Western leaders in Kyiv to show support on war anniversary

Ukrainian honour guards stand as a symbolic illumination called "Ray of Memory" is seen over the graves of Ukrainian soldiers, who died in the war with Russia, at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv (AFP)
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Updated 24 February 2024
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Western leaders in Kyiv to show support on war anniversary

  • Four Western leaders in Kyiv to show solidarity
  • Biden to join G7 video conference, Zelensky invited

KYIV: Four Western leaders arrived in Kyiv on Saturday to show solidarity with Ukraine on the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion, which has cost tens of thousands of lives and ravaged the country’s economy.
The prime ministers of Italy, Canada and Belgium — Giorgia Meloni, Justin Trudeau and Alexander De Croo — traveled with the president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, on an overnight train from neighboring Poland.
Their presence was designed to underline the West’s commitment to helping Ukraine even as it suffers growing shortages of military supplies, impacting its performance on the battlefield where Moscow is grinding out territorial gains.
Von der Leyen wrote on the social media platform X that she was in Kyiv “to celebrate the extraordinary resistance of the Ukrainian people.” She added: “More than ever, we stand firmly by Ukraine. Financially, economically, militarily, morally. Until the country is finally free.”
Meloni and Trudeau are expected to sign security pacts with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during their brief stay, in line with deals recently agreed with France and Germany that are worth billions of dollars.
However, $61 billion in aid promised by US President Joe Biden is being blocked by Republicans in Congress, casting a long shadow over Kyiv’s hopes of pushing back the much larger, better supplied Russian military.
Biden is due to take part in a video conference call of fellow leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) major democracies on Saturday, which will be chaired by Meloni, with Zelensky invited to join the discussion.
Italy holds the rotating presidency of the G7 and organized the call, saying it was vital to challenge perceptions that the West had grown weary of the conflict and that Russia was winning.
When Russian tanks and infantry streamed across the border before dawn on Feb. 24, 2022, Ukraine’s 40 million people defied expectations — and the Kremlin’s best-laid plans — by holding them back and preventing a widely predicted defeat.
But as the war enters its third year, setbacks on the eastern front have left the Ukraine army looking vulnerable.
Seeking to maintain Western focus on Ukraine, even as the war between Israel and Hamas dominates headlines, Zelensky has warned that Russia, led by President Vladimir Putin, may not stop at Ukraine’s borders if it emerges victorious.
Putin dismisses such claims as nonsense. He casts the war as a wider struggle with the United States, which the Kremlin elite says aims to cleave Russia apart. The West sees the invasion as an unjustified act of aggression that must be repelled.
Old war and new
There will be events across Ukraine on Saturday to mark the anniversary, including a commemoration service for those who died in Bucha, north of Kyiv — scene of some of the worst alleged war crimes of the conflict.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general said on Friday it had launched investigations into more than 122,000 suspected war crimes cases in the last two years. Russia denies carrying them out.
The initial shock of the invasion gradually morphed into familiarity and then fatigue, as the world watched initial Russian gains and a stunning Ukrainian counteroffensive in late 2022 slow into grinding, attritional trench warfare.
In scenes reminiscent of the battlefields of World War One, soldiers under heavy artillery fire are dying in their thousands, sometimes for a few kilometers of land.
Both sides have developed huge and increasingly sophisticated fleets of air, sea and land drones for surveillance and attack, an unprecedented use of unmanned vehicles that could point the way to future conflicts.
Russia, with a much bigger population to replenish the army’s ranks and a larger military budget, might favor a drawn-out war, although the costs have been huge for Moscow as it seeks to navigate sanctions and a growing reliance on China.
Ukraine’s position is more precarious. Villages, towns and cities have been razed, troops are exhausted, ammunition is running low and Russian missiles and drones rain down almost daily.
Russia this month registered its biggest victory in nine months, capturing the eastern town of Avdiivka and ending months of deadly urban combat.
Yet Zelensky remained defiant ahead of the anniversary.
“I am convinced that victory awaits us,” he told diplomats in Kyiv this week in an emotional address. “In particular, thanks to unity and your support.”
Tens of thousands of troops have been killed on both sides and tens of thousands more wounded, while thousands of Ukrainian civilians have perished.
Rising costs
The scale of devastation in Ukraine is staggering.
A recent World Bank study said that rebuilding Ukraine’s economy could cost nearly $500 billion. Two million housing units have been damaged or destroyed, and nearly 6 million people have fled abroad.
In addition to raising money and arms to continue the war, Zelensky is pushing legislation through parliament allowing Ukraine to mobilize up to half a million more troops — a target some economists say could paralyze the economy.
Russia’s finances have proved resilient so far to unprecedented sanctions. While natural gas exports have slumped, shipments of oil have held up, thanks largely to Indian and Chinese buying.
Russia’s GDP expanded 3.6 percent in 2023, although some Russia-based economists warned that this was driven by a leap in defense spending and that stagnation or recession loom.
That will not jeopardize Putin’s victory in elections in March, which he is set to win by a landslide amid broad support for his performance and for the war, described by the Kremlin as a “special military operation.”
In the last two years, authorities have cracked down hard on any form of dissent over the conflict. On Feb. 16, Putin’s most formidable domestic opponent, Alexei Navalny, died in an Arctic penal colony where he was serving a 30-year sentence.
On Friday, Putin addressed troops fighting in Ukraine as Russia marked Defender of the Fatherland Day, hailing them as heroes battling for “truth and justice.”
He laid a wreath at the tomb of the unknown soldier at the foot of the Kremlin wall to honor those who have died in battle.


