Thursday, May 23, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 443

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:

‘Diplomatic track’ never refused: Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin says Moscow has never refused the “diplomatic track” to resolving the conflict in Ukraine during a phone call with his South African counterpart, the Kremlin said.

The Russian leader stated he supported South African President Cyril Ramaphosa’s proposal to involve African leaders in the peace process, according to the Kremlin’s readout of the call.

He also repeated an offer to deliver Russian grain and fertilisers free of charge to African countries.


Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to disconnect from Russian power

The leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania are considering speeding up a plan to disconnect the Baltic region’s electricity supply from Russia’s power grid.

“Today, we agreed to continue discussions on accelerating as soon as all of our studies are finished,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told a joint news conference with her Latvian and Lithuanian counterparts.

“Technical studies, especially on production capacity and energy crisis, will allow us to clarify the details and exact timing of this process,” she added.


Putin, Erdogan talks will not help grain deal: Kremlin

The Kremlin says there is nothing new to report about the renewal of the Black Sea grain deal in Istanbul and that a potential conversation between the leaders of Turkey and Russia would not help reach an agreement.

In a call with reporters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that only full implementation of the deal would facilitate its renewal.

Earlier on Friday, Turkey’s Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said parties to the Black Sea grain pact were nearing a deal to extend it.


Russia’s Black Sea Fleet strengthens defences

The commander of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has said its defences are being tightened amid a flurry of Ukrainian drone strikes targeting the Crimean port of Sevastopol.

Vice Admiral Viktor Sokolov told the military newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (“Red Star”): “In connection with the threat of attacks by robotic surface and underwater systems, we have increased the technical defences of the fleet’s main base and of the ships’ anchorages.”

Sevastopol has repeatedly been attacked with drones since the start of the invasion in February 2022.

Ukraine has generally avoided taking direct responsibility for raids on the Crimean peninsula.


Russia deploy anti-drone unit in St Petersburg

Police in St Petersburg have created a new anti-drone unit to detect unmanned aerial vehicles following an alleged drone attack on the Kremlin.

The city’s interior ministry said that the unit was launched on May 9 during the Victory Day celebrations.

Its purpose is to “ensure the protection of public order” during large public events, Roman Uvarov, the department’s head, said in a video message.

The unit will include officers armed with sniper rifles and carbines, groups trained to neutralise unmanned aerial vehicles, and mobile patrols to detain those suspected of operating drones.


Ukrainian forces have begun “shaping” operations for counteroffensive: Senior US military official

Ukrainian forces have begun “shaping” operations in advance of a highly-anticipated counteroffensive against Russian forces, a senior US military official and senior Western official tell CNN.

Shaping involves striking targets such as weapons depots, command centers and armor and artillery systems to prepare the battlefield for advancing forces. It’s a standard tactic made prior to major combined operations.

When Ukraine launched a counteroffensive late last summer in the southern and northeastern parts of the country, it was similarly preceded by air attacks to shape the battlefield. These shaping operations could continue for many days before the bulk of any planned Ukrainian offensive, according to the senior US military official.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country still needs “a bit more time” before it launches the counteroffensive, in order to allow some more of the promised Western military aid to arrive in the country.

“With [what we have] we can go forward and be successful,” Zelensky told European public service broadcasters in an interview published on Thursday, adding, “But we’d lose a lot of people. I think that’s unacceptable.”

“So we need to wait. We still need a bit more time,” he said.

Among the supplies Ukraine is still waiting for are armored vehicles — including tanks —which Zelensky said were “arriving in batches.”

Shaping operations can also be designed to confuse the enemy.

Last summer, Kharkiv had very little in the way of softening up; it was a lightning ground offensive. Most of the shaping came in Kherson, through long-range attacks on bridges, ammo stores and command centers. Most of these were carried out by HIMARS. There were some, but not many, air strikes.


Ukrainian president expected to meet pope on Saturday: Sources

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to meet Pope Francis in the Vatican on Saturday, diplomatic sources have said.

The planned trip, which has not been officially announced, comes just two weeks after the pope said the Vatican was involved in a peace mission to try to end the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.


