Monday, February 26, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 356

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:

No current indications that Russia is preparing for “massive aerial attack”: US defense secretary

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated Tuesday that they are not seeing Russia “massing its aircraft” ahead of an aerial operation against Ukraine.

“In terms of whether or not Russia is massing its aircraft for some massive aerial attack, we don’t currently see that. We do know that Russia has a substantial number of aircraft in its inventory and a lot of capability left,” he said, adding, “That’s why we’ve emphasized that we need to do everything that we can to get Ukraine as much air defense capability as we possibly can.”

Austin spoke from Brussels, where he and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley are meeting with other defense leaders in the ninth Ukraine Defense Contact Group meeting since the beginning of Russia’s invasion almost one year ago.

Russia has lost “strategically, operationally” one year after its invasion of Ukraine,: Top US general

A little less than a year since Moscow began its invasion of Ukraine, Russia has “lost strategically, operationally, and tactically,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley stated from Brussels on Tuesday.

“Putin thought he could defeat Ukraine quickly, fracture the NATO alliance, and act with impunity. He was wrong,” the top US general said.

“Ukraine remains free, they remain independent. NATO and this coalition has never been stronger, and Russia is now a global pariah. And the world remains inspired by Ukrainian bravery and resilience. In short, Russia has lost — they’ve lost strategically, operationally, and tactically, and they are paying an enormous price on the battlefield,” he added.

Milley and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin are in Brussels for the ninth meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, to discuss ongoing support for Ukraine as it fights against Russia.

Milley noted on Tuesday that until Putin “ends his war of choice,” the international community “will continue to support Ukraine with the equipment and the capabilities it needs to defend itself.”

EU to consider using frozen Russian assets to rebuild Ukraine

On Wednesday, the EU will launch an ad hoc group to investigate how frozen Russian funds, including central bank reserves, can be used for reconstruction work in Ukraine, the Swedish government said.

“The mandate is to contribute to mapping which funds have been frozen in the European Union … and secondly, how to legally proceed to access those funds,” Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson told a news conference in Stockholm.

He stated that no prior model exists for handling Russian assets, and the EU must establish appropriate legal procedures.

“It’s Russian taxpayers, not all other taxpayers, who must bear the cost of the necessary reconstruction work,” Kristersson added.

The ad hoc group will be headed by Anders Ahnlid, the head of Sweden’s National Board of Trade, a government agency.

Ukraine expected to conduct offensive against Russia in spring: US

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he expects to see Ukraine conduct an offensive in the spring.

“What Ukraine wants to do at the first possible moment is to establish or create momentum and establish conditions on the battlefield that continue to be in its favor,” he stated in a news conference in Brussels on Tuesday.

“And so we expect to see them conduct an offensive sometime in the spring and because of that we are, we all of the partners in in the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, have been working hard to ensure that they have the armored capability, the fires, the sustainment to be able to be effective in creating the effects on the battlefield that they want to create,” he added.

Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley are in Brussels for the ninth meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which focuses on providing support to Ukraine in its war against Russia. Austin is also participating in a meeting with NATO’s defense ministers. The one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion is just over a week away

Bakhmut won’t be captured “anytime soon”: Russia’s Wagner mercenary group

The head of Russia’s Wagner private military company on Tuesday warned that the capture of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut was far from imminent.

“Bakhmut will not be taken tomorrow, because there is heavy resistance and grinding, the meat grinder is working,” Yevgeniy Prigozhin said in a statement distributed on a Wagner Telegram channel, adding, “For the meat grinder to work properly, it is impossible to suddenly start festivities. There won’t be any festivities anytime soon.”

Despite months of intense battle, Wagner and Russian forces have failed to capture Bakhmut, though they are slowly pushing towards encircling the city.

And yet, Prigozhin cautioned that that was anything but imminent. He was responding to a question about whether Wagner forces had captured a small portion of northern Bakhmut.

“I don’t understand where this nonsense comes from,” he said, adding, “In all directions, the enemy is becoming more active, pulling up more and more new reserves. Daily 300 to 500 new fighters approach Bakhmut in all directions. Artillery fire intensifies with each day.”

“To date, heavy fighting is going on in the north. There are no prerequisites for encircling the enemy in the northern regions. Attack is carried out house by house, square meter by square meter. We are seeing the full-blown military engagement. It is just not clear where all these stories about some encirclement and something else come from,” he continued.

Kremlin assesses NATO’s role in Ukraine conflict

NATO’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict is becoming more obvious by the day, despite claims to the contrary, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday.

“NATO is an organization that is hostile to us,” Peskov told reporters,adding, “They are confirming this hostility every day and are going out of their way to make their involvement in the conflict around Ukraine a lot clearer.”

Peskov stated the military bloc’s activities demand “certain precautionary measures” from Moscow. He noted that the US-led alliance has shared intelligence with Ukraine, and that “all of NATO’s military infrastructure is working against Russia.”

NATO chief says its important for Sweden and Finland to join alliance

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said it is important Sweden and Finland join NATO as soon as possible, but ratifying them at the same time was not the “main question”.

Finland and Sweden must gain approval from all 30 members before joining the military Alliance formally.

