Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 372: Blinken and Lavrov meet on sidelines of G20 for first time since war

Russia, wary of NATO’s eastward expansion, began a military campaign in Ukraine on February 24, 2022 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:

G20 foreign ministers fail to reach a complete consensus due to Russia-Ukraine conflict: India

Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar announced Thursday that the G20 meeting of the foreign ministers was unable to reach a consensus to issue a joint statement due to their “differing opinions” on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

In the first major G20 meeting held in New Delhi, the countries were able to form a consensus on issues ranging from counter-terrorism to multilateral banks to global skill mapping. Still, they stopped short of issuing a statement agreeing on all subjects and actions, according to Jaishankar.

“There were issues, and they were concerned about the Russia-Ukraine conflict. We got a joint document built on the bulk of the problems, but various parties held differing opinions on several topics,” said Jaishankar at a news conference.

The effect of this conflict on countries impacted by the coronavirus pandemic is damaging, he added, noting the global south still needs help.

Putin calls the alleged Bryansk raid a “terrorist act” but didn’t specify if group crossed over from Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the alleged raid in the border region of Bryansk a “terrorist act,” blaming it on “neo-Nazis.”

“Today, [they] committed another terrorist act, penetrated the border area and opened fire on civilians,” Putin said during a televised meeting on Thursday.

“They saw that civilians and children were sitting there, [in] an ordinary Niva (car). They opened fire on them,” he added.

Putin promised to “put them away” but didn’t specify if the group had crossed the border from Ukraine.

“Violence, a real crime, it is committed precisely by neo-Nazis and their masters,” he stated.

Bryansk region’s Gov. Alexander Bogomaz says one person was killed and one child was injured as a result of the alleged raid.

“At present, the child has been taken to the Bryansk regional hospital, nothing is threatening his life,” he added.

The Russian President canceled a planned trip to southern Russia due to the incident in Bryansk, his spokesman Dmitry Peskov said earlier on Thursday. Russian security officials claimed Thursday that a small Ukrainian armed group had crossed the Russian border into the southern Bryansk region, claims dismissed by a top Ukrainian official as a “classic” Russian provocation.

US and Ukrainian officials have in the past warned that Russia has planned so-called “false flag” attacks along Russia’s border with Ukraine as a pretext for military escalation, including Russian claims ahead of last year’s full-scale invasion that Ukraine was sending “saboteurs” over the Russian border.

‘End this war’: Blinken says he told Lavrov

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated that he implored Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to end the conflict in Ukraine during their brief meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in India.

“I told the foreign minister what I and so many others said last week at the United Nations and what so many G20 foreign ministers said today: End this war of aggression, engage in meaningful diplomacy that can produce a just and durable peace,” Blinken said.

He added that Washington “stands ready to support Ukraine through diplomacy to end the war”, but Putin “has demonstrated zero interest in engaging”.

Russian security officials claim Ukrainian raid in border region as Kyiv warns of “deliberate provocation”

Russian security officials claimed Thursday that a small Ukrainian armed group had crossed the Russian border into the southern Bryansk region, claims dismissed by a top Ukrainian official as a “classic deliberate provocation.”

The Security Service of Russia (FSB) said in a statement via state media RIA Novosti Thursday that the agency — which also oversees border control — was carrying out joint operations with the Russian Ministry of Defense to counter what it described as “armed Ukrainian nationalists who violated the state border” in the district.

Details thus far have remained vague, but Russian state news agency TASS cited an anonymous source in the Russian security services that up to six people were being held hostage in two villages in the Bryansk region of Russia on the border with Ukraine by the alleged saboteurs.

The spokesperson for the governor of the Bryansk region claimed in remarks to the state-owned military channel Zvezda that a Ukrainian sabotage and reconnaissance group is operating on the territory of the village of Sushany, without providing additional information.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Russian President Vladimir Putin was in the Kremlin and being regularly briefed on the alleged attack by the heads of the FSB and the Russian Ministry of Defense as well as by the head of the Russian National Guard, Viktor Zolotov.

“We are talking about the events in the Bryansk region in connection with the attack of militants,” Peskov stated.

According to Peskov, Putin cancelled a planned trip to southern Russia Thursday due to the events that he described as a “terrorist attack” and added, “measures are now being taken to destroy these terrorists.”

Asked if the alleged attack on the Bryansk region can serve as a reason for changing the status of “special military operation,” the official shorthand for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Peskov noted, “I cannot say yet.”

