UKRAINE UPDATE: 5 JULY 2023
Russian shelling in Kharkiv wounds 31 people; Nato extends Stoltenberg’s tenure
At least 31 people, including nine children, were wounded by Russian shelling in the town of Pervomaiskyi in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region, according to local authorities.
Amid the continuing fighting, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) extended Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s term by a year. “In a more dangerous world, our great alliance is more important than ever,” said Stoltenberg, whose extension was the third in the Norwegian’s tenure as Nato chief.
Hungary said it would back Sweden’s bid to join the alliance once Turkey signals it’s also ready to do so. But Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto reiterated that Hungary will block any further European Union financing of weapons to Ukraine as long as OTP Bank, the nation’s largest lender, remains on a list drawn up by Kyiv of international war sponsors.
- Nato extends Stoltenberg’s tenure as chief for another year
- Putin tells China-led bloc that Russia supports him after mutiny
- Russia shuts Moscow airport for three hours after drone attack
- Hungary says it’ll back Sweden’s Nato entry once Turkey moves
- Austria to traders: Don’t bank on Russian gas transiting Ukraine
Russia eyes Chechens and convicts to fill gaps left by Wagner
Russia is preparing to send more Chechen fighters and convicts to Ukraine to fill holes left by Wagner mercenaries that were pulled from the battlefield, European intelligence officials believe.
With Ukraine reporting its counteroffensive advancing toward the eastern city of Bakhmut, Russian units risk being overstretched, according to the officials, who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. Russia deployed large numbers of troops to Bakhmut after Wagner announced its withdrawal from the city in late May, leaving shortages in occupied areas of southern Ukraine, the officials said.
The insurrection by Wagner founder Yevgeny Prigozhin that spiralled into the biggest threat to President Vladimir Putin’s 24-year rule has deprived Russian forces of some of their most battle-hardened troops in Ukraine. The Defence Ministry in Moscow has given no indication so far of how many mercenaries signed contracts to join the military by a 1 July deadline. Prigozhin accused Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu of attempting to “destroy” Wagner with the demand.
Ukraine said last week that Wagner forces were unlikely to reappear on the battlefield in any significant numbers. Ukrainian military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov told the Ukrainska Pravda news outlet the group was “the most efficient Russian unit, which was able to achieve success at any price”.
Prigozhin said he lost 20,000 troops, including about half those recruited from prisons, during months of bitter fighting for Bakhmut, in an interview with a Russian journalist in May. He claimed to have deployed 50,000 convicts on the battlefield.
While Wagner’s exit isn’t expected to alter the course of the war in Ukraine, Putin’s determination to avoid full military mobilisation means Russia is likely to send more Chechens and convicts to the front line in the coming weeks, the European officials said.
Dmitry Medvedev, the former president who’s now deputy head of Russia’s security council, claimed on Tuesday the Defence Ministry had recruited 185,000 new contract soldiers so far this year, including almost 10,000 who had signed up in the past week since the mutiny. The numbers couldn’t be independently verified.
After taking over recruitment of convicts, the Defence Ministry has steadily increased the number of prisoners in the army to around 15,000. The total is likely to rise further, the European officials said. Around 2,000 serve in so-called “Storm Z” penal military units.
It’s unclear how many additional troops the southern Russian republic of Chechnya could provide. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, who professes devotion to Putin, said in May on Telegram that 7,000 troops were already in Ukraine and another 2,400 were being trained for two new Defence Ministry regiments.
Oligarch Fridman bemoans a life ‘destroyed’ by EU sanctions
The life of Mikhail Fridman, one of Russia’s original oligarchs, was “destroyed” after he was hit by European Union sanctions following the Kremlin-led invasion of Ukraine, his attorney told an EU court.
At a hearing in the bloc’s General Court, Fridman’s legal team pushed back at the EU’s allegations “of the most serious crimes” – that he’s an ally of Putin who backed and benefited from the aggression in his native Ukraine.
“This has a very negative impact on his life and it rests on nothing,” lawyer Thierry Marembert said, describing the EU’s evidence as “not trustworthy” and “a lot of empty words.”
