Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 358

Russia, wary of NATO’s eastward expansion, began a military campaign in Ukraine on February 24 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:

Finland and Sweden’s NATO applications could be assessed separately: Ankara

Finland and Sweden’s applications to join the NATO military alliance could be assessed separately, Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said Thursday.

“It is possible for us to assess the candidacy of Finland separately and this will no doubt be a topic that is discussed in the meetings we have today,” stated Çavuşoğlu at a press conference in Ankara, Turkey alongside NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.

“After the declaration that a different decision could be reached in relation to Finland, we discussed this matter with the countries involved and NATO,” he added.

Finland and Sweden both applied to join NATO following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and all 30 member nations must approve their applications.

However Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to reject their bids, accusing the two countries of harboring members of the separatist militant Kurdistan’s Workers Party, also known as PKK, which seeks an independent state in Turkey.

Relations between Turkey and Sweden also deteriorated after Çavuşoğlu accused the Swedish government of being complicit in the burning of the Quran at a protest in Stockholm in January.

On Thursday, Stoltenberg said that “the main issue is not whether they are ratified together, the main issue is that Finland and Sweden are ratified as soon as possible.”

“My consistent position has been and remains that the time has come to ratify both Finland and Sweden and make them full members of our alliance. They have both made big steps since we signed the joint memorandum between Finland, Sweden, and Turkey in July at the NATO summit in Madrid last year,” Stoltenberg added.

“They have removed any restrictions on arms exports, strengthened their legislation on terrorism. And Sweden is also amending their constitution and stepped up the cooperation with Turkey, also established a permanent mechanism to continue to work closely with Turkey in the fight against terrorism,” he continued.

Stoltenberg noted that “it’s the Turkish Government, the Turkish parliament, that decides on the issue over ratification, and it’s a Turkish decision alone.”


NATO chief urges Turkey to ratify Sweden, Finland membership bids

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has urged Turkey to ratify Sweden and Finland’s bids to join the transatlantic military alliance.

“I continue to believe that the time is now to ratify both Finland and Sweden,” Stoltenberg said after talks with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara.

Sweden and Finland applied to join the transatlantic military alliance last year following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but their ascension has been held up by Hungary and Turkey, which is widely seen as the main hold-up to their joining.

Ankara has accused the government in Stockholm of being too lenient towards groups it deems to be “terrorist” organisations or existential threats, including Kurdish groups.

Cavusoglu stated alongside Stoltenberg that Turkey could evaluate Finland and Sweden’s bids to join NATO separately, echoing previous remarks made by the government in Ankara.


Total of 36 Russian missiles fired at Ukraine overnight: Ukrainian military chief

Russia launched a total of 36 air and sea-based cruise missiles, guided air-to-surface missiles and anti-ship missiles at Ukraine overnight into Thursday, according to Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

Zaluzhnyi said 14 cruise missiles and 2 guided air-to-surface missiles were shot down by the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

“The aggressor state, the russian federation, fired yet another missile barrage on the critical infrastructure of Ukraine,” his Facebook post read.

“From 01:40 to 03:45 on February 16, the enemy launched air and sea-based cruise missiles, guided air-to-surface missiles and anti-ship missiles,” it added.

“Tu-22M3 and Tu-95ms strategic aircraft from the Kursk area and the Caspian Sea water area, respectively, Su-35 tactical aircraft in the vicinity of temporarily occupied Melitopol and cruise missile carriers in the Black Sea water area” were used in the attacks, stated Zaluzhnyi.


Israeli foreign minister arrives in Kyiv for talks with Zelensky

Israeli foreign minister Eli Cohen has arrived in Kyiv ahead of talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, marking the first public wartime visit by a high-ranking Israeli official.

Cohen was set to attend the reopening of the Israeli embassy in the Ukrainian capital, Israel’s foreign ministry said.

While Israel has condemned Russia’s invasion, it has limited its assistance to Kyiv to humanitarian aid and protective gear to date.


Lukashenko says he will not send troops to Ukraine unless Belarus is attacked

There is “no way” Belarus will send troops to Ukraine unless the country is attacked, the country’s President Alexander Lukashenko stated Thursday.

“We are peaceful people we know what war is and we don’t want war,” Lukashenko said at a press conference in Minsk at the Palace of Independence, attended by reporters from selected news outlets including CNN.

“There is no way we are going to send our troops to Ukraine unless you are going to commit aggression against Belarus,” Lukashenko continued, adding, “But don’t forget Russia is our ally, legally, morally and politically.”

Lukashenko noted that Russia has “never asked” him to start a joint war in Ukraine.

Lukashenko is a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin and the two countries maintain a joint grouping of military forces.

Russia used Belarusian territory as one of its entry points for the invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

Joint military drills over the last year have contributed to concerns that Belarusian troops could join Russia’s forces in Ukraine, but Lukashenko has repeatedly dismissed speculation that his troops would join the fighting in Ukraine.


