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UKRAINE UPDATE: 6 DECEMBER 2023

Russia intercepts drone barrage over Crimea; Zelensky invited to speak to US senators

Russia intercepts drone barrage over Crimea; Zelensky invited to speak to US senators
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Gavrill Grigorov / Sputnik / Pool)

Russian armed forces intercepted a large barrage of drones over Crimea, which forced the country to temporarily close the Kerch Strait Bridge connecting the annexed peninsula to the Russian mainland.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia this week, using a rare trip abroad since his invasion of Ukraine to bolster partnerships with key oil producers. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was invited to speak to US senators at a classified briefing on Tuesday as aid to his country remained snarled in a partisan dispute over US border security.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán warned the European Union against discussing the start of membership talks with Ukraine at a leaders’ summit in Brussels next week, putting new strain on allied support as Ukrainian forces continue to battle Russian troops. 

Putin to boost partnerships with oil producers in Middle East visit

Russian President Vladimir Putin will visit the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia this week, using a rare trip abroad since his invasion of Ukraine to bolster partnerships with key oil producers. 

Putin was to meet with UAE President Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Wednesday to discuss a range of issues including trade and investment and Israel’s military campaign, according to the Kremlin. Interfax also reported that the oil market and the Ukraine war were set to be on the agenda.

In the UAE, Putin will be in Abu Dhabi and won’t visit the COP28 summit, which is taking place in the neighbouring emirate of Dubai, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told Bloomberg News. 

The visit signals Putin’s growing confidence to travel outside Russia despite US and European efforts to isolate him on the global stage, with his economy on a surer footing and fighting in Ukraine settling into a stalemate. The Gulf states’ cooperation with Moscow is crucial for the Kremlin, given Russia’s dependence on energy revenues.

Read More: Things are looking up for Vladimir Putin: Balance of Power 

Putin’s visit to the two key Gulf powers is “a clear sign” that Russia is breaking out of its international isolation, said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, which advises the Kremlin. The move serves to increase Russia’s Middle East influence and shows the UAE and Saudi Arabia, both traditional US allies, are keen to balance their foreign-policy interests, he said.

Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Russia are all members of Opec+, the oil-producer alliance which last week agreed to extend and deepen its production cuts.

Putin may be keen to exploit a wedge between the US and Saudi Arabia over Israel’s war against the Hamas militant group in Gaza.

Moscow supports Riyadh’s push for an immediate ceasefire as well as efforts to relaunch the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for Israel to withdraw from Arab and Palestinian land as a prelude to creating a state for Palestinians alongside the Jewish one. 

On Thursday, Putin will host Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who’ll lead a delegation to Moscow, according to the semi-official Tasnim news agency. 

Russia says Opec+ cuts may go further in echo of Saudi stance

Opec+ could take further measures if last week’s production cuts agreement isn’t enough to balance the oil market, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak said.

The deal to reduce Opec+ output by 2.2 million barrels a day for three months from 1 January should allow the market to “pass safely” through the period of seasonally lower demand usually seen in the first quarter, Novak said on Tuesday, according to the Tass news agency. 

“In case the current actions are not enough, Opec + countries will take additional steps to avoid speculations and volatility,” he said.  

Lukoil decries political storm as Bulgaria business sale weighed

Lukoil said it was considering the sale of southeastern Europe’s biggest refinery and other assets in Bulgaria as the authorities seek to reduce the Balkan nation’s energy dependence on Russia.

Bulgarian lawmakers earlier this year approved a motion to gradually curtail imports of Russian crude, bringing the country in line with other European Union members. The ruling coalition this month unveiled plans to end those imports in March, forcing Neftohim, Lukoil’s refinery on the Black Sea coast, to look for alternative fuel sources.

Russia’s second-largest oil company is now reviewing strategy due to the adoption of “discriminatory laws and other unfair, biased political decisions toward the refinery,” the producer said on Tuesday. The “artificially fanned political storm” harmed its business worldwide, it said.

The government in Sofia already put an end to Lukoil’s lease of the refinery port in July, and antitrust regulators fined the company’s Bulgarian branches earlier this year a total of 263 million lev ($146-million) for abusing its dominant position. 

