Absent Putin and Ukraine war cast long shadow over G20

The leaders of Russia and China are skipping the G20 summit, but their absence — and rifts over the Ukraine war — will have a big influence on the proceedings.

Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t be at the G20 Leaders’ Summit, but he and the Russia-Ukraine war are likely to have a bigger effect on outcomes than even the lack of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Days before world leaders prepared to gather in New Delhi for the summit September 9-10, news emerged that China’s leader had decided not to attend. Xi’s absence will undoubtedly stifle progress on the many issues plaguing the global economy.

However, it’s Putin and the war in Ukraine that is likely to dominate proceedings and hamper progress on urgent matters before the G20.

With Russia a member, this is not surprising. But the G20’s make-up — consisting of Western states and leading nations from the Global South — has made it even more difficult for the organisation to function effectively.

The G20 is much more than just an annual two-day Leaders’ Summit. Most of its work happens in the background, through networks of technocrats and policymakers, who can find ways to resolve problems, even when relations between their leaders deteriorate.

Beside the issue of an ongoing conflict, the ‘in’ tray is full this year.

Global inflation remains high, and growth is slowing and below historical trends. China is experiencing its own economic challenges of slowing growth, deflation and a housing market crisis, which could have significant knock-on effects for the rest of the world.

Many economies are struggling with debt. Nearly half of the world’s developing countries need urgent financial assistance as the financial consequences of the pandemic have finally caught up with them.

All this is before considering long-term issues like climate change or sustainable development. Progress on both fronts is falling further behind schedule.

But this is exactly why the G20 was created. It brings together the world’s 20 largest economies, which account for 85 per cent of global GDP, 75 per cent of global trade and two-thirds of the world’s population. To the extent that the world has a government, the G20 is it.

Struggle for consensus

On the issue of Russia and Ukraine, there are three distinct factions within the G20.

There is Russia, which has rejected the validity of discussing the war at the G20, arguing that as an economic body it has no business considering security matters.

Increasingly, as the war has dragged on, this has been China’s position, too, as it draws closer to Russia.

Then there are the Western states, which initially pushed for the G20 to expel Russia — something for which there is no provision — and, failing that, have insisted that it condemns Russia and the invasion in the strongest terms.

Finally, there is the majority of the membership from the Global South, which has tried to stay neutral in the conflict. They are more concerned about the war’s consequences, including its effect on food and energy prices, which particularly affect developing economies.

With such divisions, the G20 has struggled to reach consensus. None of the ministerial-level meetings hosted by this year’s chair India have ended with the usual communique that summarises the consensus of the group on the topics discussed.

Instead, India has issued ‘chair’s summary and outcome’ documents that merely summarise discussions and note the disagreements.

Ahead of the New Delhi summit, diplomats are again scrambling to devise a form of wording for the final communique that would be accepted by all parties, facing the possibility of failing to do so for the first time in G20 history.

Signs of progress

Despite these disagreements, the G20 has managed to make progress on some issues.

G20 meetings have been one of the main forums through which reform of the Multilateral Development Banks has been discussed.

The proposals include reforming the internal policies of the World Bank and other development banks to allow them to borrow more capital and lend it at concessional rates — especially for climate projects — as well as increases of funding from leading states.

The US recently promised to increase its contributions by USD 50 billion, calling on its allies to do likewise to increase the total to USD 200 billion. Campaigners have called for the reforms to go further, but they still offer the prospect of a significant increase to development bank funds. The focus on climate financing also reflects the growing importance of the issue in developing economies.

While reforms won’t be finalised at the summit, the G20 has proved itself a useful forum to maintain and progress negotiations.

Another G20 initiative has been the Common Framework for Debt Treatments, agreed in 2020, which is the first multilateral mechanism for forgiving and restructuring the sovereign debt of low-income countries.

The Common Framework is notable for involving both the traditional lenders from the Paris Club and new ones like China. It has already allowed Zambia to restructure USD 6.3 billion of its debt, a large part of which is owed to China.

While the framework has shortcomings — for one, it doesn’t include private creditors — it does at least represent a lifeline to many developing economies on the verge of defaulting on their debts.

The framework’s continuation illustrates that the G20 functions, even in the face of very public disagreements.

This persistence can be explained by more than just the technocrats working and cooperating behind the scenes.

Over the past two years, the G20 has been chaired by developing economies: Indonesia and India.

Because of their neutrality, these countries have greater credibility when they try to manage the stand-off between the West and Russia, so the G20 can function in some way.

With the next two hosts, South Africa and Brazil, sharing a similar inclination, the G20 might continue to function, even if the thornier global problems prove beyond its capacity to address.

In an era of fragmenting global governance, that might be the best that can be achieved.

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NATO unity will be tested at upcoming summit. Ukraine’s possible entry may be the biggest challenge

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine continues with no end in sight, NATO’s much-celebrated unity faces fresh strains when leaders gather for their annual summit this week in Vilnius, Lithuania.

The world’s biggest security alliance is struggling to reach an agreement on admitting Sweden as its 32nd member. Military spending by member nations lags behind long-standing goals. An inability to compromise over who should serve as NATO’s next leader forced an extension of the current secretary-general’s term for an extra year.

Perhaps the most difficult questions are over how Ukraine should be eased into NATO. Some maintain admitting Ukraine would fulfill a promise made years ago and be a necessary step to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe. Others fear it would be seen as a provocation that could spiral into an even wider conflict.

“I don’t think it’s ready for membership in NATO,” President Joe Biden told CNN in an interview airing Sunday. He said joining NATO requires countries to “meet all the qualifications, from democratization to a whole range of other issues.”

He said the United States should provide long-term security assistance to Ukraine — “the capacity to defend themselves” — as it does with Israel.

Bickering among friends is not uncommon, and the current catalogue of disputes pales in comparison with past fears that Donald Trump would turn his back on the alliance during his presidency. But the current challenges come at a moment when Biden and his counterparts are heavily invested in demonstrating harmony among members.

“Any fissure, any lack of solidarity provides an opportunity for those who would oppose the alliance,” said Douglas Lute, U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is eager to exploit divisions as he struggles to gain ground in Ukraine and faces political challenges at home, including the aftermath of a brief revolt by the Wagner mercenary group.

“You don’t want to present any openings,” Lute said. “You don’t want to present any gaps or seams.”

By some measures, the war in Ukraine has reinvigorated NATO, which was created at the beginning of the Cold War as a bulwark against Moscow. NATO members have poured military hardware into Ukraine to help with its counteroffensive, and Finland ended a history of nonalignment to become NATO’s 31st member.

“I think it’s appropriate to look at all the success,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told The Associated Press. “So I think the invasion has strengthened NATO — exactly the opposite of what Putin anticipated.”

He noted Germany’s shift toward a more robust defense policy as well as increase in military spending in other countries.

The latest test of NATO solidarity came Friday with what Biden said was a “difficult decision” to provide cluster munitions to Ukraine. More than two-thirds of alliance members have banned the weapon because it has a track record for causing many civilian casualties. The U.S., Russia and Ukraine are not among the more than 120 countries that have not signed a convention outlawing the use of the bombs.

As for Ukraine’s possible entry into NATO, the alliance said in 2008 that Kyiv eventually would become a member. Since then, little action has been taken toward that goal. Putin occupied parts of Ukraine in 2014 and then tried to capture the capital in 2022 with his invasion.