US and Ukrainian officials have in the past warned that Russia has planned so-called “false flag” attacks along Russia’s border with Ukraine as a pretext for military escalation, including Russian claims ahead of last year’s full-scale invasion that Ukraine was sending “saboteurs” over the Russian border.

“The story about [a Ukrainian] sabotage group in RF [the Russian Federation] is a classic deliberate provocation,” said Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Head of the Presidential Office of Ukraine, in a statement on Twitter.

“RF wants to scare its people to justify the attack on another country & the growing poverty after the year of war. The partisan movement in RF is getting stronger & more aggressive. Fear your partisans…” he added.

Ukraine’s Operational Command “North,” which has responsibility for parts of Ukraine bordering Russia’s Bryansk region, said, “We remind you! The enemy may resort to provocations and try to discredit the Armed Forces of Ukraine!”

Separately, the governor of Russia’s southern Kursk region published a video statement on his Telegram channel claiming that a village was being shelled by Ukrainian forces.

Top US and Russian diplomats meet on sidelines of G20

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on the sidelines of the G20 in New Delhi, according to a State Department official traveling with Blinken.

The meeting comes as tensions remain high over Ukraine as well as Russia’s suspension of the New START nuclear weapons treaty.

Blinken and Lavrov spoke for roughly 10 minutes, the same official stated.

In the conversation, Blinken called on Russia to release Paul Whelan and restart participation in New START, as well as underscoring US support for Ukraine, according to the source.

The source also added that this meeting was unplanned and that Blinken was the one to approach Lavrov on the sidelines of the G20 Foreign Minister meeting in New Delhi.

The last time Blinken and Lavrov met in person was before the Russian invasion.

Earlier, Blinken said that a meeting of G20 finance ministers was “marred” by the war in Ukraine.

“Unfortunately, this meeting has again been marred by Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified war against Ukraine, deliberate campaign of destruction against civilian targets, and its attack on the core principles of the UN Charter,” he continued.

Russia and China reject “attempts to interfere in internal affairs of other countries” at G20

Russia and China have “unanimously rejected” what they called “attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries” at the G20 Foreign Ministers Meeting on Thursday.

The two nations expressed a “high degree of closeness and concurrence of positions” on the situation in Ukraine, according to a Russian readout of a meeting between Foreign Ministers Sergey Lavrov and Qin Gang.

Lavrov and Qin said they also rejected attempts “to impose unilateral approaches through blackmail and threats, and to oppose the democratization of international relations.”

G20 officials are gathered for a series of events in India, the current holder of the group’s presidency.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for nations to “rise above [their] differences,” adding that “multilateralism is in crisis.”

US seeks allies’ backing for possible China sanctions over Ukraine war: Report

The United States is sounding out close allies about the possibility of imposing new sanctions on China if Beijing provides military support to Russia for its war in Ukraine, four US officials and other sources told Reuters.

The consultations, which are still at a preliminary stage, are intended to drum up support from a range of countries, especially those in the wealthy Group of 7 (G7), to coordinate support for any possible restrictions.

It was not clear what specific sanctions Washington will propose. The conversations have not been previously disclosed.

Washington and its allies have announced in recent weeks that China was considering providing weapons to Russia, which Beijing denies.

They have also warned China directly against doing so, including in meetings between Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping as well as during a meeting between US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi on the sidelines of a global security conference in Munich.

The Biden administration’s initial steps to counter Chinese support for Russia have included informal outreach at the staff and diplomatic levels, including the Treasury Department, sources familiar with the matter said.

They stated officials were laying the groundwork for potential action against Beijing with the core group of countries that were most supportive of sanctions imposed on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine a year ago.

Asked about the consultations, a White House National Security Council spokesperson noted Russia’s war made it difficult for China with Europe and others.

“It’s a distraction for China and a potential blow to their international relationships they do not need nor should they want,” the spokesperson continued.

One official from a country consulted by Washington said that they had only seen scant intelligence backing up the claims about China considering possible military assistance to Russia. A US official, however, stated they were providing detailed accounts of the intelligence to allies.

Last week China issued a 12-point paper calling for a comprehensive ceasefire that was met with scepticism in the West.

The initial outreach by Washington on sanctions has not yet led to broad agreement on any specific measures, the sources added.

One source said the administration wanted to first raise the idea of coordinated sanctions and “take pulses” in the event that any shipments are detected to Russia from China, which declared a “no limits” partnership shortly before the invasion on Feb. 24 last year.

