Putin: Russia will use all means to guard annexed regions

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his lieutenants have bluntly warned Ukraine against pressing an offensive to reclaim the regions. (Kremlin via Reuters)
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Updated 30 September 2022

Putin: Russia will use all means to guard annexed regions

  • Russian leader warns Moscow would never give up the occupied areas
  • Vladimir Putin urges Ukraine to sit down for talks to end the fighting

KYIV: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday signed documents to incorporate four Ukrainian territories into Russia in a televised ceremony in the Kremlin.

Russia declared the annexations of the regions – Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson - after holding what it called referendums in occupied areas of Ukraine. Western governments and Kyiv said the votes breached international law and were coercive and unrepresentative.

In a speech preceding a treaty-signing ceremony to make four Ukrainian regions part of Russia, Putin warned his country would never give up the occupied areas and would protect them as part of its sovereign territory.

He urged Ukraine to sit down for talks to end the fighting, but warned sternly that Russia would never surrender control of the Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions. He accused the West of fueling the hostilities as part of its plan to turn Russia into a “colony” and a “crowds of slaves.”

The ceremony comes three days after the completion of Kremlin-orchestrated “referendums” on joining Russia that were dismissed by Kyiv and the West as a bare-faced land grab, held at gunpoint and based on lies.

The event in the Kremlin’s opulent white-and-gold St. George’s Hall was organized for Putin and the heads of the four regions of Ukraine to sign treaties for the areas to join Russia, in a sharp escalation of the seven-month conflict.

The separatist Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine have been backed by Moscow since declaring independence in 2014, weeks after the annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. The southern Kherson region and part of the neighboring Zaporizhzhia were captured by Russia soon after Putin sent troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Both houses of the Kremlin-controlled Russian parliament will meet next week to rubber-stamp the treaties for the regions to join Russia, sending them to Putin for his approval.

Putin and his lieutenants have bluntly warned Ukraine against pressing an offensive to reclaim the regions, saying Russia would view it as an act of aggression against its sovereign territory and wouldn’t hesitate to use “all means available” in retaliation, a reference to Russia’s nuclear arsenal.

The Kremlin-organized votes in Ukraine and the nuclear warning are an attempt by Putin to avoid more defeats in Ukraine that could threaten his 22-year rule.

Russia controls most of the Luhansk and Kherson regions, about 60 percent of the Donetsk region and a large chunk of the Zaporizhzhia region where it took control of Europe’s largest nuclear power plant.

Asked about Russia’s plans, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that at the very least Moscow aims to “liberate” the entire Donetsk region.

As it prepared to celebrate the incorporation of the occupied Ukrainian regions, the Kremlin was on the verge of another stinging battlefield loss, with reports of the imminent Ukrainian encirclement of the eastern city of Lyman.

Retaking it could open the path for Ukraine to push deep into one of the regions Russia is absorbing, a move widely condemned as illegal that opens a dangerous new phase of the seven-month war.

Russia on Friday also pounded Ukrainian cities with missiles, rockets and suicide drones, with one strike reported to have killed 25 people. The salvos together amounted to the heaviest barrage that Russia has unleashed for weeks.

They followed analysts’ warnings that Putin was likely to dip more heavily into his dwindling stocks of precision weapons and step up attacks as part of a strategy to escalate the war to an extent that would shatter Western support for Ukraine.

The Kremlin preceded its scheduled annexation ceremonies Friday with another warning to Ukraine that it shouldn’t fight to take back the four regions. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Moscow would view a Ukrainian attack on the taken territory as an act of aggression against Russia itself.

The annexations are Russia’s attempt to set its gains in stone, at least on paper, and scare Ukraine and its Western backers with the prospect of an increasingly escalatory conflict unless they back down — which they show no signs of doing. The Kremlin paved the way for the land-grabs with “referendums,” sometimes at gunpoint, that Ukraine and Western powers universally dismissed as rigged shams.

“It looks quite pathetic. Ukrainians are doing something, taking steps in the real material world, while the Kremlin is building some kind of a virtual reality, incapable of responding in the real world,” former Kremlin speechwriter turned political analyst Abbas Gallyamov said.

“People understand that the politics is now on the battlefield,” he added. “What’s important is who advances and who retreats. In that sense, the Kremlin cannot offer anything сomforting to the Russians.”

A Ukrainian counter-offensive has deprived Moscow of mastery on the military fields of battle. Its hold of the Luhansk region appears increasingly shaky, as Ukrainian forces make inroads there, with the pincer assault on Lyman. Ukraine also still has a large foothold in the neighboring Donetsk region.

