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UKRAINE UPDATE: 15 FEBRUARY 2024

Nothing to negotiate, White House tells Speaker Johnson; Kyiv claims to have sunk Russian warship

Nothing to negotiate, White House tells Speaker Johnson; Kyiv claims to have sunk Russian warship
US Speaker of the House Mike Johnson. (Photo: Kent Nishimura / Getty Images)

The White House dismissed Speaker Mike Johnson’s demand for direct talks with President Joe Biden to resolve an impasse over border security and Ukraine aid.

Ukraine’s military said it destroyed a Russian warship off the south coast of Crimea, the latest in a string of operations targeting Kremlin navy vessels in the Black Sea. 

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley is throwing her support behind legislation that would let the US seize sovereign Russian assets to pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction as she steps up her foreign-policy attacks on GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking from home after his latest hospitalisation, opened a meeting of US allies with a never-surrender message aimed at reassuring Ukraine almost two years after Russia’s invasion.

Ukraine dispatched reinforcements to the embattled eastern city of Avdiivka, a first major test for the country’s new military chief as he seeks to hold off an advance by Russian forces.

Johnson demands direct talks with Biden to unlock Ukraine aid

The White House dismissed Speaker Mike Johnson’s demand for direct talks with President Joe Biden to resolve an impasse over border security and Ukraine aid.

Johnson insisted on personal negotiations with the president before he would allow a House vote on a $95-billion Bill in aid to Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. The White House countered that Johnson’s position on immigration and foreign aid had repeatedly shifted, and thus a meeting with the president would be unproductive.

“What is there to negotiate? Really? Truly? What is the one-on-one negotiation about when he’s been presented with exactly what he asked for? So, he’s negotiating with himself. He’s killing Bills on his own,” White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

The standoff leaves the path unclear to getting Ukraine aid passed through the House, as Kyiv struggles to repel Russian invaders without fresh supplies of weapons and ammunition from the US.

Johnson said Biden ought to negotiate directly with him over changes to immigration and border policies, which have led the House GOP to block war aid for Ukraine.

House Republicans have sought to turn back all migrants to Mexico, to fund a border wall and to curtail presidential power to protect large groups of migrants from deportation.

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump and House Republican leaders rejected a bipartisan Senate border compromise that would have made it harder for migrants crossing the US-Mexico border to apply for asylum. The measures would have allowed for the shutdown of border processing as long as current levels of migration continue.

The speaker said he had made clear to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell that he would not allow a vote on the Ukraine aid bill that the Senate passed on Tuesday, with 22 out of 49 Republicans voting in favour.

“The Republican-led House will not be jammed or forced into passing a foreign aid bill that was opposed by most Republican senators and does nothing to secure our own border,” Johnson told reporters.

He said he had been asking Biden for a meeting for a month and had not been granted a one-on-one session and there are “a lot of ideas” in the House GOP conference for what a new border deal could look like.

Ukraine says its drones hit Russian warship in Black Sea

Ukraine’s military said it destroyed a Russian warship off the south coast of Crimea, the latest in a string of operations targeting Kremlin navy vessels in the Black Sea. 

Ukrainian military intelligence said a special unit sank the Caesar Kunikov, a Russian large landing ship off Alupka in occupied Crimea, according to a video published by Ukraine’s military intelligence on the X social media platform. Naval drones were used in the attack, it said.  

Airborne attacks on Ukraine from the Russian maritime unit can be ruled out “for a long time”, Andriy Yusov, a spokesperson for Ukrainian military intelligence said in Kyiv. The ship carried ammunition and most of the crew perished after the strike 4km off the coast, he said. 

Russian military-focused Telegram channels said the crew was safe.  

The pro-Moscow military blogger Rybar, which has 1.1 million subscribers on Telegram, also posted a report about the Russian warship being destroyed.

