Mon. Nov 28th, 2022
Ukrainian flag in blue and yellow, wrapped over sky and grain

What do you need to know today?

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said peace talks which resume on Wednesday were sounding more realistic but more time was needed, after Russian air strikes killed five people in the capital Kyiv and the refugee tally from Moscow’s invasion reached 3 million.

U.S. President Joe Biden will make his first visit to Europe since Russia invaded Ukraine to discuss the crisis with NATO allies next week, the White House said. * Zelenskiy said Ukraine may seek security guarantees from the West that fall short of NATO membership – a possible path to compromise.

The confirmed civilian toll in Ukraine is 691 people killed and 1,143 injured, the United Nations human rights office said, adding the true figures were probably “considerably higher”.

Russia said its forces had taken full control of the southern region of Kherson. In Rivne in western Ukraine, officials said 19 people had been killed in a Russian air strike on a TV tower. If confirmed it would be the worst attack on a civilian target so far in the northwest where Russian ground troops have yet to tread. Russia (inevitably) denies targeting civilians.

The talks? What’s happening?

Ukrainian officials played up hopes the war could end sooner than expected, saying Moscow may be coming to terms with its failure to impose a new government by force. In a hint of a possible compromise, Zelenskiy said Ukraine was prepared to accept security guarantees from the West that stop short of its long-term objective of joining NATO. Moscow sees any future Ukraine membership of the Western alliance as a threat and has demanded guarantees it will never join.

“If we cannot enter through open doors, then we must cooperate with the associations with which we can, which will help us, protect us … and have separate guarantees,” said Zelenskiy.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said it was too early to predict progress in the talks. “The work is difficult, and in the current situation the very fact that (the talks) are continuing is probably positive,” he said.

In the cities

Kyiv has been spared the worst of the fighting since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, but the Russian military is slowly closing in on the city and the shelling has intensified. Kyiv imposed a 35-hour curfew after the intense shelling, which killed at least five people.

Reuters reports that Russian air strikes and shelling hit Kyiv on Tuesday killing at least four people, authorities said, as invading forces tightened their grip on the Ukrainian capital and the mayor announced a 35-hour curfew starting at 8 p.m. (1800 GMT). Two large blasts echoed across the centre of the city just before dawn on Tuesday. Late on Monday, tracer bullets flashed across the night sky as Ukrainian forces apparently targeted an enemy drone.

“Today is a difficult and dangerous moment,” mayor Vitali Klitschko said. “The capital is the heart of Ukraine, and it will be defended. Kyiv, which is currently the symbol and forward operating base of Europe’s freedom and security, will not be given up by us.”

He called on men who took wives and children to the relative safety of the west of the country earlier in the conflict to return to the capital to fight. Some have done so already, he and his brother Wladimir told Reuters in a recent interview.

Reuters witnesses saw a high-rise apartment block in flames after being struck by artillery. Firefighters tried to douse the blaze and rescue workers helped evacuate residents trapped inside using mobile ladders. A body lay on the ground in a bag. The Artem weapons factory in central Kyiv was also hit, with footage taken by a local resident showing smoke coming from the roof. Outside kiosks nearby, shopkeepers and helpers swept up glass and other debris from the impact of the explosions.

Russia said on Monday that it planned to attack Ukrainian arms factories in retaliation for what it said was a Ukrainian strike on the separatist-controlled city of Donetsk, and urged workers and local residents to stay away. Ukraine denied launching an attack.

Humanitarian corridors

About 2,000 cars left the besieged port city of Mariupol. Ukraine accused Russia of blocking a convoy trying to take supplies. A convoy with supplies for Mariupol, where residents have been sheltering from repeated Russian bombardments and are desperate for food and water, was stuck at nearby Berdyansk, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said. Meanwhile, more than 100 buses carrying a few thousand civilians left the besieged northeastern city of Sumy in a “safe passage” operation, the International Committee of the Red Cross said on Tuesday. They were heading towards Lubny in central Ukraine after Russians gave a green light for the evacuation.

