Saturday, June 22, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 500

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:

Kremlin says Turkey violated agreements by releasing Ukrainian fighters

Turkey has violated agreements by releasing detained commanders of a unit that for weeks defended a steel works in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said.

Peskov, quoted by RIA news agency, stated under the terms of a prisoner exchange the Azovstal fighters were to remain in Turkey until the end of the war.

Russia had not been informed of their release, he added.

Canada opposes US decision to send cluster bombs to Ukraine

Canada has joined a chorus of US allies opposing Washington’s decision to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions for its counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces, reiterating a commitment to the Oslo agreement that bans the controversial weapon.

“We do not support the use of cluster munitions and are committed to putting an end to the effects cluster munitions have on civilians – particularly children,” the Canadian government said in a statement.

The Liberal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is one of Ukraine’s most vocal supporters, and has committed billions of dollars in financial, military, humanitarian and other assistance since last year.

Germany, Spain and the UK have also voiced their opposition to the transfer of the widely banned bombs.

Poland moves troops to eastern border amid Wagner fears

Poland has begun moving over 1,000 troops to the east of the country, the defence minister said, amid rising concern in the NATO-member that the presence of Wagner fighters in Belarus could lead to increased tension on its border.

“Over 1,000 soldiers and almost 200 units of equipment from the 12th and 17th Mechanized Brigades are starting to move to the east of the country,” Mariusz Blaszczak wrote on Twitter.

“This is a demonstration of our readiness to respond to attempts at destabilisation near the border of our country,” he added.

A senior Wagner commander earlier said that mercenaries from the group were preparing to move to Belarus.

Azovstal commanders released to Turkey return to Ukraine

Five commanders of Ukraine’s former garrison in Mariupol, forced to live in Turkey under the terms of a prisoner exchange last year, have returned to Ukraine with President Volodymyr Zelensky, who was on a visit to Istanbul.

“We are returning home from Turkey and bringing our heroes home,” Zelensky said on the Telegram messaging app after talks with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Ukrainian soldiers Denys Prokopenko, Svyatoslav Palamar, Serhiy Volynsky, Oleh Khomenko, Denys Shleha. They will finally be with their relatives,” he added.

Zelensky posted a one-minute video showing himself and other officials shaking hands and hugging the smiling commanders before they boarded a Czech aeroplane together.

He gave no explanation for why the commanders were being allowed to return home now. There was no immediate comment from Russia and Turkey.

Wagner fighters preparing to move to Belarus: Commander

Mercenary fighters of Yevgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner group are preparing to move to Belarus under the terms of a deal that defused their mutiny against Russia’s military leadership, a senior commander of the group has said.

Anton Yelizarov, whose nom de guerre is “Lotus”, was quoted by a channel on the Telegram messaging app as saying the fighters were now taking vacation until early August, on Prigozhin’s orders, before moving to Belarus.

“We have to prepare bases, training grounds, coordinate with local governments and administrations, organise interaction with the law enforcement agencies of Belarus and establish logistics,” he was quoted by the “Yevgeny Prigozhin on Telegram” channel as saying.

Since the June 23-24 mutiny, which saw Wagner fighters briefly seize a southern Russian city and march towards Moscow, the exact whereabouts of Prigozhin and his mercenaries have been unclear. The troops have been instrumental in the Kremlin’s war, in particular on the front-line sector close to Bakhmut in east Ukraine.

Death toll in Lyman rises to eight: Interior ministry

Eight people have been killed and 13 injured in Lyman, eastern Ukraine, after the town came under Russian rocket fire, Ukraine’s interior ministry has confirmed.

“So far we know about 8 dead … The number of injured has increased to 13 people,” the ministry said on social media.

Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk region where Lyman is located, stated “at around 10:00 am [07:00 GMT], the Russians struck the town with multiple rocket launchers”.

Lyman, a major rail hub, was initially captured by Russian forces but then re-taken by Ukraine’s army in October.

Russia says US cluster bombs offer shows ‘weakness’

Washington’s decision to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions is an “act of desperation” that will have no effect on Moscow’s campaign in Ukraine, Russia’s foreign ministry has announced.

“It is an act of desperation and shows weakness against the backdrop of the failure of the much-touted Ukrainian counteroffensive,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a statement.

“The latest ‘miracle weapon’ which Washington and Kyiv are betting on, without thinking about the grave consequences, will have no effect on the special military operation,” she added, using Russia’s official term for its campaign in Ukraine.

Russia itself uses cluster bombs in Ukraine but they are banned in many parts of the world.

