Sunday, June 23, 2024

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 535

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:

Missiles intercepted near Crimean Bridge: Local authorities

Russian air defenses have shot down two incoming missiles in the vicinity of the Crimean Bridge, the region’s head, Sergey Aksenov, reported on his Telegram channel. Photos and videos began circulating on social media, depicting what appears to be several columns of white smoke billowing from the transport infrastructure.

In his post on Saturday, Aksenov wrote: “Air defenses have shot down two enemy rockets in the Kerch Strait area.”

He added that the “Crimean Bridge has not been damaged,” calling on local residents to remain calm.

Aksenov’s aide, Oleg Kryuchkov, revealed on his Telegram channel that a “smoke screen has been set off by the special services.” He also wrote that the Crimean Bridge would be reopened to vehicles “very soon.”

According to the Russian Defense Ministry, Ukraine “attempted to conduct a terrorist strike on the Crimean Bridge using a guided air-defense S-200 missile converted into a strike version”.

It said Russian air defenses had “detected the Ukrainian rocket in a timely manner and intercepted it in mid-air.”

The statement added that the foiled missile attack had not caused any casualties or destruction.

Russia says 20 Ukrainian drones destroyed over Crimea

Russia’s Defence Ministry announced its forces destroyed a wave of 20 Ukrainian drones over the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula.

There were no casualties and no damage as a result of the attempted attack early on Saturday morning, the defence ministry said on the Telegram messaging app.

Fourteen drones were destroyed by air defence systems and six were suppressed by electronic warfare, the ministry added.

It was not immediately clear what was the target of the reported attacks on the peninsula.

Sergei Kryuchkov, an adviser to the Russia-installed governor of Crimea, stated earlier that air defence systems were engaged in repelling air attacks in different parts of the peninsula.

Crimea transport authorities announced on their Telegram channel that traffic on the Crimean Bridge, which links the Black Sea peninsula with the Russian region of Krasnodar, was suspended for about two hours from 01:30am local time (22:30 GMT on Friday).

The reported attack on Crimea is just the latest use by Ukraine of armed drones targeting deep inside Russia and Russian-controlled territory, though Ukraine almost never publicly claims responsibility for such operations.

Russian economy rebounds past pre-sanctions level

Russia has seen its Gross Domestic Product values turn to growth in the second quarter of the year, the country’s statistics service Rosstat reported on Friday, despite lingering pressure from Western sanctions.

According to the agency’s calculations, the economy grew 4.9% in annual terms. It last demonstrated a higher growth rate back in the fourth quarter of 2021, when it surged to 5.8%.

The country’s GDP turned to growth for the first time since the first quarter of 2022, when the indicator grew by 3%. However, following the start of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine and Western sanctions that followed, the economy suffered through four consecutive quarters of declines while it adjusted to new economic realities.

“The Russian economy not only compensated for the decline of the second quarter of last year (-4.5%), but also showed growth to the level of two years ago,” the press service of the Ministry of Economic Development said, commenting on the data.

The highest growth was recorded in passenger turnover (up 19.8%), wholesale turnover (12.5%), manufacturing (11.3%), construction (9.8%) and mining (1.1%).

“In addition, the stable situation in the labor market and the associated growth in real incomes had a positive impact on the recovery of consumer demand – the total turnover of retail trade, services and public catering in the second quarter surged by 8.3%, exceeding the level of two years ago,” the press service added.

According to Alexander Shirov, head of the Institute of Economic Forecasting of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IEF RAS), the economy also benefited from high investment activity of private businesses.

“At the moment we are witnessing an active and consistent recovery of growth, and by the end of the year the economy may well overcome the recession of 2022,” Shirov told news outlet RBK.

According to preliminary forecasts from the Ministry of Economic Development, Russia’s economy is expected to grow by more than 2% this year. The figure is in line with the latest projections issued by the Bank of Russia, which in July predicted that GDP would grow by up to 2.5% by the end of 2023.

Biden administration open to training Ukrainian pilots in US

The United States is “certainly open” to training Ukrainian F-16 pilots on US soil, the White House said Friday, but officials cautioned that the process is complicated and will take time.

“The reason we’re doing this is part of a longer, broader effort to make sure that we are continuing to improve Ukrainian self-defense and military capabilities for the long term,” National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby stated.

“It’s going to be a while before the jets can show up in Ukraine, and for them to be integrated into the air fleet,” he continued.

