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UKRAINE UPDATE: 16 MAY 2024

Putin ‘has no plans to change military leadership’; Russian president heads for China in first foreign visit of new term

Putin ‘has no plans to change military leadership’; Russian president heads for China in first foreign visit of new term
Ukrainian rescuers work at the site of a shelling of a residential area in Kharkiv on Tuesday. At least 21 people were wounded, including three children, in the rocket and glide bomb attack. (Photo: Sergey Kozlov/EPA-EFE)

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he did not plan to change the military leadership of his country’s armed forces after replacing his defence minister earlier this week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is heading to China for the first foreign visit of his new term, underlining the vital importance of the relationship as Beijing faces growing US pressure to curtail support that’s helping Moscow continue its war in Ukraine.

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was in “very serious” condition after being shot by an assailant during a public appearance on Wednesday, the first assassination attempt on a European leader in more than two decades.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was accelerating arms supplies to Ukraine as President Volodymyr Zelensky’s military confronted a Russian assault on the nation’s northeast.

Russian army leadership will remain unchanged, says Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he did not plan to change the military leadership of his country’s armed forces after replacing his defence minister earlier this week.

Putin made the comments during a televised meeting with commanders where he presented the new defence minister, Andrey Belousov.

With Russian forces on the offensive in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region and the war in its third year, Putin reiterated that Belousov’s main task was to make sure higher defence spending was used “wisely and efficiently”. Russia’s spending on defence and national security was projected to reach 8.7% of gross domestic product this year, compared with 13% in the mid-1980s during Soviet times, Putin said.

The Russian leader instructed his new defence chief to “organically” integrate such military spending in a way that elevates the whole economy.

In a surprise shuffle of his military and security team late on Sunday, Putin ousted Sergei Shoigu, who’d been defence minister since 2012, to appoint 65-year-old Belousov, an economist with no military background. The move came after the Russian leader’s inauguration last week for a fifth term as president. Shoigu was moved to a new role as secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

Putin visits Xi as US threatens China sanctions over ties

Putin is heading to China for the first foreign visit of his new term, underlining the vital importance of the relationship as Beijing faces growing US pressure to curtail support that’s helping Moscow continue its war in Ukraine.

Putin (71), who extended his nearly quarter-century rule in tightly controlled March elections, will visit Beijing starting on 16 May, as well as the northern city of Harbin where he’ll take part in the opening ceremony of the eighth Russian-Chinese Expo. He is likely to prioritise countering the US warnings to China over trade with his country at talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

The two leaders, who declared a “no-limits friendship” just weeks before Putin invaded Ukraine, have met more than 40 times since Xi came to power in 2012. China, which has helped Russia weather unprecedented US and European sanctions imposed over the Kremlin’s invasion of its neighbor, has faced increasing US threats of retaliation.

The world’s second-largest economy has become an indispensable ally for Russia, which relies on China as a market for its energy and supplier of its wartime needs. That’s put Putin in a sometimes awkward position, with Beijing wary of his nuclear sabre-rattling and mindful of the need to keep unfettered access to the US-led global economic system.

Slovak premier in ‘very serious’ condition after shooting

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was in “very serious” condition after being shot by an assailant during a public appearance on Wednesday, the first assassination attempt on a European leader in more than two decades.

Defence Minister Robert Kalinak said Fico (59) remained in surgery hours after he was rushed to a hospital in the central Slovak city of Banska Bystrica. The prime minister was attacked after a government meeting in the nearby town of Handlova, some 165km northeast of the capital Bratislava.

“What happened today is an insurmountable scar that will haunt us for many years,” Kalinak told reporters at the hospital.

The dominant political figure in the eastern European nation of 5.4 million since the fall of communism, Fico returned to power last year as a force of opposition to European Union institutions in Brussels. His Russia-friendly stance has put him at odds with partners, threatening to undermine EU unity in helping Ukraine.

The defence chief said the alleged attacker was a 71-year-old man, identified only as Juraj C from the western Slovak town of Levice. Police apprehended the assailant and their information indicated a “clear” political motivation, Kalinak said.

Fico was walking in a crowd of people when five shots were fired, according to video from the scene. The prime minister could be seen falling to the ground. He was then lifted by security guards, loaded into a car and driven away, media reported.

