Monday, April 22, 2024

Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 456: Ukraine says Wagner withdrawing troops from Bakhmut

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:

Russia shuts Swedish consulate, expels diplomats in tit-for-tat move

Russia announced on Thursday it would shut Sweden’s consulate in St. Petersburg and its own mission in Sweden’s second-biggest city, Gothenburg, and expelled five Swedish diplomats in a tit-for-tat move after Stockholm expelled five Russians last month.

Stockholm said last month that it had expelled the diplomats over espionage concerns. The Russian Foreign Ministry called the expulsions an “openly hostile step”.

It added it had withdrawn its consent for the Swedish consulate in St. Petersburg as of September.

Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom stated in a statement that the news was “very regrettable” and “further confirmation of the negative political development in Russia and the country’s international isolation”.

“Russia has chosen to expel Swedish diplomats who acted within the framework of the Vienna Convention and conducted customary diplomatic activities in Russia. We also deeply regret the Russian announcement about the Consulate General in St. Petersburg,” he continued.

Russia summons German, Swedish and Danish ambassadors

Russia’s Foreign Ministry summons the ambassadors of Germany, Sweden and Denmark to protest over the “complete lack of results” in an investigation to identify who blew up the Nord Stream gas pipelines.

“It has been noted that these countries are not interested in establishing the true circumstances of this sabotage. On the contrary, they are delaying their efforts and trying to conceal the tracks and the true perpetrators of the crime behind which we believe are well-known countries,” the ministry said in a statement.

“It is no coincidence that ‘leaked’ improbable versions (of what happened) are dumped in the media to try to muddy the waters,” it added.

Sweden and Denmark have both said last September’s pipeline explosions were deliberate but have yet to determine who was responsible.

Ukraine is behind drone attacks on Moscow: Kremlin

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has said that Russia knew “right away that the Kyiv regime” was behind the drone attack launched against the Kremlin on May 3.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Peskov said “in the end, it does not make much difference which of the units of the Kyiv regime.”

“Behind this is the Kyiv regime. We know this and we are carrying out our work based on this,” he added.

Two drones struck the Kremlin on May 3 — just days ahead of the May 9 Victory Day celebrations.

Kyiv has denied involvement in the alleged attack. At the time, a spokesperson for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said: “We do not have information on so called night attacks on Kremlin, as President Zelensky has stated numerous times before, Ukraine uses all means at its disposal to free its own territory, not to attack others.”

US officials have picked up chatter amongst Ukrainian officials blaming each other for the drone attack earlier this month, contributing to a US assessment that a Ukrainian group may have been responsible, sources familiar with the intelligence told CNN.

The intercepts include some members of Ukraine’s military and intelligence bureaucracy speculating that Ukrainian special operations forces conducted the operation.

The chatter, combined with other intercepted communications of Russian officials blaming Ukraine for the attack and wondering how it happened, has led US officials to consider the possibility that a Ukrainian group was behind the incident on May 3.

Kyiv’s counteroffensive won’t be signaled by a “single event”: Presidential adviser

Ukraine’s anticipated spring offensive won’t be marked by a “single event,” Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to the Head of the Presidential Office, said in a Twitter post Thursday.

“This is not a ‘single event’ that will begin at a specific hour of a specific day with a solemn cutting of the red ribbon,” Podolyak stated.

“These are dozens of different actions to destroy the Russian occupation forces in different directions, which have already been taking place yesterday, are taking place today and will continue tomorrow,” he continued.

Podolyak added that “intensive destruction of enemy logistics is also a counteroffensive.”

A series of cross-border drone attacks, intensified fighting in Zaporizhzhia, deploying Storm Shadow missiles, the destruction of Russian fuel depots and infrastructure — amid this recent flurry of activity, many have speculated whether Ukraine’s long-anticipated counteroffensive had already begun.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenksy has repeatedly stressed that Ukraine needs “more time” before launching the full attack.

But Podolyak’s comments are a reminder that the beginning of the counteroffensive will not be marked by any ceremony. Indeed, much of the confusion surrounding Ukraine’s counteroffensive may be part of the plan.

