Russia woos Haftar, but can the Derna floods give Libyans another chance?

Moscow seized the disaster diplomacy initiative after the deadly Derna floods, with Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov arriving in eastern Libya with a promise of aid. Russia is helping Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar while seeking geostrategic payback. But the Derna tragedy has also drawn the US back into Libya, and that could be a game-changer.

On a moonless night shortly after two dams in the port city of Derna collapsed, killing thousands, a hulking Russian Ilyushin IL-76 military cargo aircraft landed at an airport near Benghazi in eastern Libya.

“Russian Defence Ministry sends logistical reinforcements, rescue & search equipment after Storm Daniel,” noted a post by a local Libyan news site days after the landing on X, formerly Twitter.

Accompanying photographs showed teams unloading aid packages from the aircraft while a military truck, draped with the flags of Russia and Libya, waits on the tarmac at Benghazi’s Benina airport.

The messaging was clear and gained momentum over the next few days: the Russian defence ministry was on the ground, providing a rapid response in eastern Libya, a region controlled by strongman Khalifa Haftar, head of the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA).

On Sunday, September 17 – a week after “Libya’s 9/11” as the Derna disaster has been dubbed – Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov himself was in town, meeting Haftar at the strongman’s Benghazi office.

The Russian defence ministry’s No. 2 is fast becoming Moscow’s “Africa Man”, making several trips to the continent, particularly coup-hit former French colonies such as Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.

Yevkurov was last in Libya when Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was killed in a plane crash near Moscow on August 23. Over the past few years, Wagner provided indispensable services to Haftar, securing oil wells and deploying fighters during the eastern Libyan strongman’s 2019 assault on the capital, Tripoli, in western Libya. Following the Wagner chief’s demise, Yevkurov is seen as the main organiser of the post-Prigozhin era of Russian relationships with Africa.

Read moreRussian general, master spy duo organise in Africa after Prigozhin’s demise

Just a day after Prigozhin’s death, Haftar showed that he was ahead of the intrigues in Moscow when his Benghazi media office released a photograph of the Russian deputy defence minister gifting the Libyan strongman a pistol during his visit.

Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-bek Yevkurov offers Khalifa Haftar a pistol in Benghazi on August 24, 2023. © Khalifa Khaftar media office via AFP

With its 1,700-kilometer Mediterranean coastline across from southern Europe, and its desert land borders providing a gateway to the Sahel and central Africa, Libya is considered vital to Russia’s interests across the two continents. The oil-rich North African nation is divided between the UN-recognised government administering western Libya and Haftar-controlled territory in the east.

Russia has proved to be a new, loyal ally to Haftar. But the septuagenarian Libyan strongman is not known for his geopolitical fidelity. In the course of an intrigue-packed military career, Haftar has switched sides, worked with rival powers, and managed to save his skin while amassing a fortune. The Derna disaster has repositioned him at the centre of a North African “Great Game”, with the victims of the floods in danger of turning into pawns.

Seeking docking rights for Russian warships

Russia’s outreach in eastern Libya predates the Derna disaster and has been largely opaque and shadowy.

Just two days before Yevkurov’s humanitarian trip to Benghazi, the Wall Street Journal published a report warning that Russia was seeking access for its warships in eastern Libya.

“The Russians have requested access to the ports of either Benghazi or Tobruk,” the US daily reported, citing Libyan officials and advisers. Yevkurov’s meeting with Haftar in August focused on discussing “long-term docking rights in areas he controls in the war-torn country’s east,” the newspaper added.

Prigozhin’s death and the Russian defence ministry’s efforts to fold Wagner mercenaries – including around 1,200 fighters still stationed in Haftar’s facilities – into a direct chain of command have increased the geopolitical stakes, according to Emad Baadi, nonresident senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Atlantic Council.

“It’s about securing a warm water port on the Mediterranean, at Europe and NATO’s southern flank, which has been a covert objective of Russia for quite a long time, but on which it hadn’t made inroads, partly because its presence in Libya was never made fully official, let’s say. This is slightly changing now, given the increased high profile, and nature of the visits that we’ve seen with the deputy minister of defence,” said Baadi.

Since NATO intervened in the 2011 uprising to oust Muammar Gaddafi, Russian President Vladimir Putin has consistently criticised the operation and used Libya as an example of the Western military alliance’s failure.

More than a decade later, Putin is determined to turn that failure to Russia’s advantage.

“I think they are in Libya to stay, both for resource extraction and strategic positioning, from where they can basically threaten southern Europe and destabilise the security of southern Europe,” said a Western diplomat who declined to be named. “Putin wants to undermine democracy in Europe and what better way to do that than to use Libya as a launching pad for cynically sending illegal migrants into southern Europe. I think this is a medium-to-long-term strategic plan.”

From Tartus to Tobruk, or Benghazi

Russia’s efforts to lobby Haftar for naval access are aimed at duplicating Moscow’s achievements in Syria following the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, according to experts.

Following its 2015 intervention on Assad’s behalf, Russia has substantially increased the use of its naval facility in the Syrian port of Tartus, the only Mediterranean port to which Moscow has access.

With a naval presence in either Benghazi or Tobruk, Russia could significantly increase its reach, by having “surface-to-air missiles deployed, anti-ship cruise missiles, electronic warfare equipment, but more importantly, be able to deploy the Russian Mediterranean fleet to set port,” said Baadi.

“This setup in having both, the eastern flank of Europe [from Tartus] and also the southern flank of Europe [from Libya] presents a strategic advantage, both vis-a-vis Europe and against NATO as well,” he added.

‘Discussing fire safety with an arsonist’

Given the geostrategic stakes, the US is keeping a close eye on Russia’s outreach to Haftar in the wake of the Derna flooding.

Just days after Russian Deputy Defence Minister Yevkurov left Benghazi, the Americans were on the tarmac.

On Thursday, September 21, General Michael Langley, commander of the US Africa Command, and Richard Norland, US special envoy to Libya, arrived in Benghazi in an aircraft bearing humanitarian aid.

After a stop in Tripoli, where they held talks with representatives of the country’s internationally recognised government, the two senior US officials met the strongman of eastern Libya.

“Gen. Langley met with LNA commander Haftar in Benghazi to discuss the importance of forming a democratically elected national government, reunifying the Libyan military, and safeguarding Libyan sovereignty by removing foreign mercenaries,” the US Embassy in Libya said in an X post.

The messaging drew snide quips from Libya analysts monitoring the LNA’s crackdown on journalists and activists following a protest by flood-hit Derna residents outside the city’s landmark Al Sahaba mosque.

“Meeting Haftar to discuss democratic elections is like discussing fire safety with an arsonist. Shut the door on your way out mate,” said Anas El Gomati, director of the Tripoli-based Sadeq Institute, on X.

“I think the West is very naïve about how to engage with Haftar,” said Tarek Megerisi, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “My advice to the US would be to take a very strong line in pushing back against the securitisation of the Derna crisis,” he added, referring to what Amnesty International has called the LNA’s “well-honed machinery of repression to silence criticism, muzzle civil society and evade responsibility”.

‘America’s man’ or ‘Russia’s man’ in Libya?

US policy on Libya over the past few years has been characterised by muddle and absence, according to many analysts.

“Washington is playing catchup on Libya because policy is always overshadowed by other priorities,” said Frederic Wehrey, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Libya surfaces in US consciousness when there are threat concerns: ISIS [the Islamic State group], energy security and Russia’s spoiling influence in Libya.”

Since 2014 – when his military “Operation Dignity” on Benghazi split the country in two – Haftar has positioned himself as an indispensable Libyan player who has at various points engaged with the US, Russia, France, Italy, the EU, Egypt and the UAE, even as he dismays officials in global and regional capitals.

A Gaddafi-era army officer, Haftar began the post-2011 chapter as “America’s man” – the product of a 20-year stay in Virginia after the CIA failed to find another country to house his commando force engaged in covert operations against the longtime Libyan dictator.

“In the back of Russia’s mind, Haftar is still “America’s man” in Libya, especially after the twenty years that Haftar spent in Virginia,” noted Khalil El Hasse in a Washington Institute briefing.

“On whether Haftar is America’s man or Russia’s man, I think he thrives on being in the grey zone – which is fully, neither. But I do think that the Americans have displayed a naiveite that perhaps the Russians have not because the Russians are as opportunistic, if not more opportunistic, than Haftar himself,” said Baadi.

The US and its European allies have played the opportunistic game with Haftar, but they are falling behind Russia in strategy and the Libyan people have been the biggest losers, according to experts.

“A variety of international powers have crafted their relationship with this personality under the guise of counterterrorism,” said Stephanie Williams, former UN special envoy to Libya and currently a nonresident senior fellow at the Washington DC-based Brookings Institution. “Nations tend to prioritise these kind of discrete files – whether it’s counterterrorism or oil or counter-migration – at the expense of frankly, the kind of institution-building that was needed in the wake of 2011.”

More than a decade after Gaddafi’s ouster, the international roadmap for the North African country is focused on a “Libyan-led” process towards parliamentary and presidential elections.

The process, led by the current UN envoy to Libya, Abdoulaye Bathily, a veteran Senegalese diplomat, has a whiff of dismaying familiarity for most Libyans, who have endured election cancellations, obstructions and irregularities by their political elites.

During the September 10 protests outside the Al Sahaba mosque in Derna, residents vented their rage against Aguila Saleh, the eastern-based parliament speaker and Haftar ally. At 79, Saleh is viewed as a symbol of Libya’s political malaise, unilaterally pushing “legislation” through the chamber that favour his cronies and Haftar allies.

Saleh’s nephew, Abdulmonem al-Ghaithi, was Derna’s appointed mayor when the dam disaster that was “decades in the making” struck. Ghaithi was sacked shortly after the tragedy.

Read moreLibya’s deadly dam collapse was decades in the making

The Derna disaster could provide a tipping point for change, and it’s one that should be seized by countries supporting democracy in Libya before the Russians – under a new “Africa man” – can play spoiler.

“Derna does in fact represent an opportunity for responsible international and regional actors to correct the trajectory of their policy on Libya, to first of all stand with the Libyan people,” said Williams. “There is a moral responsibility now because what happened in Libya is going to happen somewhere else, we’re going have a climate change-driven event that will be compounded by conflict, chaos and misgovernance.”

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Notorious Russian general, master spy duo organise in Africa after Prigozhin’s demise

In recent weeks, Russia’s Deputy Defence Minister Yunus-Bek Yevkurov and General Andrei Averyanov from the GRU military intelligence agency have made several trips to Africa. The two are increasingly seen as the main organisers of the post-Prigozhin era of Russian relationships with Africa following the Wagner Group chief’s demise in a fiery plane crash at the end of August.

Yunus-bek Yevkurov, Russia‘s Deputy Defence Minister, and Andrei Averyanov, a notorious general from the GRU military intelligence agency, touched down in Bamako, Mali, on Saturday, September 16.  They were slated to meet political leaders from Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, according to local media and various sources on Telegram.

This was not the first of the duo’s visits to Africa. They have made several visits to the continent since the death of Yevgeny Prigozhin on August 23, 2023… and even prior to that. Yevkurov, always flanked by Averyanov, was in Libya – one of the main African bases for Wagner’s mercenaries – the day before the plane crash back in Russia which killed the Wagner Group chief, as well as two others from the organisation’s top leadership who could have replaced him.

