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UKRAINE UPDATE: 24 MARCH 2023

Slovakia transfers first MiG-29 jets to Kyiv; Wagner chief Prigozhin is preparing to ‘scale back’ operations

Slovakia transfers first MiG-29 jets to Kyiv; Wagner chief Prigozhin is preparing to ‘scale back’ operations
Rescuers work at a residential building after it was hit during a missile strike in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on 22 March 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Arsen Dzodzaiev)

European Union leaders signed off on plans to send Kyiv 1 million rounds of ammunition within 12 months during their meeting in Brussels. Four MiG-29 fighter jets have been transferred to Kyiv from Slovakia, of a total of 13 to be donated by the eastern European nation.

Ukraine’s top commander hinted at a counteroffensive “very soon”, a day after President Volodymyr Zelensky visited frontline positions near the besieged city of Bakhmut, a focus of fierce battles with the Russian army in recent months. Zelensky was on the move again on Thursday, visiting the southern city of Kherson.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, the powerful founder of mercenary group Wagner, is preparing to scale back his private army’s operations in Ukraine after Russian military chiefs cut key supplies of men and ammunition, people familiar with the matter said.

Key developments

Zelensky pushes request for long-range missiles, jets to EU leaders

Ukraine’s president reiterated his calls for long-range missiles and modern fighter jets in an appeal to European Union leaders holding a summit in Brussels on Thursday, according to an EU official.

Zelensky also urged faster delivery of weapons and ammunition that have already been pledged and urged European leaders to consider more sanctions against Russia, the official said.

Ukraine’s Naftogaz opens new gas wells

Despite the continued war, Ukraine’s state-run energy company Naftogaz Ukrainy opened two new gas wells this month, said CEO Oleksiy Chernyshov. “We not only ensure the operation of our facilities, but also work on drilling new wells,” Chernyshov said. New technologies were implemented while developing hydrocarbon deposits, he said.

Four Slovak fighter jets handed over to Ukraine

Kyiv received its first four MiG-29 jets from Slovakia on Thursday; Ukrainian pilots flew the fighter jets. The rest of Slovakia’s Soviet-era warplanes will be transported in the upcoming weeks, Defence Minister Jaroslav Nad said in a statement.

Slovakia last week approved sending 13 MiG-29 jets to Ukraine as part of a broader military aid agreement.

 

 

 

Ukraine says 140,000km2 of its territory is mined 

The 140,000km2 is roughly twice the size of Ireland, and it’s almost impossible for Ukraine to demine them on its own, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said in a televised interview.

She proposed an international anti-mine coalition which would help with clearing efforts focused on agricultural areas to make them safe for production, and on towns and villages that had been liberated from Russia.

International Criminal Court to open an office in Ukraine 

The Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) signed an agreement with the Ukrainian Prosecutor-General’s Office to establish an office in Ukraine, according to a statement on the court’s website.

It would be the ninth field presence for the court and a “new chapter in close cooperation,” said Ukraine’s prosecutor-general, Andriy Kostin. Last week, the ICC pre-trial chamber issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Finland doubles Leopard 2 donation to Ukraine 

Finland will donate another three Leopard 2 armoured mine-clearing vehicles to Ukraine as part of its 14th military-aid package, bringing its total shipment of such vehicles to six, Defence Minister Antti Kaikkonen told reporters in Helsinki.

Zelensky travels to Kherson to inspect damage, repairs

Volodymyr Zelensky travelled to Kherson in southern Ukraine to inspect repairs to residences and infrastructure damaged by Russian attacks. The city, back under Ukrainian control since November, is the target of frequent shelling — including overnight, with one woman dead and another injured.

“We have to ensure full restoration and protection of our energy sector!” Zelensky said on Telegram. “I am grateful to everyone who works for this and returns the light to our people!”

It was the second consecutive day the Ukrainian president travelled near a frontline area. On Wednesday, Zelensky visited the area around Bakhmut, the site of an ongoing battle that’s left much of the city in ruins.

China a challenge in relations with Russia for European leaders

China is in the driving seat in its relationship with Russia, Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins told reporters, adding that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow was “a little bit of an eye-opener for us in Europe”.

