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UKRAINE UPDATE: 24 APRIL 2024

Moscow threatens more Kyiv strikes over US aid; Moldova ‘a Petri dish of Russian election meddling’, minister warns West

Moscow threatens more Kyiv strikes over US aid; Moldova ‘a Petri dish of Russian election meddling’, minister warns West
US President Joe Biden. (Photo: EPA-EFE / JIM LO SCALZO / POOL)

Russia threatened to step up strikes on Ukraine in response to the US vote to provide new military aid to the government in Kyiv.

Russia is using a variety of measures — from AI-generated deep fakes to bags of cash — to undermine democracy in Moldova in a preview of what the West should expect, the tiny European nation’s foreign minister said. 

The UK will send more Storm Shadow long-range missiles to Ukraine as part of its single biggest military aid package to the country since Russia’s invasion, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said. 

Russia threatens to increase strikes on Ukraine over US aid

Russia threatened to step up strikes on Ukraine in response to the US vote to provide new military aid to the government in Kyiv. 

“We will increase the intensity of attacks on logistics centres and storage bases for Western weapons” in Ukraine, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Tuesday at a meeting with senior military staff, according to the ministry’s Telegram channel. 

Russia would strengthen its armed forces “and increase the production of the most in-demand weapons and military equipment” in response to the support of the US and its allies for Ukraine, he said.

US President Joe Biden told his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky that Washington aimed to start swiftly shipping battlefield and air-defence assistance after the US House voted to pass the $61-billion package with military and economic aid at the weekend, ending six months of delay amid opposition from Republican hardliners.

While the Senate must still approve the measure, the Biden administration has already begun preparing a package that could head to Ukraine as soon as the president signs the Bill into law, a US official said last week.  

Shortages in weapons and manpower along the front, along with a dire need for more air defence systems, have pushed Ukraine’s fighting forces close to a breaking point, raising the risk of a Russian breakthrough. Russian forces currently hold the initiative across the entire frontline, and are forcing Ukraine out of their positions, Shoigu said during the meeting. 

Responding directly to the planned delivery of US aid, Shoigu said, “Most of the allocation will go to finance the military-industrial complex in the United States.”  

Russia poised for political meddling in the West, warns Moldova 

Russia is using a variety of measures — from AI-generated deep fakes to bags of cash — to undermine democracy in Moldova in a preview of what the West should expect, the tiny European nation’s foreign minister said. 

“Moldova is sort of a Petri dish of Russian hybrid warfare and election meddling,” Mihai Popșoi, Moldova’s foreign minister, said in an interview in Washington. “What we see in Moldova now will most likely be deployed in upcoming elections in our partner countries in the West.” 

Moldova, a landlocked nation of 2.6 million people wedged between Ukraine and Romania, has come under intense pressure since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine more than two years ago, with its traditional dependence on Russian gas triggering an energy crisis.

Russia’s tactics have ranged from creating deep fake videos of Moldovan politicians through artificial intelligence to buying votes in villages across the country, Popșoi said. These efforts were likely to pick up pace ahead of the country’s presidential election and a referendum on joining the European Union scheduled for October, he said.  

Popșoi said Moldovan customs officials had intercepted luggage cases full of money at the border and had identified plastic bags of cash with individual town and village names written on them, which he said were designated to “bribe voters”.

“They are trying to combine the old and the new to maximise their outcome,” he said of Russia’s approach. “Be it money funnelling, AI or destabilising the country through paid protesters, all these hybrid tactics are being tested in Moldova.”

Cyber attacks had been another Russian tactic of choice, Popșoi said. In recent months, the country saw a “severe attack that rendered the post office inoperable for a short period of time”, he said, adding that Moldova was “more than certain” that Russia was responsible.  

EU weighs sanctions on firms shipping weapons tech to Russia

The European Union is assessing potential sanctions against more than a dozen companies that have continued to buy restricted goods from the bloc and supply them to Russia, according to a document seen by Bloomberg.

The companies, based in Russia as well as Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, China and Hong Kong, have imported millions of euros worth of restricted European goods that have been used by the Russian military, despite the EU’s extensive trade restrictions, an assessment seen by Bloomberg suggests. 

A spokesperson for the European Commission declined to comment.

The EU has made it a top priority to crack down on companies circumventing its sanctions on so-called high priority items — goods found in Russian weapons in Ukraine or needed to build them. Bloomberg previously reported that Russia was still getting its hands on tens of millions of euros of banned technologies, through third countries as well as companies and subsidiaries in those nations.

