Sunday, June 23, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 503

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:

Chief: ‘Never been a stronger message from NATO’ to Ukraine

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg defended a declaration adopted by the military alliance’s leaders which offered Ukraine hope for membership but no formal invitation.

“There has never been a stronger message from NATO at any time, both when it comes to political message on the path forward for membership and the concrete support from NATO allies,” said Stoltenberg in Vilnius.

He also defended the absence of a time frame for when Kyiv would qualify for an invitation.

“If you look at other membership processes, there have not been time lines for those processes. They are conditions-based,” he added.

Zelensky: ‘Ukraine will make NATO stronger’

Ukraine will make NATO stronger, President Volodymyr Zelensky told a crowd in central Vilnius, adding that the military alliance would make his country safer and it deserved to be allowed to join.

“NATO will make Ukraine safer, Ukraine will make NATO stronger,” he said.

NATO: Security of Ukraine is important to alliance

NATO announced Ukraine’s security is of “great importance” and they will establish a new joint body, the NATO-Ukraine Council, to further Kyiv’s aspirations for membership in the alliance.

The council is part of a “substantial package of expanded political and practical support”, a press release by NATO said.

It will “provide for joint consultations, decision-making, and activities, and will also serve as a crisis consultation mechanism between NATO and Ukraine”, NATO added.

Ukraine’s future lies in NATO: Alliance’s leaders

NATO leaders say Ukraine’s future lies within the alliance, but they have shied away from announcing a formal invitation or timetable for its membership.

“Ukraine’s future is in NATO,” a declaration agreed upon by the leaders said.

“We will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when allies agree and conditions are met,” the declaration added.

The leaders did not specify what conditions Ukraine needs to meet.

Russia to use similar weapons if US sends cluster bombs: DM

Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu says Moscow would be forced to use “similar” means of attack if the US supplies cluster bombs to Ukraine, Russian news agencies report.

Shoigu was quoted as saying that Russia had cluster munitions but had so far refrained from using them during the conflict.

Last week, the US announced it would supply Ukraine with widely banned cluster munitions for its counteroffensive.

Russian cluster bombs have been found and defused in Ukraine, and NATO and Kyiv has said Moscow is using them in the conflict. Ukraine has also deployed them.

Ukrainian pilots to begin F-16 training in August

A coalition of 11 nations will begin training Ukrainian pilots to fly F-16 fighter jets in August in Denmark, while a training centre will also be set up in Romania, officials said.

“Hopefully we will be able to see results in the beginning of next year,” Denmark’s acting Defence Minister Troels Lund Poulsen told reporters on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

NATO members Denmark and the Netherlands have been leading efforts to train pilots and support staff, maintain aircraft and ultimately supply F-16s to Ukraine.

NATO is united about not inviting Ukraine: Russia

A spokesperson for the Russian foreign ministry, Maria Zakharova, tells Al Jazeera that NATO members are only united about Ukraine not joining the alliance.

“You can see here that NATO decided not to include Ukraine. What support are we talking about? This means that NATO members have been pulling Ukraine into the Western world at a time where Ukraine calls for help. They abandoned Ukraine, let it down.”

“They invite Finland and Sweden, but not Ukraine. Why? This is a question that should be posed on all TV channels: why not?”

She claimed that NATO has not invited Kyiv to join the bloc because Poland is interested in the western part of Ukraine.

Zakharova also asserted that NATO is in a state of war with Russia that can be traced back six months before the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine when NATO carried out military exercises near the Russian border in mid-2021.

Turkey should be under no illusion that it will join the EU: Kremlin

The Kremlin says Turkey should be under no illusion that it might one day be allowed to join the EU.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov responded to a question about NATO member Turkey’s decision to lift its opposition to Sweden joining the alliance.

“Turkey can orient itself to the West. We know that in the history of the Republic of Turkey there were periods of intensive orientation to the West. There were periods of less intensive ones,” he stated.

“But we also know that … no one wants to see Turkey in Europe. I mean the Europeans. And here, our Turkish partners should not wear rose-tinted spectacles either,” he added.

White House says Ukraine joining NATO in the immediate future “isn’t likely”

Ukraine still has requirements to meet before it can possibly join NATO, according to White House National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby.

He pushed back against comments from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Tuesday criticizing NATO leaders over discussions on a path to NATO membership.

“We believe that NATO is in Ukraine’s future. I mean, that’s something that the alliance agreed way back in 2008,” Kirby told CNN.

