Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 528

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:

Officials issue more mandatory evacuations for children in eastern Ukraine

Ukrainian officials are ordering mandatory evacuations for children in nine additional frontline settlements “due to the difficult security situation and hostile shelling.”

The government ministry that manages Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine said in a statement Saturday that officials have voted unanimously in favor of the new compulsory evacuations.

They affect a series of towns and villages that dot the eastern Donetsk region: Yampil, Zarichne, Torske, Orihuvatka, Nykonorivka, Malynivka, Tykhonivka, Vasiutynske and Rai-Oleksandrivka.

All are close to the front lines in an area that has seen attacks of growing intensity by Russian forces. The order applies to 130 children, the ministry added.

The ministry also reiterated warnings for civilians to evacuate from a “five-kilometer (about 3-mile) danger zone” in the Sumy region of northern Ukraine. Currently, 1,718 people, including 228 children, have been evacuated from the area bordering Russia.

“As of now, there are no people left in 21 settlements and evacuation measures are ongoing,” the statement said.

Ukrainian authorities began issuing compulsory evacuation orders in March 2023 and have added settlements as conditions on the front line change.

Ukraine promises more attacks on Russian shipping and Crimea bridge

Ukraine has served notice that it intends to continue attacks using maritime drones, following two strikes using such weapons within 24 hours.

The head of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) Vasyl Maliuk said Saturday that any explosions that happen to Russian ships or the Crimean bridge are “an absolutely logical and effective step. Moreover, such special operations are conducted in the territorial waters of Ukraine and are completely legal.”

Maliuk stated that if the Russians wanted such explosions to stop “they have the only option to do so — to leave the territorial waters of Ukraine and our land.”

The Russian-flagged tanker Sig was damaged by a maritime drone overnight Friday near the Crimea bridge. According to the Russian agency for Marine and River Transport, the Sig was hit shortly before midnight Friday local time. It was not carrying a cargo of oil at the time.

A Ukraine Security Service source confirmed the hit on the oil tanker was carried out in a joint operation with the Navy.

The attack came hours after Ukrainian sea drones attacked a major Russian naval base in the Black Sea.

Talks begin in Saudi Arabia on how to end Russia-Ukraine war

Ukraine and its allies hope this weekend’s meeting of national security advisers and other senior officials from about 40 countries – but not Russia – will reach agreement on principles of how to end the conflict.

Andriy Yermak, the head of the Ukrainian president’s office and his main envoy for the talks in Jeddah, said late on Friday night in a television interview published on his Telegram account: “I expect that the conversation will be difficult, but behind us is truth, behind us goodness.”

The forum excludes Russia, but the Kremlin said it would “keep an eye” on the meeting.

China announced it would send its special envoy for Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, to the talks.

Li stated, “We have many disagreements and we have heard different positions, but it is important that our principles are shared.”

Ukrainian, Russian and international officials have said there is no prospect of direct peace talks between Ukraine and Russia at the moment, as the war continues to rage and Kyiv seeks to reclaim territory through a counteroffensive.

Ukraine unofficially claims responsibility for attack on Russian tanker near Crimea

Ukraine has unofficially taken responsibility for the drone strike on a Russian tanker in the Kerch Strait.

An anonymous security service source told Agence France-Presse: “Overnight the [Ukrainian security service] SBU blew up the Sig, a large oil tanker of the Russian Federation that was transporting fuel for Russian troops.”

The source added the operation, which involved a naval drone and explosives, was carried out jointly with the Ukrainian navy in the country’s territorial waters.

The source described the targeted vessel as “one of the most powerful oil tankers of the Russian Federation”.

“It was well-loaded with fuel, so the ‘fireworks’ could be seen from afar,” the source stated.

But, the head of Ukraine’s security service, Vasyl Malyuk, did not publicly confirm that Ukraine was responsible for the drone strike on a Russian tanker when he spoke about the attack earlier on Saturday, in line with the country’s strategy for such incidents.

Russian authorities said the Sig had been hit late last night local time south of the Kerch Strait. The oil and chemical tanker is under US sanctions for supplying jet fuel to Russian forces in Syria supporting the country’s president, Bashar al-Assad.

Russia’s state RIA Novosti news agency reported there had been no casualties in the attack, citing the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre of Novorossiysk.

The Russian defence ministry also announced on Friday that it had shot down 13 drones over the Crimea peninsula

Ukrainian forces advancing in the south while Russia focuses on Kharkiv region: Kyiv official

Ukrainian forces have advanced in the south, while Russian forces are focusing on the east, according to Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister.

“Our troops in the south have broken through the first line of defense in some places and moved to the intermediate line,” Maliar said in a conversation with Ukrainian media on Friday.

According to Maliar, Russians have built “concrete engineering fortifications” in the south which “complicates the movement” of Ukrainian troops.

“The majority of Russian resources are currently concentrated near Kupiansk, in the Kharkiv region, as Moscow seeks to take over the territories liberated by Ukrainian forces last fall,” Maliar stated.

Maliar noted that in the south and the east, Russians are deploying their reserves which mainly consist of professional units.

