Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 426

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:

‘Mega-active’ Putin doesn’t have body doubles: Kremlin

Moscow has dismissed the “lie” that Vladimir Putin had lookalike body doubles who stood in for him as he shields in a nuclear bunker, saying the leader was “mega-active”.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov listed what he said were fabrications about Russia in a speech at a conference in Moscow.

“You have probably heard that he (Putin) has very many doubles who work instead of him while he sits in a bunker,” he stated, and chuckled: “Yet another lie.”

“You see yourselves what our president is like: he always was, and is now, mega-active – those who work next to him can hardly keep up with him,” he added.

“His energy can only be envied. His health can, God willing, only be wished for. Of course, he doesn’t sit in any bunkers. This is also a lie,” Peskov continued.

There has been speculation surrounding the 70-year-old Russian leader’s health for some time, which the Kremlin has repeatedly dismissed.

Zelensky accuses Russia of “doing everything to destroy” Ukraine following strike on Kupyansk

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Russia of doing “everything to destroy [Ukraine] completely,” following a Russian missile strike in Kupyansk in the Kharkiv region, which left one person dead and 10 injured.

“So far, it is known about the dead employee of the museum and ten wounded. There are still people under the rubble,” Zelensky tweeted Tuesday.

“The terrorist country is doing everything to destroy [Ukraine] completely,” he added.

“We have no right to forget about it for a single second,” Zelensky continued, noting, “We must bring [Russia] to justice both on the battlefield and with fair court sentences to the terrorists.”

Russian forces allegedly used an S-300 surface to surface missile to target Kupyansk, according to the Ukrainian President’s Chief of Staff, Andrii Yermak.

Earlier Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv regional military administration, said on Telegram that it was the Local History Museum that was hit.

Wagner leader denies relationship with defense ministry has improved

The boss of Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has seemingly denied that his relationship with the Russian defense ministry has improved.

It comes after the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, suggested in a report that the relationship between the two parties had been “repaired,” with the view of getting Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt offensive operations in Ukraine.

“ISW has observed a sudden improvement in Prigozhin’s relations with the Russian MoD (Ministry of Defense) and the Kremlin since early April,” ISW said in its report on April 22.

“The Russian MoD, for example, began to directly acknowledge Wagner forces in its daily situational reports and provided Wagner with ammunition and mobilized personnel as reinforcements in early April 2023,” it added.

But when asked about the report, Prigozhin called it “fake news.”

“There is a lot of fake news planted, and this is one of them,” he said in his official Telegram channel, adding, “I am not going to exchange ammunition for my guys even for friendship with the Lord God.”

Prigozhin has not shied away from publicly commenting on his differences with Russia’s leadership. Prigozhin has been highly visible on the front lines in recent months and is quick to claim credit for Russian advances.

“Crucial” for Russian delegation to voice Moscow’s position at UN Security Council: Kremlin

Moscow has said it intends to voice Russia’s position at the second day of the United Nations Security Council, where it is the current presiding member, despite “difficulties” it faces.

In a briefing with journalists on Tuesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov acknowledged the challenges faced by the Russian delegation at the UN in New York, but said they will continue their effort.

“This work is not easy,” Peskov stated, commenting on the results of the first day of the Security Council. But it is “crucial” for Russia to be heard as it “chairs the UN Security Council, performs its functions, sets out its position,” he added.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who chaired a meeting on international peace and security at the UN Security Council on Monday, met criticism from Western diplomats over Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Russian diplomats have been largely cut off from various international conferences since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year.

However, the leadership of the Security Council, UN’s most powerful body, rotates alphabetically among its 15 member nations. Five countries – China, France, Russia, the UK and the US – have permanent seats on the council. The remaining 10 members are elected for two-year terms by the UN General Assembly.

Russia assumed the presidency on April 1, an event that multiple diplomats described as an “April Fool’s joke.”

The last time Russia presided over the Security Council was February 2022, when it launched its invasion of Ukraine.

Black Sea grain deal extension will only succeed with international pressure on Russia: Ukraine

The proposal to improve and extend a deal on the safe export of Ukrainian grain across the Black Sea can only succeed if the international community collectively pressures Russia, a senior Ukrainian official has stated.

UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres set out proposals for “a way forward aimed at the improvement, extension and expansion” of the agreement in a letter to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said in written comments to Reuters: “Guterres’ absolutely justified initiative can succeed only if the international community collectively pressures Russia.”

