Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 396

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:

Kyiv seeks urgent UN Security Council meet on Russian nuclear weapons in Belarus

Ukraine has called for an emergency meeting of the United Nation Security Council over Russia’s announcement that it would station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus.

“Ukraine expects effective actions to counteract the Kremlin’s nuclear blackmail from the United Kingdom, China, the United States and France … We demand that an extraordinary meeting of the UN Security Council be immediately convened for this purpose,” Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry announced.

Russia’s nuclear rhetoric dangerous and irresponsible: NATO

NATO has criticised Russia for its “dangerous and irresponsible” nuclear rhetoric over possible deployment of nuclear weapons to Belarus.

“NATO is vigilant, and we are closely monitoring the situation. We have not seen any changes in Russia’s nuclear posture that would lead us to adjust our own,” a NATO spokesperson said.

The official, quoted by the Reuters news agency, added, “Russia’s reference to NATO’s nuclear sharing is totally misleading. NATO allies act with full respect of their international commitments. Russia has consistently broken its arms control commitments, most recently suspending its participation in the New START Treaty.”

No indication that Putin has moved nukes: US official

The United States says it has seen no indication that Russia has moved any nuclear weapons yet, according to US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

“We have not seen any indication that he (Vladimir Putin) has made good on this pledge or moved any nuclear weapons around,” Kirby told CBS News on Sunday.

Kirby’s comments came after Moscow announced it would station tactical nuclear arms in Belarus.

Moscow claims explosion in Russian town caused by Ukraine-operated drone

A drone that hit the centre of a Russian town on Sunday, injuring three people, was a Ukrainian Tupolev Tu-141 Strizh and was packed with explosives, the TASS news agency has quoted a law enforcement source as saying.

Russia has said in the past that Ukrainian drones have flown into its territory and caused damage to civilian infrastructure, an assertion that Kyiv denies.

Russian authorities say a drone caused an explosion in a town far from Ukraine border on Sunday afternoon in the town of Kireyevsk, in the Tula region about 300 kilometers from the border with Ukraine and 175 kilometers south of Moscow.

EU cautions Belarus against hosting Russian nuclear weapons on its territory

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell cautioned Belarus against hosting Russian nuclear weapons on its territory, warning the move may trigger additional sanctions.

In a Sunday tweet, Borrell said: “Belarus hosting Russian nuclear weapons would mean an irresponsible escalation & threat to European security.”

“Belarus can still stop it, it is their choice,” he continued, adding, “The EU stands ready to respond with further sanctions.”

On Saturday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an agreement reached with Belarus will see Moscow stationing tactical nuclear weapons on its smaller neighbors’ territory.

Blast in Russian town caused by drone

An explosion in Russia’s southern town of Kireyevsk that injured two people on Sunday was caused by a drone, Russian state-owned TASS news agency quoted law enforcement as saying.

The explosion created a crater in the centre of the town of Kireyevsk, and damaged three residential buildings, a regional security agency was quoted as saying by TASS.

Russia’s nuke deployment could have ‘extremely catastrophic consequences’

President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russia will deploy nuclear weapons in Belarus could have “extremely catastrophic consequences”, according to Susi Snyder of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

“It increases the risk of the use of nuclear weapons by adding more actors, who might potentially have the ability to drop nuclear bombs, and create potential for chaos and miscommunication,” Snyder told Al Jazeera.

“These weapons, if used, would have similar or greater results than what we saw in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. They can cause huge catastrophic harm,” Snyder added.

Putin’s announcement ‘extremely dangerous escalation’: ICAN

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons called President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he will deploy nuclear weapons to Belarus an extremely dangerous escalation.

“In the context of the war in Ukraine, the likelihood of miscalculation or misinterpretation is extremely high. Sharing nuclear weapons makes the situation much worse and risks catastrophic humanitarian consequences,” it said on Twitter.

Probability of nuclear war ‘remains extremely low’: Think tank

Analysts at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War (ISW) say the risk of escalation to nuclear war “remains extremely low”.

“ISW continues to assess that Putin is a risk-averse actor who repeatedly threatens to use nuclear weapons without any intention of following through in order to break Western resolve,” it wrote.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons called President Vladimir Putin’s announcement an extremely dangerous escalation.

“In the context of the war in Ukraine, the likelihood of miscalculation or misinterpretation is extremely high. Sharing nuclear weapons makes the situation much worse and risks catastrophic humanitarian consequences,” it said on Twitter, referring to Russia stationing nuclear weapons in Belarus.

Kiev accuses Moscow of “violating nuclear non-proliferation treaty”

Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak has accused President Vladimir Putin of “violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty” and resorting to “scare” tactics.