More sanctions, and what is happening with Belarus?

Reuters reports that the United States imposed sanctions on Russians it accused of gross human rights violations and slapped fresh measures on the Belarusian president, Lukashenko. President Alexander Lukashenko said on Tuesday that Belarus had intercepted a missile fired at it two days ago from Ukraine, but that it would resist what he called attempts to draw it into the conflict across the border.

The Kyiv government accused Russia on Friday of staging “false flag” air attacks on Belarus from Ukraine to provide an excuse for Moscow’s close ally, which has served as a staging post for Russian forces entering Ukraine, to join the conflict itself. read more

“I warned you that they would push us into this operation, into this war,” Lukashenko told Belarusian soldiers, according to the state news agency BelTA.

“There’s nothing for us to do there, and we haven’t been invited,” Lukashenko was quoted as saying. “I want to emphasise again … We are not going to become involved in this operation that Russia is conducting in Ukraine.”

Nevertheless, he suggested that Belarus’s patience was not unlimited. Lukashenko said the missile was intercepted and destroyed by Belarus with Russian help over the Pripyat area, near the Ukrainian border.

“Why is this being done?” he said. “To incite us, so that we begin to respond. But we’re not such fools. If we respond, we’ll respond properly, so that everyone feels it. For now, we’re putting up with it.”

It was not clear how Ukraine would benefit from dragging Belarus into the war alongside Russia.

What about Biden’s visit?

NATO leaders will meet at the military alliance’s headquarters in Brussels on March 24 to discuss the crisis that has prompted fears of wider conflict in the West unthought-of for decades.

“We will address Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, our strong support for Ukraine, and further strengthening NATO’s deterrence & defence,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.

Biden will be in attendance, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters. “His goal is to meet in person face-to-face and talk about and assess where we are at this point in the conflict,” she said.

Asked if Biden would also visit Poland, do something tied to Ukrainian refugees or meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Psaki declined to comment, saying trip details were still being worked out.

Is Russia recruiting mercenaries?

France 24 has the following report: “A Russian call for fighters from Syria and Chechnya to join its war in Ukraine is motivated by plans to take major cities with urban warfare tactics which will require overwhelmingly superior attacking numbers, Western observers say. According to experts, after three weeks of fighting, all of the 150,000 Russian soldiers initially deployed at the Ukrainian border are now inside the country, and a source at the French military chiefs of staff told AFP that the Russians have no more reserves in the zone.

But if President Vladimir Putin wants to capture major cities such as Kyiv and the Black Sea port of Odessa, he will have to bolster troops on the ground after an initial campaign phase that has been slower than the Kremlin expected.

This could equate to a numerical superiority of roughly 10 attackers for every Ukrainian soldier defending the urban centres, according to a military source, who asked not to be named. Local knowledge, mobility and early occupation of vantage points typically favour defending forces in urban combat.

The Kremlin said on Friday that volunteers including from Syria were welcome to fight alongside Russia’s military in Ukraine. On Tuesday, a war monitor said Russia had drawn up lists of 40,000 fighters from Syrian army and allied militia ranks to be put on standby for deployment in Ukraine.

In a country where soldiers earn between $15 and $35 per month, Russia has promised them a salary of $1,100 to fight in Ukraine, the Observatory reported.

“Putin needs more troops than he thought he would. And he needs irregular troops because this war is becoming insurrectional,” a Western security source said.

After failing to conquer Ukraine quickly, “Russia now needs massive reinforcements in terms of equipment and troops” to continue the war, said Mathieu Boulegue, a research fellow specialising in Russia at Chatham House think tank.

Moscow’s recourse to Syrian soldiers follows on from Russia’s intervention in 2015 in the war-torn country on behalf of the government, helping President Bashar al-Assad clock up decisive victories in the decade-long conflict. Russia’s air force notably helped Syrian forces during their siege of rebel-held Aleppo and Syrian fighters have been deployed in foreign theatres before, by both Russia and Turkey in Libya, and by Turkey in Nagorno-Karabakh to help Ankara’s ally Azerbaijan.

