Nato pledges to support Kyiv through ‘good times and bad’; Zelensky declares faith in new defence chief

Nato pledges to support Kyiv through ‘good times and bad’; Zelensky declares faith in new defence chief
Investigators and workers examine damage after a drone attack in central Rostov-on-Don, Russia, on 7 September 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / STR)

Speaking in the European Parliament, Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg pledged that the military alliance would stand by Ukraine ‘not only in good times, but also in bad times’.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed full confidence in his new defence minister and said Rustem Umerov’s most important task more than 18 months into the war was to foster “transparency and trust”.

“Trust is our main weapon,” Zelensky said in a post on X, as he formally introduced Umerov in Kyiv. The minister’s additional priorities, beyond bolstering the nation’s armed forces, include cutting red tape, developing international cooperation and ensuring Ukraine “completes its Nato accession homework”, the Ukrainian leader said.

Russian drones struck Ukraine’s southern Odesa region for the fourth time in five days in an overnight attack, damaging port facilities, a grain silo and an office building, regional governor Oleh Kiper said on Telegram.

Ukrainian forces made progress south of Robotyne, their most advanced point of a counteroffensive along the southern frontline, the General Staff said in a statement on Facebook. Ukrainian troops advanced in the country’s east, while Russian forces continued attempts to make headway near Donetsk and Bakhmut, according to the statement.

Zelensky said he had reiterated an urgent need for hardware including long-range weapons, missile defence systems, artillery and armoured vehicles in talks on Wednesday with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Kyiv. Blinken pledged an additional $1-billion in security and humanitarian funds, presenting a package that includes millions in assets seized from sanctioned Russian oligarchs.

Latest developments

Biden looks to woo back allies as Putin, Xi skip G20 summit

US President Joe Biden aims to seize on the absence of two key adversaries at this week’s Group of 20 leaders meeting in New Delhi to make fresh inroads with countries that China and Russia have previously courted.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping both opted to skip this year’s gathering, giving Biden an opening to re-establish the US as the polestar of the international system. He’ll take the US case to nations such as Brazil, South Africa and Indonesia — not to mention the host, India — that are eager for closer ties with China and have declined to take sides after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Central to that effort is a push to boost the funding and scope of the World Bank and other development banks, in a bid to deepen ties with the world’s emerging economies and offer an alternative to China’s state-backed lending. The US also plans to push for debt relief for poor countries and announce funding for new infrastructure projects. Biden will then visit Vietnam to announce commercial deals deepening ties with the country’s emerging technology sector.

The White House sees this funding as crucial on multiple fronts: as a form of soft-power diplomacy, to make sure projects maintain high labour standards and consider the climate, and as a counterweight to Chinese and Russian efforts to build influence in countries that will only grow in strategic and economic importance.

Biden’s effort hinges on whether other participating powers see the G20 as a still-relevant gathering to steer the global economy. Tensions over the war in Ukraine are only the latest wedge in the diverse and often chaotic multilateral coalition, while China and Russia have sought other forums to exert their influence.

Read more: What to look for as Modi hosts G20 summit in India: QuickTake

Putin is set to meet North Korea leader Kim Jong-un in Russia’s Far East, in what could further undermine international efforts to isolate Pyongyang. Leaders will likely struggle until the last minute to find compromise on language describing Russia’s war in Ukraine — risking the first time that the group doesn’t put out a joint communique since its 1999 founding.

China, meanwhile, has seen its influence on energy markets grow after inviting three of the world’s biggest oil and gas powers — Saudi Arabia, Iran and the UAE — into the BRICS forum, giving Beijing an important alternative to the G20.

East Asia bloc including US agrees on statement omitting war

The leaders of the 18-nation East Asia Summit including the US, China and Russia agreed to adopt a statement that omits any mention of the war in Ukraine.

The statement marks the first time in two years the leaders were able to agree on a text after a dispute over language between the US and Russia prevented them from coming up with one last year in Cambodia.

The leaders of the 18-nation bloc agreed to “promote peace, stability, maritime safety and security, freedom of navigation and overflight, other internationally lawful uses of the seas and unimpeded lawful maritime commerce”.

The East Asia Summit in Jakarta was attended by US Vice President Kamala Harris and Chinese Premier Li Qiang, and comes on the heels of President Joe Biden’s visit to India for a Group of 20 gathering.

An accompanying chairman’s statement released by Asean on Thursday evening took a harder line, strongly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and warning against the use of nuclear weapons. It said many participating nations opposed the war.