Ukraine has been intensifying attacks against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet in the past few months using explosive-laden naval drones, prompting Moscow to relocate part of the fleet away from the peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014.

President Volodymyr Zelensky’s military says it’s destroyed 24 Russian military vessels and a submarine since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Haley backs Bill to seize Russian assets as Trump threatens Nato

Republican presidential candidate Nikki Haley is throwing her support behind legislation that would let the US seize sovereign Russian assets to pay for Ukraine’s reconstruction, as she steps up her foreign-policy attacks on GOP frontrunner Donald Trump.

Russian President Vladimir Putin “is a war criminal and thug who invaded a free country”, Haley said in a statement to Bloomberg News, adding that it should not be a question whether he should “pay the price for his actions”.

Haley’s stance puts her on the same page as President Joe Biden, whose White House signalled it supports the legislation. Last month, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 20-1 to advance the Bill, which would let the executive branch seize some of the $300-billion in Russian sovereign assets frozen after Putin’s forces invaded Ukraine two years ago. 

The Bill even has support from some pro-Trump Republicans who are otherwise sceptical of aid for Kyiv, because it would use Russian money and not US taxpayer dollars to pay for rebuilding Ukraine. 

Haley is backing the bill at a critical time in the debate over assistance for Ukraine, with many European capitals already worried about the US commitment to global security — fears that were intensified by Trump’s recent comments that he would allow Nato allies to fend for themselves against Russia if they did not meet defence-spending promises.

“Just in the past few days, Trump sided with Putin over Nato, and his willingness to abandon Ukraine and our allies puts every American in danger. Our focus must always be about preventing war and keeping our troops out of harm’s way,” Haley said. “We need a president who has the moral clarity to do that.”

The bill is separate from Biden’s request for $61-billion in security assistance for the country, which faces stiff resistance from hardline Republicans in the House of Representatives who want to address the migrant crisis on the US-Mexico border before approving Ukraine aid.  

US defence chief Austin vows continued aid to Ukraine 

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking from home after his latest hospitalisation, opened a meeting of US allies with a never-surrender message aimed at reassuring Ukraine almost two years after Russia’s invasion.

“Ukraine will not surrender and neither will we,” Austin said after being released from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Tuesday.  He vowed that the US still stood “foursquare with Ukraine”, but made no mention of the fight in Congress that has stalled the delivery of more US weapons. The most recent US military aid package was issued in late December.

Read more: Pentagon chief released from hospital after latest setback

Austin (70) had planned to travel to Brussels for the latest meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group but scrapped the trip after being hospitalised for a bladder problem earlier this week. It was the latest complication from treatment in late December for prostate cancer, according to a Pentagon statement on Tuesday. It said his doctors had advised him to “recuperate and perform his duties remotely” for several days.

Reading from a prepared text, Austin struck a confident tone as he spoke of Ukraine’s need to set up a system to maintain expected F-16 fighters and the coalition’s capability to ensure Ukraine was provided with the weapons and command structure to maintain an integrated, layered air defence structure “to protect its civilians, cities and skies”. 

Ukraine reinforces embattled stronghold as Russia advances

Ukraine dispatched reinforcements to the embattled eastern city of Avdiivka, a first major test for the country’s new military chief as he seeks to hold off an advance by Russian forces. 

Days after Zelensky ordered the biggest shakeup of his military leadership since the Russian invasion began two years ago, Oleksandr Syrskyi, the new top commander, is pouring reserves into a Ukrainian-held city facing a three-pronged attack by the Kremlin’s military. 

“We are doing everything possible in order to prevent the enemy from pushing deeper into our territory and keep the positions that we are holding,” Syrskyi said in a statement on Telegram on Wednesday as he visited troops on the front line.

Russia is pressing its advantage as Ukraine’s military runs low on ammunition and crucial backing by the US is stalled in Congress. For Kyiv, a failure to seize back territory with a counteroffensive last year has given way to an effort to defend areas under its control.

