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UKRAINE UPDATE: 9 OCTOBER 2023

New Ukraine defence minister visits troops on eastern front; civilian targets shelled in Kherson

New Ukraine defence minister visits troops on eastern front; civilian targets shelled in Kherson
A man clears debris after a house was destroyed after shelling in the village of Bilenke, Zaporizhia region, Ukraine, on 7 October 2023. Two people were killed, three houses were destroyed and 10 were damaged, the State Emergency Service and Zaporizhia Oblast Military Administraion said. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Kateryna Klochko)

Rustem Umerov, appointed in September as Ukraine’s defence minister, made his first announced visit to troops and top field commanders on the eastern front, according to posts on X, formerly Twitter.

Russia shelled residential buildings and other civilian targets in Kherson overnight, wounding several people including an infant, local officials said. The incident follows the car-bombing death on Saturday of an official from President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia Party in the Kherson region city of Nova Kakhovka. Vladimir Malov died in hospital after what occupation officials termed a “terrorist attack.” Ukraine hasn’t commented.

Russia “will likely continue to exploit the Hamas attacks in Israel to advance several information operations intended to reduce US and Western support and attention to Ukraine,” US-based military analysts at the Institute for the Study of War said in a research note.

“The Kremlin amplified several information operations following Hamas attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, primarily blaming the West for neglecting conflicts in the Middle East.” Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky was among a handful of world leaders to speak to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday.

Latest developments

Switzerland’s thriving Russian spy hub draws scrutiny

Switzerland has become home to one-fifth of the Russian spies operating in Europe as other countries expel diplomats, NZZ newspaper reported, citing an intelligence report.

European governments have kicked out hundreds of Russian diplomats alleged to be working as spies since Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Yet Switzerland is now home to some 80 Russian agents, a senior official with the Swiss Federal Intelligence Service (NDB) told members of the National Council’s Foreign Policy Commission in September, NZZ reported.

While Swiss cities such as Geneva and Bern have always attracted intelligence activities, the issue of Russian diplomats operating as spies in Switzerland has now become a more heightened topic of debate among Swiss politicians.

“These foreign agents represent a threat to the internal and external security of Switzerland,” a national councillor and member of the Social Democratic Party, Fabian Molina, told NZZ.

Long known for its stance of neutrality, Switzerland has broken with tradition by mirroring most European Union sanctions against Russia and some related individuals since the beginning of the war. It said last year it had frozen about 7.5 billion Swiss francs ($8.2-billion) worth of Russian assets.

That crackdown hasn’t extended to diplomats, who continue to enjoy immunity.

Russian attacks are edging closer to Nato territory 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation has an increasingly tricky problem in its backyard: how to confront the spillover from Russia’s war without sparking further escalation.

As Ukraine reaps a bumper harvest, Russia is targeting the export routes that run from the ports around Odesa. That’s forcing grain ships on a new path that hugs the Romanian coastline and bringing the threat of attacks closer and closer to Nato’s shores.

Romanian radar detected a breach of its territory last weekend, the latest in a string of such incidents, while Bulgaria next door has found drone debris on its soil. Offshore, drifting sea mines and GPS-jamming that risks marine collisions are pushing the 31-member alliance into taking a view.

For now, it is inclined to see the incidents as mishaps. Even so, the subject is expected to be raised at a meeting of defence ministers in Brussels next week, according to a Nato diplomat, who asked not to be named when discussing confidential information.

The head of the Romanian armed forces, Daniel Petrescu, echoed Nato Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s reading of the events when last week he warned of a need to be vigilant against “accidents”.

“Russia’s war and strikes close to Romanian borders are reckless and are destabilising,” Stoltenberg had told reporters in Kyiv, but emphasised that the drone debris didn’t appear to result from intentional targeting.

The sheer number of cases may suggest a less innocent explanation, according to Iulia Joja, the director of the Black Sea programme for the Washington-based Middle East Institute think tank.

“This is unfortunately the Russian fashion of escalation,” she said of the incidents, which number at least a dozen. “They try and probe our limits, our so-called red lines, and if they perceive our response as weak, they probe further.”

North Korea-Russia rail traffic ‘jumped after summit’ 

Rail traffic between North Korea and Russia spiked after a summit between Kim Jong-un and Vladimir Putin, a Washington-based think tank said, citing satellite imagery.

The number of freight railcars totalled 73 on 5 October at North Korea’s Tumangang rail facility, compared with the previous daily high over the past five years of 20, the Center for Strategic and International Studies said on its Beyond Parallel website. It was impossible to identify the types of cargo due to the use of tarpaulins, it said.

The US has accused Kim of providing arms and ammunition, including shells and rockets, to aid Russia’s war in Ukraine. Pyongyang and Moscow have denied US accusations of arms transfers.

Kim spent about a week in Russia last month where he held a summit with President Putin. The North Korean leader received pledges of assistance in building satellites and firing them off on Russian rockets.

US expels two Russian embassy officials from Washington

The US expelled two Russian diplomats, weeks after Moscow ordered two Americans to leave, the latest tit-for-tat expulsions as relations continue to worsen between the two countries.

The move came after Russia ousted the two US diplomats for contacts with a former consular employee who had been accused of collecting sensitive information. The US has called those allegations baseless.

“The department will not tolerate the Russian government’s pattern of harassment of our diplomats,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

The unidentified Russian diplomats were given seven days to depart the US. That was the same amount of time given to US diplomats Jeffrey Sillin and David Bernstein, who were ordered to leave Russia last month.

Read more: Russia expels two US diplomats in feud over ex-employee

Sillin and Bernstein were accused of contacts with a former employee of the US consulate in Vladivostok who later pleaded guilty to gathering confidential information.

Russia and the US have engaged in a series of reciprocal expulsions dating to well before Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. DM

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