Thursday, June 20, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 359

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 energy supply recovering after Russian strikes

Ukraine was weathering a wave of Russian attacks on its power grid and seeing recovering supplies despite Russia’s campaign against key infrastructure, energy operator Ukrenergo has announced.

After humiliating defeats on the ground, Russia has since October pummelled Ukraine’s energy facilities, leading to power shortages that have left millions in the cold and dark during winter.

“There has been no shortage of electricity in the energy system during the entire working week, and none is expected so far,” Ukrenergo said on the Telegram messenger.


Macron calls on West to ‘intensify’ military support for Ukraine

French President Emmanuel Macron has urged Ukraine’s allies to intensify their military support for Kyiv.

“We absolutely need to intensify our support and our effort to the resistance of the Ukrainian people and its army and help them to launch a counter-offensive,” Macron told the Munich Security Conference.

He added such a counter-offensive would allow for “credible negotiations, determined by Ukraine, its authorities and its people” to take place on ending the war.


Scholz urges Ukraine’s allies to supply tanks ‘now

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz says allies of Ukraine who can supply Kyiv with battle tanks “should really do so now”.

Addressing the Munich Security Conference, Scholz stated he would be “intensively campaigning” for movement on the issue.

Scholz’s call marked a dramatic reversal of roles as he had for months been under pressure from allies to approve the delivery of German-made Leopard tanks to Ukraine.

Germany finally relented in January, saying it would itself send a company of 14 Leopard 2 A6 tanks, with the aim of assembling, along with allies, two tank battalions for Ukraine.

It is still waiting on some European partners to follow up with their own pledges.


Ukraine won’t be Putin’s last stop: Zelensky

It is “obvious” Ukraine will not be the last stop in Putin’s invasion, President Volodymyr Zelensky said.

“He’s going to continue his movement all the way, … including all the other states that at some point in time were part of the Soviet bloc,” Ukraine’s president told the Munich Security Conference via video link.

Zelensky also added he did not think Russia could win the war.

He likened Ukraine to David and Russia to Goliath in the biblical tale in which the underdog David, armed only with a sling, defeats a giant in combat.

The president stated David won against Goliath by action rather than conversation and Goliath “has no chances”.

Zelensky said there was “no alternative” to victory, as Kyiv presses its fightback against Russia’s forces.

“There is no alternative to Ukrainian victory … No alternative to Ukraine in the EU. No alternative to Ukraine in NATO,” he told the Munich Security Conference.

He also called for Ukraine’s Western allies to “hurry” and speed up their deliveries of weapons amid fears a new Russian offensive is getting under way.

“We need to hurry up. We need speed – speed of our agreements, speed of our delivery … speed of decisions to limit Russian potential. There is no alternative to speed because it is the speed that the life depends on,” the president added.


Russia appoints new military commanders: Report

Russia has appointed new commanders for three of the country’s military districts, the state-owned RIA Novosti news outlet has reported.

Lieutenant-General Andrey Mordvichev was chosen as the new commander of the country’s Central Military District, replacing promoted Colonel-General Aleksandr Lapin.

Lapin was appointed chief of staff of the country’s ground forces last month.

RIA also reported that Yevgeny Nikiforov had become chief of the Western Military District and Sergey Kuzovlev was appointed as commander of the Southern Military District.


Putin says gas giant Gazprom will thrive as demand from Asia soars

President Vladimir Putin has lauded Russia’s state-owned gas giant Gazprom, saying the company will thrive despite attempts by the West to cut its clout.

“Despite unfair – to put it bluntly – competition, direct attempts from the outside to hinder and restrain its development, Gazprom is moving forward, launching new projects,” Putin told CEO Alexei Miller.

“Over the previous 30 years, global gas consumption has almost doubled, and in the next 20 years, according to expert estimates, it will add at least another 20 percent, and maybe more,” he added.

“In the so-called transition period, the demand will be enormous. Moreover, more than half of this increase will fall on the countries of the Asia-Pacific region, first of all, of course, on the People’s Republic of China, bearing in mind the growth rates of its economy,” he continued.


Zelensky: There should be no ‘taboo’ on Ukraine weapons supplies

President Volodymyr Zelensky says there should be no “taboo” on the supply of military aid to Ukraine.

Speaking at a joint news conference with visiting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, Zelensky stated Kyiv had a “common understanding” with the Netherlands on the issue.

“There should not be any taboo on the supply and support of weapons to our army, to our Ukraine, because it supports and protects our sovereignty,” he added.