Speaking ahead of a summit of EU leaders in Brussels, Karins said while some might have hoped China could assume the role of a broker in the war in Ukraine, “China is not doing this at all — it’s moving overtly on the side of Russia and this is a big challenge for all of us.”

Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas told reporters Xi and Putin “are great friends, we can see”, stressing it was important that China respected the international rules-based order and warning that helping the aggressor would defy that.

Most Ukrainians optimistic about economy despite war

Most Ukrainians are largely optimistic about the economic future of their country, unlike before the war when pessimism prevailed, a poll by the Razumkov Centre for Economic and Political Studies in Kyiv showed.

A total of 52% of respondents expect positive economic changes in the next two to three years, while only 11% expect the economy to deteriorate, according to Andriy Bychenko, the head of sociological research at Razumkov.

About half of the respondents said their incomes had declined over the past year. A full 37% of Ukrainians have had at least one relative or friend killed or wounded, according to the poll.

EU eyes new funds of up to €500m to help ammunition firms

The EU plans to spend between €300-million and €500-million to support ammunition producers through the bloc’s budget, according to European Commissioner Thierry Breton.

The funds would come on top of the €2-billion agreed upon by foreign and defence ministers earlier this week as the EU aims to provide Ukraine with ammunition over the next year.

Breton, the internal market commissioner, acknowledged in an interview a possible bottleneck in gunpowder production. “We have that on our radar, we’ve already started to work on this,” Breton said, adding that some countries were already candidates to build new capacities.

EU leaders to back military aid for Ukraine

The European Union’s military support for Ukraine will feature among the key topics of discussion when the bloc’s leaders gather in Brussels.

They will also discuss unlocking another €3.5-billion for the European Peace Facility, which has financed countries’ arms deliveries to Ukraine.

Ukrainian commander hints at counteroffensive ‘very soon’  

Russian Wagner mercenaries are running out of steam near Bakhmut amid heavy losses, Oleksandr Syrskyi, the commander in charge of Ukraine’s ground forces, said on Telegram.

“Very soon we will take advantage of this opportunity, as we once did near Kyiv, Kharkiv, Balakliya and Kupyansk,” he said.

Those locations have seen the Ukrainian military successfully push Russian troops away. According to Syrskyi, Wagner Group operatives are the main force trying to capture Bakhmut.

 

 

 

Russia wants to recapture ‘logistics node’ of Kupyansk, says UK

Moscow’s forces continue their bid to capture the “logistics node” of Kupyansk, southeast of Kharkiv, the UK defence ministry said in an update.

Heavy fighting has continued in parts of the Svatove-Kremina region of the front line in northern Luhansk oblast since early March, the UK said. For now, though, “Russia’s intent in the northeast likely remains defence” as it braces for a potential “major offensive operation” by Ukraine.

Putin’s mercenary Prigozhin shifts focus after Ukraine setbacks  

Seen as an increasing threat by the security and political establishment, Prigozhin is struggling with a manpower and ammunition shortage in Ukraine after he was barred from recruiting from prisons, his primary source of personnel, and deprived of supplies.

Wagner troops so far have failed to take their main target — the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut — despite months of trying and staggering losses. Now, Prigozhin is planning to shift the focus back to Africa, people familiar with the issue said. The shift is a sudden turn in fortunes for Prigozhin, a longtime Putin ally who catapulted himself to prominence as the tough-guy alternative to Russia’s faltering military in Ukraine.

US wary of fallout from China’s peace overture 

President Xi Jinping’s meetings with Vladimir Putin put the Biden administration in an uncomfortable position: on the sidelines as two adversaries discuss a Ukraine peace proposal that the US has deemed unacceptable.

US officials have publicly expressed deep scepticism about China’s idea, saying its call for a ceasefire would reward Moscow’s invasion by cementing its territorial gains. Privately, though, the meetings and the proposal have provoked a sense of unease within the administration, leading in turn to questions about the broader US approach to the two countries.

According to one official, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations, the US is worried about being backed into a corner over the Chinese proposal. Regardless of the US reservations, dismissing it outright could let China argue to other nations that are weary of the war — and of the economic damage it’s wreaking — that Washington isn’t interested in peace. DM

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