“A gray zone is a green light for Putin,” said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland who is now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, called for a unified signal from NATO on Ukraine and for his country to join the alliance.

“It would be an important message to say that NATO is not afraid of Russia,” Zelenskyy said through a translator in an ABC interview, when asked whether he would come to Vilnius. “Ukraine should get clear security guarantees while it is not in NATO. And that is a very important point. Only under these conditions our meeting would be meaningful. Otherwise, it’s just another politics.”

The U.S. and Germany insist that the focus should be on supplying weapons and ammunition to Ukraine, rather than taking the more provocative step of extending a formal invitation to join NATO. Countries on NATO’s Eastern flank — Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland — want firmer assurances on future membership.

NATO could decide to elevate its relationship with Ukraine, creating what would be known as the NATO-Ukraine Council and giving Kyiv a seat at the table for consultations.

Also in the spotlight in Vilnius will be Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the main obstacle to Sweden’s attempts to join NATO alongside neighbor Finland.

Erdogan accuses Sweden of being too lenient on anti-Islamic demonstrations and militant Kurdish groups that have waged a long insurgency in Turkey.

Sweden recently changed its anti-terrorism legislation and lifted an arms embargo on Turkey. But a man burned a Quran outside a mosque in Stockholm last week, and Erdogan signaled that this would pose another hurdle. He equated “those who permitted the crime” to those who perpetrated it.

Turkey and the U.S. are also at an impasse over the sale of F-16 fighter jets. Erdogan wants the upgraded planes, but Biden says Sweden’s NATO membership has to be dealt with first. McConnell said in the AP interview that he supports the sale of the fighter jets to Turkey “provided that the membership of Sweden is settled.”

It’s not the first time that Erdogan has sought to use a NATO summit for Turkish gain. In 2009, he held up the nomination of Anders Fogh Rasmussen as secretary-general but agreed to the move after securing some senior posts for Turkish officials at the alliance.

Max Bergmann, a former State Department official who leads the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there’s growing frustration among allies toward Erdogan, building on concerns about his ties to Putin, democratic backsliding and sanctions evasion.

“They’ve tried playing nice,” Bergmann said. “The question is whether it’s time to get much more confrontational.”

Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, is also delaying his country’s approval of Sweden’s membership. In response, Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is blocking a $735 million U.S. arms sale to Hungary.

“We don’t want members who aren’t interested in doing everything possible to strengthen the alliance rather than the pursuit of their own or individual interests,” Risch said. “I’m just sick and tired of it.”

But he rejected the idea that these disagreements are a sign of weakness within NATO.

“These are kinds of things that always arise in an alliance,” he said. “The fact that we’ve been able to deal with them and will continue to deal with them proves that this is the most successful and strongest military alliance in the history of the world.”

At least one potentially difficult issue is off the summit agenda. Rather than seek consensus on a new NATO leader, members agreed to extend the tenure of Jens Stoltenberg, who’s held the job since 2014, for a year. It’s his fourth extension.

Most members wanted a woman to be the next secretary-general, and Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen had been considered a favorite. But Poland insisted on a candidate from the Baltic states because there had already been two Nordic secretaries general in a row. (Stoltenberg was a Norwegian prime minister and Rasmussen was a Danish prime minister.)

Others are skeptical of accepting a nominee from the Baltics, whose leaders tend to be more provocative in their approach to Russia, including supporting Ukraine’s desire to rapidly join NATO.

More disagreements loom over NATO’s updated plans for countering any invasion that Russia might launch on allied territory.

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Russian report implies Ukrainian gains on south front

Moscow on June 16 reported intense fighting near southeast Ukraine settlements that had until recently been under its control, which appeared to indicate advances by Kyiv’s forces.

Russian officials — including President Vladimir Putin — have repeated that Ukraine’s long-expected counteroffensive was failing despite Kyiv claiming some gains.

But the Russian Army said the most active fighting took place around the settlements of Rivnopil and Urozhaine, which are near a cluster of villages that Ukraine claimed to recapture over the past week.

Russia said “five attacks from units of the Ukrainian armed forces were repelled” around Rivnopil and Urozhaine.

Fighting in this area would mean Russian defence lines have fallen back a few kilometres in areas at the border between the partially-occupied southern Zaporizhzhia and the eastern Donetsk region.

On Thursday, the Ukrainian Army said it continued to advance despite “powerful resistance” from Russian troops.

The area where the heavy fighting is taking place is still more than a dozen kilometres north of Russia’s heavily fortified defence lines.

Major Ukrainian military successes in the southern Zaporizhzhia region could potentially enable Ukraine’s forces to break through the land bridge that connects Russia with the Crimean peninsula it annexed from Ukraine. This would be a major reversal for Moscow.

Analysts say Ukraine is yet to launch the bulk of its forces on the battlefield and is likely still probing Russian defences.

Meanwhile, a delegation of leaders and senior officials from Africa sought in Ukraine on Friday ways to end the country’s full-scale war with Russia and ensure food and fertilizer deliveries to their continent, though an air raid in Kyiv during their stay provided a reminder of the challenges they face.

The delegation, which included the Presidents of South Africa, Senegal, Zambia and the Comoros Islands, first went to Bucha, a Kyiv suburb where bodies of civilians lay scattered in the streets last year after Russian troops abandoned a campaign to seize the capital and withdrew from the area.

The delegation’s stop in Bucha was symbolically significant, as the town has come to stand for the brutality of Moscow’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. The Russian occupation of Bucha left hundreds of civilians dead in the streets and in mass graves. Some showed signs of torture.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said last month that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin had agreed to separate meetings with members of an African peace mission.

The delegation was set to travel to St. Petersburg later on Friday, where Russia’s top international economic conference is taking place, and meet with Mr. Putin on Saturday. It also includes senior officials from Uganda, Egypt and Congo-Brazzaville.

The members of the delegation represent a cross-section of African views about the war. South Africa, Senegal and Uganda have avoided censuring Moscow for the conflict, while Egypt, Zambia and Comoros voted against Russia last year in a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion. Many African nations have long had close ties with Moscow, dating back to the Cold War when the Soviet Union supported their anti-colonial struggles.

While in Bucha, the visitors placed commemorative candles at a small memorial outside St. Andrew’s Church, near one of the locations where a mass grave was unearthed.

Shortly after, air raid sirens began to wail in Ukraine’s capital. Mayor Vitali Klitschko reported an explosion in the Podilskiy district, one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods.

“Russian missiles are a message to Africa: Russia wants more war, not peace,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.

The Ukrainian air force said it shot down six Russian Kalibr cruise missiles, six Kinzhal hypersonic ballistic missiles and two reconnaissance drones. It gave no details on where they were shot down.

Germany will deliver another 64 Patriot missiles to Ukraine, German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said Friday, to help shield it against Russia’s relentless aerial attacks.

Officials who helped lay the groundwork for the delegation’s talks said the African leaders not only aimed to initiate a peace process but also to assess how Russia, which is under heavy international sanctions, can be paid for fertilizer exports that Africa desperately needs.

They are also set to discuss the related issue of ensuring more grain shipments out of Ukraine amid the war and the possibility of more prisoner swaps.

