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UKRAINE UPDATE: 16 FEBRUARY 2024

Zelensky to hold talks with Scholz and Macron; Putin backs ‘old-style’ Biden over Trump

Zelensky to hold talks with Scholz and Macron; Putin backs ‘old-style’ Biden over Trump
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Hollie Adams)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will visit Germany and France on Friday, 16 February, to hold talks with Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Emmanuel Macron as he seeks military support amid the funding fight in Washington.

Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Joe Biden as a more reliable alternative for Russia than Donald Trump, making his first public comments on the US presidential election. 

At least five people were killed and 18 injured in what Russia says was a Ukrainian missile strike on the city of Belgorod near their shared border.

Donald Trump is considering scaled-back commitments to some Nato members and a push for Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war with Russia if he returns to power next year, according to people familiar with the matter.

Zelensky will meet French, German leaders to rally support

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will visit Germany and France on Friday, 16 February, to hold talks with Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President Emmanuel Macron as he seeks military support amid the funding fight in Washington.

Zelensky’s office confirmed the trip in a statement on his website on Thursday. The president will also deliver a speech at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday and hold a series of bilateral meetings on the sidelines.

In Berlin, Scholz and Zelensky will sign a bilateral agreement on Germany’s long-term security guarantees for Ukraine, according to officials familiar with the discussions. 

The commitments will include military and non-military aspects and lay out the framework for extensive political cooperation, according to the officials, who declined to be named because the talks are private. Ukraine last month signed a similar, 10-year agreement with the UK.

As supplies of ammunition dwindle, Zelensky needs to make the case with Western leaders for faster military aid to push back against Russia’s invasion. In Munich, he plans to hold talks with US Vice-President Kamala Harris, Czech President Petr Pavel, Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen and Dutch Premier Mark Rutte.

Ukraine is looking outgunned on the battlefield as its stocks of ammunition run low and Russia increasingly relies on supplies from countries like North Korea for missiles.

In the latest barrage of aerial attacks targeting several regions on Thursday, Ukrainian air defence shot down half of the 26 missiles fired by the Kremlin forces, the Ukrainian Air Force said on Telegram.

One of the missiles hit an infrastructure object in Lviv, shattering windows in nearby schools and apartment buildings, Mayor Andriy Sadovyi said on Telegram.

The attack also damaged unspecified infrastructure objects in the Dnipropetrovsk region in the country’s east and Zaporizhzhia in the southeast, as well as civilian objects in the western Khmelnytskyi region, local authorities reported. There were no major casualties or destruction in Kyiv, the city’s military administration said on Telegram 

Putin steps into US race to back ‘old-style’ Biden over Trump

Vladimir Putin praised Joe Biden as a more reliable alternative for Russia than Donald Trump, making his first public comments on the US presidential election.

“He’s a more experienced person, he’s predictable, he’s an old-style politician,” the Russian president said of Biden in a state television interview when asked which of the two leading candidates would be better for Russia, according to a video released by the Kremlin.

His intervention highlighting Biden’s political longevity and traditionalist approach amounted to doubtful praise for a US president battling perceptions at home that he’s too old to seek a second term. After Biden denounced Trump on Tuesday for “shameful” threats to allow Russia to invade some Nato allies, it also undercut claims that the incumbent is the only one tough enough to stand up to Putin.

In the interview, the Kremlin leader dismissed a question about 81-year-old Biden’s mental acuity by praising his sharpness at their last summit in Geneva nearly three years ago. “Even then, there was talk he wasn’t competent, but I didn’t see anything like that,” said Putin (71). “Yes, he looked at his notes, but I also looked at mine. It was nothing.”

Read more: Putin seeks revenge on a world order he once wanted to join

Even as he praised Biden, Putin also had approving words for Trump about his position on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which Moscow views as a threat. 

“There is probably some logic from his point of view,” he said of the Republican frontrunner’s comments that he wouldn’t want the US to defend Nato allies against a Russian attack if they weren’t meeting pledges on defence spending.

“Trump’s always been called a non-systemic politician,” Putin added. “He has his own view of how the US should develop relations with its allies and there have been sparks in the past, as well.”

Putin didn’t waver over his decision to start the war in Ukraine. “We can only regret that we didn’t act earlier,” he said.

He reiterated that the US and its allies should concede they had failed to defeat Russia. “If they see they aren’t getting their result, then they need to make changes,” he said. “But that’s a question for the art of politics, which is the art of compromise.”