Wagner is withdrawing troops from Bakhmut: Ukrainian defense ministry

Soldiers from the Russian mercenary organization Wagner are being “replaced” by regular Russian troops on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut but, as of Thursday, Wagner fighters remain in the city itself, according to Hanna Mailar, Ukraine’s deputy defense minister.

Mailar added that Russian forces are trying to stop the gains made on the flanks by Ukrainian troops over the last week with artillery shelling, and the Russians are reinforcing in those areas.

She maintained that Ukrainian forces still “control the outskirts of the city in the southwestern part of the ‘Airplane’ area.”

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin said earlier that the withdrawal of his fighters from Bakhmut had begun and would last until June 1.

On Saturday, Prigozhin claimed to have captured the city and announced that he would hand control of it over to the Russian Ministry of Defense.

Frequency of attacks in Bakhmut has decreased: Ukraine

The frequency of attacks in the Bakhmut direction “has decreased,” according to Serhii Cherevatyi, the spokesman for the Eastern Grouping of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.

Speaking to CNN, Cherevatyi said that this was “very unusual for this part of the frontline,” adding that a reason for this is the “significant exhaustion, losses and regrouping” of Russian units.

“There were two combat engagements over the past 24 hours. Over the previous two days, there were three combat engagements each,” he stated.

Speaking about the Wagner withdrawal from Bakhmut — which the organization’s chief Yevgeny Prigozhin says began at 5am local time on Thursday — Cherevatyi said “we cannot confirm that,” adding “we will be able to verify the details of which units will regroup and when. In any case we will take advantage of this.”

Prigozhin claimed on Saturday to have captured Bakhmut after months of brutal fighting, saying he would hand it over to Russia later in May.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelesnky initially rebutted Prigozhin’s claims, telling the G7 summit in Japan that his forces were still fighting in Bakhmut.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister Hanna Maliar said this week that Ukrainian forces still held a small part of the city, but also claimed that fighting inside the city has “decreased.”

Russia must stop blocking grain initiative: US ambassador

The United States Ambassador to Ukraine said Russia must stop obstructing the Black Sea grain deal after Ukraine reported that 28 ships were waiting to enter the Pivdennyy port.

Ambassador Bridget Brink said on Twitter, “After repeated threats to withdraw from the Black Sea Grain Initiative, Russia now refuses to allow any of the waiting 28 ships into Pivdennyy, one of the three ports designated by the agreement for food exports — a clear violation of their commitment. Russia must stop obstructing the operations of this life-saving initiative.”

China’s Ukraine envoy to meet Russia’s FM on Friday

China’s Ukraine envoy Li Hui will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Friday, the Russian foreign ministry said.

“On May 26, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Galuzin is scheduled to meet with the special representative of the Chinese government for Eurasian Affairs, Li Hui,” a statement said.

“On the same day, Li Hui will be received by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov,” it added.

Li, a former ambassador to Moscow, has been on an extended tour to Ukraine, Poland, France and Germany.

Twenty Ukrainian pilots to start training on F-16 jets in UK

About 20 Ukrainian pilots will enter initial training on F-16 fighter jets in the United Kingdom, Foreign Policy reported, citing a British government spokesperson.

“This will be ground-based basic training of Ukrainian pilots who will then be ready for more specific F-16 (or other) training,” the spokesperson stated, as cited by the media outlet.

However, there were no details on when the training would begin.

A spokesperson for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak told TASS earlier that the United Kingdom was committed to providing Ukraine with air combat support as soon as possible.

On May 21, US President Joe Biden announced at a press news conference following a G7 summit in Hiroshima, Japan, that the West would begin training Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation aircraft, including the F-16. Meanwhile, according to US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Washington will discuss with its allies in the coming months which countries will send F-16 fighter jets to Kiev.

EU wants to send profits from frozen Russian assets to Ukraine: Report

European Union officials are considering whether to send Ukraine profits generated from Russian assets frozen within the bloc, the Financial Times has reported, citing people familiar with the discussions.

EU member states and European Commission officials convened on Wednesday to examine how they might move funds held at Euroclear, the world’s largest settlement house, over to Ukraine, as Russian-owned assets there have accrued interest since they were first frozen.