“Now there’s some reforms — good governance, rule of law, political reforms — that Ukraine needs to work on, and we understand it’s hard to work on some of those reforms when you are at war. Of course, they are at war right now. So, NATO membership in the immediate future isn’t likely because that would put NATO at war with Russia,” he added.

Still, Kirby acknowledged frustration from Zelensky, who tweeted a scathing criticism of discussions over a potential path to NATO membership at this week’s summit in Lithuania on Tuesday, writing “Uncertainty is weakness.”

“Yes, there are frustrations, there are desires to end this war quickly, all of that we understand, Kirby said, noting, “Of course, we share many of those concerns.”

NATO summit will demonstrate alliance’s “enduring support for Ukraine”, including membership: Blinken

Ukraine will get a robust package of “political and practical” support from NATO allies at the summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during an interview Tuesday morning on ABC.

“We’ve got a unified alliance that is going to demonstrate in very practical ways its enduring support for Ukraine, including the fact of membership,” Blinken stated.

There will be a clear demonstration of the progress Ukraine has made toward membership, Blinken said in a separate interview on NBC.

“That’s going to be reflected in what comes out of the summit, as well as work that still needs to be done,” he added.

“I think everyone’s been clear, including President (Volodymyr) Zelensky, that in the midst of a war, membership can’t happen, but they’ve made real progress and the alliance will lay out the further reforms both in terms of their security work and their democracy that are necessary to keep moving down that path,” Blinken continued.

Blinken’s comments come after the Ukrainian president expressed his concern about what NATO is considering offering Ukraine at the summit, pressing the need for an invitation for Ukraine to join the alliance.

Chief pledges to “bring Ukraine closer to NATO”

As the meeting of the North Atlantic Council began, US President Joe Biden sat beside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg as the alliance’s leader welcomed two new faces to the table: Finland President Sauli Niinisto and Sweden Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson.

Stoltenberg offered welcoming words to both before he turned to the matter of Ukraine.

“Today, we will make many decisions for an even stronger alliance. We will increase our practical and political support to Ukraine. This will bring Ukraine closer to NATO, where it belongs,” Stoltenberg said.

His comments come after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized the alliance in a tweet for not offering more substantive accession plans to his country.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov warned that Russia will respond “adequately” to the potential expansion of the NATO military alliance.

Lavrov expressed his surprise at “the speed with which both Finland and Sweden abandoned their neutral status” in his opening remarks during talks with the Foreign Minister of Oman on Tuesday.

He also noted the potential loss of special trade, economic, investment, and other relations that the two countries had with Russia.

Kremlin says NATO summit in Vilnius demonstrates “anti-Russian” attitude

The content of the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, demonstrates a strong “anti-Russian” attitude among representatives of NATO member countries, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday during a regular conference call with journalists.

“We are talking about a summit of an alliance that has a pronounced concentrated anti-Russian nature. Russia is perceived as an enemy, an adversary,” Peskov said, adding that the location of the summit near Russia’s borders is not as important as the conveyed hostile stance.

Peskov warned that Ukraine’s potential accession to NATO would be “highly dangerous for European security,” urging those who will be weighing the decision to consider the risks associated with such a step.

Addressing Turkey’s approval of Sweden’s entry into NATO, Peskov said Russia acknowledges Ankara’s obligations as a member of the alliance and added that despite disagreements, there are areas of mutual interest between Russia and Turkey that are significant for both countries.

But he also noted that while Turkey can orient itself toward the West, there remains a reluctance from Europe to accept Turkey as a member.

“If you call a spade a spade, no one wants to see Turkey in Europe,” Peskov told journalists, adding that Moscow intends to further develop the dialogue with Ankara.

Biden: NATO leaders “agree on the language” regarding Ukraine’s future membership in alliance

US President Joe Biden said Tuesday that he agreed on proposed language for Ukraine’s future ability to join NATO, comments that came moments after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky issued a blistering statement about that expected language, suggesting it did not go far enough toward his accession goals.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is among the top agenda items for NATO leaders along with discussing a future pathway for the war-torn country to join the alliance, which has prompted some division among leaders.

“We agree on the language that we proposed – and you proposed relative to the future of Ukraine being able to join NATO. We’re looking for a continued, united NATO,” Biden said in brief remarks alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the summit site.

Zelensky said in a tweeted statement moments earlier that he has “received signals that certain wording is being discussed without Ukraine,” emphasizing that the “wording is about the invitation to become NATO member, not about Ukraine’s membership.”

