World

UKRAINE UPDATE: 1 DECEMBER 2023

Kyiv behind rail explosion in eastern Russia, says official; EU to unveil plan to tap frozen Russian assets

Kyiv behind rail explosion in eastern Russia, says official; EU to unveil plan to tap frozen Russian assets
Russian Judge Oleg Nefedov announces the decision to declare the international LGBTQI+ movement as extremist and banned in Russia during the Russian Supreme Court hearing in Moscow on 30 November 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE/ Yuri Kochetkov)

Ukrainian intelligence was behind the explosion of a freight train in Russia’s Far East, according to an official familiar with the operation, an attack that would extend the agency’s reach deep into Siberia.

The European Union is moving ahead with a proposal to tax profits from more than €200-billion of frozen Russian central bank assets to aid Ukraine’s reconstruction despite concerns from several member nations.

Russia’s top court declared the “international LGBT public movement” to be an extremist organisation, paving the way for a new wave of repression even as no such group exists in the country.

Russia said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s plane had to change its route to reach a European security summit in North Macedonia after Bulgaria refused to allow it to cross its airspace.

Ukraine ‘responsible for train explosion in Russia’s Far East’

Ukrainian intelligence was behind the explosion involving a freight train in Russia’s Far East, according to an official familiar with the operation, an attack that would extend the agency’s reach deep into Siberia. 

Agents from the Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, targeted a section of the Baikal-Amur rail link using four explosive devices, the official said on condition of anonymity. The train was moving through a tunnel near Severomuysk, northeast of Lake Baikal. 

The SBU believed the link had been used to ferry military supplies, the official said. The Baikal-Amur and Trans-Siberian railroads, running north of the Chinese border, make up Russia’s two main transport arteries through Siberia and carry cargo and commodities shipments as well as passenger traffic. Last year they handled 149 million tonnes of goods.

State-owned Russian Railways said on Telegram that a train carrying fuel through a tunnel in Russia’s Buryatia region caught fire, requiring it to redirect rail traffic along an alternative route, causing a “slight” delay.

An attack more than 6,400km east of Kyiv would send a message about the Ukrainian military’s reach even as the country grapples with a stalled counteroffensive and concerns over waning support from its allies. 

The SBU has taken responsibility for several targeted strikes behind the front lines over the course of the war, including a naval drone attack on a Russian missile carrier in Crimea last month. Within Russia, Ukrainian special forces targeted a power station in the Belgorod region with drones, Interfax reported in October, citing the SBU.

EU aims to unveil plan to tap frozen Russian assets

The European Union is moving ahead with a proposal to tax profits from more than €200-billion of frozen Russian central bank assets to aid Ukraine’s reconstruction despite concerns from several member nations.

The European Commission tentatively plans to unveil its legislative proposal on 12 December to impose a windfall tax on profits generated by the frozen assets. The draft plan would clarify that several issues raised by member states still need to be addressed and that the EU proposal won’t interfere with national taxes or other measures, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

The issue has divided the 27-nation union, with Belgium, Germany, France, Italy and Luxembourg among those expressing caution about speeding up the process and calling for a more gradual approach. Instead, they told other EU ambassadors last week that the EU’s executive arm should begin with a more informal document to continue narrowing down different options on how to use the profits because they considered it premature to put forward a legal proposal, said people familiar with the matter.

The commission, however, said that EU leaders had told the bloc’s executive to accelerate its work on a proposal, the people added.

A meeting between national experts and the commission on 6 December will be a key moment to determine whether the differences have been narrowed down enough, the people said.

The EU has been debating for months how swiftly to pursue the option to apply a windfall tax on the profits generated by the assets and tap the proceeds for Ukraine’s reconstruction. Estimates suggest that more than €200-billion of Russia’s sanctioned sovereign assets are in the EU, with the majority at the Belgium-based Euroclear clearinghouse. Smaller amounts are located in other EU nations.

Sanctioned Russian assets frozen at Euroclear have generated nearly €3-billion in profits from the time they were frozen through the third quarter of this year, according to data published last month. That figure is expected to continue to rise.

Adoption of the plan on 12 December by the commission would allow EU leaders to consider it when they meet for a summit in Brussels later that week.

Russia bans ‘LGBT movement’, stirring fears of new crackdown

Russia’s top court declared the “international LGBT public movement” to be an extremist organisation, paving the way for a new wave of repression even as no such group exists in the country.

The Supreme Court approved an application by the Justice Ministry to ban the movement in a closed hearing on Thursday, state-run Tass news agency reported. The ministry said in a statement on 17 November that the organisation’s activities “incite social and religious discord” in breach of Russia’s anti-extremism laws, though it has never identified the body it is targeting.