“Life is universal, and we must protect lives – Ukrainian lives, Russian lives, global lives,” Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema told The Associated Press. “Instability anywhere is instability everywhere.”

The African peace overture comes as Ukraine launches a counteroffensive to dislodge the Kremlin’s forces from occupied areas, using Western-supplied advanced weapons in attacks along the 1,000-kilometer (600-mile) front line. Western analysts and military officials have cautioned that the campaign could last a long time.

China presented its own peace proposal at the end of February but it appeared to have few chances of success. Ukraine and its allies largely dismissed the plan, and the warring sides look no closer to a cease-fire.

Ukrainian troops recorded successes along three stretches of the front line in the south and east, Andriy Kovalev, a spokesman for the General Staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said in a statement Friday.

According to Kovalev, Ukrainian forces moved forward south of the town of Orikhiv in Zaporizhzhia province, in the direction of the village of Robotyne, as well as around Levadne and Staromaiorske, on the boundary between Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk province further east.

Kovalev said Ukraine’s troops also advanced in some areas around Vuhledar, a mining town in Donetsk that was the site of one of the main tank battles in the war so far.

It wasn’t possible to independently verify the claims.

Russian shelling on Thursday and overnight killed two civilians and wounded two others in southern Ukraine’s flood-hit Kherson region, where a major dam was destroyed last week, according to the region’s governor, Oleksandr Prokudin.

Russian forces over the previous day launched 54 strikes across the province, using mortars, artillery, multiple rocket launchers, drones, missiles and aircraft, Prokudin said.

Floodwaters in the Kherson region have continued to recede, with the average level in flood-hit areas standing at 1.67 meters (about 5 feet). That is down from 5 meters (16 feet) immediately following the breach of the Kakhovka dam last Tuesday, according to the Ukrainian presidential office.

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Blinken: any future peace talks with Russia must be on Ukraine’s terms

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has ruled out any immediate ceasefire, saying any future peace talks with Russia must be on Ukraine’s terms.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that the United States and its allies should not support a cease-fire or peace talks to end the war in Ukraine until Kyiv gains strength and can negotiate on its own terms.

As an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive appeared to be taking shape, Blinken said heeding calls from Russia and others, including China, for negotiations now would result in a false “Potemkin peace” that wouldn’t secure Ukraine’s sovereignty or enhance European security.

“We believe the prerequisite for meaningful diplomacy and real peace is a stronger Ukraine, capable of deterring and defending against any future aggression,” Blinken said in a speech in Finland, which recently became NATO’s newest member and shares a long border with Russia.

Potemkin peace

His use of the term “Potemkin” referred to the brightly painted village fronts that 18th century Russian government minister Grigory Potemkin reportedly used to have built to create an illusion of prosperity for Russia’s empress.

Blinken repeated the US view that “a cease-fire that simply freezes current lines in place” and allows Russian President Vladimir Putin “to consolidate control over the territory he has seized, and rest, rearm, and re-attack – that is not a just and lasting peace.”

Allowing Moscow to keep the one-fifth of Ukrainian territory it’s occupied would send the wrong message to Russia and to “other would-be aggressors around the world,” according to Blinken, implying that a cease-fire shouldn’t be arranged until either Ukraine pushes Russia back or Russia withdraws its troops.

Blinken’s position is similar to that of Ukrainian officials, including his statement that Russia must pay for a share of Ukraine’s reconstruction and be held accountable for the full-scale invasion of its neighbour in February 2022.


After months of battlefield stalemate across a 1100 km front line, Ukrainian officials have given confusing signals about whether a counteroffensive, relying heavily on recently deployed advanced Western weapons and training, is coming or already underway.

Some have suggested the campaign will not be a barrage of simultaneous attacks across the entire front but rather a series of more targeted, limited strikes, first to weaken Russia’s supply lines and infrastructure, then expanded to broader targets with greater intensity.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy weighed in again on Friday.

“This is not a movie,” he told reporters in Kyiv. “It is hard to say how you’ll see the counteroffensive. The main point here is for Russia to see it. And not just see but feel it. Especially, we speak about the troops that have occupied our territories. De-occupation of our territories – this is the result of our counteroffensive. When you see this, you’ll understand that it has started.”

Zelenskyy has said his goal is to drive Russian troops out of the four territories it partially occupies and illegally annexed last fall, as well as from the Crimean Peninsula the Kremlin illegally seized in 2014.

Crimean Peninsula

Putin has said two of his goals in invading Ukraine were to improve Russia’s security and prevent Ukraine from joining NATO but the Kyiv government has applied to join the alliance, and Sweden is hoping to be accepted as a member in July. That would surround Russia with NATO countries in the Baltic Sea.

Blinken described the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a catastrophic strategic failure for Moscow that had strengthened NATO, the European Union and Ukraine. Russia has become more isolated, he said, shackled to China as a junior partner in a relationship that Beijing has increasingly come to resent, and no longer able to use energy as a political tool in countries it once counted as its own or satellites.

For its part, Russia wants any talks to address Ukraine’s request to join NATO.

“Naturally, this (issue) will be one of the main irritants and potential problems for many, many years to come,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday.

Blinken said Washington was ready to support peace efforts by other countries, including those by China and Brazil but that any peace agreement must uphold the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.

China, which says it is neutral and wants to serve as a mediator but has supported Moscow politically, on Friday urged countries to stop sending weapons to Ukraine. The United States is a leading Western ally and supplier of arms to Kyiv.

Air-raid shelters

In Kyiv, in the sixth air attack in as many days, Ukrainian air defences late Thursday and early Friday intercepted all 15 incoming cruise missiles and 21 attack drones, Ukraine’s chief of staff, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said.

The Ukrainian capital was simultaneously attacked from different directions by Iranian-made Shahed drones and cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea region, senior Kyiv official Serhii Popko wrote on Telegram.

A 68-year-old man and an 11-year-old child were wounded in the attack, in which falling debris damaged private houses, outbuildings and cars, according to Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office.

President Zelenskyy ordered an immediate overhaul and inspection of the country’s bomb shelters following the death of a woman on June 1, killed while waiting to get into a locked shelter. The president accused officials in Kyiv of negligence.

Berdyansk explosions

Elsewhere, several explosions occurred Friday in the Azov Sea port of Berdyansk in the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region, one of the four provinces Russia illegally annexed. Russian-appointed officials blamed Ukrainian rocket attacks and said nine people were wounded. Videos posted on social media appear to show smoke rising in the port area. Ukrainian officials acknowledged their forces were responsible and claimed Russian ships were evacuating the port.

The Moscow-appointed governor of Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk province, Denis Pushilin, claimed Friday that Ukrainian strikes had killed three people and wounded four, including a 3-year-old-girl.

In other developments Friday, border regions of Russia again came under fire. One of the most frequently hit targets of cross-border shelling, Russia’s Belgorod region, was bombarded by artillery shells and drone strikes in multiple villages, Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said. At least two women died in a car, multiple people were injured, and apartment buildings, cars, power transmission lines and farm equipment were damaged, he said on Telegram.

Freedom of Russia Legion

The Freedom of Russia Legion, one of the groups that has claimed responsibility for prior attacks on Belgorod, blamed the Russian military for the deaths. The group alleged the Russian army had mistakenly believed the car belonged to the paramilitary group. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the region, and many roads have been closed.