“It’s unprecedented and absurd when time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership. While at the same time vague wording about ‘conditions’ is added even for inviting Ukraine. It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance,” Zelensky continued, adding, “Uncertainty is weakness. And I will openly discuss this at the summit.”

Zelensky will attend meetings with NATO leaders Wednesday in Vilnius and will meet one-on-one with Biden.

Biden has emphasized that Ukraine is not ready to enter NATO, telling CNN in an exclusive interview last week that Russia’s war in Ukraine needs to end before the alliance can consider adding Kyiv to its ranks.

Stoltenberg earlier Tuesday said he is “confident” that the summit will send “a positive and strong message” on Ukraine’s path to membership to the alliance.

When asked whether NATO will issue an invitation to Ukraine, Stoltenberg replied, “You will see the language in a few hours because we are now finalizing the communique.”

Zelensky: “Uncertainty” over Ukraine’s NATO membership is motivation for Russia to “continue its terror”

The “uncertainty” over Ukraine’s NATO membership is motivation for Russia to “continue its terror,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a strongly worded statement Tuesday on his official Twitter account.

“We value our allies. We value our shared security. And we always appreciate an open conversation. Ukraine will be represented at the NATO summit in Vilnius. Because it is about respect,” Zelensky stated in a lengthy message posted in English.

“But Ukraine also deserves respect. Now, on the way to Vilnius, we received signals that certain wording is being discussed without Ukraine. And I would like to emphasize that this wording is about the invitation to become NATO member, not about Ukraine’s membership,” he added.

Zelensky is set to attend meetings with NATO leaders Wednesday in Vilnius, Lithuania.

“It’s unprecedented and absurd when time frame is not set neither for the invitation nor for Ukraine’s membership. While at the same time vague wording about ‘conditions’ is added even for inviting Ukraine,” Zelensky continued.

“It seems there is no readiness neither to invite Ukraine to NATO nor to make it a member of the Alliance. This means that a window of opportunity is being left to bargain Ukraine’s membership in NATO in negotiations with Russia. And for Russia, this means motivation to continue its terror,” he added.

“Uncertainty is weakness. And I will openly discuss this at the summit,” Zelensky said.

Germany pledges $770 million weapons package to Ukraine

Germany has pledged to send Ukraine a weapons and military package worth €700 million ($769.9 million), according to the country’s Ministry of Defense on Tuesday.

In the statement, the German defense ministry said some of the equipment they would be delivering include two patriot launchers and 40 Marder infantry fighting vehicles. In addition, they would also send 25 Leopard 1 A5 main battle tanks and five Bergepanzer 2 from industrial stocks or industrial refurbishment.

The statement added that Germany pledged 31 items in total from Bundeswehr stocks, including 20,000 rounds of artillery ammunition and 5,000 rounds of 155mm smoke ammunition.

In addition, Germany will send a LUNA drone system and a mine interdiction package, the statement said.

On Tuesday, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said in a statement that the weapons package is designed to “support Ukraine in its defense against Russia.”

“With it, we are making an important contribution to strengthening Ukraine’s endurance capability,” Pistorius added.

France sending new longer-range missiles to Ukraine: Macron

France has sent some longer-range missiles to Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron announced Tuesday, as he arrived for the NATO summit in Vilnius, Lithuania.

“In view of the situation and the counter-offensive being led by Ukraine, I have decided to increase deliveries of arms and equipment to give the Ukrainians the capacity to strike further, while maintaining the clarity and coherence of our doctrine, i.e. enabling Ukraine to defend its territory,” Macron said earlier Tuesday.

“I think what’s important for us today is to send a message of support for Ukraine, of NATO unity, and of determination that Russia cannot and must not win this war,” he added.

A few hours after Macron delivered the announcement at the NATO summit in Vilnius, a spokesperson for the Elysee Palace told CNN that some SCALP missiles — also known as “Storm Shadow” by their UK name — have already been delivered to Ukraine.

The spokesperson also confirmed to CNN that the SCALP missiles will be fired from Ukrainian aircraft.

More about the missiles: Storm Shadow is an Anglo-French low-observable, long-range, air-launched cruise missile developed since 1994 by French conglomerate Matra and British Aerospace, and now manufactured by MBDA. The full French name of the missiles is SCALP-EG, which in English stands for “Long Range Autonomous Cruise Missile System – General Purpose.”

SCALP or Storm Shadow missiles have a firing range in excess of 250 kilometers, or 155 miles, which is just short of the 185-mile range capability of the US-made surface-to-surface Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, that Ukraine has asked for.