Ukraine has repeatedly appealed to its allies in the West for fighter jets in recent weeks, but no country has yet publicly committed to providing them.


WHO appeals for more funding for Ukraine

The World Health Organization has appealed for more funds to support Ukraine’s health sector, which has been hard-hit by Russia’s invasion.

Hans Kluge, the UN health agency’s regional director for Europe, said additional support was needed to ensure that mental health and rehabilitation services could be provided.

“We aim to reach 13.6 million people with this support this year,” Kluge, the UN health agency’s regional director for Europe, told an online briefing from the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr.

“That’s why we have increased our appeal for 2023 to $240m – $160m for Ukraine and $80m for refugee-receiving countries,” he added.


Russia accuses US of ‘inciting’ Ukraine over Crimea

Russia has accused the United States of “inciting” Ukraine to escalate the war by condoning attacks on Russian military targets in annexed Crimea.

Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova’s comments came after US undersecretary of state, Victoria Nuland, said Washington supported Ukrainian strikes on military installations on the Black Sea peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014.

“Now the American warmongers have gone even further: They incite the Kyiv regime to further escalate the war,” Zakharova told reporters when asked about Nuland’s remarks.

“They supply weapons in huge quantities, provide intelligence and participate directly in the planning of combat operations,” she continued, adding that some US officials dreamed like “crazies” of defeating Russia.


Russian forces must retreat before peace talks can start: Official

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Ukraine’s president, has reiterated Kyiv’s position that it will not hold peace talks with Moscow unless Russia withdraws its forces from Ukraine.

“Negotiations can begin when Russia withdraws its troops from the territory of Ukraine. Other options only give Russia time to regroup forces and resume hostilities at any moment,” Podolyak said in a post on Twitter.


Ukrainian official says talks on extending Black Sea grain deal to begin next week

Negotiations on extending the UN-backed Black Sea grain deal will begin next week, a senior Ukrainian official has said.

“I think common sense will prevail and the corridor will be extended,” deputy infrastructure minister Yuriy Vaskov stated during a grain conference in Kyiv organised by the ProAgro agriculture consultancy.

The agreement, brokered by the United Nations and Turkey, and signed in July last year, was extended by another 120 days in November and is up for renewal again next month.

Russia has signalled that it is unhappy with some aspects of the deal – which allowed grain to be exported from three Ukrainian ports – and with sanctions imposed on it since its full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago.


US supports Ukrainian attacks on military targets in Crimea: Diplomat

The United States believes Crimea should be demilitarised and supports Ukrainian attacks on military targets on the Moscow-annexed Black Sea peninsula, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland has stated.

“No matter what the Ukrainians decide about Crimea in terms of where they choose to fight etcetera, Ukraine is not going to be safe unless Crimea is at a minimum, at a minimum, demilitarised,” Nuland told the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

She also said Russia had a host of military installations crucial to the conflict located on the peninsula, which was seized by Moscow in early 2014.

“Those are legitimate targets, Ukraine is hitting them and we are supporting that,” Nuland added.

Ukraine has repeatedly said it wants to reclaim all territory annexed by Russia. Moscow has warned any attacks on Crimea would risk a major escalation of the war.


Zelensky rules out conceding territory in potential future peace deal with Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would not agree to give up any Ukrainian territory in a potential future peace deal with Russia, he said in an interview with BBC News, warning it could lead Russia to “keep coming back.”

“Any territorial compromises would make us weaker as a state,” Zelensky told BBC News.

“It’s not about compromise itself. Why would we fear that? There are millions of compromises in life. The question is with whom? Compromise with [Vladimir] Putin? No. Because there’s no trust,” he added.

Zelensky also told BBC News a spring offensive, warned of by Kyiv officials, had already begun.

“Russian attacks are already happening from several directions,” the president stated.

He also responded to comments made at a Thursday news conference by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, in which Lukashenko insisted he would not send troops into Ukraine unless Belarus itself is attacked.

“I hope [Belarus] won’t join [the war],” Zelensky told BBC News, stating, “If it does, we will fight and we will survive.”

Zelensky added it would be a “huge mistake” to allow Russia to use Belarus as a staging area for an attack.


US House speaker opposes GOP lawmaker’s resolution to cut off aid for Ukraine

US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy told CNN he opposes a resolution from Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz that expresses a desire to end military and financial aid to Ukraine.