The Kremlin has made taking Avdiivka a priority in a year when neither side is expected to make major strategic gains on the battlefield, according to Western officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Even if Russia succeeds — the officials expressed confidence Kyiv would maintain control of the stronghold — there would be little strategic gain from taking Avdiivka, they said.  

Avdiivka, an industrial satellite city located just north of Donetsk — the regional capital effectively under Kremlin control since 2014 — has been battered by bombardment and heavy fighting since the spring of 2022.  

Several units of Ukraine’s 110th Motorised Brigade, many of which have been dug in the city’s ruins for almost two years, were withdrawn to make way for the reinforcements, Ivan Sekach, a spokesperson for the brigade defending the nearly-surrounded city, told Radio Liberty on Tuesday. 

“We don’t have enough capability to keep holding the city, but reinforcements are arriving and we’re counting on the friendly units,” Sekach said. 

Zelensky’s top general confirmed the shift in the military balance, saying that Russian attacks across a 1,500km front had created a “difficult” situation for the Ukrainian military. 

“The enemy is now on the offensive practically along the entire frontline,” Syrskyi told German broadcaster ZDF in an interview recorded days before his appointment was announced on 8 February. “We have moved from offensive actions to conducting a defensive operation.”  

UK Foreign Secretary Cameron urges US Congress to vote for Ukraine aid

UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron urged US legislators to approve a package of aid for Ukraine, saying, “it’s a matter of global security”.

Speaking in Sofia on Wednesday alongside Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov, Cameron said “nothing is more important” than supporting Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. 

The US Senate this week approved $95-billion in assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan after months of delay, but the legislation still faces an uphill battle in the House. The package includes $60-billion worth of war aid for Ukraine. 

“Britain has brought its support package for next year, the European Union has brought their package for the next year and I urge members of Congress in the United States who’ll be looking at this today to vote for their package,” Cameron said. “This is absolutely crucial for American security. The whole world is going to be watching what happens in Congress.”

Canada gives C$60m to boost Ukraine fighter jet capacity

Canada is giving Ukraine C$60-million ($44-million) to support F-16 fighter aircraft, as Kyiv works to build up aerial superiority and beat back the Russian invasion.

Defence Minister Bill Blair announced the donation in Brussels on Wednesday at the meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, a coalition of more than 50 countries supporting the defence of Ukraine. 

The funding will go toward the group’s air force capability coalition, one of several initiatives aimed at bolstering Ukraine’s defence abilities. Specifically, the money will help source F-16 supplies and equipment such as spare parts, weapons stations, avionics and ammunition.

The Netherlands and Denmark are expected to ship dozens of F-16 planes to Kyiv this year, a major step in giving Ukraine advanced weapons to fend off Russian aggression. The timeline for delivery is contingent on the successful training of Ukrainian pilots as well as Ukraine having sufficient logistics and infrastructure to service the aircraft. 

EU proposes sanctioning North Korea for sending Russia missiles

The European Union has proposed sanctions on North Korea for providing Russia with missiles used against Ukraine, according to documents seen by Bloomberg.

The bloc has proposed listing North Korea’s defence minister and the Missile General Bureau, the government body that oversees the nation’s ballistic missile programme.

“Ballistic missiles designed, developed and produced” by North Korea have been used against Ukraine by Russian armed forces, the document says.

North Korea has also provided Russia with hundreds of thousands of rounds of artillery ammunition. Thanks to that support, as well as Moscow’s ability to source restricted parts through third countries, Russia has been able to ramp up its production of ammunition well beyond what Ukraine gets from its allies. 

The effect of potential measures against North Korea, which include a travel ban and asset freeze, is likely to be mostly symbolic. The proposed sanctions, which need the backing of all member states to be adopted and could change before then, include listing dozens of individuals and entities involved in producing and sourcing weapons as well as components and machines needed to build them. The measures also look to target several Russian officials. DM

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