Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 378

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

Zelensky welcomes UN secretary general to Kyiv for talks on grain initiative

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has welcomed the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to Kyiv for discussions on extending the grain initiative that allows Ukraine to export its agricultural produce from Black Sea ports.

“We are interested in ensuring that there is no hunger in the world, and our common policy is to extend the grain initiative corridor. We also raised the issue of the future prolongation of the initiative,” Zelensky told a news conference.

“It is very important that we are talking in Kyiv about how to restore peace, international security, and the full force of the UN Charter – those norms that are equally important to all nations on earth,” he added.

Russia suspended its participation in an agreement that guarantees safe passage for ships carrying vital grain exports from Ukraine in October 2022, but quickly reversed course a few days later. Turkey, alongside the United Nations, helped broker the deal in July 2022.

According to the UN, Ukraine normally supplies the world with around 45 million tons of grain every year. It ranks among the top five global exporters of barley, corn and wheat. It’s also by far the biggest exporter of sunflower oil, accounting for 46% of the world’s exports.


Wait for investigation on Nord Stream attack: NATO chief

NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said it is still unclear who was responsible for the attack on the Nord Stream pipelines last year.

“What we do know is that there was an attack against the Nord Stream pipelines, but we have not been able to determine who was behind it,” Stoltenberg stated on Wednesday.

“There are ongoing national investigations and I think it’s right to wait until those are finalised before we say anything more about who was behind it,” he added.

The New York Times reported on Tuesday that new intelligence reviewed by US officials had suggested that a pro-Ukrainian group sabotaged the pipelines.


Putin reiterates claims Russia is facing “direct threats” to its security at International Women’s Day event

Russian President Vladimir Putin repeated his claims that Russia is facing “direct threats” to its security, and praised those who are ready to “protect the people and the very future of our state,” during an event at the Kremlin marking International Women’s Day on Wednesday.

“Now, when Russia is once again faced with direct threats to its security and sovereignty, we see many examples of courage and determination, readiness to stand up for the truth and protect people and the very future of our state, the future we want for ourselves,” Putin said.

Among the women being honored were female doctors and medical workers who had served in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas.


Ukrainian military says Russians taking heavy losses during intensified attacks around Bakhmut

The Ukrainian military announced that Russian attacks in the Bakhmut area continue, but describes them as unsuccessful and incurring heavy losses.

The Ukrainian General Staff update Wednesday spoke of offensive actions by Russian forces around several settlements west of Bakhmut. It did not address the claim by the head of the Wagner group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, that his fighters now hold the eastern part of the city.

The General Staff said that “our defenders repelled more than 100 enemy attacks” along the front line in Donetsk region on Tuesday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated Tuesday that, were the Russians to capture Bakhmut, they would have an open road to Ukraine’s larger industrial cities further west.

Some Ukrainian soldiers in the Bakhmut area have said that getting in and out of the city has become almost impossible because the Russians have all the routes to the west under their fire control. The dirt track being used has become almost impassable for any organized military column.

The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based military organization that closely monitors the conflict in Ukraine, assesses that “Russian forces lack the capability to exploit the tactical capture of Bakhmut.”

The ISW analysis added that the Russians’ growing use of “small assault detachments using simplified tactics, combined with mounting losses among the most effective Russian troops, will likely greatly limit the ability of Russian forces to properly exploit any paths of advance opened by the capture of Bakhmut.


IMF chief says Ukraine war will have “devastating” consequences for Russia’s economy

The International Monetary Fund has drawn criticism for forecasting that Russia will see stronger economic growth this year than either the United Kingdom or Germany, despite rising pressure from Western sanctions.

But Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s managing director, told CNN’s Poppy Harlow that the economic outlook for Russia beyond 2023 is “quite devastating.”

“When you take our projections over a medium term, what they mean is Russia[’s economy] shrinking by at least 7%,” Georgieva said in an interview that aired Wednesday.

In January, the IMF projected that Russia’s economy would expand by 0.3% this year and 2.1% the next. That was much more optimistic than the latest forecasts from both the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Economists at those groups have penciled in contractions of 3.3% and 5.6% in 2023, respectively.