Officials: 494 children have been killed in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion started 500 days ago

At least 494 children have been killed and 1,051 injured since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started 500 days ago, Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office said on Saturday.

Most of the children involved were in the Donetsk and Kharkiv region, with others in regions including Kyiv, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Mykolaiv, according to the statement.

“These are not the final numbers. Work is ongoing to establish the data in combat zones, as well as in the temporarily occupied and liberated territories,” the prosecutor general’s office said.

The United Nations announced Friday that more than 9,000 civilians, including more than 500 children, had been killed since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022.

The UN also warned that the true number of fatalities could be much higher than the figures it had been able to confirm.

May and June saw an increase in the number of civilians killed, the UN added, after a relative decline in civilian fatalities in the first four months of the year.

Spain says cluster bombs should not be sent to Ukraine

Spain’s Defence Minister says cluster bombs should not be sent to help Ukraine, a day after the United States announced the weapons would be sent to Kyiv to help with its counteroffensive against Russian forces.

“Spain, based on the firm commitment it has with Ukraine, also has a firm commitment that certain weapons and bombs cannot be delivered under any circumstances,” Margarita Robles stated.

“No to cluster bombs and yes to the legitimate defence of Ukraine, which we understand should not be carried out with cluster bombs,” Robles added.

Ukrainian officials report gains around Bakhmut

Ukrainian artillery units firing at Bakhmut see tangible progress in pushing the Russians away, according to reports.

“The Russians are falling back. We know because they hit us much less,” a gunner with the call sign Ares says, standing next to a small crater next to his unit’s hideout. It struck them about 10 days ago.

“One or two months ago there was a lot of incoming. It was scary to be here. Now it’s different,” he adds.

Ukrainian officials stated Friday they had advanced 1 kilometer in the direction of the city. The strategy is to encircle the city from the north and south while pounding Russian troops stationed there with non-stop bombardment to force them to surrender or retreat.

PM says UK part of a convention that discourages use of cluster munitions

Britain is signatory to a convention which prohibits the production or use of cluster munitions and discourages their use, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said on Saturday after the United States said it was planning to supply Ukraine with them.

“We will continue to do our part to support Ukraine against Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion,” Sunak told reporters.

In total, 123 countries have signed the 2008 Oslo Convention banning the production, storage, sale and use of cluster munitions, due to the danger unexploded bomblets pose even after a conflict has ended.

UK says Russia lacks reserves for Bakhmut fight

UK’s defence ministry announced Russia’s army in Ukraine hardly has any reserves to reinforce the sector around the town of Bakhmut, despite intensified fighting.

Last week’s fighting around the now destroyed city has been among the fiercest on the entire front, after subsiding in June, the ministry said in its daily intelligence report on Twitter.

“Russian defenders are highly likely struggling with poor morale, a mix of disparate units and a limited ability to find and strike Ukrainian artillery,” the statement added.

But it noted the Russian leadership probably considered it politically unacceptable to abandon Bakhmut, which had been one of the few Russian territorial gains in the past 12 months.

At least 6 killed in Russian shelling in Ukrainian town of Lyman: Regional administration

At least six people were killed and five injured as a result of Russian troops shelling the Ukrainian town of Lyman on Saturday, the head of Donetsk region military administration Pavlo Kyrylenko said.

According to Kyrylenko, Russian forces attacked the town with multiple launch rocket systems at around 10 a.m. local time (3 a.m. ET), hitting a private residential area and causing damage to a house and a shop.

Kyrylenko added that police and emergency services are on the scene providing assistance.

UK to give special firefighting vehicles to Ukraine

Britain announced it will provide 15 Rapid Intervention Vehicles and two Major Foam Vehicles to Ukraine.

“The UK will provide 17 specialist firefighting vehicles to Ukraine’s fire and rescue services, primarily sourced from the Royal Air Force (RAF) and Defence Fire and Rescue, with one provided by the Welsh Government,” said a statement from the defence ministry.

It noted the equipment will help bolster Ukraine’s ability to respond to damage caused by Russian attacks.

“These specialist firefighting vehicles will boost Ukraine’s ability to protect its infrastructure from Russia’s campaign of missile and drone attacks and continue our support for Ukraine, for as long as it takes,” Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said in the statement.

9,000 civilians have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine: UN

More than 9,000 civilians, including 500 children, have been killed since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the United Nations has said, condemning the cost to civilians as the war in Ukraine reached the 500-day mark.