“On the G7 front, I think there is real awareness,” a second source stated, but added that detailed measures focused on China were not yet in place.

‘Classic deliberate provocation’: Ukraine denies Russian claims on Bryansk

A senior adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Mykhalio Podolyak, said Russian reports of a sabotage attack by Ukrainian forces in Russia’s Bryansk region are a “deliberate provocation”.

“The story about [the] Ukrainian sabotage group in RF [Russian Federation] is a classic deliberate provocation,” Podolyak wrote on Twitter.

“RF wants to scare its people to justify the attack on another country & the growing poverty after the year of war. The partisan movement in RF is getting stronger & more aggressive. Fear your partisans …” he added.

Wagner chief claims fighters are near centre of Bakhmut

The founder of the Wagner mercenary forces, Yevgeny Prigozhin, published a video showing his fighters in what he said was almost the centre of Bakhmut.

In a post on Telegram, Prigozhin’s press service cited him as saying: “The lads are mucking about, shooting home video. They brought this from Bakhmut this morning, practically the centre of the city.”

In the video, uniformed men are shown lifting a Wagner banner, with one of the men shown dancing and holding a guitar, referencing Wagner’s informal nickname of “the musicians”.

Ukrainian forces are reportedly hanging on to their positions in Bakhmut despite intensified attacks from Russian forces.

Russian forces making gains within Bakhmut

Russian forces are advancing within the city of Bakhmut, according to the Ukrainian military and analysis from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

The small, eastern city appears to be close to falling to Russia. Its capture would mark progress for Russian forces, as well as giving them a springboard to target urban areas further west.

“In the Bakhmut direction, the enemy continues to advance,” the Ukrainian military General Staff said on Thursday, also suggesting there is a Russian presence within the city rather than just on the outskirts.

The ISW announced that Russian forces “advanced within Bakhmut and continued ground attacks around the city.”

Despite Russian advances, the Ukrainian military says it is not planning to withdraw from Bakhmut and is still holding its ground in the city.

“Our defenders repelled attacks in the areas of Orikhovo-Vasylivka, Dubovo-Vasylivka, Bakhmut and Ivanivske,” the General Staff said on Thursday.

Russian forces are reportedly using highly trained fighters from the Wagner mercenary group in the assault on Bakhmut.

Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin has noted he is skeptical that Ukrainian forces will withdraw from the city, and has told Russian media that the Ukrainian military is transferring large numbers of reserves to the area.

Russian regions come under mortar fire from Ukraine

Villages in the Russian regions of Kursk and Bryansk came under heavy artillery fire from Kiev’s forces, the governors of the two regions neighboring Ukraine reported on Thursday morning.

The attacks have damaged several residential buildings and civilian structures. Several people have reportedly been killed or injured.

Kursk governor Roman Starovoit wrote in a Telegram post that Kiev’s troops had shelled the village of Tetkino, which is on the Russian-Ukrainan border. At 11:17am local time he reported that the attack was still ongoing and that Russian forces were returning fire.

He also noted that there had been casualties from the attack and that emergency services had been dispatched to the area. Kursk officials have since confirmed that one person was killed and another was injured in the attack on Tetkino.

At the same time, Bryansk governor Aleksandr Bogomaz reported that the villages of Sushany and Lomakovka were also attacked using mortars and drones, which damaged several residential buildings. No casualties have so far been reported there, according to the governor.

While the shelling was taking place, a group of Ukrainians launched a raid in Bryansk region, attacking a vehicle and reportedly killing at least one person and injuring a ten-year-old child, according to Bogomaz. He added that Russian forces were taking all required measures to eliminate the saboteur group.

US condemns Russia’s ‘systematic muzzling’ of critics at UN rights council

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Moscow of repressing domestic critics and called on UN-mandated investigators to keep documenting Russia’s alleged abuses in the Ukraine war in a speech to the Human Rights Council on Thursday.

Blinken described Russia’s civil society crackdown as a “systematic muzzling” and also urged UN-appointed investigators to continue documenting Russia’s Ukraine abuses to provide “an impartial record of what’s occurring, and a foundation for national and international efforts to hold perpetrators accountable”.

Ukraine war is a “litmus test” for European credibility: Dutch FM

The foreign minister of the Netherlands on Thursday described the Russia-Ukraine war as a “litmus test” for Dutch, European — and global — credibility.

“There’s much more than just Ukrainian sovereignty at stake here,” Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra told reporters on the sidelines of the G20 Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in New Delhi.

