Opinion

Alarm at civilian toll on Russian assault’s ‘cruellest day’

A militiaman carries a child as he helps a fleeing family across a damaged bridge on the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP)
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Updated 03 March 2022

Alarm at civilian toll on Russian assault’s ‘cruellest day’

  • At least 350 civilians including 14 children have so far been killed
  • Russia revealed 498 of its troops had been killed

KYIV: The United States raised the alarm Wednesday over the “staggering” human cost of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, as the apparent deployment of cluster bombs and other treaty-violating weapons raised fears of a brutal escalation in the week-old conflict.
The American warnings came as Russia revealed 498 of its troops had been killed in the assault on ex-Soviet Ukraine — the first official death toll it has given and one Kyiv says is by far an undercount.
And they came on the eve of the resumption of cease-fire talks after a first round Monday failed to produce a breakthrough.
On the ground in Ukraine, Russia appeared despite determined resistance to be intensifying the offensive ordered seven days earlier by President Vladimir Putin — in defiance of almost the entire international community.
“Today was the hardest, cruellest of the seven days of this war,” said Vadym Boychenko, the mayor of the key southeastern port of Mariupol who said Russian forces pummelled the city for hours and were attempting to block civilians from leaving.
“Today they just wanted to destroy us all,” he said in a video on Telegram, accusing Russian forces of shooting at residential buildings.
Boychenko said more of the city’s vital infrastructure was damaged in the assault, leaving people without light, water or heating.
In Washington, top US diplomat Antony Blinken warned the human costs were already “staggering,” accusing Russia of attacking places that “aren’t military targets.”

 

“Hundreds if not thousands of civilians have been killed or wounded,” said the secretary of state, who will travel to eastern Europe next week to shore up support for Ukraine — and for efforts to secure a cease-fire.
Kyiv is sending a delegation to the Thursday cease-fire talks, at an undisclosed location on the Belarus-Poland border, but has warned it would not accept “ultimatums.”
At the United Nations, the General Assembly overwhelmingly adopted a resolution Wednesday that “demands” Russia “immediately” withdraw from Ukraine, in a powerful rebuke of Moscow by a vast majority of the world’s nations.

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After more than two days of extraordinary debate, which saw the Ukrainian envoy accuse Russia of genocide, 141 out of 193 member states backed the non-binding resolution — with only Eritrea, North Korea, Syria and Belarus joining Russia against.
At least 350 civilians including 14 children have so far been killed, Ukrainian authorities say, and hundreds of thousands have fled the country since the invasion began, triggering punishing Western sanctions intended to cripple Russia’s economy.
The UN rights office, OHCHR, said it had registered 752 civilian casualties including 227 deaths — but believes the reality is “considerably higher.”
“The humanitarian consequences will only grow in the days ahead,” Blinken warned.
At the UN, the US ambassador echoed Blinken’s alarm about mounting civilian deaths — accusing Moscow of moving cluster munitions and other arms banned under international conventions into its neighbor.
“It appears Russia is preparing to increase the brutality of its campaign against Ukraine,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the General Assembly.

 

Russia said Wednesday it had captured the Black Sea port of Kherson, population 290,000, though the claim was not confirmed by mayor Igor Nikolayev who appealed online for permission to transport the dead and wounded out of the city and for food and medicine to be allowed in.
“Without all this, the city will die,” he wrote.
AFP witnessed the aftermath of apparent Russian bombing on a market and a residential area in Zhytomyr in central Ukraine, and in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second biggest city.
“There is nowhere in Kharkiv where shells have not yet struck,” said Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, after Russian airborne troops landed in the city before dawn.
Shelling in the northeastern city of 1.4 million a day earlier drew comparisons to the massacres of civilians in Sarajevo in the 1990s.
As Russian artillery massed outside Kyiv, the former champion boxer turned city mayor Vitali Klitschko vowed to stand strong.
“The enemy is drawing up forces closer to the capital,” he said. “Kyiv is holding and will hold. We are going to fight.”
Residents have been hunkered down in Kyiv for a week and dozens of families were sheltering Wednesday in the Dorohozhychi metro station.
In a video address, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian forces wanted to “erase our country, erase us all.”
 




A woman is overwhelmed by emotion in the backyard of a house damaged by a Russian airstrike in Gorenka, outside the capital Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP)

Five people were killed in an attack a day earlier on the Kyiv television tower at Babi Yar, the site of a Nazi massacre in which over 33,000 people were killed — most of them Jews.
The 44-year-old Zelensky, who is himself Jewish, urged Jewish people around the world to speak up.
“Nazism is born in silence. So, shout about killings of civilians. Shout about the murders of Ukrainians,” he said.
With the civilian toll mounting, opposition to the conflict is also growing within Russia.
Dozens of anti-war demonstrators were detained in Moscow and Saint Petersburg after jailed Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny called Russians to the streets, dismissing Putin as “an insane little tsar.”