Ukraine will launch its own offensive in spring: US

Ukraine has a “real good chance” of taking the initiative on the battlefield, Lloyd Austin, the US Defence Secretary, has said.

Speaking after the meeting with NATO defence ministers, he told reporters: “I think they’ll have a real good chance of making a pretty significant difference on the battlefield and establishing the initiative. And being able to exploit that initiative going forward.”

He also stated that for every system that Nato will provide, it will train troops on that system, noting, “We’re laser-focused on making sure that we provide a capability and not just the platform.”

He added that Nato’s supply of tanks, weapons and ammunition will decisively tip the balance toward Ukraine in a planned “counter-offensive” against Russia this spring.


Ukrainian troops ‘firmly holding’ Bakhmut: Zelensky

President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that the situation near the east town of Bakhmut was the “most difficult” on the front line, but Ukrainian troops have so far been successfully holding back Russia’s advances.

“The situation in Bakhmut is the most difficult on the territory of our country,” Zelenskyy told a news conference.

“It’s not easy for our soldiers in the east but they don’t call it ‘fortress Bakhmut’ for nothing,” he stated, adding that Ukrainian forces were “firmly holding” their positions.


Russia struggling to replace tanks lost in battle: Report

Russia has lost about half its best tanks in the year since it invaded Ukraine and is struggling to replace them, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has reported.

In its annual Military Balance report, a key reference tool for defence experts, the IISS said loss rates for some of Russia’s most modern classes of tank were as high as 50 percent, forcing it to rely on older Soviet-era models.

“They’re producing and reactivating nowhere near enough to compensate for those loss rates. Their current armoured fleet at the front is about half the size it was at the start of the war,” Henry Boyd, a research fellow at the IISS, told the Reuters news agency.

He estimated Russia’s tank losses at between 2,000 and 2,300.


US: Additional Russian troops pouring into Ukraine are “ill-trained and ill-equipped”

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Russia “continues to pour large numbers of additional people into the fight” in Ukraine, and “that is their strength.”

He added that “Those people are ill-trained and ill-equipped, and because of that we see them incurring a lot of casualties,” Austin said, but the US expects Russia to continue with this strategy of throwing bodies at the fight despite their lack of equipment.

Austin made the remarks at a news conference from NATO headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday.

Austin said that by contrast, the US and NATO are determined to provide Ukraine with sophisticated equipment — and train Ukrainian troops on those systems — to give them the upper hand.

“Our goal is to make sure that we give Ukraine additional capability so that they can not only be marginally successful, they can be decisive on the battlefield and in their upcoming offensive,” Austin continued.

“We’re laser-focused on making sure that we provide a capability and not just platforms,” he added.

“So for every system that we provide, we’re going to train troops on that system. But we’re also going to give them additional training on maneuver, on the integration of fires, on sustainment, and on maintenance. And so with that additional capability, better-trained troops, platforms that can perform a lot better in this environment. I think they’ll have a real good chance at making a pretty significant difference on the battlefield and establishing the initiative, and being able to exploit that initiative going forward,” he stated.


Six Russian balloons spotted over Kyiv: Military administration

Six Russian balloons were spotted over Kyiv and most were shot down after being engaged by air defences, the Ukrainian capital’s military administration has said.

It announced the balloons may have been carrying corner reflectors and reconnaissance equipment but did not specify when they flew over the capital, although air alerts were issued in Kyiv on Wednesday.

“According to information that is now being clarified, these were balloons that move in the air under the propulsion of wind,” the military administration said in a Telegram post.

“The purpose of launching the balloons was possibly to detect and exhaust our air defences,” it added.

There was no immediate response to the military administration’s report from Russia.


EU’s top diplomat says Ukraine ‘must win war’

The European Union’s top diplomat stated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been a “wake-up call” for the bloc and that Kyiv must triumph in the conflict.

Josep Borrell said in a post on Twitter that Moscow’s offensive had “highlighted the importance of our common security and defence policy”.

“The EU has reacted strongly and we will continue to support Ukraine. Ukraine must win the war so it can win the peace,” he added.


US defence secretary talks up Ukraine’s prospects of taking initiative

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin says Ukraine has a “good chance” of taking the initiative on the battlefield as its war with Russia nears the one-year mark.

Austin also told reporters after a meeting with NATO defence ministers in Brussels that for every system the alliance’s member states provide to Kyiv, it will provide associated training to Ukrainian troops too.

“We’re laser-focused on making sure that we provide a capability and not just the platform,” he added.


Bern says it cannot confiscate Russian assets

Switzerland’s government announced Wednesday that confiscating private Russian assets in the country to help rebuild Ukraine would be contrary to Swiss law.

Traditionally-neutral Switzerland decided four days after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022 to align itself with the neighbouring European Union’s sanctions against Moscow.

