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

Happy St Patrick’s Day to all Irish readers, amongst whom I may now formally count myself, although I’m still living in England at the moment..

Peace talks?   

The FT reports that Ukraine and Russia have made significant progress on a tentative peace plan including a ceasefire and Russian withdrawal if Kyiv declares neutrality and accepts limits on its armed forces, according to five people briefed on the talks.

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators discussed the proposed deal in full for the first time on Monday, said two of the people. The 15-point draft considered that day would involve Kyiv renouncing its ambitions to join Nato and promising not to host foreign military bases or weaponry in exchange for protection from allies such as the US, UK and Turkey, the people said.

However, the nature of western guarantees for Ukrainian security — and their acceptability to Moscow — could prove to be a big obstacle to any deal, as could the status of the country’s territories seized by Russia and its proxies in 2014. A 1994 agreement underpinning Ukrainian security failed to prevent the Kremlin’s aggression against its neighbour.

Although Moscow and Kyiv both said they had made progress on the terms of a deal, Ukrainian officials are sceptical Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is fully committed to peace and worry that Moscow could be buying time to regroup its forces and resume its offensive.

“There’s a likelihood this is trickery and illusion. They lie about everything — Crimea, the build-up of troops on the border, and the ‘hysteria’ over the invasion,” said a Ukrainian source briefed on the talks.

“We need to put pressure on them until they have no other choice” but to agree a peace deal, the person added.

Putin showed no sign of compromise on Wednesday, vowing Moscow would achieve all of its war aims in Ukraine. “We will never allow Ukraine to become a stronghold of aggressive actions against our country,” he said.

But a Russian source briefed on the talks said the proposed settlement, if agreed, could give both sides a credible way to declare victory in the war.

“Every side needs a win,” the person said. “He needs to be able to sell it to the people. Putin can say that he wanted to stop Ukraine joining Nato and putting foreign bases and missiles in its territory. If they do that, he can say, ‘I got it.’”

Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has been the primary international mediator on the talks, three people familiar with the matter said, following a surprise visit to Moscow on March 5, with back-to-back talks with both leaders as recently as two days ago. Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey, also spoke by phone with Ukraine’s leader Volodymyr Zelensky as he and his top officials intensified their efforts to help broker a peace deal between Kyiv and Moscow.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a senior adviser to Zelensky, told the Financial Times that any deal would involve “the troops of the Russian Federation in any case leaving the territory of Ukraine” captured since the invasion began on February 24 — namely southern regions along the Azov and Black seas, as well as territory to the east and north of Kyiv.

Ukraine would maintain its armed forces but would be obliged to stay outside military alliances such as Nato and refrain from hosting foreign military bases on its territory.

Putin’s press secretary Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Wednesday that neutrality for Ukraine based on the status of Austria or Sweden was a possibility: “This option is really being discussed now, and is one that can be considered neutral.”

Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said that “absolutely specific wordings” were “close to being agreed” in the negotiations.

On Wednesday Ned Price, the US state department spokesperson, told reporters that Washington welcomed the expressions of hope and optimism about the diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine. But he said the US wanted to see “de-escalation” from Russia and there was no “tangible indication” that Putin was “changing course”.

But there is still fighting. And war crimes.

Despite the progress in peace talks, Ukraine’s cities came under heavy shelling for a third consecutive night while Kyiv said it was launching a counter-offensive against Russian invaders. Local officials in the besieged city of Mariupol said Russian troops bombed and destroyed a theatre, where hundreds of people had taken shelter. Satellite imagery taken on March 14 by the private U.S. company Maxar Technologies showed that the word “children” had been written in Russian outside the Mariupol theatre where hundreds of civilians had taken shelter. The theatre was bombed by Russian forces yesterday, but this morning, according to local authorities, the shelter withstood the attack and people are being rescued alive. Yesterday also, ten Ukrainians were also shot dead by Russian forces while queuing for bread.

Though Ukraine’s constitution commits it to seek membership of Nato, Zelensky and his aides have increasingly played down the country’s chances of joining the transatlantic military alliance, a prospect that Russia sees as a provocation.

“There is no effective system of European security now, which would be moderated by Nato. As soon as a serious war began in Europe, Nato quickly stepped aside,” Podolyak said.

“We propose a ‘Ukrainian model of security guarantees’, which implies the immediate and legally verified participation of a number of guarantor countries in the conflict on the side of Ukraine, if someone again encroaches on its territorial integrity,” he added.

Ukraine, Podolyak added, would as part of any deal “definitely retain its own army”. He also played down the significance of a ban on foreign bases in Ukraine, saying that was already precluded by Ukrainian law. Two of the people said the putative deal also included provisions on enshrining rights for the Russian language in Ukraine, where it is widely spoken though Ukrainian is the only official language. Russia has framed its invasion as an attempt to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine from what it claims is “genocide” by “neo-Nazis”.

What would prevent a peace deal?

The biggest sticking point remains Russia’s demand that Ukraine recognise its 2014 annexation of Crimea and the independence of two separatist statelets in the eastern Donbas border region. Ukraine has refused but was willing to compartmentalise the issue, Podolyak said.

Zelensky addressed Congress yesterday. What happened?

