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UKRAINE UPDATE: 14 MARCH 2024

Drones strike three Russian refineries; EU tentatively backs €5bn Kyiv weapons fund

Drones strike three Russian refineries; EU tentatively backs €5bn Kyiv weapons fund
A still image taken from a handout video provided by the Russian Defence Ministry's press service shows destroyed military equipment of Ukraine at the border crossing near the settlement of Nekhoteevka, Belgorod region, Russia, 12 March 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / RUSSIAN DEFENCE MINISTRY HANDOUT)

Ukrainian drones struck three oil refineries deep within Russian territory in an assault President Vladimir Putin said was aimed at disrupting his presidential election this week.

Ambassadors of the European Union (EU) agreed in principle to provide €5-billion in military support for Ukraine, after member states reached a compromise to allow purchases from outside the bloc.

Ukraine’s top diplomat said badly needed ammunition stocks being collected through a Czech-led initiative would begin arriving on the front line in the “foreseeable future” rather than months. 

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz invited French President Emmanuel Macron and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to Berlin on Friday to align their stance on supporting Ukraine. 

Ukraine hits three Russian refineries in escalating drone strikes

Ukrainian drone attacks halted three oil refineries deep within Russian territory in an assault President Vladimir Putin said was aimed at disrupting his presidential election later this week.

An aerial strike on Wednesday caused a blaze at one of the country’s biggest crude-processing facilities, Rosneft’s Ryazan plant near Moscow. The smaller Novoshakhtinsk refinery in the southern Rostov region was also halted by a drone attack, adding to the disruption caused by a similar incident at Lukoil’s Norsi plant on Tuesday. 

Since the start of this year, Ukraine has used drones to target important Russian oil facilities from the Black Sea to the Baltic Sea. As fighting on the front lines swings in Moscow’s favour, Kyiv has been trying to hamper the country’s oil-product exports and its ability to send fuel to its forces. An initial flurry of attacks in February affected almost a fifth of the country’s crude-processing capacity, but by early March the industry was already recovering

Ukrainian strikes in Russian regions “are aimed at, if not frustrating the elections in Russia, then interfering with them,” Putin said in an interview with the RIA Novosti news service published on Wednesday. “Another goal is to get some kind of trump card in a possible negotiation process.” 

The Russian Defence Ministry said its forces intercepted 58 drones overnight in the Belgorod, Bryansk, Voronezh, Kursk, Ryazan and Leningrad regions. That’s among the largest assaults in recent months. 

Later on Wednesday, the independent Novoshakhtinsk refinery in Russia’s southern Rostov region halted operations after a drone strike, regional governor Vasily Golubev said on Telegram, while giving no details of any damage.  

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said it was “totally fair” to inflict losses on the Russian state in retaliation for missile and drone attacks that are killing and injuring civilians in his country.  

“I think everyone sees that our drones work, and they work at long distance,” Zelensky said in an address late on Tuesday. “Our ability for long-distance strikes is the real way to move towards security for everyone.” 

The attacks are taking place as Russia prepares for the March 15-17 presidential election that’s been tightly controlled by the Kremlin to deliver an overwhelming victory for Putin and another six years in power. 

EU gives initial backing to €5bn weapons fund for Ukraine

Ambassadors of the European Union agreed in principle to provide €5-billion in military support for Ukraine, after member states reached a compromise to allow purchases from outside the bloc.

The envoys backed the plan at a meeting on Wednesday, the Belgian presidency of the EU said in a post on X. The agreement boosts the European Peace Facility (EPF), a mechanism used to refund member states for weapons they send to Ukraine.

The priority will be for the money to be used to support Ukraine quickly, with flexibility for imports from beyond the EU as part of the European defence industry’s supply chain, according to a draft document seen by Bloomberg News ahead of the gathering. 

European allies have been struggling to meet commitments to supply Kyiv with military equipment at a delicate moment in the war, with Ukrainian officials concerned that Russian troops may break through their defences by summer. More than $60-billion of proposed US emergency aid to Ukraine is stuck in Congress and fears are mounting in Europe that if Donald Trump is elected president in November he may withdraw support to Kyiv. 

