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UKRAINE UPDATE: 30 AUGUST 2023

Putin prepares to visit China; Vatican back-pedals on Pope Francis’ remarks on ‘great Russian empire’

Putin prepares to visit China; Vatican back-pedals on Pope Francis’ remarks on ‘great Russian empire’
Pope Francis attends his weekly General Audience at the Paul VI Hall on 9 August 2023 in Vatican City, Vatican. (Photo: Vatican Media via Vatican Pool / Getty Images)

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is preparing to visit China in October, his first foreign trip since a warrant for his arrest on alleged war crimes was issued by the International Criminal Court.

The Vatican sought to walk back remarks from Pope Francis after he told Russians last week to take pride in being “the heirs” of “that great, enlightened Russian empire”. The Foreign Ministry in Kyiv called the speech “sad”, while the head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church denounced it as an endorsement of Russia’s “nationalism and imperialism”.

Ukraine needs more time to discuss its peace formula with non-Western countries, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in Paris, as he pressed on with a tour of European allies to drum up support for the plan.

Latest developments

Putin to skip funeral of Wagner’s Prigozhin, says Kremlin 

Russian President Vladimir Putin doesn’t plan to attend the funeral of Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin, who died in a plane crash.

“There are no plans for the president to attend,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Tuesday, according to the Interfax news service. “We don’t have any information about the funeral. This is a decision for family and friends.”

Russian investigators on Sunday confirmed Prigozhin’s death in the crash, as speculation continued to swirl over a possible Kremlin-ordered execution. All 10 passengers and crew, including some of Prigozhin’s top lieutenants, listed as having been onboard the Embraer SA Legacy 600 private jet, died when it crashed en route from Moscow to St Petersburg on 23 August.

Later on Tuesday, Prigozhin’s press service said on Telegram that a “farewell” for the mercenary chief had been held in a closed ceremony, and those wishing to pay respects could visit the Porokhovskoe cemetery in St Petersburg.

Ukraine ‘needs more time’ to discuss peace formula 

Ukraine needs more time to discuss its peace formula with non-Western countries, its foreign minister said, as he pressed on with a tour of European allies to drum up support for the plan.

Speaking alongside his French counterpart, Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna, Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine would use the opportunity of the next session of the United Nations to speak to Asian and Latin American nations that have yet to show support.

“We need more diplomacy, more communication, more contacts, and we’ll take advantage of the next UN session,” he said in Paris on Tuesday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last year released his 10-point “formula”, which calls for a full Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory, the release of all prisoners of war and deportees and steps to ensure food and energy security.

It also includes security guarantees for Ukraine once the fighting ends and safeguards for the area around the occupied nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia. So far, key elements of that draft haven’t got much traction beyond Kyiv’s allies.

Russia, meanwhile, is courting the favour of emerging geopolitical powers known as the Global South. Many of those nations support the idea of a peaceful negotiation while refraining from backing Ukraine’s plan. Moscow insists the territory it occupies is now part of its country and rejects any proposal that it withdraws.

Still, Kuleba said Ukraine was seeing that some African countries were willing to join the process.

Vatican forced to clarify pope’s praise of Russia’s past empire 

The Vatican tried to walk back remarks from Pope Francis after he told Russians last week to take pride in being “the heirs” of “that great Russian empire” in comments that ignited outrage in Ukraine.

The Foreign Ministry in Kyiv called the pope’s statements, made in a speech Friday to young Russians, “sad” and said his comments supported the “imperialistic ideas” embraced by Putin.

The Vatican said Francis’s comments, in which he told Russians to honour “the legacy” of leaders that expanded Russia’s borders by force, including Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, had not meant to praise expansionist thinking.

“The pope intended to encourage young people to preserve and promote all that is positive in the great Russian cultural and spiritual heritage, and certainly not to exalt imperialist logic and government personalities,” Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni said in a statement.

The pope’s mention of Peter and Catherine was made “to indicate some historical periods of reference”, he added.

The head of Ukraine’s Greek Catholic Church denounced the comments as an endorsement of Russia’s “nationalism and imperialism that today has caused the war in Ukraine — a war that brings death and destruction to our people every day”.

