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UKRAINE UPDATE: 15 MAY 2024

Putin’s new defence chief vows to boost military efficiency; Zelensky appeals for air defence batteries

Putin’s new defence chief vows to boost military efficiency; Zelensky appeals for air defence batteries
Russia's new defence minister, Andrey Belousov, says his methods will help Russia win the war on Ukraine, now in its third year. (Photo: Russian Federation Council / Handout via Reuters)

Andrey Belousov, Russia’s new defence minister, said he planned to improve military efficiency and reduce battlefield casualties to win the war in Ukraine, which is now in its third year with no end in sight.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to the US for air defence batteries to shield its second-biggest city as Russia launched a large-scale offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

The US Treasury Department has sanctioned an individual and three Russian-based companies involved in a cancelled share deal that Raiffeisen Bank International had hoped would allow it to pull capital out of Russia.

Diplomats are focusing on a narrow set of goals in preparation for a summit on Ukraine’s peace plan in Switzerland next month to ensure China and other nations of the so-called Global South attend the meeting.

Putin’s new defence chief plans to boost army’s efficiency

Andrey Belousov, Russia’s new defence minister, said he planned to improve military efficiency and reduce battlefield casualties to win the war in Ukraine, which is now in its third year with no end in sight.

“Every rouble in the state budget that, in the end, our citizens pay should have the greatest impact,” Belousov told legislators in Russia’s upper house of parliament on Tuesday as they confirmed his appointment. Russia must resort to “everything efficient and innovative” to secure victory, he said.

Belousov, an economist with no military background, said President Vladimir Putin appointed him to the post “to ensure the full integration of the economy of the armed forces into the general economy of the country”. Spiralling defence spending now exceeded 6.7% of Russia’s gross domestic product, he said.

Putin ousted Sergei Shoigu, who’d held the post since 2012, to appoint 65-year-old Belousov late on Sunday in a surprise shuffle of his defence and security team following his inauguration last week for a fifth term as president. Shoigu was moved to a new role as secretary of Russia’s Security Council.

Belousov said he had no plans for another mobilisation and would focus on recruiting more people as contract soldiers for the army. Putin announced a September 2022 draft of 300,000 reservists that triggered a spike in public anxiety over the war and prompted an exodus of hundreds of thousands of people from the country.

With Russian forces now on the offensive in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region, Belousov told legislators he aimed to improve supplies of weapons, ammunition and other equipment to frontline troops.

That would require tighter control over spending and costs to provide resources for new weapons and clear planning for production, he said.

Belousov will go with Putin to China and accompany him to an informal meeting with President Xi Jinping on Thursday together with Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the Interfax news service reported, citing Kremlin foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov, who’ll also be present.

Zelensky asks Blinken for Patriot air defences for Kharkiv

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to the US for air defence batteries to shield its second-biggest city as Russia launched a large-scale offensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region.

“We need, today, two Patriots for Kharkiv,” Zelensky told Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a meeting in Kyiv, referring to the US-made anti-missile defence system.

Blinken was using a visit to reassure Kyiv and the rest of Europe of President Joe Biden’s support in repelling Russia after a lengthy political fight on Capitol Hill over a $61-billion aid package. The US’s top diplomat also used the visit to call for continued government reforms to stamp out corruption and boost foreign investments needed for postwar reconstruction.

Read More: Blinken visits Ukraine in effort to assure Kyiv of US backing

Ukraine has sent reinforcements to the northeastern frontline as Putin’s troops attempt to push deeper into the region after weeks of intensified airstrikes on Kharkiv.

The US and its partners aimed to ensure Ukraine’s near-term success on the battlefield and its long-term self-sufficiency and economic viability, Blinken said, calling the latter “the best rebuke to Putin and the best possible guarantor” of Ukraine’s future.

Russia had deployed a significant force of as many as five battalions, equivalent to about 2,000 soldiers, in a drive toward the northeastern town of Vovchansk, Ukraine’s top military command said on Facebook on Monday. Success in driving Ukraine back in Kharkiv would take the Russian city of Belgorod and military strongholds and supply hubs in the surrounding area out of Ukrainian artillery range.

The assault is likely to stretch Ukraine’s already outgunned and outmanned forces and may push Kyiv to redeploy some of its troops from the long front line in the east.

In a speech later on Tuesday in Kyiv, Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s commitment to Ukraine’s defence and the longer-term goal of joining the Nato alliance. He also highlighted the need for continued government reforms to curb corruption and reinforce democratic institutions.

“Winning on the battlefield will prevent Ukraine from becoming part of Russia,” Blinken said in a speech. “Winning the war against corruption will keep Ukraine from becoming like Russia.”

US sanctions parties involved in Raiffeisen’s axed Russian deal

The US Treasury Department has sanctioned an individual and three Russian-based companies involved in a cancelled share deal that Raiffeisen Bank International had hoped would allow it to pull capital out of Russia.

The US added MKAO Rasperia Trading, which holds a 24.1% stake in the Austrian construction company Strabag, to its list of designated companies, according to a statement on Tuesday.

Sanctioned Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska had owned Rasperia Trading until earlier this year, when he sold the company, along with the Strabag shares it held, to Iliadis.