The EU is also assessing whether to sanction a small number of Chinese and Hong Kong-based companies that have allegedly provided Russia with satellite images and other technologies.

Several of the companies being assessed for potential sanctions are based outside Russia but have links to Russian and Belarussian individuals and firms, the document suggests. EU states are expected to begin discussing a new sanctions package later this week.  

Ukrainian minister accused of link to land-seizure scheme

Ukrainian anti-graft authorities accused the country’s agriculture minister of involvement in a scheme to illegally appropriate state-owned land as Kyiv moves forward in efforts to tackle corruption. 

Mykola Solskyi, who has overseen Ukraine’s wartime grain exports since taking office a month after Russia’s full-scale invasion began in February 2022, was issued a notice of suspicion by the country’s Anti-Corruption Bureau, known as Nabu, and prosecutors, according to a statement on Telegram Tuesday. 

Solskyi denied wrongdoing and said he “guarantees openness” to authorities for activity that took place before he took office, according to a statement posted to the ministry’s Telegram channel. He said the land under scrutiny was part of a legal dispute between state enterprises and individuals. 

Ukraine has grappled with endemic corruption since gaining independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union over three decades ago. But since Moscow’s invasion, the issue has become more urgent, particularly for international donors dispatching billions to keep the war-battered economy afloat. 

Bolstering anti-corruption efforts and reducing the control over the economy by oligarchs is a central demand for lenders including the International Monetary Fund but also the European Union, which opened accession talks with Kyiv at the end of last year. 

The scheme tied to Solskyi involves the seizure of some 2,500 hectares of land in Ukraine’s northern Sumy region worth an estimated 291 million hryvnia ($7-million) between 2017 and 2021, Nabu said. Investigators foiled another attempt to appropriate land worth another 190 million hryvnia, the watchdog said.  

UK to send Ukraine long-range missiles in biggest aid package

The UK will send more Storm Shadow long-range missiles to Ukraine as part of its biggest military aid package to the country since Russia’s invasion, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said.

As well as the Storm Shadows, which are precision-guided cruise missiles with a firing range in excess of 250km, Britain was also sending more than 1,600 strike and air defence missiles, Sunak’s office said. The package amounts to £500-million of new spending, taking total UK military aid to Ukraine this financial year to £3-billion.

“Defending Ukraine against Russia’s brutal ambitions is vital for our security and for all of Europe,” Sunak said in a statement ahead of a two-day trip to Poland and Germany beginning on Tuesday. If Russian President Vladimir Putin “is allowed to succeed in this war of aggression, he will not stop at the Polish border”, the premier added.  

As part of the new funding, Britain will also procure drones to be sent to Ukraine, scaling up domestic defence supply chains.

The package also includes some 60 boats, comprising offshore raiding craft, dive boats and maritime guns, as well as more than 400 vehicles, including “Husky” vehicles and over 160 other armoured vehicles. Some four million rounds of small arms ammunition will also be included.

Russia hosts China, Iran security chiefs to discuss cooperation

Russia’s Security Council Secretary, Nikolai Patrushev and China’s security chief, Chen Wenqing, discussed strengthening ties between the special services and law enforcement agencies of their two countries at talks on Tuesday.

Patrushev and Chen, the Chinese Communist Party Politburo member in charge of security and law enforcement agencies, met in St Petersburg on the sidelines of an international conference of intelligence chiefs, the state-run Tass news service reported.  

Iran’s National Security Council chief, Ali Akbar Ahmadian, also arrived in St Petersburg for the conference and was due to hold talks with Patrushev, as well as with representatives of Brazil, South Africa, China, India and Iraq, Tass reported, citing the Iranian embassy in Moscow.

China’s Putin ties risk relations with EU – top diplomat

China needed to take a stand over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rein in its enormous trade surplus with the European Union if it was committed to improving relations, the bloc’s top diplomat in Asia said.

China’s ongoing support for Russia after it attacked Ukraine was a “big issue” in tensions between Brussels and Beijing, Niclas Kvarnstrom, managing director for Asia at the European External Action Service, said in an interview on Tuesday during a visit to Australia. 

“It’s not something that we can ignore in any of our relationships,” Kvarnstrom said. “As a geopolitical actor, we have to stand up for ourselves, and that’s what we are doing on the economic imbalances and on our own security.”

China has never condemned Russia’s invasion and instead urged the conflict be resolved through diplomacy. Meanwhile, it has regularly held high-level talks with senior Russian officials including President Vladimir Putin, who is due to visit this year, and trade has ballooned to a record high. 

Indeed, the Biden administration reckons Beijing has helped the Kremlin circumvent sanctions imposed by the US, the EU and their diplomatic allies. 