He added: “Ukraine, on the other hand, will continue to follow the agreements with Turkey and the UN and will continue to deliver grain cargoes to their destination, solving the problem of global food supply.”

Prospects of extending Black Sea grain deal not favorable: Kremlin

The prospects for extending the Black Sea grain deal are not favorable, the Kremlin says, claiming its concerns have yet to be addressed.

“The conditions that concerned us have not yet been implemented,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists Tuesday, adding, “Therefore, the circumstances do not add up in favor of [extending] this deal for now.”

Russia has signaled that it will not support a new deal unless obstacles to the export of its own food stuffs, as well as fertilizers, are removed.

Peskov rejected the suggestion that Moscow is to blame for the current global food crisis.

“The loss of Ukrainian grain and Russian grain may be one of the factors, but not the decisive one,” he stated.

Ukraine normally supplies about 45 million metric tons of grain to the global market every year and is the world’s top exporter of sunflower oil. Together with Russia, it accounted for about one-quarter of global wheat exports in 2019.

The current grain deal, which permits the safe export of Ukrainian grain through the countries’ Black Sea ports, was renewed for 60 days in March and is set to expire on May 18.

A Black Sea grain deal has enabled the passage of Ukrainian ships carrying the agriculture products to depart the country, which was a challenge in the early days of the war with Russia preventing the ships from leaving.

Turkey, alongside the United Nations, helped broker the deal in July. The agreement established a procedure that guaranteed the safety of ships carrying Ukrainian grain, fertilizer and other foodstuffs through a humanitarian corridor in the Black Sea.

Under the deal, all vessels coming to and from Ukraine’s ports were inspected and monitored by international teams made up of officials from Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the UN.

Ukrainian military claims “impressive results” against Russia in Kherson

Ukraine’s military has claimed it is achieving “impressive results” against Russian forces on the eastern bank of the Dnipro River in Kherson.

“Over the past three days, we have quite impressive results of our combat work,” the spokeswoman for Ukraine’s Southern Command said in a national broadcast Tuesday.

“We have managed to hit and destroy artillery pieces, tanks, vehicles, armored vehicles, and enemy air defense systems,” Natalia Humeniuk announced, adding, “In other words, our work on clearing the front line of the East Bank is quite powerful, but we are still working in a counter-battery mode.”

Humeniuk hinted that further developments would be expected in the near future. She went on to say Russian evacuations from the banks of the Dnipro were also facilitating Ukrainian operations.

“They [the Russians] are also clearing the territory of the local population, which makes our work much easier, because they are trying to evacuate the locals there where they are moving their units and moving to new locations,” she said, adding, “Therefore, it is safer for us to carry out our work at combat positions where they are no longer hiding behind the locals.”

Yurii Sobolevskyi, first deputy head of Ukraine’s Kherson regional council, had said about 30% of the pre-war population remains in the temporarily occupied territories of the Kherson region.

“It is very difficult to calculate because we have no access to data on the number of active subscribers from mobile operators and other means,” he added.

Sobolevskyi claimed that for the past two weeks the Russians had been trying to coerce civilians in towns on the river to leave their homes.

European Commission sends $1.65 billion in extra funding to Ukraine

The European Commission is providing an additional €1.5 billion ($1.65 billion) in funding to Ukraine, President Ursula von der Leyen said Tuesday.

“Today we are providing another €1.5 billion to Ukraine under our annual macro-financial assistance package,” she tweeted.

“We will continue helping Ukraine resist Russia’s aggression, keep its institutions and infrastructure running, and conduct crucial reforms,” von der Leyen added.

The Russia-Ukraine war marks the first time the European Union has supplied lethal weapons to a third country, underscoring the extent of the threat it believes Moscow poses to its security. Ukraine’s other key backers are the United States and the United Kingdom.

In early February, the bloc announced that it would inject another €545 million ($575 million) into its €3.6 billion ($3.8 billion) military assistance fund for Ukraine.

According to its website, military assistance measures taken by the EU stand at around €13 billion, of which €4.6 billion has been mobilized under the European Peace Facility.

Lavrov, UN chief to discuss ‘lots of details’ on Ukraine, Russia grain exports

A pact between Moscow and the United Nations for Russia’s grain and fertiliser exports is not being fulfilled and there are “lots of details” to be discussed by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Monday, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson has said.

