Thursday, February 22, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 385

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:

War cannot bring world to a ‘standstill’: India

The Ukraine war has brought the world to a standstill when urgent action is needed to address growing global poverty, India’s G20 summit negotiator Amitabh Kant said.

Kant’s comments came after the war overshadowed two G20 ministerial meetings in India in the last three weeks.

“Europe cannot bring growth, poverty, global debt, all developmental issues to a standstill across the world,” Kant told reporters.

“Especially when the south is suffering, especially when 75 countries are suffering from global debt, especially when one-third of the world is in recession, especially when 200 million people have gone below poverty line. Can that one war bring the entire world to a standstill?” Kant added

“Nutrition has been impacted, health outcomes have been impacted, learning outcomes have been impacted, people have become stunted and wasted, and we are just concerned with one Russia and Ukraine war,” Kant continued.

Pope Francis calls for ‘respect’ of religious sites

Pope Francis called for “respect” of religious sites in Ukraine after the Russian-aligned Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) faced eviction.

Ukrainian authorities have given the UOC a March 29 deadline to vacate its headquarters in the historic Kyiv Pechersk Lavra complex, in the latest move against the Church the government says is pro-Russian and collaborating with Moscow.

Referring specifically to the Lavra monastery, Francis asked “the warring parties [in Ukraine] to respect religious sites” and praised people who devote their lives to prayer, “be they of whatever denomination”.

On March 11, Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church and supporter of Russia’s invasion, asked Francis and other religious leaders to persuade Ukraine to stop its crackdown against the UOC.

Drone crash is signal that Putin is trying to expand conflict: Ukraine

The involvement of Russian fighter jets in the crash of a US spy drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), is a signal that President Vladimir Putin is ready to expand the conflict zone, a senior Ukrainian security official says.

“The incident with the American MQ-9 Reaper UAV, provoked by Russia in the Black Sea, is Putin’s signal of readiness to expand the conflict zone with the involvement of other parties,” Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, said on Twitter.

Russia’s tactic is occurring under “conditions of a strategic loss in the hope of a change in circumstances”, he added.

Relations with US at ‘lamentable state’: Kremlin

Relations with the US are in a “lamentable state” and at their lowest level, the Kremlin says after Washington accused Russia of downing one of its Reaper drones.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters there had been no high-level contacts with Washington over the incident but stated Russia would never refuse to engage in constructive dialogue.

Moscow needs to be ‘more careful’ in international airspace: US

US officials told Russia’s ambassador to the United States that Moscow has to be more careful when flying in international airspace, White House spokesman John Kirby.

The State Department summoned Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, for the first time since the war began to express US concerns over the incident.

“The message that we delivered to the Russian ambassador is that they need to be more careful in flying in international airspace near US assets that are, again, flying in completely legal ways, conducting missions in support of our national security interests,” Kirby said in an interview with CNN.

“They’re the ones that need to be more careful,” he stated.

Kirby added the MQ-9 surveillance drone had not been recovered and may never be, given the depth of the Black Sea where it went down.

Senators from both parties press Pentagon chief on sending F-16s to Ukraine

A group of senators from both parties is pressing the Pentagon for more information on what it would take to send F-16 jets to Ukraine.

The fresh push came in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin from eight senators, and obtained by POLITICO, as top administration officials from President Joe Biden on down have poured cold water on bipartisan calls to send US-made fighters into the fight for now.

The conflict between Russia and Ukraine is “now at a critical juncture,” the senators wrote, arguing F-16 fighters could give Kyiv an edge as Moscow’s full-tilt invasion enters a second year.

“After speaking with US, Ukrainian, and foreign leaders working to support Ukraine at the Munich Security Conference last month, we believe the US needs to take a hard look at providing F-16 aircraft to Ukraine,” the senators said, adding, “This would be a significant capability that could prove to be a game changer on the battlefield.”

The senators requested Austin provide them with assessments by the end of the week on a variety of factors needed to successfully transfer F-16s to Ukraine.

Russian oil export revenue dropped by 42 percent in February

Russia’s oil export revenue sank by 42 percent in February as Kyiv-allied countries tightened sanctions, the International Energy Agency announced.

The country earned $11.6bn from its oil exports last month after the European Union imposed a ban on Russian petroleum products alongside a price cap agreed upon with the Group of Seven and Australia.

Turkey plans to approve Finland’s NATO bid

Turkey plans to approve Finland’s NATO bid, independently from Sweden’s, two Turkish officials told the Reuters news agency.

The Turkish parliament is highly likely to ratify Finland’s NATO membership before it closes in mid-April for elections, the officials stated.

Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto will visit Turkey on Friday to discuss his country’s bid to join NATO with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Russia proposes double taxation with ‘unfriendly countries’

Russia has proposed suspending its double taxation agreements with what it calls “unfriendly countries”, those that have imposed sanctions on Moscow, the finance ministry announced.

