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UKRAINE UPDATE: 20 APRIL 2023

Russian spy ships gathering intelligence for North Sea sabotage – investigative report; China denies drone exports

Russian spy ships gathering intelligence for North Sea sabotage – investigative report; China denies drone exports
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu during a meeting in Moscow, Russia, 16 April 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Pavel Bednyakov / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool)

Russia may have been using civilian ships to prepare sabotage by gathering intelligence in Nordic waters, according to an investigative report by public broadcasters in Finland, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. The Kremlin denied the report.

The Chinese government denied reports in Western media that the country has exported drones to aid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as groundless — and accused the US of engaging in the spread of “fake information”. 

Senior Russian officials, meanwhile, privately raised concerns some 10 months ago about the risks of becoming too dependent on Chinese technologies after US and European Union sanctions shut off access to alternative suppliers. 

Key developments

US to provide more arms from stockpile  

The Biden administration plans to announce a new weapons package taken from US stockpiles, the 36th such drawdown, according to White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

She said the package to be unveiled later on Wednesday “will include more ammunition for US-provided Himars rocket systems and anti-armour systems as well as additional artillery rounds”.

US aims to send Russian asset funds to Ukraine 

The US Justice Department wants more authority from Congress to give Ukraine money obtained from the seizure and sale of wealthy Russians’ assets, Deputy Attorney-General Lisa Monaco said. The department has limited authority to use proceeds from those assets but can do so in cases involving the evasion of sanctions against Russia, Monaco told the Senate Judiciary Committee during a hearing on Wednesday. 

“We frankly would like to be able to expand that authority,” Monaco said. There are potentially millions more that could be given to Ukraine from assets that are confiscated in response to other crimes, such as export controls violations — if the Justice Department had the authority, Monaco said.

Cost of shipping Russian oil to India is cheapest in weeks  

The cost of delivering Russia’s flagship oil to India dropped to its lowest since at least the start of March, according to Argus Media, whose data are pivotal to a Group of Seven price cap on the nation’s petroleum sales. 

Hauling about 730,000 barrels of Urals crude from Russia’s Baltic port of Primorsk to India’s west coast would cost oil traders $10.60 a barrel, data provided by Argus show.  That represents a drop of 13% since 3 March, when the price-reporting agency began new freight assessments for the trade route.  

 

 

 

US defence chief ‘fully anticipates’ Sweden in Nato 

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said he “fully anticipates” Sweden will be a member of Nato in time for a summit of the alliance’s leaders in Vilnius in July and encouraged Turkey and Hungary to ratify the bid as soon as possible.

Austin said he wouldn’t predict when Turkey would ratify the nation’s bid to join the alliance, but added: “I’m sure these countries will reach that decision and I feel confident they’ll reach it before July.”

Zelensky visits troops 

President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Ukraine’s Volyn region to inspect troops stationed near the border with Poland and Belarus. He thanked personnel for protecting the nation’s frontier. 

The visit followed a trip to the eastern city of Avdiyivka in the embattled Donetsk region that’s on the frontline of fighting.

Ukraine’s Black Sea crop exports resume  

Ukraine’s Black Sea crop shipments resumed, following another brief halt that sparked fresh worries about future cargoes from the key exporter.

Inspections of vessels under a safe-passage corridor were again taking place after a two-day stoppage, according to Ukraine and the joint coordination centre that oversees the checks. Kyiv has blamed the disruption to the initiative — which has been crucial for bringing down global food-commodity costs from records reached after Russia’s invasion — on Moscow.  

Read more: Ukraine’s Black Sea crop exports resume after latest halt

EU to examine grain trade rules after Ukraine import bans 

The EU will take preventive measures under appropriate trade rules for wheat, corn, sunflower and rapeseed to address the situation after several member states banned imports of grain from Ukraine. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is offering three proposals to address the situation. The bloc has already provided a support package of €56-million for most affected farmers — and is now preparing a second package of €100-million for five nations.

 

 

 

China denies it sold drones to help Russia’s military effort 

The Commerce Ministry issued the denial, calling reports to the contrary groundless and fake, according to a statement, and defended Beijing’s “strict control” of drone exports to prevent the hardware from being used in conflicts. 

China will strengthen export controls for drones, the statement said, urging other nations to join in preventing unmanned aircraft from being deployed in Ukraine.  

Bank of Cyprus to close accounts of Russian customers  

Bank of Cyprus Holdings will close all accounts held by Russians who are not residents in the EU country. The action applies to some 4,000 clients and “follows the suspension of Russia’s membership by the Financial Action Task Force and the designation of Russia as a non-cooperative tax jurisdiction by the European Union”, the bank said in a statement.

Total deposits at the island’s largest lender stood at €19-billion on December 31. Of that, about 3% was from Russian or Belarusian clients, according to the lender. 

China is boosting imports of Ukrainian maize through Black Sea  

China, the biggest maize importer, is buying more of the grain from Ukraine, even as Beijing strengthens its strategic relationship with Russia.

About 1.5 million tonnes of maize left Ukrainian ports bound for China under the Black Sea Grain Initiative in March and so far in April, according to data from the Joint Coordination Centre for the agreement. That brings the amount since the start of the year to more than three million tonnes. By comparison, shipments were about 1.7 million tonnes from September to December, the data show.

Estonia hosts world’s largest cyber war games  

More than 3,000 participants from locations in 38 nations will practise defending a fictional country from simulated cyber attacks at a Nato-affiliated exercise based in Tallinn this week. The annual Locked Shields exercise will involve thousands of attacks on mock critical infrastructure systems, such as banks and power plants.

“Ukraine has strong digital competencies, and that has meant that their state can keep delivering essential digital services even in wartime,” Estonian Defence Minister Hanno Pevkur said in a statement.

Bulgaria joins ban on Ukrainian food imports, allows transit 

Prime Minister Galab Donev said that after the introduction of corridors for Ukrainian grains, “significant volumes of foods remained in the country and disrupted basic production-trade chains”. He added: “Bulgaria remains in solidarity with Ukraine but the bankruptcies of its agricultural producers will by no means contribute to its cause.”

Russia ‘mapping Nordic infrastructure using civilian ships’

An investigative report identified some 50 vessels that could be part of a Russian programme to gather intelligence on wind farms, gas pipelines and cables for electricity and data traffic.

While most of the ships have been identified using data from the AIS tracking system, others such as the research vessel Admiral Vladimirsky have been travelling with AIS transceivers switched off. When a team from Denmark’s public broadcaster, DR, approached the ship, which has passed several offshore wind farms in Denmark and the UK, men armed with machine guns appeared on board.

Norway’s NRK broadcasting corporation also identified a Russian fishing vessel that has sailed slowly past US nuclear submarines when they have surfaced in Norwegian waters on at least four occasions. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov denied the report as “groundless,” according to Tass. 

Russian memo said war leaves Moscow too reliant on Chinese tech 

A previously unreported assessment from inside Russia’s Ministry of Digital Development, Communications and Mass Media suggests that some senior officials are worried that Chinese companies such as Huawei Technologies could come to dominate the Russian market and may pose a risk to the country’s information security and networks.

European officials familiar with the document said it suggests that Russia has backed itself into a corner since it struggles to produce advanced technology domestically and has been cut off from other foreign markets following the invasion of Ukraine. The report, drafted in the summer of 2022, highlights chips, network devices and electronics as areas of particular vulnerability. DM 

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