Stoltenberg’s comments come after Turkey suggested it could greenlight Finland’s bid to join without accepting Sweden into the Alliance after far-right extremists burned a copy of the Quran outside the Turkish embassy in Stockholm last month.

“So the main question is not whether Finland and Sweden are ratified together. The main question is that they are both ratified as full members as soon as possible,” Stoltenberg stated ahead of a meeting of NATO allies.

“I’m confident that both will be full members, and we are working hard to get both ratified as soon as possible,” the NATO secretary general added.

Germany to ramp up ammunition production in light of strengthened Russian offensive

Germany is to increase ammunition production in light of Russia’s ramped up offensive in Ukraine, the country’s Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said Tuesday.

Speaking to journalists in Brussels ahead of a two-day NATO Defense Ministers meeting, Pistorius highlighted Russia’s increasing efforts to “regain the initiative in the Donbas.”

The defense minister called the “issue of air defense and ammunition supply“ much “more important than fighter jets”.

This echoes remarks made by NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg also on Tuesday, stating that NATO’s “urgent need” is to deliver the military support it has already promised Ukraine rather than make decisions on whether to send modern fighter jets too.

Also on Tuesday, Pistorius announced that Germany had signed contracts with ammunition manufacturers to provide for the Gepard air defense systems it has delivered to Ukraine.

As far as other ammunition is concerned, Pistorius noted he could “only ask the defense industry to ramp up production quickly.”

In light of the “possible risk of escalation,” he warned that every step taken by NATO allies has to be “weighed up” carefully.

“I believe there will be no short-term end to the war, no short-term winner,“ Pistorius continued.

Wagner Group made ‘further small gains’ in Bakhmut: British MoD

The British Ministry of Defence says in the last three days, the Wagner mercenary group has made further small gains in the north of Bakhmut “into the village of Krasna Hora”.

But, in its daily intelligence update, the ministry found that “the tactical Russian advance to the south of the town has likely made little progress.”

“Russia likely aims to reverse some of the gains Ukrainian forces made over September-November 2022: there is a realistic possibility that their immediate goal is to advance west to the Zherberets River,” the report added.

However, while the current movements of Russian troops suggest they are being ordered to advance, “they have not massed sufficient offensive combat power on any one axis to achieve a decisive effect.”

Fighter jets for Ukraine “not the most important issue” now: NATO chief

A decision on whether to send modern fighter jets to Ukraine is “not the most urgent issue” right now, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Tuesday.

The alliance needs to focus instead on delivering the military support it has already committed to Ukraine, Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels before a meeting of NATO defense ministers.

“The urgent need now is to deliver what has always been promised. To deliver the armored vehicles, the infantry fighting vehicles, the German martyrs, the US Bradleys and of course also the main battle tanks, the Leopards and the other battle tanks that have been pledged,” he added.

Last week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky lobbied strongly for allies to send modern fighter jets to Ukraine, officially requesting the Netherlands’ supply of American made F-16 jets on Friday.

“”The issue of aircraft is not the most urgent issue now. But it is an ongoing discussion,” Stoltenberg stated Tuesday.

The NATO chief also acknowledged the type of support allies have provided to Ukraine “has changed and evolved” and will continue to do so “as this war develops.”

Stoltenberg said Ukraine must get the weapons it needs to “win this war.”

He underlined consultations among alliance members to support Kyiv would continue over the next two days.

“Because we know the need to ensure that Ukraine gets the weapons it needs to be able to retake territory, liberate the lands and win this war and prevail as a sovereign and independent nation,” he underscored.

It was important to discuss the types of systems and platforms NATO members should send to Ukraine and that all of the systems “work as they should,” he added.

“When it comes to artillery, we need ammunition, we need spare parts, we need maintenance, we need all the logistics to ensure that we are able to sustain these weapon systems,” Stoltenberg said, adding, “This has become a grinding war of attrition and therefore it’s also a battle of logistics.”

Stoltenberg also reaffirmed comments he made Monday that Russian President Vladimir Putin was “preparing for more war.”

“We see no signs that President Putin is preparing for peace. What we see is the opposite, he’s preparing for more war for new offensives and new attacks,” he continued, noting, “So it makes it just even more important that NATO allies and partners provide more support to Ukraine.”

Ukrainian soldiers train on Leopard tanks in Poland

Ukrainian soldiers who have arrived at a Polish military base straight from the front line have praised the Leopard battle tanks whose ins and outs they have been learning under the watchful eye of allied instructors.

“As of today, I can say that the machine is very high quality, very good,” Ukrainian army Major Vadym Khodak told reporters attending the training showcase in the southwestern village of Swietoszow.

“And what I like is that our soldiers like it very much,” he said of the 105 Ukrainian soldiers who are receiving tank training from Polish, Canadian and Norwegian instructors.

Russia says gas exports sank in 2022 but oil up

Russia says its natural gas exports plummeted by 25 percent in 2022 after the Ukraine war brought turmoil to Moscow’s ties with key buyers in Europe.

Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak announced the figures and attributed the fall in gas exports to “the refusal of European countries to buy Russian gas”.