McCarthy made the remarks during a visit to the US-Mexico border.

“No, I support Ukraine,” McCarthy said, when asked whether he backs Gaetz’s measure.

“I don’t support a blank check, though. We spent $100 billion here, we want to win. I think the actions that President Biden has taken are a bit too late,” he added.

Gaetz introduced a “Ukraine Fatigue” resolution last week, demanding an end to aid for Ukraine, and for the US to demand all combatants “reach a peace agreement immediately.”


Estonia warns stop Russia now to prevent a wider conflict

A top Estonian defence leader has warned that if Vladimir Putin is not stopped now, he could entangle the region in a larger conflict, perhaps one with even greater security implications for the US.

That’s because Russia has shown it will keep trying to retake territories that were once part of the Soviet Union and, so far, economic sanctions and its significant military losses in Ukraine have not changed Putin’s larger goals, said Kristjan Mäe, the head of the Estonian Ministry of Defense’s NATO and EU department, as US defence secretary Lloyd Austin visited the Baltic nation.

Estonia, which borders Russia, was forcefully incorporated into the Soviet Union during World War II and gained its independence only with the Soviet collapse in 1991. It joined NATO and the European Union in 2004.

“If we do not solve this war at this moment, where it is, first of all, there’s going to be a bigger war,” Mäe added.


US, allies plan ‘big’ Russia sanctions for war anniversary

The United States and its allies plan a major array of new sanctions against Russia for the February 24 anniversary of its invasion of Ukraine, a senior US official has said.

“You will see around the 24th a big new package of sanctions from both the US and all of our G7 partners,” Victoria Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, told reporters.

“These sanctions will deepen and broaden in certain categories where we have been active before, particularly in limiting the flow of technology to the Russian defence industry,” she continued.

Nuland added the package will also target individuals, expand banking restrictions and crack down on evasion of existing sanctions, including in third countries.


Ukraine says Russia turns to decoy missiles, intel balloons

Russia has switched its aerial attack tactics to fool Ukraine’s air defences, using decoy missiles without explosive warheads and deploying balloons, a senior Ukrainian official has stated.

“The Russians are definitely changing tactics” as the war approaches its anniversary, Mykhailo Podolyak, Volodymyr Zelensky’s adviser, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

The goal of the decoy missiles, Podolyak added, is to overwhelm Ukraine’s air defence systems by offering too many targets.

“They want to overload our anti-aircraft system to get an extra chance to hit infrastructure facilities,” Podolyak said, adding that Ukraine’s air defences are adapting to the challenge.


EU Commission scraps Russia nuclear sanctions plan: Report

The European Commission has abandoned plans to sanction Russia’s nuclear sector or its representatives in its next sanctions package, Politico has reported, citing three diplomats.

The head of the EU executive, the European Commission, had originally told EU countries that it would try to draw up sanctions targeting Russia’s civil nuclear sector, but that plan has now failed, according to the report.


Wagner chief predicts Bakhmut will be seized within two months

The head of Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group has predicted that Bakhmut will fall under Moscow’s control within a couple of months.

The Wagner Group, swelled by prison recruits, has for months led Russian attempts to seize the city, which sits in the partly occupied eastern Donetsk region.

In an interview with a pro-war military blogger, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin forecast Bakhmut would be seized in March or April, depending on how many soldiers Ukraine commits to its defence and how well his own troops are supplied.

“Because there are a huge number of problems that need to be solved. Naturally, it will also depend on whether we continue to be bled,” he added, referring to the end of prisoner recruits.


UK will back Ukraine if opposition Labour win power: Labour leader

The United Kingdom’s support for Ukraine will not change if the main opposition Labour Party wins power in an election next year, Labour leader Keir Starmer has said during a visit to Ukraine.

The UK has been a leading supporter of Ukraine under the governing Conservatives, and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has followed predecessor Boris Johnson’s example by visiting Kyiv. Johnson is popular in Ukraine, and has a street named after him.

But an election is widely expected next year in the UK, and opinion polls give Labour a strong lead over the Conservatives.

“Should there be an election next year and a change of government, the position on Ukraine will remain the same,” Starmer stated while visiting the town of Irpin outside Kyiv.


US ready to defend Baltic allies: Defence secretary

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin has said Washington is ready to defend the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania if required, and will keep a “persistent” military presence in the region.

“We are committed to Article 5, you can bet on that,” Austin stated, citing the requirement in the NATO charter that each member of the alliance defend each other if they come under attack.