“Most members strongly condemn the aggression against Ukraine and underscore the need to reach a just, and lasting peace,” the statement said.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo, this year’s rotating chair of Asean, meanwhile urged the leaders to strengthen cooperation and dialogue, and not to stoke divisions.

McCarthy eyes tying Ukraine aid to Republican border security bill

The next tranche of US aid to Ukraine is running into political trouble as House Speaker Kevin McCarthy considers tying its approval to controversial immigration and asylum policies strongly opposed by Democrats.

President Joe Biden’s request for $24-billion in emergency funds to address the war in Ukraine would not be attached to a must-pass bill needed to fund the government past 1 October, according to a person familiar with McCarthy’s tentative plan.

A protracted standoff over border policies would delay and could endanger the aid to Ukraine at a critical time for the country, which is waging a counteroffensive to take back southern territories seized by Russia.

Separating the Ukraine aid, which is controversial among GOP hardliners, could make House passage of a short-term spending bill easier, avoiding an October 1 government shutdown. The gambit also would remove an obstacle in the way of $16-billion in funds to address a string of wildfire and hurricane disasters included in the short-term funding package.

But a border-Ukraine bill isn’t a sure bet in a House where several ultra-conservatives oppose new aid for Kyiv. And any bill with new restrictions on migrants seeking asylum in the US — a key demand of House conservatives — would be dead on arrival in the Senate.

EU chief presses UAE president on Russia sanctions evasion

The European Union’s top official met the leader of the United Arab Emirates on Thursday for talks on topics including the export of sanctioned goods from the Gulf state to Russia, according to people familiar with the matter.

Ursula von der Leyen described her discussions with UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi as “excellent”. She was expected to ramp up demands that the UAE stops being a gateway for Russia to get around EU sanctions triggered by the invasion of Ukraine, Bloomberg News reported earlier on Thursday

The UAE is one of several countries that have seen a surge in imports of technology such as semiconductors and advanced electronics from Europe and the US over the past 18 months. Ukraine’s allies have banned many of them from being sent to Russia in case they’re used for military purposes.

The UAE has become a key destination for Russian tourists, businesspeople and those leaving their country since the invasion in February last year. Russian investment in Dubai and Abu Dhabi’s property markets has soared.

Grassroots anti-corruption campaign demands Zelensky veto law

Zelensky came under mounting pressure from a grassroots anti-corruption campaign demanding that he block new legislation on asset declarations for public officials.

The campaign, spearheaded by an injured solider recovering in a military hospital, says the new requirements are inadequate because they withhold declarations from the public for a year, citing security reasons. The petition by the soldier, former Health Ministry official Oleksandr Yabchanka, gathered the required 25,000 signatures within three hours.

The draft law “deprives the public and journalists of a tool to control activities of officials — and of the main preventive measure against corruption during the war”, according to the text of the petition posted on the presidential website.

The public outrage underscores a deepening sensitivity to corruption as the Ukrainian public supports troops on the frontline. Zelensky this week replaced his defence minister following allegations of graft in public procurement. Last month, he fired all the military’s draft officers after accusations of sleaze had come to light.

Electronic asset declarations were frozen after Russia’s invasion over security concerns. Restoring them is a demand by international creditors, including the International Monetary Fund, and a condition to obtain visa-free travel in the European Union. Global donors who have championed Ukraine’s integration into Western institutions have taken a close look at corruption, which has been endemic in the country.

The yearlong delay of the asset declaration, a tool used widely by journalists in Ukraine investigating graft, drew immediate scrutiny from anti-corruption groups. Yabchanka’s petition secured well over 60,000 signatures as of Thursday afternoon in Kyiv.

“The president has to decide whether the declarations will be made open now or they will remain closed for many years,” Vitaliy Shabunin, the head of the Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Centre, said on Facebook.

Ukraine’s parliament backed the legislation in its final reading on Tuesday. Zelensky, himself elected to office in 2019 on a campaign to rid the nation of corruption, has 15 days to decide whether to sign it into law.

China’s imports from Russia reach record

China’s imports from Russia surged by the most yet in dollar terms, bucking an overall decline in its purchases of foreign goods as trade between the neighbours booms.

China bought $11.5-billion of Russian products in August after an increase of more than a quarter from July, according to customs figures published in Beijing on Thursday. The monthly haul was the biggest in data going back more than two decades.

Though Chinese exports to Russia dipped after two months of gains, bilateral trade now stands at a cumulative of just over $155-billion in the year to date.