US senators accuse Pentagon of hindering war crimes prosecution of Russia

Lawmakers have accused the Pentagon of effectively undermining war crimes prosecution of Russia by blocking the sharing of US military intelligence with the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague.

US Senator Dick Durbin, a Democrat, said at Senate hearing that he had been told by the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, that the US Departments of State and Justice were both cooperating. But the Department of Defense, under the leadership of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, was refusing, Durbin added.

“Why are you reluctant to share the evidence that we have gathered in the United States through the Department of Defense for those who are holding Vladimir Putin accountable for his war crimes?” Durbin asked Austin, referring to the Russian president.

“Why we would hold back evidence against this war criminal Vladimir Putin and the terrible things he’s doing, I don’t understand at all,” Durbin stated.

Austin, a retired Army general who is rarely expansive in his answers to the public, did not deliver a detailed defence of his position at the hearing, where Durbin and another lawmaker urged him to follow a law passed last year allowing international cooperation to hold Russia accountable.


War in Ukraine has ‘dramatic impact’ on vulnerable, displaced populations: Monitoring centre

Alexandra Bilak of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre has told Al Jazeera that the group’s latest report highlights the issue of food insecurity, an issue that has come up repeatedly in monitoring activities across the globe.

“We’re seeing a visible overlap between many of the countries with the highest numbers of IDPs and countries currently facing acute levels of food insecurity or higher,” she said.

“The global food crisis that has been partially driven by war in Ukraine has had a dramatic impact on already vulnerable and displaced populations,” she added.


South Africa hits back over US charge of arms to Russia

South Africa has slammed remarks by the US ambassador in Pretoria, who accused the country of having covertly provided arms to Russia despite its professed neutrality in the Ukraine war.

“The Ambassador’s remarks undermine the spirit of cooperation and partnership” between the two countries, President Cyril Ramaphosa’s spokesman Vincent Magwenya said in a statement, adding it was “disappointing” that the envoy had “adopted a counter-productive public posture”.


EU says it has not seen high levels of weapons smuggling from Ukraine

The EU has not observed any significant smuggling of weapons into Europe from wartime Ukraine, the European Commission’s top internal affairs official has said during a visit to Kyiv.

“I must say that we have not seen any industrial smuggling of firearms out of Ukraine,” European Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson stated in an interview with Reuters.

Speaking on a rooftop in central Kyiv after meeting Ukraine’s interior minister, Johansson said that some individual cases of small arms being taken out of Ukraine had been recorded.

They were mostly individuals attempting to take weapons out as trophies or for personal protection and “they’re being taken, of course, at the border by the border guards,” Johansson added.

Russia denies reports of Ukrainian breakthroughs around Bakhmut

In an unusual late-night post on its Telegram channel, the Russian Ministry of Defense has pushed back on claims that Ukrainian forces broke through parts of the front line around the eastern city of Bakhmut.

“The statements spread by individual telegram channels about ‘defense breakthroughs’ in various sections of the line of contact are not true,” the ministry statement reads.

At least two Russian military bloggers have reported a deteriorating situation for Russian forces around the city, where a battle of attrition has been grinding on for months.

The defense ministry announced that Russian assault units are making progress in the western part of Bakhmut with air and artillery support. It said troops are battling to repel Ukrainian troops “in the direction of Maloilyinovka” — apparently a reference to a village in the Bakhmut area.

“The enemy suffers significant losses in manpower and hardware,” the defense officials claimed.

A report from the Ukrainian military’s General Staff Thursday described a “dynamic” situation in Bakhmut, claiming Kyiv’s forces are heaping pressure on Russian fighters and probing weak spots in their lines.

A Ukrainian military officer said Ukraine is on the offensive in Bakhmut this week after months of defense. Kyiv has reported “effective counterattacks” around the eastern city despite constant Russian bombardment.


Areas captured by Wagner around Bakhmut are being lost to Ukraine: Russian warlord

The head of the Wagner private military company, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has again complained that areas captured by his fighters around the eastern city of Bakhmut at the expense of heavy casualties are now being lost to the Ukrainians.