“There are universal values at stake, there’s European safety and security at stake, and in the end, this war is also a litmus test for European and Dutch and global credibility,” he added.

The Netherlands would continue to support Ukraine for the long haul, he said, adding that the already year-long war might continue “for a very long time.”

“Bear in mind, the Russians waged war for nine years in Afghanistan, decades in eastern Europe,” he continued, stating, “The reality might well be that this will stay with us for a very long time.”

Russian airlines surviving sanctions: Report

Sanctions against Russian aviation have led to mixed results but have failed to cause the significant pain to the sector that was expected by Western countries, Bloomberg reported, citing industry analysts.

The Ukraine-related sanctions forced two of the world’s largest aircraft manufacturers, Boeing and Airbus, to stop doing business in Russia. At the time, over 40% of the aircraft operating in Russia were owned by foreign lessors, which demanded their property back shortly after the restrictions were introduced.

However, Russian air carriers are still operating 467 Airbus and Boeing jets versus the 544 a year ago, according to data from researcher Cirium, as cited by the news agency.

The country’s airlines reportedly keep flying the jets without software updates and other forms of support from Boeing and Airbus. Both manufacturers told the agency that they had stopped providing parts, maintenance or technical support to airlines or maintenance companies in Russia.

In February, Russian Federal Air Transport Agency head Alexander Neradko said that Boeing and Airbus planes operated by Russian airlines will be able to fly safely until 2030 if properly maintained.

In an attempt to isolate Russia, the US, EU, and a number of other countries closed their airspace to Russian airlines. However, despite losing many destinations, Russian carriers have reportedly increased the number of flights to Thailand, Türkiye, the United Arab Emirates, Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.

According to Cirium estimates, Russian airports are now served by some 270 international flights daily compared to 300 a year ago.

At the same time, Russia’s retaliatory measures forced EU and US carriers to make long and expensive detours on flights to Asia. Russian airspace is still open to airlines from nations that opted not to support the sanctions, such as the UAE, which has ramped up service.

“Clearly the sanctions didn’t work as the West thought they would, and the global aviation industry is a lot leakier than anyone thought,” industry consultant Richard Aboulafia told Bloomberg, adding, “Yes, safety will deteriorate the longer these sanctions go on, but it’s clearly not going to bring connectivity within Russia and from Russia to a grinding halt.”

Death toll rises to 3 in Russian strike on Ukraine apartment block

A Russian strike on an apartment block in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia has killed at least three people, local authorities stated Thursday as search operations were ongoing.

“One missile hit a high-rise residential building. Residents sleeping peacefully were trapped under the rubble,” the Ukrainian police said on Facebook.

Emergency services videos showed rescuers hunting through the debris of the five-storey building, where more than 10 apartments were destroyed, according to police.

Zaporizhzhia Mayor Anatoliy Kurtiev noted seven injured were taken to hospital, including a pregnant woman.

“The terrorist state wants to turn every day for our people into a day of terror,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reacted.

“But evil will not reign in our land. We will drive all the occupiers out and they will definitely be held accountable for everything,” Zelenskyy stressed.

In January, a Russian strike on a tower block killed at least 45 people including six children in the central city of Dnipro.

Russia says West is ‘burying’ Black Sea grain deal

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday accused the West of “shamelessly burying” the Black Sea grain initiative that facilitates the export of Ukraine’s agricultural products from its southern ports, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

While remaining in the agreement, Russia has repeatedly railed against the West’s approach to the deal, struck last July, saying countries that have imposed sanctions on Moscow are not doing enough to ease restrictions on Russia’s own exports, in particular of fertilisers.

The foreign minister called for a “fast and fair” investigation into last year’s still-unexplained explosions that damaged the Nord Stream gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea, the TASS news agency reported.

Speaking ahead of a G20 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in India, Lavrov also stressed that Moscow must be involved in the probe into the blasts.

Berlin not discussing delivering fighter jets to Kiev: German top diplomat

Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock reiterated that the issue of supplying Kiev with fighter planes is currently not on Berlin’s agenda.

“We are not holding debates with regards to this,” the Welt newspaper quoted her as saying.

In February, Ukrainian top diplomat Dmitry Kuleba stated that Kiev had not received any commitments from any country on delivering fighter jets.

Earlier, the German government noted that it was not considering supplying Kiev with warplanes.

‘Don’t send weapons to Russia’: German chancellor urges China

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday urged Beijing not to arm Russia in its war against Ukraine, following US claims China was considering such a move.

