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UKRAINE UPDATE: 19 OCTOBER 2023

Zelensky holds talks with France and Norway; Putin sends jets with hypersonic missiles to patrol Black Sea

Zelensky holds talks with France and Norway; Putin sends jets with hypersonic missiles to patrol Black Sea
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and French President Emmanuel Macron. (Photo: Nathan Laine / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

President Volodymyr Zelensky discussed ways to strengthen Ukraine’s air defences and protect grain shipments, as well as critical infrastructure, in calls on Wednesday with the French president and the Norwegian prime minister.

In a post on X, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his talks with French President Emmanuel Macron also focused on boosting Ukraine’s “long-range and naval capabilities”. He said he agreed with Norwegian Premier Jonas Gahr Store to begin discussions on a “bilateral security guarantees document” based on July’s joint declaration of support by the Group of Seven.

At least five people were killed overnight when Russian missiles hit a residential building in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia, destroying eight apartments, according to Zelensky and local authorities.

In a missile strike on residential areas in Dnipro to the north, one woman died and four people were wounded, Mayor Borys Filatov and the Interior Ministry said. Russian forces also shelled the eastern city of Kharkiv, causing some disruption to the power supply in the city, Mayor Ihor Terekhov said on Telegram.

Latest developments

Ukraine’s risky bet pays off with ships streaming to ports

A steady stream of ships is hauling grain and metals from Ukraine a month after the first inbound vessel sailed through its new shipping corridor in the Black Sea in defiance of Russian threats.

More than 30 vessels have called at ports in the Greater Odesa area since the corridor took effect in mid-September, ship-tracking data compiled by Bloomberg show. Their cargoes include some one million tonnes of grain, Dmytro Solomchuk, a legislator on the Ukrainian parliament’s agriculture committee, said this week.

That indicates that Kyiv’s risky bet is more than just symbolic and it is reclaiming some control of trade from its Black Sea ports.

Ukraine set up its temporary route from ports in Greater Odesa after Russia exited a safe corridor deal backed by the United Nations and Turkey in July. Initially, shipowners were wary of operating there as Russia threatened to treat any ships sailing to Ukraine as potentially carrying weapons.

Still, while the number of ships is growing, the inherent risks remain unchanged.

“It’s still dangerous and very risky,” said Ukragroconsult Director-General Sergey Feofilov. “This new alternative corridor will add to Ukraine’s exports, but how important it will be, let’s see.”

On Wednesday, President Vladimir Putin said during a visit to China that Russian planes equipped with Kinzhal missiles would patrol the neutral zone over the Black Sea without specifying their purpose.

Germany, UK see no return to former energy ties with Russia

Even if Russia ended its war in Ukraine and there was regime change in Moscow, the trading relationship between Europe and its former top energy provider wouldn’t be restored, according to German and British officials.

“This is a relationship that has come to an end,” Miguel Berger, Germany’s ambassador to the UK, said at the Energy Intelligence Forum in London on Wednesday. “There will be no return,” said UK Minister for Energy and Net Zero Graham Stuart.

Europe has slashed its reliance on Russian energy since the invasion of Ukraine. The region introduced bans on the import of coal and oil from its eastern neighbour last year. Natural gas supplies also dropped significantly, with the Nord Stream pipeline initially halted by Russia, then damaged by subsea explosions. Russia now contributes less than 10% of the region’s energy supply compared with more than a third before the war.

For the UK, that’s not a huge change because Russia provided just 4% of its gas and 9% of its oil in 2021, according to a parliamentary report. For Germany it’s been a major upheaval, depriving the country of about half its gas supplies.

“The situation is very challenging,” Berger said. Gas prices will remain higher than before Russia’s war creating “constant pressure for Germany and its industry”.

Imports of pipeline gas from Russia have been mostly halted, but supplies of liquefied natural gas have increased since the invasion. Spain, France and Belgium were among the countries that boosted purchases of the super-chilled fuel from Russia, while the UK has banned it and Germany avoids it without a formal embargo.