Even Russia’s own central bank, which extended emergency capital controls for another six months on Monday, has said gross domestic product might contract by 1% this year.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld, a Yale management professor, wrote in Fortune magazine Monday that the “IMF has been asleep at the switch” and parroting propaganda from Russian President Vladimir Putin.


‘Bakhmut may eventually fall in coming days’: NATO chief

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned that Bakhmut might fall into Russian hands in the coming days following months of intense fighting.

“We can not rule out that Bakhmut may eventually fall in the coming days,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Stockholm on the sidelines of a meeting of EU defence ministers.


Ukraine urges allies to back ammunition plan

Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov urged his EU counterparts to support a plan to buy 1 million artillery shells to help Kyiv fight Russia’s invasion and replenish stocks.

Speaking to reporters just before a meeting of ministers in Stockholm, Reznikov said Ukraine urgently needed the shells to defend against Russian forces and launch a counter-offensive.

Reznikov added he supported a proposal by Estonia for EU countries to join together to buy 1 million 155-millimetre shells for Ukraine this year at the cost of 4 billion euros ($4.22 billion).

Officials have warned that Ukraine is firing shells faster than its allies can make them, prompting a renewed search for ammunition and ways to ramp up production.

“We need to move forward as soon as possible,” Reznikov stated, standing alongside Estonian Defence Minister Hanno Pevkur.


Wagner chief claims “entire eastern part of Bakhmut” is under Russian group’s control

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Russian private military company Wagner, claimed on Wednesday that the eastern part of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut is now under its control.

“The entire eastern part of Bakhmut is under the control of Wagner PMC. Everything to the east of the Bakhmutka River is under the complete control of Wagner PMC,” Prigozhin said in an audio clip shared on Telegram.


Nord Stream blast ‘not our activity’: DM

The Ukrainian government announced it was not involved in the sabotage last year of the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea, the country’s defence minister has said.

“This is not our activity”, Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told reporters in Stockholm in response to a report in The New York Times that US officials had seen new intelligence indicating a “pro-Ukrainian group” was responsible for the sabotage.


EU should prioritise funds for buying Ukraine shells: Borrell

Existing European funds will need to be prioritised for procuring ammunition for Ukraine before any decision on fresh funds can be expected, the European Union’s top diplomat Josep Borrell has stated.

“The first thing to do is to use what we have. If member states are ready to provide more, I will be happy. But today let’s be realistic and pragmatic, and discuss about the things that can be adopted today,” Borrell said in Stockholm.


Zelensky warns of “open road” through Ukraine’s east if Russia captures Bakhmut

Russian troops will have “open road” to capture key cities in eastern Ukraine if they seize control of Bakhmut, President Volodymyr Zelensky warned in an interview with CNN, as he defended his decision to keep Ukrainian forces in the besieged city.

“This is tactical for us,” Zelensky said, insisting that Kyiv’s military brass is united in prolonging its defense of the city after weeks of Russian attacks left it on the cusp of falling to Moscow’s troops.

“We understand that after Bakhmut they could go further. They could go to Kramatorsk, they could go to Sloviansk, it would be open road for the Russians after Bakhmut to other towns in Ukraine, in the Donetsk direction,” he told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an exclusive interview from Kyiv.

“That’s why our guys are standing there,” he added.

A weeks-long assault from Wagner mercenary troops, which has picked up pace in recent days, has forced thousands from the city and decimated its infrastructure. But Ukrainian troops have also mounted a dogged defense of the area, stalling Russia’s progress.

Zelensky stated his motivations to keep the city are “so different” to Russia’s objectives.

“We understand what Russia wants to achieve there. Russia needs at least some victory – a small victory – even by ruining everything in Bakhmut, just killing every civilian there,” the president added.

He said that if Russia is able to “put their little flag” on top of Bakhmut, it would help “mobilize their society in order to create this idea they’re such a powerful army.


“They don’t respect anything”: Zelensky says execution video shows Russia’s attitude to POWs

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated that the disturbing video of an unarmed Ukrainian solider being executed in a forest shows Russia’s attitude toward prisoners of war.