“We are seeing airborne assault units being thrown into battle both here and there,” she added.

Ukrainian troops are “slowly but persistently” moving forward on Bakhmut’s southern flank, while Russia is attacking the city’s northern flank, trying to take over Ukrainian positions, according to Maliar.

Fierce fighting continues in Avdiivka and Marinka in eastern Ukraine, she continued.

Ukrainian F-16 training impeded by language barrier: Report

Western efforts to train Ukrainian pilots to fly advanced F-16 jets are being hampered by the service members’ poor English language skills, Politico reported on Friday, citing sources.

According to a US official and a person familiar with the matter interviewed by the outlet, an initial group of eight Ukrainian pilots who are proficient in English are ready to start training once a formal instruction plan is drawn up by several European countries and approved by the US.

However, “English proficiency remains a sticking point” with the rest of the 32 Ukrainian pilots earmarked for instruction on the F-16 fighter jets, Politico reported. As a result, 20 personnel with basic English will reportedly start language courses in Britain this month.

Kiev has been asking its Western backers for F-16s for months, arguing that the fighters will help “win the war” with Russia. This sentiment, however, is not shared by Washington. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has suggested that the aircraft would have a limited impact due to the extensive use of air defense systems in Ukraine.

Nevertheless, in mid-May, the UK and the Netherlands announced an “international coalition” to help Ukraine procure the US-made jets, with a total of 11 NATO countries, including the US, getting on board. According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the instruction campaign is set to begin this month, while Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba said last month that he expected the first fighter jets to arrive in the embattled country in early 2024.

However, efforts to lay the groundwork for the deliveries apparently hit several stumbling blocks, with a recent Politico report suggesting that the US and its allies had not agreed on who exactly would train Ukrainian pilots, or where the instruction would take place.

Another report from the same outlet claimed that European countries had not received formal approval from Washington on the matter, with requests for the transfer of instruction manuals, flight simulators, and other materials still in limbo.

Russian officials have repeatedly warned the West that the delivery of F-16s to Ukraine would lead to an escalation of the conflict, with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov suggesting that the US-made jets could potentially carry nuclear weapons.

At least 200 civilians killed by Russian cluster munitions since start of war: Prosecutor general’s office

At least 200 civilians have been killed and 533 others injured by Russian cluster munitions in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, the Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said in a statement on Friday.

According to the statement, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and Kherson were the most affected parts of Ukraine.

The office highlighted the April 2022 attack on a railway station in the eastern city of Kramatorsk as one of the worst cluster munitions cases.

“On that day at least 53 people were killed and 135 injured. It was later confirmed that it was a ballistic missile fired by the Russian troops from the Tochka-U system, that hit the train station on that day, where civilians gathered with the intent to evacuate to a safer place,” the office said in a statement.

The statement reiterated that the use of cluster munitions against civilians is “a gross violation of international humanitarian law, the Geneva Conventions, and a number of other international treaties, as cluster munitions have an indiscriminate effect and significant destructive power.”

Ukrainian troops have started firing the cluster munitions provided by the US as part of their counteroffensive against Russia, two US officials and another person briefed on the matter told CNN last month.

Cluster munitions scatter “bomblets” across large areas, which would allow Ukrainian forces to target larger concentrations of Russian forces and equipment with fewer rounds of ammunition.

But the bomblets can also fail to explode on impact and can pose a long-term risk to anyone who encounters them, similar to landmines. The UK, France, Germany and other key US allies have outlawed the munitions under the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but the US and Ukraine are not signatories to the ban.

President Vladimir Putin stated Russia has a stockpile and will consider using them against Ukraine “if they are used against us.” But Russia has already used the munitions several times in Ukraine, CNN has previously reported, including in densely populated areas.

Ukraine calls China’s participation in peace meeting in Saudi Arabia “a historic victory”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba stated China’s participation in the Ukraine peace meeting in Saudi Arabia this weekend is “a super breakthrough and a historic victory.”

“We want China to participate in the Peace Formula Summit,” Kuleba said in an interview with Interfax-Ukraine on Friday.

“The news that China is delegating Li Hui to Jeddah is a super breakthrough,” he added.

Li is China’s special representative on Eurasian affairs and is a former ambassador to Russia. He met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other senior Ukrainian officials during a visit in May, according to China’s Foreign Ministry.

China still has close economic ties with Russia.

Kuleba emphasized that Saudi Arabia played an important role in China’s decision to send representation to the peace talks, as well as a phone conversation between Zelensky and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“Saudi Arabia has attracted China, and this is a historic victory,” Kuleba stressed.

The United States as well as a number of Western and developing countries are also expected to be in attendance.

While Russia will not be at the table, the question of what Russian President Vladimir Putin is willing to do — and whether he would even abide by a ceasefire or peace agreement — will be top of mind, officials said.

The talks are the second in a series of meetings organized by the head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, Andriy Yermak. The first talks took place earlier this year in Copenhagen.