Yevkurov, the negotiator

The meeting in Mali was not coincidental: Yevkurov and Averyanov were scheduled to hold talks with representatives of the countries Prigozhin had last visited. Riley Moeder, an Africa specialist studying the role of Wagner’s mercenaries on the continent at the New Lines Institute, an American geopolitical research center, holds that Russia is playing on a sense of continuity: “Prigozhin was filmed in that region before his plane crashed, and this region is looking for support. So Moscow wants to assure them that it remains committed to that region,” she says.

The Russian deputy defence minister had already visited Mali and Burkina Faso in the first week of September to assure local authorities that Moscow would “do everything in its power to help” them, The New York Times reported in an investigation into the future of Wagner’s African “empire” published on September 8.

Yevkurov and Averyanov would therefore appear to African leaders to be the successors to the late Wagner boss. What’s more, as The New York Times reports in the same investigation, they also met with some of the remaining Wagner mercenaries in Mali. Several media outlets have already presented the GRU’s Averyanov as “Prigozhin’s successor” in Africa.

Indeed, the profiles of both men correspond to some of the roles hitherto played by Wagner’s former leader.

For example, Deputy Defence Minister Yevkurov is a decorated general with “quite a good military reputation”, says Ivan Klyszcz, a specialist in Russian foreign policy at the International Centre for Defence and Security in Estonia. That may be enough to inspire respect among the Wagner mercenaries.

Yevkurov also has a solid reputation as a peacemaker and negotiator from his time spent in Ingushetia, an autonomous republic of the Russian Federation located in the Greater Caucasus mountain range. He led this Russian republic from 2008 to 2019, at a time when the region “was more violent than Chechnya“, says Klyszcz, who has focussed on this part of Russia. “The region was almost as safe as everywhere else in Russia when he left.”

For the Kremlin, Yevkurov has a certain diplomatic finesse that is perfectly suited for being “the new face of relations between the Russian government when dealing with these African regimes”, says Andreas Heinemann-Gruder, a Russia specialist who studies private paramilitary groups at the University of Bonn.

Averyanov and the GRU assassins

Diplomatic finesse is arguably not Averyanov’s strong suit. General Averyanov is best known for having led the GRU’s infamous 29155 unit, which specialises in covert operations like sabotage and assassination. Spies from this unit are suspected of having blown up an ammunition depot in the Czech Republic in 2014, attempting to stage a pro-Serbian coup in Montenegro in 2016 and the attempted poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal in 2018.

Read moreUnit 29155, the Russian spies specialising in ‘sabotage and assassinations’

In other words, “[Averyanov’s] qualification is preparing special operations abroad. He is the ‘hit and kill guy’ you call when you need this kind of service,” says Heinemann-Gruder.

What’s in it for African regimes? “Averyanov can … take over some elements of regime security, and not only bodyguard services, but also in [his] area of specialisation: repression and targeted assassination,” adds Klyszcz.

But Averyanov is more than a cold-blooded killer. “Averyanov is a decorated veteran from Afghanistan and Chechnya and was also active in Moldova and Crimea. As with all Russian special operatives, he is trained to take the initiative, operate cut off from superiors’ orders, and make links with local allies,” says Jeff Hawn, Russia specialist and an external consultant for the New Lines Institute. This pedigree makes him an ideal candidate to negotiate with local military groups, just as Wagner’s managers would do when arriving in a new country in Africa.

Yevkurov, the shrewd politician, and Averyanov, the master spy, thus appear to be as different as they are complementary. However, they both have one quality in common setting them apart from the late Yevgeny Prigozhin: “They’re both reliable, loyal soldiers who are not the type of personality which could be expected to ‘go rogue’,” says Hawn.

“Loyalty is a very powerful advantage in the Putin system right now,” says Klyszcz. This would be especially the case for anyone aspiring to take over for Prigozhin, who, after his abortive rebellion attempt against the Russian defence ministry in June, came to epitomise treachery in the eyes of the Russian leadership.

More openly official support

Is all of this enough for the Kremlin to hand the keys to Wagner’s kingdom in Africa to the duo? According to the experts interviewed by FRANCE 24, they will play a role, but not as sole operators. Yevkurov and Averyanov embody, as representatives of the Russian state, a move from the semi-clandestine operations and relations carried out by Wagner to more open relations with the African regimes in place. “It’s no longer hybrid warfare but official support. They show that communication is continuing with Russia, but now through official channels,” says Heinemann-Gruder.

But this does not mean that the structures set up by Wagner will simply be absorbed by the Russian ministry of defence. Wagner’s very decentralised model is still useful to Moscow, because “it’s easier to adapt to local situations. What is happening in Mali is not what is happening in the Central African Republic,” says Moeder. The situation in Mali, with its imperative to fight terrorism, has little in common with the nature of operations in the Central African Republic, where Wagner’s main aim is to secure lucrative mining activities. Wagner also runs propaganda operations in several countries and even manages a brewery and vodka distillery in the Central African Republic.

Such diverse activities and hybrid warfare, wherein conventional tactics are blended with subversive actions,  “require greater dexterity than the Russian security bureaucracy is likely capable of”, writes Joseph Siegle, Director of the Center for African Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington, in an article published on The Conversation.

Finally, it will still be useful to let the mercenaries carry out certain actions to be able to continue denying official involvement on the part of Moscow in the event of exactions or reprisals in a country.

Yevkurov and Averyanov are thus an important part of the first stage of the reorganisation of Russian operations in Africa. “The Russians are beginning to learn some lessons from past experience with Wagner and other PMCs (private military companies). We can expect less autonomy and clear political leadership,” says Heinemann-Gruder.

And if Moscow’s progress in taking control of operations is rather slow, it’s also because the Wagner Group also has well-entrenched financial interests in Africa. “There is a web of [Russian] oligarchs and businessmen who benefitted from Prigozhin’s businesses and shell companies, and who have everything to gain from the system remaining,” says Moeder. Moscow’s interests therefore also lie in making sure that everyone involved in Wagner’s African operations continues to benefit.

This article was translated from the original in French. 

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Days after the Wagner mutiny, the spectres of ‘Black Saturday’ continue to haunt Russians

The dramatic events that unfolded in Russia over the weekend with an armed column of Wagner private military company marching towards Moscow have sent chills across the world — any radical challenge to Russia’s government of President Vladimir Putin could affect not just the lives of Russians, but also the stability of the world order, already pretty fragile.

Editorial | Rebellion in Russia: on the mutiny by Yevgeny Prigozhin of the Wagner private military company

The “march of justice”, as Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman and once President Putin’s trusted associate, called his rebellion, was unprecedented in Russia’s modern history but was very short-lived. Still it exposed cracks in the Russian statehood and society.

While there were different narratives on the origins of Mr. Prigozhin’s move — political ambitions, strive for profits, a bid to challenge the current status quo, or an overreaching hand of the West — the key question yet to have a solid answer is whether the mutiny, and the way it was aborted, undermines the strength or Vladimir Putin or amplifies it. And, more important, whether it was the final act or just the beginning.

“This is not the end of the story, but the beginning. Military mutiny, even unsuccessful, is a harbinger. Key events (revolution, coup, civil war) unfold later, after some time lag. History has no formulas for the future, but such a scenario has some significant tradition (probability),” political scientist Kirill Rogov, founder of the Re: Russia, a discussion platform addressing key issues of Russian politics, economy and society, wrote on his Telegram channel. He pointed out that the mutiny marked a point where those people who took the oath and are ready to “serve the motherland” suddenly discovered a completely different understanding of where the “motherland” is.

Mr. Putin in his address to the nation on Saturday, while the mutiny was unfolding, made it clear: as the motherland is engaged in a “severe struggle for its future” which would decide the “the fate of our nation”, consolidation of all forces is required. He called actions that divide the country’s unity “a betrayal of our people and the comrades who are currently fighting on the front lines”, and compared the current situation with 1917 when, during the First World War, intrigues and disputes “behind the Army and the people turned into the greatest upheaval,” resulting in the collapse of the Army, the disintegration of the state, and a civil war.

Fear of bloodshed

The real-time footage shared by dozens of Russian Telegram channels on Saturday, in which residents are seen shaking hands, hugging and taking photos with Wagner fighters who took control of a regional military headquarters in Rostov-on-Don — a city of over 1 million close to the Ukraine border — must have sent shudders through the power elites.

Servicemen of the Wagner Group military company sit atop of a tank, as local civilians pose for a photo prior to their leave an area at the HQ of the Southern Military District in a street in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on June 24, 2023.
| Photo Credit:

As Russian political analysts note, many of the issues raised by Mr. Prigozhin — corruption, poor decision making resulting in high casualties on the frontline, or the idea of invading Ukraine itself — resonate with the common people. In an interview released hours before he announced his ‘march of justice’ towards Moscow, Mr. Prigozhin stated Russia had lost tens of thousands of troops, and accused Defence minister Sergei Shoigu of being the mastermind behind the invasion of Ukraine, driven by his personal ambition to enhance his own position.

Mr. Prigozhin also claimed that Mr. Shoigu was supported by oligarchs seeking to exploit Ukrainian resources. Such statements, like many others that Mr. Prigozhin has earlier made, could result in heavy prison terms (from 5 to 15 years) if those were made by ordinary Russians.

However, a majority of Russians, who recall the events of 1991 (the disintegration of the Soviet Union) with great pain, irrespective of their political views, were rather alarmed at seeing their countrymen embracing Wagner fighters who shot down, as was later confirmed by the President, several helicopters and a military plane of the Russian armed forces, killing at least 13 people. The fear of bloodshed is extremely strong in the nation that has lived through many wars over the past 100 years.

In the latest comment released by Mr. Prigozhin on Monday evening, he reiterated his claim that the decision to turn the military column around was made “to avoid bloodshed”, and he stressed several times that there was “no death” on the ground during a nearly 24-hour long march. In the same statement, Mr. Prigozhin, however, confirmed that Wagner shot down Russian Air Force aircraft, adding that it was for self-defence.

File picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin seen on monitors as he addressed the nation after Yevgeny Prigozhin called for armed rebellion on June 24, 2023

File picture of Russian President Vladimir Putin seen on monitors as he addressed the nation after Yevgeny Prigozhin called for armed rebellion on June 24, 2023
| Photo Credit:

As Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko who on Tuesday unveiled the details of his mediation between Moscow and Wagner, said Kremlin had amassed some 10,000 troops to repel the Prigozhin-led march, which could have led to clashes and bloodshed. A peaceful solution was the priority, he added

‘Stop the columns’

No one in Russia’s power, business or military circles publicly supported Mr. Prigozhin’s rebellion. Hours after Wagner’s move towards Moscow was announced, Deputy Commander of the Russian Joint Forces, General Sergey Surovikin, whom Mr. Prigozhin was considered as being “close to”, and called on Wagner fighters to stop. “Before it’s too late, we need to obey the will and order of the popularly elected President of the Russian Federation, stop the columns, return them to their permanent locations,” he said, urging mercenaries not to “play into the enemy’s hands in these difficult times for our country.”

The deputy head of the GRU (the military intelligence service), Vladimir Alekseev, made a similar appeal, stating that Mr. Prigozhin’s actions as well as demands to replace the military leadership were “a stab in the back of the country and the President”.

After Mr. Putin’s address on Saturday, Russian officials, including Governors of the regions, members of Parliament and other dignitaries, have published messages in support of the President and calling for unity of society. As Wagner fighters were leaving Rostov on Saturday night, the facade of Rostov city stadium was lit up with the colours of the Russian flag, and a line running: “We are all one nation, and we are fighting against a common external enemy. We believe in the Russian people and our President!”