The Russians “don’t have any laws of war or international law or any conventions,” Zelenksy told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an interview on Tuesday.

“They don’t respect anything,” Zelensky continued, adding the video shows the difference between the two sides.

“For us, it’s war for our freedom, for democracy, for our values. For them it’s terrorism —that’s the attitude. And they post this video,” he said.

“They just killed a guy who refused to surrender, and he said ‘Glory to Ukraine’ — that’s what you got. This is the face of this war. This is the face of the Russian Federation,” Zelensky noted.


Russia says West should answer questions about pipeline blasts

Russia announced media reports about who might be behind last year’s attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines underscored the need to answer Moscow’s questions about what had happened.

In a statement, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said those responsible for leaks to the media wanted to divert the public’s attention and avoid a proper investigation.

A senior aide to President Volodymyr Zelensky said Kyiv was “absolutely not involved” in the Nord Stream pipeline attacks and has no information about what happened.

Mykhailo Podolyak made the comments in a statement to Reuters after the release of the New York Times report, which cited US officials suggesting a pro-Ukrainian group was responsible.


Thousands of Ukrainians have sustained complex injuries: WHO

Thousands of people in Ukraine have sustained complex injuries linked to the war and need rehabilitation services and equipment, a senior World Health Organization (WHO) official said.

These include fractures, amputations, spinal cord injuries, traumatic brain injuries and burns, Dr Satish Mishra from the WHO’s office for Europe told a media briefing.

Attacks on healthcare facilities, fewer healthcare workers and power shortages were all making it difficult for people to get care, he added.

In 2019, years before Russia’s full-scale invasion, about half the population in Ukraine could have benefitted from rehabilitation services, mostly linked to non-communicable conditions such as cardiovascular disease or diabetes, Dr Cathal Morgan, another WHO official, stated.


Ukraine says its forces continue to repel Russian attacks on Bakhmut

Ukrainian forces have continued to repel Russian attacks on the battered city of Bakhmut, the military’s General Staff said in a situation update Tuesday.

“The enemy continues its assaults in the Bakhmut direction,” it announced, adding, “They do not stop assaulting the city of Bakhmut. Our defenders repelled attacks in the areas of Ivanivske, Klishchiivka, and Bakhmut.”

According to the Ukrainian military, Russian forces continue to focus their offensive not just on Bakhmut but also on Kupiansk, Lyman, Avdiivka, and Shakhtarsk.

“During the day, the enemy launched 19 air strikes and one missile attack, as well as five attacks from multiple rocket launchers,” it noted.


US intelligence suggests pro-Ukrainian group carried out pipeline blast: Report

New US intelligence suggests that a pro-Ukrainian group carried out the attack on the Nord Stream gas pipelines last year, The New York Times reported.

The newspaper found no evidence that Volodymyr Zelensky or his top lieutenants were involved in the operation in September, in which explosions struck the pipelines in the Baltic Sea.

The daily added US officials declined to say how the information about the pipelines was obtained, leaving open the possibility that the plan to target the pipelines might have been an off-the-books mission with connections to the Ukrainian government.

In February, a Pulitzer Prize-winning American journalist accused the US of carrying out the attack on the pipelines, which carry natural gas from Russia to Europe.


Ukraine’s top general discussed situation in Bakhmut with US and NATO military leaders

Ukraine’s top military leader, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, discussed the situation in Bakhmut with US and NATO military leaders, he said in a Telegram post on Tuesday.

“First of all, I informed them about the situation on the battlefield. I focused on the Eastern direction in the most detailed way. In particular, the situation in Bakhmut,” Ukraine’s commander-in-chief stated.

“We discussed the supply of military aid, including weapons and ammunition, in no less detail. The issues of strengthening air defense and providing long-range weapons remain crucial,” he added.

Present in the meeting were Supreme Allied Commander Europe and commander of US European Command general Christopher G. Cavoli, UK Chief of the Defence Staff Admiral Sir Anthony Radakin; Chief of the General Staff of the Polish Armed Forces General Rajmund Andrzejczak and Commander of US of Security Assistance Group–Ukraine Gen.-Lt. Antonio Aguto.