“It’s a deal which includes two parts and both parts should be realised and fulfilled equally,” Maria Zakharova told reporters at the United Nations.

Russia has signalled that it will not allow a deal on the safe Black Sea export of Ukrainian grain, agreed in July last year, to continue beyond May 18 because a list of demands to facilitate its own grain and fertiliser exports has not been met.

“We stress this problem and underlined our position many times and we’ll do it again and again,” Zakharova stated, adding, “There are lots of details and they will be discussed.”

Ammunition supply to Ukraine needs to speed up: Top EU official

The flow of ammunition to Ukraine needs to increase “in the coming days,” European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Josep Borrell, said Monday.

“More than one thousand missiles have been provided. The amount of ammunition is growing, and has to grow quicker in the coming days,” he said after a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg.

Borrell added there needed to be a “just peace” in the conflict but, until then, the EU would continue to support the defense of Ukraine. So far, the EU had provided about $14 billion in military support, and the EU was continuing to deliver on its promise of 1 million rounds of ammunition.

A second tranche of $1 billion for purchases of ammunition from EU states was being finalized, he continued, noting, “There has been some disagreement, but the work continues. We are not waiting for the legal document to be finished to start working.”

He also said the EU was reaching out to outside countries to reinforce the effect of international sanctions against Russia

World more ‘dangerous’ than during Cold War: Russia

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told the United Nations Security Council that the world had become a more dangerous place than during the Cold War.

“As was case in Cold War, we have reached the dangerous, possibly even more dangerous, threshold,” he stressed.

Lavrov led a meeting on multilateralism and the founding UN Charter because Russia holds the monthly rotating presidency of the Security Council.

Estonia PM urges Ukraine EU membership talks this year

Estonia’s prime minister has voiced hope that European Union membership talks with Kyiv could begin this year, during a visit to the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr.

Kaja Kallas, speaking alongside President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Ukraine must strive to meet standards for EU membership.

“It will be a hard process and the requirements need to be fulfilled 100 percent,” she continued, adding, “We hope that Ukraine can launch accession negotiations with the EU this year.”

Kallas has also supported Kyiv’s calls to join NATO “as soon as conditions allow” during a visit to Ukraine.

Kallas had talks with Zelensky in the northwestern city of Zhytomyr and signed a joint declaration with him condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“We agree that a strong, independent and prosperous Ukraine, as part of the Euro-Atlantic family and as a member of the EU and NATO, is essential for the future of European security,” the joint declaration said.

“In the context of the NATO Vilnius Summit (in July), we agree to work together to establish a path that will help bring Ukraine closer to NATO membership and pave the way for Ukraine to join NATO as soon as conditions allow,” it added.

Estonia is a member of NATO and the European Union.

UN chief slams Ukraine war at meeting chaired by Lavrov

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told a meeting chaired by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov that the war in Ukraine is “causing massive suffering and devastation to the country and its people” and fueling “global economic dislocation triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic”.

“Tensions between major powers are at an historic high. So are the risks of conflict, through misadventure or miscalculation,” Guterres warned at the UN Security Council meeting.

Ukraine’s counteroffensive will start if Bakhmut falls: Wagner

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the founder of the Wagner Group, says Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy would start a counteroffensive if and when Bakhmut falls.

“As soon as we finish taking Bakhmut, as soon as we drive out the last soldier from him or destroy him on the territory of Bakhmut, the Ukrainian counteroffensive will begin on that day … the Ukrainians will put up a huge number of troops,” Prigozhin said on Telegram.

“As soon as Bakhmut is taken, Zelenskyy will need the greatest victory. And for this, he will launch that very counteroffensive. Why hasn’t it started yet? First, because it rains, and absolutely everything gets stuck in the fields, you can only use roads. Even ‘pickup trucks’ will get stuck, not to mention tanks. The second factor is May 9,” he added.

May 9, or Victory Day, celebrates the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany.

Ukrainian officials detect shift in Russian focus in Donetsk and use of “Syrian tactics” in Bakhmut

Ukrainian officials say the Russian focus in the eastern Donetsk region has shifted slightly, but the city of Bakhmut and the ruined towns of Mariinka and Avdiivka remain the focus of Russian assaults.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said Monday there had been 47 air strikes by Russian planes over the past day, and more than 30 ground assaults had been repelled.

