Jun 14, 2023

Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” In Ukraine; Day 551

Russia, wary of NATO’s eastward expansion, began a military campaign in Ukraine in February 2022 after the Western-leaning Kiev government turned a deaf ear to Moscow’s calls for its neighbor to maintain its neutrality. In the middle of the mayhem, Moscow and Kiev are trying to hammer out a peaceful solution to the conflict. Follow the latest about the Russia-Ukraine conflict here:

A second cargo ship to leave Ukraine since Russia withdrew from the Black Sea grain export deal has reached Istanbul, marine traffic monitors say.

Moscow has blockaded Ukrainian ports since it launched its invasion in February last year. An agreement brokered by Turkey and the UN allowed safe passage of Ukraine’s crucial farm exports across the Black Sea, but Russia pulled out of that deal last month. Since then, it has attacked Ukrainian port infrastructure and warned that it may consider any ships in the Black Sea as military targets.

Ukraine is now trying to establish a new route that its ships can use without Russia’s involvement in time for the autumn harvest. Its “humanitarian corridor” hugs the Black Sea coast of Romania and Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, Turkey has been trying to revive the original agreement, hoping to use it for broader peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow.

The Kremlin has dismissed the prospect of renewing the Black Sea grain deal as a second Ukrainian ship passes through a temporary corridor.

“The prospects for the renewal of the grain deal depend on the actual implementation, not just in words, of the promises, the pledges given to the Russian side, which means implementing the part of the deal pertaining to Russia,” spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

Earlier this month, Kyiv announced a “humanitarian corridor” in the Black Sea to release cargo ships that have been trapped in its ports since Russia invaded.

But Peskov stated, “That [temporary corridor] is a totally different matter, [to the grain deal] and our defence ministry is monitoring it as necessary”.

On Sunday, a vessel carrying steel products to Africa was the second ship to leave through the new corridor.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky says he hopes that Ukraine will get security guarantees from the US that are similar to those enjoyed by Israel.

In an interview with Ukrainian media, Zelensky said that security guarantees include both a shield and a sword.

Such guarantees would come through the process of Ukraine’s accession to NATO, he stated, but would be reinforced through a bilateral agreement with the United States.

“We will probably have a similar model with the United States, like the Israeli model, where we have weapons, technology, training, finances, etc. Something like Israel has, but we have a different enemy,” Zelensky added.

Such an agreement would not depend on who was in the White House, Zelensky continued, since it would be approved by Congress.

The US and Israel have signed multiple security agreements since the founding of the state of Israel, and the US guarantees what is called a Qualitative Military Edge to Israel compared to other forces in the region.

Poland and the Baltic states have pledged to shut their borders with Belarus if a “critical incident” occurs, Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński said Monday.

“This situation is escalating. For many weeks, for several months, we have been dealing with the return of migratory pressure on our border. The same applies to the borders of our partners,” Kamiński told a news conference in Warsaw after a meeting with his Latvian, Lithuanian and Estonian counterparts.

The stationing of “several thousand mercenaries” from the Wagner Group in Belarus has added a “new element” to the situation along the border, Kamiński added.

“We are determined to act together, if there is a critical situation, regardless of whether it is a Polish, Lithuanian or Latvian border, we will apply immediate retaliation. All border crossings that have been open so far, both passenger and goods, will be closed,” Kamiński warned in a post on “X” after the news conference.

Russian investigators have confirmed that Wagner boss Yevgeny Prigozhin was among the 10 people killed when their plane crashed near Moscow on Wednesday, after carrying out genetic tests.

Prigozhin turned the Wagner Group from a shadowy band of mercenaries into a feared military powerhouse operating across multiple countries on three continents. Now that he is gone, the future of the group is uncertain.

Earlier in August, Poland announced its plans to move roughly 10,000 troops to its eastern flank amid heightened fears about the growing presence of Wagner mercenaries in Belarus.

Kamiński stressed that two things are needed “stabilize the situation on our border with Belarus.”

He called firstly on the Belarusian leader Alexander Lukashenko to order Wagner troops to “immediately leave” Belarus and ensure that the migrants that have been gathering along the Belarusian border are returned to their countries of origin.

Poland’s Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki has previously warned that Wagner fighters stationed in Belarus could disguise themselves as migrants in an attempt to cross the border.

Ukraine’s Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko has said the three people killed overnight were workers at an industrial facility that was hit in the central Poltava region. Five others were wounded and another person was unaccounted for, he stated.

Volodymyr Zelensky’s Chief of Staff and the local governor had previously put the death toll at two.

A 63-year-old woman was also killed during Russian shelling in the village of Sadove, Kherson region, the local governor confirmed.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, responding to calls for elections in 2024, says voting could take place during wartime if partners shared the cost, legislators approved, and everyone got to the polls.

Elections cannot currently be held in Ukraine under martial law, which must be extended every 90 days and is next due to expire on November 15, after the normal date in October for parliamentary polls but before presidential elections, which would normally be held in March 2024.

