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UKRAINE UPDATE: 26 FEBRUARY 2024

Ukraine has lost 31,000 soldiers in two years; Sunak calls for bolder Russian asset seizure

Ukraine has lost 31,000 soldiers in two years; Sunak calls for bolder Russian asset seizure
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine's president, speaks during the 'Ukraine. Year 2024' forum in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 25 February 2024. (Photo: Andrew Kravchenko / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country had lost 31,000 soldiers since Russia’s invasion started two years ago as he stressed that a decision from the US Congress on $60bn in aid was needed within a month.

President Joe Biden’s top national security aide pressed House Republicans to unlock assistance to Ukraine and acknowledged that Russia’s wartime economy had shown resilience.

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called for Western nations to be more aggressive in seizing frozen Russian assets and passing the proceeds on to Ukraine to finance its defence. 

Zelensky says 31,000 troops killed, urges US aid 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his country had lost 31,000 soldiers since Russia’s invasion started two years ago as he stressed that a decision from the US Congress on $60-billion in aid was needed within a month.

With the war now in its third year, Russia has gained new momentum, exploiting Kyiv’s deficit of ammunition and shortage of troops. US support, a crucial lifeline for the Ukrainian military, faces formidable obstacles in the Republican-led House of Representatives, even after a joint $95-billion package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan cleared the Senate.  

“When we talk about US assistance, we should understand that it’s not financial support, mainly it’s weapons,” Zelensky told reporters in Kyiv on Sunday during an extended press conference. 

“The Patriot air-defence system costs $1.5-billion, but you can’t buy it without the US and there are no similar systems in the world. We can find money, but we won’t find such an amount of weapons.”  

The Ukrainian leader said that his government did not have precise data on how many civilians have been killed because some areas are occupied, though the figure is “tens of thousands killed and murdered”.

While Zelensky disclosed the first official figure for military losses in many months, he declined to give figures for the number of wounded, saying that would help the Russian military. 

Zelensky made a blockbuster claim that plans for Ukraine’s 2023 counteroffensive in the country’s southeast were leaked to Russia.

“I will be open with you: our counteroffensive actions in the fall of last year were on the Kremlin’s table before those counteroffensive actions started,” the Ukrainian president said. 

White House urges House Speaker to free up Ukraine aid

President Joe Biden’s top national security aide pressed House Republicans to unlock assistance to Ukraine and acknowledged that Russia’s wartime economy had shown resilience.

US emergency aid to Ukraine, the country’s main lifeline against recent Russian advances on the battlefield, has been stuck for months as Republican congressional leaders seek to force Biden’s hand on border security and immigration policies. With the war entering its third year, Group of Seven leaders including Biden sought to reassure Zelensky of their commitment in a call on Saturday.  

“We need money to be able to provide the weapons to Ukraine. We don’t have the money,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday. “Only Congress can provide the money. So that’s the reality.”

He called on House Speaker Mike Johnson to “bust through the politics in his caucus” and put Biden’s request for more than $60-billion in additional assistance to Ukraine to a floor vote.

Read more: Mike Johnson vexed by GOP self-sabotage on Ukraine and spending

Last week, the US unveiled the biggest single package of sanctions on Russia since its invasion of Ukraine two years ago, a 200-page list of targets based in Russia, the United Arab Emirates, China and other countries. Yet the Biden administration stopped short of targeting metals, more energy-related penalties and secondary sanctions on banks, reflecting concern about setting off broad shocks that could also harm the US economy.

Even under sanctions by the US and its allies, Russia’s economy grew for the third consecutive year in 2023 as its shift to a war economy buoyed industrial production. 

Sunak calls for frozen Russian assets to be handed to Ukraine

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has called for Western nations to be more aggressive in seizing frozen Russian assets and passing the proceeds on to Ukraine to finance its defence.

Countries that sanctioned Russia over its 2022 invasion of Ukraine “must be bolder in seizing the hundreds of billions of frozen Russian assets,” Sunak wrote in an editorial in the Sunday Times published to mark the second anniversary of  Russia’s invasion. That process could start with sending the interest built up on the frozen assets to Ukraine, he wrote.

Sunak’s call to the Group of Seven nations to find a “lawful way” to seize the frozen assets could prove challenging. International banks have raised concerns about the plans, warning the UK government that any seizure of sanctioned Russian funds must have a firm legal footing. Otherwise, it risks shocks to the global financial system as well as institutions being exposed to legal action. 

Read More: Banks urge UK to tighten laws around seizing Russian assets

 Sweeping international sanctions, imposed after Moscow’s invasion in February 2022, froze an array of assets including about $300-billion owned by the Russian central bank. A global campaign by politicians and activists demanding more assets be seized and the proceeds sent to Kyiv has been gaining momentum. 

Ukraine enters third year of war as stalled aid dims outlook

As the Kremlin’s full-scale war on Ukraine entered a third year with no end in sight Russia is gaining momentum, exploiting Kyiv’s deficit of ammunition, shortage of troops and delays in receiving military aid. 