“Gas production in 2022 totalled 673.8 billion cubic metres (23.8 trillion cubic feet],” Novak stated, adding, “Exports decreased by 25.1 percent to 184.4 billion cubic metres [6.5 trillion cubic feet].”

But he also noted Russian oil exports had increased 7.6 percent over 2022 compared with a year earlier.

Norway says Russia poses main security threat to Europe

Norway’s intelligence agencies see Russia as posing the main security threat to the country and to the remainder of Europe, the Nordic nation’s defence minister says.

“Russia today poses the biggest threat to Norwegian and European security, and the confrontation with the West will be long-lasting,” Bjorn Arild Gram predicted.

Gram made the remarks after Norway’s government received annual threat assessments from the country’s three security services: the domestic and foreign intelligence agencies and the Norwegian National Security Authority, or NSM.

The deputy head of the foreign Norwegian Intelligence Service, Lars Nordrum, stated Norway’s oil and gas installations could be targeted by Russian sabotage. NSM head Sofie Nystrøm warned that “all of Europe will suffer” if Norwegian gas and oil installations were hit.

Sanctions are a barrier to Black Sea grain deal renewal: Russia

Russia says it would be “inappropriate” to extend the Black Sea grain deal unless sanctions affecting its agricultural exports are lifted and other issues are resolved.

The Black Sea Grain Initiative, signed by Russia and Ukraine in July, created a safe corridor to allow grain to be exported from Ukrainian ports blockaded by the war.

The agreement, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, was extended by another 120 days in November and is up for renewal again next month, but Russia has signalled that it is unhappy with some aspects of the deal and with sanctions imposed on it since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago.

“Without tangible results on the implementation of the Russia-UN Memorandum, above all on the real removal of sanctions restrictions on Russian agricultural exports … the extension of the Ukrainian document is inappropriate,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin stated in an interview with the RTVI broadcaster.

Russia’s agricultural exports have not been explicitly targeted by Western sanctions, but Moscow says blocks on its payments, logistics and insurance industries are a “barrier” to it being able to export its own grains and fertilisers.

Ukrainian authorities claim Russia is “sabotaging inspections” of vessels heading to their ports

Ukraine’s Ministry of Infrastructure said that Russia is “sabotaging inspections” of vessels heading to Ukrainian ports to load up agricultural products, noting that “the number of new vessels entering for loading continues to decrease” in the ports of Greater Odesa.

“Such decreasing dynamics are due to Russia’s actions in the inspection zone in the Bosphorus. It is now three months in a row that Russians are sabotaging inspections for unsubstantiated and sometimes preposterous reasons,” the Ministry of Infrastructure claimed in a statement on social media.

There are 145 vessels in line for inspection by the Joint Coordination Centre (JCC) as of February 12, and 122 of those are heading to Ukrainian ports to get agricultural produce, the Ministry of Infrastructure said.

“It is our hope that the issue of impeded inspections will be resolved by our partners and the entire civilized world,” the ministry statement stated, adding, “Ukraine has the right to free trade navigation under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, and the world has the right to continuous access to food. Russia must stop imposing its discriminatory policies on the world.”

Ukrainian official disputes Russia’s claim of capturing village near Bakhmut

Ukraine on Monday disputed Russia’s claim that it had captured the village of Krasna Hora near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

The claim that Russians have taken Krasna Hora “is not true,” Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesperson for the Eastern Grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces told CNN, noting, “There are ongoing battles there. We are keeping it under our control.”

Cherevatyi added that Bakhmut remains the focus of Russia’s main attacks.

“The enemy made 85 attacks in the Bakhmut sector. There were 33 combat engagements. In the area of the city of Bakhmut, there were 25 attacks and 19 combat engagements,” Cherevatyi continued.

Cherevatyi said Russian forces have the ability to fire on the routes to Bakhmut, adding that “we are engaged in counter-battery fighting to reduce it.”

“We have the ability to supply weapons, food, equipment, medicines and to evacuate the wounded from there,” he added.

The Ministry of Defense of Ukraine said in a Telegram post on Monday that “the battle for Bakhmut continues.”

“The enemy is constantly changing tactics. Sometimes it attacks with small assault groups, sometimes it uses dozens of mobilized soldiers to attack. Sometimes it intensifies shelling at night, systematically hits rear cities with rockets, terrorizes civilians, and undermines civilian infrastructure,” the Ministry of Defence of Ukraine continued.

“Sometimes, the occupier seems to be stronger and more numerous. However, it has one big weakness: it is playing on someone else’s field, fighting for someone else’s land. And this is what promises the invader a big failure,” it added.

The Russian Defense Ministry on Monday echoed claims by the Russian private military group Wagner that Krasna Hora has been captured.

“In the Donetsk direction, the volunteers of the assault detachments, with fire support from the rocket troops and artillery of the Southern group of troops, liberated the settlement of Krasna Hora in the Donetsk People’s Republic,” the statement from the daily briefing of the ministry read.

Moscow’s claims come as Russian forces continue to attempt to encircle the city. Krasna Hora lies on the main north-south road leading to Bakhmut. It sits just below Soledar, the town that Russian forces captured last month.

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