Air defence systems shot down several Ukrainian drones in Russia’s southern Kursk region, Gov. Roman Starovoit reported. In Russia’s Bryansk region, Gov. Alexander Bogomaz said Ukrainian forces shelled two villages, with no reported casualties.

Two drones also attacked energy facilities in Russia’s western Smolensk region, which borders Belarus, officials said.

The UK Ministry of Defence said the incursions could be a Ukrainian strategy to disperse Russian forces before a counteroffensive.

“Russian commanders now face an acute dilemma of whether to (strengthen) defences in Russia’s border regions or reinforce their lines in occupied Ukraine,” the ministry said.

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Ukraine war: Wagner pullout, Zaporizhzhia scare and ‘saboteurs’

Here’s everything you need to know about the war in Ukraine for Monday 22 May 2023.

Russia’s mercenary group Wagner announced plans on Monday to leave Bakhmut by 1 June, less than two weeks after the leader of the group Yevgeny Prigozhin and the Russian army claimed victory over the eastern Ukrainian city on Saturday.

“In the western outskirts [of Bakhmout], the lines of defence are in place. So the Wagner group will leave Artiomovsk [the Soviet name of the Ukrainian city] between May 25 and June 1,” Prigozhin said on Monday in an audio recording released by Wagner’s press service. 

The group said it will now leave the city in the hands of the Russian troops.

Despite the claimed victory, the rift between the mercenary group a the Russian army’s leadership continues. Concluding his message, Prigozhin accused the army’s leaders of leaving his men without ammunition and remaining too far back from the battlefront. 

“If there are not enough units of the Ministry of Defence (to occupy Bakhmut), there are thousands of generals [to do it], you have to form a regiment of generals, give them all guns, and everything will be fine,” he said.

The claims follow months of bloody fighting in the city, which Ukraine claim hasn’t come to a close yet. Ukrainian authorities have not recognised the loss of Bakhmut, and claim that its troops still hold part of the city.

Ukraine hits back at Russia’s claims of victory over Bakhmut

Ukrainian officials acknowledge they now control only a small part of Bakhmut.

But, Ukraine says, their fighters’ presence has played a key role in their strategy of exhausting the Russian military. And they say their current positions in the areas surrounding Bakhmut will let them strike back inside the 400-year-old city.

“Despite the fact that we now control a small part of Bakhmut, the importance of its defense does not lose its relevance,” said General Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander of ground forces for the Ukrainian Armed Forces. “This gives us the opportunity to enter the city in case of a change in the situation. And it will definitely happen.”

The fog of war makes it impossible to confirm the situation on the ground in Bakhmut. Russia’s defense ministry said Wagner mercenaries backed by Russian troops had seized the city, but Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Bakhmut was not being fully occupied.

In a video posted on Telegram, Wagner head Yevgeny Prigozhin claimed the city came under complete Russian control at about midday Saturday. Holding a Russian flag before a group of at least nine masked fighters in body army who were toting heavy weapons, Prigozhin proclaimed: “This afternoon at 12:00, Bakhmut was completely taken.”

More important for Ukraine has been the high numbers of Russian casualties and sapping of the morale of enemy troops for the the small patch of the 1,500-kilometre front line as Ukraine gears up for a major counteroffensive in the 15-month-old war.

Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant scare

Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, Europe’s largest atomic power station, spent hours operating on emergency diesel generators Monday after losing its external power supply for the seventh time since Russia’s full-scale invasion of its neighbor, the head of the UN nuclear watchdog said.

“The nuclear safety situation at the plant (is) extremely vulnerable,” Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a tweet.

Hours later, national energy company Ukrenergo said on Telegram that it had restored the power line that feeds the plant.

But for Grossi, it was another reminder of what’s at stake at the Russian-occupied plant which has seen shelling close by.

“We must agree to protect (the) plant now; this situation cannot continue,” Grossi said, in his latest appeal for the area to be spared from the fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces. IAEA staff are deployed at the plant, which is occupied by Russian troops.

The plant’s six nuclear reactors, which are protected by a reinforced shelter able to withstand an errant shell or rocket, have been shut down. But a disruption in the electrical supply could disable cooling systems that are essential for the reactors’ safety even when they are shut down. Emergency diesel generators, which officials say can keep the plant operational for 10 days, can be unreliable.

Fighting, especially artillery fire, around the plant has fueled fears of a disaster like the one at Chernobyl, in northern Ukraine, in 1986. Then, a reactor exploded and spewed deadly radiation, contaminating a vast area in the world’s worst nuclear catastrophe.

Russian missiles and drones target Dnipro

Ukraine said on Monday that it had countered an unprecedented Russian attack overnight targeting the city of Dnipro, in the center-east of the country, with missiles and explosive drones.

According to regional authorities, seven people were injured.

During this “night attack”, Russia launched “16 missiles of various types and 20 Shahed drones”, the Ukrainian military said in a statement posted on Facebook.

A total of four “Kh-101/Kh-555 cruise missiles” and all 20 drones “were destroyed by anti-aircraft defense”, she said.

The Ukrainian army, however, did not give details on the consequences of the 12 missiles that passed through its defences.

Earlier Monday morning, she said the Russians had launched “a massive missile and drone attack”, without saying where exactly and adding that “details will be released after clarification”.

Ukraine ensures that its anti-aircraft defense, reinforced by Western military aid, shoots down most drones and missiles.

Are Ukrainian ‘saboteurs’ operating in Russia?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has apparently been briefed on an ongoing incursion into Russian territory by “saboteurs” from Ukraine , an attack that aims to “divert attention” from Moscow’s claimed conquest of Bakhmut, his spokesperson has said. 

“The Ministry of Defense, the FSB and the border guards have informed the President (…), work is underway to drive out this sabotage group from Russian territory and to eliminate it,” Russian agencies told Dmitry Peskov.

According to the Kremlin official, Ukraine launched this attack on the Belgorod region, bordering Ukrainian territory, to “divert attention” from the situation in Bakhmut, the epicenter of Russian-Ukrainian fighting for months and a city that Moscow claimed to have conquered this weekend.

“We fully understand that the purpose of this act of sabotage is to divert attention from Bakhmut, to minimise the effect of the loss by the Ukrainian side” of this city, he said.

Kyiv says for its part that it still controls a few sites in Bakhmut, but above all that it is attacking the Russian flanks in the suburbs, in order to surround Moscow’s forces in the city.

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Is China ready to replace Russian influence in Central Asia?

The focus of the upcoming China-Central Asia Summit summit in Xi’an is the promotion of Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’. But according to analysts, the summit is less about the transit of goods and more about Russia’s loss of influence in the region and whether China is ready to take over.

A summit involving the leaders of China and the heads of the five Central Asian states – all former Soviet republics – has been called by Beijing “a milestone on the way to building a RingCentral (China in the centre) Asian community with a common destiny”. It is the first-ever face-to-face meeting between leaders in this format.

The summit’s venue is highly significant: the city of Xi’an, one of the oldest in the world, and where one of the stages of the Great Silk Road once started. Promoting China’s modern take on the ancient trade route – the Belt and Road project – is the official theme of the meeting.

