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UKRAINE UPDATE: 18 MARCH 2024

Putin secures record election win; Germany, France lead call for more EU defence funding

Putin secures record election win; Germany, France lead call for more EU defence funding
Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Gavriil Grigorov / Sputnik / Kremlin Pool)

Vladimir Putin secured another six years as Russia’s president to step up his war in Ukraine and challenge the West, with the Kremlin claiming record public support for him in a vote whose outcome was predetermined.

Germany and France joined 12 other European Union countries in calling for the European Investment Bank to enhance its financing for defence as a means to boost the bloc’s security in light of Russian aggression.

More Russian oil refineries were attacked by Ukrainian drones, the latest in a series of strikes on energy facilities, many of them deep within Russia. 

Putin takes record election win to press Russia’s war in Ukraine

Vladimir Putin secured another six years as Russia’s president to step up his war in Ukraine and challenge the West, with the Kremlin claiming record public support for him in a vote whose outcome was predetermined.

Putin won 87% of the vote, according to an exit poll broadcast on state television late on Sunday, shortly after the end of three days of voting. That exceeded the previous high of 77% support that the incumbent president received in the 2018 elections.

Preliminary turnout was 74.22%, according to Central Election Commission data shown on state TV. That’s the highest since Boris Yeltsin became president in 1991 after the Soviet Union’s collapse, and well above the 67.5% turnout recorded in 2018. At least six Russian regions claimed turnout was above 90%.

Three other candidates, all from parties loyal to the Kremlin, received no more than 5% support. Nearly 4.5 million people voted online in a system used in 29 of Russia’s regions for the first time in a presidential election, the Interfax news service reported, citing government data.

Russia’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Putin (71) is extending his nearly quarter-century rule into a fifth term at a time when his troops are on the offensive in Ukraine. Russia is pressing its advantage in the third year of the invasion that has become Europe’s biggest conflict since World War 2, as Ukraine struggles to supply its forces with munitions amid delays in military aid from its US and European allies.

The election outcome “gives Putin every chance to implement any, even the toughest, scenarios in Ukraine,” said Pavel Danilin, head of the Moscow-based Centre for Political Analysis, which advises the Kremlin. The “historically high result is a guarantee that the majority of the population supports Putin”, he said.

The Kremlin is also putting the squeeze on countries such as Moldova, the Baltic States and those in the Caucasus region in the name of protecting Russian minorities. European leaders have warned openly about the risks of a Russian attack on a Nato member state, and fear the US may abandon them if Donald Trump regains the presidency in November.

Read more: Putin eyes new world order after crushing opposition in Russia

An emboldened Putin is preparing for a long confrontation with the West, according to five people with knowledge of the situation.

Long lines formed at noon outside some polling stations, including in Moscow and St Petersburg, after allies of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who died last month in an Arctic prison camp, called on people to protest Putin’s election by turning up at that time.

Their presence represented an understated sign of defiance amid the harshest Kremlin crackdown on dissent in decades. At least 80 people were detained in 20 cities during Sunday’s vote, according to the OVD-Info monitoring group.

Russia organised voting in occupied areas of Ukraine where the claimed turnout far exceeded 80%, even as millions of people have fled the regions since the invasion. The foreign ministry in Kyiv said the “pseudo-elections” were illegal.

Germany, France lead call for EIB to step up defence financing

Germany and France joined 12 other European Union countries in calling for the European Investment Bank (EIB) to enhance its financing for defence as a means to boost the bloc’s security in light of Russian aggression.

The countries sent a letter dated 17 March to EIB President Nadia Calvino, European Council President Charles Michel and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander de Croo calling for a new financing strategy, according to a copy of the letter seen by Bloomberg. EU leaders will meet on 21-22 March to discuss security, including the EIB’s role in defence readiness.

The letter comes as Ukraine is struggling to acquire more ammunition and convince allies to give more aid. Bloomberg reported this month that the EIB was considering ways to expand its support for the defence industry.

“We need to explore different possibilities that would enable the EIB to invest in defence-related activities beyond existing dual-use projects,” the letter said. “This would mean discussing and re-evaluating current definitions of dual-use projects and the list of excluded activities as well as reconsidering its defence industry lending policy and other restrictive elements.”

Leaders from Finland, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania and Sweden signed the letter.

The EU’s lending arm is in talks with the bloc’s executive and other stakeholders to begin investing in military companies that produce defensive products, Bloomberg reported.  

More Russian oil refineries attacked by Ukrainian drones

More Russian oil refineries were attacked by drones, the latest in a series of strikes on energy facilities, many deep within Russia. 

The strikes on Saturday were targeted at plants in Russia’s Samara region, more than 1,000km from the Ukrainian border. 

A petroleum product processing unit caught fire on the territory of the Rosneft oil refinery in Syzran, RIA Novosti reported, citing Dmitry Azarov, the region’s governor. The plant’s design capacity is 8.5 million barrels per year or about 170,000 barrels per day.

Another drone attack occurred on the Slavyansk-on-Kuban oil refinery in the southern Russian region of Krasnodar, Agence France-Presse reported on Sunday, citing local authorities. A fire caused by the hit has been extinguished and one person died of a suspected heart attack, the report said.

An attempt to strike a second refinery in Novokuibyshevsk was thwarted, the governor said.

Ukraine targeted a third plant in the region overnight, the large Kuibyshev refinery, according to a person familiar with the operation who wasn’t authorised to speak publicly.

Separately, Russia’s defence ministry said it thwarted attempts by “subversive groups” to penetrate the Belgorod region from the adjacent Sumy region of Ukraine.

Two people were killed in Belgorod by Ukrainian shelling, Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said in a Telegram post.

Following the attacks, schools in the city of Belgorod and the surrounding region would be closed on Monday and Tuesday, and shopping malls would be closed on Sunday and Monday, Gladkov said. Parents whose children go to kindergartens were asked to keep them at home until Tuesday. 

In Ukraine, the death toll from a Russian missile strike on the Black Sea city of Odesa early on Friday rose to 21 overnight, according to local governor Oleh Kiper.

Polish farmers block key highway near German border

Polish farmers started blocking a key highway near the German border to protest against food imports from Ukraine and the European Union’s climate initiatives regarding agriculture.

The police were diverting traffic from the A2 highway, which links Warsaw and Berlin, according to broadcaster Radio Zet. The protest was set to run until Wednesday, organisers said.

Farmers have for months held periodic protests against both EU and national government policies, creating a headache for Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s new Cabinet. Ministers from the EU have urged the bloc to speed up a review of its policies to ease unrest among farmers. DM

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