Zelenskyy, in a television interview with Natalia Moseichuk of 1+1 TV channel, said he had discussed the issue with US Senator Lindsey Graham, including the question of funding and the need to change the law.

He added it cost 5 billion hryvnia ($135m) to hold elections in peacetime.

“I don’t know how much is needed in wartime,” he continued, stating, “So I told him [Graham] that if the US and Europe provide financial support … I will not take money from weapons and give it to elections. And this is stipulated by the law.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan will hold talks in Moscow “in the nearest future”, the state TASS news agency reported, citing Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

Turkey is trying to persuade Russia to return to the Black Sea grain deal, which it quit in July after complaining that limitations to its grain exports had not been lifted.

The Kremlin has also announced President Vladimir Putin is likely to talk in person soon with Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan on the deal and other issues, but no date or venue has yet been announced.

Ukrainian forces appear to be making further advances along the southern frontline, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Monday.

Maliar told national television troops were moving southeast of the liberated village of Robotyne toward the settlements of Novodanylivka, Novoprokopivka and Ocheretuvate in the Zaporizhzhia region.

“The enemy is throwing all its forces at these areas in order not to surrender the occupied positions,” Maliar stated.

In the east, “heavy fighting” continues, in particular around Kupiansk, Lyman, Avdiivka, Mariinka and the embattled city of Bakhmut, Maliar said.

“Bakhmut is a very hot area. We have weekly advances to the east, gradual but steady,” she continued, adding, “The enemy is attacking on the northern flank, they want to recapture the positions we have taken. This is what we are fighting for now.”

Ukrainian forces have liberated an additional 1 square kilometer around Bakhmut, bringing the total area recaptured near the city to 44 square kilometers, she added.

Maliar also said fighting continues in the village of Klishchiivka and Ukrainian forces are advancing in the area of Orikhovo-Vasylivka, northwest of Bakhmut.

Elsewhere in the Donetsk region, Maliar stated fierce fighting and a “powerful confrontation” continues in Avdiivka and Mariinka, adding, “the enemy is not successful.”

In northeastern Kupiansk and nearby Lyman, “Russians are gathering new forces … regrouping, trying to use their most professional units — the air assault units,” Maliar noted, adding, “they have not been successful.”

Two Ukrainian drones were intercepted over Russian-occupied Crimea on Monday, according to Russia’s defense ministry.

“Another attempt by the Kiev regime to carry out a terrorist attack using two airplane-type UAVs against facilities on the territory of the Russian Federation was foiled at around 10.30am today,” the ministry said.

Community channels on Telegram monitoring the area of Yevtaporia on Crimea’s west coast described an air defense missile being launched and exploding in the sky.

The west coast of Crimea has seen an uptick in Ukrainian attacks this month, with drones being supplemented by special forces landings, aimed at degrading Russian air defenses and hitting other Russian military facilities.

Kyiv has announced its goal of driving Russia out of Ukraine includes reclaiming Crimea, which was annexed by Russian forces in 2014.

The UK’s Ministry of Defense suggested it is “highly likely” that Russia canceled a major joint strategic military exercise “because too few troops and equipment are available.”

ZAPAD, a joint military exercise between the armed forces of Russia and Belarus, was due to be held in September, the ministry said in an intelligence update Monday.

ZAPAD, Russian for “West,” is a major annual event in Moscow’s military calendar. Since 2010, Russia has run a four-year cycle, rotating the JSEs [joint strategic exercises] around four of its military regions.

However, since 2021, Russia has held the JSE in the west of the country every second year, “as it prioritizes confronting what it perceives as the threat from NATO,” according to the British defense ministry.

ZAPAD 2021, the largest Russian military exercise since the Soviet era, was held along Russia and Belarus’ western flanks, much to the alarm of Ukraine and some NATO countries.

“Zapad 2021 marked a major tactical, operational and strategic change of pace,” according to a report from RUSI, a UK defense and security think-tank.

That exercise involved 200,000 military personnel, more than 80 aircraft and helicopters and 15 ships, the RUSI report said, adding that “Zapad 2021 was Russia’s first preparation for operations on a scale comparable to those undertaken in Ukraine a year later.”

But the British intelligence update on Monday suggested that this year’s event might have been canceled for several reasons.

“The Russian military’s under-performance in Ukraine has highlighted how JSEs [joint strategic exercises] have had limited training value and have largely been for show. Russia has likely canceled ZAPAD 23 because too few troops and equipment are available,” the intelligence update said.

This is not the first military event that Russia has scaled back since launching its full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Putin led a more modest Victory Day parade than usual in Moscow on May 9, featuring just a single World War II-era T-34 tank. In previous years, dozens of tanks had been involved in the procession.

The British defense ministry suggested there may be some doubts among Russia’s leaders about staging flashy military exercises while its invasion of Ukraine drags on.

“There is a realistic possibility that the Russian leadership is also sensitive to domestic criticism liable from running another slickly presented JSE during wartime,” the update added.

A drone flying toward Moscow has been destroyed by Russian air defense forces, the city’s mayor Sergei Sobyanin said Monday.

The drone was destroyed near Lyubertsy, southeast of the capital, he added.