However, for Swedish academic and Russia expert, Stefan Hedlund, it is less about product transit routes than about Russia’s dwindling influence in the region, with China ready to take its place: “It’s the first time that Russia, which for decades, if not a couple of centuries, has been the hegemon in Central Asia, is excluded. And this follows in the wake of Russia losing friendships across the region and China pouncing on the opportunity to become the new hegemon.”

What is the “Belt and Road Initiative”?

The project was launched in 2013 as an amalgamation of strategic concepts that already existed at that time.

The Chinese economy had been declining for years, saturated – like Western markets – with Chinese goods. It needed to look elsewhere to stimulate development.

Formally, the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) was a mechanism for China to partner with countries around the world, to create reliable strategic routes for Chinese exports and strengthen the economies of partner countries.

The so-called New Silk Road has several routes to the West. Some through Russia, some through Kazakhstan and others through Mongolia. But, in the face of Western sanctions on Russia, these routes were virtually frozen.

One option to the south was via Central Asian countries to the Caspian Sea, and then either by sea or southwards via Iran. This became the main route. Before the summit, the media were talking about the possible expansion of the ports of Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan.

“There is supposed to be a northern spur, going through Russia. But after the war in Ukraine, that is now dead. So the BRI is totally focused on the middle road, which is good news for Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and it’s good news for Azerbaijan and Turkey, and it’s very bad news for Russia,” believes Hedlund.

Collision between China and Russia?

The Central Asian states in question – all former Soviet republics – have been considered a zone of Russian influence. However, Beijing stresses that the region is also of crucial importance to China. Beijing has declared Central Asia to be “the only strategic partnership zone around China”, with its ties with Kazakhstan officially designated “perpetual”.

Russia (and the CSTO mechanism) was to some extent a guarantor of security in the region, where traditional economic ties also played a major role. But after the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, this role has been called into question. And the Russian economy, which has been subjected to unprecedented sanctions, no longer looks so attractive.

In addition, China is likely to act prospectively, seeking to influence not only the current leadership of the Central Asian nations but also those who will replace them:

“There is a generational issue as well, in the sense that most of the old guard of leaders in central Asia have gone to universities in Russia. They have Russian networks. They speak Russian. I mean, they’re heavily invested in that network economically,” explains Hedlund. “Whereas the younger generation don’t have that link to Russia. I mean, they’re very nationalistic in many cases. They speak their own native languages and they’re probably more interested in listening to pan-Turkic ambitions of Turkey and President Erdogan than they are in maintaining any form of relations with Russia.”

The competition for influence in Central Asia is no longer with Russia, but quite possibly with Turkey. Turkey has far more cultural and religious clout than China, which has been accused of persecuting Muslims, particularly the Uighurs. China, on the other hand, has incomparably greater financial and economic leverage. 

“You can construct a scenario where the Central Asian countries, the big ones, in particular Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, really try to play their own game and do so skilfully,” says Hedlund. “And I mean the fact that four of the five regional leaders did go to the victory parade in Moscow. So they’re playing a little bit of all sides here, probably sensing to what extent they can become a player in their own right and play with China and with Turkey without antagonising either side.”

Impact of sanctions

For Moscow, Central Asia has become one of the ways of circumnavigating sanctions. In 2022, countries in the region dramatically increased their imports of Western goods and their trade with Russia. Both have almost doubled, according to reports. 

Now a new 11th EU package is expected to include measures against third countries that help Russia circumvent sanctions, in particular those which re-export banned goods. The list includes companies from countries whose leaders are meeting in Xi’an – including China itself.

There is no doubt that the parties will discuss the issue during the summit. 

Beijing is ambivalent about Western sanctions against Russia. At the political level, at the level of statements from the top leadership, there may be an impression that China actually supports Russia.

But in practice, Chinese entrepreneurs are choosing the West. China is heavily dependent on the US in terms of technology. And experts are highly sceptical that Beijing would opt to aggravate relations already tense relations with Washington for the sake of Moscow. 

Can Russia maintain its influence in the region?

According to Stefan Hedlund, Russia is now being to forced to watch the situation develop from the sidelines: “To my mind, it’s the end of Russia’s pivot to Asia that was launched by Vladimir Putin at the APEC meeting in Vladivostok in 2012 when he said that the purpose of this is for the Russian economy to catch Chinese winds in the sails of the Russian economy. Now, I would say that the Russian economy is a dismasted and drifting wreck in the sea. And the Chinese don’t give favours. If Russia ever believed that China was going to do something for them without getting more in return, they have now learned that it was wrong. They hadn’t done their homework on China the way China had done their homework on Russia.”

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Ukraine war: Six-nation Africa peace plan, and frozen Russian assets

Here’s everything you need to know about the latest developments in the Ukraine war for Tuesday 16 May 2023.

Ukrainian air defenses, bolstered by sophisticated Western-supplied systems, thwarted an intense Russian air attack on Kyiv early Tuesday, shooting down all 18 missiles aimed at the capital, officials said.

The bombardment included six Russian “Kinzhal” aero-ballistic hypersonic missiles — the most fired in a single attack in the war so far — according to air force spokesman Yurii Ihnat.

The attack came as Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy returned from a whirlwind weekend tour of Europe where he held talks with leaders in Italy, Germany, France and the UK – extracting promises of missiles, tanks and drones to replenish Ukraine’s depleted weapons supplies ahead of a long-anticipated spring offensive aimed at turning the tide of the war.

The trip was also about shoring up European political and military support for the longer term, to ensure Ukraine can hold any ground it takes back and press for a favorable peace.

“They’ve got to show … they’re in this conflict for the long term and that they’re able to keep sustaining this effort,” said Justin Crump, a former British tank commander who heads security consultancy Sibylline. “It’s not going to be one shot and done.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have agreed to separate meetings with a delegation of leaders from six African countries to discuss a possible plan to end the war in Ukraine, South Africa’s president said Tuesday.

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa said he spoke with Putin and Zelenskyy by phone over the weekend and they each agreed to host “an African leaders peace mission” in Moscow and Kyiv, respectively.

“Principal to our discussions are efforts to find a peaceful resolution to the devastating conflict in the Ukraine,” Ramaphosa said.

The leaders of Zambia, Senegal, Congo, Uganda and Egypt would make up the delegation along with Ramaphosa, he said in a statement. Putin and Zelenskyy gave him the go-ahead to “commence the preparations,” the South African leader said.

Four of those six African countries — South Africa, Congo, Senegal and Uganda — abstained from a UN vote last year on condemning Russia’s invasion. Zambia and Egypt voted in favor of the motion.

Ramaphosa did not give a time frame or outline any parameters for the possible peace talks. Zelenskyy has previously said he would not consider a peace deal to end the 15-month war until Russian forces withdraw completely from Ukrainian territory.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres also was briefed on the African delegation’s planned meetings and “welcomed the initiative,” Ramaphosa said.

South Africa’s leading position in the African delegation is bound to draw scrutiny. Ramaphosa’s announcement came days after the US ambassador accused South Africa of siding with Russia in the war in Ukraine and even providing weapons to help Moscow.

US Ambassador to South Africa Reuben Brigety alleged last week that weapons and ammunition were loaded onto a Russian-flagged cargo ship at a South African naval base in December and taken to Russia. The South African government has denied it sent any weapons to Russia.

