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UKRAINE UPDATE: 21 SEPTEMBER 2023

EU’s Von der Leyen praises Kyiv on membership progress; Zelensky calls for Russia to be stripped of UN veto power

EU’s Von der Leyen praises Kyiv on membership progress; Zelensky calls for Russia to be stripped of UN veto power
President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky addresses delegates during the 78th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the United Nations headquarters in New York, New York, US, 19 September 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Justin Lane)

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said Ukraine was making progress in enacting the reforms required to join the European Union, while Poland’s head of state criticised the government in Kyiv for its handling of a dispute over imported grain.

The disagreement has intensified after Poland extended a ban on imports from its eastern neighbour in a push to placate its farmers, whose support will be crucial in parliamentary elections next month. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky earlier accused “some in Europe” of “turning grain into a thriller” and “helping set the stage for a Moscow actor”. 

Ukraine downed 17 out of 24 Shahed drones launched by Russian forces overnight, according to a statement from the country’s General Staff on Facebook. The Kremenchuk oil refinery in central Ukraine temporarily halted operations after a Russian drone attack, Poltava regional Governor Dmytro Lunin said on Telegram.

Latest developments

Zelensky blasts ‘criminal’ war, calls for ending Russia UN veto

Zelensky lashed out at Russia for killing tens of thousands of his citizens in his first in-person address to the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday, calling for Moscow to be stripped of its powerful veto as one of the permanent members of the UN’s top decision-making body. 

“Veto power in the hands of the aggressor is what has pushed the UN into deadlock,” Zelensky told council members during a tense session, adding that it was impossible for the body to stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because of Moscow’s ability to veto any effort or initiative at the Security Council. 

“Most of the world recognises the truth about this war. It is a criminal and unprovoked aggression by Russia against our nation, aimed at seizing Ukraine’s territory and resources,” Zelensky, clad in the military-style fatigues that have become his hallmark since Russia’s invasion in February 2022, said.

Amid the impassioned speeches, it was admissions of the UN’s powerlessness to stop the bloodiest conflict in Europe since World War 2 that rang truer than the calls for changing the international body’s rules, something that few diplomats think is likely. 

Zelensky’s appeal came as Ukraine’s allies in the US and Europe have grown increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for ending the war soon. Kyiv’s counteroffensive has progressed slowly and officials now see the fighting continuing for years to come, challenging governments to keep up military and financial support amid growing domestic opposition to the cost. 

Russia is digging in for a long conflict, confident it can outlast Kyiv’s allies, according to US and European officials.  

Wartime alliance at risk as Poland and Ukraine fight over grain

Poland summoned Ukraine’s ambassador and threatened to expand a grain ban to other imports from its neighbour, escalating a dispute that’s threatening to wreck an alliance key to Kyiv’s fight against Russia.

The government in Warsaw reacted to remarks from Zelensky at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday in which the Ukrainian leader accused some European Union countries of feigning solidarity with his war-torn nation and appeasing Russia. 

While Zelensky didn’t single out Poland, his language triggered an angry response there. The ruling Law & Justice party is seething over earlier criticism from Kyiv about its decision to unilaterally extend a ban on Ukrainian grain imports — a move seen as a pre-election appeal to rural Polish voters.

After an initial exchange of barbs between Zelensky and his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda, on Tuesday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki threatened to add more products to the grain ban if Kyiv escalates. 

“I warn the Ukrainian authorities,” Morawiecki told Polsat news. “We were the first to do a lot for Ukraine, and therefore we expect our interests to be understood. We will defend our interests with all determination.”

The dispute cast into sharp contrast the unity that had defined the relationship between the neighbours before the grain dispute, a friendship that seemed to epitomise Western solidarity with Ukraine. Zelensky and Duda had regular phone conversations early in the war and in April, Duda vowed alongside Zelensky that Russia would never drive the neighbours apart.

But Duda laid into his counterpart on Tuesday in New York, comparing Ukraine’s reaction to the grain ban to that of a drowning man, who “can be extremely dangerous, because he can drag you to the depths” and “drown the rescuers”.

“We cannot allow that Ukrainian grain is sold on the Polish market without any control,” Duda said in an interview on Tuesday on Bloomberg Television with Annmarie Hordern in New York. “We also have our own citizens, we have to care for their interest.” 

Russia’s diamond giant halts sales with prices in free-fall

Russian diamond miner Alrosa has taken the almost unprecedented step of halting all its diamond sales in an attempt to prop up plunging prices.

Diamond demand across the board has weakened in the aftermath of the pandemic, as consumers splash out again on travel and experiences, while economic headwinds eat into luxury spending. However, the drop in prices has accelerated in recent weeks, and buyers in India — the industry’s biggest customers for rough diamonds — have been putting pressure on the biggest miners to rein in supply. 

Alrosa has now halted sales until November, while rival and one-time monopoly De Beers is giving its accredited buyers increasing flexibility to reject diamonds that they are contracted to buy.  

Ukraine revives asset declarations as graft crackdown continues

Ukraine’s parliament reinstated a requirement obliging officials to publicly declare their assets, beefing up a previous version of the bill vetoed by Zelensky after it drew criticism for being too soft. 

The long-awaited legislation comes as Zelensky’s government steps up an anti-corruption crackdown that has triggered the dismissal of dozens of ministers, legislators and other officials, as well as charges against some of Ukraine’s richest businessmen.

The new law, which was backed by 341 legislators in the 450-seat legislature, followed Zelensky’s rejection of a draft that restored a requirement that public officials file a mandatory electronic declaration of their assets but delayed disclosure of the contents by a year.

That version triggered public outcry, with a petition urging the president to reject it — launched by a wounded soldier recovering in a military hospital — garnering 25,000 signatures in just a few hours.

“We will start looking for those cunning politicians who have enriched themselves during the war,” said Vitaliy Shabunin, the head of the non-governmental Ukrainian Anti-Corruption Action Center. “So, in a few weeks, good hunting to us all.” 

Russia becomes UAE’s top gold source after being shut out of West

Russia became the United Arab Emirates’ top source of gold last year after Western countries imposed sanctions on supplies following the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. 

The UAE last year imported 96.4 tonnes of gold from Russia, more than any other country, according to the United Nations’ Comtrade database. That’s roughly a third of Russia’s annual mine production, and a more than 15-fold increase year-on-year in the UAE’s gold imports from the country.

The UAE has long been a key hub for precious metals, particularly from Africa and India, but last year was the first time it played a major role in trading Russian gold. Before the war, almost all of Russia’s bullion was shipped to London, the world’s top market, but it rapidly became taboo among the banks that used to handle it.

Western sanctions have severed Russia’s usual export routes, forcing the country’s miners to find new ways to sell their metal. Little-known traders in Dubai, Istanbul and Hong Kong have taken over the trade, Bloomberg reported earlier this year. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Fanie Rajesh Ngabiso says:

    Why should any country be allowed veto rights. It makes no sense to me. A different policy if necessary might be something like vote weighting, where countries are given a number of votes relative to some agreed measure, say for example GDP. But veto ability should be entirely removed as it renders the UN either biased or useless, or both.

    • Graeme J says:

      You make a very good point. The reasons for the veto right are historical (back to the time of the formation of the UN). In modern context I believe the veto right should be removed and replaced with something else. I also question the entire relevance of the UN in today’s political landscape.

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