Putin has ordered his forces “to hold back on any immediate assault on large cities,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday. But, he added, the defence ministry “does not rule out” the possibility of putting large cities “under its full control”.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky slammed the Russian recruitment in Syria, saying Russia was hiring “murderers”.

What about the Chechens? Where do they come in?

Fighters from Russia’s overwhelmingly Muslim southern region of Chechnya are also loyal to the Kremlin and battle-hardened from reported past deployments in Syria and eastern Ukraine. Numerous videos posted on social media have suggested that they are already present inside Ukraine.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the “strongman” leader of Chechnya, claimed on his Telegram channel Monday that he had been in Ukraine just outside Kyiv alongside the forces.

“You don’t have much time left,” he wrote in a taunting message to the Ukrainian leadership. “Better to surrender and join us,” he said, adding in a gloating aside: “guess how close we are” to Kyiv.

Kadyrov, a devout Muslim who rules the Russian region in the northern Caucasus with an iron fist, is a former rebel turned Kremlin ally with a paramilitary force at his command. At the start of the Russian offensive, images circulated on social networks showing a square in the Chechen capital Grozny filled with soldiers claiming to be on their way to Ukraine.

Kadyrov’s forces are accused by rights activists of numerous abuses in Chechnya, including killings and enforced disappearances, often of LGBTQIA people

On Tuesday Kadyrov indicated he was back in Chechnya, welcoming to the region the secretary of Russia’s national security council Nikolai Patrushev, a key member of Putin’s inner circle. Whether Kadyrov is capable of actually fulfilling his threats is a moot point: acute military observers claim to have identified the boots he was wearing at a recent dress parade as £1,500 Prada ones, so hardly suitable for combat. It’s possible that he is all mouth and no trousers, as it were, especially if he really is now back in Chechnya. He calls himself “Putin’s foot soldier”: “Putin’s lapdog” is likely to be more attribute – and lapdogs typically are all bark and no bite.

And what about China?

Well, right now, China is in a snit about Ukraine, according to Reuters:

China’s government today lambasted Taiwan’s humanitarian aid for Ukraine and sanctions on Russia as “taking advantage of other’s difficulties” after the island announced it was sending more funds donated by the public for refugees.

The war in Ukraine has garnered broad sympathy in Taiwan, with many seeing parallels between Russia’s invasion and the military threat posed by China, which views the democratically governed island as its own territory. Taiwan has joined in Western-led sanctions on Russia.

Asked about Taiwan’s aid and sanctions at a news conference in Beijing, Zhu Fenglian, a spokesperson for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, said Taiwan’s government was trying to latch onto the issue for its own purposes.

“The Democratic Progressive Party authorities are using the Ukraine issue to validate their existence and piggy back on a hot issue, taking advantage of other’s difficulties,” she said, referring to Taiwan’s ruling party. “Their attempts to incite confrontation and create hostility through political manipulation will not succeed.”

Taiwan’s government says that on Ukraine it has a duty to stand with other democracies. Late on Tuesday, Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry announced a second $11.5 million donation to help refugees after an initial donation this month of $3.5 million. President Tsai Ing-wen has gifted one month of her salary.

“During this conflict, the Taiwanese people have shown boundless compassion,” the ministry cited Foreign Minister Joseph Wu as saying at an event attended by several senior Taipei-based Western diplomats, including the de facto European Union ambassador.

China, which has refused to condemn the Russian invasion, said last week the Chinese Red Cross would provide humanitarian assistance worth 5 million yuan ($786,000) to Ukraine, its first publicly announced aid to the country since the war.

Meanwhile, there is no further news on the extent to which China is prepared to assist Russia. But in an interesting little view of how far China is on Russia’s side, here’s a snippet from the Guardian for you about a particular Chinese reporter.

