Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 413

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:

Wagner leader denies his group is behind video purportedly showing beheaded Ukrainian soldiers

Wagner private military company leader Yevgeny Prigozhin has denied that his fighters were involved in a grisly video that purportedly shows Ukrainian soldiers who have been beheaded.

“I have watched this video. It’s bad when people’s heads are cut off, but I haven’t found anything to support that this is happening near Bakhmut and that Wagner fighters are participating in the execution,” he said in a statement published by his company Wednesday.

Prigozhin was responding to a question about a video that was posted to a pro-Russian social media channel on April 8, which appears to show the beheaded corpses of two Ukrainian soldiers lying on the ground next to a destroyed military vehicle.

Russian social media accounts say the video was shot near Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, which has been the scene of the war’s fiercest fighting for many months, with Wagner fighters very heavily involved.

A second video, which was posted on Twitter and is heavily blurred, looks to have been filmed during the summer because of the amount of plant life on the ground. It purports to show a Russian fighter using a knife to cut off the head of a Ukrainian soldier. A voice at the beginning of the video suggests the victim might have still been alive when the attack began.

Leaked US documents might be ‘fake’: Russia

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov says leaked US intelligence documents might be fake and a deliberate attempt to mislead Moscow.

Ryabkov told Russian news agencies that, for now, the leak threw up many questions.

“It’s probably interesting for someone to look at these documents, if they are documents at all, or maybe they are fake, maybe this is a deliberate information dump,” Ryabkov was cited as saying.

“Since the United States is a party to the (Ukraine) conflict and is in essence waging a hybrid war against us, it’s possible such things are being done to mislead the enemy – that is the Russian Federation,” he added.

The Kremlin announced earlier on Wednesday that it did not know “like everyone else” how authentic the documents were.

Some national security experts and US officials say they suspect the culprit could be American but do not rule out pro-Russian actors.

EU stresses “firm commitment” to holding war criminals to account

The EU has pledged to hold those responsible for war crimes in Ukraine to account, EU spokeswoman Nabila Massrali said on Wednesday.

“The EU reiterates its firm commitment to holding to account all perpetrators and accomplices of war crimes committed in connection with Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” Massrali stated.

The statement is in response to two videos released on social media in the past week which purport to show beheaded Ukrainian soldiers.

“If confirmed, this is yet another brutal reminder about the inhumane nature of the Russian aggression,” Maasrali continued, adding, “Killing prisoners of war is a very serious breach of the Geneva convention and demonstrates once more Russia’s complete disregard of international law, in particular, international humanitarian law.”

Ukraine soldier execution videos “not an isolated incident”: UN

The United Nations announced it is “appalled by particularly gruesome videos posted on social media” — one of which purports to show the execution of a captured Ukrainian solider, and a second which purports to show the mutilated bodies of two Ukrainian soldiers lying on the ground.

In a short statement, the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine, part of the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), says the apparent executions are “not an isolated incident.”

“In recent reports the Mission documented a number of serious violations of international humanitarian law, including those committed against prisoners of war. The latest incidents must also be properly investigated, and the perpetrators must be held accountable,” the statement added.

On March 24, the UN said it has documented dozens of cases of summary executions of prisoners of war (POWs) carried out by both Russian and Ukrainian forces since February 2022, but admits it is far harder to get information from Russia, or territories under Russian control, than it is from Ukrainian authorities.

The OHCHR said it has documented the summary execution of 15 Ukrainian POWs by Russian forces, in addition to the use of Ukrainian POWs as human shields, the death of two wounded POWs due to lack of medical care, as well as torture.

On the other side, the report added it has documented — through open-source information, in situ visits and witness interviews — the summary execution of at least 25 Russian POWs being held by Ukrainian forces.

UK sanctions ‘financial fixers’ for Russian oligarchs

Britain sanctioned individuals and companies who it accused of acting as “financial fixers” for Russian oligarchs Roman Abramovich and Alisher Usmanov.

Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement the new measures would target those helping the two prominent businessmen to avoid the total cost of sanctions that were imposed following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We are closing the net on the Russian elite and those who try to help them hide their money for war,” Foreign Minister James Cleverly said in the statement.

“We will keep cutting them off from assets they thought were successfully hidden,” he added.

The government said sanctions were imposed on Demetris Ioannides and Christodoulos Vassiliades, two Cypriots it described as “professional enablers” who had helped to create offshore structures and trusts.

Britain froze the assets of Abramovich and Usmanov within weeks of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February last year.

