Zelensky hails ‘historic step’ on EU membership talks; Russian missile hits vessel in Black Sea

Zelensky hails ‘historic step’ on EU membership talks; Russian missile hits vessel in Black Sea
Ukrainian servicemen from the assault brigade Bureviy (Hurricane) train on 82mm mortars at a shooting range near Kyiv on 8 November 2023 before their deployment to the front line. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Sergey Dolzhenko)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed a decision by the European Union’s executive arm to back a start to membership talks with Kyiv, pledging to continue work to develop state institutions.

Investigators in Ukraine said they were examining four scenarios relating to the death this week of Major Hennadiy Chastyakov, an aide to the army commander-in-chief, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi. The main version remains an accident, though the others are a Russia-ordered assassination, personal enmity and an attempt to murder another member of the top military command, Tetiana Sapyan, a spokesperson for the State Bureau of Investigation, said on television.

Latest developments

Ukraine military says Russian missile hit commercial vessel

Ukraine’s military said a commercial ship on the Black Sea was struck on Wednesday by a Russian missile, a rare attack that may undermine the passage of key exports such as grain.

The vessel was hit at the port of Pivdennyi, according to an official familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified discussing security issues. The hub has been key to Ukrainian grain shipments.

“Continuing its terror against civil shipping, the foe has insidiously launched an anti-radar missile Kh-31P toward one of Odesa region’s seaports from its tactical aviation airplanes in the Black Sea,” Ukraine’s military said on its Telegram channel, without naming the facility.

The rocket hit a ship under the Liberian flag that was entering the port, killing one person and injuring four, including three Philippine citizens, the military said.

Kyiv recently opened a unilateral corridor from the region to allow ships to export commodities like grains and metals from its deep-sea ports in Greater Odesa, after Moscow in July pulled out of the United Nations-backed Black Sea grain deal that had guaranteed safe movement of crop vessels.

UK sanctions gold and oil traders in new Russian clampdown

The UK government targeted Russian gold miners, the largest refiner and a Dubai-based trader involved in routing funds to Moscow as part of a package of fresh sanctions tied to the country’s gold and oil sectors.

The UK on Wednesday sanctioned Nord Gold and Highland Gold Mining alongside Krastsvetmet, the biggest precious metals refinery in Russia.

They were sanctioned with more than two dozen other individuals and companies, including oil trader Paramount Energy & Commodities, which was accused of using deceptive practices to avoid sanctions. The government also targeted a United Arab Emirates-based network that it says channelled $300-million of gold sales to Russia.

“We must keep tightening the screws on Moscow,” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in a statement. “Today’s sanctions will hit those who have provided succour to Putin by helping him to lessen the impact of our sanctions on Russian gold and oil — two critical sources of revenue for the Russian war machine.”

EU backs opening Ukraine membership talks with conditions

The European Union’s executive arm formally recommended opening membership talks with Ukraine and Moldova and proceeding to the next steps in the accession process once they complete a series of reforms.

The European Commission’s opinion will need to be approved by EU leaders at a summit in December. The commission will monitor the two countries’ progress with the aim of reporting back to member states by March, it said in a document.

The EU is looking to move forward with its long-stagnant enlargement policy, a decision that has become a priority following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Moscow’s attempts to destabilise Europe. The bloc has accelerated the process to prevent its neighbours from coming under the influence of nations that don’t share the EU’s values.

“EU enlargement is a driving force for long-term stability, peace and prosperity across the continent” and a geostrategic investment, according to the document. “It is a powerful tool to promote democracy, the rule of law and respect for fundamental rights.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed the commission’s decision and called it a “strong and historic step” in a post on social media platform X.

“Ukraine continues on its reform path and looks forward to European Council’s decision in December,” Zelensky wrote.

The commission also recommended granting Georgia candidate status, while Bosnia-Herzegovina will need to complete more reforms before membership talks can open.

Even with member states’ green light, the negotiations would take years as the path to membership is lengthy and complicated. Croatia was the last country to join the bloc and its application lasted 10 years before it was formally accepted in 2013.

Before a negotiating framework is adopted, Kyiv will need to enact legislation on minorities, anti-corruption and regulate lobbying to bring it in line with European standards as part of its “anti-oligarch action plan.” The required steps also include laws relating to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and its staffing levels and graft-fighting powers.

Russia to keep grain export quota high after another bumper crop

Russia is looking to keep its seasonal grain export quota at an elevated level that’s unlikely to curb shipments, following another bumper wheat harvest.

It is likely to set a grain-export quota of 24 million tonnes for the second half of the season, from 15 February to the end of June, Interfax reported, citing First Deputy Agriculture Minister Oksana Lut. The amount of the quota designated for wheat wasn’t specified.

“The quota level is quite generous,” said Dmitry Rylko, director of Moscow-based consultant Ikar. That means it’s unlikely to limit exports, he said.

While Russia has previously used quotas to shore up domestic grain supplies, the Kremlin is emulating the sizable cap it introduced for 2022, which meant there was little impact on global markets. That reflects another huge harvest for a nation that’s cemented its position as the world’s No 1 wheat shipper following Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine.

The Kremlin’s war — including blockading and bombarding ports — has hobbled Ukraine’s food exports. By contrast, Russian traders have overcome the financing and logistical challenges some faced in the aftermath of the invasion to deliver record shipments.

The Russian export quota includes shipments from regions of Ukraine occupied by Moscow’s forces, Interfax reported.

Russian fertiliser tycoon Mazepin loses EU sanctions appeal

Russian fertiliser tycoon Dmitry Mazepin lost his legal challenge to European Union sanctions imposed on him soon after the invasion of Ukraine.

The EU cited “a set of sufficiently specific, precise and consistent” indicators to show “that Mr Mazepin is a leading businessperson involved in a sector providing a substantial source of revenue to the Russian Government,” the EU’s General Court ruled in Luxembourg on Wednesday. “Consequently, the sanctions imposed on Mr Mazepin are such as to increase the costs of Russia’s actions in Ukraine.”

Dozens of wealthy Russian business bosses, including Roman Abramovich, and family members have taken to the EU’s Luxembourg-based courts in an attempt to break free from sanctions and regain control of their assets, mansions and superyachts.

The founder of fertiliser maker UralChem was added to the EU’s sanctions list in March last year. He was one of the last Russian businessmen to meet President Vladimir Putin before the invasion, according to the Kremlin website.

The two men also met in November 2022 to discuss the fertiliser market, which Mazepin used as an opportunity to complain about the sanctions and thank Putin for his support. Last month Putin awarded Mazepin with the the Order of Alexander Nevsky, one of the oldest Russian state awards, for his work.

Mazepin, whose fortune was estimated at $900-million in 2022 by the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, had to give up control of UralChem and Uralkali after the sanctions hit.

The EU also targeted Mazepin’s son Nikita, a former Formula 1 driver. The bloc has sanctioned close to 1,800 people and entities since Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, starting with the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and followed by the invasion of its neighbour in February last year. DM


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