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UKRAINE UPDATE: 16 MARCH 2022

Russia slaps sanctions on Biden, while three European prime ministers visit Zelensky

Russia slaps sanctions on Biden, while three European prime ministers visit Zelensky
A cityscape of Kyiv, Ukraine, 15 March 2022. Kyiv authorities announced a 35-hour curfew from 8pm on 15 March until 7am on 17 March after several residential buildings in the capital were hit during early-morning Russian air strikes. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Miguel A Lopes)

President Joe Biden will travel to Europe to take part in Nato and European Union summits to discuss the latest on Russia’s war in Ukraine with key allies on March 24.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Ukraine’s leadership was not being “serious” about resolving the conflict as a besieged Kyiv prepared to enter an extended curfew from 8pm on Tuesday local time. Moscow slapped sanctions on Biden and a slew of administration officials, as the UK and the European Union banned the export of luxury goods to the country.

The prime ministers of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia announced a joint visit to the capital for talks with Volodymyr Zelensky, the first in-person meeting with the Ukrainian president since Russia launched the war on its neighbour almost three weeks ago.

The UN said that three million people have now fled the fighting in Ukraine.

Key developments

EU formalises sanctions on Chelsea’s Abramovich and others 

The EU imposed sanctions on billionaire Roman Abramovich, the owner of the Chelsea Football Club, and 14 other Russian business and media figures as part of its fourth round of sanctions.

Also sanctioned were Tigran Khudaverdyan, the executive director and deputy CEO of Yandex, a Russian internet search engine that also operates a large ride-hailing operation; Victor Rashnikov, who owns Magnitogorsk Iron & Steel, one of Russia’s biggest steelmakers; and German Khan, a major shareholder in the Alfa Group conglomerate that includes Alfa Bank. The broader package also includes limits on trade in luxury goods and steel and iron products.

Biden to attend EU, Nato summits next week 

US President Joe Biden will participate in person at a meeting of EU leaders on 24 March in Brussels. The leaders will continue to discuss the situation in Ukraine as well as issues related to the bloc’s energy independence. He’ll also take part in a Nato summit. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, asked if Biden would travel to Poland as well, said she had nothing more to add to the schedule at this point.

Russian court fines state-TV protester 

A Russian court fined a producer from Russia’s main state-television channel 30,000 roubles ($285) for holding up an anti-war sign during the prime-time national news broadcast Monday, Interfax reported.

The court found Marina Ovsyannikova guilty of violating Russia’s strict laws on public protests. Her brief appearance on TV on Monday was a rare example of open opposition to the Ukraine war from the tightly controlled state media. It won offers of support from Western leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron.

But Ovsyannikova’s legal troubles may not be over, as Vyacheslav Volodin, speaker of the lower house of Parliament, denounced her protest as a “betrayal” of Russian troops fighting in Ukraine. In a Telegram post late on Tuesday, he called on law enforcement to handle her case “with all strictness”.

Slovakia approves Nato troop presence

Slovakia’s parliament approved the presence of 2,100 Nato troops in the country. The nation bordering Ukraine will host US, German, Czech, Dutch, Polish and Slovenian troops, as well as a Patriot missile-defence system, Defence Minister Jaroslav Nad said.

“This is the biggest step for the defence of the Slovak Republic in our modern history,” Nad told the chamber in Bratislava. Ukraine’s Uzhhorod airfield, located just a kilometre from the border, may be the target of a Russian attack, he said.

Russia formally exiting Council of Europe 

Russia has formally notified the Council of Europe that it is pulling out of the human-rights organisation, just hours before the body was to vote to expel Moscow in the wake of its invasion of Ukraine.

Russia joined the group in 1996 as it sought to bring rights protections to European levels, but tensions have grown in recent years. The council confirmed that Russia had filed formal notification of its withdrawal and its intention to denounce the European Convention on Human Rights.

The Foreign Ministry said Russia’s Constitution provides adequate protections to citizens, adding that Moscow will continue to implement past decisions of the European Court of Human Rights that don’t contradict Russia’s basic law, Tass reported.

Putin says Kyiv not ‘serious’ in talks 

Russian President Vladimir Putin told European Council President Charles Michel that Ukraine “is not showing a serious attitude toward finding mutually acceptable solutions” in talks with Moscow on ending the fighting, the Kremlin said.

In a brief statement on the leaders’ phone conversation on Tuesday, the Kremlin said they also discussed the military operation and humanitarian relief measures.