System crisis

Political scientist Mikhail Vinogradov called June 24 “a moment of the most acute political crisis in the Russian realities of the 21st century”, adding that there was not a single institution that has acted honourably. “Everyone suffered reputational risks. At the end, the general feeling among all the parties is devastation. It is valid for those who saw the developments as a chance for change. And for those who were sincerely convinced that they were acting on behalf of the good and speaking on behalf of the ‘majority’.”

Sergey Markedonov, a leading researcher at the MGIMO Institute of International Studies, Moscow, noted that “if we don’t continue to improve the quality of public administration in our country”, such tragedies as the events of June 24 will repeat. The ‘Black Saturday’, as he and many other commenters have labelled it, has not created political alternatives for Russia, but made them more visible. “It would be a big mistake to believe that changes in our country will occur in the spectrum of fluctuations between authoritarianism and democracy. The “transit” [of power] can also follow completely different trajectories,” he said.

Anton Chekhov once defined Russia as a ‘bureaucratic country’, Mr. Markedonov recalled in a Telegram post. “And if that’s the case, then the quality of state governance is a crucial question for us… Therefore, strengthening the state, its de-privatisation (where necessary, especially in the security sector), becomes the most urgent task for the future. Only then does the illusory chance arise that a strong authority, in order to increase its own effectiveness, will demand high-quality independent expertise, a functioning ‘feedback loop,’ and self-purification from numerous ‘clots’”, he added.

Wagner’s future

In his latest address to the nation made on Monday night, Mr. Putin offered three choices to Wagner fighters: sign a contract with the Ministry of Defense, return home or move to neighbouring Belarus.

“The overwhelming majority of the fighters and commanders of the Wagner group are Russian patriots, devoted to their people and country. They proved this with their courage on the battlefield,” Mr. Putin said, thanking Wagner soldiers and commanders who “stopped at the last line” and didn’t allow the “fratricidal bloodshed” to take place.

On Tuesday morning, Russian state-owned news agencies reported, citing the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), that the case of armed mutiny against Mr. Prigozhin was dismissed on June 27. Mr. Prigozhin’s private jet was spotted landing at a military airfield near Minsk, early morning on Tuesday and later in the day, Mr. Lukashenko confirmed that the Wagner chief was in Belarus.

Independent media outlet Verstka, considered a “foreign agent’ by the Russian government, reported that camps were being built for Wagner forces in Belarus’s Osipovichi, Mogilev region (200 km from the border with Ukraine). The camps will accommodate up to 8,000 people (according to various estimates, 5,000-8,000 Wagner forces took part in the mutiny).

However, Mr. Lukashenko dismissed the reports, but added that he would assist with accommodation if necessary. “We don’t build any camps for now. But if they want, we will accommodate them. As far as I can see, they are looking at various territories. Feel free to set up tents. But for now, they are in their own camps in Lugansk,” the Belarus President was quoted as saying by the state Belta news agency.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defence ministry said Wagner PMC’s heavy weaponry will be transferred to the Russian armed forces.

Political analyst Alexey Makarkin, interviewed by Vedomosti newspaper, noted that while the ‘march of justice’ came as a surprise to the “system”, the Russian President’s speech sent an important signal to all its stakeholders. Now, any support for Mr. Prigozhin is categorically unacceptable, and the “former network of Prigozhin sympathizers” should now distance themselves from him.

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A small step across the Dnipro River, a giant leap for Ukraine’s counteroffensive?

The Ukrainian army not only succeeded in advancing across the Dnipro River in the Kherson region this week, it but also carried out strikes on Tokmak, a southern Ukrainian town occupied by Russia and at a strategic crossroads for a possible counteroffensive in the southeast.

As Kyiv prepares for a counteroffensive after a grinding winter, two recent events in southern Ukraine have piqued the interest of military observers and raised questions over whether the much-awaited Ukrainian counterattack is in fact already underway.    

Tokmak – a small town between Zaporizhzhia and Melitopol, occupied by the Russians – was hit by Ukrainian shells on Tuesday, April 25, the Russian news agency TASS has confirmed. 

A  day earlier, Ukrainian troops near Kherson also succeeded in crossing the Dnipro River, a natural line of defence for the Russian army, according to an update from the Institute for the Study of War.  

Heading for Crimea?    

The two operations may have happened 300 kilometres apart, but they “both suggest Ukrainian military activity in the Crimea direction”, said Sim Tack from Force Analysis, a company specialising in military analysis.   

Russian military bloggers on Telegram originally confirmed that Ukrainian soldiers had crossed the Dnipro River, according to the Institute for the Study of War. The operation is said to have happened near Oleshky, a town south of Kherson and the starting point of “a direct road towards Crimea”, explained Tack.  The road would be “the logical route to reach the peninsula, if they didn’t want to fight in the Tokmak region”, he said.

Tokmak also offers an alternative, if longer, route to the Russianoccupied south. It is “a strategic crossroads that goes down towards Melitopol and enables the cutting off of Russian forces in the Kherson region from their supply centre in Mariupol,” said Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in the Ukraine-Russia conflict at the University of Glasgow.     

A counteroffensive that succeeds in regaining the axis between Tokmak and Melitopol would almost certainly ensure that the Kherson region falls into Ukrainian hands, facilitating an advance towards Crimea, Aliyev explained

A map showing Russian occupied areas in east Ukraine and sites where a Ukrainian couteroffensive may have begun in late April 2023. © France Médias Monde graphics studio


Testing Russian defences  

The two operations observed so far, “do not represent, in themselves, a notable change,” said Aliyev. “It’s the start of the counteroffensive, but the operation is not quite happening yet,” maintained Tack.  

Ukrainian forces managed to cross the Dnipro River before at the same crossing point in November 2022, shortly after regaining the town of Kherson. The most recent crossing “is not a massive advance with all the material necessary to establish a bridgehead in the region. It’s small, highly mobile units that have crossed the river,” noted Tack. 

“It looks like reconnaissance operations to test Russian defences and potentially start bringing over munitions to build up stocks ahead of a possible larger operation,” said Jeff Hawn, a Russian military specialist and consultant for New Line Institute, a US geopolitical research centre.  

In other words, the activity could constitute “the first phase of the counteroffensive”, said Tack. 

The counteroffensive itself could not be achieved with a single strike: instead, Ukrainian forces would need to identify weaknesses in the Russian defence while trying to destroy logistical support lines.  

This could account for the bombing of Tokmak. The city is not only located at a strategic crossroads, it “also houses a Russian command center, equipment such as an ammunition depot and a center for troop redeployments”, said Tack.

A diversion?  

Kyiv has made it clear that it wants to regain the Crimean Peninsula, which was annexed by Russia in 2014.  

>> Read more: Ukraine unveils plan for recaptured Crimea – but West ‘reluctant’ to help

However, experts agree that it is too early to tell whether Ukrainian forces plan to launch a counteroffensive to advance into the southeastern territory, or in the north into Donbas.  

Operations that seem to point towards Crimea could be a ruse. “We can’t discount the possibility of a diversion,” said Hawn.    

It’s a tactic that Ukrainian forces have used before. Just ahead of the Autumn 2022 counteroffensive that saw Ukraine retake the town of Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces made conspicuous efforts to stage the appearance of an imminent attack further north on Kherson.  

Aliyev doubts that a large operation crossing the Dnipro River is likely. “Crossing a river is much riskier than taking the road through Zaporizhzhia,” he said. In addition, “On the other side of the Dnipro, there are marshes that make it practically impossible to unload the heavy vehicles necessary to break through enemy lines.”    

Targeting Donbas, and specifically the Luhansk region, instead of Crimea would avoid a river crossing.

However, this area also comes with difficulties. “It’s much less flat than the Kherson region with many more towns to recapture, which would make any advance much slower,” said Aliyev. 

International pressure    

Whatever the plan, time is of the essence. Ukrainians “are under international pressure to launch the counteroffensive,” said Tack. “It has become inevitable because Western countries have sent enormous amounts of military equipment and want to see proof that it was necessary,” Hawn added. 

The wider context could impact how operations are planned. “The pressure risks pushing Ukraine into launching an operation that provides a grand spectacle, rather than advancing slowly and steadily,” warned Aliyev

There is also pressure to regain as much ground as possible. “Ukrainians are going to be tempted to prioritise territorial gains over destroying enemy units, because a map showing clear Ukrainian advances goes over better in the international media than reports on this or that Russian brigade being killed,” said Haws.  “However, both are equally important.”  

This article was adapted from the original in French.

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Russia hits Ukraine power grid and gains ground in eastern Ukraine

Issued on: Modified:

Russian missiles hit power facilities on Friday across Ukraine, where President Volodymyr Zelenskiy returned from a tour of Western capitals and Ukrainian officials said a long-awaited Russian offensive was underway inthe east. Read our live blog to see how all the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+1).

This live page is no longer being updated. For more of our coverage of the war in Ukraine, click here

9:58pm: Ukraine’s Zelensky sacks top official, says corruption clean-up drive continues

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday issued a decree sacking a senior security figure and said separately that his drive to clean up the government would continue.

Authorities have dismissed dozens of officials in recent weeks and opened probes as part of a widespread drive against wrongdoing. The European Union says addressing corruption is a requirement for Ukraine joining the 27-member bloc.

Zelensky dismissed Ruslan Dziuba as deputy commander of the National Guard, according to a brief decree issued by the presidential office. It did not give any reasons for the move. Zelensky – who has stressed the need for the defence ministry in particular to be cleaned up – did not specifically mention Dziuba in his daily video address.

Instead, he said he had met defence sector and law enforcement officials to discuss ways to protect institutions from what he called attempts from outside or inside to reduce their effectiveness and efficiency. Referring to the crackdown, he said: “All this activity is not just about certain episodes or criminal proceedings … the state will continue to modernize the institutions themselves. The purity of the work of state structures must be guaranteed.”

6:30pm: ‘We will be in danger if Russia wins’: Security concerns drive Poland’s support for Ukraine

The war in Ukraine has conferred a new importance to the Baltic States and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe geographically closest to Russia – particularly Poland. Warsaw is determined to learn from Poland’s own history and help Ukraine win the war. Read our exclusive analysis by FRANCE 24’s Sonya Ciesnik.

>>>‘We will be in danger if Russia wins’: Security concerns drive Poland’s support for Ukraine

5:45pm: Moscow declares popular Russian singer ‘foreign agent’

Russia’s Justice Ministry on Friday placed Zemfira, one of post-Soviet Russia’s most popular singers, on a list of foreign agents on grounds that she supported Ukraine and criticised Russia’s “special military operation” in that country.

Tass news agency quoted a ministry statement as saying that Zemfira, whose full name is Zemfira Ramazanova, “openly supported Ukraine, held concerts in unfriendly countries while speaking against the special military operation and received support from foreign sources”.

Zemfira, an ethnic Volga Tatar born in the central Russian region of Bashkortostan, began performing in 1998 and gained popularity in Russia and other ex-Soviet states. She was known to oppose the conflict with Ukraine and for a time, her website featured the slogan “No to war”.

She is reported by numerous websites to have left Russia to settle in France after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

Russians labelled foreign agents have often been subjected to police searches and other punitive measures. Many have left the country in the past year.

2:04pm: Russia says it staged major strike on Ukrainian energy facilities

Russia carried out a “massive strike” on critically important energy facilities of Ukraine’s military-industrial complex on Friday, the Russian defence ministry said on Saturday.

In a daily update, the ministry did not identify the energy facilities it claimed to have hit. It said the strike had also blocked the transport of foreign weapons and ammunition by rail to battlegrounds in Ukraine.

