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UKRAINE UPDATE: 5 MARCH 2024

Berlin urged to tighten security after ‘top secret’ leak; Russian refineries recover from drone strikes

Berlin urged to tighten security after ‘top secret’ leak; Russian refineries recover from drone strikes
The Gazpromneft MNPZ Moscow Petroleum Refinery JSC in Moscow, Russia. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Maxim Shipnekov)

Some German allies are urging Berlin to tighten up security around classified information after Russia revealed sensitive discussions about aid for Ukraine.

Russian refineries’ recovery from Ukrainian drone attacks helped the country’s oil processing to pick up in the second half of February.

The United Nations’ top nuclear official plans to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of a sensitive diplomatic mission two years after the Kremlin’s seizure of Europe’s biggest atomic plant from Ukraine. 

Allies tell Berlin to tighten security after Russian leak

Some of Germany’s allies are urging Berlin to tighten up security around classified information after Russia revealed sensitive discussions about aid for Ukraine, people familiar with the discussions said. 

Officials from Nato countries expressed concern about the seemingly careless operational security that resulted in the leak of a conversation between German military officers, including the use of the commercial, non-encrypted platform WebEx for the meeting.

One called the lackadaisical measures unprofessional and said that such behaviour would be expected from people who have never had security briefings, but not from military officials. Another said they were not surprised by the lapse from Germany, while a third said the leak would probably result in tighter measures across the board, but particularly in Germany. All asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the matter.

Germany has started an investigation into the incident and on Monday urged allies not to allow Russia to sow division among them. 

Russian media last week published what it said was a private discussion between high-ranking German air force officials about supplying long-range Taurus missiles to Ukraine, something Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly ruled out. As well as questioning the chancellor’s stance, the officers also disclosed details of British and French troops operating on the ground in Ukraine and discussed targeting the Kerch Strait Bridge, which connects the occupied Crimean peninsula with the Russian mainland.

The incident revived the rift between Germany and its allies over supplying high-grade weapons, irritated the French and the British and handed a propaganda opening to the Russians.

Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said on Monday the recording showed that German armed forces were discussing plans to strike Russian territory. The leak “confirms yet again that the countries of the so-called collective West are directly involved in the conflict”, he told reporters on a conference call, according to Tass.

“We’re all working together to try to support Ukraine and the Germans have been right there, absolutely,” White House spokesperson John Kirby said on Monday. “We look forward to continuing to work with Chancellor Scholz and his government as they continue to find ways to support Ukraine.”

According to the transcript, the officers discussed the presence of Western trainers on the ground in Ukraine to help forces operate weapons systems as well as detailed information about how some of the allies sent some of their most modern equipment. 

A German official speaking on condition of anonymity said that the incident showed that the shift in security and defence policies prompted by the war in Ukraine remains a work in progress and that in future many more meetings would be held in person to limit the security risks. 

“It’s obviously very, very concerning,” Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven, a former German ambassador and Nato intelligence chief, said in a telephone interview, recalling that a former intelligence official was recently charged with spying for Russia.

Russia recovers from Ukraine drone strikes as oil refining rises

Russian refineries’ recovery from Ukrainian drone attacks helped the country’s oil processing to pick up in the second half of February.

The nation processed 5.44 million barrels of crude a day during the 15-28 February period, a person with knowledge of industry data said. That’s 226,000 barrels a day, or just over 4%, above levels seen in the first half of the month, according to Bloomberg calculations based on historic figures.

Almost all the facilities hit by Ukraine had brought their processing rates back close to pre-attack levels in the past couple of weeks, said the person, who asked not to be identified as the information wasn’t public. The recent refining rates show how Russia has been able to protect key energy sites from constant drone attacks on the nation’s territory.

The last disruptive hit on a Russian oil-processing facility happened on 9 February, according to public information.

Still, refinery runs for most of February were almost 4% below December levels, the last full month before the drone attacks, Bloomberg calculations show. For the first 28 days of February, they averaged 5.32 million barrels a day, according to the person.

Kyiv has attacked at least six Russian oil-processing plants since the start of the year as it tries to hamper the country’s oil-product exports and its ability to send supplies to the front lines. 

Russia to host atomic watchdog two years after power plant seized

The United Nations’ top nuclear official plans to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin as part of a sensitive diplomatic mission two years after the Kremlin’s seizure of Europe’s biggest atomic plant from Ukraine.

Russia’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) envoy confirmed in a statement that Director-General Rafael Mariano Grossi would travel to the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Tuesday, where he would hold talks the following day about safety at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant. Asked whether a meeting with Putin was on the agenda, Grossi said, “This is the intention.” Kremlin spokesperson Peskov said a meeting wasn’t ruled out, according to the Interfax news service.

“I think it is very important that we keep this high-level dialogue,” Grossi said at a press briefing on Monday in Vienna, adding that he did not anticipate any “knee-jerk reactions” from IAEA member states that might question the timing of his visit.

Russian forces captured the Zaporizhzhia plant during the first week of the war and have held it since. Russia’s state-owned Rosatom has claimed ownership over the plant — home to six reactors built to supply a fifth of Ukraine’s electricity — since September 2022, amounting to the biggest nuclear heist in history.

Building a new plant with Zaporizhzhia’s capacity would cost at least $40-billion.

The IAEA wants to clarify the plant’s “future operating status,” Grossi said, adding, “We need to get to the end of this without a nuclear accident.”

Concern over the Zaporizhzhia plant’s safety has persisted since the onset of the war. Its power lines have occasionally failed, forcing it to rely on backup diesel generators. All six units are currently in a state of shutdown. 

“In the history of nuclear energy, this is an unprecedented situation and clearly not sustainable,” Grossi reported last week. “I remain extremely concerned about nuclear safety and security at the plant.” 

Palantir signs deal with Ukraine to use AI to help clear mines

Palantir Technologies and the Ukrainian Economy Ministry signed an agreement to use artificial intelligence to help clear the country of mines over the next decade.

The US data analytics firm co-founded by billionaire Peter Thiel will use AI-enabled software to aid the government’s efforts to analyse and prioritise which areas to focus efforts on, the company said on Monday.  

Ukraine has become the world’s most mined country since the full-scale Russian invasion began more than two years ago, and its capacity to remove the ordinance is insufficient. An area twice the size of the Czech Republic is affected by mines and other munitions, according to Economy Minister Yulia Svyrydenko.

Ukraine is seeking to clear 80% of potentially contaminated land into use within 10 years.

Poland pushes EU to ban food imports from Russia and Belarus

Poland will call on the European Commission to impose a full ban on imports of food products from Russia and Belarus in a bid to increase the region’s security and protect farmers, Prime Minister Donald Tusk said.

“I am convinced that a joint European decision will be more efficient than individual decisions of countries in the region,” Tusk said during a joint press conference with his Lithuanian counterpart, Ingrida Simonyte, on Monday in Vilnius, adding that he would put forward a parliamentary resolution. 

Lithuania would support an EU-wide initiative to ban Russian agricultural goods, Simonyte said, as the premiers discussed security issues in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“Food is just as important as security issues,” Tusk said. DM

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