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UKRAINE UPDATE: 20 FEBRUARY 2024

Navalny’s widow vows to pursue fight against Putin; Biden willing to meet House Speaker over US aid

Navalny’s widow vows to pursue fight against Putin; Biden willing to meet House Speaker over US aid
Yulia Navalnaya, the widow of Alexei Navalny, takes part in a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Brussels, Belgium, 19 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / YVES HERMAN / POOL)

Alexei Navalny’s widow said as she met top European Union officials weighing fresh sanctions over the Kremlin critic’s death that she would continue the fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

President Joe Biden said he would be willing to meet House Speaker Mike Johnson to discuss an emergency funding package for Ukraine and Israel, after White House officials previously dismissed the utility of direct talks.

A border blockade by Polish farmers was hurting Ukraine’s ability to defend itself as the country awaited essential supplies in its fight against Russia, a senior official in Kyiv said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited troops tasked with defending the northeastern city of Kupyansk as Russia sought to press home an advantage against Kyiv’s embattled forces.

Navalny’s widow meets EU as bloc considers new Russia sanctions

Alexei Navalny’s widow said she would continue his fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin as she met top European Union officials weighing fresh sanctions over the Kremlin critic’s death.

“The main thing we can do now for Alexei and for ourselves is to keep up the fight,” Yulia Navalnaya said in a video address to his supporters posted on social media on Monday. “Fight and don’t give up. I’m not afraid, and you shouldn’t be afraid of anything.” 

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said earlier on Monday that Navalnaya would attend a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers in Brussels to give a “message about how to support the political opposition inside Russia.” Member states will “for sure” propose sanctions against Russia, he said. 

Putin has made no comment on the death of his most formidable domestic opponent in a remote Arctic prison since it was announced on Friday. US President Joe Biden has said “Putin is responsible” for Navalny’s death, which happened as the Russian president prepares to gain a fifth term in March elections in which he faces no serious competition. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the death of the imprisoned opposition leader displayed the “ruthlessness and perfidy” of Putin and his regime, noting that Navalny’s widow said he was in good health. “So everything indicates, and what she said really confirmed that, that he was deliberately murdered,” Von der Leyen told reporters in Berlin on Monday.

Officials haven’t given a cause of death for 47-year-old Navalny at the IK-3 prison colony in Russia’s northern Yamalo-Nenets region, while local authorities continue to bar his family from even viewing his body.

Navalny’s spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, said his mother and lawyers were prevented from entering the Salekhard morgue nearest the prison on Monday and staff refused to say whether the body was being held there. Investigators said a “chemical examination” would be conducted on the body for another 14 days, she said.

The Investigative Committee informed the mother and the lawyers that the investigation into the death of Navalny had been extended. They did not say how long it would take. The cause of death is still “unknown”.

Under Russian law, authorities are required to transfer the body of a deceased person to family representatives within 48 hours once the cause of death has been established. There’s no time limit on an investigation.

Police detained at least 400 people over the weekend as they tried to lay flowers at makeshift memorials to Navalny in Moscow and other cities, despite the atmosphere of fear created by an intensifying Kremlin crackdown on protests since Putin ordered the February 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

Read more: Why Navalny was Putin’s domestic enemy No 1: QuickTake

“Russian authorities and President Putin personally bear full responsibility for this death,” Swedish Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson told a news conference on Monday with his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk in Warsaw.

While she often appeared at his side during protests in Russia, Navalnaya (47) kept mostly in the shadows after her husband’s imprisonment. Now living in Germany, she faces an uphill battle to unite the fragmented opposition behind her.

Navalnaya travelled to Russia from Germany with her husband in January 2021 following his treatment for nerve-agent poisoning in Siberia that he and the West blamed on the Kremlin, which denied involvement. Their embrace at the airport as police arrested him at passport control was their last free moment together.

Biden willing to meet Johnson to discuss Ukraine, Israel aid

President Joe Biden said he would be willing to meet House Speaker Mike Johnson to discuss an emergency funding package for Ukraine and Israel, after White House officials previously dismissed the utility of direct talks.

“I’d be happy to meet with him if he has anything to say,” Biden told reporters on Monday after returning to the White House from his weekend in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware.

The president’s remarks were a signal the White House is intensifying its effort to secure passage for a $95-billion aid bill, which also includes funding for the Indo-Pacific and aid for Palestinian civilians. Supporters of the package, which passed the Senate in a 70-29 vote, have argued the fall of the Ukrainian city of Avdiivka to Russian forces and the death last week of  Navalny intensified the need for quick passage of the funding.

“We’re making a big mistake not responding,” Biden told reporters, adding that he hoped the death of Navalny, Putin’s most formidable domestic critic, would rally support behind the legislation.

Biden said he was considering new sanctions on Russia over Navalny’s death.

The president’s willingness to engage in one-on-one negotiations comes after his aides had cast such a session as unproductive last week, noting the Republican leader’s shifting demands for a foreign aid bill.

Earlier: Biden team rebuffs Johnson demand for meeting on Ukraine, border

Johnson, who clings to a narrow majority in the House, had insisted foreign aid funding be married to new border-control measures — only to reject a bipartisan package negotiated in the Senate at the urging of former president Donald Trump, Biden’s likely opponent in November’s presidential election.

Polish border blockade is hurting war effort, says Ukraine

A border blockade by Polish farmers was hurting Ukraine’s ability to defend itself as the country awaited essential supplies in its fight against Russia, a senior official in Kyiv said.