 

Internationally, meanwhile, the United States announced a new set of sanctions, this time targeting Russian ally Belarus and Russia’s defense industry.
Authoritarian Belarus and Russia are closely linked and Belarus has been used as a key staging ground for the invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Western countries have already imposed heavy sanctions on Russia’s economy and there have been international bans and boycotts against Russia in everything from finance to tech, from sports to the arts.
In France, President Emmanuel Macron said in an address to the nation Europe had entered a “new era,” and would need to both invest in its defenses and wean itself off reliance on Russian gas.
EU and NATO members have already sent arms and ammunition to Ukraine, although they have made clear that they will not send troops and the EU has dampened Zelensky’s hopes of membership of the bloc.
In its latest move to isolate Russia, the European Union banned broadcasts of Russian state media RT and Sputnik and excluded seven Russian banks from the global SWIFT bank messaging system.
In London, meanwhile, Chelsea’s Russian owner Roman Abramovich said he had made the “incredibly difficult” decision to sell the Premier League club, pledging proceeds would go to Ukraine war victims.
Abramovich, alleged to have close links to Putin, has not been named on a British sanctions list targeting Russian banks, businesses and pro-Kremlin tycoons.
But the Chelsea owner’s concern about potential seizing of assets is understood to have sparked his move.


Putin says Russia could adopt US preemptive strike concept

Updated 57 min 6 sec ago

Putin says Russia could adopt US preemptive strike concept

  • "We are just thinking about it. They weren’t shy to openly talk about it during the past years,” Putin said
  • For years, the Kremlin has expressed concern about US efforts to develop the so-called Conventional Prompt Global Strike capability

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that Moscow could adopt what he described as a US concept of using preemptive military strikes, noting it has the weapons to do the job, in a blunt statement amid rising Russia-NATO tensions over Ukraine.
“We are just thinking about it. They weren’t shy to openly talk about it during the past years,” Putin said, referring to the US policy, as he attended a summit in Kyrgyzstan of a Moscow-dominated economic alliance of ex-Soviet nations.
For years, the Kremlin has expressed concern about US efforts to develop the so-called Conventional Prompt Global Strike capability that envisions hitting an adversary’s strategic targets with precision-guided conventional weapons anywhere in the world within one hour.
“Speaking about a disarming strike, maybe it’s worth thinking about adopting the ideas developed by our US counterparts, their ideas of ensuring their security,” Putin said with a thin smile, noting that such a preemptive strike was intended to knock out command facilities.
He claimed that Russia already has commissioned hypersonic weapons capable of carrying out such a strike, while the US hasn’t yet deployed them. He also claimed that Russia now has cruise missiles that surpass their US equivalents.
While Putin appeared to refer to conventional precision-guided weapons when he talked about possibly mimicking the US strategy, he specifically noted that the US hasn’t ruled out the first use of nuclear weapons.
“If the potential adversary believes that it can use the theory of a preemptive strike and we don’t, it makes us think about the threats posed by such ideas in other countries’ defensive posture,” he said.
In Washington, advisers to President Joe Biden viewed Putin’s comments as “saber-rattling” and another veiled warning that he could deploy a tactical nuclear weapon, according to a US official who was not authorized to comment and spoke on the condition of the anonymity.
The official noted that Russian military doctrine has long stated that Moscow reserves the right to first use of a nuclear weapon in response to large scale military aggression.
John Erath, senior policy director for the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, also viewed Putin’s statement as yet another attempt to raise the nuclear threat.
“He doesn’t quite say we’re going to launch nuclear weapons, but he wants the dialogue in the US and Europe to be, ‘The longer this war goes on, the greater the threat of nuclear weapons might be used,’” Erath said.
Putin was asked Wednesday at a Kremlin conference whether Russia could commit to forswearing a first strike and responded that such an obligation might prevent Russia from tapping its nuclear arsenal even if it came under a nuclear attack.
“If it doesn’t use it first under any circumstances, it means that it won’t be the second to use it either, because the possibility of using it in case of a nuclear strike on our territory will be sharply limited,” he responded.
He elaborated on that answer Friday, saying Russia’s nuclear doctrine is based on the “launch on warning” concept, which envisions nuclear weapons’ use in the face of an imminent nuclear attack spotted by its early warning systems.
“When the early warning system receives a signal about a missile attack, we launch hundreds of missiles that are impossible to stop,” he said, smiling. “Enemy missile warheads would inevitably reach the territory of the Russian Federation. But nothing would be left of the enemy too, because it’s impossible to intercept hundreds of missiles. And this, of course, is a factor of deterrence.”
Russia’s nuclear doctrine states the country can use nuclear weapons if it comes under a nuclear strike or if it faces an attack with conventional weapons that threatens “the very existence” of the Russian state.
Since sending Russian troops into Ukraine in February, Putin has repeatedly said that Moscow was ready to use “all available means” to protect its territory and has rejected Western criticism of nuclear saber-rattling.
“I understand that ever since nuclear weapons, the weapons of mass destruction have appeared, all people — the entirety of humankind — have been worried what will happen to the planet and all of us,” he said.
At a ceremony Friday at US Strategic Command, which has responsibility for the nation’s nuclear weapons, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Putin’s repeated threats were irresponsible.
“As the Kremlin continues its cruel and unprovoked war of choice against Ukraine, the whole world has seen Putin engage and deeply irresponsible nuclear saber-rattling So make no mistake, nuclear powers have a profound responsibility to avoid provocative behavior and to lower the risk of proliferation and to prevent escalation and nuclear war.”


