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UKRAINE UPDATE: 22 NOVEMBER 2023

Don’t dabble in politics, Zelensky warns his army chiefs; Russia cuts seaborne crude exports

Don’t dabble in politics, Zelensky warns his army chiefs; Russia cuts seaborne crude exports
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses a news conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, 21 November 2023. (Photo: Andrew Kravchenko / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned his military leadership against meddling in the country’s politics, taking a jab at his top commander after tension between the two came to light.

Russia cut back its seaborne crude exports to the lowest since August before a meeting of Opec+ oil ministers this weekend when compliance with production cuts will be in sharp focus. The move came after shipments surged in October.

Zelensky warns military top brass not to meddle in politics

In comments to The Sun newspaper, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned his military leadership against dabbling in the country’s politics. He explicitly singled out the current command, including Ukraine’s popular army chief, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi.

“With all the respect to General Zaluzhnyi and to all the commanders who are on the battlefield, there is an absolute understanding of the hierarchy and that is it — and there can’t be two, three, four, five,” he said in an interview with the British newspaper published on Tuesday.

Zaluzhnyi stoked a public spat with the president’s office this month when he described the war as a stalemate in comments to The Economist. The president’s office challenged the assessment, laying bare what many viewed as divisions between Zelensky and his top brass over the war.

The military commander hasn’t signalled any political ambition. But his popularity has given rise to speculation that he may be the only public figure in a position to challenge Zelensky. He appeared alongside the country’s defence minister, Rustem Umerov, on Monday, discussing the battlefield developments with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Read more: Zelensky aides deny split with general over stalemate warning

Zelensky has ruled out holding elections next year, citing martial law and saying the country must concentrate on the war effort. Ukrainian media have focused on the issue, particularly after US Republicans — many resistant to continued spending on Kyiv — called for a vote to underscore democracy. 

The tension in Kyiv comes on top of a grim mood among government and military officials, with winter setting in after a monthslong counteroffensive has yielded no major military advances. Still, popular support for the military remains above 90%, while Zelensky’s approval ratings — though still high — have seen a small decline over the past months. 

Ukrainian law only allows one person to have decision-making power during war, otherwise national unity may be threatened, Zelensky told The Sun. He warned that military commanders risked being disobeyed by soldiers if they became political.

Zelensky referred to political forces pushing the military into politics. The president recalled the tenure of his predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, when the country first experienced combat with Russian-backed forces after 2014, and battle commanders began to wade into politics.

“Each political party wanted some military men, stars of the war, and I believe that was a very big mistake,” Zelensky said in the interview.

Russia cuts seaborne crude flows to three-month low before Opec+

Russia cut back its seaborne crude exports to the lowest since August before a meeting of Opec+ oil ministers this weekend when compliance with production cuts will be in sharp focus. The move came after shipments surged in October.

About 2.7 million barrels a day of crude were shipped from Russian ports in the week to 19 November, tanker-tracking data monitored by Bloomberg show. That was down by 580,000 barrels a day from the revised figure for the period to 12 November, the biggest week-on-week drop in more than four months.

Moscow said in early August that it would prolong export restrictions at a reduced rate of 300,000 barrels a day below their May-June average level until the end of the year, a policy confirmed earlier this month. If the burden falls entirely on crude, that would imply seaborne shipments of 3.28 million barrels a day. But Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak told Interfax last month that the reduction was spread across both crude and refined products. That complicated assessments of whether Russia was meeting its commitment after the government imposed a temporary fuel export ban in September.

The Opec+ group of oil producers, jointly led by Russia and Saudi Arabia, will meet in Vienna on 26 November when they will consider how to respond to a weakening oil market outlook, as well as setting output targets for the first half of 2024. DM

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