Commerce between Russia and China has surged after the sanctions imposed on the Kremlin by the US and its allies over the invasion of Ukraine upended trade routes and shifted more shipments toward Asia. Russia expects the trade volume with China to reach $200-billion this year from roughly $185-billion in 2022.

Macron wants door left open for Russian athletes at Olympics

French President Emmanuel Macron wants to leave the door open for Russian athletes to compete in the 2024 Paris Olympic Games as individuals, rejecting Kyiv’s plea for an outright ban of Russian competitors.

“Obviously, there can’t be a Russian flag at the Paris Games, I think there’s a consensus on that,” he told French sports newspaper L’Equipe. “Russia as a country has no place at a time when it has committed war crimes, when it is deporting children.”

“The real issue for the Olympic world is to figure out what place to give to these Russian athletes, who have sometimes prepared for a lifetime, and may also be the victims of this regime,” he continued.

Zelensky has repeatedly called for Russian athletes to be banned from the 2024 Games, saying that their participation would amount to endorsing the invasion of his country. The International Olympic Committee, however, has issued a series of recommendations that while no Russian teams can compete in Paris, individual Russian athletes who aren’t affiliated with the Russian military nor have publicly supported the war, can do so.

Russian flags, anthems and uniforms will be prohibited in Paris. These are just the IOC’s recommendations, however, and it’s left it up to the international sporting federations which are running qualifying events over the coming nine months to decide how to interpret those principles, leaving the question of how many Russian athletes will be in Paris still unclear.

Poland, Hungary, Slovakia push for Ukraine grain ban extension

Poland, Hungary and Slovakia are continuing to push for extending a ban on grain imports from Ukraine until the end of the year, warning of disruptions to their domestic markets, according to people familiar with the issue.

The three states along with Bulgaria and Romania only allow the transit of Ukrainian grain through their territory in an arrangement that expires on 15 September. Bulgaria, though voicing concerns, remained flexible at a meeting of ambassadors from European Union countries on Wednesday, said the people who asked not to be named on confidential talks.

Another official said that Romania would not seek a unilateral ban. Bulgaria will insist on extending the ban for sunflower, unrefined oil and powdered milk, but not for wheat, Agriculture Minister Kiril Vatev said last month.

Finding a solution is becoming more urgent as the deadline nears. Janusz Wojciechowski, European commissioner for agriculture, wants the ban prolonged until year-end while also offering subsidies to Ukrainian companies to support the cost of Ukrainian grain transit through Europe. The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, has yet to make a decision on whether to support the ban extension.

China sending envoys to North Korea before Kim’s Russia trip

China plans to send its second high-profile delegation to North Korea in less than two months, just before an expected journey by Kim Jong-un to Russia that could touch on arms deals.

The group led by Politburo member Liu Guozhong will travel to North Korea for celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the country’s founding on Saturday, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency said in a brief notice.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Mao Ning said at a regular press briefing on Thursday in Beijing that the visit “reflects our profound friendship and the high importance we attach to bilateral ties”.

The delegation from North Korea’s biggest benefactor follows China sending a group including Li Hongzhong, also a member of the 24-member Politburo, to Pyongyang for the anniversary of the end of the Korean War in July.

Russia’s ambassador to North Korea, Alexander Matsegora, promised significant participation from his country in the celebrations marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of North Korea, he told state news service Tass. Sanctions imposed on the two in no way affect Moscow-Pyongyang ties, he added.

Russian oil trader expands in Mexico to displace US refiners

Lukoil’s trading unit Litasco is launching a Mexico operation as the oil giant seeks new markets for Russian products under widespread sanction.

Litasco hired oil products trader Yuri Carreno for its new office in Mexico City, according to people with knowledge of the situation. Carreno, who previously spent 25 years as a senior gasoline trader at Petroleos Mexicanos’s trading arm PMI, started in July, said the people, who asked not to be identified discussing internal matters.

The expansion into Mexico, which is Latin America’s largest fuel importer, would open up a new market for Russian fuels that are under sanction by G7 nations following Russia’s war in Ukraine. While Mexico has imported from Russia only once since the war began, Russian shipments have been making other inroads into Latin America. Brazil has been importing record volumes of diesel from the nation. Argentina, too, has been buying naphtha and diesel.

If successful, the effort could see Russia displace the US as Mexico’s top fuel supplier. The US currently supplies 90% of Mexico’s gasoline and diesel imports. DM


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