UN carves out sanctions exemptions for humanitarian aid

Updated 09 December 2022

UN carves out sanctions exemptions for humanitarian aid

  • The resolution applies to UN agencies as well as humanitarian organizations participating in UN humanitarian work
  • The text gained 14 votes in favor in the Council, with only India abstaining

UNITED NATIONS, United States: The United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution on Friday to allow humanitarian aid to continue unhindered into countries targeted by UN sanctions, particularly frozen assets.
The text states that “payments of funds,” “economic resources” or “the provision of goods and services necessary to ensure the timely delivery of humanitarian assistance... are permitted and are not a violation of the asset freezes imposed by this Council.”
The resolution applies to UN agencies as well as humanitarian organizations participating in UN humanitarian work.
The humanitarian community has been calling for the Council to ensure that “unintentional, second-order impacts don’t impede their work,” said US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield. She said they wanted was a “clear, standard carve-out” for all UN sanctions regimes.
“And that is exactly what we are voting on today,” she said, adding that the resolution would “save lives.”
The text — which was also supported by several dozen states even outside the Security Council — gained 14 votes in favor in the Council, with only India abstaining.
“Our concerns emanate from proven instances of terrorist groups taking full advantage of such humanitarian carve-outs and making a mockery of sanctions regimes,” in particular those against the so-called Daesh group and Al-Qaeda, said India’s ambassador Ruchira Kamboj, who is heading the Council this month.
The resolution specifies that the exemption is only valid for two years for Al-Qaeda and IS.
“There have also been several cases of terrorist groups in our neighborhood, including those listed by this council, reincarnating themselves as humanitarian organizations and civil society groups precisely to evade the sanctions,” the Indian ambassador said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross hailed the vote as “an important day in the history of humanitarian action,” expressing hope that the new rule would mean “better services for communities, such as medical care, drilling of wells for clean drinking water, or visits to people detained in conflict.”
There are currently more than a dozen UN Security Council sanctions regimes involving North Korea, Libya, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Taliban.
Last year, after the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Security Council implemented an exception for humanitarian aid to the war-torn country.


Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap

Updated 09 December 2022

Brittney Griner back home in US after Russian prisoner swap

  • Russia's invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further
  • The deal that saw Griner exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden

SAN ANTONIO, United States: Brittney Griner returned to the United States early Friday, nearly 10 months after the basketball star’s detention in Russia made her the most high-profile American jailed abroad and set off a political firestorm.
Griner’s status and prominence in women’s basketball and her imprisonment heightened concerns for her and brought tremendous attention to the case. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after her arrest complicated matters further.
The deal that saw Griner exchanged for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden. But the US failed to win freedom for another American, Paul Whelan, who has been jailed for nearly four years.
Asked if more such swaps could happen, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Friday that “everything is possible,” noting that “compromises have been found” to clear the way for Thursday’s exchange.
Biden’s authorization to release Bout, the Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death,” underscored the heightened urgency that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case on drug charges and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.
Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and Phoenix Mercury pro basketball star, was seen getting off a plane that landed Friday at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas.
“So happy to have Brittney back on US soil. Welcome home BG!” tweeted Roger Carstens, the special presidential envoy for hostage affairs.
The WNBA star, who also played pro basketball in Russia, was arrested at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport in February after Russian authorities said she was carrying vape canisters with cannabis oil. The US State Department declared Griner to be “wrongfully detained” — a charge that Russia has sharply rejected.
Griner pleaded guilty in July but still faced trial because admitting guilt in Russia’s judicial system does not automatically end a case. She was sentenced to nine years.
She acknowledged in court that she possessed canisters with cannabis oil but said she had no criminal intent and accidentally packed them. Her defense team presented written statements that she had been prescribed cannabis to treat pain.
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed Thursday’s swap, saying in a statement carried by Russian news agencies that the exchange took place in Abu Dhabi and Bout had been flown home.
Biden spoke by phone with Griner. US officials said she would be offered specialized medical services and counseling.
In releasing Bout, the US freed a former Soviet Army lieutenant colonel whom the Justice Department once described as one of the world’s most prolific arms dealers. He was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and extradited to the US in 2010.
Bout was serving a 25-year sentence on charges that he conspired to sell tens of millions of dollars in weapons that USofficials said were to be used against Americans.


