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UKRAINE UPDATE: 7 FEBRUARY 2024

US weighs up tapping army funds for Kyiv; Russian missile strikes close to Zelensky’s Odesa convoy

US weighs up tapping army funds for Kyiv; Russian missile strikes close to Zelensky’s Odesa convoy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis (second left) near a damaged residential building in Odesa on 6 March. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Ukraine Presidential Press Service)

The Biden administration is considering tapping about $200m in US Army funding to provide Ukraine with immediate support while a larger aid package remains stalled in Congress.

A deadly Russian missile strike hit Odesa close to the location that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis were visiting in the southern Ukrainian port city on Wednesday.

Ukraine’s allies have lined up nearly all the funding required for a Czech-led initiative to purchase hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds. 

US weighs tapping army funds for Ukraine as aid Bill stalls

The Biden administration is weighing whether it can tap around $200-million in US Army funding to provide Ukraine with immediate support as a larger aid package remains stalled in Congress, according to people familiar with the matter.

The funding could be used to pay for critical weapons, supplies and other equipment as Ukraine faces an artillery shortage, and comes as Russian forces have made small territorial advances in recent weeks.

The debate over using a small amount of Pentagon reserves underscores the furious effort at the White House to find any possible support for Ukraine. But the possible funding is minuscule compared to the more than $61-billion in Ukraine assistance President Joe Biden has asked Congress to authorise, and White House officials have previously discounted their ability to tap additional resources for Ukraine’s benefit.

A final decision had not been made, one of the people said.

The White House is focused on urging the US House to pass the national security supplemental, and aides continue to believe that if the speaker were to put the Bill to a vote, it would pass overwhelmingly, a spokesperson for the National Security Council said.

Ukraine warned its allies late in January that it was facing a shortage of shells, was being outgunned by Russia, and could have to ration resources across a frontline that stretches for 1,500km.

Read more about Ukraine’s artillery shortage:

Russia has reached an artillery and refurbishment capacity of about four million rounds, according to some estimates, and has imported hundreds of thousands of shells and other armaments from North Korea and Iran.

Russian missile hits close to Zelensky, Greek premier convoy

A deadly Russian missile strike hit Odesa close to the location that Zelensky and Mitsotakis were visiting in the southern Ukrainian port city on Wednesday.

“These people don’t care, they have either gone insane or they don’t control what their terroristic army is doing,” Zelensky said about the Russian military during a joint press conference with Mitsotakis in Odesa.

The single missile strike, which occurred in the morning, killed five people, Ukrainska Pravda reported, citing military spokesperson Dmytro Pletenchuk.

The attack happened as the two leaders were touring the port of Odesa and surveying the damage to its infrastructure, Mitsotakis said, speaking alongside the Ukrainian president. “And shortly after, as we were getting into our cars, we heard a big explosion,” Mitsotakis said.

The missile landed near Zelensky’s motorcade, which was some 150m from the Greek delegation, without harming officials, Greek website Protothema reported earlier on Wednesday, citing its correspondent, who was present at the site.

The Russian Defence Ministry said a hangar was hit in Odesa port, where military naval drones were allegedly stationed for combat deployments.

The port city on the Black Sea is regularly targeted by Russian missiles and drones. Zelensky and Mitsotakis visited the site of the last aerial attack against Odesa which happened on Saturday, when explosive-laden drones destroyed an apartment building in the city, killing 12 people including five children.

Greece has supported Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s invasion in 2022, providing military and humanitarian aid, as well as training for the country’s pilots to operate F-16 fighter jets.

Ukraine’s allies line up funds for 800,000 artillery shells

Ukraine’s allies have lined up nearly all the funding required for a Czech-led initiative to purchase hundreds of thousands of artillery rounds, according to a government official familiar with the arrangements.

The commitments mean that the shells could be delivered to Ukraine in a matter of weeks, according to separate people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The precise timing would depend on contractual and delivery schedules, and could slip, the people cautioned.

The proposal would see the Czech Republic serve as the middleman to link governments willing to finance the purchase of excess ammunition, which would then be sent to Ukraine.

“There is positive progress regarding the Czech initiative,” Zelensky told a joint press conference with Mitsotakis on Wednesday in Odesa. “But we can assess positive results when the shells are in Ukraine.”

Czech President Petr Pavel said at the Munich Security Conference last month that his country had identified 500,000 rounds of 155mm shells and 300,000 rounds of 122mm shells that could be delivered within weeks if the money was made available.

Germany, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Denmark, Canada and France back the Czech plan to buy non-European Union ammunition, while Poland has expressed interest, Bloomberg reported earlier. A separate discussion of EU defence and foreign ministers is expected to take place later this week to hammer out the details.

Ukraine is estimated to need at least 200,000 rounds a month to keep up the fight against Russian forces, whose average daily shell use can be anywhere from three to five times what Ukrainian forces can fire. 

Czech billionaire wants to help Ukraine produce more ammunition

One of Europe’s biggest arms manufacturers is offering to help Ukraine ramp up its production of heavy ammunition as the country struggles to repel the Russian invasion amid dwindling Western aid.

Czechoslovak Group (CSG) would like to invest “hundreds of millions of euros” in Ukraine, its billionaire owner and CEO Michal Strnad told reporters in Prague on Wednesday. 

CSG was in talks with state-owned arms group Ukroboronprom on a potential joint venture, and looking for suitable sites to make artillery and tank shells, as well as heavy equipment, he said.

With Ukraine running out of supplies and US aid stalled in Congress, European countries are trying to fill the gap with their own stockpiles as well as off-the-shelf purchases from outside the continent. CSG alone has increased production of large-calibre ammunition at its plants in Slovakia, Spain and Serbia more than 10 times since Russia’s 2022 full-scale invasion, according to Strnad.

“It’s not easy to manage such rapid growth,” said the 31-year-old, whose net worth is $2-billion, according to Forbes. “If we have an agreement, we would transfer our technology to Ukraine. That way we could use their capabilities and their people to ramp up production of artillery and tank ammo.”

Hungary’s Orbán wants to discuss Ukraine with Trump in Florida

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán wants to discuss how to end Russia’s war on Ukraine this week with former US President Donald Trump in Florida, Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said.

Orbán, the Kremlin’s closest ally in the European Union, held up aid from the bloc for Ukraine’s defence against the Russian invasion while maintaining cordial relations with Vladimir Putin. The prospect of another Trump presidency has raised concerns among European leadership, including Ukraine’s, about the EU’s ability to respond to the war and Russian influence.

Orbán has been trying to curry favour with Trump, seeing his return to the White House as a way to ease Hungary’s diplomatic isolation after disputes with Nato and EU allies brought pressure from the Biden administration and a group of bipartisan US legislators. The meeting with Trump would also focus on bilateral ties between Hungary and the US, Szijjarto said.

Talks to end the war were inevitable because “Kyiv can’t defeat Russia” and “Russia can’t defeat the entire West”, Szijjarto said in an interview with state-run Russian media service RIA Novosti on Wednesday. While Orbán has called for an immediate ceasefire, he’s offered no other plans for bringing the war, already in its third year, to an end. 

The Mar-a-Lago meeting on 8 March highlights how Trump is increasingly exerting his influence on foreign policy matters from the campaign trail as he closes in on the Republican presidential nomination and a likely general election rematch against President Joe Biden. DM

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