Most Americans believe US has done enough for Ukraine: Poll

A majority of Americans believe the US has done enough to support Ukraine in its ongoing conflict with Russia and would argue against allocating more funds for the country, a new survey by pollster Social Science-Research Solutions (SSRS) and commissioned by CNN, shows.

The survey was conducted in July, sampling the opinions of some 1,279 respondents randomly selected from among US households. The poll indicated that only 48% of respondents believe the US should do more to support Kiev, while a slim majority of 51% said the country has already done enough.

Only 45% of respondents said the US Congress should authorize additional funding for Ukraine, while 55% argued that country had already received enough aid. Those who believe Ukraine should still be supported primarily favored assistance in intelligence gathering, with 63% backing such activities, while the idea of providing military training was supported by 53%.

Supplying more weaponry to Kiev was approved by 43%, while a direct participation of US troops in the combat in Ukraine against Russia was backed by 17%.

The outcome of the survey drastically differed from the outcome of a poll conducted by SSRS in the early days of the conflict in February 2022. Back then, when some 62% of respondents believed Washington should do more to prop up Ukraine, while the rest said it had done enough already.

Fear of the Ukrainian conflict growing into a bigger war have also seemingly waned over the past year and a half, the latest poll showed. Now, only 59% of respondents said they were “worried” about the hostilities turning into a broader war in Europe, compared to some 80% in February 2022.

The numbers of those worried about the potential implications of the conflict for US national security have decreased as well, with some 56% now showing such sentiments, according to the latest poll, compared to 72% at the time hostilities broke out.

Russia doubts US proclamations on grain deal: Kremlin

Moscow doesn’t believe claims from the US that it has made a genuine effort to facilitate Russian fertilizer and grain exports, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has said.

The Russian official responded on Friday to a question about US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s remarks on the now-defunct Black Sea Initiative.

The top US diplomat said on Thursday that his government had “taken steps to work through” problems that Russia faces with shipping and insurance, arising from Western sanctions. Among other things, Washington wrote “comfort letters to banks” to assure them that they can make Russian transactions without repercussions, Blinken said.

Peskov told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency, however, that Moscow was not prepared to accept Blinken’s word on the matter.

Russian officials previously stated that food and fertilizer trade continued to be hampered by the sanctions, despite Western claims to the contrary. An easing of those restrictions, promised by the UN a year ago when the grain deal was signed, remains Moscow’s key demand for reviving the arrangement.

Washington “must deliver on that rather than make promises that they would think about it,” Peskov said later on Friday, during a media conference call.

Blinken claimed that if the deal were restored, the US would “continue to do whatever is necessary to make sure that everyone can export their food and food products freely and safely, to include Russia”.

Peskov suggested that there should be no need for safety guarantees by the US, as these were part of the deal without US intervention. The UN and Türkiye served as key intermediaries between Russia and Ukraine in the arrangement.

West trying to lure nations with Zelensky ‘peace plan’: Moscow

Western nations are inviting others to consider the so-called “Zelensky peace formula” for the purpose of optics, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said. The plan, however, demands that Moscow turns a blind eye to Kiev’s persecution of ethnic Russians, he added.

The top Russian diplomat reiterated his government’s skepticism about Volodymyr Zelensky’s peace plan, in a written comment on Friday. He stressed that the conflict cannot be resolved without Kiev respecting the rights of ethnic minorities, particularly ethnic Russians, whose culture and language is under attack in modern Ukraine.

The US and its allies “put all their effort into imposing the ‘Zelensky formula’ on the Global South,” Lavrov wrote.

Nations representing that part of humanity genuinely want to get to the bottom of the causes of the crisis, he added. Last month’s Russia-Africa summit in St. Petersburg was the latest opportunity for Moscow to appreciate their attitude, Lavrov said.

“Nobody in Washington, London, Paris or Brussels would whisper a word about the position which the Kiev regime has declared loudly on many occasions: ‘we’ll take Crimea, Donbass and the rest of our lands’ and ‘destroy everything Russian there’,” he added.

The so-called Zelensky peace plan, revealed during a G20 summit in Indonesia last year, demands retreat by and reparations from Russia, as well as long-term support for Ukraine by the international community. Moscow has rejected the proposal, describing it as being detached from reality.

However Kiev has been arguing for the proposal at various international events. Saudi Arabia is set to host a meeting in Jeddah this weekend, where the Ukrainian government and its Western backers will reportedly present the plan to neutral nations such as Brazil, India, Egypt and Zambia.

The gathering has been touted as “peace talks without Russia” by some media outlets. Moscow called it a Western attempt to “cobble together an anti-Russian coalition” by abusing the participants’ true aspiration to end hostilities in Ukraine.

Lavrov didn’t specifically call out the meeting in Jeddah but suggested that Western nations “convene staged forums with the sole goal of luring as many nations as possible into an approximation of a discussion” of a Ukrainian plan.

What the document envisages is for Russia to “totally capitulate, agree to an infringement of its security and abandon millions of Russians, whose ancestors lived on those [now-Kiev-claimed] lands for centuries,” he said.

The minister challenged Zelensky’s “promoters” to have him explain internationally what Kiev’s plans for minorities would be were the situation to arise.

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