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UKRAINE UPDATE: 19 MARCH 2024

EU backs new sanctions over Navalny death; drone strikes knock Russian oil refining

EU backs new sanctions over Navalny death; drone strikes knock Russian oil refining
High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, gestures at the start of a European foreign ministers council meeting in Brussels, Belgium, 18 March 2024. The Foreign Affairs Council will discuss the Russian aggression against Ukraine, the situation in the Middle East and Gaza, including developments on the ground and in the wider region. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

European Union foreign ministers agreed on new sanctions related to the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison last month,

Gunvor Group Chief Executive Officer Torbjörn Törnqvist estimates about 600,000 barrels of Russia’s daily oil-refining capacity have been knocked out by Ukrainian drone strikes.

A day after Vladimir Putin claimed a record victory in presidential elections tightly controlled by the Kremlin, Russia is marking the 10th anniversary of his annexation of Crimea, which began the march to war in Ukraine.

EU backs new sanctions against Russia over Navalny’s death

Foreign ministers of the European Union agreed on new sanctions related to the death of the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in an Arctic prison last month.

The ministers approved the package during a meeting in Brussels, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told reporters on Monday. The restrictive measures include some 30 persons and two entities, according to an earlier draft of the proposal seen by Bloomberg.

Among the proposed listings are several prison and government officials and judges, as well as the IK-3 and IK-6 penal colonies, according to the draft. The EU approved a modest package of sanctions last month aimed at Moscow, its 13th since Russia invaded Ukraine. Those measures focused on enforcing existing restrictions.

Navalny’s allies had called on people to protest against Putin’s election by turning up at noon on Sunday. Long lines formed at that time outside some polling stations, including in Moscow and St Petersburg, in a symbolic show of defiance amid the harshest Kremlin crackdown on dissent in decades.

Navalny rose to prominence during massive pro-democracy protests in Russia in 2011-2012. The Kremlin critic was barred from running in a 2018 presidential ballot because of a fraud conviction that the US and EU criticised as politically motivated.

He fell ill in August 2020 on a flight to Moscow after meeting activists in the Siberian city of Tomsk. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, an international watchdog, confirmed that a nerve agent from the banned Novichok group had been used in the poisoning.

The opposition leader was transferred to a remote Arctic prison colony, IK-3, in late December from a jail outside Moscow. In his last post on X, formerly Twitter, on 14 February, he reported that he’d been sentenced to 15 days in a punishment cell for the fourth time since he’d arrived there.

Drones shut down 600,000 barrels of Russia’s refining capacity

Gunvor Group Chief Executive Officer Torbjörn Törnqvist estimates about 600,000 barrels of Russia’s daily oil-refining capacity has been knocked out by Ukrainian drone strikes.

Weekend drone strikes hit multiple plants in Russia, some deep inside its borders, sending diesel futures higher for a fourth straight session while petrol futures climbed for a sixth.

“It is significant because obviously this is gonna hit the distillate exports straight away,” Törnqvist said during an interview at the CERAWeek by S&P Global conference in Houston on Monday. “So that will probably take down exports by a couple of hundred thousand barrels, so to me, it’s a distillate problem.”

Gunvor was a major trader of Russian petroleum before the invasion of Ukraine but retreated from the trade not long after the conflict began.

Putin basks in election win on anniversary of Crimea annexation

A day after Putin claimed a record victory in presidential elections tightly controlled by the Kremlin, Russia is marking the 10th anniversary of his annexation of Crimea which began the march to war in Ukraine. 

“No matter how much anybody wanted to suppress us, our will, our consciousness, nobody in history has ever succeeded, they have not succeeded now and they will never succeed,” Putin (71) told supporters in Moscow late on Sunday after the election that gives him another six years in power. All the major “and in some areas, grandiose plans” that he set out before the vote “will certainly be achieved,” he said.

Russia’s longest-serving leader since Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, Putin extended his quarter-century rule after winning 87.3% of the vote with no serious challenger in the election. On a 77.4% turnout that the Central Election Commission said was the highest in Russia’s post-Soviet history, Putin’s support far exceeded the 77% he won at the previous election in 2018.

In a sign of how tightly officials controlled the vote, Putin secured 85% in Moscow and 82% in St Petersburg, both cities that have traditionally been strongholds of opposition to the Kremlin leader.

Three candidates from parties loyal to the Kremlin offered Putin little competition. Communist Nikolai Kharitonov took 4.3%, Vladislav Davankov from the New People, a party created in 2020, had 3.9% and Leonid Slutsky, leader of the ultranationalist Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, received 3.2% with all ballots counted, the election commission announced on Monday.

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

Global reaction to Putin’s victory divided along much the same lines as the response to his war in Ukraine. The US, the European Union and nations including France, Germany and the UK all condemned the Russian election as neither free nor fair.

China, Iran, North Korea and an array of leaders from former Soviet states in central Asia all congratulated Putin on his victory.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose country has been key to Russian efforts to ease the impact of international sanctions over the war, said in a message to Putin on Monday that Beijing attached great importance to the development of bilateral relations.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who allowed his country to be a staging post for Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, called Putin’s election result “stunning”, according to his press service.

Russia occupies about a fifth of Ukraine including Crimea, which Putin seized after the Moscow-allied president in Kyiv, Viktor Yanukovych, was ousted by protesters seeking closer ties with the European Union. Putin in 2022 declared four regions of eastern and southern Ukraine to be “forever” part of Russia, even as his forces don’t fully control them. 

His troops are on the offensive in Ukraine as Russia presses its advantage in the third year of the invasion that’s become Europe’s biggest conflict since World War 2. Ukraine is struggling to supply its forces with munitions amid delays in military aid from its US and European allies.

Any direct conflict between Russia and the US-led Nato alliance would be “one step away from a full-scale Third World War,” Putin said on Sunday.

Putin is “addicted to power and is doing everything he can to rule forever”, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address. “There is no evil he will not commit to prolong his personal power. And there is no one in the world who is safe from this.”

Russia organised voting in occupied areas of Ukraine and 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, and the EU said the voting in those territories was “null and void”.

An emboldened Putin is preparing for a long confrontation with the West, according to five people with knowledge of the situation, asking not to be identified because the matter is sensitive.

The Kremlin is 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. DM

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