World

UKRAINE UPDATE: 31 MARCH 2023

Turkey approves Finland’s Nato membership; Blinken condemns Russia’s detention of US reporter

Turkey approves Finland’s Nato membership; Blinken condemns Russia’s detention of US reporter
International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi visited Enerhodar, southeastern Ukraine as IAEA specialists examine the spent nuclear fuel storage site at Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant on 29 March 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE. / Sergei Ilnitsky)

Turkey’s Parliament approved Finland’s membership in Nato on Thursday, following through on President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s promise to let the Nordic nation into the defence alliance. Finland’s entry will mean Nato’s frontier with Russia roughly doubles in length.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned Russia for detaining Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg on suspicion of espionage. ‘We are deeply concerned over Russia’s widely reported detention of a US citizen journalist,’ Blinken said in a statement.

Evan Gershkovich, a Wall Street Journal reporter, “is suspected of espionage in the interests of the American government”, the FSB, Russia’s Federal Security Service, said in Moscow. The reporter “collected information constituting a state secret about the activities of one of the enterprises of the Russian military-industrial complex”, according to the statement. The WSJ confirmed Gershkovich was detained and denied the charges.

Key developments

Putin orders draft of 147,000 conscripts by 15 July 

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to draft 147,000 conscripts aged 18 to 27 for the army this spring, according to a Kremlin website.

These draftees aren’t supposed to be sent to the war in Ukraine, according to previous statements by authorities. Currently, Russia is seeking to recruit 400,000 professional soldiers, who are more likely to be used in combat. Russia’s defence ministry offers draftees professional contracts at the end of their conscription service, which is currently a year.

EU capitals support extending tariff-free trade with Ukraine

European Union member states gave preliminary backing to extend a trade liberalisation regime with Ukraine for an additional year, according to people familiar with the matter.

The EU temporarily removed all remaining tariffs and quota requirements on Ukrainian exports last year in an effort to bolster the war-torn nation’s economy, including on steel, industrial goods and agricultural products not covered by the bloc’s existing trade arrangements with Kyiv. The current accord expires in June.

US says Russia ‘actively seeking’ more munitions from North Korea

“We remain concerned that North Korea will provide further support for Russia’s military operations against Ukraine,” John Kirby, spokesperson for the US National Security Council, told reporters. “And we have new information that Russia is actively seeking to acquire additional munitions from North Korea.”

He commented after the US Treasury Department said it had sanctioned Ashot Mkrtychev, a Slovakian national, for attempting to facilitate arms deals between Russia and North Korea.

The Treasury said in a statement that Mkrtychev worked with North Korean officials to obtain more than two dozen kinds of weapons and munitions for Russia in exchange for materials ranging from commercial aircraft, raw materials and commodities to be sent to North Korea.

 

 

 

Blinken blasts Russia for detention of WSJ reporter 

“We are in contact with the Wall Street Journal on this situation,” Blinken said in his statement. “Whenever a US citizen is detained abroad, we immediately seek consular access, and seek to provide all appropriate support.”

“In the strongest possible terms, we condemn the Kremlin’s continued attempts to intimidate, repress and punish journalists and civil society voices,” the top US diplomat said.

French court refuses to extradite Zhevago to Ukraine

A French court ruled against the request from Ukrainian authorities to extradite billionaire Kostyantin Zhevago, according to his lawyer Francois Zimeray. The court said a person cannot be extradited to a country at war.

Zhevago, the owner of iron ore producer Ferrexpo, was arrested in France on suspicion of money laundering and embezzlement in December and later released on bail.

Zelensky meets Rheinmetall CEO in Kyiv

Volodymyr Zelensky held a meeting in Kyiv with Rheinmetall CEO Armin Papperger, according to a statement on the Ukrainian president’s website. They discussed current cooperation, Ukraine’s frontline needs and future partnerships.

Zelensky thanked Germany’s leading defence company, as well as the entire country, for “comprehensive help and support of Ukraine in the fight against the ongoing Russian aggression”.

Olympic chief slams ‘deplorable’ double standard on Russian athletes

European governments show a “deplorable” double standard in opposing a move to allow some Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete in the 2024 Paris Games, said International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach.

“We have not seen a single comment from them about their attitude about the participation of athletes whose countries are involved in the other 70 wars and armed conflicts in the world,” Bach said on Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

Several countries have criticised an IOC move to allow some individual athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete as neutral athletes in Paris. Ukrainian officials have pushed for a ban on Russian participation.

WSJ journalist pleads not guilty at closed hearing, Tass reports

Wall Street Journal correspondent Evan Gershkovich pleaded not guilty at a “top secret” hearing in his espionage case, Tass reported, citing law enforcement officials. Tass added that the US citizen’s hearing was closed to the press.