Targeted under an unprecedented Western sanctions campaign, the Russian assets stuck at Euroclear amount to €196.6 billion ($211.1 billion), the vast majority of which is owned by the country’s central bank. As the assets have generated hundreds of millions in interest over the last year, the clearing house has reinvested those funds, and officials now hope to transfer the resulting profits to Kiev.

“It’s not entirely clear who this interest belongs to,” one person familiar with the plans told FT, adding that while passing the profits to Ukraine would be “uncharted territory,” the EU believes “it could be done.”

Some European officials have called to extend a similar concept to a wider range of frozen Russian assets – including those trapped at Clearstream, a settlement agency based in Luxembourg – with another source telling the outlet that financial institutions simply “don’t know what to do with this money.”

However, settlement houses attempting to implement profit-siphoning schemes are likely to face legal challenges, as Euroclear has already been sued by Russian asset-holders. In March, the firm declared that it would not touch “any profits related to the Russian sanctions until the situation becomes clearer,” suggesting it could be hesitant to go forward with the plans.

Russia’s National Settlement Depository (NSD) has attempted to obtain permits to release the Russian-owned funds from European clearing systems since last year. However, such permits do not ensure that investors will ever see their money, given uncertainties about withdrawing procedures in the EU, as well as the bloc’s designs on the cash.

Moscow has called the Western attempts to transfer the seized assets to Ukraine “barbarism,” and “theft” that violates international law, while the Kremlin has warned that Russia will respond in kind if necessary.

EU officials will discuss the matter further during a meeting in late June, with the Commission recently saying that it is “exploring ways” to use frozen assets to “ensure that Russia pays for the damages caused in Ukraine.”

Russian intelligence claims they foiled two Ukrainian attacks on nuclear power stations

Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said it has arrested two men in connection with foiled attacks on Russian nuclear power plants earlier this month, state news agency TASS reported.

The FSB alleges the attacks were planned at nuclear power stations in the Leningrad and Tver regions ahead of Russia’s May 9 Victory Day celebrations, TASS reported.

The TASS report claimed the planned attacks were organized by the Foreign Intelligence Services of Ukraine.

The FSB named the two men arrested as Maystruk Alexander and Usatenko Eduard. A third man, Kishchak Yuriy, is also wanted in connection with the alleged plot.

The report did not state when the arrests were made.

Russia holds an annual military parade on May 9 marking the Soviet Union’s role in defeating Nazi Germany in World War II.

In the run up to Victory Day this year, the Kremlin was targeted in an alleged drone attack. US officials have picked up chatter among Ukrainian officials blaming each other for the drone attack, contributing to a US assessment that a Ukrainian group may have been responsible, sources familiar with US intelligence have told CNN.

Wagner withdrawing units from Bakhmut: Founder

Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has started withdrawing its forces from the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, its founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said.

A video posted on Telegram by his press service showed Prigozhin dressed in battle gear and standing beside a war-damaged residential block when making the statement.

“We are withdrawing the units from Bakhmut. From today at five in the morning, May 25 until June 1, most of the units will re-base to camps in the rear. We are handing our positions to the military,” he stated.

Prigozhin announced the capture of Bakhmut on Saturday after the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. He added his fighters would pull out and regular Russian troops would move in to replace them.

Wagner chief says 20,000 of its troops killed in Bakhmut battle

Some 20,000 troops from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group were killed in the months-long battle for control of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, its founder has said.

Yevgeny Prigozhin stated that he had recruited about 50,000 prisoners to fight with Wagner in Russia’s war in Ukraine and that about 20 percent of them had been killed.

A similar number of his contract soldiers had also perished in the battle for the city, he told Russian political strategist Konstantin Dolgov in a video interview posted on his Telegram channel on Wednesday.

This weekend, Wagner and the Russian military claimed to have taken control of Bakhmut, which has been left in ruins by the prolonged fighting, with Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulating the armed forces. But Kyiv has announced its forces continue to fight for the city.