“The situation on the western flanks is developing according to the worst of the predicted scenarios. Those territories that were liberated with blood and lives of our comrades every day progressing by dozens or hundreds of meters during many months, today are abandoned almost without any fight by those who are supposed to hold our flanks,” Prigozhin said in a Telegram message Thursday.

His perspective is in stark contrast to the views of one Ukrainian battalion commander in the area, who stated that it was Russian regular forces that were putting up the stiffest resistance, while Wagner units had been the first to run.

According to one well-known Russian military blogger in the area, the task of defending the flanks around Bakhmut was passed to regular Russian forces, while Wagner has consolidated its presence in the city itself.

One Ukrainian commander in the Bakhmut area said Thursday that Ukrainian units had struck at the Russians’ flanks and the enemy had retreated. However, Taras Deyak of the Karpatska Sich tactical group told Radio Liberty, that the situation remains “very difficult, very tense and at times uncontrollable.”

Geolocated footage published since Tuesday also shows that “Ukrainian forces likely conducted successful limited counterattacks north of Khromove (immediately west of Bakhmut) and northwest of Bila Hora (southwest of Bakhmut) and made marginal advances in these areas,” according to the Institute for the Study of War.


Ukrainian commander says Wagner fighters “ran away” from Bakhmut first, countering claims made by mercenary chief

The Ukrainian commander of a battalion involved in the country’s attack on Russian positions near Bakhmut this week has told CNN the first Russians to abandon the area were Wagner fighters, contradicting claims by the mercenary group’s chief that regular Russian troops initially fled the battleground in eastern Ukraine.

The commander of the First Battalion of the 3rd Assault Brigade, whose call-sign is Rollo, told a CNN team in eastern Ukraine that while Wagner units left their station southwest of the city of Bakhmut, the troops of the Russian army’s 72nd Brigade stayed and fought.
His remarks contradict those of Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin, who accused the 72nd Brigade of deserting their positions.

At one point, Rollo said, Kyiv’s forces used powerful HIMARS rockets against Russian infantry, who were gathering to reinforce positions. HIMARS rockets, provided by the United States, are normally used on more long-range targets such as ammunition depots and have a reputation for pinpoint accuracy.

Rollo added that the Russian soldiers only capitulated after being surrounded, saying, “We spent two hours trying to persuade them to surrender.”

He said Prigozhin wanted to blame the Russian army for the failure, but they were good soldiers and fought hard. Prigozhin was a liar, he added.

Much of the fighting occurred in close quarters, and sometimes the enemy was just 20 meters away, according to Rollo.

Rollo commented that at least 200 to 300 Russian soldiers were killed and it may have been more.

Prigozhin accused Moscow’s troops of “abandoning their positions” in front-line Bakhmut, laying bare deep fissures between the Wagner head and the Kremlin amid Russia’s faltering invasion of Ukraine.

Earlier this week, he stated that “one of the units of the Ministry of Defense fled from one of our flanks, abandoning their positions. They all fled and [laid] bare a front nearly 2 kilometers wide and 500 meters deep.”

In comments on Tuesday, Prighozhin claimed the “72nd brigade f***ed up three square kilometers today, on which I had about 500 people killed. Because it was a strategic bridgehead. They just ran the hell out of there.”


US envoy says Russian ship picked up arms in South Africa

The US envoy to South Africa says he is confident that a Russian ship had picked up weapons in South Africa, in a possible breach of Pretoria’s declared neutrality in the Ukraine conflict.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa did not confirm or deny the shipment took place but said his government was looking into the matter, when an opposition leader asked him about the issue in parliament.

The US ambassador to South Africa, Reuben Brigety, told local journalists in a briefing earlier on Thursday that Washington was confident a Russian vessel had uploaded weapons and ammunition from South Africa in December.

“Amongst the things we noted were the docking of the Russian cargo ship Lady R in Simon’s Town between December 6 and December 8, 2022, which we are confident uploaded weapons, ammunitions … as it made its way back to Russia,” Brigety added.

Later, South Africa’s presidency announced that South Africa will hold an independent inquiry led by a retired judge into an alleged arms shipment to Russia.

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