The UN’s Human Rights Monitoring Mission in Ukraine (HRMMU) announced in a statement on Friday that it “deplored the horrendous civilian cost of the war in Ukraine” and was able to confirm that 9,000 civilians had been killed so far in the conflict.

The mission warned that the actual toll is likely to be far higher than the number of officially confirmed deaths.

“Today we mark another grim milestone in the war that continues to exact a horrific toll on Ukraine’s civilians,” Noel Calhoun, the deputy head of HRMMU, said in the statement to mark the 500th day since the start of the invasion.

While this year the casualty numbers in Ukraine have been lower on average than in 2022, the figure began to climb again in May and June, the monitors added.

The UN monitoring mission in Ukraine also noted that three times as many civilians were killed in the last 500 days compared with the entire previous eight years of hostilities in eastern Ukraine, when Russian-backed separatists seized Crimea and other areas.

DM thanks US for providing Ukraine with cluster munitions

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov thanked the United States on Saturday for agreeing to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions, according to a tweet from the minister.

Reznikov said that Ukraine had been “officially requesting these types of munitions for a long time.”

“I would like to stress that in exercising our inalienable right to self-defense we will continue to strictly comply with all the international humanitarian conventions signed and ratified by Ukraine,” Reznikov added.

Reznikov insisted that Ukraine would abide by the principles which it has communicated to the US and its partners. Those include using the munitions for liberating internationally recognized Ukrainian territory, using them in non-urban areas, and keeping a record of where they are used for de-mining purposes later.

Throughout the war, Kyiv’s Western allies have deliberated at length over whether they should send Ukraine the latest bit of military hardware it has requested. First it was artillery, then it was Leopard and Abrams tanks. The US is now supporting the training of Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets.

Each time, what initially appeared to be a bridge too far for Western nations eventually became seen as the right thing to do.

Cluster weapons followed that same trajectory.

The US confirmed Friday that it would deliver Ukraine these weapons as part of a new military aid package.

Cluster munitions, also called cluster bombs, are canisters that carry tens to hundreds of smaller bomblets, also known as submunitions. The canisters can be dropped from aircraft, launched from missiles or fired from artillery, naval guns or rocket launchers.

The canisters break open at a prescribed height, depending upon the area of the intended target, and the bomblets inside spread out over that area. They are fused by a timer to explode closer to or on the ground, spreading shrapnel that is designed to kill troops or take out armored vehicles such as tanks.

Zelensky says he believes Ukraine will regain control over Crimea

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he believes his country will regain control over Crimea and thanked Turkey for supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

“I’m grateful to Turkey for supporting our territorial integrity and sovereignty,” Zelensky stated while speaking alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a joint press conference in Istanbul early Saturday.

“We talked about the situation in Crimea that Russia still unlawfully controls and uses as a bridgehead of threats and danger. In any case, we will renew our control over Crimea,” he added.

Crimea was forcibly seized by Russia in 2014 and is home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, which is based at Sevastopol. The peninsula has acted as a launching pad for the February invasion, with Russian troops pouring into Ukraine’s south from the annexed region.

When Russia completed its annexation of Crimea in a referendum, which was slammed by Ukraine and most of the world as illegitimate, it was at the time considered the biggest land grab on Europe since World War II.

During the war, the Ukrainian military has been carrying out attacks in Crimea with two goals: harass the Russian Black Sea fleet and disrupt vital Russian supply lines.

Ukraine ‘deserves’ NATO membership: Erdogan

Turkey supports Ukraine’s NATO membership aspirations, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky, but he also urged for a “return to peace efforts” to end the conflict that has now raged for 500 days since Russia invaded Ukraine last year.

“There is no doubt that Ukraine deserves membership of NATO,” Erdogan told a joint press conference with the Ukrainian president in Istanbul early on Saturday, adding that the two sides should go back to peace talks.

“A fair peace creates no losers,” the Turkish leader added.

Turkey supports Ukraine’s NATO membership: Zelensky

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was “happy to hear” that Turkey supports Ukraine’s bid to join the NATO alliance.

Zelensky, who spoke alongside Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan at a joint press conference in Istanbul, said the two leaders discussed “key issues of our work in the context of NATO, in particular preparing for a Vilnius summit.”

Ukraine is expected to be at the top of the agenda of that meeting next week.

“I raised the question of Ukraine’s membership in the NATO alliance and was happy to hear that the President [Erdoğan] supports Ukraine to be a NATO member,” Zelensky stated.

Zelensky also added the two leaders talked about “the joint work in the military-industrial complex, development of technologies, drone manufacturing and other strategic directions.”