Putin also expressed disappointment with last week’s two-hour interview with Tucker Carlson, a conservative commentator and Trump supporter. While he was “grateful” that Western leaders could hear him speak at length since “we’re unable to conduct direct dialogue” now, Putin said he’d expected “tough questions” from Carlson that didn’t come.

“I was not just prepared for this, I wanted it, because it would give me the opportunity to respond with equally sharp answers,” Putin said of his first Western interview since Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine. “He gave me no cause for doing what I was prepared to do. That is why, to tell the truth, I did not fully enjoy that interview.” 

Missile strike kills five in city near Ukraine

At least five people were killed and 18 injured in what Russia says was a Ukrainian missile strike on the city of Belgorod near their shared border.

The attack on Thursday also damaged a shop, several private homes and an industrial facility, Belgorod region Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on his Telegram channel. Russia’s Defence Ministry separately said 14 missiles from a multiple-rocket launcher were intercepted over the Belgorod region.

Ukraine, which has retaliated against waves of Russian missile and drone strikes on its cities since the full-scale invasion began in February 2022, hasn’t commented or claimed responsibility for the attack.

Belgorod, about 30km from the border with Ukraine, has regularly come under assault. The latest strike was the biggest in Russia since the end of December, when a missile attack killed 24 people and wounded more than 100. Russia cited that incident when launching multiple barrages on Ukrainian cities in the days that followed.

The strike in Belgorod came a day after 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. At the same time in Ukraine, fighting has intensified near the embattled eastern city of Avdiivka.

Russia mulls over putting a nuclear weapon in space – US intelligence

US intelligence shows that Russia is discussing the possibility of basing a nuclear weapon in space, according to people familiar with the matter, a finding that emerged after a top House Republican publicly warned of an unspecified national security threat.

The threat cited by US intelligence is not yet an active one, and Russia has not deployed a nuclear weapon into space, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity. While the conclusions were significant and US officials were taking the matter seriously, there was no immediate cause for public alarm, said the people.

 Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said the finding was a White House “ruse” to spur legislators to pass a funding bill, according to the state-run Tass news service, an apparent reference to military aid to Ukraine that remains deadlocked in Congress amid a domestic fight over US border policy.  

Trump eyes Nato makeover, hurried peace in Ukraine if elected

Donald Trump is considering scaled-back commitments to some Nato members and a push for Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war with Russia if he returns to power next year, according to people familiar with the matter.

Among possible moves in a second term, Trump allies have discussed essentially a two-tiered Nato alliance, where Article 5 — which requires common defence of any member under attack — would apply only to nations that hit defence-spending goals, according to the people, who asked not to be identified and cautioned no policy decisions had been finalised. Others are advocating new tariffs on laggard countries, they said.

Trump advisers have also discussed getting Zelensky and Putin around a negotiating table early in a potential second term, according to the people.

The initiatives, if pursued, would upend decades of US policy, fracturing a defence alliance that’s shaped European security since the Cold War and worrying allies in Asia about Washington’s commitment to counter China.

One adviser to Trump said the promise of severing US military aid could help get Ukraine to the negotiating table, while the threat of increased US assistance could prompt Russia. Advisers including Larry Kudlow and Robert O’Brien have also publicly pushed for tougher sanctions on Russia’s central bank to sway Putin.

Asked about Bloomberg’s report, Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels on Thursday: “Article 5 — the commitment that an attack on one ally will be regarded as an attack on all — is the core of Nato.” He added that, “Any suggestion that we’re not there to protect and defend all allies will undermine the security of all of us and put at risk our soldiers, our personnel.” 

Russia faces banana shortage amid spat with Ecuador over US weapons trading

Russia faces a potential banana shortage and higher prices due to a partial ban on imports from Ecuador this month. The move follows a political spat over weapons after Ecuador in January agreed to trade old Russian military equipment to the US for $200-million worth of new weapons, a decision the Foreign Ministry in Moscow called “reckless.” The US has encouraged countries with stocks of Soviet arms to send them to Ukraine. 

The ban may affect 30% of Russia’s imports of the fruit, which total $700-million a year, according to the Bell news site. Russia is seeking substitute supplies, including from India, the food safety watchdog said early this month, after claiming to have found pests in previous Ecuadorian shipments.

Russia has targeted agriculture imports during political disputes both directly in the case of a 2015 ban on tomatoes from Turkey and indirectly through health and safety concerns as in the case of Dutch flowers in 2015. DM

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