Slovak President Zuzana Caputova, one of Fico’s chief critics in the country, earlier condemned what she described as a “brutal and reckless attack” on the prime minister.

It was the first shooting of a European head of state or government since the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003. The pro-European reformer who took a stand against organised crime was killed after being gunned down in central Belgrade.

US says it’s rushing weapons to Ukraine amid fighting in Kharkiv

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was accelerating arms supplies to Ukraine as President Volodymyr Zelensky’s military confronted a Russian assault on the nation’s northeast.

Kremlin troops are attempting to push deeper into the Kharkiv region, taking control of some villages close to the border, after weeks of intensified air strikes against Ukraine’s second-biggest city. The offensive is stretching Ukraine’s forces and may push Kyiv to redeploy units from the long front line in the east.

“Everyone’s eyes are focused on the situation in the east and northeast, Kharkiv in particular,” Blinken told reporters in Kyiv on Wednesday at a briefing with his counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. “We’re rushing ammunition, armoured vehicles, missiles, air defences. Rushing them to get to the front lines, to protect soldiers, protect civilians.”

Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief Oleksandr Syrskyi was in the Kharkiv region to oversee the situation on the front, “making all decisions based on the overall situation”, said Serhiy Nykyforov, a spokesperson for Zelensky. Additional forces had been sent to the northeastern region, according to the president’s office.

Zelensky himself has cancelled all foreign trips scheduled for the coming days.

Ukrainian troops had “partially pushed out the enemy” from the town of Vovchansk in the Kharkiv region, the military said on Telegram. The General Staff also disputed a Russian claim to have recaptured Robotyne near the front line in the southern Zaporizhzhia region. The deserted village was the centre of heavy fighting and one of three Russian lines of defence in the area last year.

Blinken, who was making a two-day trip to Kyiv, announced $2-billion in foreign military financing, using a first-of-its-kind defence Enterprise Fund.

It helps Kyiv to buy weapons — including from other countries — and to invest in the Ukrainian defence industry. Foreign military financing typically is used only to purchase US-made weapons and services.

Ukraine reimposes power rationing as cold snap compounds Russian strikes

Ukraine reimposed electricity rationing for households and industry as a dip in temperatures heaped pressure on a power system pounded by Russian missile strikes.

Kremlin forces resumed what Zelensky described as “massive” attacks on his nation’s energy facilities. The effect from the strikes was exacerbated by temperatures several degrees below typical levels for May, which NPC Ukrenergo said resulted in a “significant” electricity supply deficit and compelled the grid operator to enact emergency power cuts countrywide on Tuesday evening.

“Ukrenergo is forced to limit consumption to prevent accidents in the power system,” the company said on Facebook.

The authorities are turning to emergency measures for the first time since early 2023 after a period of imposing so-called regular limits. Recent Russian strikes have damaged thermal and hydro power plants and an increase in imports from Western neighbors has proved insufficient to bridge the gap, the national grid operator said.

Emergency cuts were expected to be imposed again at peak consumption times on Wednesday evening, with additional scheduled outages for businesses also planned, Ukrenergo said.

Blinken is rocking the free world at Kyiv’s Barman’s Dictatorship

Blinken followed up a pledge to support Ukraine in its war against Russia by playing a cover of Rockin’ in the Free World in a basement bar just off Kyiv’s main strip.

Dressed in a black shirt and faded jeans and strapping on an electric guitar, the top US diplomat launched into Neil Young’s hit anthem. He was backed by a local jazz-punk band after a short speech expressing empathy with Ukrainians facing a new Russian onslaught in the northeast of the country.

“I know this is a really, really difficult time,” Blinken told the crowd of Ukrainians and Americans who descended on BarmanDictat, or the Barman’s Dictatorship, after being tipped off about the 8:30 p.m. gig on Tuesday. “Your soldiers, your citizens in the northeast in Kharkiv are suffering tremendously.”

For the secretary, the one-song gig with a punk/jazz band called 19.99 capped a full day of meetings, including Zelensky, and a speech to students with a message that Ukraine is not alone.

Blinken’s performance triggered mixed feelings in Kyiv as some Ukrainians, including former Economy Minister Tymofiy Mylovanov, expressed a preference for action in delivering more weapons over hollow words of support. DM

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