“We made certain agreements,” he continued, noting, “I asked Turkey to join into the efforts of rebuilding and transforming Ukraine, it is a colossal project, and we need Turkey’s experience and technology to help us.”

Both Sweden and its neighbor Finland stated their intent to join NATO through its open-door policy in May last year, just weeks after Russia launched its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Finland was accepted in April of this year, doubling the alliance’s border with Russia, but Sweden’s accession is currently being blocked by Turkey.

Turkey claims that Sweden allows members of recognized Kurdish terror groups to operate in Sweden, most notably the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Turkey is working on extending Black Sea grain deal that expires this month: Erdogan

Ukraine and Turkey’s leaders say they are working to extend the Black Sea grain deal that expires later this month.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said early Saturday he discussed the issue with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul and emphasized the Black Sea should be an area of safety not of “so-called frozen conflicts.”

Erdoğan stated Turkey is working on extending the deal and that he will speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin about the matter.

The Turkish president said instead of renewing a year-long deal every two months, he is hopeful it could be put in place for a two-year period, with renewal every three months. The current deal expires on July 17.

“We have a common understanding that no one can tell our nations what to do in the Black Sea region that doesn’t coincide with our country’s and our people’s interests. Black Sea should be an area of safety, cooperation and not an area of war or any crises or so-called frozen conflicts that can ignite at any minute and strike and effect people’s lives,” Zelensky continued.

Erdoğan added after brokering the grain deal, about 33 million tons of grain were able to get to those who needed it in just one year.

“We have shown our solidarity with Ukraine through political, economic, humanitarian and technical help,” Erdoğan stated.

NATO summit is a “milestone” but will not yet result in Ukraine’s membership: White House official

Ukraine will not be joining NATO as a member country following next week’s summit, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan confirmed in a news conference Friday.

While that statement was widely expected, observers will be closely watching for any tangible steps Ukraine can take toward membership.

“Ukraine will not be joining NATO coming out of this summit. We will discuss what steps are necessary as it continues along this path,” Sullivan said.

Kyiv has long sought to join the alliance, though Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has acknowledged his country’s membership would have to wait until the war with Russia is finished.

Sullivan reiterated the current “open door policy” that will allow Ukraine and NATO to make a decision together, saying that the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, “will be an important moment on that pathway toward membership,” as it will provide an opportunity for members “to discuss the reforms that are still necessary for Ukraine to come up to NATO standards.”

Sullivan called the summit a “milestone,” but added that Ukraine “still has further steps it needs to take before membership.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Friday that he expects leaders at the summit to “reaffirm” that Ukraine will — eventually — become a member.

In addition to Ukraine, the military alliance gathering is expected to feature discussion of Sweden’s stalled accession, including concessions it has made in response to Turkey’s objections.

The White House national security adviser stated the US continues to back Sweden’s bid and said he believes the process will get done relatively soon.

“We are confident that Sweden will come in (to NATO) in the not-too-distant future, and there will be unanimous support for that,” Sullivan added.

Cluster munitions going to Ukraine have low “dud rates” and will help maintain ammo supply: Pentagon

The US Defense Department defended the decision to send controversial Dual-Purpose Improved Conventional Munitions (DPICMs), also known as cluster munitions, to Ukraine, citing the lower failure rates of the weapons than the Russian versions, as well as Ukraine’s commitment to “responsible use” of them.

“The Ukrainian government has offered us assurances in writing on the responsible use of DPICM’s, including that they will not use the rounds in civilian populated urban environments, and that they will record where they use these rounds, which will simplify later de-mining efforts,” said Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl at a press briefing.

Kahl stated he discussed the issue with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, and the US will increase its support to Ukraine’s “post-conflict de-mining efforts” on top of the $95 million already committed.

Providing cluster munitions to Ukraine will “ensure that the Ukrainian military has sufficient artillery ammunition for many months to come,” Kahl added.

Kahl reiterated the US is not providing older cluster munition variants with high “dud rates.”

“Many of those studies that have been referenced, at least the ones that I’ve seen in the press, were based on testing completed in the 1980s,” he continued, adding, “And many of the DPICMs of those variants have since been demilitarized. We’re not providing those variants of DPICMs to Ukraine. Instead, we’ll be providing our most modern DPICMs with dud rates assessed to be under 2.35%, demonstrated through five comprehensive tests conducted by the Department of Defense between 1998 and 2020.”

Cluster munitions are banned by more than 100 countries, not including the US and Ukraine, because they scatter “bomblets” across large areas that can fail to explode on impact and can pose a long-term risk to anyone who encounters them, similar to landmines.

