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UKRAINE UPDATE: 27 FEBRUARY 2024

EU considers buying weapons outside bloc to aid Kyiv; Sweden clears final hurdle to join Nato

EU considers buying weapons outside bloc to aid Kyiv; Sweden clears final hurdle to join Nato
French President Emmanuel Macron (centre) delivers a speech to open a conference in support of Ukraine with European leaders and government representatives at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, on 26 February 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Gonzalo Fuentes)

European leaders meeting in Paris will discuss a proposal to buy ammunition from countries outside the region, giving momentum to an idea that would help get much-needed military equipment to Ukraine.

Sweden cleared the final obstacle to gaining Nato membership in a move that will solidify the alliance’s grip over Northern Europe and the Baltic region. The approval by Hungary’s Parliament on Monday came 21 months after the Nordic country submitted its membership bid jointly with Finland in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Alexei Navalny had been close to release in a prisoner exchange with the US and Germany shortly before his death in an Arctic prison, a top aide to the Russian opposition leader said.

EU looks at weapons purchases outside bloc to help Ukraine

European leaders meeting in Paris will discuss a proposal to buy ammunition from countries outside the region, giving momentum to an idea that would help get much-needed military equipment to Ukraine.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala was to detail a plan on Monday to purchase 800,000 rounds from several countries, according to people familiar with preparations for the gathering. France and other nations have resisted using European Union funds to buy ammunition outside the bloc, with Paris urging that money be spent on developing the EU’s own industries.

French President Emmanuel Macron called the extraordinary summit in a show of support for Ukraine and to combat the narrative that Russia would eventually win the war, said one of the people, who spoke anonymously. The meeting is also meant to underscore the unity and determination of Ukraine’s allies.

“The security of all of us is at stake,” Macron said as he opened the conference, adding that Russia must not succeed. “Ukraine is determined today, it needs us beyond what we’ve already done.”

France is reviewing the proposal after Europe’s inability to provide Ukraine with sufficient military equipment opened a rift between eastern and western nations. The mood in diplomatic circles in the east is that should Russia ultimately win, Western Europe won’t be forgiven and the whole European integration project could be jeopardised.

Russia is already making advances on the battlefield as Ukraine faces shortages of ammunition and troops after months of stalemate. Russian soldiers are probing Ukrainian defences along the front line, and President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he expects Moscow to prepare counteroffensives as soon as the end of May.

Before boarding a plane to the French capital on Monday, Fiala told reporters the talks would follow up on the initiative Prague presented at an EU summit in early February.

“The goal is to gather enough money for ammunition that Ukraine needs,” he added, without providing details.  

Czech President Petr Pavel said at the Munich Security Conference this month that his country had identified 500,000 rounds of 155mm shells and another 300,000 rounds of 122mm calibre that could be delivered within weeks if the money was made available. He didn’t name suppliers. The Czech Republic is now working to team up with others to source the ammunition.

Hungary ratifies Sweden’s Nato accession

Sweden cleared the final obstacle to gaining Nato membership in a move that will solidify the alliance’s grip over Northern Europe and the Baltic region.

The approval by Hungary’s Parliament on Monday came 21 months after the Nordic country submitted its membership bid jointly with Finland in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

With the wider war now in its third year and support to Kyiv flagging, Sweden’s accession into Nato helps bolster Europe’s security amid rising concerns Russia could even target the bloc’s members in the future. 

“Today is a historic day. The parliaments of all Nato member states have now voted in favour of Swedish accession to Nato,” Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson said in a message posted on the social media platform X. “Sweden stands ready to shoulder its responsibility for Euro-Atlantic security.” 

The Swedish membership is due to become finalised within a matter of days, once ratification documents are deposited with the US State Department, after which Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will invite Sweden to accede to the Washington Treaty.

When Finland became a member in April, it doubled the length of the border Nato shares with Russia. Adding Sweden strengthens the defence of that eastern flank, allowing the alliance to dominate the Baltic Sea region and facilitating the transit of troops and equipment from Norway’s North Sea ports to the east.

The accession also represents a momentous shift for a nation that pursued various versions of neutrality to stay out of wars for 200 years. The Russian invasion of Ukraine two years ago overturned Sweden’s security calculus, prompting an about-face by a government then led by the Social Democratic party, previously a staunch opponent of Nato membership for decades.  

Bringing Sweden into Nato adds a technologically sophisticated military that has participated in the bloc’s exercises for decades. The Nordic country has a large defence industry sprung from its Cold War policy of being self-sufficient for its military needs. Today, Sweden is one of the world’s largest arms exporters per capita and the smallest nation that has developed modern fighter jets.

Its naval prowess and strategic location also will boost Nato’s ability to deter any Russian aggression against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which were under Moscow’s rule from the end of World War 2 until the Soviet Union fell apart in the early 1990s.