The wealthy Alpine nation has since frozen billions in Russian assets.

Faced with international proposals to confiscate such assets and to use the money to help rebuild Ukraine, Switzerland’s Federal Council, as the government is known, had asked a justice department working group to clarify the legality of such a move.

The group concluded that “the expropriation of private assets of lawful origin without compensation is not permissible under Swiss law,” a government statement said.


US has growing concern about Russia-China partnership amid Ukraine war: Deputy secretary of state

US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman stated Wednesday that Washington has “growing concern” about the partnership between China and Russia — and China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“My assessment is the PRC (People’s Republic of China) is trying to both increase its standing in the international community by saying that it’s willing to mediate and help bring this horrifying invasion to an end. And at the same time, they are committed to their no limits partnership with Russia,” Sherman said at an event at the Brookings Institution.

“And we have, certainly, concern and growing concern about that partnership and the PRC’s support for this invasion,” she added.

She stated that China is trying to “have it both ways.” She also expressed concern about Russia’s partnerships with Iran and North Korea.

However, Sherman noted her message to those supporting Moscow is: “You’re going to end up with an albatross around your neck.”

“The Ukrainians are going to deliver a strategic failure for Putin. And that’s going to create a lot of problems for those who are supporting this unholy invasion going forward,” she added.


10th round of EU sanctions against Russia to target industry, construction and drone supply

The European Union has announced the details of its upcoming tenth sanctions package against Russia, which is set to target industrial goods and technology.

The bloc is slapping $11.8 billion (11 billion euros) of export bans on Russia to “deprive the Russian economy of critical technology and industrial goods,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Wednesday in a recorded statement from Strasbourg, France.

“For maximum impact, we’re targeting many industrial goods that Russia needs and that it cannot get through backfilling by third countries — vital goods such as electronics, specialized vehicles, machine parts, spare parts for trucks and jet engines,” von der Leyen added.

The bloc will also target goods in the construction sector, “which can be directed to Russia’s military,” she stated. The EU will also place “controls on 47 electronic components that can be used in Russian weapons systems.”

The EU is set to coordinate with member states to carry out an overview of the Russian Central Bank’s assets held in the bloc, which von der Leyen called “crucial” in light of public Russian assets being potentially used to fund reconstruction in Ukraine.

The bloc’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, outlined the EU’s intentions to add almost 100 influential entities and individuals to its sanctions list for “their role in undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

“This includes those responsible for military activities, for political decisions, propaganda and disinformation. We are targeting those involved in the human kidnappings, deportation and forced adoption of Ukrainian children to Russia and also those enabling the looting of Ukrainian resources,” Borrell remarked.

The bloc has also decided to sanction Iranian entities connected with the supply of Iranian-made drones to Russia.

Both Iran and Russia have repeatedly denied claims that Tehran has provided Moscow with drones to be used in the Ukraine war.

In his closing remarks, Borrell outlined the EU’s commitment to keep increasing pressure on Russia. Von der Leyen also called on the bloc’s 27 member states to approve the proposed package quickly, as part of efforts to have it approved by the one-year anniversary of the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.


Putin “must realize” he cannot win war in Ukraine: Head of NATO

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Wednesday that while Russian President Vladimir Putin shows no indication he wants peace, he “must realize” that he can’t win his war in Ukraine.

“Almost one year since his brutal invasion, President Putin shows no sign that he is preparing for peace. On the contrary, he is launching new offensives and targeting civilians, cities and critical infrastructure,” Stoltenberg stated at a joint news conference with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Brussels.

“Putin must realize that he cannot win, and for that, we must continue providing Ukraine quickly the weapons and ammunition they need to retake territory and prevail as a sovereign nation in Europe,” he added.

Stoltenberg said that “as we face the greatest security crisis in a generation,” NATO is taking further steps to strengthen the alliance defenses.

“We are reinforcing our presence and readiness from the Black to the Baltic Sea, including in Poland,” he added.

“Fighter jets from the US and the Netherlands help protect your skies, Patriot batteries from Germany augment your air defenses, and thousands of troops from all the NATO allies are in Poland to help deter aggression,” Stoltenberg continued, noting, “Together, we send a clear message, so there can’t be a room for miscalculation in Moscow. NATO will defend every inch of Poland and the whole allied territory.”

Stoltenberg said that during his meeting with Duda earlier Wednesday, the two also discussed the role of Belarus in Putin’s war in Ukraine.

“Belarus continues to host and support Russian forces and is deepening its political and military integration with Russia. We call on Belarus to end its complicity in the war,” Stoltenberg added.

Duda said Poland will continue to expand its military capabilities, and the country’s defense budget for 2023 will increase to more than 4% of GDP.

“We would like to have as many stockpiles of NATO equipment as possible” in case of a possible attack, he added.

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