Kirby added in addition to transferring planes and training pilots, Ukrainian allies also had to set up “all the maintenance logistics and sustainment efforts that go into having modern aircraft like the F-16 in your fleet.” He emphasized that “all that takes some time,” and said there was an English language component to the training.

“We’re going to support Ukraine for as long as it takes,” he said, noting, “We’ve been eager to move forward providing Ukraine that long term capability, and eager is a good word for it.”
“If the capacity for training in Europe is reached,” he added, “we are certainly open to doing the training for Ukrainian pilots here in the United States.”

The US is still waiting for European officials to submit a final plan for training Ukrainian pilots on F-16 fighter jets, which the US will have to authorize before the program can actually begin, according to reports.

European officials and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said publicly last month that they expected the training to begin in August, but that timeline has been pushed back as officials work to hammer out logistical details, including how many pilots the Ukrainians will ultimately send to the training.

Zelensky has long urged Western allies to provide him with modern fighter jets, pitching the F-16 in particular as a potential game-changer in the war against Russia.

Ukraine and UK start talks on security guarantees

Ukraine and the United Kingdom have begun “initial working-level negotiations” on security guarantees, Ukraine’s Presidential Office said in a statement on Friday.

The countries are using the Joint Declaration of Support for Ukraine signed by countries of the G7 last month as a basis for the negotiations, according to the office.

“The United Kingdom became the second country after the United States with which Ukraine started relevant negotiations,” the statement read, noting “the United Kingdom has consistently demonstrated its leadership and example in making and implementing the boldest decisions to support Ukraine.”

Andriy Yermak, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, who is leading the Ukrainian delegation in the negotiations, called the UK “one of the main strategic partners.” He added that the negotiations are aimed at strengthening the countries’ “common security in the entire Euro-Atlantic region.”

Yermak said Ukraine already has agreements to start consultations with almost all of the countries that have joined the declaration on security guarantees.

The United Kingdom is the second country after the United States with which Ukraine has started relevant negotiations, according to the statement.

The Joint Declaration of Support for Ukraine was announced on July 12, 2023, by the G7 leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, the US, as well as the Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission.

Belgium, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Latvia have asked to be added as signatories to the declaration, according to the statement.

Egypt rebuffs US requests to arm Ukraine: Report

Egypt has snubbed multiple requests from the US to send weapons to Ukraine, underlining how far Cairo is willing to go to maintain a neutral position on the war in Europe, despite receiving billions of dollars in US military aid.US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin received a “noncommittal” reply in March when he asked Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to send arms to Ukraine, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday.Sisi first planned to secretly supply Ukraine’s foe, Russia, with 40,000 rockets, and told officials to keep the deal secret “to avoid problems with the West”, a trove of classified US documents posted on Discord, a chat app popular with gamers, revealed in April.Another trove of leaked documents revealed that Egypt later backed down from that plan amid US pressure and had agreed to produce artillery ammunition for Ukraine, according to the Washington Post.Washington has asked Egypt to give Ukraine artillery shells, antitank missiles, air defence systems and small arms, the WSJ said. Since Austin’s meeting with Sisi, senior US officials have made multiple requests for Cairo to follow through on the request to no avail.

According to the WSJ, Egyptian officials say privately that they have no intention of sending arms to Ukraine.

Egypt is not alone among Middle East and North African states that have rebuffed US appeals to cut ties with Russia and aid Ukraine. Turkey, which has tried to position itself as a mediator in the conflict, has done brisk business with Russia amid US sanctions.

But Egypt’s refusal is notable because Cairo is heavily reliant on the US for military aid. It receives about $1.3bn annually, making it the second-largest recipient, trailing only behind Israel.

The bulk of that support comes via a programme called Foreign Military Financing, or FMF. The US holds funds earmarked for Egypt in the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and the Department of Defence makes purchases from US defence contractors on behalf of Egypt using funds in collaboration with defence officials in Cairo.

Cruise missiles won’t be used on Russian territory: Ukraine

Ukraine does not want to use the requested cruise missiles from Germany and the United States on Russian territory, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in a post on the social network X.

He called the long-range missiles “crucial” and said Ukraine asked the two countries to send the missiles “as soon as possible”.

Kuleba assured Berlin and Washington that the missiles “will be used solely inside [Ukraine’s] borders”.

Ukraine working on alternative export routes: Zelensky

Ukraine is working hard to develop alternative export routes for grain, according to President Volodymyr Zelensky amid Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea ports.