NATO defense ministers thrash out new security aid and training support plan for Ukraine

Updated 58 min 36 sec ago
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NATO defense ministers thrash out new security aid and training support plan for Ukraine

  • NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says Ukraine’s beleaguered armed forces need longer-term predictability about the kinds of weapons

BRUSSELS: NATO defense ministers gathered Thursday hoping to agree on a new plan to provide long-term security assistance and military training to Ukraine, after Hungary promised not to veto the scheme as long as it’s not forced to take part.
The ministers are meeting over two days at NATO headquarters in Brussels in the last high-level talks before a summit hosted by US President Joe Biden in Washington on July 9-11, where the military organization’s leaders are expected to announce financial support for Ukraine.
Ukraine’s Western allies are trying to bolster their military support as Russian troops launch attacks along the more than 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line, taking advantage of a lengthy delay in US military aid. European Union money was also held up by political infighting.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who is chairing Thursday’s meeting, said that Ukraine’s beleaguered armed forces need longer-term predictability about the kinds of weapons, ammunition and funds they can expect to receive.
“The whole idea is to minimize the risk for gaps and delays as we saw earlier this year,” Stoltenberg told reporters. The hold-up, he said, “is one of the reasons why the Russians are now able to push and to actually occupy more land in Ukraine.”
Since Russia’s full-fledged invasion in February 2022, Ukraine’s Western backers have routinely met as part of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, run by the Pentagon, to drum up weapons and ammunition for Kyiv. A fresh meeting was held at NATO headquarters on Thursday.
While those meetings have resulted in significant battlefield support, they have been of an ad-hoc and unpredictable nature. Stoltenberg has spearheaded an effort to have NATO take up some of the slack.
The idea is for the 32-nation military alliance to coordinate the security assistance and training process, partly by using NATO’s command structure and drawing on funds from its common budget.
Stoltenberg said he hopes Biden and his counterparts will agree in Washington to maintain the funding level for military support they have provided Ukraine since Russia launched its full-fledged invasion in February 2022.
He estimates this at around 40 billion euros ($43 billion) worth of equipment each year.
On Wednesday, Hungary announced that it would not veto the plan as long as it’s not forced to take part.
“I asked the Secretary-General to make it clear that all military action outside NATO territory can only be voluntary in nature, according to NATO rules and our traditions,” Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said. “Hungary has received the guarantees we need.”
The world’s biggest security alliance does not send weapons or ammunition to Ukraine as an organization, and has no plans to put troops on the ground. But many of its members give help on a bilateral basis, and jointly provide more than 90 percent of the country’s military support.
The other 31 allies see Russia’s war on Ukraine as an existential security threat to Europe, but most of them, including Biden, have been extremely cautious to ensure that NATO is not drawn into a wider conflict with Russia.
NATO operates on the basis that an attack on any single ally will be met with a response from them all.


G7 leaders seek deal to use interest from Russian assets for Ukraine

Updated 13 June 2024
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G7 leaders seek deal to use interest from Russian assets for Ukraine

  • The Middle East, migration and artificial intelligence are also on the packed agenda
  • For a second year running, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will attend the summit, taking part in talks on Thursday

BARI: Group of Seven leaders will aim to boost funding for Ukraine in its war with Russia and offer a united face in confronting China’s political and economic ambitions at their annual summit in southern Italy on Thursday.
For a second year running, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will attend the summit, taking part in talks on Thursday, and he is due to sign a new, long-term security accord with US President Joe Biden.
The G7 leaders look likely to announce they have agreed at least in principle on plans to issue $50 billion of loans for Ukraine using interest from Russian sovereign assets frozen after its invasion of Ukraine to back the multi-year debt package.
“I think we will have the major tentpoles of this decided, but some of the specifics left to be worked through by experts on a defined timetable,” White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said of the discussions.
“I think we are on the verge of a good outcome here,” he added.
Officials acknowledge the plan is complex, with legal experts still having to thrash out the details that will need the backing of European nations, particularly Belgium, which is not in the G7.

Packed Agenda
With the Middle East, migration and artificial intelligence also on a packed agenda, the June 13-15 summit in the southern Italian region of Puglia would be taxing for leaders at the best of times, but most of them are also bowed down by their own domestic woes.
Only the host, Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, is riding high after triumphing in Italy’s European election last weekend, but achieving meaningful results in the luxury Borgo Egnazia hotel resort will be a tall order.
Biden’s goal at the G7 was to reinforce the idea that the United States is best served if it is closely aligned with its democratic allies and partners, Sullivan said, when asked about the prospects of it being the president’s last summit given he faces a re-election battle in November.
Underscoring US determination to punish Moscow for its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Washington on Wednesday dramatically broadened sanctions on Moscow, including by targeting China-based companies selling semiconductors to Moscow.
By announcing new restrictions on Chinese firms on the eve of the G7 meeting, Biden is no doubt hoping to persuade Western allies to show greater resolve in confronting Beijing over its support for Russia and its industrial over-capacity.
Speaking ahead of the start of the summit, Sullivan said that China was a significant creditor to many heavily indebted countries.
“The G7 communique is not singling out or focusing on a single country,” he said, but added that China needed to play a constructive role in dealing with the debt burden.