US intelligence indicates Ukrainians may have launched drone attack on Kremlin

US officials have picked up chatter amongst Ukrainian officials blaming each other for a drone attack on the Kremlin earlier this month.

This contributes to a US assessment that a Ukrainian group may have been responsible, sources familiar with the intelligence told CNN.

The intercepts include some members of Ukraine’s military and intelligence bureaucracy speculating that Ukrainian special operations forces conducted the operation.

The chatter, combined with other intercepted communications of Russian officials blaming Ukraine for the attack and wondering how it happened, has led US officials to consider the possibility that a Ukrainian group was behind the incident on May 3.

On that morning, two drones flew up toward the Kremlin’s Senate Palace and struck the top of the building.

However, the US has not been able to reach a definitive conclusion on who was responsible and only assesses with low confidence that a Ukrainian group may have been behind the incident, officials said.

They still have no definitive proof as to who launched the drones, and US officials still believe it is unlikely that senior Ukrainian government officials, including Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, ordered the attack or knew about it beforehand.

Recent US intelligence reports have assessed that Russian officials have speculated privately, as they have publicly, that Ukraine was behind the attack, leading officials to believe that the incident was likely not a state-sponsored false-flag operation intended to give Russia a pretext to further escalate its war on Ukraine.

The Kremlin has also made some internal security changes in response to the attack, one source familiar with the intelligence said, declining to go into detail.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said publicly following the episode that the city’s air defenses would be tightened.

The drones that hit the Kremlin appeared small, with a relatively light payload, which is probably why they didn’t trigger Russian air defenses, sources told CNN.

Russian forces using 3 power units in Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant as military base: Ukrainian intelligence

Russian forces are using three power units at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant as a logistics and military base, Ukraine’s intelligence service claimed Wednesday.

“Despite numerous appeals from the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and world leaders, the occupiers do not reduce their presence at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant,” Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence said in a statement.

It accused Russian forces of using three power units as a staging ground for military equipment.

“Currently, the territory of power units 1, 2, 4 is actually used as a logistics and military base [by Russia],” the statement said, adding, “Russian military personnel, armored vehicles and trucks are permanently stationed at these sites.”

The statement notes that the number of vehicles and military personnel at the plant are constantly changing to be near each power unit.

“The rotation takes place covertly during the curfew (from 23:00 p.m. to 5:00 a.m. local time),” the statement read.

Moscow has previously said the only military equipment at the plant is related to guard duties.

The statement comes ahead of an expected update Thursday from the IAEA on the situation in the plant.

Three IAEA inspectors from Argentina, Ireland and Morocco will arrive for a new rotation, according to Russian state media.

Earlier this week Rafael Grossi, the IAEA chief said the Zaporizhzhia plant was “extremely vulnerable” after external power had been lost to the plant.

Allies’ supply of F-16 jets is a signal that Russia will lose: Zelensky

President Volodymyr Zelensky said the planned supply of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine is “one of the strongest signals from the world that Russia will only lose.”

Speaking during his nightly address, Zelensky referenced an international coalition with the UK and the Netherlands. Both countries said in early May that they are working to help Ukraine procure US-made F-16 fighter jets.

President Joe Biden later said the US will support a joint effort with allies and partners to train Ukrainian pilots on fourth-generation aircrafts, including F-16s.

On Wednesday, Norway said it would support the training and will consider different ways to do so.

“This will be a signal that Russian terror has lost, and our world, which is based on respect for independent nations and the right of peoples to choose their own path, has survived,” Zelensky stated.

Ukraine will prepare all the necessary conditions to make sure the air transition takes place as quickly and efficiently as possible, the president added.

Biden administration approves $285 million sale of air defense system to Ukraine

The Joe Biden administration approved the $285 million sale of a National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System to Ukraine, the US State Department announced.

NASAMS is an advanced medium-range air defense system that Ukraine has used effectively to repel and intercept Russian aerial attacks. Ukraine already has two such systems, and the US has committed to providing another six under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative.

This latest purchase would give Ukraine a total of nine NASAMS when delivery is completed.

In November, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the NASAMS had a 100% success rate in intercepting Russian missiles.