11:55am: Moscow says calls to ban Russian athletes from Olympics ‘unacceptable’

Russian Sports Minister Oleg Matytsin said on Saturday that calls from ministers of more than 30 countries to ban Russian and Belarusian athletes from the 2024 Olympics were unacceptable, TASS news agency reported.

A group of 35 countries, including the United States, Germany and Australia, will demand that Russian and Belarusian athletes are banned from the 2024 Olympics, Lithuania’s sports minister said on Friday, deepening the uncertainty over the Paris Games.

The move cranks up the pressure on an International Olympic Committee (IOC) that is desperate to avoid the sporting event being torn asunder by the conflict unfolding in Ukraine.

“This is a direct interference of ministers in the activities of independent international sports organizations, an attempt to dictate the conditions for the participation of athletes in international competitions, which is absolutely unacceptable,” Matytsin was quoted as saying by TASS.

11:53am: Wagner owner says war in Ukraine will drag on for years

The owner of the Russian Wagner Group private military contractor actively involved in the fighting in Ukraine has predicted that the war could drag on for years.

Yevgeny Prigozhin said in a video interview released late Friday that it could take 18 months to two years for Russia to fully secure control of Ukraine‘s eastern industrial heartland of Donbas. He added that the war could go on for three years if Moscow decides to capture broader territories east of the Dnieper River.

The statement from Prigozhin, a millionaire who has close links to Russian President Vladimir Putin and was dubbed “Putin’s chef” for his lucrative Kremlin catering contracts, marked a recognition of the difficulties that the Kremlin has faced in the campaign, which it initially expected to wrap up within weeks when Russian troops invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24.

7:55am: Attacks reported across Ukraine

Ukraine’s armed forces said in an evening update that Russian forces fired more than 100 missiles throughout the country and staged 12 air and 20 shelling attacks. The Facebook post said 61 cruise missiles were destroyed. Energy Minister German Galushchenko said Russia had hit power facilities in six regions with missiles and drones, causing blackouts across most of Ukraine.

After humiliating defeats on the ground, Russia has in recent months targeted Ukraine’s energy facilities, leading to power shortages that have left millions in the cold and dark.

Ukraine’s energy operator Ukrenergo said “power plants and high voltage network facilities” had been affected in the east, west and south, with the “most difficult situation” in the region of Kharkiv, near the border with Russia.

The country temporarily lost 44 percent of its nuclear generation and 75 percent of the capacity of thermal power plants, Shmyhal said.

The electrical grid instability caused by the shelling also led to the shutting down of one of the reactor units at Khmelnytskyi Nuclear Power Plant, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)

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Live: Russia escalates attacks in Ukraine, striking Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia

Russian forces struck critical infrastructure in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and launched multiple strikes on energy infrastructure in Zaporizhzhia early Friday as Moscow stepped up its attacks in Ukraine’s south and east and air raid sirens went off across much of the country. Follow our liveblog for all the latest developments. All times are Paris time (GMT+1).

2:30pm: Russia using surface-to-air missiles to target Ukrainian cities

Russian forces unleashed a barrage of missile and drone strikes against targets in eastern and southern Ukraine early Friday, striking critical infrastructure in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and Zaporizhzhia.

The latest barrage saw Moscow’s forces use S-300 surface-to-air missiles to target infrastructure on the ground, says FRANCE 24’s correspondent Gulliver Cragg, reporting from the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv.

1:20pm: Ukraine says 61 of 71 Russian missiles destroyed

The Ukrainian air force said Friday its defence systems shot down 61 out of 71 Russian missiles launched in a fresh wave of attacks.

“The enemy launched a massive missile attack on the critical infrastructure of Ukraine,” the air force said. “Sixty-one out of 71 enemy missiles (have been) destroyed,” it added.

1:09pm: Italy’s Meloni says supporting Ukraine only way to achieve peace

Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni dismissed critics at home who have chided her decision to continue sending arms to Ukraine, saying those who supported Kyiv were working for peace.

“Those who say Ukraine should not be helped are working against the sovereignty and freedom of a nation,” Meloni told a news conference at the end of an EU summit.

She added that she hoped Italy would be able to announce in the coming days that it was ready to supply Ukraine with a SAMP/T missile defence system, which it will deliver jointly with France.

12:29pm: Romania denies Russian missiles crossed country

Romania on Friday denied Russian missiles flew over the country, rejecting Kyiv’s claims that two Russian missiles crossed the airspace of the NATO-member on their way to Ukraine.

Romania detected an “aerial target launched from the Black Sea from a ship of the Russian Federation” but “at no point did it intersect with Romania’s airspace,” its ministry of defence said.

11:57am: Ukrainian electricity producer says four power plants damaged

Leading Ukrainian electricity producer DTEK said four of its thermal power plants were damaged in Russian missile attacks on Friday.

It said in a statement that, according to preliminary information, two employees had been wounded.

Ukraine’s energy minister said earlier on Friday that Russia had hit power facilities in six Ukrainian regions, forcing authorities to launch emergency electricity shutdowns across most of the country.

11:53am: Moldova summons Russian ambassador after missile overflight

Moldova on Friday said it would summon Russia‘s ambassador after Chisinau claimed that a missile crossed the airspace of the ex-Soviet republic.

The ambassador would be summoned “to indicate to the Russian side the unacceptable violation of our airspace by a Russian missile that today flew over the sovereign territory of Republic of Moldova,” the foreign ministry said in a press release.

11:40am: Putin to deliver state of the nation address on February 21

Russian President Vladimir Putin will deliver his state of the nation address on February 21, the Kremlin said Friday, just days before Moscow’s offensive in Ukraine passes its first anniversary.

“On February 21, the President of the Russian Federation will address the Federal Assembly”, which includes lawmakers from both chambers of parliament, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

11:24am: Russian attacks hit Ukrainian power facilities in six regions

Russia hit power facilities in six Ukrainian regions during missile and drone strikes on Friday, forcing authorities to launch emergency electricity shutdowns across most of the country, Energy Minister German Galushchenko said.

“Unfortunately, there are hits at thermal and hydro generation facilities and also at high-voltage infrastructure in six regions,” Galushchenko said. “The most difficult situation is in Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv and Khmelnytskiy regions.

11:20am: Ten Russian missiles shot down over Kyiv, mayor says

Ukraine shot down 10 Russian missiles over the capital Kyiv on Friday, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said.

“There is damage to power grids. There are no casualties. Energy workers are working to restore the network,” Klitschko wrote on the Telegram messaging app, quoting the Ukrainian military.

11:18am: Russia likely lost dozens of tanks in failed attack on Vuhledar, UK says

Russian forces likely lost dozens of armoured vehicles during a failed attack on the eastern Ukrainian city of Vuhledar, British intelligence said on Friday.

Vuhledar, a Ukrainian-held bastion at the strategic intersection between the eastern and southern front lines, has seen some of the bloodiest fighting of the war as Russia continues a relentless assault on the eastern front.

“Russian troops likely fled and abandoned at least 30 mostly intact armoured vehicles in a single incident after a failed assault,” Britain’s defence ministry said in a daily briefing.

11:09: Russia says it will cut oil production over Western caps

Russia will cut oil production by 500,000 barrels per day next month in response to the West capping the price of its crude over the war in Ukraine, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said Friday, according to multiple Russian news media reports.

“As of today, we fully sell all our crude output, but as we stated before, we will not sell oil to those who directly or indirectly adhere to the ‘price ceiling,’” Novak said, in remarks carried on the Russian TASS news agency.

“In connection with that, Russia will voluntarily cut production by 500,000 barrels a day. It will help restore market-style relations,” he said.

10:42am: Ukraine says two Russian missiles crossed into Romania, Moldova airspace

Two Russian missiles crossed into Romanian and Moldovan airspace before entering Ukraine on Friday, the top Ukrainian general said.

Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, said two Kaliber missiles launched from the Black Sea had entered Moldovan airspace, then flew into Romanian airspace, before entering Ukraine. FRANCE 24 could not immediately verify the statement. Russia did not immediately comment on it.

The Ukrainska Pravda media outlet quoted the air force spokesperson as saying separately that Ukraine had the ability to shoot down the missiles but did not do so because it did not want to endanger civilians in foreign countries.

10:35am: Kyiv renews calls for fighter jets as Russian strikes pummel Ukraine

A close aide to Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky has renewed calls for Western allies to provide Kyiv with long-range missiles and fighter jets after the latest wave of Russian missile and drone attacks.

“Russia has been striking at Ukrainian cities all night & morning,” presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak wrote on Twitter. “Enough talk & political hesitation. Only fast key decisions: long-range missiles, fighter jets, operational supplies logistics for Ukraine.”

Earlier in the day, French President Emmanuel Macron said he did not rule out sending fighter jets to Ukraine at some point, but that Kyiv was in need of more immediate military firepower.

9:32am: Russia complains it can’t export grain through Black Sea deal

Russia‘s ambassador to the UN said on Friday that Moscow has not been able to export any grain as part of the Black Sea grain deal struck between Russia and Ukraine last year due to Western obstacles, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.

The deal, struck last summer, facilitates the export of Ukrainian agricultural products through its southern Black Sea ports with the supervision of Turkey and the United Nations. It was not intended to facilitate Russian grain exports and Russia continues to export large volumes of grain and other agricultural products outside of the deal.

8:15am: Ukrainian air defence ‘sometimes has 100 percent success rate’

The mobile air defence teams intercepting Russian missiles have become crucial to Ukraine’s war efforts as it defends its people and infrastructure from attacks.

“It’s become almost part of daily life for inhabitants of Kyiv and its region; once every 10 days or so, sirens will go off and explosions will be heard just afterwards, and people turn to the media to find out what percentage of the rockets or drones were shot down by air defence systems, FRANCE 24’s Gulliver Cragg reported, on the ground with one such team in area around the Ukrainian capital. “It’s almost always the majority; sometimes it’s even 100 percent success rate.

A rescuer stands ouside a residential building partially destroyed after a missile strike in Kharkiv on January 30, 2023.
A rescuer stands ouside a residential building partially destroyed after a missile strike in Kharkiv on January 30, 2023. © Sergey Bobok, AFP

7:32am: Air raid alert declared across Ukraine

An air raid alert was declared in all of Ukraine on Friday as officials warned of potential Russian missile strikes, urging residents to take shelter.

“There is a big threat of the missile attack. I want to stress again – do not ignore the air alert sirens,” said Serhiy Popko, head of Kyiv city military administration.

5:44am: Russia escalates attacks in Ukraine, striking Zaporizhzhia, Kharkiv

Russian forces struck critical infrastructure in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, and launched multiple strikes on energy infrastructure in Zaporizhzhia early Friday as Moscow stepped up its attacks in Ukraine’s south and east and air raid sirens went off across much of the country.

Zaporizhzhia City Council Secretary Anatolii Kurtiev said the city had been hit 17 times in one hour, which he said made it the most intense period of attacks since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in February 2022.

In Kharkiv, authorities were still trying to establish information on victims and scale of the destruction, with Mayor Ihor Terekhov saying there may be disruptions to heating and the electricity and water supply.

Military analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin is hoping that Europe’s support for Ukraine will wane, as Russia is believed to be preparing a new offensive.

5:35am: France says Ukraine needs firepower now, doesn’t exclude planes later

French President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday he did not rule out sending fighter jets to Ukraine at some point, but that Kyiv was in need of more immediate military firepower, as Ukrainian officials said a fresh Russian offensive was underway.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has long urged Ukraine’s allies to send jet fighters and on Thursday said that several European leaders were ready to supply aircraft.