Ramaphosa has said the matter is under investigation. South Africa has claimed its position on the war is neutral. 

Cyprus freezes €1.2 billion in Russian assets

The finance ministry in Cyprus revealed on Tuesday that some €1.2 billion in Russian-owned assets, managed by Cyprus-registered companies, were frozen in compliance with sanctions imposed on Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.

The ministry said “the vast majority” of those assets were held in European Union credit institutions and the entire amount came on top of €105 million frozen by banks in Cyprus.

The ministry provided the information in response to European Commissioner for Justice Didier Reynders saying last week that Cyprus appeared to be falling behind on freezing Russian-owned assets.

Reynders said that while other EU member nations each froze 2-4 billion euros worth of Russian assets, Cyprus’ reported sum of around €100 million “seems to be a little low.”

The Finance Ministry said this was an error caused by the European Commission receiving incomplete information – an error since rectified by updating a relevant database.

Meanwhile, the Cypriot government is stepping up its supervisory capacity to ensure compliance with international sanctions by setting up a specialized unit modeled after the UK’s Office of Financial Sanctions Implementation (OFSI), according to the ministry.

The Cyprus government is also keen on joining a European Commission program on supporting “the effective and uniform implementation of sanctions.”

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol vowed to expand the country’s non-lethal aid to Kyiv when he met with Ukraine’s first lady Tuesday in Seoul.

Olena Zelenska visited South Korea as a special envoy of President Volodymyr Zelensky. During her meeting with Yoon, Zelenska requested South Korea expand its support of non-lethal military supplies, including equipment for detecting and removing mines and ambulance vehicles, according to Yoon’s office.

Yoon replied that his government would closely coordinate with NATO and other international partners to “actively support the Ukrainian people,” his spokesperson Lee Do Woon said during a briefing.

Yoon also condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, saying the “horrific losses of innocent lives, especially women and children, are unacceptable under any circumstances,” according to remarks shared by his office.

Lee said Zelenska made no request for South Korean weapons supplies during her conversation with Yoon.

South Korea, a growing arms exporter with a well-equipped military backed by the United States, has provided humanitarian aid and other support to Ukraine while joining economic sanctions against Moscow. But it has not directly provided arms to Ukraine, citing a long-standing policy of not supplying weapons to countries actively engaged in conflict.

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Ukrainian counteroffensive: What is President Zelenskyy waiting for?

The Ukrainian armed forces still need supplies of equipment and weapons to avoid heavy losses, says President Zelenskyy.

The Ukrainian troops’ counteroffensive is delayed indefinitely as, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “more time is needed.”

The president stressed members of new brigades were fully ready, with some units having received training abroad. But the Ukrainian armed forces still need supplies of equipment and weapons to avoid heavy losses.

What is Kyiv waiting for?

Since the end of last year, there has been talk of a large-scale Ukrainian counteroffensive. For security reasons, Kyiv stopped short of announcing specific dates, but experts in the West have previously suggested the start of the operation could take place any time from the end of April to the first two weeks of June.

“I think the reason why he announced it now is that expectations for this counteroffensive have quite clearly got out of hand in many circles,” says Simon Schlegel, a senior Ukraine Analyst at the International Crisis Group. “Anticipation has been very, very high. And the reason for that is probably because there is a narrative going around, especially in Russia, that Ukraine only has ‘one punch one try’ at this very complicated counteroffensive. And therefore, it’s probably a good thing right now that from the very top, that Zelenskyy himself, tries to also tone down expectations a bit.”

The Ukrainian president says his armed forces need more equipment. On 9th May, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Kyiv already had everything it needed for the operation, including equipment and soldiers trained in the West, and stressed it was up to the armed forces command to draw up a plan for success.

Some experts believe the delay is because Kyiv wants to be as sure as possible of the success of any counteroffensive.

“In this situation, you cannot have enough. Simply put, it’s always better to have more especially ammunition,” says Schlegel. And both sides have been running quite low. It’s become not just a military supply issue, but an industrial issue, a production issue. And it’s possible that ammunition is currently the bottleneck that Zelenskyy wants to widen before actually risking the lives of his soldiers.”

Max Bergmann, Director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic & International Studies agrees.

“We know the Ukrainians have obtained a number of tanks and they’ve obtained a number of other armoured personnel carriers and transport vehicles,” he explains. “But I’m sure they’re still waiting for more deliveries. So the question for Ukraine is, do you wait and wait for more deliveries to arrive but potentially give Russia more time to prepare for the potential counteroffensive?”

However, some Western observers believe the Ukrainian president’s statement is calculated to dupe Moscow into believing the counteroffensive has been delayed – when in fact it has already begun.

Dr Neil Melvin, Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) says it’s important to understand what the word ‘counteroffensive’ actually means:

“I think often the images are kind of a shock and awe moment where all of the tanks roll forward. But actually, the counteroffensive itself is a long term process,” he says. “And I would argue that, in fact, the counteroffensive by Ukraine has already started. What they’re trying to do is shape the battlefield at the moment and they’re pulling the Russian forces in different directions. They’re trying to find gaps by probing and they’re moving their forces around.”

What kind of weapons does Ukraine need?

According to Bloomberg, since December (i.e. in preparation for a perceived counteroffensive) Ukraine has received the equivalent of $30bn of Western equipment and supplies – more than the annual military budget of any NATO country (except the US). For the entire period, the amount of aid has exceeded $67bn.

Kyiv is now talking about the need for long-range weapons, aviation and air defence systems.

On 11 May, London announced it was sending Storm Shadow tactical missiles with an estimated range of 560 km to Kiev (however, the export versions are limited to 250 km). According to experts, this is not simply just another weapons delivery, but one that could play an important role in the upcoming operation.

Melvin explains why these weapons are a potential game changer.

“Actually what they do is strike at Russia’s ability to coordinate its own defence, so what we saw earlier in the war where the United States provided Ukraine with HIMARS artillery, that was very damaging to the Russians because with this artillery the Ukrainians could destroy logistical hubs at headquarters,” he explains. “The Russians have adapted. They’ve pushed those facilities out of range of HIMARS. With these new missiles, suddenly they’re back in range.”

What some believe the success or failure of a Ukrainian counteroffensive boils down to is the ability of the Ukrainian armed forces to coordinate as accurately and quickly as possible between different units and government agencies.

“What Ukraine has to do is what’s called combined arms warfare which means linking the air force, the ground forces, the intelligence community, the political leadership and keeping in contact with this very complicated set of actors as the armed forces move forward,” Melvin continues. “So it’s not just about breaking through the Russian lines, but actually sustaining that.”

Air warfare

But there are difficulties ahead. Storm Shadow missiles are airborne and can be launched from a range of European-made aircraft – Tornado, Typhoon, Mirage 2000 and Rafale.

According to available information, Ukraine does not yet have these planes. In February, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the transfer of Typhoons to Kyiv was not impossible, and it was even reported that training of Ukrainian pilots had begun.

The Ukrainian air force already has experience of using Western missiles from Soviet aircraft. Many of these machines, adapted to NATO standards, were supplied to Ukraine by the former Warsaw Pact countries.

However, Kyiv is demanding modern Western-made fighter jets – first and foremost, the American F-16s.

