World

UKRAINE UPDATE: 6 SEPTEMBER 2023

Kyiv cites further military advances in south; trafficking ring accused of sending Cubans to Russian front line

Kyiv cites further military advances in south; trafficking ring accused of sending Cubans to Russian front line
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky (right) presents a state award to a Ukrainian servicewoman during his working visit to the Donetsk region, Ukraine, on 4 September 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Presidential Press Service Handout)

President Volodymyr Zelensky visited troops on Ukraine’s eastern front as the military reported further advances in the south, with the counteroffensive pressing ahead in a grinding effort to pierce Russian defensive lines.

Ukrainian forces made gains south of the recaptured settlement of Robotyne as troops advanced towards the occupied city of Melitopol, the military said. Infantry units advanced beyond anti-tank obstacles in the area, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

Russia warned on Tuesday it will treat any US move to station nuclear weapons in the UK for the first time in 15 years as an “escalation” after media reports indicated plans to deploy the bombs on British soil. The US Air Force has earmarked $50-million in funding for military housing at a UK air base.

Latest developments

Challenger 2 tank destroyed in Ukraine, a first from enemy fire

A British-made Challenger 2 main battle tank was destroyed by enemy fire for the first time as Kyiv pressed its counteroffensive against Russian troops in the occupied southeast.

A video of a destroyed tank near Robotyne, a village in the Zaporizhzhia region liberated by Ukrainian forces last month, was posted on social media on Monday. A UK defence official, who wished not to be named, confirmed the tank — a model that Britain has used for almost three decades — was destroyed. It wasn’t clear whether the crew survived.

Ukraine received 14 Challenger 2s this year from the UK, which was the first of Kyiv’s allies to pledge top-flight, modern Nato-standard tanks for the fight against the invasion. Having broken the taboo, which some Western governments feared would provoke escalation with Moscow, the British commitment was followed by a German pledge for Leopard 2 tanks, and a US vow to supply Abrams M1s.

Challenger 2s are considered one of the world’s most effective and battle-tested tanks, protected by heavy armour and boasting a very accurate main gun. The only other Challenger 2 lost in battle was destroyed when a UK-manned Challenger 2 inadvertently shot another in Iraq in 2003, according to a UK army report.

After launching the counteroffensive in June, Ukraine’s troops have been engaged in a grinding fight to punch through Russia’s formidable defence network of trenches, bunkers and anti-tank barriers both in the eastern Donetsk region and to the south with the intention of cutting the Kremlin’s supply line from occupied Crimea.

After weeks of slow progress, Kyiv’s forces breached the first of three main lines of fortifications last month and are now threatening to stage a wider breakthrough. Infantry units advanced beyond anti-tank obstacles in the area south of Robotyne, according to the Institute for the Study of War.

Difficult setbacks and the slow pace of the offensive have worried Ukraine’s allies, who say a long fight risks giving Russian President Vladimir Putin the upper hand in a war of attrition.

Ukraine piles on new charges against Russian billionaire Fridman

Ukraine moved to add new charges against Russian billionaire Mikhail Fridman to an earlier criminal case over alleged fraud.

Ukraine’s Security Service said on Tuesday it documented “criminal activity” by the businessman, including his involvement in financing Russia’s war against Ukraine through the investment consortium Alfa Group under his control, according to a statement on the investigative body’s website.

Fridman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The billionaire, sanctioned by the US last month, injected about two billion roubles ($20.5-million) in several Russian military plants, including bullet-maker Tulskiy Patronniy Zavod and a producer of hi-tech equipment for fighter jets and helicopters, PA Urals Optical & Mechanical Plant, the Security Service said.

Additionally, Fridman’s insurance company allegedly helped insure both military equipment and Russian servicemen, while his telecommunications firm cooperated with Russia’s Federal Security Service, or FSB, to render services in Ukrainian territories that Russia occupied. Ukraine’s Security Service issued a “notice of suspicion” for Fridman, a formal step before he can be charged. He faces as many as eight years in prison and could have his property confiscated if found guilty, Ukraine said.

Ukrainian prosecutors already suspect Fridman, who has both Israeli and Russian passports, of organising a criminal group that was involved with fraud, forging documents, withdrawing assets from Ukraine and tax evasion.

Trafficking ring accused of sending Cubans to Russia’s front line

Cuba’s government said it was dismantling a human trafficking network based in Russia that has recruited citizens from the communist island to work on military operations against Ukraine.

In a statement on Monday, the Foreign Ministry said Cubans in Russia and on the island had been targeted by traffickers for “military recruitment purposes” and that it had shut down the ring and initiated criminal proceedings.

Russia and Cuba are longtime allies, and Moscow’s role has become increasingly important on an island that’s stumbling through a deep economic crisis. The statement marks rare public friction between the two nations.

“Cuba is not part of the war in Ukraine,” the ministry said. “It is acting and will firmly act against those who, within the national territory, participate in any form of human trafficking for mercenary or recruitment purposes that lead Cuban citizens to raise weapons against any country.”

The announcement comes after two Cuban men told YouTube influencer Alain Paparazzi Cubano last week that they and others had been recruited in Cuba and flown to Russia under the impression they would work construction jobs. Instead, they claim they were sent to dig trenches on the front line with Ukraine and were not paid what they were promised.