NATO must decide on permanent military forces to protect Baltics: German DM

German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said on Tuesday that NATO, not Germany has to decide on permanent military forces to protect the Baltic countries.

“In the end, this is not so much a question of what Germany intends to do, but rather what NATO thinks is right and necessary,” Pistorius stated during a joint news conference with his Lithuanian counterpart Arvydas Anusauskas.

“What does NATO say is the right thing to do militarily and in terms of deterrence and flexibility? A permanent brigade in the Baltic or several?” Pistorius continued.

The German defense minister added the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and NATO were considering “flexible units to protect the entire eastern flank.”

In the news conference, Anusauskas said Lithuania was looking for a “permanent presence of the German brigade in Lithuania” as the NATO defense line starts in Lithuania, adding that the country was preparing the necessary infrastructure to host the German military.

Pistorius continued to say Germany plans the deployment of a “huge apparatus “consisting of 5,000 soldiers in this brigade plus civilian employees and family members.

“The commitment to the eastern flank is more important now than it has been since the end of the Cold War,“ Pistorius added

Germany has been present in Lithuania since the occupation of Crimea in 2014 to secure the eastern flank in Lithuania. At present 1,400 German soldiers are stationed in the Baltic country.


Ukrainian forces ‘likely stabilised’ perimeter around Bakhmut: UK

The United Kingdom’s defence ministry said that Ukrainian forces “likely stabilised their defensive perimeter following previous Russian advances” in the city of Bakhmut.

The ministry’s daily update added that a “Russian strike destroyed a bridge over the only paved supply road into Bakhmut still under Ukrainian control.

Muddy conditions are likely hampering Ukrainian resupply efforts as they increasingly resort to using unpaved tracks”.


Ukraine and Russia exchanges more than 100 prisoners of war in latest swap

Ukraine and Russia have exchanged prisoners of war in another swap, announced by both sides on Tuesday.

Moscow said it had been able to return 90 servicemen from territory controlled by Kyiv, whereas Ukraine said it had been able to bring back 130 of its soldiers from Russian captivity.

“Another prisoner swap — we managed to bring home 130 of our people — 126 men and 4 women,” the Ukrainian President’s Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak posted on Telegram on Thursday.

“Among them — 87 defenders of Mariupol, 71 of whom are from Azovstal. We are also returning those taken prisoner in the area of Bakhmut and Soledar — 35 people in total from the Donetsk direction,” he continued.

“Most of the people we are returning today are seriously injured. As President Volodymyr Zelensky says, the state must take care of each of them. Each of our heroes should feel that the state cares about them,” he added.

Russia’s Ministry of Defense also announced the soldiers it was able to exchange for were in “mortal danger” and said they’d be flown to Moscow for treatment.

“As a result of the negotiation process, 90 Russian servicemen who were in mortal danger have been returned from the territory controlled by the Kyiv regime,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.

“Airplanes of the military transport aviation of the Russian Aerospace Forces will transport the released servicemen to Moscow for treatment and rehabilitation at medical institutions of the Russian Defense Ministry,” it noted.

“All those released are being provided with the necessary medical and psychological assistance,” it added.


Fewer than 4,000 civilians remain in embattled city of Bakhmut: Ukrainian official

Nearly 4,000 civilians remain inside the battered eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, the country’s Vice Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk stated on Tuesday.

“As of today, less than 4,000 people remain in Bakhmut. Speaking of children, about 38 children, as far as we know, remain in Bakhmut,” Vereshchuk said in a televised address.

“More than 70,000 people lived in Bakhmut, that is, 95% were evacuated. As for children, there were 12,000 of them,” the official added.

Vereshchuck said Ukrainian workers were still working to evacuate the remainder of the population but the current situation makes their jobs even more difficult.

“We have special evacuation teams, who help, and armored vehicles. But people often stay in basements, leaving no information about their whereabouts,” she continued, adding, “This makes evacuation much more difficult.”

“Bakhmut has been destroyed in terms of infrastructure and housing. Almost 80% of the houses have been damaged. Social infrastructure is not functioning,” she noted.

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