Speaking in Tallinn after talks with Estonian leaders, he also noted the US will continue to keep a “persistent, rotational” military presence in the region.

“The United States remains steadfastly committed to the freedom and sovereignty of our Baltic allies,” he told reporters.


Russia, Ukraine exchange POWs

Russia’s defence ministry says Ukraine has returned 101 prisoners of war (POWs) from territory controlled by Kyiv in the latest such swap between the two sides.

“Aircraft of the military transport aviation of the Russian Aerospace Forces will deliver the released servicemen to Moscow for treatment and rehabilitation in medical institutions of the Russian Defence Ministry,” the ministry said.

Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelensky’s chief of staff stated 100 troops and one civilian had been returned to Ukraine.

Nearly all had been defending the besieged southern city of Mariupol before it fell to Russian forces, Andriy Yermak added.


Russian strikes kill 5 civilians near embattled eastern city of Bakhmut: Ukrainian official

Russian strikes around the fiercely embattled Ukrainian city of Bakhmut left three men and two women dead Thursday, according to a regional official, and nine other civilians also sustained various wounds from shrapnel.

The five civilians killed varied in age between 32 and 66, according to a statement published online by the Donetsk region prosecutor’s office.

The statement added the shelling also damaged many residential buildings.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk appealed to the civilians who remain in Bakhmut to leave the city immediately.

“Frankly speaking, I am very surprised that there are still 6,000 civilians there (in Bakhmut),” she wrote on Telegram citing the latest data.

“Those who choose to stay in Bakhmut are endangering themselves and loved ones,” creating additional risks for the military and police, and “preventing our defense and security forces from working properly in the city,” Vereshchuk said.


Israel will expand aid provided to Ukraine: FM

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen said that Israel “will expand the level of aid” provided to Ukraine and assist the country in “developing a smart early warning system,” during his visit to Kyiv Thursday.

“I emphasized that Israel strongly supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Cohen tweeted following his meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“I assured him that Israel would expand the level of aid we provide and that we would be partners in the reconstruction of Ukraine after the war,” he added.

Cohen also held a briefing with Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, in which he said, “I was happy to update that we will assist in developing a smart early warning system for Ukraine.”

Additionally, Cohen reopened the Israeli embassy in Kyiv for the first time since the beginning of the war.

“Israel has always been our important partner in the Middle East. This is the first visit of an Israeli representative since the beginning of the full-scale invasion,” Zelensky said in a Telegram post on Thursday.

“We discussed deepening bilateral cooperation in various areas. I invite Israel to join the implementation of our Peace Formula,” the president added.


EU lawmakers urge leaders to seriously consider providing Ukraine with fighter jets

European leaders must “seriously consider” providing Kyiv with fighter jets, lawmakers in the European Union parliament said in a resolution adopted Thursday.

The resolution marked nearly one year since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“They reaffirm their support for providing military assistance to Ukraine for as long as is necessary and call for serious consideration to be given to delivering Western fighter jets and helicopters, appropriate missile systems and substantial increases in munitions delivery to Kyiv,” according to a statement.

“Ukraine must not only be able to defend itself, but also to regain full control of its entire internationally recognised territory,” it added.

The resolution, which is non-binding, also calls on the EU to implement a tenth package of sanctions against Moscow by the end of February and to tighten those already in place. Assets seized from Russian oligarchs should be used to fund Ukraine’s reconstruction, lawmakers said.

The legislators also urged the European Commission — the EU’s executive arm — and national governments to begin talks with Ukraine this year on Ukraine’s bid for EU membership.

The Russian Mission to the EU slammed the parliament’s resolution as a “paragon of disinformation” unsupported by “data, facts or evidence,” in a statement posted on its website.

“Obviously, the resolution is aimed at deliberately misleading the European public and trying to justify the European Union’s course to escalate the Ukrainian conflict and increase sanctions pressure on our country,” the mission added.

Moscow has faced constant diplomatic pressure from the EU, including economic sanctions, since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his forces to invade Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took his plea for the supply of Western fighter jets directly to other European countries last week, including in a surprise visit to London and at a European Union summit.

Ukrainian pilots will start training on NATO jets in the United Kingdom soon, but it’s unclear how soon allies could make a decision on whether to send the modern fighting planes.

NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg stated Tuesday that the question of sending modern fighter jets to Ukraine is “not the most urgent issue” right now, focusing instead on delivering the military support it has already committed to Ukraine.

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