Lukoil, which bought the former state-owned Neftohim in 1999 and has since invested more than $3.4-billion, is the main supplier for fuel retailers in Bulgaria, as well as the owner of an oil transit pipeline crossing most of the country. Bulgaria is exempt from European Union rules banning the imports of Russian oil as a sanction over the Kremlin’s war in Ukraine. The exemption, initially valid until the end of 2024, was already cut by three months in September. 

The new rules, which may be approved by the Bulgarian parliament as early as this week, envisage ending all imports from March and cutting the exports of some refinery products. If adopted, the legal amendments — which Bulgaria says are a way to end the potential bypass of EU sanctions — may force the refinery to shut down and put fuel supplies at risk, Lukoil said last month.

Russia, Ukraine exchange large-scale drone strikes overnight

Russian armed forces intercepted a large barrage of drones over Crimea, which forced the country to temporarily close the Kerch Strait bridge connecting the annexed peninsula to the Russian mainland.

Russian air defences jammed or shot down 41 drones over Crimea and the Sea of Azov overnight, the Defence Ministry said on Telegram on Tuesday. That is one less than the number Russia said it intercepted on 25 August, one of the largest attacks against the country recorded to date.

Ukraine’s air force said 17 Shahed-type drones and six S-300 anti-aircraft missiles were launched overnight at areas including the western regions of Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk and Ternopil. Ukrainian air defences destroyed 10 of those drones, according to the air force’s Telegram statement. 

Zelensky invited to address senators as Ukraine aid is ensnared

Zelensky was invited to speak to US senators at a classified briefing on Tuesday as aid to his country remained snarled in a partisan dispute over US border security, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced late on Monday.

Schumer also set up a test vote on Wednesday to advance a national security supplemental package including funding for Ukraine.

Zelensky, who would speak remotely, was invited “so we can hear directly from him precisely what’s at stake in this vote”, Schumer said on the Senate floor. Schumer had previously told reporters that in a visit to the Old Senate Chamber at the US Capitol earlier this year, Zelensky said that if his country doesn’t receive the assistance, it will lose the war to Russia.

Yet the package continues to be held up by Republican demands that Democrats and the White House make major concessions on immigration policy to curb a surge in migrant crossings at the US border with Mexico.

President Joe Biden’s budget director, Shalanda Young, warned on Monday that the US would run out of resources to assist Ukraine by the end of the calendar year. 

Hungary demands EU drop Ukraine membership from summit plan

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán warned the European Union against discussing the start of membership talks with Ukraine at a leaders’ summit in Brussels next week, putting new strain on allied support as Ukrainian forces continue to battle Russian troops.

“There are expectations that on this occasion the European Council can and must decide on starting accession negotiations with Ukraine,” according to Orbán’s letter to European Council President Charles Michel dated Monday and seen by Bloomberg News. “In view of the current level of political and technical preparations, these expectations are unfounded.”

The letter marks Orbán’s second attempt to press the EU council chief to rethink the push to support Ukraine’s accession and throws up a major obstacle given that unanimous support from all 27 EU member states is required to open talks.

It’s also a fresh blow for Zelensky, whose government is struggling to maintain momentum in a counteroffensive against Russia. That effort has been further shaken by concerns about funding from the US, where Republicans in Congress have baulked at approving more than $60-billion in new aid.

The new demands will only solidify Orbán’s position as the EU’s chief antagonist. The Hungarian premier has undermined Western unity by sealing energy deals with Russia, trying to limit aid to Ukraine, delaying Nato expansion and publicly calling on Brussels to scrap economic sanctions imposed on Moscow.

Russia, Algeria to hold naval drills in Mediterranean

Russia and Algeria plan to hold joint naval exercises in the western part of the Mediterranean Sea, RIA Novosti reported on Tuesday, citing the Russian Black Sea fleet.

The Admiral Grigorovich frigate, which is part of the Mediterranean group, has already arrived in the Port of Algiers to take part in the manoeuvres, the state-run news service said on Tuesday. It didn’t disclose the precise date of the drills. 

In February, Russia’s Admiral Gorshkov warship, which is fitted with hypersonic Tsirkon missiles, sailed to South Africa to take part in joint exercises with the South African and Chinese navies. Despite initial reports, the exercise didn’t involve a hypersonic missile launch. DM

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