Those supplies will also be gradually phased out across Europe as the continent continues its efforts to diversify its sources of gas, said Berger.

Putin sends jets with hypersonic missiles to patrol Black Sea

Putin said he had ordered fighter jets armed with hypersonic missiles to begin round-the-clock patrols over the Black Sea, ratcheting up tensions with the US amid the war in Ukraine and the spiralling crisis in the Middle East between Israel and Hamas.

Putin told reporters in Beijing after talks on Wednesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping that he had ordered MiG-31 aircraft armed with Kinzhal missiles that “have a range of more than 1,000 kilometres at a speed of Mach 9” to conduct permanent missions over neutral waters in the Black Sea.

“This is not a threat, but we will exercise visual control — control with weapons — over what is happening in the Mediterranean Sea,” Putin said. The US has moved two aircraft carrier strike groups into the Mediterranean in response to the Israel-Hamas war, and its recent delivery of ATACMS long-range missiles to Ukraine showed Washington was getting more deeply involved in the conflict there, he said.

“All this is heating up the atmosphere” against the backdrop of the conflict in the Middle East, the Kremlin leader said.

Putin said he and Xi discussed the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East in detail during their talks, adding that Russia and China faced “common threats” that strengthened their relations. Still, while China has provided diplomatic and economic support to Russia since Putin ordered the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, helping to mitigate the effects of international sanctions, it hasn’t supplied weapons to Moscow that would risk provoking US penalties.

Xi, Putin hail benefits of alternative to US-led world order

Xi portrayed his signature Belt and Road Initiative as a sweeping alternative to the US-led world order, a vision for global economic cooperation endorsed in person by Putin.

In a speech in Beijing on Wednesday to mark the 10th anniversary of China’s global infrastructure push, Xi criticised unilateral sanctions, geopolitical rivalry and bloc politics. While he didn’t identify any country, the remarks were clear references to US policy toward China in recent years, which Washington has characterised as de-risking but Beijing sees as an effort to thwart its rising power.

“As the saying goes, when you give roses to others, fragrance lingers on your hand,” Xi said. “In other words, helping others is also helping oneself. Viewing others’ development as a threat or taking economic interdependence as a risk will not make one’s own life better or speed up one’s development.”

Speaking directly after Xi, Putin praised the initiative as in sync with Russia’s goal of a world with interconnected infrastructure in which freedom of trade, investment and labour could be fully ensured.

“Russia and China, like most countries of the world, share the aspiration for equal and mutually beneficial cooperation in order to achieve universal sustainable and long-term economic progress and social wellbeing while respecting the diversity of civilisation and the right of each state to its own development model,” the Russian president said.

Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov arrives in North Korea

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived in North Korea for his first visit in about five years, as the US made fresh accusations that Pyongyang was supplying weapons to help Moscow in its assault on Ukraine.

Lavrov flew to Pyongyang on Wednesday from Beijing where he took part in the Belt and Road Initiative forum along with Putin, Russia’s Tass newswire reported.

Lavrov will spend two days in North Korea, according to North Korean state media. The trip could also facilitate a possible visit by Putin after he accepted an invitation from leader Kim Jong-un to make the journey to the isolated Asian state when the two met for a summit in Russia in September.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said details of Putin’s visit to North Korea would be discussed during Lavrov’s time in the country, Tass reported earlier.

The fact that Lavrov is following through on his promise to visit Pyongyang in the middle of a major crisis in the Middle East, where the Russians also have a vested interest, “is a strong indicator of how badly the Russians need North Korea right now”, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a regional issues manager at the Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network.

“The ongoing Middle East crisis could well reinforce their thinking that they would make a good team in what they view as an increasingly fragmented world where the US is growing weaker,” said Lee, who worked as an analyst for the CIA’s Open Source Enterprise for almost two decades. DM

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