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UKRAINE UPDATE: 11 MARCH 2024

Top diplomat slams Pope Francis’ peace talks call; US, Japan mull cooperation for Kyiv arms supply

Top diplomat slams Pope Francis’ peace talks call; US, Japan mull cooperation for Kyiv arms supply
Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dmytro Kuleba. (Photo: Serhiy Morgunov / Global Images Ukraine via Getty Images)

Ukrainian foreign minister pushes back on Pope Francis’ call for his country to show ‘the courage of the white flag’ and enter negotiations with Russia, a remark that fuelled outrage among Ukrainians and condemnation from some foreign allies.

Japan and the US were discussing collaborating on military gear in a bid to provide more munitions to Ukraine and increasing ways for the Asian country to repair US warships and jet fighters, the Yomiuri newspaper said.

The situation on the front line offers no sense of when or how Russia’s war against its neighbour might end. Ukrainian setbacks have darkened the mood in Kyiv of late. But a growing phalanx of companies is gradually increasing its presence on the ground with the prospect of the biggest investment opportunity since at least World War 2 when it does.

Ukraine’s top diplomat pushes back at pope’s call for peace talks

Ukraine’s top diplomat pushed back on Pope Francis’ call for his country to show “the courage of the white flag” and enter negotiations with Russia, a remark that fuelled outrage among Ukrainians and condemnation from some foreign allies.

“Our flag is a yellow and blue one,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Sunday on X, formerly Twitter. “This is the flag by which we live, die and prevail. We shall never raise any other flags.”

He urged the Vatican to avoid repeating what he called its “strategy from the first half of the twentieth century”.

“The strongest is the one who, in the battle between good and evil, stands on the side of good rather than attempting to put them on the same footing and call it ‘negotiations’ ”.

Kuleba invited the pontiff to visit Ukraine in support of the nation’s many Catholics, Christians and its population in general. 

The foreign minister’s statement followed a torrent of angry comments on Ukrainian social networks after the release of an excerpt from the pope’s interview with the Swiss broadcaster RSI on Saturday.

There, Francis urged Ukraine to consider negotiations with Russia in the light of a looming possibility of a defeat. “Don’t be ashamed to negotiate before it gets worse,” the Pope said.

Read more: Ukraine sees risk of Russia breaking through defences by summer

Vatican spokesperson Matteo Bruni made a separate comment after the interview, saying the pope had “picked up” on the imagery of the white flag after it was used by the interviewer. He reaffirmed Francis’s “deep affection” for the Ukrainian people, expressed most recently during a mass in February to mark the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

Some foreign officials also challenged the pope’s view.

“My Sunday morning take: One must not capitulate in face of evil, one must fight it and defeat it, so that the evil raises the white flag and capitulates,” Latvian President Edgars Rinkevics said on X.

Ukraine’s leadership has so far ruled out talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, even as Kyiv’s military is strained by troop shortages and an ammunition deficit amid delays in receiving military aid from allies.  

US, Japan mull defence cooperation that could help Ukraine

Japan and the US were discussing collaborating on military gear in a bid to provide more munitions to Ukraine and increasing ways for the Asian country to repair US warships and jet fighters, the Yomiuri newspaper said.

The allies were trying to put together an arrangement in conjunction with a  10 April summit in Washington between Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and President Joe Biden, the Japanese daily reported on Sunday, citing government sources it did not name. 

A key theme for the summit will be finding ways Japan could help widen the US’s pool of armaments. US arms makers have been straining to supply weapons ranging from artillery shells to air defence systems that Washington has committed to Ukraine to fight off invading Russian forces.

Japan, which adopted a pacifist constitution after its loss in World War 2, has provided Ukraine with nonlethal aid as well as assistance and loan guarantees worth billions of dollars — but not weapons. Loosening Tokyo’s restrictions on military exports could help the US and European nations send arms to Ukraine in the short term, while in the long term, it could widen the opportunities for Japan to sell arms overseas.

In December, the Japanese government announced it would allow sales of weapons produced under licence back to the country of origin, and would export Patriot missiles to its sole military ally. The move increased the number of interceptors available to the US, giving it more flexibility on how it supports Ukraine’s air defences.