Kremlin says outlook for Black Sea grain deal is ‘not so great’

The Kremlin has said the outlook for the landmark UN-brokered Black Sea grain deal was not great as promises to remove obstacles to Russian exports of agricultural and fertiliser exports had not been fulfilled.

The grain deal is an attempt to ease a food crisis that predated the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but has been made worse by the most deadly war in Europe since World War Two.

The agreement, due to expire next month in its current form, was first signed by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations in July last year and twice extended. On paper, it allows for the export of food and fertiliser, including ammonia, from three Ukrainian Black Sea ports.

While the West has not placed sanctions on Russia’s food and fertiliser exports, Moscow claims they are compromised by obstacles – such as insurance and payment hindrances – that it says must be removed for the deal to work properly.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov stated that the current agreement was not working for Russia, despite some efforts by the United Nations to get the parts of the deal relating to Moscow’s interests implemented.

“No deal can stand on one leg: it must stand on two legs,” Peskov told reporters, adding, “In this regard, of course, judging by the state of play today, the outlook (for its extension) is not so great.”

Ukrainian security service opens war crimes investigation into beheading video

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has launched a war crimes investigation into a video that purports to show the beheading of a Ukrainian soldier, it announced Wednesday.

“Yesterday, a video was posted online of the Russian occupiers showing their beast side by brutally torturing a Ukrainian prisoner and cutting off his head,” the SBU said in a statement on Telegram.

“The Security Service of Ukraine launched a pre-trial investigation into this war crime under Part 2 of Article 438 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine,” the SBU added.

“We will find these inhumans. If necessary, we will get them wherever they are: from under the ground or from the other side. But they will definitely be punished for their actions,” SBU chief Vasyl Maliuk stated.

The video, which was posted on Twitter and is heavily blurred, looks to have been filmed during the summer because of the amount of plant life on the ground.

It purports to show a Russian fighter using a knife to cut off the head of a Ukrainian soldier. A voice at the beginning of the video suggests the victim might have still been alive when the brutal attack began.

The video was one of two purportedly showing beheaded Ukrainian soldiers that have emerged on social media in the past week. The other may have been filmed more recently.

Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba called Russia “worse than Daesh” and said it is “absurd” that the country is currently presiding over the UN Security Council.

“Russian terrorists must be kicked out of Ukraine and the UN and be held accountable for their crimes,” he wrote on Twitter.

Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Head of the Office of President of Ukraine, tweeted, “Russian soldier is recorded enjoying cutting off head of Ukrainian war prisoner. Proving their beast nature and convincing world of RF’s [Russian Federation’s] bloodthirstiness once again.”

Kremlin says “authenticity” of beheading video must be checked

Video purporting to show the beheading of a Ukrainian soldier is “terrible,” but “first of all, we need to verify the authenticity” of it, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

“Of course, these are terrible shots. Then it may be a reason to check whether this is true or not, whether this took place and, if so, where and from which side,” Peskov stated during a regular call with journalists on Wednesday.

Two videos purporting to show beheaded Ukrainian soldiers have emerged on social media in the past week.

“How easily these beasts kill”: Zelensky calls for perpetrators of beheading videos to be punished

“There is something that no one in the world can ignore: how easily these beasts kill,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said in response to two social media videos that purportedly show the beheadings of Ukrainian soldiers

“We are not going to forget anything. Neither are we going to forgive the murderers. There will be legal responsibility for everything. The defeat of terror is necessary,” he said in a video message on Wednesday.

Dariia Zarivna, adviser to the Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, stated in a statement Wednesday that the videos are “aimed at intimidation” in a statement.

“It completely dehumanizes and demonstrates the essence of a terrorist country,” she said of the videos, which emerged on social media this past week.

“But it is important to understand the purpose. This is an PSYOP [psychological operation] aimed at intimidation. The target audience is not only Ukraine, but also Western societies,” she continued.

“It doesn’t work on us, though. The Russians are afraid of this, but not us,” she added.

The videos appear to be of separate events — one of them may have been filmed very recently, while the other, from the amount of foliage seen on the ground, looks like it was filmed during the summer.

The second video was posted on Twitter and is heavily blurred. It purports to show a Russian fighter using a knife to cut off the head of a Ukrainian soldier.

A voice at the beginning of the video suggests the victim might have still been alive when the brutal attack began.

Ukraine asks India for more medicine, seeks help from Indian companies in rebuilding infrastructure

Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova has requested more medicine and medical equipment from India, according to India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

Dzhaparova concluded a three-day visit to India on Wednesday, where she met with Minister of State for External Affairs and Culture Meenakshi Lekhi.