According to experts, these planes simply will not make it before the spring-summer campaign and it will take too much time to train Ukrainian pilots and adapt the country’s airfield and technical infrastructure.

Secondly, it’s unlikely they would play a significant offensive role in the war, as Bergmann outlines: 

“We have to realise that Russia’s advanced fighter jets and other aircraft are not operating to the same degree as expected in this war because of Ukraine’s air defences. Russia also has substantial air defence capabilities, which would pose a threat to any Western fighters that Ukraine obtains.

“I think it’s essential that Ukraine receives fighter jets. It’s an additional form of air defence which can be used to protect Ukrainian skies, both from missiles, drones and Russian fighter jets. But here, it appears  they will play more of a defensive rather than offensive role.”

Before the full-scale invasion, the West believed that Kyiv would hold out for days or at best weeks because of the superiority of the Russian air force. But as early as 5 March, after just 10 days of war, Moscow reported that Ukraine’s air force and air defences had been suppressed and destroyed.

This was not the case. Ukraine’s air and air defence forces not only retained combat effectiveness but ultimately prevented Russia from gaining air superiority.

However, any Ukrainian counteroffensive will also face a number of other serious obstacles.

According to experts, for the first time in modern history, countries of an equal technical level have faced each other on the battlefield. Moreover, both Russia and Ukraine built their air defence system on Soviet principles. During the Cold War, the USSR created a large number of very different, ground-based air defence systems. Together they were supposed to create a theoretically impenetrable multi-levelled barrier at all altitudes and speeds. This means the Soviet pilot training school focused more on operating against a “Western” system than its own.

As a result, air defence activity at high altitudes has forced aircraft on both sides to switch to operations at ultra-low altitudes, literally just a few metres above the ground. But there, for a variety of reasons, it has proved more effective to use drones.

Will the counteroffensive prove decisive?

Many Western political analysts have not ruled out the possibility that the failure of a Ukrainian counteroffensive could lead to a reduction in Western assistance – simply because it has almost exhausted its ability to supply equipment and gear without compromising its own security. This would put pressure on Kyiv to reach a ceasefire on the terms of the status quo. 

“I think there are other aspects beyond military success that will influence how supportive Western audiences and Western governments will be in the next phase. How well Ukraine manages to reintegrate the territories they liberate. Will this create a refugee crisis, for example, in Crimea? How they treat prisoners of war, and how well they manage the dangers of escalation. I think these factors are almost as important as a pure military success that is measured in liberated territory,” Schlegel adds.

But now, alongside the readiness of Ukraine’s armed forces for a counter-offensive, there are increasing calls for long-term, strategic support for the country. Even if the armed forces fail to achieve the goals of the spring and summer campaign, the West is being called on not abandon its support for Kyiv.

Back in March, EU leaders began to seriously consider increasing the production of weapons and ammunition – especially for Ukraine.

“While it’s right to focus on the counteroffensive and making sure Ukraine has everything, I think there also needs to be a political message,” says Melvin. “In most scenarios, the counteroffensive will not end the war by the summer. So the Western community needs now to factor in that this war is going to be a long war and that Ukraine is going to need resources to continue to fight to bring it to an end. But even beyond that, even if Russia is defeated in Ukraine, Russia is likely to remain a major threat to Ukraine, but also to the wider Europe.”

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Ukraine special forces footage appears to show Bakhmut battle

Ukraine has released what it says is helmet-camera footage from its special forces clearing a Russian position in Bakhmut. Kyiv says it has stopped the enemy and pushed it back, with President Zelenskyy telling his people the Russians are mentally prepared for defeat.

Ukrainian military commanders said on Friday that their troops had recaptured more territory from Russian forces at the scene of the war’s longest and bloodiest battle, for the eastern city of Bakhmut, but it wasn’t clear if this marked the start of Kyiv’s long-expected counteroffensive.

In a separate incident, two-long range Ukrainian rockets hit what Russian described as administrative buildings of two defunct enterprises in Russian-occupied Luhansk in the east.

Russia’s Defence Ministry, meanwhile, said Ukrainian forces had stepped up attacks north of the Bakhmut region while denying speculation by Russian military bloggers that the Kyiv forces had achieved “defence breakthroughs.”

The two kilometres of territory that Ukrainian forces south of Bakhmut retook this week represent a significant gain and will protect an important supply chain, according to commanders of Ukraine’s 3rd Separate Assault Brigade, a special forces unit that led the attack, releasing what it said was helmet camera footage from one its soldiers.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said he met with the top military commanders on Friday, noting that Gen. Oleksandr Syrskyi reported his forces “stopped the enemy and even pushed him back in some directions.”

In his nightly address to the Ukrainian people, Zelenskyy praised his troops and noted the low morale of the Russian forces.

“The occupiers are already mentally prepared for defeat. They have already lost this war in their minds,” he said. “We must push them every day so that their sense of defeat turns into their retreat, their mistakes, their losses.”

In a statement on Telegram on Friday, Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar confirmed that Ukrainian forces gained ground around Bakhmut, reiterating statements from military commanders earlier this week.

In Washington, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US has assessed that Bakhmut remains contested territory.

“Ukrainians have not given up their defence of Bakhmut and the Russians haven’t given up their attempts to take Bakhmut,” Kirby said. “Every single day, the lines change back and forth. I mean, sometimes block by block.”

The US maintains that Bakhmut has limited strategic value but that Russia has absorbed an enormous loss of troops and weaponry in the battle for the former salt-mining town that has been grinding on for eight months.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the millionaire owner of Russia’s private military contractor Wagner who is a frequent critic of the Russian military, slammed it again for losing ground around Bakhmut and exposing his forces battling for the city.

In a video statement Friday, Prigozhin mocked the Russian Defence Ministry’s report claiming that its forces regrouped to take more favourable positions, saying they effectively fled and “our flanks are crumbling.”

He warned that the Ukrainian forces have reclaimed key heights around the city and effectively unblocked the key supply link to Bakhmut. Prigozhin again accused the military leadership of refusing to provide sufficient ammunition to Wagner.

“You must immediately stop lying,” Prigozhin said, addressing Russia’s military leaders. “If you fled, you must prepare new defensive lines.”

Prigozhin – who seems to use harsh criticism to pressure the Kremlin for more support and improve his stature – alleged the Defence Ministry’s failure to protect Wagner’s flanks amounted to high treason and could result in a “great tragedy” for Russia.

Apparently denying Prigozhin’s claim of abandonment, Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Russian airborne units are still supporting ground forces to “stop the attempts of the Ukrainian armed forces to counterattack on the flanks.”

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, explained the spat as being “reflective of increased panic in the Russian information space over speculations about planned Ukrainian counter-offensives.” This indicates increased concern among leaders of Wagner and the Russian Defense Ministry as well as “reflecting Kremlin guidance to avoid downplaying Ukrainian successes,” it said.

Ukrainian military officials have dismissed speculation that the fighting and forward movement in Bakhmut signalled that its anticipated counteroffensive was underway. Zelenskyy said in remarks broadcast Thursday that Kyiv was delaying the campaign because it lacks enough Western weapons. Some saw the comments as designed to keep Russia guessing about Ukraine’s next move.

Addressing the nation Friday evening, Zelenskyy said more arms were coming “to defeat the aggressor and restore peace.”