“My message to Beijing is clear: use your influence in Moscow to push for the withdrawal of Russian troops,” Scholz said in a speech to the German parliament, adding, “And do not supply weapons to the aggressor Russia.”

He also stated that Germany and its allies were in talks with Kyiv over future security guarantees in preparation of a sustainable peace for Ukraine.

“We are speaking with Kyiv and other partners over future security guarantees for Ukraine,” Scholz said in a speech to the German parliament.

“Such security guarantees however come with the presumption that Ukraine successfully defends itself in this war,” he continued, adding that Germany would continue to support Kyiv with weapons supplies.

Scholz’s speech came just over a year after Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine, precipitating the chancellor to announce a new era in German defence and foreign policy.

Germany has upped investments in its own military, unwound its economic ties with Russia and broken its taboos over sending weapons into conflict zones.

Scholz renewed calls for Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine and said President Vladimir Putin was not ready for talks over a “just peace” and an end to the war.

“Nothing suggests” Putin would come to the negotiating table at the moment, Scholz noted.

Ukrainian commanders say they are holding on to Bakhmut amid ferocious assaults on eastern city

Russian forces continue to press their offensive in the Bakhmut area in eastern Ukraine, but have taken little additional territory in the past 24 hours, geolocated video and frontline accounts suggest.

“We have muffled the enemy a little bit,” a soldier from the 93th Brigade said, according to video comments posted by the Land Forces of Ukraine.

“It’s a little calmer, but there are still gunfights on the outskirts. There are isolated explosions, shells are flying. But we are standing in Bakhmut. No one is going to retreat yet,” he added.

Col. Yurii Madyar, commander of the 28th Brigade, stated in a video message on Telegram that “Bakhmut is withstanding,” but that the price for holding on to the city “is becoming increasingly difficult to do so.”

“The enemy has been raging for the last day first of all with the intention of destroying this city, to destroy as much of the remaining life here as possible — and at any cost to ensure the bypassing of the city of Bakhmut on the flanks in order to surround it and block the routes of military movement and delivery of necessary supplies,” Madyar continued.

He added that there were battles involving small arms to the north of Bakhmut, and there was “street fighting in the suburbs along the eastern, northern and southern and western-southern outskirts.”

Ukrainian units “are holding the northern flank to prevent the enemy from encircling Bakhmut,” Madyar said.

“We have stopped the enemy in this area for a long time and did not allow their propaganda to shout to the whole world about their great offensive successes in this area,” he added.

As the ground softens with springtime, Madyar said he foresees the enemy not being able to “carry out any quick operations.”

Oleksii Reva, head of Bakhmut city military administration, stated there were still heavy battles for the city.

“It is painful to see what enemy shells are doing to the city,” he said on Facebook.

“It is extremely dangerous in Bakhmut,” Reva continued, adding, “The enemy is mercilessly destroying the city, injuring and killing civilians. To date, the Russians have destroyed over 4,400 residential buildings.”

The military’s General Staff noted that while “the enemy continues to advance in the Bakhmut sector,” attacks on settlements to the west of Bakhmut — Khromove, Ivanivske, Orikhovo-Vasylivka and Chasiv Yar — have been repelled.

Head of Russia’s mercenary Wagner military force a ‘war criminal’: US Justice chief

The US justice chief has branded Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of Russia’s mercenary Wagner military force fighting in Ukraine, a war criminal.

Attorney General Merrick Garland told a Senate hearing that the Department of Justice is helping Ukraine investigate war crimes allegedly committed since Russia’s invasion, including by the semi-private Wagner military group.

“Mr Prigozhin, who runs this thing, is in my view a war criminal,” Garland told the hearing.

“Maybe that’s inappropriate for me to say as a judge before getting all the evidence. But I think we have more than sufficient evidence at this point for me to feel that way,” he added.

Ukrainian official says forces may pull out of key city of Bakhmut

Ukraine’s military might pull its troops back from the key stronghold of Bakhmut, an adviser to Ukraine’s president says in remarks that suggest Russia could capture the eastern city that has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

Kremlin forces have waged a bloody, months-long offensive to take Bakhmut, a city of salt and gypsum mines that has become a decimated ghost town.

“Our military is obviously going to weigh all of the options,” Alexander Rodnyansky, economic adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, told CNN.

“So far, they’ve held the city, but if need be, they will strategically pull back. We’re not going to sacrifice all of our people just for nothing,” he added.

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