Ukrainian forces continue to cling on to parts of the city of Bakhmut and the access route from the west.

The General Staff added that “during the day, the enemy conducted unsuccessful offensive actions in the direction of Novomarkove and Khromove,” settlements to the northwest and west of the city.

The Deputy Defense Minister, Hanna Maliar, said that in the Bakhmut sector, the Russians were using what she called the “Syrian tactics” of total destruction of buildings and facilities.

“At the same time, our defenders are carrying out active assault operations and preventing the enemy from taking control of the city,” Maliar added.

One soldier serving in the Bakhmut area, Yurii Syrotiuk of the 5th separate assault brigade, said the Russians had air superiority but were not flying over the front lines because Ukrainian units had “many portable means” of air defenses.

Echoing Maliar, Syrotiuk said: “The enemy is trying to completely destroy our defensive lines. They are throwing heavy bombs at the buildings in the city, which completely destroys them. The enemy drives their infantry under the sound of their artillery fire.”

But the official stated that “what the enemy is gaining with terrible losses, we often repel in one day.”

He added Ukraine had regained trenches near the village of Khromove.

Maliar noted a decrease in Russian attacks in one area of the front line that has been very active for several months — near the Ukrainian-held town of Lyman.

“In the Lyman sector, the aggressor failed to break through our defenses and its activity has slightly decreased,” she said, adding, “At the same time, the enemy is shelling our positions in this area and regrouping.”

The General Staff reported that, “The enemy did not conduct any offensive in the Lyman sector.”

Elsewhere, the same pattern of Russian artillery and mortar fire continued across the front line, with the town of Vuhledar coming under heavy bombardment.

In the south, according to the General Staff, Russian forces are carrying out “defensive actions at the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson directions,” but that includes heavy shelling of settlements close to the front lines.

Maliar stated that the Russians were doing their best “to maintain control over the occupied borders and prevent the advance of our troops” in the south.

US ambassador to UN: Russia “struck at heart of the UN Charter”

In remarks to reporters Monday ahead of the United Nations Security Council meeting, US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that “it’s impossible to ignore the giant elephant in the room: Russia.”

The ambassador said Russia “struck at the heart of the UN Charter,” accusing the country that invaded its neighbor Ukraine of “arbitrarily detaining political activists, journalists, and opposition leaders,” as well as for “wrongfully detained American citizens.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was in charge Monday of a United Nations Security Council meeting because Russia currently holds the rotating presidency of the council.

The UN ambassador also accused Russia of using imprisoned Americans Paul Whelan and Evan Gershkovich as “political pawns.” Whelan has been detained in Russia for more than four years; Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was arrested in Russia last month and subsequently charged with espionage.

“Of course, Paul and Evan are also beloved friends. They are sons. They are brothers,” she emphasized, adding, “There is a human cost to Russia’s violation of international norms, to its barbaric practice of using people as political pawns.”

She urged Russia to move on a proposal for Whelan’s release and stated that the United States “will not relent until Paul, Evan, and all hostages and wrongfully detained Americans are brought back, safe and sound.”

Ukrainian official says Russia has “powerful concentrations” in southern city of Melitopol

The mayor of the southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol says there are “powerful concentrations” of Russian forces in the area — a region that may be the focus of a Ukrainian counter-offensive in the weeks to come.

Ivan Fedorov, who is not in Melitopol himself, said on Ukrainian television: “We see that today there are two extremely powerful concentrations” of Russian forces in the occupied part of the Melitopol region.

He stated that one was located on the coast of the Azov Sea [in Kyrylivka], “where the enemy has seized a huge number of recreation centers, hotels, etc.”

Fedorov added the Russians were using the area as a place to trans-ship their military cargo and heavy weapons and had a smaller base on the other side of the Azov coast [in Prymorskyi Posad].

Fedorov said that Russian-backed local administrations in Zaporizhzhia region (where Melitopol is situated) are preparing for the evacuation of civilians.

He repeated claims made by other Ukrainian officials that “they are preparing to take our children out of many areas of the temporarily occupied Zaporizhzhia region. For example, in Enerhodar, they aim to collect all the data about our children by the end of the week, and starting from May 5, they will announce the evacuation of children and take them somewhere in mainland Russia, or at least to temporarily occupied Crimea.”