In a statement issued by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) following her visit, Dzhaparova also “proposed that rebuilding infrastructure in Ukraine could be an opportunity for Indian companies.”

According to the MEA, she “handed over a letter from President Zelensky, addressed to Prime Minister Modi,” but the ministry didn’t provide further details about the letter.

The MEA also announced that the next session of the Inter-Governmental Commission, a group focused on trade and bilateral cooperation between the two countries, will be held in India.

In contrast, the next round of Foreign Office Consultations, which focus on diplomatic ties between the two countries, will take place in Kyiv. The dates for both meetings are yet to be decided.

Ukrainian counteroffensive could be postponed: PM

The much-touted Ukrainian counteroffensive may not get underway until this summer, the country’s prime minister has told The Hill. Denis Shmigal also called on Kiev’s Western backers to provide it with more weapons, including fighter jets, to ensure that Ukraine prevails on the battlefield.

Shmigal claimed that Ukraine does not “feel the pressure from our friends and partners vis-a-vis the start of the offensive.” Instead, he argued it is the Ukrainian public that is demanding decisive action soon.

The senior official noted that there is consensus among Kiev’s backers that it needs to be “100%, and even more percent prepared” before launching its push.

“To be prepared for [a] counteroffensive, we need more artillery, ammunition. We need more middle, or average and long-range missiles, we need tanks and we will need fighter jets,” Shmigal asserted.

While expressing gratitude for the defense aid already provided by the US, the premier did criticize Washington for its reluctance to consider Ukraine’s accession to NATO in the foreseeable future.

Ukraine denies Wagner founder’s claim Russia controls 80% of Bakhmut

Wagner founder and financier Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed on Tuesday that Russian forces now control much of the embattled eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut.

“We are fully concentrated on Bakhmut, continuing to carry out combat missions. In Bakhmut, most of it — that is, more than 80% — is under our control, including the entire administrative center, plants, factories, the city administration,” Prigozhin said.

“What is left is part of the multi-story residential areas, where fortification districts were made. There are tunnels under these high-rise buildings,” he added.

Ukrainian officials have denied Prigozhin’s claim.

“This statement by Prigozhin is not true,” Serhii Cherevatyi, spokesperson for the eastern grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces told CNN on Tuesday.

“I’ve just been in touch with the commander of one of the brigades that are defending the city. I can confidently state that the Ukrainian defense forces control a much larger percentage of the territory of Bakhmut,” he stated.

“Prigozhin needs to show at least some victory in the city, which they have been trying to capture for nine months in a row, so he makes such statements,” Cherevatyi added.

The Wagner founder has been known to make incorrect claims about his forces’ advance on the ground in Ukraine. Last week, he posted a grainy video raising a flag at dawn, saying Bakhmut had “been taken,” despite ongoing fighting in and around the city. His claim was seen as a “pretty desperate” attempt, Western officials said.

The officials conceded Russia had been able to make some progress in Bakhmut, but added it could be “measured in meters.”

“The Russians at the moment, despite trying for six months, with huge numbers of personnel and huge numbers of losses, have been unable to take the town, and at the moment have made very, very slow progress,” the officials stated at a briefing last Wednesday.

In the video this Tuesday, Prigozhin said Wagner fighters had relinquished control of some areas around Bakhmut to the Russian military.

“We handed over the flanks to the Ministry of Defence. Units of the Ministry of Defence, including the airborne troops, have today taken over both the right and left flanks,” he continued, adding, “That is why Zaliznyanskoye, Nikolaevka, and other settlements, which were stormed by units of the Wagner PMC in previous months, are in the area of responsibility of the airborne troops and other units of the Ministry of Defence.”

Moscow warns of threat to civil aviation due to Ukraine conflict

The air defense systems sent to Ukraine by the West could emerge as a deadly threat for civil aircraft in Europe and elsewhere, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday.

In a statement to RIA Novosti, the ministry noted that Western arms, which include man-portable air defense systems and anti-tank guided missile launchers, “are spreading all over the world into zones of other regional conflicts due to rampant corruption, [and] fall into the hands of organized crime, terrorists, and extremists of various types.”

“Soon, the issue of the safety of civil aviation in the world, including over Europe, will have to be raised,” the ministry stated.

It also claimed that Western weapons enable the “criminal Ukrainian authorities and mercenaries” to launch strikes on civilians, including women and children, in the four former Ukrainian regions that voted overwhelmingly in referendums to become part of Russia last autumn.