On Saturday, Putin announced Russia would station tactical nuclear weapons to neighbour and ally Belarus “without violating our international agreements on nuclear non-proliferation”.

But Podolyak said on Twitter: “Making a statement about tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, he admits that he is afraid of losing and all he can do is scare with tactics…”

“Second. He once again states his involvement in the crime. Violating the nuclear non-proliferation treaty…” he added.

Research finds Ukrainian refugees increasingly targeted for sexual exploitation

Ukrainian refugees are increasingly being targeted for sexual exploitation with an increase in interest in pornography claiming to feature refugees from the war-torn country, according to research.

Thomson Reuters has conducted the research, which has found that Ukrainian refugees may be victims of both traffickers on the ground and cyber-voyeurs.

Researchers identified an increased interest in Ukrainian pornography since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 by analysing global internet search engine traffic. They believe the increased interest online may be encouraging traffickers to act more often and with greater impunity.

The organisation has called for urgent action to strengthen protections to help keep Ukrainian women and children who are at risk from sexual exploitation safe.

The analysis of internet search trends has found views of pornographic videos claiming to show Ukrainian refugees have exploded in the past six months. A snapshot of 13 pornographic videos claiming to feature Ukrainian refugees shows they were viewed 275,000 times in January.

While there was evidence of sexual exploitation and trafficking of some Ukrainians before the war started, the latest data shows a significant increase since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Worldwide search traffic for exploitative terms such as “Ukrainian porn” have been consistently at higher levels since the February 2022 invasion.

Thomson Reuters is working with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to raise awareness about this sexual exploitation. They have partnered to launch the “Be Safe” campaign to encourage the global community to provide Ukrainians with safety information and to help them to spot the warning signs of traffickers.

Valiant Richey, the OSCE special representative and coordinator for combating trafficking in human beings, said: “This analysis shows just how crucial it is to keep women and children fleeing the war safe. The high demand from men for sexual access to Ukrainian women and girls creates an enormous incentive for traffickers to recruit vulnerable people in order to meet that demand and profit from it.

“We already found direct evidence of recruitment attempts on chats used by Ukrainians and an increase in the advertisement of Ukrainians online,” Richey added.

The new data is based on “interest scores”, which relate directly to search traffic and compare a term’s popularity over a specific period.

Earlier analysis in 2022 found that global internet searches for sexually exploitative terms specifically relating to Ukrainian refugees surged following the outbreak of the war. In March 2022, research found a 300% global increase in these terms.

Russia holding Belarus ‘as nuclear hostage’: Ukraine

Kyiv on Sunday said Russia was holding Minsk as a “nuclear hostage” after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to ally Belarus.

“The Kremlin took Belarus as a nuclear hostage,” the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defence Council, Oleksiy Danilov, wrote on Twitter.

The move was “a step towards the internal destabilisation of the country”, he added.

ISW: Putin has likely sought to deploy Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus since before full-scale invasion

Russian President Vladimir Putin most likely made the decision to deploy Russian nuclear weapons to Belarus before the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine and probably chose this moment to serve his current messaging strategy against Ukraine’s Western allies, the Institute for the Study of War said in its latest update.

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko offered to host Russia’s nuclear weapons on Belarusian territory in November 2021, and Minsk removed the constitutional clause enshrining Belarus’ neutral status in a referendum in February 2022.

ISW forecasted in January and February 2022 that Putin could seek to deploy tactical or strategic nuclear weapons to Belarus as part of a “broader effort to deepen Russian control over the nation.”

He may have refrained from deploying the weapons to Belarus at the start of the 2022 invasion to preserve the option to deploy them as part of a future Russian information operation to manipulate the West.

“Putin likely chose to push these narratives now hoping to diminish Ukrainian morale and Western aid to diminish the effectiveness of a rumored pending Ukrainian counteroffensive,” the ISW added.

Russia and China ‘not creating a military alliance’: Putin

Russia and China are not creating a military alliance, Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a televised interview broadcast on Sunday, stating that the two countries’ military cooperation was transparent.

Putin also stated that western powers were building a new “axis”, bearing some resemblance to Germany and Japan’s second world war alliance.

“We are not creating any military alliance with China. Yes, we have cooperation in the sphere of military-technical interaction. We are not hiding this,” he continued.

“Everything is transparent, there is nothing secret,”the president stressed.

Hungary comments on Ukraine’s NATO and EU bids

Hungary will not agree to Ukraine joining NATO and the EU as long as Kiev continues to discriminate against ethnic Hungarians living in Transcarpathia, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto has stated.

Szijjarto added that he raised the issue at a meeting with the UN assistant secretary general for human rights, Ilze Brands Kehris.