“Lu Yuguang of Chinese news outlet Phoenix TV appears to have gained exclusive access to Moscow’s side of the invasion of Ukraine. The reporter has filed reports from cities under Russian attack since the invasion began almost three weeks ago. In a flak jacket and helmet, he stands on the side of a road as a Russian tank roars past. “I’m on the frontline in Mariupol,” he says into the microphone. He then interviews a Russian soldier who says he’s not nervous as he’s been “fighting for eight years”. In another shot, Lu talks with a group of Russian soldiers in the back of a military vehicle.

The dispatches are unusual for their extraordinary access – Lu, a veteran war reporter for a Chinese news outlet, Phoenix TV, is perhaps the only foreign correspondent embedded with Russian troops as they continue the brutal invasion of Ukraine.

He has filed reports from cities under Russian attack since the invasion began almost three weeks ago, including in Mariupol where local authorities say thousands of people have been killed.

Lu appears to have gained exclusive access to Russia’s side of the conflict. In one report on 2 March, he interviewed the leader of the self-proclaimed republic in Donetsk, Denis Pushilin. Lu said the Donetsk militia cannot compare to Ukrainian forces, “but with the help of Russian forces, eastern Ukraine militia have liberated 40 residential areas within the administrative line. The victory keeps expanding.”

The Guardian is not aware of any other foreign journalists reporting from such close quarters on the Russian side of the invasion. A long-running Russian government campaign against independent media has intensified since the war began, with foreign outlets among those forced to end operations after Vladimir Putin signed a law carrying 15-year prison terms for what the Kremlin considers “fake news”. As such, Lu’s unusual access to the Russian military stands in stark contrast to that of other reporters. It has also fuelled questions about the extent of cooperation between Moscow and Beijing.

Since the two governments signed an “unlimited partnership” shortly before Russia went to war in Ukraine, Beijing has struggled to balance its support for Moscow with the global condemnation of the invasion and swaths of international sanctions. It has outwardly sought to maintain a neutral position in the conflict but refuses to label Russia’s act as an invasion or the fighting as a war, and has amplified anti-western narratives, blaming the US and NATO for the conflict.

Beijing has also pushed Russian disinformation and conspiracy theories, including un-evidenced accusations that US-funded labs in Ukraine were secretly producing chemical weapons, and early claims by Russian state media that the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, had fled Kyiv.

Lu’s unusual access has fuelled questions about the extent of cooperation between Moscow and Beijing. He is a well-known journalist in China.

His reports from Ukraine have included Russian disinformation such as claims of more than 1,000 people held hostage as human shields by Ukrainian militants. However, his interviews with Ukrainian civilian victims, and criticism of Chinese internet users objectifying Ukrainian women, have also drawn nationalistic and pro-Russia trolling, accusing him of creating pro-Ukraine “rumours” and being “crooked assed”, an internet slang term for having bias or lacking objectivity.

According to profiles on Phoenix TV’s website and news articles about Lu, the correspondent is a former navy officer in the People’s Liberation Army, who lived in Moscow for several decades and covered events including the Chechen war, where he reportedly had Russian military protection. He has received multiple awards from the Russian government and military for his reporting. He has previously said that his outlet has good relations with intelligence figures in Russia.

Prof Steve Tsang, the director of the Soas China Institute, said Lu could have gained access through his personal connection to Russia, or because of China’s general support for its government.

“They are not mutually exclusive. The only thing I think we know for sure is that Russia will not allow any foreign journalist to be embedded with Russian forces unless it is certain that the embedded foreign journalist will portray Russian forces and efforts in a positive light. The fact that Lu is embedded should show that the Russian authorities know him well enough to be certain he would not write negatively about the Russian war efforts.”

Where does this all leave us?

There may be hope in the talks. As for the recruiting, you can recruit soldiers, but that doesn’t mean they’ll fight once they’re there. Ukraine continues to suffer. The West continues to hope that sanctions will work. At the moment, the threat of nuclear escalation has receded. Oh, and if you’re wondering what our useless lump of a PM is doing, he’s trailing round the Gulf states, going cap in hand to them for oil. He thinks he’s being relevant, but all the action is between the EU and the US.

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