Luhansk and Donetsk – wracked by fighting since separatists there declared independence in 2014 – form the wider Donbas region of eastern Ukraine that Putin has long vowed, but so far failed, to make completely Russian. Peskov said that both Donetsk and Luhansk will be incorporated Friday into Russia in their entirety.

All of Kherson and parts of Zaporizhzhia, two other regions being prepared for annexation, were newly occupied in the invasion’s opening phase. It’s unclear whether the Kremlin will declare all, or just part, of that occupied territory as Russia’s. Peskov wouldn’t say in a call Friday with reporters.

In the Zaporizhzhia region’s capital, anti-aircraft missiles that Russia has repurposed as ground-attack weapons rained down Friday on people who were waiting in cars to cross into Russian-occupied territory so they could bring family members back across front lines, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential office, Kyrylo Tymoshenko, said.

The general prosecutor’s office said 25 people were killed and 50 wounded. The strike left deep impact craters and sent shrapnel tearing through the humanitarian convoy’s lined-up vehicles, killing their passengers. Nearby buildings were demolished. Trash bags, blankets and, for one victim, a blood-soaked towel, were used to cover bodies.

Russian-installed officials in Zaporizhzhia blamed Ukrainian forces for the strike, but provided no evidence.

Russian strikes were also reported in the city of Dnipro. The regional governor, Valentyn Reznichenko, said at least one person was killed and five others were wounded.

Ukraine’s air force said the southern cities of Mykolaiv and Odesa were also targeted with Iranian-supplied suicide drones that Russia has increasingly deployed in recent weeks, seemingly to avoid losing more pilots who don’t have control of Ukraine’s skies.

Putin was expected to give a major speech at the ceremony to fold Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia into Russia. The Kremlin planned for the region’s pro-Moscow administrators to sign annexation treaties in the ornate St. George’s Hall of the palace in Moscow that is Putin’s seat of power.

Putin also issued decrees recognizing the supposed independence of the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, steps he previously took in February for Luhansk and Donetsk and earlier for Crimea, seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, meanwhile, called an emergency meeting of his National Security and Defense Council and denounced the latest Russian strikes.

“The enemy rages and seeks revenge for our steadfastness and his failures,” he posted on his Telegram channel. “You will definitely answer. For every lost Ukrainian life!”

The US and its allies have promised even more sanctions on Russia and billions of dollars in extra support for Ukraine as the Kremlin duplicates the annexation playbook used for Crimea.

With Ukraine vowing to take back all occupied territory and Russia pledging to defend its gains, threatening nuclear-weapon use and mobilizing an additional 300,000 troops despite protests, the two nations are on an increasingly escalatory collision course.

That was underscored by the fighting for Lyman, a key node for Russian military operations in the Donbas and a sought-after prize in the Ukrainian counteroffensive launched in late August.

The Russian-backed separatist leader of Donetsk, Denis Pushilin, said the city is now “half-encircled” by Ukrainian forces. In comments reported by Russian state news agency RIA Novosti, he described the setback as “worrying news.”

”Ukraine’s armed formations,” he said, “are trying very hard to spoil our celebration.”


Ten killed in bombing of Afghan religious school — Taliban official

Updated 30 November 2022

Ten killed in bombing of Afghan religious school — Taliban official

  • No group has claimed responsibility, though Daesh has been waging violence in Afghanistan
  • Samangan province, where the incident took place, has a majority population of ethnic Uzbeks

ISLAMABAD: A bomb blast hit a religious school in northern Afghanistan on Wednesday, killing at least 10 students, a Taliban official said.

The explosion went off at around the time of afternoon prayers at the Al Jihad Madrassa in Aybak, capital of Samangan province, a resident of the city who heard the explosion told The Associated Press. Most of the students at the school are young boys, said the resident, speaking on condition of anonymity for his own safety.

Video distributed by the Taliban to the media showed the blast site, a hall littered with debris, mats and shoes, with dead bodies and bloodstains on the floor. Sirens can be heard in the background and men, some of them armed, move through the hall surveying the explosion’s aftermath.

Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Nafi Takor said a number of students were wounded in the attack. Samangan province has a majority population of ethnic Uzbeks.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But the Afghan affiliate of the Daesh group has been waging a campaign of violence that escalated since the Taliban took power in August 2021.