“I exclude absolutely nothing,” Macron said when asked about the possibility of sending jets at the end of a summit of EU leaders, attended by Zelensky.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, February 8, 2023.
French President Emmanuel Macron, right, shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, February 8, 2023. © Sarah Meyssonnier, AP

5:30am: Macron weighs kicking Putin out of French Legion of Honour

French President Emmanuel Macron pinned the Grand Cross of the Legion of Honour medal on Volodymyr Zelensky’s chest after the two met in the French presidential palace Thursday, a move Macron said was meant to show France’s “immense” recognition for Ukraine’s valour since Russia invaded it a year ago.

Some French legislators and activists have called on Macron to rescind Russian President Vladimir Putin’s award because of the war.

Macron didn’t rule out stripping Putin of the honour bestowed by then-President Jacques Chirac in 2006.

Macron told reporters Friday that such a decision “has serious meaning, and it should be taken at the right moment.’’ He noted that he has rescinded the honor in the past.

9.20pm: War crimes seen everywhere Russian forces have deployed, US ambassador tells FRANCE 24

The US ambassador-at-large for global criminal justice, Beth Van Schaack, told FRANCE 24 in an interview Thursday that war crimes and other atrocities have been seen everywhere Russia’s forces have been deployed. There is no question that this exercise has been a strategic failure for Putin and for the Kremlin, she said, and they are responding to that with increasingly desperate measures targeting civilians directly.

Van Schaack said the international community’s response to the Ukraine crisis has thus far focused on three main pillars: strengthening Ukraine’s capabilities on the battlefield, mitigating the humanitarian crisis, and ensuring justice and accountability for any crimes committed.

As the one-year mark for the war approaches, there will be a lot of activity at the United Nations focused on trying to implement a just and durable peace, she said.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)

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Live: Ukraine is fighting ‘the most anti-European force’ in the world, Zelensky tells EU lawmakers

President Volodymyr Zelensky told the European Parliament on Thursday that Ukrainian soldiers fighting Russian troops are battling “the most anti-European force” in the world as he reiterated requests for more EU military support. Follow our liveblog for all the latest developments in the war in Ukraine. All times are Paris time (GMT+1).

4:58pm: Tourism collapses in Russia following Western sanctions

The number of foreign tourists visiting Russia collapsed last year due to the impact of Western sanctions and strict Covid restrictions in China, industry professionals said Thursday.

Only 200,100 foreigners visited Russia in 2022, the Association of Tour Operators of Russia (ATOR) said, citing figures from border services, a drop of 96.1 percent from pre-pandemic years.

“The reasons are clear: the closed skies between Russia and the vast majority of European countries, as well as the impossibility to use foreign-issued Visa and Mastercard cards in Russia,” ATOR said.

Most of Europe closed its airspace to Russian planes a few days after the Kremlin launched the Ukraine offensive in February 2022.

Beginning in March 2022, Russian national carrier Aeroflot suspended its international flights, though it gradually resumed travel to “friendly countries”.

But draconian Covid-related restrictions in China that Beijing only recently abandoned kept Chinese tourists from taking advantage of the situation. Before the pandemic Chinese tourists were the top visitors to Russia.

4:43pm: One in four Ukrainians at risk of severe mental health conditions, says WHO

A quarter of Ukraine’s population is at risk of developing a severe mental health condition as the country grapples with the year-long Russian invasion, according to a special advisor to the World Health Organisation.

Michel Kazatchkine, special advisor to the WHO Regional Office for Europe, said the conflict in Ukraine had not only resulted in a shortage of medical supplies and personnel but had also caused a major threat to mental health.

“WHO estimates that at this time, one out of four people in Ukraine is at risk of severe mental health conditions,” Kazatchkine told reporters.

Describing a recent visit to the Ukrainian city of Dnipro, Kazatchkine said he had seen dozens of military personnel hospitalised with “acute and tragic anxiety, depression and psychiatric conditions.”

“Mental health is becoming a predominant public health issue in Ukraine,” he said. “The war and its consequences have led to an increased use of licit and illicit psychoactive substances.”

4:40pm: Slovakia to get German air defence systems to cover Ukraine border

Germany will donate two close-range MANTIS air defence systems to Slovakia to protect its eastern border with Ukraine, the Slovak defence ministry has announced.

NATO member Slovakia has boosted its air defences with the help of several Patriot systems operated by NATO allies after donating its ageing S-300 system to Ukraine last year, and has sought to get additional equipment.

The automated, stationary MANTIS systems made for the German army serve to protect limited areas such as bases. “(MANTIS) will strengthen protection of the eastern border with Ukraine, secured by forces and means of the Slovak armed forces,” the ministry said in a statement.

Each has up to eight turrets, two sensor units and a control centre. It can protect from incoming rockets, drones, artillery and mortar shells.

4:34pm: Ukraine’s armoured vehicles to be repaired in Czech Republic

The Ukrainian army’s armoured vehicles will be repaired in the Czech Republic as part of Prague’s military help against Russia’s aggression, the Czech Defence Ministry said.

State-owned company VOP CZ signed a memorandum of understanding with Ukraine’s government arms manufacturer Ukroboronprom on the repairs this week, the ministry said, without giving further details.

“The memorandum …contains a specific plan and timetable for the repairs or securing of spare parts,” said Ales Vytecka, director of Czech government’s AMOS agency for military cooperation, who co-signed the memorandum.

The Czech Republic has been one of the top weapons providers to Kyiv among NATO alliance allies since Russia invaded Ukraine last February, supplying Ukraine with armoured personnel carriers, tanks or howitzers.

4:10pm: ‘Symbolism, but few deliverables’ from Zelensky’s meeting with European Council

Reporting from Brussels, FRANCE 24’s Dave Keating said Ukrainian President Zelensky was “hitting the same themes” on European unity and values during the press conference following his European Council meeting.

But the Ukrainian president did get some tough questions from journalists at the end, when he was asked if there were any specific deliverables promised during his meetings in Brussels and in Paris last night, noted Keating.

“President Zelensky didn’t want to sound overly negative,” said Keating. “We always knew there wasn’t going to be a big deliverable. This was very much about symbolism.”

European Council President Charles Michel (R), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (L) at a press conference in Brussels on February 9, 2023. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

3:07pm: ‘Certain agreements’ with Macron, Scholz cannot be made public: Zelensky

The Ukrainian president and top EU leaders faced tough questions from reporters, who asked if there were any concrete deliverables from Zelensky’s meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Paris on Wednesday night or his meetings in Brussels on Thursday.

Zelensky replied that he had discussed enhancing Ukraine’s military capabilities during his meeting with Macron and Scholz, adding that he could not make all elements of the talks public.

“There are certain agreements which are not public, but which are positive. I don’t want to prepare the Russian Federation, which is constantly threatening us with new aggressions,” Zelensky said during a joint press conference with European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday.

2:38pm: New EU sanctions will target ‘Putin’s propagandists’: von der Leyen

Speaking after Zelensky, European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen announced new European sanctions against Russia that will include new export bans worth more than €10 billion ($10.7 billion) and will take on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s propagandists.

“We will target Putin’s propagandists because their lies are poisoning the public space in Russia and abroad,” von der Leyen said during the joint press conference with Ukrainian President Zelensky and European Council President Charles Michel.

The new sanctions “will further starve Russia’s military machine and shake the foundations of its economy”, she added.

2:25pm: ‘Europe will be with us until our victory’: Zelensky

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has thanked EU leaders for their support in countering Russia’s invasion following his participation in a European Council meeting – for the first time ever – in Brussels.

At a joint press conference with European Council chief Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Zelensky said it is “only fair” that Ukraine “takes part in meetings of European leaders and that Ukrainian language is part of the European Parliament”.

Speaking to reporters after his meeting with EU leaders, Zelensky said the EU was ready to provide Kyiv with aircraft to help it fight for Ukraine’s “independence” and “freedom”.

“Europe will be with us until our victory. I’ve heard it from a number of European leaders … about the readiness to give us the necessary weapons and support, including the aircraft,” he said.

“I have a number of bilaterals now, we are going to raise the issue of the fighter jets and other aircraft,” he added.

2:15pm: EU’s Michel: We need to provide maximum support for Ukraine

The EU must continue to provide maximum support to Ukraine, said European Council President Charles Michel at a press conference in Brussels.

“We understand that the coming weeks and months will be of decisive importance. We must remain open-eyed, we must continue to provide maximum level support,” Michel said during a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and European Commission head Ursula von der Leyen.

“Artillery, munitions, defence systems (…) you have told us exactly what you need and what you need now”, Michel added, looking at the Ukrainian president standing next to him on the podium.

1:36pm: Ukraine intercepted Russian plans for ‘destruction’ of Moldova, Zelensky says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday that his country has intercepted plans by Russian secret services to destroy Moldova.

Speaking to European Union leaders in Brussels, Zelensky said he recently told Moldovan President Maia Sandu about the alleged scheme. “I have informed her that we have intercepted the plan of the destruction of Moldova by the Russian intelligence,” Zelensky said through a translator.

The Ukrainian president said the documents showed “who, when and how” the plan would “break the democracy of Moldova and establish control over Moldova”. Zelensky said the plan was very similar to the one devised by Russia to take over Ukraine.

1:28pm: Zelensky shows ‘dynamism’ while Putin is ‘distant and stiff’

Zelensky’s speech to the EU Parliament in Brussels on Thursday morning was “very much about mood and thanks and appealing to people”, noted FRANCE 24 international affairs editor Angela Diffley. “Who would have thought a year ago that this guy […] who had previously been a comic actor, that he would be such an inspirational leader, that people would be flocking into this auditorium, keen to be seen shaking his hand?”

“I remember a year ago newsrooms around the world thinking ‘within four or five days Kyiv will have fallen, let’s prepare for that in terms of our news coverage’. It is extraordinary just to note that.”

Zelensky’s speech to the EU Parliament also demonstrated once more that his style shows such a “contrast –  even the Russians must be aware – with Vladimir Putin”, Diffley continued. “Zelensky knows how to connect; he projects a kind of dynamism; Putin [is] distant and stiff.”

1:09pm: Zelensky urges EU leaders to speed up weapons deliveries

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday called on EU leaders at a summit in Brussels to supply Ukraine weapons quicker, before Russia can gather its forces for fresh assaults.

“We have to enhance the dynamics of our cooperation, we have to do it faster than the aggressor,” Zelensky told his European counterparts.

12:51pm: No free Europe without free Ukraine, Zelensky says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told European Union leaders in Brussels there was no free Europe without free Ukraine as he tours Europe to ask allies for more arms to fight Russia and push Kyiv’s bid to join the Western bloc.

“Europe should not have gray zones, our whole continent should be open to European destiny,” Zelensky told the 27 national EU leaders gathered for a summit in Brussels ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion against Ukraine.

“Free Europe cannot be imagined without free Ukraine,” he said. “Europe is free, Europe will be free, and Europe is united.”

A Ukraine that is winning its war with Russia should be a member of the European Union, Zelensky said, arguing the bloc wouldn’t be complete without it.

“A Ukraine that is winning is going to be member of the European Union,” he said.

“Europe will always be – and remain – Europe as long as we … take care of the European way of life,” he said.

Zelensky also reiterated his request that membership talks should start later this year.