Read more on Nato:

General conscription was reintroduced in the wake of Russia’s initial invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and the country expects to reach Nato’s threshold for military outlays, at least 2% of gross domestic product, this year. That share is set to continue expanding, along with investments that are needed to prepare Swedish infrastructure for allied forces to traverse its territory.

Navalny was set for release in swap when he died, says aide 

Alexei Navalny had been close to release in a prisoner exchange with the US and Germany shortly before his death in an Arctic prison, a top aide to the Russian opposition leader said.

“Navalny was supposed to be freed in the coming days,” Maria Pevchikh said in a video statement posted on Monday. Putin was offered an assassin imprisoned in Germany in exchange for Navalny and two US citizens, she said. 

Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich was involved in the talks, which had reached a “final stage” after two years of negotiation on the eve of Navalny’s death on 16 February, according to Pevchikh. She accused Putin of ordering the killing of Navalny because he was unwilling to let his most outspoken critic go free.

According to the video account, the swap involved Vadim Krasikov, who has links to Russia’s Federal Security Service, known as the FSB, and is serving a life sentence in Germany for the 2019 killing of a former Chechen rebel in a Berlin park. Pevchikh didn’t name the two Americans involved in the deal.

“I know nothing about this agreement,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a Telegram message, in response to a request to comment. US officials and a spokesman for Abramovich didn’t immediately respond to requests to comment. Germany’s Foreign Ministry declined to comment.

“Putin was clearly told that the only way to get Krasikov is to exchange him for Navalny,” said Pevchikh. Instead, he decided to “get rid of the bargaining chip” and “offer someone else when the time comes”.

US President Joe Biden has laid responsibility on Putin for the death of 47-year-old Navalny. Prison authorities said the Kremlin critic fell ill after a walk in the remote prison camp, though they refused to allow Navalny’s family or lawyers to view the body for days.

They turned over Navalny’s body to his mother Lyudmila on Saturday after she had accused Russian authorities of pressuring her to agree to a secret burial.

Russia buys tens of millions of euros of banned EU weapons tech

European Union states still aren’t doing enough to stop Russia from getting hold of sanctioned technologies for use in weapons to wage war on Ukraine, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Tens of millions of euros of trade in banned sensitive goods continue to originate from the bloc itself, despite multiple rounds of sanctions, one of the officials said, based on internal assessments of trade flows.

Almost a quarter of €450-million of so-called high-priority items that reached Russia from the EU in the first nine months of last year were shipped directly from Europe. Russia mostly imported the rest via third countries, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private information.

Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Serbia and China were among the countries involved in the trade circumventing EU sanctions, as well as states neighbouring Russia including Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. While data show the EU’s direct official trade with Russia in sensitive goods collapsed after the war began, exports of those goods from the bloc to third countries surged to fill the gap completely. 

Ukraine says it got only a third of artillery shells pledged by EU

Zelensky said the European Union has delivered only about a third of the artillery ammunition the bloc pledged for his country.  

Ukraine had received 30% of the million artillery shells the EU had previously promised to deliver by March, Zelensky said on Monday at a joint press conference in Kyiv with Bulgarian Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov. The EU’s current plan is to reach the target by the end of the year.

With Russia’s invasion now in its third year, the Ukrainian authorities are looking for weapons lifelines as a vital US military aid package is stuck in Congress, leaving troops short of ammunition.

Zelensky’s appraisal appears to deviate from figures given by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Speaking alongside the Ukrainian leader on Sunday, the EU executive arm’s chief told reporters that the bloc had already delivered more than half a million rounds.

Estonian Defence Minister Hanno Pevkur said in January that only a third of the promised EU rounds had been delivered to Ukraine.

Russia will hit back if foreign assets seized, warns finance minister

Russia will give a “symmetrical” response to any actions by the US and its allies that target its frozen assets abroad, Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said.

“We also have no fewer frozen” assets than the West holds, Siluanov said in an interview with the state-run RIA Novosti news service published on Monday. He didn’t specify which Western assets he meant, though RIA reported his answer was in response to a question on Russia’s frozen foreign reserves.

Sweeping international sanctions, imposed after Moscow’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, blocked an array of assets abroad including about $300-billion owned by the Bank of Russia. A campaign by politicians and activists to take those assets and send the proceeds to Kyiv is gaining momentum.

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the Group of Seven nations should be “bolder” in seizing frozen Russian assets, in an article published on Sunday.  

Russia blocked funds held by non-residents from countries it considered “unfriendly” in special C accounts after the war began. Those accounts contained more than 280 billion roubles ($3-billion) as of the beginning of November 2022, the Interfax news service reported, citing the Bank of Russia. 

The central bank hasn’t disclosed the amount of frozen assets since, though Interfax reported last June that the total had risen to nearly 600 billion roubles by the end of 2022, citing sources it didn’t identify. Central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina said in February that funds had gradually accumulated in C accounts, mainly through payments of dividends, coupons, and the debt on bonds. DM

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