Ukraine’s NATO membership “not on the agenda” during war: Alliance’s chief

Ukraine’s bid to become a member of NATO while there is a war with Russia is “not on the agenda,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said during an interview at the Brussels Forum event on Wednesday.

Asked whether the war in Ukraine makes it “easier” for the country to join the alliance, Stoltenberg stated, “Yes and no. I think that everyone realized that to become a member in the midst of war is not on the agenda, and that is not the issue.”

“The issue is more of what happens when the war ends, in one way or another. And then of course, the war ensures that Ukraine is becoming even closer to NATO,” Stoltenberg continued.

The NATO chief acknowledged that there are some “different views in the alliance” on the issue of NATO membership for Ukraine, but he added that all members are in agreement that Ukraine will become a member.

“We all agree that NATO’s door is open for new members and that it is for NATO allies and Ukraine to decide when they should join, not Moscow,” he added.

Russia claims Ukraine made unsuccessful drone attack on its Black Sea reconnaissance ship

The Russian Defense Ministry announced Ukraine launched an unsuccessful drone attack on one of its Black Sea reconnaissance ships Wednesday.

“This morning, the Ukrainian Armed Forces unsuccessfully tried to attack with three unmanned boats the Black Sea Fleet’s ‘Ivan Khurs’ ship, which performs the tasks of ensuring the safety of the ‘Turkish Stream’ and ‘Blue Stream’ gas pipelines in the economic zone of Turkey,” Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said in a briefing on Wednesday.

“All the enemy’s boats were destroyed by fire from the Russian ship’s regular weapons 140 kilometers (about 87 miles) northeast of the Bosporus,” he added.

The Russian ministry said the reconnaissance ship had returned to its normal tasks Wednesday.

Russia will respond “extremely harshly” to future incursions: Defense minister

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Wednesday called the cross-border raid in Belgorod a “terrorist act” and warned that Russia will respond “promptly and extremely harshly” to any further attempts.

Shoigu also claimed that more than 70 saboteurs were killed, as well as automotive and armored vehicles.

“During the counter-terrorist operation, the national formations were blocked and defeated,” Shoigu said during a televised meeting.

“We will continue to respond promptly and extremely harshly to such actions by Ukrainian militants,” he added.

A group of anti-Putin Russian nationals, who are aligned with the Ukrainian army, claimed responsibility for an attack in Russia’s southwestern region of Belgorod, which borders north-eastern Ukraine.

The Ukraine-based Freedom for Russia Legion has said its goal is the “complete liberation of Russia” after claiming a surprise attack in Belgorod.

We want to kill Putin: Ukrainian deputy intelligence chief

Russian President Vladimir Putin is on Ukraine’s kill list, the deputy chief of the country’s intelligence agency has revealed. Vadim Skibitsky added that his subordinates are also hunting down top Russian military commanders.

Speaking to Germany’s Die Welt media outlet on Wednesday, Skibitsky was asked whether his service is trying to assassinate the Russian head of state. The Ukrainian official replied by saying that President Putin “notices that we’re getting ever closer to him.”

According to Skibitsky, the Ukrainian intelligence service has failed to kill Putin because he “stays holed up,” but added that the Russian commander-in-chief “is now beginning to stick his head out.”

When he does appear publicly, however, the intelligence agency is “not sure whether it’s really him,” Skibitsky insisted.

He added that his subordinates were “trying to kill” Yevgeny Prighozhin, the head of the Wagner private military company.

Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu and Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov have also been marked for elimination by the Ukrainian intelligence service, its deputy chief claimed.

When asked whether Kiev was behind the assassinations of journalist and activist Darya Dugina last August and military blogger Vladlen Tatarsky in late April, as well as the attempt on the life of writer Zakhar Prilepin earlier this month, Skibitsky claimed that these had been ‘inside jobs’.

The Ukrainian official also alleged that various groups within the Russian elite were fighting each other for power.

Skibitsky added that Russian “propagandists” are not the top priority targets for his service as opposed to Russian military unit commanders. He claimed that Kiev had managed to assassinate some of this top brass but refused to give any names or numbers.

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