Fridman is one of Russia’s most prominent businessmen after making billions in banking, oil and retail. After he and his partners pocketed $14-billion from the sale of oil company TNK-BP to state-controlled Rosneft in 2013, he moved to the UK to set up a private equity firm investing in businesses around the world.
The EU and the UK imposed sanctions on Fridman and his partners soon after the invasion began last February, freezing his assets. He has remained in London, living under the restrictions. He isn’t under US sanctions.
Fridman last year publicly condemned the war as a “tragedy,” but stopped short of directly criticising Putin. Since then he’s vehemently rejected EU findings that he’s gained from his loyalty to the Russian president.
The EU says its evidence shows Fridman is a co-founder of Alfa Group, which controls Russia’s largest retailer and private bank and has close ties to the Russian political regime. It’s these connections that allowed him “to acquire state property as a reward from Alfa Group for his loyalty to the political regime,” according to the EU.
Fridman, with his partners Petr Aven, German Khan and Alexey Kuzmichev, is among a long list of billionaires, including Roman Abramovich and family members, who’ve flocked to the EU’s top courts to extricate themselves from EU sanctions, which imposed asset freezes and travel bans on them.
Austria to traders: Don’t bank on Russian gas transiting Ukraine
Austria’s top energy official has a message to natural gas traders: don’t bank on Russian fuel continuing to flow into the European Union via Ukraine.
Traditionally one of the Kremlin’s best and oldest gas customers in central Europe, Austria is redoubling efforts to reduce its reliance on Russian shipments, which still cover more than half the country’s demand. Much of the fuel transits pipelines crossing Ukraine, but that could change quickly, Energy Minister Leonore Gewessler said.
“We have a pipeline that goes through an active war zone,” she said in an interview. “Deliveries could stop anytime. We have to be prepared.”
Benchmark European gas prices have risen by more than 40% since Gerhard Roiss, the former chief executive officer of OMV and an adviser to Gewessler, warned early in June that it’s unlikely Ukraine and Russia will prolong their transit agreement once it expires in 2024. That deal was brokered by the EU in 2019 and there’s no guarantee that either Ukraine or Russia will ask the bloc to find a solution, Gewessler said.
“But even without a transit agreement, gas can be transported,” the minister said, adding that the agreement between Ukraine and Russia is “only one part of the equation”.
Putin tells China-led bloc that Russians support him after mutiny
Putin told a regional security grouping that Russians were united behind his leadership in his first international appearance since the failed mutiny that posed the greatest threat to his almost quarter-century rule.
Putin also thanked leaders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation “who have expressed support for the actions of the Russian leadership to protect the constitutional order,” at an online summit on Tuesday hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi that also included Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We highly appreciate it,” Putin said.
Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s forces came to within 200km of Moscow virtually unopposed before he called off the uprising under a deal brokered by Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko. The episode has raised questions over whether hardline elements within the military may have known about Prigozhin’s plans in advance as he sought the ouster of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, a long-time Putin ally, over failures in Russia’s war in Ukraine.
A top Russian general, Sergei Surovikin, who was repeatedly praised by the Wagner founder, hasn’t been seen in public since the mutiny ended on 24 June. Prigozhin also hasn’t been seen since agreeing to the deal, under which he was allowed to leave for Belarus without facing any criminal charges along with any Wagner fighters who chose to join him.
Moscow airport reopens after drone attack grounds flights
Russian authorities halted flights at one of Moscow’s three major airports after downing what officials said were several Ukrainian drones.
Air defences destroyed four drones and another was brought down using electronic countermeasures, the Defence Ministry in Moscow said early on Tuesday. There were no casualties, it said in a Telegram statement.
Debris from one of the drones caused a fire in a maintenance building, according to the state-run Tass news service. The attack was the most serious involving unmanned aircraft near Moscow since the end of May.
Moscow Mayor Sergey Sobyanin wrote on Telegram that Vnukovo Airport resumed work at 8am after having been halted for almost three hours. Fourteen flights were diverted to other airports during that time. DM