12:49pm: Zelensky thanks EU leaders for ‘unwavering support’

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky thanked EU leaders at a summit in Brussels for their backing for Kyiv in its nearly year-long fight against Russia’s invasion.

“I have to thank you personally for your unwavering support of our country and our aspirations, our aspirations to live in a united, free Europe,” he told the 27 leaders.

12:42pm: Zelensky ‘hitting theme of European unity very hard’

In his address to the EU Parliament on Thursday, Volodymyr Zelensky was “really hitting the theme of European unity very hard”, FRANCE 24’s Dave Keating reported from Brussels. “He said maybe some of you in the room didn’t feel this power of the European way of life before the invasion, implying that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has rekindled passion in all of Europe. He said the EU is winning, Ukraine is winning, Ukraine will be in the EU.”

“So he was very much hitting this plea for EU membership,” Keating continued. “He was less hitting the note of asking for more military assistance than I was expecting. He certainly devoted less attention to that in this speech than he did in his speech to the British Parliament [on Wednesday].”

It was notable that Zelensky spoke in Ukrainian after addressing the US Congress and the British Parliament in English, Keating went on: “English is the main working language of the EU; he could have spoken English here but he chose to speak Ukrainian. I think that’s important because if Ukraine were to join the EU, Ukrainian would become an official language, and the MEPs from Ukraine sitting in that chamber would be speaking Ukrainian and having that interpreted. So he was very much normalising this idea that Ukraine is part of the EU and Ukrainian is a language you will be your language in your interpretation.”

European Council President Charles Michel (R), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (L) at a press conference in Brussels on February 9, 2023.
European Council President Charles Michel (R), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (L) at a press conference in Brussels on February 9, 2023. © Ludovic Marin, AFP

12:35pm: Moscow says Russia destroyed four artillery depots in Donetsk region

Russia‘s Defence Ministry said on Thursday that its forces were continuing offensive operations in Ukraine‘s Donetsk region and had destroyed four artillery depots.

In its daily briefing, the ministry said it had also destroyed a US-made radiolocation system and an M109 Paladin artillery system.

12:08pm: German arms company Rheinmetall in talks with Ukraine about Panther battle tanks

German arms maker Rheinmetall wants to deliver its latest tank models to Ukraine, including Panther battle tanks, Chief Executive Armin Papperger told Handelsblatt business daily on Thursday.

“Ukraine is interested in the Lynx and the Panther – the most modern infantry fighting vehicles and battle tanks,” he was quoted as saying, adding there were already talks with Kyiv.

The German government would have to approve any export of Panther tanks, which were developed in Germany, Handelsblatt reported.

11:37am: Victorious Ukraine will join EU, Zelensky says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday that he believed his country would join the European Union after emerging victorious from its war with Russia.

He made his remark during an address to the European Parliament in Brussels. Ukraine became a candidate to join the EU last June but the process of joining the 27-nation bloc takes several years.

11:34am: Ukrainian troops are fighting ‘the most anti-European force’ in the world, Zelensky tells EU

Addressing the European Parliament on Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said that in fighting against Russian forces, Ukrainian troops are fighting “the most anti-European force” in the world as he urged more EU military support.

“We are defending against the most anti-European force of the modern world. We are defending ourselves – we Ukrainians on the battlefield – along with you,” Zelensky told MEPs.

11:33am: Zelensky, Macron meeting important for ‘optics’ for both sides

The meeting between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and French President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée Palace on Wednesday evening was valuable for both leaders because they “needed it for the optics”, said FRANCE 24 International Affairs Editor Angela Diffley. “It was important to make clear that Zelensky fully agrees, accepts that France fully supports Ukraine in this war – and that’s because of this confusion […] where Macron was, right in the early stages, keen to keep a channel open to Putin […]. Earlier on Macron also said let’s be careful not to see Russia ‘humiliated’. And some of that contributed to an idea that France wasn’t fully on board.”

“Macron, according to Zelensky, has changed since then, and wants to be clearly seen to be on the side of Ukraine,” Diffley continued. “France has always been on Ukraine’s side in that it has sent weapons – but it has been a little less vocal about cobdemning Putin, certainly earlier on.”

Zelensky needed to “make it clear that he understands Macron is fully on board” while Macron needed to “make it clear to everybody that France is fully behind Ukraine”, she summarised it.

French President Emmanuel Macron, right, shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, February 8, 2023.
French President Emmanuel Macron, right, shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, February 8, 2023. © Sarah Meyssonnier, AP

11:22am: UN nuclear chief due in Russia for Ukraine talks

UN nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi is due to arrive in Moscow on Thursday for talks on nuclear safety in Ukraine amid ongoing fighting, Russia’s deputy foreign minister said.

Atomic sites have been a key concern throughout the nearly one year-long conflict, with attacks around several facilities raising fears of a nuclear incident.

Grossi visited Ukraine last month to dispatch International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) teams at several nuclear facilities, building on its mission at the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia plant near the frontline.

11:19am: Ukraine fighting ‘biggest anti-European force of the modern world’, Zelensky says

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told MEPs at the EU Parliament in Brussels that his country together with Europe was “defending ourselves against (the) biggest anti-European force of the modern world.”

11:14am: EU must quickly consider giving Ukraine jets, EU parliament chief says

European Union countries must quickly consider providing fighter jets to Ukraine, the head of the bloc’s parliament said on Thursday as she hosted President Volodymyr Zelensky, touring Europe to win more arms to fight against the Russian invasion.

Referencing the biblical fight between David and Goliath, European Parliament head, Roberta Metsola said in addressing Zelensky in the chamber:

“You need to win and now (EU) member states must consider quickly as the next step providing long-range systems and the jets that you need to protect your liberty.”

11:11am: EU Parliament greets Zelensky with cheers, standing ovation

The European Parliament on Thursday greeted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with a standing ovation as he arrived to address MEPs on his first visit to Brussels since Russia‘s invasion.

“Ukraine is Europe and your nation’s future is in the European Union,” parliament president Roberta Metsola said in a speech. “States must consider, quickly, as a next step, providing long-range systems and the jets you need to protect the liberty too many have taken for granted.”

10:35am: Italy’s Meloni calls Zelensky’s Paris invitation ‘inappropriate’

Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni on Thursday said the invitation of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Paris, where he met French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, was “inappropriate”.

“I believe our strength is community and unity […] but there are times when favouring internal public opinion risks being to the detriment of the cause, and this seems to me to be one of those cases,” she said in Brussels.

Meloni will meet Zelensky in Brussels on the sidelines of the European Union leaders meeting, Italy’s Foreign Minister said late on Wednesday.

10:28am: ‘Welcome home, welcome to the EU’: EU Council chief tells Zelensky

EU leaders on Thursday hailed Volodymyr Zelensky‘s arrival in Brussels for his first visit to the heart of the union since Russia‘s invasion.

“Welcome home, welcome to the EU,” European Council chief Charles Michel tweeted above a picture of him shaking Zelensky’s hand, alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

10:25am: Kremlin calls for international inquiry into Nord Stream blasts

The world “must know the truth” about who was behind explosions affecting Nord Stream gas pipelines, the Kremlin spokesman said on Thursday, after a US investigative journalist alleged US involvement in last September’s blasts.

Speaking to reporters, Dmitry Peskov also said the blog post by journalist Seymour Hersh should prompt an international investigation into the incidents.

The White House on Wednesday dismissed the Hersh report, which said an attack on the pipelines was carried out last September at the direction of US President Joe Biden.

9:40am: Russia steps up eastern Ukraine attacks, local governor says

Russian forces have significantly stepped up attacks in eastern Ukraine and are trying to break through Ukrainian defences near the town of Kreminna, a regional governor said on Thursday.

Serhiy Haidai, governor of the Luhansk region, said Ukraine’s military were holding their ground near Kreminna,

which Russian forces have held for months, but said they needed more weapons and ammunition to hold out.

“I can confirm that there has been a significant increase in attacks and shelling. And it is in the direction of Kreminna that they are trying to build on their success by pushing through out defenders’ defences,” he told Ukrainian television. “So far they have had no significant success, our defence forces are holding firmly there.”

9:17am: Estonia says EU countries should jointly buy arms and ammunition for Ukraine

EU member states should jointly buy arms and ammunition for Ukraine, Estonia‘s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told reporters on Thursday ahead of an EU summit in Brussels.

“It is very important that we speed up the military aid to Ukraine,” she also said.

7:20am: Russia’s Wagner halts prisoner recruitment campaign, founder says

Russia’s Wagner mercenary group has stopped recruiting prisoners to fight in Ukraine, Wagner’s founder Yevgeny Prigozhin said on Thursday.

“The recruitment of prisoners by the Wagner private military company has completely stopped,” Prigozhin said in a response to a request for comment from a Russian media outlet published on social media. “We are fulfilling all our obligations to those who work for us now,” he said.

Wagner began recruiting prisoners in Russia’s sprawling penal system in summer 2022, with Prigozhin, a catering entrepreneur who served nine years in prison during the Soviet Union, offering convicts a pardon if they survived six months in Ukraine.

6:58am: Russian rouble slumps to weakest vs dollar since late April

The Russian rouble slid to its weakest level against the dollar since late April on Thursday, driven down by market demand for foreign currency and Russia’s lower export earnings.

At 05:50 GMT, the rouble was 1.1% weaker against the dollar at 73.10, after hitting its lowest point since April 27, 2022 at 73.3850 earlier in the session. It had lost 1.2% to trade at 78.35 versus the euro and shed 0.9% against the yuan to 10.77.

Russia is now selling 8.9 billion roubles ($121.83 million) worth of foreign currency per day, compensating for lower oil and gas revenues, down 46.4% year-on-year in January. Slumping energy revenues and soaring expenditure pushed Russia’s federal budget to a deficit of about $25 billion in January, as sanctions and the cost of Moscow’s military campaign in Ukraine weigh on the economy.

6:41am: Zelensky, Macron to travel together to EU summit in Brussels

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron will fly together on Thursday morning from Paris to a summit of EU heads of state and government in Brussels, the Élysée Palace announced.

The two leaders will leave Villacoublay, near Paris, at around 08:30am (07:30 GMT). They are expected to arrive in Brussels at 10:00am (09:00).

The Ukrainian president, who is on a surprise tour of Europe, is leaving his country for the second time since the beginning of the Russian offensive on February 24, 2022. He travelled to Washington in December.

On Wednesday, he went to London, his closest ally after the United States in terms of military aid, and then to Paris, where he dined at the Élysée Palace with Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz before spending the night.

4pm: SpaceX curbs Ukraine’s use of Starlink internet for drones

SpaceX has taken steps to prevent Ukraine’s military from using the company’s Starlink satellite internet service for controlling drones in the region during the country’s war with Russia, SpaceX’s president said Wednesday.

SpaceX’s Starlink satellite internet service, which has provided Ukraine’s military with broadband communications in its defence against Russia’s military, was “never never meant to be weaponised”, Gwynne Shotwell, SpaceX’s president and chief operating officer, said during a conference in Washington, DC

“However, Ukrainians have leveraged it in ways that were unintentional and not part of any agreement,” she said.

Russia has attempted to jam Starlink signals in the region, though SpaceX countered by hardening the service’s software, Elon Musk, the company’s chief executive, has said.

3am: Australia vows to hold Russia accountable for MH17 disaster

Australia on Thursday pledged to hold Russia accountable for shooting down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, after a team of international investigators halted its probe into the disaster.

The team said there were “strong indications” Russian President Vladimir Putin personally approved supplying the missile system that eventually downed the flight – but halted the investigation because there was no “conclusive evidence”.