According to Raiffeisen’s scrapped plans, the bank’s Russian units would have purchased the shares from Iliadis, before transferring them to the parent in Vienna as dividend in kind, allowing the transfer of about €1.5-billion in stranded retained earnings from Russia.

Raiffeisen ultimately cancelled the deal out of fear of regulatory backlash.

The US also sanctioned Iliadis, an intermediary company in the deal, and Russian financial services company Titul, alongside its owner Dmitrii Beloglazov.

Ukraine peace plan summit eyes minimal goals to woo sceptical Global South

Diplomats are focusing on a narrow set of goals in preparation for a summit on Ukraine’s peace plan in Switzerland next month to ensure China and other nations of the so-called Global South attend the meeting.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz set the scene for the gathering on Tuesday, when he told Stern magazine that the talks were going to touch on the safety of nuclear power plants, grain exports, prisoner exchanges and what he described as the “necessary taboo on the use of nuclear weapons”.

“Nobody should have exaggerated expectations,” Scholz said in an interview published on Tuesday. “We are not negotiating the end of the war there.”

Even so, it’s uncertain whether the outreach effort will be successful. More than 160 countries have been invited to discuss Ukraine’s conditions for a settlement with Russia at a mountain resort near Lucerne, Switzerland, on June 15-16. But the level of attendance beyond Ukraine’s Western allies isn’t clear.

To secure broader support, Germany and other allies of Ukraine are engaging diplomats in the Global South on a possible text focused on key United Nations principles, and other basic issues such as returning deported children to Ukraine, prisoners’ exchanges and nuclear and food security, according to people familiar with the discussions.

These points, however, fall short of Ukraine’s blueprint for peace, which calls for respecting the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, the withdrawal of Russian troops as well as guarantees over its future security.

China’s presence, in particular, is seen as important for the success of the gathering, given the influence diplomats say Beijing has on Moscow more than two years into the war.

Read more: Scholz asks Xi to exert pressure on Putin to end ‘insane’ war

Group of Seven nations and the European Union are intensifying efforts to secure the participation of countries from Brazil to South Africa to Indonesia. Italy, in particular, has been asked to convince Indian President Narendra Modi to support the initiative, the people said, while Japan was talking to Brazil. They declined to be named because the talks are private.

Beijing and other major Global South nations have been pushing to involve Russia in the process. Ukraine and its allies believe that can happen only once a framework of the key principles of any peace settlement have been established, with early suggestions that such a meeting could take place in the Gulf. Switzerland hasn’t invited Russia to the conference.

Still, one of the key objectives of the summit is to discuss how Russia can be involved in an actual peace process going forward, one of the people said.

Russia’s Kharkiv push has slowed, says Ukraine military spy chief

Ukraine’s military intelligence chief said his forces had managed to “stabilise” the fallout from Russia’s fresh incursion into the country’s northeast as they sought to halt the sudden advance of Kremlin troops.

The comments by Kyrylo Budanov on local television came hours after he told The New York Times that the military situation was “on the edge” in the region surrounding Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv. He joined officials including  Zelensky in seeking to reassure the public over the setback.

“The situation isn’t catastrophic as of now,” Budanov said in the follow-up interview. Russian forces that had poured over the northern border since Friday had been slowed after days of advances, he said, citing a “rapid trend toward stabilisation” since late Monday.

The less downbeat description aligned more closely with officials close to Zelensky scrambling to project confidence as Putin’s forces launch a large-scale offensive in the area for the first time since the first months of the war in 2022.

Budanov said Ukrainian forces were preparing a counteroffensive in the area to repulse the advance north of Kharkiv. Zelensky commended his troops for holding their ground in a statement late on Monday.

“Now we are getting more and more results, destroying the occupier’s infantry and machinery,” the president said on Telegram.

Polish leader says Russia can’t be allowed to win in Ukraine

Polish President Andrzej Duda said Russia would invade other countries if its forces were victorious in its war on Ukraine, as he predicted a fresh military push by the Kremlin in the coming weeks.

Though he said an assault on other neighbours wasn’t imminent, the Polish leader warned at the Qatar Economic Forum on Tuesday that Nato allies were vulnerable. He spoke as Ukrainian forces struggled to hold back a fresh Kremlin offensive.

“If they manage to win in Ukraine, if they manage to accomplish their goals, they will attack other countries,” Duda (51), told Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait in Doha. “This could be the Baltic states, perhaps this could be Finland, perhaps Poland.”

Russia detains second Defence Ministry official in bribery case

Russia detained another top Defence Ministry official on bribery allegations, the second case in less than a month as Putin shakes up his military leadership.

The head of the ministry’s personnel department, Yuri Kuznetsov, is accused of accepting a large bribe from a group of businesspeople in return for favours, Russia’s Investigative Committee said on Tuesday in a statement on Telegram. Officials seized more than 100 million roubles ($1.1-million) as well as gold coins, collectable watches and other luxury items during searches at his properties, the committee said.

Kuznetsov’s detention follows the arrest last month of Deputy Defence Minister Timur Ivanov on bribery charges. Ivanov was a top ally of Sergei Shoigu who was removed as defence minister by Putin late on Sunday. DM

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