China is one of Europe’s biggest trading partners and Kvarnstrom was highly critical of the huge export surplus it’s running with the EU.

“If they mean what they say in terms of having a balanced relationship, we certainly think it requires action on their side,” he said.  

Russia’s North Korea embrace could embolden Kim Jong-un – US

Russia’s “complete embrace” of North Korea could increase Kim Jong-un’s appetite for risk when it comes to threatening South Korea and exporting weapons abroad, as well as helping Pyongyang ignore Washington’s call to return to nuclear talks, a senior Biden administration official said.

As North Korea ships weapons to help power Putin’s war in Ukraine, Pyongyang has benefited from the “whole gamut” of improved diplomatic ties with Russia, from economic and security assistance to high-profile visits by top Russian officials, the State Department’s senior official for North Korea, Jung Pak, said in an interview on Monday.  

“This could lend this once-isolated country the lustre of legitimacy that it does not deserve, and it should not have,” Pak said. “We’re concerned about what that might do to make Kim think that his leash is longer than it really is, and how that might figure into Kim’s risk calculus.”

North Korea has so far shipped around 11,000 containers of munitions to Russia as well as 40 ballistic missiles used in Ukraine, Pak said. That had bolstered Putin’s forces after they got bogged down when their initial advance failed to take Kyiv, and as Russia’s defence industrial base was eroded by a wave of Western sanctions aimed at damaging Russia’s economy. 

South Korea’s Defence Minister Shin Wonsik has said that Seoul estimates the containers could hold about three million rounds of 152mm artillery shells used by the Kremlin in its bombardment of Ukraine. This has bolstered Putin’s arms stocks while Kyiv’s ammunition supplies have dwindled as military aid has been held up in the US Congress.

Russia in return was providing North Korea with food, raw materials and parts used in weapons manufacturing, Shin said. The food aid had helped Kim stabilise prices for necessities and the military aid could increase Pyongyang’s threat to the region, he added.

The value of the artillery shells alone is probably several billion dollars and the aid from Russia could represent the biggest boost to North Korea’s economy since Kim took power.   

There is now a real risk the high-profile nature of North Korea’s relationship with Russia could make its armaments more appealing to other groups around the world, Pak said. South Korea has already said that North Korean weapons have been used by Hamas against Israel as the war in Gaza drags on. 

“The lustre of legitimacy could give other bad actors ideas about North Korea’s weapon systems,” she said. “And North Korea has had a long history of proliferation in the Middle East, Africa, elsewhere. And we don’t want that to start blossoming into other proliferation relationships. So this is not just a Northeast Asia problem.”  

Russia forecasts lower price for its gas to China versus Europe

Russia’s focus on boosting natural gas exports to China is proving less lucrative for the nation than its former reliance on westbound deliveries to European markets.

Gas prices for the Asian nation are expected to be as much as 28% below those for Russia’s remaining European clients at least through 2027, according to the economic outlook prepared by the Economy Ministry and seen by Bloomberg News. 

The outlook indicates the financial drawback to Moscow’s intensive efforts to build energy ties with China amid the standoff with the West over its annexation of the Crimean peninsula, followed by the invasion of Ukraine. Even before the invasion, the Russian gas giant Gazprom said it saw the Asian nation as a future-growth market, expecting demand in European markets to shrink by the end of this decade.

This year, the ministry sees the price of gas exports to China at $257 per 1,000 cubic metres compared with $320.30 for flows to Western markets, according to its base-case scenario. From 2025 and through 2027, the price for China is set to gradually decrease, while that for westbound deliveries is forecast to remain roughly flat, the outlook shows.  

Russia lifts 2024 growth forecast as economy rides sanctions

Russia’s Economy Ministry raised its 2024 growth forecast despite mounting sanctions over Putin’s war in Ukraine.

Gross domestic product would expand by 2.8% this year, Economy Minister Maxim Reshetnikov told a government meeting on Tuesday. That compares with the ministry’s forecast of a 2.3% GDP increase for 2024 during budget preparations in the fall.

“The main growth factor remains domestic consumer and investment demand,” Reshetnikov said. Growth in retail sales was projected to reach 7.7% in real terms this year, up from 6.4% in 2023.

The GDP forecast follows a 3.6% rise last year that also exceeded the ministry’s expectation of a 2.8% expansion, as Russia’s government injects massive spending into the defence industry and pours money into shielding domestic businesses. The International Monetary Fund this month revised up its estimate for Russian GDP growth by 0.6 of a percentage point to 3.2%, calling it a “significant” change. DM

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