Moscow’s troops captured the embattled eastern city of Avdiivka last week, scoring a symbolic victory for Putin, who’s looking to extend his rule in elections next month. 

Russia is now probing Ukrainian defences for more weak spots, forcing Kyiv to spread its dwindling military supplies and soldiers along the 1,500km front line in the nation’s east and southeast. 

With additional US help in the balance, EU nations have stepped in with a new €50-billion aid package and a stream of military shipments.

Some Western officials made the trip to Ukraine to pledge continued support for Kyiv’s defence efforts, even as the military headwinds appear to be shifting.  

The European Union stands “firmly by Ukraine. Financially, economically, militarily, morally. Until the country is finally free,” said Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, who was in Kyiv on Saturday.

Other leaders making the trip to Ukraine’s capital included Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo. Zelensky joined a videoconference with Group of Seven heads of state on Saturday, during which Biden and other leaders pledged their continued support.

Read more: G7 pledges to sustain Ukraine aid in call With Zelensky

In a statement, the leaders said they were “stepping up our security assistance to Ukraine and are increasing our production and delivery capabilities” as well as working to help Kyiv “meet its urgent financing needs, and assist other vulnerable countries severely affected by the impacts of Russia’s war”.

Zelensky and the leaders jointly spoke on the tarmac of Hostomel airport near Kyiv against the backdrop of destroyed jets and burned-out machinery. The Ukrainian leader vowed to hold Putin accountable for the war. 

On Friday, US Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was in Lviv in western Ukraine for a meeting with Zelensky. He promised to continue fighting for the funding in Washington even as it faces obstruction from some Republicans.

Read more: Two years of war in Ukraine has changed the way armies think

Two years in, Ukraine’s position looks drastically different than it did at the same time last year, when the one-year mark came amid a period of military successes. 

Ukrainian defenders dashed Putin’s hopes for a quick victory at the start of what Russia conceived of as a “special military operation” lasting days or weeks, and later forced Russian troops to give up large initial gains near the capital and in the country’s northeast and south. At that point, Kyiv and its allies were optimistic about prospects for a counteroffensive to push Moscow’s forces back. 

Fast-forward a year and the counteroffensive faltered in the face of formidable Russian entrenchments, while Ukraine’s military faces a daunting task to fill in the shortage of troops.

The ground war has now settled into a stalemate, with Ukraine needing to ration ammunition along the front lines. Zelensky this month replaced popular army chief Valeriy Zaluzhnyi. Amid the fighting, Ukrainians continue to die in missile attacks with homes and other property still being destroyed.

Read more: War in Ukraine is turning in Putin’s favour after months of stalemate

Ukraine’s reliance on Western weapons, the problems kickstarting its own domestic ammunition production and reluctance to mobilise more troops also weigh on its effort to liberate more territory. 

Still, there’s been progress for Kyiv’s outgunned, outmanned forces. Attacks by explosive-laden naval drones forced Russia to move much of its Black Sea naval fleet out of harm’s way, reopening a stream of Ukrainian grain exports. Western air defence systems and the smart use of highly mobile gunner units have allowed Kyiv to reduce damage from missile and drone barrages and pass the current winter without major power blackouts. 

Ukraine’s new army chief, Oleksandr Syrskyi, called for unity on Saturday and said the path forward would include an “asymmetric air response” to Russian troops. 

Belarus holds controlled election condemned by US as ‘sham’

Belarus is holding its first nationwide election since the start of a massive political crackdown 3½ years ago, with the tightly controlled vote taking place on Sunday amid war warnings from the country’s leader.

Authorities in Minsk didn’t invite international observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the elections, a decision the Vienna-based body called “deeply regrettable”. The OSCE monitored Belarusian elections from 1995 until 2020, when its observers were snubbed for the first time. 

The US “condemns the Lukashenko regime’s sham parliamentary and local elections that concluded today in Belarus”, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said. “The elections were held in a climate of fear under which no electoral processes could be called democratic.”

Parliament, once a real political force in the nation of about 9.5 million people, has been gradually stripped of authority as President Alexander Lukashenko (69) tightened his grip on power since being elected in 1994. 

Lukashenko claimed to have won a sixth term in office in 2020 in a vote condemned as fraudulent by the US and European Union, triggering an unprecedented wave of protests. The largely peaceful display of discontent was met with an unparalleled clampdown against Belarus’s opposition, civil society and mass media, with thousands of people jailed and more fleeing the country. 

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, the Belarusian opposition leader who’s now in exile, urged the nation’s voters to boycott the vote in a post on X.   

The Belarusian leader has built his system of power on trading political loyalty to Russia for a stream of economic benefits and cheap resources. Most notably, in 2022, he allowed Putin to use Belarus as a staging post for the failed attempt to capture Kyiv as part of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine that’s now entered a third year. DM

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