“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and dedicated reporter,” the newspaper said earlier in a statement. “We stand in solidarity with Evan and his family.”

King Charles condemns Russia in speech to German legislators

King Charles III waded into European politics on Thursday, praising Germany’s decision to reverse decades of defence policy by supplying Ukraine with arms.

“Germany’s decision to send such significant military support to Ukraine is remarkably courageous, important and appreciated,” Charles said in a speech to the lower house of Parliament in Berlin. As head of state, the British monarch traditionally remains above politics.

Speaking to Bundestag lawmakers in German during his first state visit as monarch, he said Russia’s “unprovoked” attack had “inflicted the most unimaginable suffering on many innocent people.”

Austria’s Raiffeisen Bank eyes Russia unit sale or spin-off 

Austria’s Raiffeisen Bank plans to sell or spin off its Russian subsidiary, a unit that’s faced criticism for making record profits since the start of the war in Ukraine.

“The RBI Group will continue to progress potential transactions which would result in the sale or spin-off of Raiffeisenbank Russia and deconsolidation,” the bank’s CEO told a shareholder meeting in Vienna.

A sale would need approval from Russia’s government and would probably come at a discount of at least 55% to the unit’s fair value.

Putin confidant’s bankers convicted of negligence

Four bankers — including the former boss of Gazprombank’s Swiss unit — were convicted for failing in their due diligence requirements to properly flag financial transactions made by a cello-playing confidant of Vladimir Putin.

The men were handed suspended sentences subject to two years of probation, a Zurich district court said. The ex-head of Gazprombank Schweiz was fined 540,000 Swiss francs ($590,000), while two senior executives and a client relationship manager were ordered to pay lesser amounts.

Former UK spy chief expects Ukraine to start offensive in coming months 

“The Ukrainians are very good, as it were, misleading the media, saying it’s not going to happen now. But I think one should anticipate something dramatic should happen in the next few months in the conflict,” Richard Dearlove, former head of British foreign intelligence, told Bloomberg Television.

Ukraine action ends IAEA plan to secure nuclear zone 

There are signals that new fighting may break out soon near Zaporizhzhia, the Russian-occupied nuclear plant in Ukraine, International Atomic Energy Agency Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said late on Wednesday.

Grossi said he was working with officials on both sides to develop a plan “focusing more on the protection itself and the things that should be avoided to protect the plant, rather than the territorial aspects”.

Wall Street Journal concerned for reporter

“The Wall Street Journal vehemently denies the allegations from the FSB, and seeks the immediate release of our trusted and unbiased reporter, Evan Gershkovich,” the Journal said in a statement.

Gershkovich’s recent stories included an examination of the impact of international sanctions on Russia’s economy and one about rising tensions between the Kremlin elite and the Wagner paramilitary force, run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, that has been trying for months to take the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine.

The case follows a string of confrontations between the US and the Kremlin regarding detained citizens, amid worsening relations over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russia freed WNBA star Brittney Griner from prison in December in a swap deal for notorious arms dealer Viktor Bout who had been convicted and imprisoned in the US.

Zelensky thanks Biden after democracy summit

After participating in a US-hosted Summit for Democracy, Zelensky thanked President Joe Biden for his support for Ukraine’s defence against Russia’s invasion. While the world is witnessing “the greatest unity of democratic countries in a long time”, even greater solidarity was needed to defeat despotism and oppression, he said in his evening address.

 

 

 

Russian recruitment drive ‘likely to fall short’

Moscow’s efforts to sign up an additional 400,000 troops was being presented as a drive for “volunteer, professional personnel, rather than a new, mandatory mobilisation,” but was likely to fall short, the UK defence ministry said.

“There is a realistic possibility that in practice this distinction will be blurred, and that regional authorities will try to meet their allocated recruitment targets by coercing men to join up,” the ministry said in a Twitter thread. “It is highly unlikely that the campaign will attract 400,000 genuine volunteers.”

Zelensky briefs Italy’s Meloni 

Zelensky said he had a telephone call on Wednesday with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni and informed her about the situation on the battlefield and Ukraine’s needs.

“Already in the coming months, we can be more active on the frontline,” Zelensky said. “And we will do everything to ensure that the support of our steps by the world is as effective as possible.”

Republicans question US aid for Ukraine 

Some congressional Republicans said billions of dollars in US assistance for Ukraine could be misspent and might be better used for domestic priorities.

While backing US support for Ukraine in its struggle against Russian invaders, Representative Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticised western European nations in a hearing on Wednesday for not supplying as much assistance as the US. Representative Nathaniel Moran, a Texas Republican, reiterated past GOP arguments that the US was protecting Ukraine while failing to secure the border with Mexico. DM

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