“We are doing everything possible to ensure that Ukraine continues to be a guarantor of food security,” Zelensky said in his evening video address on Friday.

He also added Ukraine’s people needed access to world markets.

The president reported in Kyiv that he had discussed the issue with the heads of the army, intelligence service and navy as well as government representatives.

Scholz says position on sending cruise missiles to Ukraine unchanged

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, chiming in on the debate about sending Ukraine Taurus cruise missiles, said there is no news to report.

“There is no new state of affairs to report on this issue,” Scholz told the German newspaper the Thnringer Allgemeine in a story published on Friday.

“Our focus remains on sending weapons for air defence, heavy artillery and also tanks,” he continued, adding, “That is the course we will continue on, in close consultation with our international partners.”

EU delivers Ukraine 224,000 shells under ammo plan

The EU has delivered Ukraine 223,800 shells under the first part of a plan to provide a million artillery rounds to aid Kyiv’s fight against Russia, a spokesman said.

“Member states have delivered around 223,800 artillery ammunition – long-range self-propelled, precision-guided ammunitions as well as mortar ammunitions — and 2,300 missiles of all types,” EU spokesman Peter Stano said.

Overall, the total value of the ordnance provided was 1.1 billion euros ($1.2bn), the EU added. EU funds reimbursed only part of that, suggesting the measure fell short of the target.

Earlier this year, the 27-nation European Union pledged to step up supplies of much-needed artillery shells to Ukraine as Kyiv’s forces faced shortfalls.

Russian economy posts growth for first time in a year

Russia’s economy grew year-on-year by 4.9 percent in the second quarter, clocking its first expansion in a year, the country’s statistics agency, Rosstat, reports.

Gross domestic product (GDP) shrank in the previous four quarters, finishing with a 1.9-percent drop in the first quarter of 2023. Friday’s improved figures for April to June compared with a contraction of 4.5 percent in the same period of last year.

That sharp contraction came as the economy was hit with a raft of sanctions from Western countries in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Russia blames Ukraine for foiled drone attack on Moscow

Russia says it has destroyed a Ukrainian drone on the western outskirts of Moscow.

“An attempt by the Kyiv regime to carry out a terrorist attack using an unmanned aerial vehicle on a facility in Moscow was thwarted,” the Ministry of Defence announced, adding that there was no damage or casualties.

Moscow was largely spared in the early part of the conflict, but the Russian capital has seen a surge in attacks in recent months.

British troops train hundreds of Ukrainian marines as Kyiv develops new military branch

About 900 Ukrainian marines are returning home after being trained by British Royal Marines and Army Commandos as part of a six-month program, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry said in a statement Friday.

The training, delivered by elite British commandos, will help Ukraine develop its own distinct marine force and make it more formidable in fighting around bodies of water, the UK defense ministry said. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced in May that his military’s marines would become an independent military branch and that he would be expanding the new Ukrainian Marine Corps.

British Commandos trained Ukraine’s forces on amphibious operations, which included beach raids using inflatable boats, the ministry noted.

“It is the first program of amphibious training delivered by the UK to Ukraine, culminating with the Ukrainian marines planning and conducting raids by both day and night,” the ministry added.

Additionally, the Ukrainian marines were trained on how to use shoulder-fired missile systems called Next Generation Light Anti-Tank Weapons, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, mortars and reconnaissance drones, the UK said. They also received explosive demolition training for obstacles such as Dragon’s Teeth anti-vehicle fortifications.

“Trainees came from a variety of backgrounds, with many being civilian volunteers with no prior military experience, while others have transferred from other sections within the Armed Forces of Ukraine – some having already been engaged in combat on the frontline,” the UK defense ministry said.

“The training I have received from the UK Royal Marines has been far more intense than I expected. I have learned so much and never expected to be doing the things I have done,” one of the recently trained Ukrainian marines said, according to the statement.

Each training cohort underwent “a rigorous five-week program,” with sessions ranging from battlefield first aid to close quarters combat and unit planning, according to the ministry.

More than 20,000 recruits have already received training in the UK since the start of 2022.

“At the start of 2023, the UK committed to train a further 20,000 Ukrainian recruits,” the ministry added, effectively doubling its commitment.

Instructors from the Netherlands Marine Corps were also part of the most recent training program, and other countries have also contributed to the UK program.

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