Up to 99 Hungarian primary and secondary schools are in danger of being closed in Ukraine due to the nation’s education law, Szijjarto stated.

“I made it clear to Ilze Brands Kehris… that Hungary will not be able to support Ukraine’s transatlantic and European integration [bids] under any circumstances as long as Hungarian schools in the Transcarpathia region are in danger,” the minister posted on Facebook.

Kiev has been cracking down on minority language rights for years. Laws enforcing the use of Ukrainian in education and television were adopted in 2017 under then-President Pyotr Poroshenko. In 2018, another law banned the teaching of Russian, as well as Romanian, Polish, and Hungarian beyond the primary school level.

In 2019, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission criticized Ukraine’s State Language Law, saying it “fails to strike balance between strengthening Ukrainian and safeguarding minorities’ linguistic rights.”

Budapest has been among the most vocal critics of Kiev’s language policies in the West. According to Szijjarto, Ukraine has not done anything substantial to address Hungary’s concerns.

“For the past eight years, we have continuously received promises from the Ukrainian authorities that they will solve this problem, but they have not actually done anything,” he continued.

EU losing its appetite for more sanctions: Polish PM

The EU is suffering from sanctions “fatigue” and has “less appetite” to impose further economic penalties on Moscow, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said. The sanctions proposed by Morawiecki will likely be opposed by some of the bloc’s members.

Speaking to Poland’s RMF radio station, Morawiecki stated that his government is constantly reporting back to Brussels on “holes and loopholes that Russia uses to circumvent sanctions,” while “directing” the bloc on what to target with each subsequent sanctions package.

While the issue of further anti-Russian sanctions will return to the EU agenda “in the coming weeks,” Morawiecki conceded that “today there is much less willingness and appetite for further sanctions.”

The EU has imposed ten rounds of economic sanctions on Russia since the start of Moscow’s military operation in Ukraine last February. These sanctions have cut the bloc off from Russian oil and gas, blacklisted Russian officials and their families, and banned the trade of most goods with Russia.

US has no indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon: Pentagon

The United States administration does not have any intelligence information that would indicate Russia’s intention to use nuclear weapons, it sees no reason to adjust the deployment of its nuclear forces.

The press service of the Pentagon released such a statement on Saturday commenting on Moscow’s decision to deploy its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus at the request of Minsk.

“We have seen reports of Russia’s announcement and will continue to monitor this situation. We have not seen any reason to adjust our own strategic nuclear posture nor any indications Russia is preparing to use a nuclear weapon. We remain committed to the collective defense of the NATO alliance,” the statement says.

In turn, the White House issued a similar written statement.

Since the beginning of Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine, high-ranking representatives of the US administration have been repeating these statements, commenting on certain decisions of the Russian authorities related to nuclear weapons.

Earlier, President Vladimir Putin stated that Russia, at the request of the Belarusian side, would deploy its tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, as the United States has long been doing on the territory of its allies. Russia has already handed over to Belarus the Iskander system, which can be a carrier of nuclear weapons, and is to complete the construction of a storage facility for tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of the republic on July 1, Putin added.

Head of UN nuclear watchdog agency will visit Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant by end of month

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi will travel to the nuclear plant in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region at the end of March, the agency said in a statement.

Grossi, the top official in the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency will “assess first-hand the serious nuclear safety and security situation at the facility,” officials said.

“It will be the second time Grossi crosses the frontline in order to reach Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and the first since he established a permanent presence of IAEA experts at the site in southern Ukraine,” the statement continued.

“I’ve decided to travel again to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant to see for myself how the situation has evolved since September and to talk to those operating the facility in these unprecedented and very difficult circumstances. I remain determined to continue doing everything in my power to help reduce the risk of a nuclear accident during the tragic war in Ukraine,” Grossi stated.

Grossi noted that despite an IAEA presence at the site for seven months, the situation at the plant is “precarious.”

“The nuclear safety and security dangers are all too obvious, as is the necessity to act now to prevent an accident with potential radiological consequences to the health and the environment for people in Ukraine and beyond. I’m therefore continuing to work on a proposal to protect the plant,” he added.

The IAEA chief said his travel to Ukraine was also aimed at “ensuring the regular rotation of IAEA experts to and from the site is maintained and improved, following the very challenging circumstances faced by the experts during the previous rotation in February which had been delayed by almost a month.”

Grossi will be accompanied by a new group of IAEA experts, the seventh such team to work at the site.

The plant has been under Russian control since March last year, but is still mostly operated by Ukrainian workers.

Attacks at the complex have sparked concerns about the specter of a nuclear disaster, and IAEA staff have been visiting the site to assess the damage. Recently, the UN nuclear agency said it has been unable to rotate teams at the plant because of increased volatility in the area.