The territorial gains occurred near the Siversky-Donets canal, between the villages of Ivanivske and Kurdiumivka, according to a commander of the 1st Assault Battalion of the 3rd Separate Assault Brigade. He spoke on condition he be referred to only by his call sign of “Rollo,” in line with Ukrainian military protocol.

“This was the enemy’s bridgehead, which they intended to use in their future attacks along the canal, in the direction of Kostiantynivka,” he said. “We had to neutralise the enemy and push them to the other side of the canal.”

Another commander and a military spokesman corroborated his account.

Kostiantynivka is part of an important logistics chain that leads to the city of Kramatorsk.

Rollo said the gains followed other successes, including one that secured an access road near Khromove, north of Bakhmut, and another that allowed Ukrainian forces to reclaim lost positions in the Industrial College inside Bakhmut city.

The assault south of Bakhmut was followed by a reported increase in Ukrainian offensive actions near the city of Soledar on Thursday, Russia’s Defence Ministry said. Russia repelled 26 Ukrainian attacks carried out by over 1,000 soldiers, the ministry said, adding that up to 40 tanks were involved.

The slow and grinding fight for Bakhmut has been costly for both sides, with Ukraine seeking to deny Russia any territorial gains despite its marginal strategic significance. Ukrainian forces are stationed in the city, while Russian troops are attacking from the north, east and south.

In other fighting, at least two people were killed and 22 injured elsewhere in the country since Thursday, according to figures from the Ukrainian President’s Office.

Donetsk Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko said a Russian strike hit Kramatorsk, where some Ukrainian military units are based, destroying a school and residential building. Russian shelling hit 11 cities and villages in the region, killing 12 civilians, he said.

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All the latest from the Ukraine war this Monday

These are the latest developments from the Ukraine war today.

Russia Batters Ukraine ahead of Victory Day celebrations

Moscow launched dozens of missiles and drones towards Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities on Sunday night, injuring at least five people. 

Russian missiles caused a huge fire at a foodstuff warehouse in the Black Sea city of Odesa, with blasts reported in several other Ukrainian regions early on Monday morning.

Ukraine’s top military brass said it shot down all 35 Iranian-made Shahed drones that were launched during the night. 

Five people were hurt in Kyiv, according to the city’s major Vitali Klitschko. Two of these injuries were caused by drone wreckage falling in the west of the capital. 

The strikes came as Russia prepares for its annual Victory Day celebrations, which mark the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin has played on Russia’s victory in the Second World War in his narrative around the Ukraine invasion, calling leaders in Kyiv Nazis. 

“Unfortunately, there are dead and wounded civilians, high-rise buildings, private homes and other civilian infrastructure were damaged,” the General Staff of Ukraine’s Armed Forces said in its daily update.

Air raid alerts blared for hours over roughly two-thirds of Ukraine on Sunday. 

Anxiety grows about Ukraine nuclear plant

Worries over Europe’s largest nuclear power plant grew on Sunday after local authorities ordered civilians living nearby to evacuate.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has spent months trying to persuade Russian and Ukrainian officials to avert disaster at Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, located in southeastern Ukraine. 

The facility was captured by Moscow early in the war but has been caught in the crossfire ever since. 

Evacuations were ordered by Yegeny Balitsky the Russia-backed governor of Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia province, raising fears that fighting in the area would intensify. 

Balitsky on Friday ordered civilians to leave 18 Russian-occupied communities, including Enerhodar, home to most of the staff at the plant.

More than 1,500 people had been evacuated from two unspecified cities in the region as of Sunday, Balitsky said. 

Moscow’s troops seized the plant soon after invading Ukraine last year, but Ukrainian employees have continued to run it during the occupation, at times under extreme duress.

Ukraine has regularly fired at the Russian side of the lines, while Russia has repeatedly shelled Ukrainian-held communities across the Dnieper River. 

The fighting has intensified as Ukraine prepares to launch a long-promised counteroffensive to reclaim ground taken by Russia.

“The general situation in the area near the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant is becoming increasingly unpredictable and potentially dangerous,” IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi warned on Saturday. 

“We must act now to prevent the threat of a severe nuclear accident and its associated consequences for the population and the environment. This major nuclear facility must be protected,” he said.

Analysts have for months pointed to the southern Zaporizhzhia region as one of the possible targets of Ukraine’s expected spring counteroffensive, speculating that Kyiv’s forces might try to choke off Russia’s “land corridor” to the Crimean Peninsula.

Moscow thwarts Ukrainian drone attack in Crimea

Russia says it has shot down Ukrainian drones attacking the Crimea peninsula on Sunday. 

The Russian administration in Crimea said it had repelled a night attack by a dozen Ukrainian drones, though Ukraine has not confined this. 

The unmanned ariel vehicles were launched on the port city of Sevastopol, capital of the peninsula and home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet. 

According to Moscow, the drones were neutralised by anti-aircraft defences and electronic jamming.

“No infrastructure in the city was damaged,” said Mikhail Razvojayev, the city governor.

Since the summer of 2022, the peninsula – annexed by Moscow in 2014 – has been regularly hit by drone attacks and alleged Ukrainian sabotage. 

At the end of April, one drone strike caused a huge fire in an oil depot in Sevastopol.

Wagner stays put in Bakhmut

The boss of the Wagner mercenary group said on Sunday that Moscow had “promised” more support, allowing it to continue fighting in Bakhmut.  

On Friday, Yevgeny Prigozhin released an inflammatory video attacking the Russian military. In it, he vowed to withdraw his mercenary force from Bakhmut, the epicentre of fighting in the east, if they were not given more ammo. 

“Last night, we received a combat order. They promise to give us all the ammunition and armaments we need to continue operations,” he said on Sunday in an audio message. 

Fighting over Bakhmut has raged since summer, with the small salt mining city town gaining a huge symbolic value.

Russia is eager for a clear battlefield victory, especially on the eve of the Victory Day celebrations. 

Wagner’s troops have played a key part in Russia’s deadly assault on Bakhmut, which had ground the city to a ruin. 

Their forces are in control of 95% of the city, according to Prigozhin. 

But the Ukrainian army says it is clinging on, defending itself fiercely. It is hoping to exhaust Russian forces in Bakhmut, which has been likened to a meat grinder. 

“The enemy is not going to change its objectives and is doing everything to control Bakhmut,” said General Oleksandr Syrsky of the Ukrainian land forces. 

Russia accused of using phosphorus in Ukraine

Ukraine accused Russia of using phosphorus on Saturday, releasing a video that purported to show the telltale white fire of the destructive munitions.

International law prohibits the use of white phosphorus or other incendiary weapons in areas where there could be concentrations of civilians, though it can also be used for illumination or to create smoke screens.

Phosphorus munitions are designed to set fire to objects and cause horrific burn injuries.

Euronews could not independently verify where the video was shot or when, but chemical weapons expert Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former British army colonel, said it was clearly white phosphorus.

“This is being fired directly at Ukraine positions and this would be a war crime,” he said.

“I expect because the Russians have failed to take Bakmut conventionally, they are now using unconventional tactics to burn the Ukrainian soldiers to death or to get them to flee.”

Russian forces haven’t commented on the claim. 

They have rejected previous accusations from Ukraine they had used phosphorus munitions.

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