Pentagon breaks down its Ukraine arms package 

The $6.5-billion for Ukraine included in the spending bill that President Joe Biden signed on Tuesday includes $3.5-billion to provide weapons to the country and to replenish US stocks of military equipment already sent, according to US Defence Department spokesman Chris Sherwood.

The Pentagon is likely to send Ukraine anti-air and anti-armour weapons, small arms and ammunition, tactical gear, meals and medical kits, Sherwood said in an email. Other funds would go toward the deployment of US troops and intelligence support for the US European Command.

Fox News says cameraman killed in Ukraine 

Fox News said that one of its cameramen, Pierre Zakrzewski, died on Monday covering the fighting in Ukraine. Zakrzewski’s vehicle was hit by fire just outside of Kyiv, the network said in a statement. The 55-year-old, London-based journalist had covered fighting for Fox in hotspots including Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

Russia imposes sanctions on Biden, Blinken 

The Russian government imposed sanctions on top US officials including President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in retaliation for US penalties. The measures would block entry to Russia and freeze any assets held there.

The individual sanctions would not impede high-level contacts if needed, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

Belarus president subject to renewed US sanctions 

The US Treasury Department redesignated Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko as a corrupt government official subject to sanctions, a move the US previously took in 2006, and newly designated his wife, Halina Lukashenka.

Lukashenko is “the head of a corrupt government in Belarus whose patronage network benefits his inner circle and regime”, the Treasury said on Tuesday, without mentioning Belarus’s support for Russia during its invasion of Ukraine. The designation serves to block access to “property and interests in property” in the US, according to the Treasury.

Nato warns Russia against chemical weapons use

Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg warned that Russia may try to stage a “false-flag operation” involving chemical weapons after Moscow made “absurd claims” about bioweapons labs in Ukraine.

“Russia has used chemical agents before to attack and kill political opponents,” he said at a news conference in Brussels. “It’s extremely important that Russia understands that it is unacceptable if they use chemical weapons.” He added that he wouldn’t speculate on what Nato’s response would be to such an event.

Stoltenberg said that Nato defence ministers due to meet on Wednesday would discuss ways to reinforce the alliance’s eastern members, which could include basing “substantially more forces” in those countries at a higher readiness level and more prepositioned equipment.

Ukraine raises $185m in ‘war bonds’ sale 

Ukraine raised 5.4 billion hryvnia ($185-million) from an auction of dollar and hryvnia domestic bonds, as it continues to finance its budget and military expenditures after Russia’s invasion.

The dollar one-year notes are priced to yield 3.7%, while local-currency bonds pay 11%, according to the country’s ministry of finance. It’s the first time the government in Kyiv has raised dollar funding alongside its hryvnia-denominated sales following two earlier auctions in its home currency that raised about $506-million.

Last week, the government received $1.4-billion in emergency financing support from the International Monetary Fund, while the European Union provided the first part of an assistance package.

Ukraine understands that Nato won’t help, Zelensky says 

Russia’s invasion has ruined the security structure in Europe and globally and Ukraine must defend itself, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said. He said Ukraine understood it has no Article 5 – the condition Nato members can trigger to call for the alliance to come to their aid.

Zelensky reiterated his call on Nato to impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine to protect it from airstrikes, slap a trade embargo on Russia and declare it a terrorist state.

Nato members have sanctioned Russian individuals and companies and are offering weapons and financial aid to Ukraine, but have refused to fight Russian forces on Ukrainian soil.

EU seeks to help Ukraine refugees convert currency 

The European Union in conjunction with the European Central Bank (ECB) is seeking to find a way to help refugees convert Ukrainian currency, which has depreciated since Russia invaded Ukraine, into euros.

“We are working on this issue with the ECB and this will require certain support of eurozone countries to provide some kind of convertibility assistance so people can convert a certain amount of their hryvnia into euros,” the EU’s trade chief, Valdis Dombrovskis, told reporters on Tuesday.

More civilians evacuate Mariupol, aid to city stranded 

The evacuation of civilians from Mariupol continues, according to the city council, with another 2,000 private cars leaving the Sea of Azov port via a humanitarian corridor to the Ukrainian-government-held city of Zaporizhzhia.

An additional 2,000 cars were ready to depart Mariupol, but a humanitarian convoy meant to provide relief to residents lacking water, electricity and food remained stuck in the city of Berdyansk, the council said.

