arrive in Ukraine by this summer, and up to an additional 80 by early next year, Pistorius told reporters during a joint press meeting with his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksii Reznikov.

The Leopard 1 had been in service since the 1960s until it was phased out in 2003.

Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands will be providing “refurbished” Leopard 1 from their “industrial stocks” and the three countries will also provide required logistic support and training to operate the vehicles, the German defense ministry announced in a news release.

The German government on Tuesday approved up to 178 export licenses for Leopard 1 tanks for Ukraine, according to the news release.

Pistorius speaking at the news conference also announced imminent weapons deliveries to Ukraine.

He added that by the end of the month, there will be more missiles, five additional Gepard tanks, and another five armored engineer vehicles.

Training on Leopard 2 battle tanks will soon begin in Germany, Pistorius said, adding that he was “deeply impressed” by the Ukrainian trainee soldiers’ “solemn faces” and “determination.”

Reznikov said he discussed the need for fighter jets with his German counterpart.

“It could be different platforms” and Ukraine’s partners will decide the best platform to discuss the request, he continued, adding before deciding on fighter jets, the “first priority” for Ukraine’s allies was to “deploy their Leopards” and “guarantee the training.”

Ukraine increases 2023 state budget to fund reconstruction

Ukraine’s parliament approves changes to the 2023 state budget to raise spending to support small businesses and channel more funds into reconstruction and recovery projects following Russia’s invasion.

Roksolana Pidlasa, the head of the parliamentary budget committee, noted spending had been increased by 5.5 billion hryvnias ($150m).

The increase included funds to finance and modernise hospitals in Kyiv and the western city of Lviv and to rebuild bridges damaged in the conflict.

As the anniversary approaches, the war has depleted Ukraine’s public finances, leading to double-digit inflation, higher unemployment, a sharp fall in exports, and significant revenue and tax income losses.

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