“The Russian finance ministry and foreign ministry proposed that the president of Russia issue a decree suspending double taxation agreements with all countries that introduced unilateral economic restrictive measures against Russia,” it said.

Danish government establishes $1bn fund to aid Ukraine

The Danish government and a broad majority of parties in Denmark’s parliament have agreed to establish a fund of 7 billion Danish crowns ($1bn) for civil, military and business aid to Ukraine, the finance ministry said.

“This is largely a reflection of the wishes Ukraine has, which in addition to the military and the humanitarian aid are now also about reconstruction,” Denmark’s Foreign Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen told journalists.

Zelensky dismisses governors of three regions

President Volodymye Zelensky has dismissed the governors of three Ukrainian regions: Luhansk in the east, Odesa in the south and Khmelnytskyi in the west.

No reason was given in the announcement by the government’s parliamentary representative.

Ukrainian commanders in favour of defending eastern front line

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said military commanders are unanimously in favour of defending the eastern front line, including the ruined city of Bakhmut, which has been under siege by Russia for months.

“The main focus was on … Bakhmut,” he stated.

“There was a clear position of the entire command: Strengthen this sector and destroy the occupiers to the maximum,” the president added.

Turkey will continue discussions on extending Black Sea grain export deal

Turkey will continue discussions to extend a deal to allow grain exports across the Black Sea for 120 days rather than the 60 days Russia wants, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar says.

“We started negotiations in line with the initial version of the deal,” Akar stated, according to a statement by the Ministry of National Defence.

“The continuation of the deal is important. We will continue our contacts [regarding its extension for] 120 days instead of two months,” he added.

On Monday, Russia suggested allowing the deal to be renewed for 60 days, half the term of the previous renewal, but Ukraine rejected it.

Russian ambassador says US drones gathering intelligence for Kyiv

Russian ambassador Anatoly Antonov said the downed US drone was flying with its transponders – which allows identification of an aircraft – switched off and was moving “deliberately and provocatively towards” Russian territory.

“The unacceptable actions of the United States military in the close proximity to our borders are cause for concern. We are well aware of the missions such reconnaissance and strike drones are used for,” the ambassador to the US said on his Telegram channel on Wednesday.

US drone flights in the region gather intelligence “which is later used by the Kiev regime to attack our armed forces and territory”, he added.

He called on Washington to stop “hostile” flights near his country’s border.

“We assume that the United States will refrain from further speculation in the media and stop flights near Russian borders,” Antonov wrote on Telegram, adding, “We consider any action with the use of US weaponry as openly hostile.”

Earlier, Antonov asked how the US would feel if a Russian drone flew off the US coast.

“This [United States] drone can carry 1,700 kilos of explosives. This drone can carry a few bombs… What will be the reaction of the United States if you see such Russian drones very close, for example, to San Francisco or New York,” he told reporters on Tuesday.

“What will be the reaction of the United States? For me it’s clear. For you as well,” the envoy continued.

US taking steps to ensure drone won’t end up in the wrong hands: White House official

The US is taking measures to ensure the drone that was downed over the Black Sea won’t fall into the wrong hands, a top White House official said.

“Without getting into too much detail, what I can say is that we’ve taken steps to protect our equities with respect to that particular drone — that particular aircraft. And it’s the United States property. We obviously don’t want to see anybody getting their hands on it beyond us,” John Kirby, National Security Council coordinator for strategic communications, told CNN.

Pressed on whether the US would show evidence to back its account of what happened – given Russia’s denial — Kirby noted the US is “looking at some imagery to see if any of that might be suitable” for public release, but said no decisions have been made at this time.

He also dismissed the denial issued by Russia’s defense ministry.

“Obviously we refute the Russians’ denial and I think anybody, after a year now, Jake, should take everything that the Russians say about what they’re doing in and around Ukraine with a huge grain of salt,” he added.

Kirby pointed to the summoning of Russia’s Ambassador to the US Anatoly Antonov to the State Department as “one of the advantages of having diplomatic lines open,” saying that in the meeting, US officials walked the ambassador “through the very significant and very real concerns over this unsafe and unprofessional conduct by Russian pilots.”

He reiterated his condemnation of the incident, warning of immediate and broader implications.

“We certainly don’t want to see this war escalate beyond what it has already done to the Ukrainian people,” Kirby added, calling it “inappropriate, unsafe, unprofessional conduct by the Russian pilots.”

US, Russia give conflicting accounts of drone incident

United States and Russian officials have given conflicting accounts of what occurred between a US surveillance drone and two Russian fighter jets after the downing of the drone in the Black Sea on Tuesday.

The Pentagon announced that two Russian Su-27 fighter jets had dumped fuel on the MQ-9 Reaper drone, which was conducting a routine surveillance mission in international airspace over the Black Sea.

The Russian jets also flew around and in front of the drone several times for 30 to 40 minutes and then one of the Russian aircraft struck the “unmanned aerial vehicle’s propeller, causing US forces to bring it down into international waters of the Black Sea early this morning,” the US Department of Defense said in a statement.