Russia warns of ‘escalation’ if US stations nuclear bombs in UK

Russia warned on Tuesday it will treat any US move to station nuclear weapons in the UK for the first time in 15 years as an “escalation” after media reports indicated plans to deploy the bombs on British soil.

“If this happens, it will be treated by us as an escalation, which will lead to the exact opposite of achieving the pressing task of removing all US nuclear weapons from Europe,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on Tuesday, according to state news service Tass.

The US Air Force has earmarked $50-million in funding for military housing at a UK air base. The language used to describe the purpose for the increased personnel usually refers to the handling of nuclear weapons, The Guardian reported last week.

UK anti-nuclear group the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, or CND, said the move threatened a return of nuclear weapons to RAF Lakenheath, located 100km north of London, where 110 US atomic bombs were stored until their removal in 2008 after persistent protests.

Around 150 US B-61 nuclear gravity bombs are currently stationed in four European countries — Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy — as well as Turkey, the group said.

The RAF Lakenheath base is operated by the US Air Force, according to its website.

Russian oil, gas revenue falls on higher fuel subsidies

The Russian government’s oil and natural gas revenue sank in August as subsidies to the nation’s refiners offset a surge in crude prices and a weaker rouble.

Budget proceeds from oil and gas fell by 4.3% from a year ago to 642.7 billion roubles ($6.6-billion), the Finance Ministry said on Tuesday. Without the significant increase in subsidy payouts to fuel producers last month, the nation’s proceeds from hydrocarbons would have grown on an annual basis, as they did in July, according to Bloomberg calculations.

Russia’s oil and gas industry, which accounts for around a third of the country’s government revenue, has been under pressure amid the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine and subsequent Western sanctions. The Group of Seven industrialised nations imposed a price cap on Russian crude and products to limit the inflow of petrodollars and Moscow’s ability to finance its military aggression.

International oil benchmark Brent crude surged above $89 a barrel on Monday, the highest this year, as Opec+ partners Saudi Arabia and Russia restrict supplies in an effort to bolster prices. Key consumer China has also intensified efforts to strengthen its economy, boosting optimism about the strength of demand.

North Korea’s Kim to visit Russia as US warns of arms deal

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un will meet Putin in Russia’s Far East as the US is warning Pyongyang may provide Moscow arms for its war on Ukraine.

Kim will travel to Vladivostok and visit Putin during the annual Eastern Economic Forum, which will be held 10-13 September, according to a person familiar with the plans.

The US earlier said Kim expected “leader-level talks” with Putin as he seeks weapons, and that arms negotiations between the two countries were “actively advancing”.

Putin and Kim held their first official meeting in April 2019, when the North Korean leader travelled to Vladivostok on an armoured train across his country’s border with Russia.

Read more: Why Putin and Kim becoming pals is a danger to world: QuickTake

While the 2019 meeting touched on the breakdown of nuclear disarmament talks between North Korea and the US, the upcoming visit will likely be coloured by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The discussions will be focused on the development of cooperation between the nations, a person familiar with the preparations said.

The meeting provides Putin with an opportunity to further strengthen ties with a country outside the US and Europe’s sphere of influence. The US has accused North Korea for months of providing weapons to help in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Recently, the two leaders exchanged letters and Russian officials visited Pyongyang to discuss possible arms deals, according to US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. In July, Russia also proposed joint naval drills with North Korea and China, Yonhap News reported, citing South Korea’s spy agency, though there was no indication of whether Kim accepted the offer.

The New York Times earlier reported the North Korean leader could travel to Russia as early as next week. The Kremlin didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The White House has said the weapons North Korea can provide Russia wouldn’t significantly alter the situation on the battlefield. The most likely weapons Pyongyang may send would be artillery shells, artillery rockets and anti-tank missiles.

In return, Kim seeks Russian help with advanced technology, including for satellites and submarines, as well as food aid, according to The New York Times report, which cited US officials.

More Ukrainians who fled war may never return, study shows

As many as 3.3 million Ukrainians — or almost 8% of the country’s pre-war population — may not return home after fleeing Russia’s invasion, a study showed.

That estimate is up by as many as 600,000 since December, Ukraine’s Centre for Economic Strategy said in a report issued on Monday, citing a similar study then. The Kyiv-based think tank attributed the increase to the duration of the conflict, now in its 18th month, Russian attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and growing adaptation to life abroad.

The longer the war lasts, the more Ukrainians who fled the conflict — as many as 6.7 million, according to CES — are likely to make temporary shelters their new home. Ukrainian women, who make up a majority of asylum seekers, will increasingly seek better prospects for their children, the study said.

“People who left the war zone may have nowhere to return,” the study said. “So their return will depend on how quickly their regions will rebuild or whether they will be supported to move to other regions of Ukraine.”

The prospect of millions of people not coming home poses a grave risk to Ukraine’s ambitious plans to rebuild after the war. The study said the potential population drain could undercut the economy, whose exports and infrastructure have been battered by the invasion, by sapping as much as 6.9% of potential output per year.

The Economy Ministry has said the country, whose pre-war population was 43 million, is some 4.5 million short — including workers and entrepreneurs — of achieving a goal to double the size of the economy by 2032. DM

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