The IAEA head has assured Ukraine his agency will never recognize Russia as the owner of the Zaporizhzhia plant, according to Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. Grossi has also pledged a continuous IAEA presence at all of Ukraine’s nuclear plants.

Gazprom reduces gas export to EU via Ukraine by 15%

According to Russian news agency RBC, Russian state-owned energy monopolist Gazprom reduced gas transit to the European Union through Ukraine by 15% on March 25.

Gazprom recorded a gas transit flow of 42.5 million cubic meters from Russia to the EU through Ukraine’s northern Sumy Oblast on March 24.

On March 25, the volume fell to 36.2 million cubic meters, according to the report.

Gazprom no longer supplies gas through Yamal-Europe and the Nord Stream pipelines. The Ukrainian route is the last remaining pipeline delivering Russian gas to Central and Western Europe.

5,000 prisoners pardoned after serving with Russian forces: Mercenary chief

Wagner Group owner Yevgeny Prigozhin stated that over 5,000 prisoners completed contracts with Russian forces and received pardons.

“At the moment, more than 5,000 people have completed their contract with PMC Wagnerand have been pardoned,” Prigozhin said in an audio message published on his Telegram channel.

“The percentage of persons who reoffended during the month is 0.31, which is 10-20 times less than the standard figures before the special operation,” he added.

Prigozhin’s private army heavily relied on recruiting convicts from Russian prisons with a promise of a free pardon and monetary compensation if they survived six months on the battlefield.

The group has now stopped recruiting from prisons. Last week it announced it was seeking 30,000 more fighters, and has been focusing its efforts on sports clubs and gyms.

Ukraine has pushed Russian forces off a key road in Bakhmut: Ukrainian officer

Russian forces have been pushed out of one of the key roads in the contested eastern city of Bakhmut, a Ukrainian military official has said.

Ukrainian soldiers “managed to push the enemy away” from “the road of life” in Bakhmut for a “considerable distance,” making it impossible for Russia to keep the road under fire control, said Yuriy Fedorenko, a Ukrainian military officer.

Ukrainian forces have “improved their position” in the city, Fedorenko added, though he acknowledged “the fighting is tough.”

He stated Ukraine is “holding the line in the most difficult areas” and have had some tactical successes.

According to Fedorenko, Russia’s forces are “constantly conducting assaults in the Bakhmut direction and are constantly trying to advance.”

It has been difficult to determine exactly where each military’s troops stand during the grueling fight for Bakhmut, and Kyiv and Moscow have often offered differing reports on the status of fighting on the ground.

Ukraine’s top generals have claimed in recent weeks that Russian forces are depleted in Bakhmut. A Ukrainian counteroffensive could soon be launched, the generals say, raising the prospect of an unlikely turnaround in the besieged city.

Putin: Russia has deal with Belarus to station nuclear weapons

Russia has struck a deal with neighbouring Belarus to station tactical nuclear weapons on its territory, Tass news agency quoted president Vladimir Putin as saying on Saturday.

Such a move would not violate nuclear nonproliferation agreements, Putin stated, adding that the United States had stationed nuclear weapons on the territory of European allies.

Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko has long raised the issue of stationing tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which borders Poland, Putin said.

“We agreed with Lukashenko that we would place tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus without violating the nonproliferation regime,” he added.

Around 10,000 people “pushed to limit of existence” in besieged Bakhmut: Red Cross

Around 10,000 Ukrainian civilians are being “pushed to the very limit of their existence,” in the beleaguered eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut and the nearby area, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said.

The bloody battle for Bakhmut has been at the center of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in recent months, as soldiers from the private Russian mercenary company Wagner have bombarded the city and edged closer towards seizing control.

“Based on our understanding, there are several thousands of residents still living in Bakhmut, and if we talk about the communities around, the numbers would be coming closer to several thousands, possibly around 10,000,” the ICRC’s Umar Khan, who has been in the city in recent days providing aid, told a news briefing.

Civilians stuck in Bakhmut are “living in very dire conditions, spending almost the entire days in intense shelling in the shelters,” Khan continued, adding, “all you see are people pushed to the very limit of their existence and survival and resilience in them.”

The ICRC has delivered hygiene kits, solar lamps, water containers, essential repair supplies and handheld tools to the community.

“These are the practical items that give them practical solutions to the problems they are facing every day,” Khan stated.

“No matter how many times I’ve been there, or near the frontline communities and areas over the past 13 months, I still feel the same shock, as when we visited those places the first time. Houses are crushed by military firepower, roofs are ripped off, apartment buildings are littered with holes, chunks missing, the constant threat of unexploded shells, bombs underfoot, and some people still living in the shelters, trying to survive these intense hostilities,” he continued.

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