“City residential areas, civilian infrastructure have found themselves under systematic strikes by Ukrainian artillery; the Zaporozhye Nuclear Power Plant is being shelled, resulting in the threat of a nuclear catastrophe on the continent,” the Foreign Ministry added.

Germany’s land forces cannot fulfill their NATO commitments, according to a leaked memo from a top soldier cited in a German media report.

A division that Germany promised to NATO isn’t fully ready for battle, Bild newspaper reported Tuesday, citing a routine “leadership message” from Alfons Mais, the army’s inspector general, to the armed forces’ inspector general.

The memo increases pressure on Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, who is being confronted with the Bundeswehr’s structural problems that also faced his predecessors.

Berlin had promised a fully-equipped army division to NATO in response to Russia’s war on Ukraine as early as 2025, two years earlier than planned.

However, without countermeasures, “the army will not be able to hold its own in high-intensity combat and will also only be able to fulfill its obligations to NATO to a limited extent,” the army chief was quoted by the daily.

A spokesperson for the German defense ministry told POLITICO that it generally does not comment on “internal documents” and the “state of readiness.” However, the commitment for 2025 remains unchanged, the spokesperson added. The German army, the Bundeswehr’s land forces, declined to comment “on a classified document and its content.”

The operational readiness of a second division, which the Bundeswehr plans to provide from 2027, is also considered “unrealistic” according to the report, as the division will “not be sufficiently equipped with large-scale equipment in 2027.”

According to the report, Mais wrote that even pulling together all of the army’s assets would not make it possible to fully equip the 2025 division. The report cited continued underfunding and military support for Ukraine as strains that are already leading to a “clearly noticeable reduction in the army’s operational readiness.”

US leak suggests up to 50 UK special forces present in Ukraine this year

Leaked US military documents indicate that the UK has deployed as many as 50 special forces to Ukraine.

The documents suggest that more than half of the western special forces personnel present in Ukraine between February and March this year may have been British.

It is unclear what activities the special forces may have been engaged in or whether the numbers of personnel have been maintained at this level.

The UK’s elite military forces, whose activities are normally shrouded in secrecy, comprise multiple units including the Special Air Service (SAS).

The UK government has not disclosed since the beginning of the war that special forces have been active in Ukraine. Prior to Russia’s invasion, in June 2021 the UK embassy in Kyiv announced its special forces had conducted training activities with Ukrainian forces.

The Ministry of Defence (MoD) declined to comment on the disclosures or answer questions about UK personnel in Ukraine in recent months. However, in a tweet the department said the leak has “demonstrated a serious level of inaccuracy”.

CIA director says Putin is “not serious about negotiations” in Ukraine war

The CIA assesses that Russian President Vladimir Putin is “not serious about negotiations at this stage” of the war in Ukraine and it is “Ukrainian progress on the battlefield that is most likely to shape prospects for diplomacy” to end the ongoing conflict, CIA Director Bill Burns stated.

Speaking publicly for the first time, at Rice University, since leaked classified US military documents appeared online, Burns stressed the importance of Ukraine’s planned offensive, saying “a great deal is at stake in the coming months.”

“Instead of backing down, he has doubled down,” Burns said about Putin, adding the Russian president believes he can grind down Ukraine and the West. ”

The CIA director specifically mentioned that Ukraine continues to defend the Donbas region, which one of the leaked intelligence documents says is likely heading for a stalemate.

“Russia’s grinding campaign of attrition in the Donbas region is likely heading toward a stalemate, thwarting Moscow’s goal to capture the entire region in 2023,” states one of the classified documents.

“Real countries fight back,” Burns said on Tuesday, adding that Ukraine and its president have done just that.

“Putin was profoundly mistaken” in his assumptions about Ukraine before the war, Burns continued.

Burns emphasized the importance of continued US support for Ukraine, including through intelligence sharing, at a time when the leaked classified documents are raising questions about the administration’s view of the conflict.

The CIA director made these statements at Rice University, where he’s discussing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s aggressive posturing, Iran’s nuclear enrichment and other pressing foreign policy issues at school’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, according to the school’s website.

Canada pledges fresh Ukraine military aid, sanctions on Russia

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canada imposed new sanctions on Russia over its invasion of Ukraine and pledged new military support for Kyiv.

Ottawa will send 21,000 assault rifles, 38 machine guns and 2.4 million rounds of ammunition to Ukraine and impose sanctions on 14 Russian individuals and 34 entities, including security targets linked to Wagner Group, Trudeau said after meeting Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal in Toronto.