Credit Suisse’s banker to Russian billionaires retained by UBS 

Credit Suisse’s go-to banker for Russian billionaires has been retained by UBS Group, in one of the highest-profile moves yet for the merged bank’s wealth management business.

Babak Dastmaltschi is working at a new unit in UBS’s wealth division that regroups an elite crop of senior private bankers from both UBS and Credit Suisse who handle some of the most important client relationships, according to people familiar with the matter who didn’t want to be named discussing personnel decisions.

The unit, called GWM Strategic Clients, is run by Benjamin Cavalli, another Credit Suisse import, who reports directly to the head of UBS’s global wealth unit, Iqbal Khan. UBS’s former head for the Middle East, Ali Janoudi, also joined the group as an executive chairman. Dastmaltschi will hold an executive vice-chair title, the people said.

UBS is trying to retain many of Credit Suisse’s most senior wealth bankers along with the client relationships they oversee. But the decision to bring Dastmaltschi on board, who made his name in private banking by catering to tycoons emerging from the collapse of the Soviet Union, may raise eyebrows. UBS and Credit Suisse are among a clutch of banks facing US Department of Justice investigations into alleged breach of sanctions on Russian individuals.

Both banks completely shut down their Russia-related operations after more sanctions were imposed in February 2022 over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Dastmaltschi was for many years at Credit Suisse the go-to guy for some of the most prominent oligarchs deemed to be close to the Kremlin who were later sanctioned, including Alisher Usmanov, Roman Abramovich and Viktor Vekselberg. Abramovich also tapped him to help with his ultimately unsuccessful bid to secure residence in the exclusive Swiss ski resort of Verbier.

At its peak, Credit Suisse managed more than $60-billion for Russian clients, a number that began dropping after the first sanctions on Russian oligarchs were imposed following the Crimea annexation. By February 2022, the number stood at $33-billion, still 50% more than UBS, despite the latter’s larger wealth management business.

Hawkish US senators and members of Congress have expressed frustration at what they say is Switzerland’s lukewarm enforcement of sanctions and unwillingness to join its Kleptocapture programme designed to implement specifically US sanctions on Russia. Switzerland has been mirroring EU sanctions since the beginning of the war and toward the end of last year said it had frozen about 7.5 billion Swiss francs worth of Russian assets.

Russia’s seaborne crude flow surges to eight-week high

Russia’s seaborne crude flows soared to an eight-week high ahead of a planned easing of an export cut Moscow began to implement in June.

Average nationwide shipments in the week to 27 August rose to 3.4 million barrels a day, tanker-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg show. That’s a jump of about 880,000 barrels a day from the previous week, with the biggest increases seen at the Baltic ports of Primorsk and Ust-Luga. Flows from Novorossiysk on the Black Sea also recovered after the previous week’s storms. Less volatile four-week average numbers increased by a modest 40,000 barrels a day.

It’s too soon to be sure how sustained the increase will be because weekly data can be volatile. The jump in crude flows comes as shipments of refined fuels are set to slump to a 15-month low, amid strong domestic demand for road fuels and as some products exceeded Group of Seven price caps.

Despite last week’s jump, the figures support the notion that Moscow is now honouring a pledge to keep supply off the global market alongside its allies in the Opec+ producer coalition. Russia initially said it would cut oil production in retaliation for Western sanctions and price caps on its oil imposed after the invasion of Ukraine, using February 2023 figures as a baseline.

Putin touts close India-Russia ties in phone call with Modi

Putin touted Russia’s close ties with India in a phone call with Prime Minister Narendra Modi as world leaders prepare to gather in New Delhi next week for the Group of 20 summit.

Relations between the countries are “developing progressively in the spirit of a specially privileged strategic partnership”, according to a statement from the Kremlin on Monday. Both nations plan to carry out large-scale energy projects and expand transport and logistics infrastructure, the statement said.

India’s readout of the meeting avoided any characterisation of the relationship, mentioning only that Putin confirmed Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would attend the summit on behalf of Russia. It also said the leaders exchanged views on global issues, including the BRICS summit in South Africa last week — a meeting Putin also didn’t attend in person, in part because of the risk he would be arrested for alleged war crimes under a warrant issued by the International Criminal Court.

The Kremlin said earlier that Putin was too “busy” to attend the G20 summit and his main focus for now was overseeing Russia’s war in Ukraine. DM

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