Pentagon announces it is sending cluster munitions to Ukraine in latest equipment drawdown

US President Joe Biden’s administration officially announced it was sending cluster munitions to Ukraine as part of the 42nd drawdown of equipment from the Defense Department.

A release on Friday said the administration was providing “additional artillery systems and ammunition, including highly effective and reliable dual-purpose improved conventional munitions (DPICM), on which the Administration conducted extensive consultations with Congress and our Allies and partners.”

In separate statement, Biden stated he had formally directed the drawdown of up to $800 million in defense articles and services to provide assistance to Ukraine.

In total, the US has provided more than $41.3 billion in security aid to Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion began last year.

Ukraine is grateful for the “timely, broad and much-needed” defense package, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Friday.

In a message on Twitter, Zelensky praised the US for taking “decisive steps that bring Ukraine closer to victory over the enemy, and democracy to victory over dictatorship.”

“The expansion of Ukraine’s defense capabilities will provide new tools for the de-occupation of our land and bringing peace closer,” he added.

No major change in positions during continued “hot fighting”: Ukrainian defense official

Russian forces are continuing their offensive on the front lines in areas of the eastern Donetsk, Luhansk and Kharkiv regions, according to Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar.

Moscow’s troops have been unsuccessful in attempts to break through Ukrainian positions in the Avdiivka, Marinka, Kupyansk, Lyman and Svatove directions, Maliar said Friday.

“Hot fighting continues everywhere with no change in positions,” she said.

In the Bakhmut sector, there have been advances in several areas, “more than a kilometer,” Maliar said, and the Russians are effectively stuck in the battered city.

“The enemy is actually trapped in Bakhmut town. Our troops have made it as difficult as possible for the enemy to move and make it impossible for them to leave. Shelling continues on both sides,” she stated.

In the south: The Ukrainian forces also continue offensive actions in the directions of Melitopol and Berdiansk. “Our troops are strengthening their positions at the achieved lines, carrying out counter-battery actions,” she continued.

Maliar added that Ukrainian forces have destroyed Moscow’s equipment and weapons, and she claimed that Russian forces are suffering “significant losses in manpower in the south.”

UN chief is against use of cluster munitions: Spokesperson

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres is against the use of cluster munitions, his deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq said at a news briefing on Friday.

Defense officials stated that the US is expected to announce a new military aid package to Ukraine on Friday that will include cluster munitions for the first time.

“The Secretary General supports the Convention on Cluster Munitions (CCM), which, as you know, was adopted 15 years ago, and he wants countries to abide by the terms of that convention,” Haq stated.

“So, as a result, of course, he does not want there to be continued use of cluster munitions on the battlefield,” he added.

The convention prohibits all use, stockpiling, production and transfer of cluster munitions.

Cluster munitions are banned by over 100 countries because they scatter “bomblets” across large areas that can fail to explode on impact and can pose a long-term risk to anyone who encounters them, similar to landmines. The US and Ukraine are not signatories to that ban, however.

Poland, Lithuania and Latvia warn NATO about threat from Belarus

Presidents of Lithuania, Poland and Latvia wrote a letter to the NATO Secretary General and the heads of the NATO alliance, warning them about the threat “posed by Russia’s aggressive actions and the evolving situation in Belarus.”

“The cooperation between Russia and Belarus has deteriorated the security of the region and that of the entire Euro-Atlantic area,” Presidents Gitanas Nausėda, Andrzej Duda and Egils Levits stated, according to the Lithuanian President’s Communication Group.

They pointed to Russia’s use of Belarusian territory in its war against Ukraine, and Moscow stationing tactical nuclear weapons on the territory of Belarus, calling it “an escalatory move” and “a direct threat to the security of our community.”

NATO leaders expected to “reaffirm Ukraine will become a member”: Chief

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced Friday he expects leaders at the US-led alliance’s summit next week to “reaffirm that Ukraine will become a member of NATO.”

Stoltenberg said he expects allied leaders will agree on a “package with three elements to bring Ukraine closer to NATO.”

The first of those would be a “multi-year program of assistance to ensure full interoperability between the Ukrainian armed forces and NATO,” he said at a news conference in Brussels.

Secondly, Stoltenberg stated, “we will upgrade our political ties by establishing the NATO Ukraine Council.”

Thirdly, “I expect our leaders will reaffirm that Ukraine will become a member of NATO and unite on how to bring Ukraine closer to its goal,” the alliance head continued.

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