Daesh has carried out bombings targeting in particular Afghanistan’s Shiite Muslim minority but has also targeted Sunni mosques and madrassas, especially ones connected to the Taliban. The Taliban and the Daesh group both adhere to a hard-line ideology but are bitter rivals.


EU proposal would send proceeds of frozen Russian funds to Ukraine

Updated 30 November 2022

EU proposal would send proceeds of frozen Russian funds to Ukraine

  • Moscow says seizing its funds or those of its citizens amounts to theft
  • "Russia must ... pay financially for the devastation that it caused," Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU's executive said

BRUSSELS: The European Commission proposed a plan on Wednesday to compensate Ukraine for damage from Russia’s invasion with proceeds from investing Russian funds frozen under sanctions.
Officials in the EU, United States and other Western countries have long debated whether Ukraine can benefit from frozen Russian assets, including around $300 billion of Russia’s central bank reserves and $20 billion held by blacklisted Russians.
Moscow says seizing its funds or those of its citizens amounts to theft.
“Russia must ... pay financially for the devastation that it caused,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU’s executive said in a statement.
“The damage suffered by Ukraine is estimated at 600 billion euros. Russia and its oligarchs have to compensate Ukraine for the damage and cover the costs for rebuilding the country.”
European Commission officials said that one short-term option for Western nations would be to create a fund to manage and invest liquid assets of the central bank, and use the proceeds to support Ukraine.
The assets would be returned to their owners when sanctions were lifted, which could be part of a peace agreement that ensured Ukraine received compensation for damages.
“It’s not easy so it will require strong backing from the international community but we believe it is doable,” one official said.
With regard to the frozen assets of private individuals and entities, seizing these is usually only legally possible where there is a criminal conviction.
The Commission has proposed that violations of sanctions could be classified as an offense that would allow confiscation.
Von der Leyen also said that the Commission was proposing the establishment of a specialized court, backed by the United Nations, “to investigate and prosecute Russia’s crime of aggression.”
Moscow denies its invasion, which it calls a “special military operation,” constitutes aggression, a war crime under international law.


French authorities rescue 61 migrants including Pakistanis in English Channel

Updated 30 November 2022

French authorities rescue 61 migrants including Pakistanis in English Channel

  • This was one of the largest emergency operations in recent months 
  • Afghan, Indian, Iranian and Pakistani nationals were aboard the dinghy

BOULOGNE, France: French authorities rescued 61 migrants including small children in the English Channel on Tuesday in one of the largest emergency operations in recent months as calm seas drew a rush of migrants in small boats toward the coast of Britain.

Rescue workers in the port of Boulogne, where the migrants were brought ashore, said about 30 people had to be plucked out of the cold waters as they rushed to climb aboard a French rescue vessel from their rubber dinghy, which had been taking on water.

Officials said the rescue took place about one nautical mile inside British territorial waters.

Afghan, Indian, Iranian and Pakistani nationals were aboard the dinghy, which left the French coast in the small hours of the morning, the refugees said.

At the quayside, the migrants were handed fresh clothing and heat-retaining blankets by emergency workers.

French police earlier on Tuesday had stopped close to 50 migrants from trying to cross the Channel to Britain after mild weather and calm waters led a growing number of people to undertake the dangerous journey in recent days.

Guy Allemand, mayor of the small village of Sangatte near Calais, said some migrants had been forced by police to turn back, but that another 100 had made it to the open waters.

He told Reuters that migrant trafficking networks had recently changed their methods.

“They [traffickers] now arrive with ‘taxi boats’ and the refugees are being asked to run into the water to catch them ... rather than launching their own boats from the beach,” he said.

So far this year more than 40,000 people have crossed the Channel to Britain in small boats, up from 28,526 in 2021. Unusually mild November weather led to a hike in departures.

Earlier this month, Britain and France signed an agreement worth 72.2 million euros ($74.5 million) over the coming year to ramp up joint efforts to prevent illegal migrants making perilous journeys across the Channel.