Russia’s Defence Ministry noted the Russian aircraft were scrambling to intercept the drone but did not use their weapons and “didn’t come into contact” with the US aircraft.

“It is premature to draw conclusions” about fighting around Bakhmut: Ukraine minister

It is premature to draw conclusions about the dynamic of the fighting in Bakhmut as battles for control of the eastern city are still raging, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on national television Tuesday.

Russian forces are conducting offensive operations along the eastern front and are trying to advance in several directions, Maliar stated.

“Fighting continues near Kreminna, Bilohorivka and Spirne. Of course, Bakhmut is the epicenter. The enemy is trying to capture the city from several directions and to surround it,” she added.

Russian forces had “some minor success” but the Ukrainian military had “significant successes,” although she declined to go into details. “There is a positive dynamic,” she said, adding, “When there are battles, we need to understand that both sides are moving. And it is premature to draw conclusions … This is a process. The battles for the city [of Bakhmut] are not over, and therefore they can have different dynamics — positive and negative, and we should take it as the Ukrainian army is doing absolutely everything it can to prevent the enemy’s plans from being realized.”

Ukrainian official calls on international community to  discuss impact of Russia’s “environmental crimes”

Russia’s war in Ukraine is damaging the environment — and it needs to be discussed more by experts, Ukrainian and United Nations officials said.

The Executive Director of the UN Environment Program, Inger Andersen, met with the Head of the Office of Ukraine’s President, Andriy Yermak, in Kyiv on Tuesday, according to a statement from the Ukrainian presidency.

The leaders discussed “the issue of Russian responsibility for environmental crimes in Ukraine.” Yermak told Anderson that “Russia is causing enormous damage to the ecological system of our country,” according to the statement.

For her part, Andersen emphasized her support for Ukraine in overcoming the challenges to its ecological system due to the Russian invasion, and emphasized the importance of a deeper discussion about this issue at the expert level, according to the statement.

Explosion in Russian-held city of Melitopol kills 1: Russian-backed administration

The owner of a car blown up Tuesday in the center of the Russian-occupied city of Melitopol has died in the hospital from his wounds, the Russian-backed regional administration said in a Telegram post.

Two others, a woman and a child, were also injured, according to Vladimir Rogov, a member of the main council of the pro-Russian Zaporizhzhia region military-civilian administration.

All three have been hospitalized, he added.

The explosion was carried out with an improvised explosive device, according to Rogov, and it happened near a market.

Rogov said a local pro-Russian entrepreneur was the target of the alleged attack.

German military stockpiles lower than before war: Commissioner

The German military is suffering from a greater shortage of weapons and equipment than before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces says in her annual report.

“The Bundeswehr has too little of everything, and it has even less since [Russia’s invasion on] February 24, 2022,” Eva Hoegl told reporters in Berlin.

She denounced the government for being slow not only in spending but also in replenishing the military’s stocks after rushing arms to Kyiv.

“Our troops welcome the support for Ukraine although it tears big holes [into their stocks] when howitzers, multiple rocket launchers or Leopard tanks are handed over to Kyiv,” Hoegl said, demanding orders to be placed more swiftly.

Poland could send Ukraine fighter jets in six weeks

Poland could dispatch fighter jets to Ukraine in four to six weeks, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki stated.

Poland has announced it would be prepared to send Soviet-designed MiG-29 jets to Ukraine as part of a coalition of countries. However, Kyiv’s allies are taking a cautious approach to the transfer of fighter jets, so it is unclear how long this might take.

“That could happen in the coming four to six weeks,” Morawiecki said at a news conference when asked how long it could be before Warsaw supplies the aircraft.

IOC urges UK to respect ‘autonomy of sport’

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has urged the United Kingdom government to respect the “autonomy of sport” after an attempt to lobby sponsors against Russian and Belarusian athletes participating at next year’s Paris Games.

Last week, UK Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer wrote a letter to 13 of the biggest Olympic sponsors, urging them to pressure the IOC to abandon its plan to allow Russian and Belarusian competitors.

“It is not up to governments to decide which athletes can participate in which international competitions,” the IOC argued, adding, “This would be the end of world sport as we know it today.”

“We hope very much that the British government will respect the autonomy of sport,” it said.

“In accordance with this, Olympic sponsors are not involved in this decision-making process,” the IOC noted.

Putin says state actors behind Nord Stream blasts

President Vladimir Putin says last year’s blasts on the Nord Stream gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea had been carried out on a “state level”, dismissing the idea that an autonomous pro-Ukraine group was responsible as “complete nonsense”.

“The terrorist act, quite obviously, was committed at the state level because no amateurs can commit such an action,” Putin stated.

A New York Times report last week said new US intelligence indicated a pro-Ukraine group was behind the September 26 explosions on the pipelines connecting Russia and Germany.

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