Saturday, May 18, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 521

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:

Ukraine using North Korean rockets: Financial Times

Ukrainian forces have been firing North Korean rockets at Russian positions in Donbass, the Financial Times has claimed.

The British newspaper said the munitions in question were shown to its journalist by the Kiev troops operating a Soviet-era Grad multiple rocket launcher near the Russian-held city of Artyomovsk (Bakhmut).

According to the daily, the markings on the rockets suggested they had been manufactured by Pyongyang in the 1980s and 1990s.

The Ukrainians say the projectiles were “very unreliable” and sometimes did “crazy things.” However, they added that they were still happy to have them amid ammunition shortages experienced by Kiev’s forces. “We need every rocket we can get,” one of the soldiers remarked.

When asked about the origins of the munitions, the troops told the FT that North Korean rockets had been “seized” from a ship by a “friendly” country and handed over to Ukraine.

Yuriy Sak, an adviser to Ukraine’s defense minister, whom the paper also contacted, suggested that the munitions may have been captured from the Russian military.

However, the paper doubted his claim, saying that “it is highly unlikely that North Korea would provide Ukraine directly with the munitions as Pyongyang has been supportive” of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine.

Last fall, the New York Times and several other outlets published the findings of a US intelligence assessment, which claimed that Moscow had been purchasing artillery shells and rockets from Pyongyang.

When asked about the issue by journalists at the time, Pentagon spokesman Brigadier General Pat Ryder said, “We do have indications that Russia has approached North Korea to request ammunition.”

In an interview with CNN, Russian Ambassador to the EU Vladimir Chizhov rejected those claims, suggesting that the whole story had been invented by the Western media.

The report in the Financial Times comes in the wake of a visit to Pyongyang by Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu. During the trip, Shoigu touted the “rich history of cooperation” between North Korea and Russia, expressing confidence that those ties would be boosted further. The defense minister held talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and other top officials, inspected Pyongyang’s most advanced weapons, and attended a military parade.

Pentagon authorizes hazard pay for US troops in Ukraine: Military Times

The Pentagon has introduced additional hazard pay for American troops serving in Ukraine, the Military Times reported, citing a US defense official.

The outlet stated that the bonus, known as imminent danger pay (IDP), will be offered to all service members operating in areas where they could be harmed by hostile fire or mines, insurrection, civil war, or terrorism.

The introduction of the payment was first revealed in a memo reportedly written by the Pentagon’s top personnel official, Grier Martin, which was dated July 13 and was posted to an unofficial US Air Force account on Facebook on Thursday. The Military Times claims that a source within the Pentagon has now confirmed the authenticity of the document.

According to the memo, the entire land area and airspace above Ukraine will be retroactively designated as an IDP area, effective April 24, 2022. That means all US military personnel currently on duty in Ukraine or who have served there since that date are eligible for an extra $7.50 per day, with a cap of $225 per month.

The Military Times noted that the IDP payments come on top of a service member’s base salary and other bonuses, and that some troops could qualify to receive the bonus as back pay.

The memo also stated that there will be a reduction in the monthly rate of so-called Hardship Duty payments, which gave American service members in Ukraine an additional $150 a month. After the introduction of IDP, that bonus will drop to $100 per month, meaning troops will be able to earn a maximum of $325 in monthly hazard pay.

Officially, the US only has a small number of troops currently stationed in Ukraine. According to the Military Times, part of that contingent works at the American Embassy in Kiev, operating as its security detail and accounting for billions of dollars of military equipment that Washington has sent Ukraine.

According to ABC News, another special operations team working out of the US Embassy has been helping Ukrainian troops with intelligence operations and providing security for high-level visitors since the early days of the Russian military campaign. The outlet claimed that this team does not take part in military operations or visit the front lines.

Shoigu in North Korea looking for weapons: Blinken

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has said Washington believes Russia’s defence minister is in North Korea to secure supplies of weapons to aid the stalled invasion of Ukraine.

Following Sergei Shoigu’s arrival on a rare trip to Pyongyang, Blinken stated that Russia is scrambling to buy arms from allies across the world.

“I strongly doubt he’s there on holiday,” Blinken told reporters in Australia.

“We’re seeing Russia desperately looking for support, for weapons, wherever it can find them to continue to prosecute its aggression against Ukraine,” he added.

“We see that in North Korea, we see that as well with Iran, which has provided many drones to Russia that it’s using to destroy civilian infrastructure and killed civilians in Ukraine,” he continued.

While in North Korea, Shoigu met the country’s leader Kim Jong-un, in what Pyongyang’s state media described as “a friendly talk”.

Russian missiles hit Dnipro, injuring nine people

Russian missiles hit an apartment block and a nearby building of Ukraine’s security service in the central city of Dnipro on Friday night, injuring nine people and causing widespread damage.

The regional governor, Serhiy Lysak, said on Telegram the injured were receiving treatment at home.

The Dnipro mayor, Borys Filatov, stated it was the third time the SBU security service building had been targeted. Both buildings were largely empty – the residential building because it had just been completed and units were being put up for sale.

“There were two hits in Dnipro at about 8.30pm, Iskander missiles, according to preliminary information,” Lysak said on national television.

“Part of the apartment building was destroyed. It was not even yet in use and there weren’t many people there. A few people were trapped but are now out. The security service building is partially destroyed,” he added.

Pictures posted on social media showed part of one building reduced to rubble and debris strewn across a large courtyard.

“Dnipro. Another terrorist attack,” Sergiy Kruk, head of the Ukrainian State Emergency Service, noted, adding, “Currently, we know of 9 injured, including two children. Work continues.”

Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, said: “Dnipro. Friday evening. A high-rise building and the security service of Ukraine’s building were hit. Russian missile terror again”.

The president added he had convened emergency meetings with the SBU, the interior ministry, emergency services and local officials following the missile strikes.

Ukraine’s commander on southern front reports some success in developing counteroffensive

Ukraine’s top commander on the southern front announced his forces are making some progress in driving back Russian troops, as Kyiv’s counteroffensive appears to be entering a more aggressive new phase.

“The defense forces are systematically driving the enemy back and are having some success,” Gen. Oleksandr Tarnavskyi said.

“In particular, Ukrainian troops have liberated Staromaiorske in Donetsk region and are consolidating their positions,” he added, referencing a village in southeastern Ukraine which Kyiv’s troops claimed Thursday.

The general described intense, ongoing combat in the area he commands, which encompasses southern parts of Donetsk and the Zaporizhzhia region.

It is impossible to verify Ukrainian or Russian claims about the state of the battlefield, but Kyiv appears to be ramping up its counteroffensive after months of slow progress.

African Union chairman says Putin is willing to “find a solution” to end war, but needs to convince Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to engage in “dialogue and find a solution” to end the war in Ukraine, according to Azali Assoumani, the African Union chairman and president of the Union of the Comoros.

Now the union needs to convince Ukraine to hold negotiations with Russia, he said Friday. Assoumani said the African Union will “act as an intermediary.”

He also added Putin’s offer to help Africa with food supply after pulling out of the key Black Sea grain deal is “not quite enough.”

“We need to achieve a ceasefire, because war is always something unpredictable, and the longer it goes on, the more unpredictable it becomes,” he continued.

Speaking later Friday at the summit, Putin blamed Ukraine for not being willing to engage in negotiations, saying “the ball is completely in their court.” He also criticized Kyiv’s efforts to join NATO, calling Ukraine’s potential membership in the military alliance a “fundamental threat” to Russian security.

In mid-June, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and several other African leaders traveled to Ukraine to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and present a 10-step peace initiative that several African countries have agreed to participate in.

At his Russia-Africa summit, Putin has said the Kremlin is “carefully” considering the African leaders’ proposal.

But Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has ruled out any peace negotiations with Russia until Moscow’s troops withdraw from his country’s territory. Zelensky said allowing any negotiations while another nation’s military is occupying Ukraine would only “freeze” the war, pain and suffering caused by Putin’s invasion.

EU Council imposes sanctions on Russians over “digital information manipulation campaign”

The European Union Council announced on Friday that it imposed sanctions on seven Russian individuals and five entities.

Those sanctioned are accused of conducting a “digital information manipulation campaign” called ‘RRN’ (Recent Reliable News), aimed at distorting information and disseminating propaganda in support of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” the council said in a statement.

The statement said the campaign to which “government bodies or bodies affiliated to the Russian state have participated” does rely on “fake web pages usurping the identity of national media outlets and government websites, as well as fake accounts on social media.”

“This coordinated and targeted information manipulation is part of a broader hybrid campaign by Russia against the EU and the member states,” the statement added.

Moscow vows to retaliate for attack on Russian city that wounded over a dozen people

Moscow reserves the right to take tough measures in response to a missile attack that wounded more than a dozen people in the Russian border region of Rostov on Friday, a foreign ministry spokesperson said.

The official, Maria Zakharova, said the strike on the southwestern Russian city of Taganrog was “directed against the civilian population and peaceful infrastructure. They obviously had no military meaning.”

Zakharova called on the international community to condemn the attack, adding, “The Russian side reserves the right to take tough retaliatory measures.”

Earlier on Friday, air defenses shot down a missile over Taganrog. The missile’s remnants fell on the center of the city, leaving 14 people wounded, according to the Russian defense ministry.

The ministry says air defense systems also intercepted a second missile in the Rostov region Friday, but that it “fell in a deserted area.” Rostov’s governor confirmed the second attack.

Friday’s strike on Taganrog is believed to be the first time the city – some 40 kilometers (nearly 25 miles) from the border with Ukraine — has been hit since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Ukraine has not immediately commented on Russian reports of the attack.

Neutral status for Ukraine ‘fundamental’ to Russia: Putin

The prospect of Ukraine becoming a member of NATO is an existential threat to Russian national security and will not be tolerated, Russian President Vladimir Putin told representatives of several African countries on Friday.

In the document that ushered in Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, “it is written in black and white that Ukraine is a neutral state,” Putin reminded the visiting African leaders, during the public part of their meeting in St. Petersburg. The president was referring to the 1990 declaration proclaiming Soviet Ukraine a sovereign state that would strive to become “a permanently neutral country.”

“This is of fundamental importance. Why the West began to drag Ukraine into NATO is not very clear to us. But this created, in our opinion, a fundamental threat to our security,” Putin added.

“We cannot accept the advance towards our borders of military infrastructure of a bloc that is de facto hostile to us,” he continued.

Western countries have spent years steering Ukraine towards a conflict with Russia, as they planned to use Kiev as a tool to undermine Russian national security, Putin stressed. He argued that Russia’s retaliation, including its ongoing military operation in the neighboring state, was justified.

“This problem was not created yesterday. It was instigated by certain forces in the West, which for a long time were preparing a hybrid war against our country, and did everything to transform Ukraine into an instrument of undermining the foundations of the security of the Russian Federation,” Putin said.

The president added that the West had planned to use Kiev to “damage Russia’s positions on the world stage, and to undermine our statehood.”

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