The Storm Shadow has the range to strike deep into Russian-held territory in eastern Ukraine — a capability that British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has said Kyiv has made use of since the UK provided the missiles to Ukraine in May.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov has condemned France’s announcement, describing it as a mistake that could have consequences for Kyiv.

“From our point of view, this is an erroneous decision, fraught with consequences for the Ukrainian side, because, naturally, this will force us to take countermeasures,” the Kremlin spokesperson said.

Russia launches drone attack on grain facilities in Odesa: Ukraine military officials

Russia targeted grain facilities in Ukraine’s southern port city of Odesa overnight with Shahed attack drones, according to Ukrainian military officials.

The officials claimed almost all the drones were shot down, but two succeeded in evading air defenses and struck administrative buildings at the port.

Debris from successful interceptions caused fires in two terminals, including one holding grain, officials said, but damage from the fires was minimal before they were extinguished.

Odesa is Ukraine’s largest port and the starting point for grain shipments through the Black Sea and on to world markets.

The passage of ships carrying Ukrainian grain has been governed by a deal involving Russia, Ukraine and Turkey since July last year. The arrangement is currently due to expire next week and Russian officials have expressed reluctance to extend it.

NATO chief says summit will deliver a “positive and strong message” on Ukraine membership bid

Speaking ahead of the NATO summit in Lithuania, the bloc’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday he is “confident it will be a positive and strong message” on Ukraine’s path to membership.

When asked whether NATO will issue an invitation to Ukraine, Stoltenberg replied, “You will see the language in a few hours because we are now finalizing the communique.”

“What I can say is that I am confident it will be a positive and strong message on Ukraine and the path forward for membership,” he added.

On Monday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said NATO has agreed to let Ukraine bypass the Membership Action Plan (MAP), a detailed formal process in its application to join the alliance.

Participation in the MAP does not prejudge any decision by the alliance on future membership, but can be a lengthy process.

“Ukraine is much closer to NATO, so I think the time has come to reflect that in the NATO decisions,” Stoltenberg added.

US President Joe Biden and NATO allies will “send a united, positive signal” on a path to NATO membership for Ukraine at the summit, the White House said earlier, but declined to provide a specific timetable for Kyiv’s accession.

Ukrainian forces launch offensive in Bakhmut, repelling Russian attacks: Military

The Ukrainian military said Tuesday its forces had launched an offensive in Bakhmut, and were “entrenching themselves” and “inflicting artillery fire on the identified enemy targets.”

Troops conducted offensive operations “at the Melitopol, Berdiansk and Bakhmut directions,” according to the Ukraine Defense Force in a Telegram statement.

“The enemy is resisting strongly, moving units and troops, actively using reserves,” the statement added.

NATO allies will “send a united, positive signal” on Ukraine’s path to membership: White House

US President Joe Biden and NATO allies will “send a united, positive signal” on a path to NATO membership for Ukraine at the Vilnius summit, the White House said, but declined to provide a specific timetable for accession.

Allies will “discuss Ukraine’s path to future membership in NATO,” during the summit in the Lithuanian capital, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Tuesday, as he sought to temper expectations.

“As President Biden noted, bringing Ukraine into the Alliance now while we’re in Vilnius would bring NATO into war with Russia,” he said, later adding that Ukraine still “has further steps to take along its reform path” before accession to the alliance.

“But allies will send a united, positive signal on Ukraine’s path to future member membership in the alliance,” Sullivan continued.

Still, Sullivan declined to predict a specific date for Ukraine joining the alliance during Tuesday’s briefing with reporters.

“I can’t put a timetable on it. I don’t believe that you will see that coming out of here,” he said, “From our perspective, it is the work of the alliance with Ukraine to lay out that reform path, and then to have Ukraine work towards it.” ”

Leaders in Vilnius, he stated, “are continuing to discuss this morning the precise nature of process with respect to Ukraine’s pathway,” which will be released as part of a communique Wednesday.

In an interview with CNN previewing the NATO summit last week, Biden acknowledged he didn’t believe there was “unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war,” noting that NATO’s Article 5 would necessitate NATO allies defend Ukraine against Russia’s military invasion.

Biden is set to meet Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Lithuania, where the two leaders will “discuss how the US — alongside our allies and partners — are prepared to make long-term commitments to help Ukraine defend itself now and to deter future aggression,” Sullivan said.