The transit of humanitarian deliveries, perishable goods and fuel were being blocked from the Polish side of Ukraine’s border at six crossing points, Deputy Infrastructure Minister Serhiy Derkach said on the ministry’s Facebook page on Monday.

“This is a direct impact on our defence capability,” Derkach said. Almost 3,000 trucks were stuck waiting to enter Ukraine, he said, adding that there was no such pileup on the Ukrainian side of the frontier. 

Polish authorities pushed back, saying deliveries of military aid and other essentials were taking place under police escort and given priority at the border, according to Michal Derus, a spokesperson for the National Revenue Administration in the eastern city of Lublin.  

Decrying what they call the illegal flow of Ukrainian food products, farmers planned to expand protests on Tuesday with tactics including tractor blockades in major cities in Poland. They aimed to close off all of the border crossings with Ukraine, railway links and ports on the Baltic Sea.  

Farmers have demanded that the government seal off the border, calling an influx of Ukrainian goods “smuggling,” citing what they call low-quality products such as grain and rapeseed. Agriculture Minister Czeslaw Siekierski, who has sought a compromise, called the demands unrealistic. 

Ukraine, which is grappling with an intensifying shortage of ammunition and other military aid, relies on shipments via Poland as a primary transit route.

Zelensky visits Ukrainian troops as Russia steps up offensive

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited troops tasked with defending the northeastern city of Kupyansk as Russia sought to press home an advantage against Kyiv’s embattled forces. 

In a trip which appeared to be a show of support to the hard-pressed military after last week’s retreat from the besieged eastern city of Avdiivka, Zelensky handed out awards to servicemen and discussed the situation on the ground.

The pullout from Avdiivka after months of fighting became a particularly symbolic loss after Zelensky changed his military leadership and the mood in the country turned darker. Russia’s full-scale invasion is soon to enter a third year and Ukraine is increasingly being forced to ration ammunition as Congress squabbles over the fate of a $60-billion aid package for Kyiv.   

The shortage of Western support and uncertainty over future supplies had emboldened Russian troops to launch “opportunistic” offensive operations in at least three different locations along the frontline, according to US-based analysts at the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

One sought to develop gains around Avdiivka, another was directed toward Kupyansk in the northeast, and the third local offensive was taking place near Robotyne in the Zaporizhia region to the south, the ISW said in an assessment published late on Sunday. 

Ukrainian troops were still putting up resistance despite a persistent lack of ammunition and soldiers. Two Russian military jets were downed on Monday morning, Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrskyi said on Telegram, only a day after the country’s air force reported shooting down three other Russian planes.

US leaning toward sending Ukraine long-range missiles, says NBC

The US administration was leaning toward providing Ukraine with new long-range ballistic missiles known as ATACMS, NBC reported on Monday, citing two unidentified US officials.

The US began supplying Ukraine with the medium-range Army Tactical Missile System last year, while the new longer-range version would allow Kyiv to strike farther inside Russian-held Crimea, according to NBC.

Still, it’s not likely that the ATACMS will be sent as long as US funding for arms shipments to Ukraine remains uncertain. The US also has a limited inventory of such missiles and needs money to replenish stockpiles, defence officials told NBC.  

Ukraine says local law enforcers were behind Maidan protester deaths

Ukrainian protesters killed in downtown Kyiv in 2014 were fired on by domestic law enforcement officers, not Russian snipers, according to an investigation by the nation’s prosecutors.

While Moscow influenced the decisions of then President Viktor Yanukovych’s government, the order to shoot at protesters gathered on Independence Square in the capital was issued by the authorities and was carried out by Ukrainian forces, Interfax-Ukraine news service reported, citing prosecutor Oleksii Donskyi in Kyiv. 

The mostly peaceful demonstrations, which started in November 2013 calling for closer ties with the European Union, turned violent in early 2014. On 18 February, snipers began firing on people gathered in the area known as the Maidan, killing about 100 over three days in the deadliest clashes since the fall of the Soviet Union. 

The ensuing protests led Yanukovych to flee to Russia. Weeks later, Putin annexed Crimea and triggered a military conflict in east Ukraine. The Russian president cited that conflict as part of his justification for the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

“If there is anyone who wants to believe that there were Russian snipers on Maidan, Russian law enforcement officers, that’s not the case,” Donskyi said, according to Interfax-Ukraine. 

Putin allows sanctioned Expobank to buy HSBC’s Russian unit

Russian President Vladimir Putin allowed Expobank to buy HSBC Holdings’ local unit, letting Europe’s biggest lender exit the country following the invasion of Ukraine.

Expobank, owned by Russian entrepreneur Igor Kim, was in advanced talks to buy HSBC’s business before the Kremlin tightened control over the exit of foreign firms in the banking and energy sectors in August 2022. The approval was published in a decree on the country’s legal database on Monday.

It was not immediately clear if Expobank would be able to close the deal, even with Putin’s permission, because it became subject to US sanctions in December. A call to Expobank outside working hours went unanswered. HSBC also did not respond to a request for comment. 

London-based HSBC exited retail banking in Russia long before the invasion of Ukraine. After the war started, it said it wasn’t accepting new business or customers at its remaining Russian corporate banking unit. 

Since the Kremlin cracked down on deals in the banking sector, Putin has only allowed one other transaction to proceed. In September, he permitted the sale of Bank Intesa, the Russian subsidiary of Intesa Sanpaolo, to an unnamed potential buyer. DM

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