Ceasefire talks continue 

Talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials continued on Tuesday, focusing on general outlines of a settlement, a ceasefire and the withdrawal of Kremlin troops from the country, Ukraine negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter.

UK adds more than 370 Russians to sanctions list 

The UK sanctioned more than 370 Russians, including Alfa Bank founder Mikhail Fridman, LetterOne co-founder Petr Aven, and former president Dmitry Medvedev, as it ramped up measures against President Vladimir Putin’s allies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov and foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova were also on the latest list of individuals sanctioned by the UK, bringing the total to above 1,000.

EU says 12 million people affected by war 

About 12 million people have been affected by the war in Ukraine, including two million internally displaced people and 2.8 million who have fled to the European Union, EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson said.

More than 1.7 million people have crossed into Poland, while 600,000 refugees have entered Romania and 250,000 to the Czech Republic, she said. The majority of the 150,000 third-country nationals who have fled went to Romania and Moldova.

EU faces no immediate threat to food security, commission says 

The war in Ukraine poses no immediate threat to food security within the European Union at this stage, even though Ukraine and Russia are important suppliers of commodities, according to the bloc’s executive arm.

“We are a big producer of cereals but we are of course concerned about the impact this is having already on prices and of course disruptions of trade flows,” European Commission spokeswoman Miriam Garcia Ferrer said.

Slovakia detains four suspected of spying for Russia 

Police in Slovakia, a Nato and European Union member bordering Ukraine, detained four people suspected of spying for Moscow and expelled three Russian diplomats. Russia said the expulsions wouldn’t go unanswered.

Two people were charged, including the former deputy head of the military academy in the northern city Liptovsky Mikulas and a journalist for a website that Slovak authorities have labelled a vehicle for disinformation. Russia paid the suspects “tens of thousands of euros” for sensitive and classified material, according to Special Prosecutor Daniel Lipsic.

Germany warns China not to invest in Russia 

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck warned China against undermining Western sanctions against Russia.

If Beijing should abandon its “ambivalent status” and move to invest in Russia, “then this would also have consequences for our relations with China”, Habeck said on Tuesday at an auto industry event in Berlin. “All diplomatic efforts aim at keeping China in its ambivalent role.”

Kyiv imposes curfew until Thursday

Kyiv banned movement without a permit from 8pm local time on Tuesday until Thursday morning, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Telegram.

“I ask all Kyiv residents to prepare to spend two days at home,” he said, calling it “a difficult and dangerous moment”.

The Ukrainian capital has been facing a barrage of artillery and missile fire from Russian forces, with local authorities reporting several residential buildings hit overnight.

Ukraine plant shutdowns will dent auto output 

Disruptions to wire-harness plants in Ukraine may lower European automobile production by as much as 700,000 vehicles in the first and second quarters, Colin Langan, an auto analyst at Wells Fargo, said in a report.

If Volkswagen is unable to get a supply of wire harnesses for more than three or four weeks, the carmaker will have to revise its outlook, Chief Executive Officer Herbert Diess said on Tuesday. VW and BMW have already idled plants due to the supply issue, while Mercedes-Benz has reduced output at a German factory.

Russian bank ‘effectively’ shutting down London unit  

Russia’s second-largest lender, VTB Bank, is laying off London staff after it was sanctioned following the invasion of Ukraine, according to people familiar with the matter.

The firm is effectively shutting down the London unit of VTB Capital, the people said, asking not to be identified discussing a confidential matter. There was a substantial round of layoffs last week, while some staff are being kept on in a caretaker capacity as part of a wind-down in the UK capital, two of the people said.

VTB Capital is the investment banking division of VTB, which was hit by full blocking sanctions from the US. The UK froze VTB’s assets on 24 February.

German investor sentiment deteriorates 

Confidence in Germany’s economic recovery plunged to the lowest level since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020 as investors fret about the fallout from Russia’s invasion.

The ZEW institute’s gauge of expectations plummeted to -39.3 in March from 54.3 the previous month, while an index of current conditions also deteriorated. ZEW President Achim Wambach said a recession is “more and more likely.”

UK bans export of luxury goods to Russia 

The UK government announced a ban on the sale of luxury goods to Russia and imposed new tariffs on products including vodka, fertiliser, aluminium and steel.

“Our new tariffs will further isolate the Russian economy from global trade,” Britain’s finance minister, Rishi Sunak, said.

Britain says a list of goods targeted with tariffs is worth £900-million, and they will now face an additional 35% tariff on top of current levies. DM

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