“Ukraine will be a big focus,” throughout the summit, Sullivan added, with the newly-launched NATO-Ukraine council meeting for the first time Wednesday to discuss “a new package of increased support for Ukraine, look at Ukraine’s long-term needs, and expand plans for Ukraine’s interoperability with NATO.”

Turkey received Sweden’s full support for EU entry

Sweden fully supports Turkey’s entry process into the European Union, state-run news agency Anadolu reported — citing a top Turkish official late Monday.

Turkey received full support for the lifting of sanctions, visa liberalization and EU process. In the meeting between Turkey, Sweden and NATO, it was agreed to work towards eliminating sanctions and removing obstacles in defense trade and investments among the allies, Anadolu reported.

This comes as NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg announced that Turkey had agreed to back Sweden’s NATO bid on Monday, with a statement from the alliance outlining that Stockholm would “actively support” efforts to reinvigorate Turkey’s accession process to the European Union.

Earlier, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that Sweden’s membership of NATO should be linked to Turkey’s membership of the EU, arguing, “Turkey has been waiting at the gate of the European Union for over 50 years now,” and “almost all NATO member countries are European member countries.”

Turkey’s EU membership bid has been on hold since 2016 — when an attempted coup failed to remove Erdogan from power. Erdogan has since tightened his grip on power through constitutional reforms that have prompted concerns from the EU on human rights and legal grounds.

Biden and Zelensky to meet Wednesday during NATO summit in Lithuania

US President Joe Biden will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the NATO summit on Wednesday, an official familiar with the meeting confirms.

The meeting will be one sign of unity as Zelensky’s attendance at the summit had been in question. Russia’s war in Ukraine is among the top agenda items for NATO leaders gathering in Vilnius, Lithuania, along with discussing a future pathway for the war-torn country to join the alliance, which has prompted some division among leaders.

Biden poured cold water on the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO as the war is ongoing and cited reforms the country would still need to make to join the alliance.

“I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war,” Biden told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

Zelensky had previously said he does not plan on attending the summit “for fun” as he seeks a clearer pathway for his country to join the alliance along with security guarantees.

“It would be an important message to say that NATO is not afraid of Russia. Ukraine should get clear security guarantees while it is not in NATO. Only under these conditions, our meeting would be meaningful, otherwise, it’s just another politics,” Zelensky said in an interview with ABC.

Turkey has agreed to back Sweden’s NATO bid: Alliance chief

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said on Monday that Turkey has agreed to back Sweden’s bid to join the military alliance.

“Glad to announce that after the meeting I hosted with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan & Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, President Erdogan has agreed to forward Sweden’s accession protocol to the Grand National Assembly ASAP & ensure ratification. This is an historic step which makes all #NATO Allies stronger & safer,” Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said in a tweet after a meeting in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius.

Sweden will “actively support” efforts to reinvigorate Turkey’s accession process to the European Union, NATO said in a statement after the meeting between Erdogan, Kristersson and Stoltenberg.

“Both Turkey and Sweden will look to maximise opportunities to increase bilateral trade and investments. Sweden will actively support efforts to reinvigorate Türkiye’s EU accession process, including modernisation of the EU-Turkey Customs Union and visa liberalisation,” it added.

Allowing Sweden into the alliance “benefits the security of all NATO allies at this critical time,” Stoltenberg said at a news conference.

Erdogan earlier on Monday asked for Brussels to clear Turkey’s path into EU membership before approving Sweden’s NATO membership.

“Since the last NATO Summit, Sweden and Türkiye have worked closely together to address Türkiye’s legitimate security concerns. As part of that process, Sweden has amended its constitution, changed its laws, significantly expanded its counter-terrorism cooperation against the PKK, and resumed arms exports to Türkiye, all steps set out in the Trilateral Memorandum agreed in 2022,” the NATO statement read.

“Both Sweden and Türkiye agreed that counter-terrorism cooperation is a long-term effort, which will continue beyond Sweden’s accession to NATO,” it added.

Death toll climbs to 7 in Orikhiv school attack

The death toll in the Orikhiv school attack in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region has risen to at least seven after three bodies were pulled from the rubble on Monday, Ukraine’s State Emergency Service said in an evening update.

Search operations have now been completed, the emergency service said.

Russia’s deadly bombing Sunday of the school where civilians were receiving humanitarian aid is a “war crime,” according to police in the Zaporizhzhia region.

A “guided aerial bomb” was used in the attack, officials claimed. Those killed range in age from 43 to 47, and the injured have been hospitalized with varying degrees of severity, he stated.

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