That has alarmed activists who say the law could be used to threaten any LGBT person with long jail sentences by declaring them to be involved in “extremist” activity. The hearing took place as the Kremlin prepares for elections in March in which Vladimir Putin is likely to seek a fifth presidential term.

The court’s ruling “makes it possible to ban any LGBT symbols, including rainbow clothing or children’s toys painted in the colours of a rainbow,” said Ivan Pavlov, a Russian lawyer based outside the country. “Everyone who leads an LGBT lifestyle will be forced to hide, since any of them can be charged with participation in an extremist organisation.”

Putin to hold first large news conference since war  

Putin will hold a large-scale talk-show event on 14 December, reviving a once-annual occurrence that he skipped last year amid his war against Ukraine.

Putin’s news conference will combine two events that have traditionally featured questions from the media and citizens, respectively, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to the state-run Tass news service.

Putin has held an annual end-of-the-year marathon conference since returning to the presidency in 2012, but cancelled it last year after Russian forces made repeated retreats in the war and tensions lingered over a September mobilisation.

Plane to OSCE rerouted as Bulgaria bars Lavrov aide

Russia said Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s plane had to change its route to reach a European security summit in North Macedonia after Bulgaria refused to allow it to cross its airspace.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who’s under European Union sanctions over Russia’s war in Ukraine, said in a Telegram post early on Thursday that Bulgaria refused permission for her to be on the flight. The plane travelled instead through Greece with Zakharova on board to North Macedonia’s capital Skopje for the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) in Europe meeting, according to Russia’s RIA Novosti news service.

Despite the dispute “We’re in Skopje,” said Zakharova, who regularly travels with Lavrov.

Poland announced on Wednesday it was joining three Baltic countries and Ukraine in boycotting the meeting of foreign ministers of the 57-member OSCE over the presence of Lavrov, who is also sanctioned by the EU in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Zelensky faces manpower dilemma in Ukraine’s stalled offensive

A plan to draft more Ukrainian men into the army has been sitting on President Volodymyr Zelensky’s desk since June. The wartime leader so far has defied pressure from the military to sign it.

Instead, Zelensky last week asked his government and top brass for a more comprehensive package, one better tailored to a nation exhausted by war and preparing for another winter of fighting. It again put off the blueprint, approved by Ukraine’s parliament, to lower the draft age during war for men with no military experience to 25 from 27.

“The law should have taken effect — the parliament fully backed it,” Roman Kostenko, a legislator on the parliamentary defence committee, said in an interview. “Conscription is taking place with difficulty now.”

The delay exposes the mounting problem of filling Ukraine’s military ranks almost two years into a conflict that Zelensky’s top general says has settled into a standoff. Although Moscow has had its own struggles with conscription, Ukraine’s plight puts it at a potential disadvantage to Russia, a vast nation whose population of 143 million is more than triple that of prewar Ukraine.

Zelensky’s reluctance to sign the law stems from his wish to see a clear plan for what his military seeks to achieve with a call-up, how new recruits will be deployed and how to design a rotation for those who’ve been on the battlefield for 21 months, according to people familiar with his thinking.  

“I expect a more thorough analysis of each of these issues by both the government and the military and concrete proposals,” Zelensky said on Friday after meeting military leaders.

But the delay is worrying the military. The legislation would give recruitment officers access to an additional 140,000 potential conscripts, according to military estimates. Ukraine’s popular army chief, Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, wrote in a 1 November essay for The Economist that current conscription rules contained gaps that allow citizens “to evade their responsibilities.”

The general referred to a call-up that covers most Ukrainian men between 18 and 60, though provides exemptions for those under 27 without experience in military service, unless they volunteer. The average age for a soldier in the Ukrainian army is above 40.

Even as freezing temperatures grip the country, fighting has continued. Russian troops have advanced on the Ukrainian-held city of Avdiivka in the east, while much of the fighting on the southern front in the Zaporizhzhia region — where Kyiv had aimed to make gains in the summer — has ground to a standstill.

Resistance to conscription is also taking shape. In the central Ukrainian city of Poltava, a recruitment drive this year brought in about a 10th of the target, a regional official said. In a case that drew media attention, a man ferrying children to a Taekwondo tournament in Uzhhorod on the Slovak border was seized from his motel room and served call-up papers.

The government won’t release data on the effectiveness of the call-up.

The latest manpower struggle coincides with a sense of gloom settling over Ukraine, with a counteroffensive that’s yielded few results, fuelling a sense that the war won’t end any time soon. Add to that the prospect of winter missile strikes and anxiety over deliveries from allies and Zelensky’s political calculus gets harder.

“The president’s office fears that approval of this law may escalate tensions,” Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Penta research institute in Kyiv, said. “It may also boost the ‘peace at any cost’ sentiment. This trend — though not very popular yet — is already here and it may intensify.” DM

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