Fedorov added there was a similar situation in the town of Bilmak, close to the front line.

He also claimed that people in occupied areas were being pressured into applying for Russian passports, including being required to possess Russian documents to receive medical treatment.

All 27 EU ambassadors to UN condemn Russia’s actions in Ukraine

Just ahead of Russia chairing Monday’s United Nations Security Council meeting, where it holds the rotating presidency of that body this month, all 27 ambassadors of the European Union made a joint statement condemning Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

“I’m here with the 27 ambassadors of the European Union,” said Olof Skoog, European Union representative to the UN.

“We want to make a statement in relation to the debate that is going to start in the Security Council,” Skoog added.

“Russia is trying to portray itself as a defender of the UN charter and multilateralism. Nothing can be further from the truth. It’s cynical. We all know that while Russia is destroying, we are building. While they violate, we protect. The UN charter, the UN General Assembly, the ICJ, the ICC, everywhere you look, Russia is in contempt,” he continued.

The group went on to reiterate their demand that Russia “immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all its military forces” from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally-recognized borders, noting, “If Russia cares about effective multilateralism, that is the first way to prove it.”

Some context: Russia, which holds the presidency of the Security Council this month, scheduled the meeting to highlight the principles of the UN charter. Each month the Security Council’s presidency rotates among the 15 members

Ukraine dismisses report that it planned attacks deep inside Russia on first anniversary of invasion

A senior Ukrainian official has dismissed a report that Ukraine planned to launch attacks deep inside Russia to mark the first anniversary of the Russian invasion in February.

Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, described the reporting as a “strange media/sensation once again.”

The report, which was published in the Washington Post, was derived from leaked documents among the cache that recently appeared on the Discord gaming server. The Post reported Monday that according to the documents, Kyrylo Budanov, head of Ukraine’s military intelligence [HUR] instructed one of his officers “to get ready for mass strikes on 24 February … with everything the HUR had.”

Budanov’s alleged comment was included in a classified report from the US National Security Agency, according to the Post. The Post reported that on February 22, two days shy of the first anniversary, “the CIA circulated a new classified report: The HUR ‘had agreed, at Washington’s request, to postpone strikes’ on Moscow.”

Podolyak said on Twitter: “I have a simple question. Why would there be a need for us to do this? What task would such a one-time action solve? Would it change the course of the war? Would it make the Russians flee? Would it remove the need for weapons?”

The official added that such reports “fulfill only one catastrophic function: they shape public opinion in Western capitals as if Ukraine was an unreasonable, infantile, and impulsive country that is dangerous for adults to trust with serious weapons.”

On the contrary, he stated, “Ukraine sees things differently. We approach the war with ironclad mathematical logic: we need long-range missiles to destroy Russian logistics in the occupied territories and various types of aircraft to protect the sky and destroy Russian fortifications. These are the main components of successful counteroffensive operations.”

Ukrainian official: Russians trying to coerce civilians away from east bank of Dnipro

A Ukrainian official in the southern region of Kherson says that Russian occupying forces on the east bank of the river Dnipro are trying to get civilians to leave the area — amid persistent reports of a Ukrainian military presence there.

Yurii Sobolevskyi, first deputy head of Ukraine’s Kherson regional council, told CNN that for the past two weeks the Russians had been trying to coerce civilians in towns on the river to leave their homes.

Sobolevskyi mentioned the towns of Oleshky, Kakhovka and Nova Kakhovka, all on the east bank of the river.

He said evacuation routes had been announced by the Russians but added: “As far as I know, there is no such thing as people agreeing to leave en masse using these routes. There have been no confirmed cases of forced eviction and deportation along these routes so far.”

“(Evacuations were also announced) from smaller settlements, all near the Dnipro River,” he continued, noting, “They (the Russians) are trying to get 10-20 kilometers away from the Dnipro so that no people are left there.”

Sobolevskyi stated that about 30% of the pre-war population remains in the temporarily occupied territories of the Kherson region.

“It is very difficult to calculate because we have no access to data on the number of active subscribers from mobile operators and other means,” he added.

As for Ukrainian military action on the east bank, Sobolevskyi said: “They are maintaining fire control and constantly destroying military targets there, reducing the enemy’s combat capability in this area. This happens every day.”

But he added: “Nowadays, information silence is very much needed there, because information is also a weapon that can kill.

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