In a revamp of the EPF, the newly dubbed Ukraine Assistance Fund aims to meet Kyiv’s most urgent needs for artillery, specialised munitions, drones and air defence, as well as in non-lethal areas such as demining. The draft document is subject to change. 

Ukraine says fresh ammunition to arrive in ‘foreseeable future’

Ukraine’s top diplomat said badly needed ammunition stocks being collected through a Czech-led initiative would begin arriving on the front line in the “foreseeable future” rather than months. 

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said officials from the Czech Republic would lay out a delivery plan for artillery shells this week. He said the initiative proposed by Czech President Petr Pavel was one of several plans to get weapons to the front as Russian forces exploit dwindling stocks and swing to the offensive. 

“The Czech initiative is good, but this is not enough,” Kuleba told reporters in Kyiv on Wednesday. Similar plans are being discussed, including one being assembled by envoys from France and the Baltic states, though Ukraine is working to find funding, he said.

The Czech government mediated a plan that collected funds from 18 nations to buy shells from non-European countries.   

​​Scholz calls ‘emergency’ Ukraine summit with Macron and Tusk

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz invited French President Emmanuel Macron and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to Berlin on Friday to align their stance on supporting Ukraine. 

The meeting, announced by Tusk late on Tuesday after talks with US President Joe Biden at the White House, follows Macron’s suggestion that France wouldn’t rule out sending troops to Ukraine. The comments sparked pushback from several Nato allies and a public spat with Scholz over military aid to Kyiv. 

“I spoke with President Biden about how we are mobilising our colleagues in Europe,” Tusk told Poland’s public broadcaster late on Tuesday before his return from Washington. 

Tusk, who called the gathering an “emergency” summit of the so-called Weimar Triangle group, said he would update Macron and Scholz on the meeting with Biden. “The situation is difficult, we all know it,” he added. 

The meeting of the three leaders will follow bilateral talks between Scholz and Macron aimed at defusing tensions over the boots-on-the-ground debate, according to a German government official involved in the discussions.  

Tusk will join them in the early afternoon in the Weimar Triangle format. Poland’s government is seeking to revive the moribund forum as it seeks rapprochement with European Union partners after eight years of populist rule.   

Coalition partners challenge Scholz’s Ukraine missiles opposition

Scholz’s top coalition partners are pushing the German chancellor to drop his opposition to supplying long-range Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine.

As invading Russian forces seek to press home their advantage in troops and materiel, the Greens and Free Democrats have been urging Scholz to send the weapons, which are used for precision strikes against hardened targets like bunkers and have a range of more than 500km.

The chancellor has justified his resistance — broadly backed by his Social Democrats — by arguing that German personnel would have to be stationed in Ukraine to help operate the targeting system, potentially making Germany a direct participant in the war. He is also concerned the Taurus could be deployed against targets inside Russia, including Moscow. Polls suggest a majority of Germans support him. 

Finance Minister Christian Lindner, the leader of the Free Democrats, doesn’t agree with Scholz’s justification and is still hopeful he will change his mind, according to a person familiar with his thinking.

Lindner has cited technical adjustments to reduce the range of the missiles and prevent them from being used against Russian territory, the person said.

Robert Habeck of the Greens, the economy minister and vice-chancellor, is also sympathetic to legislators who back sending the Taurus and is irritated by Scholz’s unilateral decision, another person with knowledge of his views said. Both people asked not to be identified discussing sensitive information. 

Scholz was quizzed again about the Taurus issue on Wednesday during government questions in the lower house of Parliament in Berlin and showed no sign of backing down.

“Prudence is not something that can be characterised as weakness,” he told Bundestag legislators. “Rather prudence is what the citizens of this country are entitled to.”

Pressed further by a member of the main opposition conservatives, Scholz added: “I do not believe it’s responsible to make this weapon available without the participation of German soldiers in the field.”