The Boeing 777 was shot down over Ukraine in 2014, killing all 298 passengers on board, including 196 Dutch, 43 Malaysians and 38 Australian residents.

Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong and Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus on Thursday said Russia had repeatedly tried to thwart the investigation, making it “impossible” to collect proof.

They added that Australia would “hold Russia to account for its role in the downing of the civilian aircraft”.

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Live: Russian reinforcements pour into eastern Ukraine, new assault expected

Russia was pouring reinforcements into eastern Ukraine ahead of an expected new offensive that could begin next week along a front where there have been relentless battles for months, a Ukrainian governor said. Follow FRANCE 24’s liveblog for the latest developments. All times are Paris time (GMT+1).

12:32pm: Russia advancing ‘with success’ in eastern Ukraine, Shoigu says

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday that Moscow‘s forces were “progressing with success” near the eastern Ukrainian towns of Bakhmut and Vuhledar, warning the West against ramping up arms supplies to Kyiv.

The two towns in the eastern region of Donetsk are the epicentre of hostilities and the scene of some of the heaviest fighting since Russia sent troops into Ukraine on February 24 last year.

“Military operations are at the moment progressing with success in the areas around Vuhledar and Artemovsk,” Shoigu told a defence meeting using the previous name for Bakhmut. He listed seven settlements that Russia has recently “liberated”, including the salt-mining town of Soledar that came under Russian control in January.

12:15pm: Russian shells spark hospital fire before expected assault

Russian shelling hit more civilian targets in Ukraine, starting a fire at a town’s hospital and damaging five apartment buildings, local officials said Tuesday, as Ukrainian authorities reported a Moscow troop buildup in eastern areas before what Kyiv suspected was an impending new offensive by Russia around the anniversary of its invasion.

A hospital in the northeastern town of Vovchansk caught fire late Monday as a result of the shelling, regional Ukrainian emergency services reported.

The shelling caused multiple fires in the town, including at its two-story municipal hospital, the State Emergency Service in the northeastern Kharkiv region said in an online statement. Emergency crews evacuated eight civilians from the site before putting out the blaze, which caused no casualties, authorities said.

Vovchansk is in the Kharkiv region, which was occupied by Russia after its full-scale invasion on February 24 and subsequently retaken by Ukraine during a counteroffensive last year. The anticipated Russian push may seek to recapture territory Moscow lost during that counteroffensive.

11:58am: Paris mayor against Russian athletes at 2024 Olympics ‘while war goes on’

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo is opposed to the presence of Russian competitors at the 2024 Olympics “while the war continues” in Ukraine, her office said on Tuesday.

It represents a change in Hidalgo’s position. She said last month that she believed Russians could take part “under a neutral flag” to avoid “depriving athletes of competition”.

11:05am: Russia says NATO involvement in Ukraine threatens ‘unpredictable’ escalation

Russia‘s defence minister said on Tuesday that Western arms shipments to Ukraine were effectively dragging NATO into the conflict, warning this could lead to an “unpredictable” level of escalation.

“The US and its allies are trying to prolong the conflict as much as possible,” Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.

“To do this, they have started supplying heavy offensive weapons, openly urging Ukraine to seize our territories. In fact, such steps are dragging NATO countries into the conflict and could lead to an unpredictable level of escalation,” he said.

9:14am: BP posts annual loss on Russia exit, despite oil price surge

BP slid into a net loss last year after its exit from Russia following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, the British energy giant announced Tuesday, despite the surge in oil prices.

The company posted annual losses after tax totalling $2.5 billion, compared with net profit of $7.6 billion in 2021.

Excluding the exceptional hit, profit more than doubled to $27.7 billion on soaring oil and gas prices — mirroring huge 2022 earnings by BP’s rivals.

Oil and gas prices soared last year after the attack by major energy producer Russia on neighbouring Ukraine triggered massive supply constraints.

9:11am: Swiss neutrality on the line as arms-for-Ukraine debate heats up

Switzerland is close to breaking with centuries of tradition as a neutral state, as a pro-Ukraine shift in the public and political mood puts pressure on the government to end a ban on exports of Swiss weapons to war zones.

Buyers of Swiss arms are legally prevented from re-exporting them, a restriction that some representing the country’s large weapons industry say is now hurting trade.

Calls from Switzerland’s European neighbours to allow such transfers to Kyiv have meanwhile grown louder as Russia’s assault intensifies, and parliament’s two security committees recommended that the rules be eased accordingly.

Lawmakers are divided on the issue. “We want to be neutral, but we are part of the western world,” said Thierry Burkart, leader of the centre-right FDP party, who has submitted a motion to the government to allow arms re-exports to countries with similar democratic values to Switzerland.

7:46am: Russia likely restarted Ukraine offensive operations in January, Britain says

Russia’s military likely attempted to restart major offensive operations in Ukraine since early January this year, with the goal of capturing Ukraine-held parts of Donetsk, Britain’s Defence Intelligence update said on Tuesday.

However, it remains unlikely that Russia will be able to build up the forces required to significantly affect the war’s outcome within the next few weeks, the update added.

6:00am: Russia says protective structures at Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant near completion

The construction of protective structures for key facilities at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in southeast Ukraine is nearing completion, Russia‘s state TASS news agency reported on Tuesday, citing an adviser to the head of Russia’s nuclear plants operator.

The Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, was captured by Russian troops in March of last year, in the opening days of Moscow‘s invasion in Ukraine.

It remains close to the frontlines, and has repeatedly come under fire, raising fears of a nuclear disaster.

5:28am: Russia’s Lavrov visits Mali in sign of deepening ties

Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov arrived in Mali early Tuesday for talks with its junta leaders seeking Moscow’s help in battling an Islamist insurgency that remains entrenched despite years of fighting.

Lavrov, who was in Iraq on Monday, was welcomed upon his arrival by his counterpart Abdoulaye Diop. The two men did not make any statements to journalists. The visit of fewer than 24 hours will be his third trip to Africa since July, part of a bid to expand Russia’s presence on the continent amid broad international isolation after Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine last year.

Since taking control of Mali in two coups since August 2020, the military junta led by Colonel Assimi Goita has embraced Russian support to aid its anti-jihadist fight after successfully demanding that French troops leave.

1:21am: Ukraine withdraws 19 million Russian and Soviet-era books from libraries

Ukraine had withdrawn from its libraries about 19 million copies of books by last November that came either from the Soviet era or were in Russian, a senior lawmaker said on Monday.

Yevheniya Kravchuk, deputy head of the Ukrainian parliament’s committee on humanitarian and information policy, said that of the 19 million books, 11 million were in Russian.

“Some Ukrainian-language books from the Soviet era are also written off,” Kravchuk said according to a statement published on the website of the Verkhovna Rada, the country’s parliament. “There are also recommendations to write off and remove books whose authors supported armed aggression against Ukraine.” It was not immediately clear what happened to the withdrawn books.

12:02am: Russian reinforcements pour into eastern Ukraine

Russia was pouring reinforcements into eastern Ukraine ahead of a new offensive that could begin next week along a front where there have been relentless battles for months, a Ukrainian governor said.

Desperate for Western military aid to arrive, Ukraine anticipates a major offensive could be launched by Russia for “symbolic” reasons around the February 24 anniversary of the invasion. Ukraine is itself planning a spring offensive to recapture lost territory, but awaiting delivery of promised longer-range Western missiles and battle tanks, with some analysts saying the country was months away from being ready.

“We are seeing more and more (Russian) reserves being deployed in our direction, we are seeing more equipment being brought in,” said Serhiy Haidai, Ukrainian governor of the mainly Russian-occupied Luhansk province.

“They bring ammunition that is used differently than before – it is not round-the-clock shelling anymore. They are slowly starting to save, getting ready for a full-scale offensive,” Haidai told Ukrainian television.

“It will most likely take them 10 days to gather reserves. After February 15 we can expect (this offensive) at any time.”

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Ukraine calls for fighter jets as fierce battles rage in Bakhmut

Ukraine’s defence minister said on Sunday the reluctance of Western allies to send fighter jets would cost Ukrainian forces “more lives” as fierce fighting continued in the eastern battleground city of Bakhmut. Earlier, Germany’s prosecutor general said his office had collected “hundreds” of pieces of evidence showing war crimes committed by Russian forces in Ukraine, calling for an international effort to bring leaders to justice. Follow our blog to see how the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+1).

This live blog is no longer being updated. For more of our coverage on the war in Ukraine, please click here.

10:30pm: Ukraine ‘to replace defence minister’ after corruption scandals

Ukraine’s defence minister Oleksiy Reznikov will be replaced by the chief of the military intelligence ahead of an expected Russian offensive and following corruption scandals, a senior lawmaker has said.

A senior lawmaker close to President Volodymyr Zelensky said 56-year-old Reznikov, one of the best-known faces of the country’s war effort, would be replaced by the country’s head of military intelligence.

“Kyrylo Budanov will head the defence ministry, which is absolutely logical in wartime,” said lawmaker David Arakhamia.

Officials in Kyiv are yet to confirm the cabinet reshuffle.

9:10pm: Zelensky calls situation along Donetsk front line ‘very difficult’

Fierce battles are raging in eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region as Russia intensifies pressure before the first anniversary of its invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky has said in his nightly address.

“Things are very difficult in Donetsk region – fierce battles,” the Ukrainian leader said. “But however difficult it is and however much pressure there is, we must endure… We have no alternative to defending ourselves and winning.”

Russia, he said, was applying increased pressure to “make up for its defeats last year. We see that on various sectors of the front and also pressure in terms of information.”

FRANCE 24’s Andrew Hilliar has more from Ukraine’s southern city of Mykolaiv.

7:15pm: Fierce fighting for Ukraine’s Bakhmut, says Wagner chief

The head of Russia’s private Wagner militia says fierce fighting is ongoing in the northern parts of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which has been the focus of Russian forces’ attention for weeks.

Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the founder and head of the Wagner group, said his soldiers were “fighting for every street, every house, every stairwell” against Ukrainian forces who were not retreating.

Russian forces have been attempting to encircle and capture Bakhmut, a city in the eastern Donbas region, for weeks, and appear to be making slow, grinding and costly progress.

Earlier in the day, Britain’s defence ministry said Russia had made “small advances” in its attempt to encircle Bakhmut.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Friday described Bakhmut as “our fortress”, saying Ukraine would fight for the city “as long as we can”.

5:40pm: EU bans Russian diesel and other oil products

An EU ban on Russian diesel fuel and other refined oil products has come into force, slashing energy dependency on Moscow and seeking to further crimp the Kremlin’s fossil fuel earnings as punishment for invading Ukraine.

The ban comes along with a price cap agreed by the G7 group of industralised nations. The goal is allowing Russian diesel to keep flowing to countries like China and India and avoiding a sudden price rise that would hurt consumers worldwide, while reducing the profits funding Moscow’s budget and war.

“Once we have these price caps set, we can squeeze the Russian price and deny them, deny (President Vladimir) Putin money for his war without a price spike that’s going to hurt Western economies and developing economies,” Thomas O’Donnell, a global fellow with the Washington-based Wilson Center, told AP.

However, the new sanctions create uncertainty about prices as the 27-nation EU finds new supplies of diesel from the US, Middle East and India to replace those from Russia. Those are longer journeys than from Russia’s ports, stretching available tankers.

4:35pm: Russian attacks on Ukraine’s Kharkiv hit residential building, university

Ukrainian officials say five people were injured in the Russian rocket attacks that targeted the centre of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, earlier today.

Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said four people were injured when a Russian S-300 missile fell near an apartment block and another was hurt when a missile hit a higher-education building.

Local media reports said the building hit was the National Academy for Urban Economy, located about 700 metres from the city’s central square.

FRANCE 24’s Yuka Royer has the story.

3:40pm: Ukraine has reserves to repel new Russian offensive

More from the Ukrainian defence minister, who says Kyiv is preparing for a possible major Russian offensive this month, to coincide with the first anniversary of the invasion.

Oleksii Reznikov told a news conference that Ukraine has the reserves to hold back Moscow’s forces even though not all the West’s latest military supplies will have arrived in time.

However, Reznikov also said the reluctance of Kyiv’s Western allies to send fighter jets to Ukraine would cost it “more lives”.

In an interview with FRANCE 24 this week, Igor Zhovkva, an aide to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, said Kyiv remained hopeful that Western countries would agree to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine “soon”.


2:35pm: Ukraine says it will not strike Russian territory with new missiles

Ukraine will not use longer-range weapons pledged by the United States to hit Russian territory and will only target Russian units in occupied Ukrainian territory, Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov has said.

The United States confirmed on Friday that a new rocket that would double Ukraine’s strike range was included in a $2.175 billion US military aid package to help Kyiv fight back Russian forces.

“We always tell our partners officially that we will not use weapons supplied by foreign partners to fire on Russian territory. We only fire on Russian units on temporarily occupied Ukrainian territory,” Reznikov told reporters at a news conference.

1:41pm: Germany has ‘hundreds’ of pieces of Ukraine war crime evidence, prosecutor says

Germany’s prosecutor general said Sunday that his office had collected “hundreds” of pieces of evidence showing war crimes by Russian forces in Ukraine, calling for an international effort to bring leaders to justice.

“At the moment we are focusing on mass killings in Bucha and attacks on Ukraine’s civil infrastructure,” prosecutor Peter Frank told the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

He said most of the evidence came from interviews with Ukrainian refugees, and the goal was now to “prepare for a possible later court case – whether in Germany or with our foreign partners or an international court”.

Frank’s office has previously used the principle of universal jurisdiction, which allows the prosecution of certain grave crimes regardless of where they took place, to try Syrians over atrocities committed during the country’s civil war.

11:10am: Fierce fighting in north of Ukraine’s Bakhmut, says Russian head of Wagner militia

The head of Russia’s private Wagner militia said on Sunday that fierce fighting was ongoing in the northern parts of the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, which has been the focus of Russian forces’ attention for weeks. Yevgeniy Prigozhin, the founder and head of the Wagner Group, said his soldiers were “fighting for every street, every house, every stairwell” against Ukrainian forces who were not retreating.

Russian forces have been attempting to encircle and capture Bakhmut, a city in the eastern Donbas region, for weeks, and appear to be making slow, grinding and costly progress.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said repeatedly in recent days that the situation around the city is tough. “Nobody will give away Bakhmut. We will fight for as long as we can. We consider Bakhmut our fortress,” he said on Friday.

Britain’s defence ministry said on Sunday Russia had made “small advances” in its attempt to encircle Bakhmut.

8:45am: Ukraine’s forces still hold Bilohorivka, last part of Luhansk region

Ukrainian forces remained in control of the village of Bilohorivka, the Luhansk region governor Serhiy Haidai said on Sunday: “The situation at the front is tense, but controlled by Ukrainian forces,” Haidai said.

“Information is being spread in the Russian Federation about the alleged capture of Bilohorivka and the removal of our people from there,” Haidai told the national broadcaster. “Our troops remain in their positions, nobody has captured Bilohorivka, nobody has entered there, there is no enemy there.”

Some Moscow-installed officials and pro-Russian military bloggers have recently claimed Russian advances in the direction of Bilohorivka, the last part of Luhansk held by Ukrainian forces.

“The number of Russian attacks has … increased, but all of them have been repulsed by our troops, who remain in their positions.”

07:40am: Russian missile hits residential building in Ukraine’s Kharkiv, mayor says

Two Russian missiles hit the centre of Kharkiv, the administrative capital of the Kharkiv region in Ukraine’s northeast, with one of the missiles striking a residential building, the city’s mayor said on Sunday.

“At this time, it known that there is a fire in one of the residential buildings and one injured person,” Mayor Ihor Terekhov said on the Telegram messaging platform.

7:35am: Germany’s Scholz says Putin ‘has not threatened me or Germany’ in telephone calls

Russian President Vladimir Putin in his telephone conversations with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz “has not made any threats against me or Germany”, Scholz said in an interview with Sunday newspaper Bild am Sonntag.

Former British prime minister Boris Johnson, speaking to the BBC for a documentary early this week, said the Russian leader had threatened him with a missile strike that would “only take a minute”. The Kremlin said Johnson was lying.

Scholz said the conversations he had with Putin made it clear they had very different views of the war in Ukraine, which Russia calls a “special military operation”.

“I made it very clear to Putin that Russia has sole responsibility for the war,” Scholz said. “Russia has invaded its neighbour for no reason, in order to take parts of Ukraine or the whole country under its control.”

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)

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Live: Top diplomat Josep Borrell announces EU plan to train 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell arrived in Kyiv with a delegation of EU leaders on Thursday. In an interview with FRANCE 24, Borrell said the EU plans to double the number of Ukrainian soldiers it is training to 30,000. Follow our live blog below for all the latest developments. All times are in Paris time (GMT+1).

10:49am: Norway to raise spending from wealth fund to aid Ukriane, says PM

Norway will increase the spending from its sovereign wealth fund in the coming years to fund military and civilian aid to Ukraine, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told parliament on Thursday.

The Nordic country’s $1.3 trillion wealth fund, one of the world’s largest investors, has seen a sharp rise in revenue inflows as the price of Norwegian oil and gas exports soared following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The prime minister did not specify how much money Norway would spend on Ukraine aid, but said it would be a multi-year commitment. “This will lead to a temporary increase in spending from the sovereign wealth fund,” Stoere said. He added that the extra spending should not impact the Norwegian domestic economy, avoiding any impact on interest rates.

9:51am: Russia says it does not need help from ex-Soviet allies in Ukraine

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday that Moscow does not any need help from its ex-Soviet allies for its military campaign in Ukraine.

Lavrov said Russia had everything it needed for the conflict, and had not asked members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) – a Moscow-led alliance that includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – to provide material support for what Russia calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

9:40am: Top diplomat Josep Borrell announces EU plan to train 30,000 Ukrainian soldiers

In an interview with FRANCE 24, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell said the EU plans to double the number of Ukrainian soldiers it is training to 30,000.

9:09am: Russian FM Lavrov says ‘we want Ukraine conflict to end, but are responding to West’

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Thursday that Russian forces would respond to the delivery of longer-range Western weapons to Kyiv by trying to push Ukrainian forces further away from its borders to create a safe buffer zone.

In an interview on state TV, Lavrov said everybody wanted the conflict in Ukraine – which Moscow calls a “special military operation” – to end, but that the West’s support for Kyiv was playing an important role in how Russia approaches the campaign.

9:00am: Austria expels four Russian diplomats

Austria is expelling four Russian diplomats for behaving in a manner inconsistent with international agreements, a reason often invoked in spying cases, the Austrian Foreign Ministry said on Thursday without giving specifics.

Two of the four diplomats declared personae non gratae and ordered to leave the country by February 8 are stationed at the Russian Embassy to Austria while the other two work at the Russian mission to the United Nations in Vienna, the ministry said in a statement.

8:46am: EU chief arrives in Kyiv, says bloc ‘stands by Ukraine’

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said she had arrived in Kyiv with a team of commissioners on Thursday, a day before a Ukraine-European Union summit in the war-torn country.

“Good to be back in Kyiv, my 4th time since Russia’s invasion … We are here together to show that the EU stands by Ukraine as firmly as ever. And to deepen further our support and cooperation,” she wrote in a tweet.

8:37am: Frontline hotspot Bakhmut braces for Russian advance

Russian forces have been trying to seize control of Bakhmut in the eastern region of Donetsk for months in what has become the longest and bloodiest battle since Russia invaded Ukraine last February.

Despite the flow of Western weapons, Russia has in recent days claimed gains in the region.

The fight for Bakhmut has turned the town with a pre-war population of roughly 75,000 into a ghost town dotted with hedgehog anti-tank defences and burnt-out cars. There is no gas, no electricity, no running water. Around 7,000 people, many of them elderly, still live in the town despite the constant sound of artillery exchanges, gunfire and drones flying overhead.

7:53am: Ukraine targets oligarch, ex-minister in graft clampdown

Ukraine expanded a clampdown on corruption on Wednesday, launching coordinated searches of residences linked to a divisive oligarch and former interior minister as well as tax offices in the capital.

FRANCE 24’s Andrew Hilliar, reporting from Kyiv, discusses the searches in the video below.

The searches came ahead of a key summit with the EU and appeared to be part of a push by Kyiv to reassure military and financial donors in European capitals and Washington that Ukraine is tackling systemic graft.

The searches have targeted influential billionaire Igor Kolomoisky and former interior minister Arsen Avakov, said the head of Zelensky’s party, David Arakhamia. Law enforcement also raided tax offices in the capital and senior customs officials were fired.

FRANCE 24’s Fraser Jackson takes a closer look at Ukraine’s bid to stamp out corruption in the video below.

5:00am: Top EU officials gather in Ukraine

More than a dozen top European Union officials arrive in Kyiv on Thursday with promises of more military, financial and political aid, a symbolic trip meant to highlight support for Ukraine.

But the EU is set to dash Ukraine’s hopes of being swiftly allowed membership, stressing the need for more anti-corruption measures and unwilling to admit a country at war, the biggest armed conflict in Europe since World War II.

“It is a very strong signal that we are in Kyiv during the war. It’s a signal to the Ukrainian people. It’s a signal to Russia. It’s a signal to the world,” said a senior EU official.

Top members of the EU‘s executive European Commission will meet their counterparts in the Ukrainian government on Thursday. The head of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and president of the EU Council Charles Michel will meet President Volodymyr Zelensky on Friday.

4:51am: Russians mark anniversary of Stalingrad victory

President Vladimir Putin is set to preside Thursday over commemorations to mark the 80th anniversary of the Soviet victory at the Battle of Stalingrad, one of the bloodiest in World War II.

The high-profile celebrations in the southern city of Volgograd come as the Kremlin is drumming up support for its offensive in Ukraine, launched nearly a year ago to “de-Nazify” Ukraine, whose soldiers fought alongside Russia against Nazi Germany.

Putin is expected to travel to Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, to take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at a war memorial and speak at a concert, the Kremlin said.

The battle of Stalingrad lasted more than six months, ending with the surrender of German troops on February 2, 1943, after more than a million people were killed.

>> Read more: ‘They would have preferred hell’: The Battle of Stalingrad, 80 years on

1:33am: Strike on residential building in Ukraine’s Kramatorsk leaves at least 3 dead

Ukrainian authorities said Wednesday that at least three people were killed when a Russian rocket struck a residential building in the eastern city of Kramatorsk.

“Two hours ago, the Russian occupiers hit a residential building in the centre of the city with a rocket,” said regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko.

“Two hours ago, the Russian occupiers hit a residential building in the centre of the city with a rocket and completely destroyed it,” regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on the Telegram messaging app.

The regional police said on their official website that it was “preliminarily known that there are three dead civilians and 20 wounded”.

© France Médias Monde graphic studio

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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