“Preliminarily, there are no casualties or damage. Response teams are working at the scene,” Sobyanin stated.

Earlier, the Domodedovo and Vnukovo airports servicing the Russian capital temporarily halted flights, state-run news agency TASS reported, citing aviation services.

The chief executive of Ukraine’s Naftogaz says Kyiv has built up about 14 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas in its storage facilities and does not plan to import gas for the 2023-24 winter season.

“This year, we are relying on our own production, and it will be enough to get through this heating season,” Oleksiy Chernyshov stated in televised comments.

Naftogaz said earlier this year that it had launched 11 gas wells this year to try to cover Ukraine’s needs with domestic production.

Ukraine uses little gas to produce electricity but relies on the fuel for heating.

While Kyiv does not import gas directly from Russia, Ukrainian pipelines still carry some Russian gas to Europe.

Energy officials have said previously that gas consumption has dropped by almost 40 percent because of the war and the extensive damage to industrial facilities.

The coalition aiding Ukraine’s fight against Moscow’s invasion would not support Kyiv if it were to move the hostilities to Russian territory, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stated Monday.

“I believe that this is a big risk, we will definitely be left alone,” he said in an interview with national media, where he was asked if it was time for such a move to Russian soil.

Zelensky added Ukraine’s fight to reclaim its own territory has been critically aided by its relationships with allies.

The progress and responsibility for Ukraine on the battlefield “is always bilateral,” Zelensky said, adding that international partners are a part of any victory, any hold-up in the counteroffensive, any defensive actions and any weakness.

Zelensky also stressed he believes it is possible to “push for the demilitarization of Russia” in Crimea by political means.

The last several months have seen a rise in strikes on Russian soil, with Russian officials saying Ukrainian drones and shelling are responsible for attacks that have at times wounded or killed civilians.

Officials in Kyiv have alluded to the incidents — Zelensky said after drone attacks last month, for example, that the war is “returning to Russia” — but Ukraine often declines to take explicit credit for attacks across the border.

Ukraine has, by contrast, taken credit for attacks by sea drones and other weaponry on Russian-held Crimea and surrounding Black Sea targets, promising there will be more to come.

Moscow seized the peninsula and declared it annexed Russian territory back in 2014, in a move denounced as illegal by Ukraine, the US and international bodies. Kyiv has announced its goal of driving Russia out of Ukraine includes reclaiming Crimea.

Ukraine’s forces are making more progress in the country’s southern Zaporizhzhia region, while Russian troops have intensified attacks in areas surrounding the embattled city of Kupiansk on the eastern front line, the Ukrainian military said Sunday.

Around Kupiansk: Russia “has significantly increased the number of attacks. As of yesterday, the enemy shelled the positions of our defenders 620 times and carried out 15 airstrikes,” Illya Yevlash, a spokesperson for Ukraine’s forces on the eastern front, said on national television.

“However, the enemy’s emphasis has changed somewhat. They are shifting their focus from the Kupiansk sector to Novoiehorivka,” Yevlash added, referring to a village northeast of Kupiansk.

Ukrainian forces repelled 10 attacks in the area over the past day, the spokesperson continued.

Russian shelling around Kupiansk has been so intense in recent weeks that it has prompted one of Ukraine’s largest-scale evacuations of the conflict.

Near Bakhmut: Ukraine is still on the offensive in the Bakhmut direction, and continues to advance “meter by meter,” Yevlash said. Over the past day, Russian forces shelled Ukrainian positions 590 times, using multiple rocket launchers and cannon artillery of various calibers, according to the spokesperson.

A total of 14 combat engagements took place on Saturday, Yevlash continued.

“The enemy is resorting to counterattacks, trying in vain to regain lost ground,” he added, noting that Russia’s tactics “remain virtually unchanged” in the area.

Since the Wagner private military group claimed to capture the eastern city in May, Ukraine has maintained that it is still fighting for Bakhmut and picking up gains in territory immediately surrounding the city.

Zaporizhzhia region: In southern Ukraine, Kyiv’s forces continue to advance near the village of Robotnye, said Oleksandr Shputun, a Ukrainian military spokesperson for units in the region.

Ukrainian troops are advancing in the direction of Novoprokopivka — another village, located just south of Robotyne — and north toward the settlement of Mala Tokmachka, Shputun said on national television Sunday.

“Recently, the enemy has increased the number of airstrikes,” he said. “But this also means that other firepower is no longer able to hold back the progress of our troops.”

Ukraine has claimed successes in Robotyne and surrounding areas over the past several days, with social media video and images showing troops had entered the village. Almost no buildings are still standing in Robotyne, Kyiv’s forces say.

Ukraine presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak has said that the only way to protect international law and territorial integrity is to “ensure Ukraine’s victory and the complete defeat of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s invasion”.

“This will be the best lesson for anyone who may be tempted to invade neighboring territories today,” he posted on social media platform X.

In this regard, armed assistance to Ukraine is the smallest price to pay for peace in the world,” he added.

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Around KupianskNear BakhmutZaporizhzhia region