In his address to Congress, Zelenskiy compared the attacks in Ukraine to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour that pulled the United States into World War Two, and begged lawmakers, and Biden directly, for more help.

“This is a terror that Europe has not seen for 80 years, and we are asking for our life, for an answer to this terror from the whole world. Is this a lot to ask for? To create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people?” Zelenskiy asked through an interpreter.

“If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative,” he said. “You know what kind of defense systems we need,” adding that he knows the United States has them.

America’s response.

Biden will not approve a no-fly zone, likening it to “beginning World War III”, but he has approved a package of new military aid for Ukraine including anti-aircraft weapons and drones in order to bolster the country’s defences against Russia’s invasion. Biden’s move followed the gut-wrenching appeal earlier on Wednesday from Zelensky for members of Congress and Biden to help his country as it fights back against Russia’s assault. While Biden has refused to entertain US troops on the ground, or to enforce the requested no-fly zone over Ukraine, he signed an $800mn security aid package on Wednesday that sharply increased the military help for Kyiv.

“We’re going to give Ukraine the army to fight and defend themselves through all the difficult days ahead,” he said.

The new package includes drones — which the president said showed America’s “commitment to send in our most cutting-edge systems to Ukraine for its defence”.”

According to Reuters, the new U.S. aid includes 800 anti-aircraft systems, including longer-range platforms; 9,000 shoulder-mounted anti-armor missiles to destroy tanks and vehicles; 7,000 machine guns, shotguns, and grenade launchers; and 20 million rounds of ammunition. 

Bloomberg adds that the expanded arsenal that the U.S. is sending to Ukraine includes 100 armed drones that are tube-launched from the ground and plunge into their targets, according to people familiar with the plans.

The dive-bombing Switchblade drone, made by AeroVironment Inc., has been in the arsenal of U.S. commandos since it was secretly sent to Afghanistan in 2010 for use against the Taliban. Army officials have described it as a flying shotgun. It’s less than 24 inches (61 centimetres) long and weighs about six pounds (2.7 kilograms.)

A senior U.S. defence official described the drone that the U.S. will be sending as a weapon that packs a punch. It can fit in a rucksack and costs as little as $6,000.  

President Joe Biden listed drones, without elaboration, as part of a package of weapons for Ukraine that he said demonstrates the U.S. “commitment to sending our most cutting-edge systems to Ukraine for its defence.” People familiar with the planned arms package confirmed that the armed Switchblade was the pilotless vehicle being provided.

Japan sights troop transporters. What’s happening?

Reuters reports that Japan’s military said on Thursday that it had spotted four large Russian amphibious warfare ships sailing close to its islands as they travelled west, possibly towards Europe.

Pictures of the amphibious transports, typically used for landing expeditionary forces ashore, published by Japan’s defence ministry showed what appeared to be military trucks loaded onto the deck of one of the vessels.

We don’t know where they are heading, but their heading suggests it is possible,” a Japanese defence ministry spokesman said. Asked if they could be bound for Ukraine, he said “it is possible”.

A Japanese Self Defence Force maritime patrol first detected the Russian vessels, which can carry dozens of tanks other military vehicles and hundreds of troops, on Tuesday and monitored them as they passed West from the Pacific Ocean to the Sea of Japan through the narrow Tsuruga Strait separating Japan’s main Honshu island from Hokkaido island on Wednesday.

It is unusual for Russian ships to pass through the strait so close to Japanese territory, the military spokesman said.

Armed with anti-tank weapons supplied by the United States and other countries Ukrainian fighters have taken a heavy toll on Russian armour and fuel trucks, meaning Moscow, which describes its attack as a “special operation,” may need to reinforce its forces with new equipment.

NATO allies, which have already supplied 20,000 anti-tank and other weapons to Ukraine, on Wednesday said they would keep helping the country resist the Russian attack.

Belarus: what’s happening?

Reports from Reuters via the Belarusian opposition to Lukashenko suggest Belarusians have tried to interrupt railway transport to stop the deployment of Russia’s equipment to Ukraine. Yesterday, they stopped the trains near the Belarus-Ukraine border. No one in the country supports the Russian invasion. Belarusians, say the opposition press, keep fighting by all possible means.Belarusian opposition parties also report explosions in some Belarusian cities. There is speculation that this could be a false flag operation, designed by Russia to push Belarus into a war to which, so far, it seems to have been unwilling to commit. Ukrainian defence minister Oleksii Reznikov told European lawmakers on Wednesday that Russia is using Belarus as a logistical hub for its war against Ukraine. One to watch: there will undoubtedly be more news of this later.

The fact that Russia appears to be moving new troops into position even as it claims to be engaging in peace talks in good faith does rather validate the view of military pundits who have said that any agreement might simply be used by Putin to disengage, temporarily, regroup, and launch a renewed attack. It must be borne in mind that while those conducting the peace talks may have hope, and although both sides have pointed to limited progress in the talks this week,  Putin has shown little sign of relenting. In a vituperative televised speech this week, he inveighed against “traitors and scum” at home who helped the West, and said the Russian people would spit them out like gnats.

So where are we?

Despite the news from the talks there seems to be no sign that this will end soon. However, at the moment there seems to be no increased risk of nuclear conflict.

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