Eight EU countries call for restricting Russian diplomats’ movement

Updated 13 June 2024
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Eight EU countries call for restricting Russian diplomats’ movement

PRAGUE: Eight European Union foreign ministers called on the EU to ban Russian diplomats from moving freely around the bloc and restrict them to countries where they are accredited, in a letter to EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
“Free movement of holders of Russian diplomatic and service passports, accredited in one host state, across the whole Schengen area is easing malign activities,” according to the letter, dated June 11, seen by Reuters.
The ministers said that intelligence, propaganda “or even preparation of sabotage acts are the main workload for a large number of Russian ‘diplomats’ in the EU,” and while expulsions were important, the threat remained.
“We believe the EU should strictly follow the reciprocity principle and restrict the movement of members of Russian diplomatic missions and their family members to territory of a state of their accreditation only,” they said.
“This measure will significantly narrow operational space for Russian agents,” added the letter, which was signed by ministers from the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland and Romania.


French citizen Louis Arnaud held in Iran arrives in Paris

Updated 13 June 2024
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French citizen Louis Arnaud held in Iran arrives in Paris

  • Arnaud, a 36-year-old consultant, set off in July 2022 on a round-the-world trip that led him to Iran

PARIS: French citizen Louis Arnaud returned to Paris Thursday after being held in Iran since September 2022 and sentenced last year to five years in jail on national security charges.
Emerging from a small plane at Le Bourget airport outside Paris, a visibly tired but smiling Arnaud shook hands with Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne before embracing his parents, according to images aired on television.
Arnaud linked arms with his relatives as they entered a private room at the airport out of view of the cameras.
“I am very glad to welcome one of our hostages who was indeed held arbitrarily in Iran,” Sejourne said.
“Our diplomatic service is still at work” to free three other French citizens: Jacques Paris, Cecile Koller and a man named only as Olivier held in Iranian jails, he added.
Arnaud, a 36-year-old consultant, set off in July 2022 on a round-the-world trip that led him to Iran.
It was “a country he had long dreamed of visiting for the richness of its history and its welcoming people,” his mother Sylvie said several months ago.
But he was arrested in September 2022 with other Europeans accused of joining demonstrations over the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd who died after her arrest by the morality police in Tehran for allegedly breaching the Islamic republic’s strict dress code for women.
While Arnaud’s traveling companions were soon released, he was kept in prison before his November sentencing for propaganda and harming Iranian state security.
Frenchman Benjamin Briere and French-Irish dual national Bernard Phelan were freed by Iran in May 2023 for “humanitarian reasons.”
Both had been severely weakened by a hunger strike.
Tehran, which holds around a dozen Western citizens, is accused by their supporters and rights groups of using the prisoners as bargaining chip in international negotiations.


UN refugee agency says record 117 mln people forcibly displaced in 2023

Updated 13 June 2024
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UN refugee agency says record 117 mln people forcibly displaced in 2023

  • UNHCR report stated that there had been a yearly increase in the number of people forcibly displaced over the last 12 years

GENEVA: The United Nations refugee agency on Thursday said the number of people forcibly displaced stood at a record 117.3 million as of the end of last year, warning that this figure could rise further without major global political changes.

“These are refugees, asylum seekers, internally displaced people, people being forced away by conflict, by persecution, by different and increasingly complex forms of violence,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“Conflict remains a very, very deep driver of displacement.” In its report on global trends in forced displacement, UNHCR said that there had been a yearly increase in the number of people forcibly displaced over the last 12 years.

UNHCR estimates that forced displacement has continued to increase in the first four months of 2024, and that the number of those displaced is likely to have exceeded 120 million by the end of April. “Unless there is a shift in international geopolitics, unfortunately, I actually see that figure continuing to go up,” Grandi said, referring to the risk of new conflicts.

The conflicts that have driven displacement include the war in Sudan, which Grandi described as “one of the most catastrophic ones” despite garnering less attention that other crises.

More that 9 million people have been internally displaced and another 2 million have fled to neighboring countries including Chad, Egypt and South Sudan, Grandi said. “People are arriving in the hundreds every day,” he said, referring to the influx of people seeking safety in Chad. In Gaza, Israel’s bombardment and ground campaign have caused around 1.7 million people – nearly 80 percent of the Palestinian enclave’s population – to become internally displaced, many of them multiple times.

Grandi warned that the possible crossings of Gazans into Egypt from the southern border town of Rafah to escape Israel’s military offensive would be catastrophic. “Another refugee crisis outside Gaza would be catastrophic on all levels, including because we have no guarantee that the people will be able to return to Gaza one day,” Grandi said.