Australian parliament censures former PM Morrison over secret ministries

Updated 30 November 2022

Australian parliament censures former PM Morrison over secret ministries

  • It marks the first time a former prime minister has been censured by parliament, though the motion is symbolic in nature

SYDNEY: Australia’s parliament on Wednesday voted to censure former Liberal prime minister Scott Morrison after an inquiry found his secret appointment to multiple ministries during the COVID-19 pandemic undermined trust in government.
Morrison, who lost power in a general election in May, secretly accumulated five ministerial roles during the pandemic: health, finance, treasury, resources and home affairs.
The historic motion, brought by the ruling Labor party, passed by 86 votes to 50 in the country’s lower house.
It marks the first time a former prime minister has been censured by parliament, though the motion is symbolic in nature.
“The fact is, that our democracy is precious,” Labor Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said during the debate, speaking in favor of censuring Morrison.
“There’s no room for complacency.”
Morrison has said his decisions were lawful, and that the decision was necessary in case ministers became incapacitated during the pandemic.
“For those who wish to add their judgment today on my actions in supporting this censure motion, I simply suggest that they stop and consider the following: have you ever had to deal with a crisis where the outlook was completely unknown?,” Morrison said in parliament before the vote on Wednesday.
“In such circumstances, were you able to get all the decisions perfectly right?“
Morrison said he had only used the powers on one occasion, to block BPH Energy’s PEP-11 gas exploration project.
He accepted the recommendations of an inquiry into the appointment, including legislation requiring public notice of ministerial appointments.


Right-wing Oath Keepers founder convicted of sedition in US Capitol attack plot

Updated 30 November 2022

Right-wing Oath Keepers founder convicted of sedition in US Capitol attack plot

WASHINGTON: Stewart Rhodes, founder of the right-wing Oath Keepers militia group, was convicted by a jury on Tuesday of seditious conspiracy for last year’s attack on the US Capitol in a failed bid to overturn then-President Donald Trump’s 2020 election loss — an important victory for the Justice Department.
Rhodes, a Yale Law School-educated former Army paratrooper and disbarred attorney, was accused by prosecutors during an eight-week trial of fomenting a plot to use force to block Congress from certifying President Joe Biden’s election victory over Trump.
He was the best-known of the five defendants in the most significant of the numerous trials arising from the deadly Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot. One co-defendant, Kelly Meggs, was also found guilty of seditious conspiracy on Tuesday, while three others — Kenneth Harrelson, Jessica Watkins and Thomas Caldwell — were acquitted of that charge.
US District Judge Amit Mehta has presided over the trial. The jury deliberated for three days.
Rhodes, who wears an eye patch after accidentally shooting himself in the face with his own gun, is one of the most prominent defendants of the roughly 900 charged so far in connection with the attack.
Rhodes in 2009 founded the Oath Keepers, a militia group whose members include current and retired US military personnel, law enforcement officers and first responders. Its members have showed up, often heavily armed, at protests and political events around the United States including the racial justice demonstrations following the murder of a Black man named George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer.
Prosecutors during the trial said Rhodes and his co-defendants planned to use force to prevent Congress from formally certifying Biden’s election victory. Meggs, Watkins and Harrelson all entered the Capitol clad in tactical gear.
The defendants was were accused of creating a “quick reaction force” that prosecutors said positioned at a nearby Virginia hotel and was equipped with firearms that could be quickly transported into Washington if summoned.
Fifty witnesses testified during the trial. Rhodes and two of his co-defendants testified in their own defense. They denied plotting any attack or seeking to block Congress from certifying the election results, though Watkins admitted to impeding police officers protecting the Capitol.
Rhodes told the jury he had no plan to storm the Capitol and did not learn that some of his fellow Oath Keepers had breached the building until after the riot had ended.
Prosecutors during cross-examination sought to paint Rhodes as a liar, showing him page after page of his inflammatory text messages, videos, photos and audio recordings. These included Rhodes lamenting about not bringing rifles to Washington on Jan. 6 and saying he could have hanged US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat reviled by the right, from a lamppost.
Watkins, a transgender woman who fled the US Army after being confronted with homophobic slurs, and Caldwell, a disabled US Navy veteran, also chose to testify.
Watkins admitted to having “criminal liability” for impeding police officers inside the Capitol and apologized. At the same time, Watkins denied having any plan to storm the building, describing being “swept up” just as enthusiastic shoppers behave on “Black Friday” when they rush into stores to purchase discount-price holiday gifts like TVs.
Caldwell, who like Rhodes did not enter the Capitol building and never formally joined the Oath Keepers, tried to downplay some of the inflammatory texts he sent in connection with the attack. Caldwell said some of the lines were adapted from or inspired by movies such as “The Princess Bride” and cartoons such as Bugs Bunny.
Four other Oath Keepers members charged with seditious conspiracy are due to go to trial in December. Members of another right-wing group called the Proud Boys, including its former chairman Enrique Tarrio, also are due to head to trial on seditious conspiracy charges in December.