India's BJP sweeps Gujrat in poll seen as litmus test for 2024 general elections

Updated 09 December 2022

India's BJP sweeps Gujrat in poll seen as litmus test for 2024 general elections

  • Narendra Modi’s party won 156 seats in Gujarat’s 182-seat legislature on Thursday
  • National elections are due in 2024 when Modi is widely expected to run for a third term

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in his home state Gujarat has shown a strong performance, but experts said on Friday that the win was not necessarily a trendsetter for the national vote that is less than two years away.  

In its best-ever performance in the western state of around 60 million people, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party on Thursday won 156 seats in Gujarat’s 182-seat legislature, up from 99.  

The party has been ruling Gujarat since 1995, and Modi served as its chief minister for 12 years before becoming prime minister in 2014. He was ruling the state in 2002, when 2,000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in the worst outbreaks of sectarian violence since the country’s independence.  

After Thursday’s win, he took to Twitter to thank his voters, saying that he was “overcome with a lot of emotion” by the results. Indian media have been projecting the victory as a litmus test for the 2024 general elections, when Modi is expected to seek the premiership for a third time.  

The state election result was all the more remarkable, given his electorate has been frustrated by rising prices and unemployment.  

“It’s a baffling victory in Gujarat given the government’s failure and poor human development index,” Prof. Ajay Gudavarthy of the Center of Political Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi told Arab News.  

But the unexpected landslide win is no guarantee of victory in 2024, and the opposition still has time to mobilize.  

“There is no cakewalk, and 2024 is still an open game,” Gudavarthy said. “If the opposition brings a robust agenda, you can see the mood of the nation change very fast. India is still an open society.” 

Earlier this year, the BJP won big in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which sends the most members to parliament. But the ruling party lost power to the opposition Congress in Himachal Pradesh, and to the Aam Aadmi Party in New Delhi, despite ruling the capital region for the past 15 years.  

“There is a lot of discontent among people over the way the Modi government has been ruling the country. There is a problem with governance, unemployment is high and a large section of the population is suffering. In this situation, you cannot expect Modi to come back so easily,” Shashi Shekhar Singh, political science professor at Delhi University, told Arab News.  

“The Unify India campaign of the opposition leader Rahul Gandhi is connecting with the masses, and I am sure it will impact the elections in 2024.”  

But the opposition’s own fragmentation is what dealt a blow to its mobilization. 

Television anchor and senior political commentator Urmilesh saw not only a “lack of unity” but also of a clear agenda among opposition parties.  

It is to Modi’s advantage, he said, “if the opposition does not get their act together and channelize their energy to tap the prevalent discontent.” 


Russian oligarch wins access to second impounded yacht on French Riviera

Updated 09 December 2022

Russian oligarch wins access to second impounded yacht on French Riviera

  • Customs agents seized the 17-metre "La Petite Ourse II" on March 21
  • The Rouen appeals court ruled that customs officers had not followed correct procedures when they boarded the vessel yacht

PARIS: A French court on Friday ordered the customs agency to release a second impounded yacht owned by a Russian billionaire hit by European sanctions, citing procedural errors made during its seizure.
Customs agents seized the 17-meter “La Petite Ourse II” on March 21 after its owner, Alexey Kuzmichev, one of the main shareholders of Russia’s Alfa Bank, was sanctioned by the EU for his ties to President Vladimir Putin.
The Rouen appeals court ruled that customs officers had not followed correct procedures when they boarded the vessel, which was moored at Cannes on the Cote d’Azur.
His other yacht, La Petite Ourse, which is moored in nearby Antibes and was also seized in March, was released in October after a similar ruling by the Paris appeals court.
Customs agents in both cases had cited fraud investigations when they presented themselves to shipyard authorities, which under French law permits customs to search a vessel but did not apply in this context.
According to his lawyer, Philippe Blanchetier, Kuzmichev has not used La Petite Ourse since the first ruling in October and wanted to sue the French authorities to win back access to both boats in order to make a point, not to go out to sea.
“We want the respect of the law. We cannot take measures against countries, saying rights are not respected, and then not respect the law (ourselves),” he said.
The ruling underlines the challenges faced by European nations in freezing the assets of Russian oligarchs.
The customs agency did not reply to requests for comment immediately.