“This is about being part of where is targeted, where is shot at and where is hit,” he said. “That should not happen with German soldiers and as chancellor, I have the responsibility to prevent a participation by Germany in this war.” 

Putin says Ukraine deal requires security pledges for Russia

Putin said Russia would demand security guarantees to consider talks to end the war in Ukraine, telling a state news agency that “realities on the ground” should be the basis of any negotiations.

In an interview with RIA Novosti published on Wednesday, Putin reiterated Russia was willing to resolve “this conflict by peaceful means”. Ukraine’s government has previously rejected any deal involving territorial concessions that would reward Putin’s aggression. 

“In this case, we are primarily interested in the security of Russia,” Putin said. “We will proceed from that.”

Asked if a “fair deal” with the West was possible, Putin replied: “I don’t trust anyone, but we need assurances.”

There had never been a need to use tactical nuclear weapons during the war in Ukraine, and the thought never crossed his mind, Putin said, adding he didn’t think that Russia and the US were heading toward a nuclear conflict. 

Still, he said countries that declared they had no red lines toward Russia should understand that Russia would respond in the same way. 

Russian threat spurs EU’s lending arm to look at funding defence

The European Investment Bank (EIB) is considering ways to expand its support for the defence industry, in a move that would help the EU bolster its security in response to the growing threat from Russia. 

The lending arm of the European Union is in talks with the bloc’s executive and other stakeholders to begin investing in military companies that produce defensive products, according to a person familiar with the plans. EU leaders will discuss the EIB’s role in defence readiness when they meet next week.

The EU has been scrambling to build out its defence capabilities following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and after years of underspending by member states. The bloc announced this month that it would set aside an initial €1.5-billion to boost the sector, but EU industry chief Thierry Breton has urged an investment of €100-billion.

“We are ready to do more to contribute to joint projects that boost the European industry and reinforce Europe’s protection and deterrence,” EIB President Nadia Calvino said last month after a meeting of EU finance ministers. 

The move would require the EIB to extend its definition of dual-use goods — which can be used in both civilian and military contexts — that it already finances. 

EU leaders will discuss the EIB’s role in improving the bloc’s defence readiness when they meet next week, and will call on “reconsidering the definition of dual-use goods and the defense industry lending policy” at the bank, according to draft conclusions seen by Bloomberg. The multilateral financial institution is currently prohibited from financing activities that include ammunition and weapons as well as equipment or infrastructure dedicated to military or police use. 

Navalny ally blames Putin for hammer attack in Lithuania

A top aide to the late Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny blamed Putin for a hammer attack on him in Lithuania, and vowed to continue pursuing his campaign against the Kremlin.

Leonid Volkov, a long-time ally of Navalny, was assaulted near his home in the capital Vilnius late on Tuesday, Lithuania’s police said, which responded to the incident with an anti-terrorist squad. Volkov (43) was being treated at home after a short hospitalization. Authorities called the attack politically motivated. 

“We’ll continue our work — we won’t give up,” Volkov said in a video posted online early Wednesday. “This was an obvious typical gangster greeting from Putin.”

The opposition activist managed to partly shield himself from the hammer blows using his car door and legs, Navalny’s spokesperson, Kira Yarmysh, told the Agenstvo media outlet. “They wanted to make minced meat of me,” Volkov said. 

Russia strikes apartment blocks, killing civilians

Ukraine said Russian air strikes killed and injured civilians as three cities were targeted with missiles and drones, damaging hundreds of apartments in residential blocks.

Four people were killed by a missile in Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine, Mayor Oleksandr Vilkul said on Wednesday morning on Telegram. Another 44 people were injured, including 12 children, he said. 

Two people died in Sumy in the north with half of the apartments in a five-story building destroyed by a drone strike, while two others were killed in Myrnohrad near the eastern city of Donetsk, Ukrainian police and local government authorities said. Rescue work was continuing in all three locations to search for missing residents. DM

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