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UKRAINE UPDATE: 6 NOVEMBER 2023

Zelensky urges more aid, chides army commander; Russia strikes Odesa with missiles

Zelensky urges more aid, chides army commander; Russia strikes Odesa with missiles
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (right) and President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen at a joint press conference after their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 4 November 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergey Dolzhenko)

A Ukrainian presidential aide rebuked the nation’s top military commander for offering a downbeat assessment of the counteroffensive against Russia, hours after President Volodymyr Zelensky pushed back on the idea that the conflict was at a stalemate. Ihor Zhovkva said on national television on Saturday night that General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi’s assertion that the fight against Russia was deadlocked ‘eases the work of the aggressor’ and had unnerved Kyiv’s allies in the West.

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday renewed his call for more US military assistance by warning of an eventual Russian attack on Nato territory and rejected an NBC report that US and EU officials were pushing Kyiv to enter talks with Moscow.

“Time has passed, people are tired, regardless of their status, and this is understandable,” he said on Saturday. “Of course, it’s clear that the war in the Middle East” is taking the focus from Ukraine.

Russia struck Ukraine’s Odesa region with missiles on Sunday, targeting what the region’s governor called “civilian shipping” targets. Ukraine on Saturday struck a shipyard on the annexed Crimean peninsula, hitting a Russian ship capable of carrying Kalibr missiles. Russia’s defence ministry confirmed damage to an unspecified vessel from what it said was an attack from 15 cruise missiles, 13 of which were shot down. Social media reported explosions and a fire in the vicinity of the shipment near Kerch.

Latest developments

Zelensky urges Congress to pass Ukraine aid or risk bigger war 

Zelensky implored Congress to maintain US military assistance to Ukraine, telling legislators who are blocking new aid that the alternative is to risk an eventual Russian attack on a Nato country that would draw in US soldiers.

“If Russia will kill all of us, they will attack Nato countries and you will send your sons and daughters,” Zelensky said in an interview with NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “And it will be — I’m sorry, but the price will be higher.”

Military aid to Ukraine faces a groundswell of scepticism in Washington, causing rifts among Republican lawmakers that are helping delay President Joe Biden’s request for the next instalment of assistance. Zelensky urged Congress “not to lose the will, not to lose this strong position and not to lose your democracy”.

Zelensky restated his conviction that the fight to reverse Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion and occupation of parts of Ukraine puts the country at the front line for Western democracy, Europe and “our common values”. His scenario for the consequences of any Russian move on a Nato country alluded to the alliance’s collective defence clause.

Read more: Republican defence Hawks have had it with party populists

House Republicans in Washington last week defied Biden by passing a bill that separated aid to Israel from his broader request for $106-billion, which also includes emergency funding to assist Ukraine, Taiwan and US border enforcement.

While House Speaker Mike Johnson has pledged to consider aid to Ukraine, some Republicans in the Senate are insisting on border security changes as the price of moving on Ukraine.

Zelensky rebuffed suggestions that his military’s push to retake Russian-occupied territory was at a stalemate. He restated his stance that any peace talks would require a Russian withdrawal.

“Yeah, people are tired,” he told NBC. “But on the whole, our people are ready to defend, like in the first days.”

On Saturday, Zelensky pushed back on an NBC News report that US and European officials had begun pressuring Kyiv toward possible peace negotiations with Russia.

“I do not know who is publishing this and for what,” Zelensky said at a press conference with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

Putin’s move to secure Libya bases is new regional worry for US

Russia is moving to expand its military presence in eastern Libya, a plan that could lead to a naval base, giving it a significant foothold on Europe’s southern doorstep.

A defence accord is being hammered out between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Libya’s eastern military commander, Khalifa Haftar, following their meeting in Moscow in late September, according to people briefed on the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing sensitive issues.

The escalation of Russian activity in Libya represents a fresh challenge to the US and its European allies, which are already locked in a standoff with the Kremlin over its invasion of Ukraine and the country’s potential role in any wider Middle East conflict stemming from the Israel-Hamas war. Russia has been heavily active in neighbouring Syria throughout that country’s decade-long civil war.

The threat is being taken “very seriously” by the US administration, said Jonathan Winer, a former US special envoy to Libya. “Keeping Russia out of the Mediterranean has been a key strategic objective — if Russia gets ports there, that gives it the ability to spy on all of the European Union.”

Russia has had a covert presence in the North African oil exporter for several years via the Wagner mercenary group, which moved in during the power vacuum and civil war that followed the Nato-backed removal of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The Russian defence ministry has been systematically taking control of Wagner’s activities since its mutinous leader Yevgeny Prigozhin and his top aides died in a mysterious plane crash in August.

The groundwork done by Wagner to advance the Kremlin’s interests in Africa and the Middle East has allowed Moscow to quickly ramp up its foreign military assets. It’s also seeking a naval base on the Red Sea in Sudan, which would give it permanent access to the Suez Canal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Peninsula, though a civil conflict in that country may put back those plans.

Putin confronts financial ‘Waterloo’ risk to choke off inflation 

As Russia’s central bank prepared to lift interest rates last week, an executive at a top state lender warned policymakers were confronting no less than their “Waterloo” — a battle with inflation whose outcome would prove momentous for the country’s financial institutions and markets.

The eventual hike was double the forecast of most economists, a decision that left Russia with one of the world’s highest rates when adjusted for inflation. It marked the culmination of a shift in official thinking over the risks of a price spiral, according to people familiar with the matter, as looming presidential elections stretch spending commitments already swollen by Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Four steps into a tightening cycle that doubled the key rate to 15% and included an emergency decision in August, the Bank of Russia could cap off the year with an increase of up to a percentage point next month if inflationary risks don’t subside, said the people, who requested anonymity to speak about deliberations that aren’t public.

For Putin, the emerging priorities mean the central bank is getting a free hand with rate increases that are likely to be punitive for businesses and households.

While threatening to inflict a recession on the economy, it’s the price of a war budget engineered for “the task of ensuring victory,” in the words of Finance Minister Anton Siluanov. It’s set to allocate more on the military than toward any other single item next year — a splurge that’s kept the rouble under pressure and briefly pushed it past the symbolic 100 per dollar threshold.

To spell out the risk the central bank faced by hiking rates in October, Dmitriy Pianov — deputy president of Russia’s second-largest lender VTB Bank PJSC — invoked the famous battle that led to Napoleon’s defeat.

“Just as Waterloo determined the fate of Europe, so this meeting will largely determine the destiny of both the financial and banking markets in the rest of 2023 and, above all, in 2024,” he was cited as saying by Russian newspaper RBC.

When asked about it after the rate decision, Governor Elvira Nabiullina smiled as she said that “different metaphors” could apply to a standoff that pits the central bank against its adversary. “We are really determined to fight high inflation,” she said. DM

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