“We will continue to support Ukraine with everything needed for as long as necessary,” he stated.

Canada is also imposing sanctions on nine entities tied to the Belarusian financial sector to further pressure Russia’s “enablers in Belarus”, Trudeau added.

US defense secretary says leaked classified documents are being taken very seriously

The leak of classified Pentagon documents is being taken very seriously, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday.

“I can’t say much more while the Justice Department’s investigation is ongoing, but we take this very seriously,” Austin stated in his first public remarks about the leak.

“And we will continue to work closely with our outstanding allies and partners, and nothing will ever stop us from keeping America secure,” he continued.

Austin added that the Defense Department will “turn over every rock until we find the source” of the leaked intelligence documents.

“They were somewhere in the web, and where exactly and who had access at that point we don’t know, we simply don’t know at this point,” he said during a news conference with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and senior Philippine officials.

Austin stated the documents they are aware of are dating February 28 and March 1, and that they do not know if there are “other documents” that had been posted.

“Again,” he added, “we will continue to investigate in and try to determine the full scope of the activity.”

Austin noted that he was first briefed on the “unauthorized disclosure” of documents on April 6 and has been convening senior leaders daily since then.

Highly classified Pentagon documents leaked online in recent weeks have provided a rare window into how the US spies on allies and foes alike, deeply rattling US officials, who fear the revelations could jeopardize sensitive sources and compromise important foreign relationships.

Many of the documents, which US officials say are authentic, had markings indicating that they had been produced by the Joint Staff’s intelligence arm, known as J2, and appear to be briefing documents.

No indications Egypt is supplying lethal weapons to Russia for war in Ukraine: White House

The White House says it has no indication Egypt is providing Russia with deadly arms for its war in Ukraine.

A leaked US intelligence document obtained by the Washington Post indicated Egypt’s military was planning to produce 40,000 rockets for Russia. It said that President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi instructed officials to keep production and shipment secret “to avoid problems with the West.”

“We’ve seen no indication that Egypt is providing lethal weaponry capabilities to Russia,” stated John Kirby, a spokesman for the US National Security Council.

Kirby added Egypt remained “a significant security partner” and would remain so.

“The United States military has a longstanding defense relationship with Egypt that goes back many, many years,” he continued, speaking to reporters on board Air Force One.

The February-dated “top secret document” purported conversations between Sisi and senior Egyptian military officials referencing plans to supply Russia with artillery and gunpowder, and to keep the plans a secret, the Washington Post reported.

An Egyptian official, unnamed by state-affiliated media, called the Washington Post report “informational absurdity” and said that Egypt follows a “balanced policy” with all international parties, Al Qahera News, a state-affiliated media outlet said. The statement was carried by several Egyptian state-affiliated news outlets.

Kirby refused to confirm the validity of the document and declined to detail any diplomatic conversations between Washington and Cairo.

Ukraine’s FM says US secretary of state “reaffirmed ironclad support” in call

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has reassured Ukraine of the United States’ support following a leak of classified Pentagon documents, according to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

During a call on Tuesday, Blinken “reaffirmed the ironclad US support and vehemently rejected any attempts to cast doubt on Ukraine’s capacity to win on the battlefield,” Kuleba wrote Tuesday on Twitter, adding that the US “remains Ukraine’s trustworthy partner.”

The comments come after a number of highly classified Pentagon documents were released online in recent weeks. Some divulge key weaknesses in Ukrainian weaponry, air defense, and battalion sizes and readiness at a critical point in the war, as Ukrainian forces gear up to launch a counteroffensive against the Russians – and just as the US and Ukraine have begun to develop a more mutually trusting relationship over intelligence-sharing.

Wagner forces control ’80 percent’ of Bakhmut: Wagner boss

The head of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, said that his forces controlled more than 80 percent of Bakhmut.

In a video published by a Russian military blogger on Telegram, Prigozhin is seen showing on a map of the area how his forces are continuing their encirclement of the city.

“In Bakhmut, the larger part, more than 80 percent is now under our control, including the whole administrative centre, factories, warehouses, the administration of the city,” stated Prigozhin.

He used a red marker pen to highlight the relatively small, mainly residential area of the city that remained to be captured by Russian forces.

“There, the war continues,” he added.

Prigozhin’s comments come a day after the Russian-installed head of Donetsk visited Bakhmut and claimed, “More than 75 percent of the city is under the control of our units.”

Bakhmut has seen the heaviest fighting in the nearly 14-month war.

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