Kishida and Biden were expected to accelerate complementary relations and look at ways to strengthen the supply chain of their defence equipment, with China in mind, the Yomiuri said. 

Tokyo and Washington were also considering expanding an arrangement in which Japanese companies would regularly maintain and repair US military equipment, the report said, adding the matter was expected to be on the agenda at the summit.

The $1-trillion race to rebuild Ukraine is slowly getting going

As orders for its backup electricity generators surged in Ukraine, Turkish company Aksa Power Generation finally dispatched a dedicated manager to Kyiv. Salih Komurcu’s job, though, wasn’t just to oversee the current business in the war-hit country. It was also about what happens when the bombs eventually stop.

The situation on the front line offers no sense of when or how Russia’s war against its neighbour might end. Ukrainian setbacks have darkened the mood in Kyiv of late. But a growing phalanx of companies is gradually increasing its presence on the ground with the prospect of the biggest investment opportunity since at least World War 2 when it does.

Governments, executives and investors are positioning themselves in anticipation of a reconstruction that the European Investment Bank estimates could amount to more than $1-trillion of public and private capital. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than five times as big as the US-funded Marshall Plan that powered the industrial renaissance in Europe following Germany’s defeat.

A look at the rebuilding activity across Ukraine — even with fighting in its third year — gives an idea of what the large-scale effort may look like.

Turkish companies are restoring bridges and roads, while providing energy generators and mobile hospitals, hoping they will have an edge when the competition for big-ticket contracts gets going. Little of it so far, though, is for the longer term and is more the patching of battle scars. 

Looking further out, German and Austrian companies are planning ventures in infrastructure and defence, JPMorgan Chase is waiting for working groups for “pre-project planning,” while Denmark has so far donated €120-million to rebuild the shipbuilding hub of Mykolaiv. 

Where the rebuilding takes place will show what the shape of a future Ukraine might look like. Billions of dollars are slated for the swathe of the country controlled by President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, but about 18% of Ukraine is currently occupied by Russian forces.

The map of Ukraine will depend on how much of that territory is taken back by Kyiv, and when and where more than a quarter of the country’s prewar population will opt to live. About 3.7 million citizens still remain internally displaced, nearly 6.5 million have fled abroad and millions of others live under Russian occupation.

An estimated 156,000 square kilometres — an area almost twice the size of Austria — have been affected by mines and other munitions, according to Ukrainian Economy Minister Yulia Svyrydenko.

For those reasons, the man in charge of the rebuilding project in Ukraine said he is unable to yet paint a picture of the shape of his nation once the war ends.

“We have a chance to rebuild better than it was in the USSR,” Mustafa Nayyem, head of the State Infrastructure and Reconstruction Development Agency, said in his office in Kyiv. “A kind of a machine that will work  — confident and transparent — when the funds come.” 

The biggest steelmaker, Metinvest, estimates that once the large-scale reconstruction starts, some 3.5 million tonnes of steel will be needed to restore housing and social infrastructure over five to 10 years. The company says it’s ready to meet that demand.  

German companies are following their government, which is supporting Ukraine bilaterally. Defence giant Rheinmetall announced plans in February to set up a venture in Ukraine to produce much-needed 155mm artillery ammunition.

Building materials manufacturer Fixit has been putting up a new production site in the west of Ukraine since last year, while chemical company Bayer has announced investments in seed production.

Waagner-Biro Bridge Systems, an Austrian company that makes modular steel overpasses that span rivers and valleys, has already begun some production at a site in western Ukraine.  

Given where the money will come from, US and European companies are likely to get the lion’s share of the contracts when they come. Turkey, though, is pushing ahead in the meantime.

Turkish building contractors have completed 70 projects in Ukraine over the two years of war that were worth around $1-billion, Turkish Trade Minister Omer Bolat said earlier this year. The biggest, Onur Group, is repairing blown-up bridges, such as the one at Irpin on the outskirts of Kyiv.

Teaming with South Korea’s Samsung, Onur Group was also building mobile hospitals in Ukraine. The company eventually wants to resume redevelopment of the Dnipro International Airport along with some highway projects. 

The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which has provided €3.8-billion in financing for Ukraine since the war started, noted that the focus should not be only on the money, but also on people, said Beata Javorcik, the lender’s chief economist. DM

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