World

UKRAINE UPDATE: 24 MAY 2024

Assailant reveals motive behind Slovak PM shooting; Biden to skip peace summit for Hollywood fundraiser

Assailant reveals motive behind Slovak PM shooting; Biden to skip peace summit for Hollywood fundraiser
The man who shot Slovak PM Robert Fico on 15 May is detained. Named as Jurag C, he told a court he shot Fico because of the premier's decision to halt military aid to Ukraine. (Photo: Radovan Stoklasa / Reuters)

The assailant charged with shooting Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said he acted out of frustration with the government’s policies and, above all, the premier’s decision to halt military support for Ukraine, according to a court document.

President Joe Biden is likely to miss a Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland next month because it conflicts with a campaign fundraiser in California he’s set to attend alongside George Clooney, Julia Roberts and other stars.

Ukraine’s top military officer said Kyiv’s forces largely halted a Russian incursion in the northeast even as the Kremlin hit the city of Kharkiv with a missile attack that killed at least seven people.

Slovak shooter says he attacked premier over his Ukraine stance

The assailant charged with shooting Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico said he acted out of frustration with the government’s policies and, above all, the premier’s decision to halt military support for Ukraine, a court document said.

The suspect, identified as 71-year-old Juraj C, told investigators that he acted alone and had no intention of killing Fico, whom he shot at close range after a government meeting northeast of Bratislava on 15 May, according to the document, which Bloomberg received after making a request to the court for information on the case.

Following the first such shooting of a European leader in more than two decades, Fico has been recovering in intensive care in central Slovakia. As one of Europe’s most politically polarised nations grapples with the fallout from the attack, authorities have tried to piece together a motive.

The claim to have acted on his own may undercut a suggestion by government authorities that the assailant could have been part of a broader plot.

Read more: Slovak lawmakers unite behind condemnation of premier’s shooting

The attacker, who was wrestled to the ground by security guards after firing five shots at Fico’s abdomen, also expressed opposition to the prime minister’s decision to abolish a special prosecutor’s office and what he called the persecution of culture and media workers.

Regarding Ukraine, he told investigators that he considered Fico’s nationalist-backed government “treacherous towards the European Union”.

Fico’s coalition leaders have lashed out at Slovakia’s opposition and media, whom they blame for the suspect’s radicalisation. Defence Minister Robert Kalinak, a close ally whom Fico entrusted with leading the government temporarily, has repeatedly accused the media of vilifying the premier.

Still, legislators earlier this week unanimously backed a parliamentary resolution condemning the shooting, an effort to dial back political recriminations.

Biden set to skip Ukraine peace summit for Hollywood fundraiser

President Joe Biden is likely to miss a Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland next month because it conflicts with a campaign fundraiser in California he’s set to attend alongside George Clooney, Julia Roberts and other stars.

Switzerland scheduled the conference for June 15-16, after a meeting of the Group of Seven in Italy. Several G7 leaders plan to join but neither Biden nor Vice-President Kamala Harris are scheduled to be there, according to people familiar with the matter who asked not to be named discussing private deliberations. Russian President Vladimir Putin wasn’t invited and leaders from other nations are also planning to skip.

Biden is scheduled to fly from the G7 meeting in southern Italy to Los Angeles for the 15 June fundraiser. Along with Clooney and Roberts, former president Barack Obama and late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel are set to join him.

The decision underscores how Biden is further shifting into campaign mode as he looks to overcome former president Donald Trump’s polling lead in key swing states ahead of the November election. Adding to the urgency, Trump eclipsed Biden’s fundraising efforts for the first time in the current election cycle last month, raising $76-million to his $51-million.

It also reflects a broader pessimism about the conference, which Switzerland agreed to organise when Ukrainian Preent Volodymyr Zelensky visited the country in January. Still, about 70 countries will take part in the summit at some level, including leaders such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, while Japanese Premier Fumio Kishida is likely to be there too.

However, the absence of China is likely to disappoint Zelensky. Beijing has long been seen as crucial to the process given its close relationship with Moscow, but it has so far skipped most meetings leading up to the summit.

China and several other nations in the so-called Global South have pushed for Russia to be involved in the process. Ukraine and its allies don’t want to engage with Moscow until a set of principles that would define any future peace settlement are broadly agreed. The Swiss summit was originally envisioned as a first step toward that aim.

Diplomats organising the conference winnowed down its ambitions to focus on a narrow set of goals, such as nuclear safety and prisoner exchanges, in a bid to broaden participation. Those points fall short of Ukraine’s blueprint for peace, which calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops as well as future security guarantees.

Russia is also pushing nations in Asia, Africa and South America to stay away from the conference. Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and other officials met and called counterparts from dozens of countries, from India to tiny Comoros, with the apparent aim of deterring participation in the Swiss conference, according to a diplomatic memo seen by Bloomberg.

Lavrov has also reached out to ambassadors in Moscow with the same goal, according to the memo, and a meeting of foreign ministers from the BRICS countries and their allies on 10-11 June should seal that effort.

Russia’s Kharkiv offensive bogged down, says Ukraine army chief 

Ukraine’s top military officer said Kyiv’s forces largely halted a Russian incursion in the northeast even as the Kremlin hit the city of Kharkiv with a missile attack that killed at least seven people.

Two weeks after Russian troops poured over the border north of Kharkiv to open a fresh front, the advance has ground to a halt for now in the town of Vovchansk less than 10km south of the frontier, and in Lyptsi to the southwest, Oleksandr Syrskyi said on Thursday.

“After the first insignificant successes in the course of offensive actions in the Kharkiv region, the enemy is now fully bogged down in street fighting for Vovchansk,” Syrskyi said in a post on Facebook.

The comments signalled progress for Ukrainian troops in staving off a fresh offensive that authorities was aimed at sapping Kyiv’s military strength across the frontline, as Russian forces intensified their assaults in Ukraine’s east. A series of missile strikes early on Thursday on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, struck a book-printing facility and damaged rail infrastructure.

DeepState, a map service maintained in cooperation with Ukraine’s Defence Ministry, showed no significant advance of Kremlin troops as part of the Kharkiv offensive since Monday. Syrskyi said the Russian military command was dispatching reserves to support the local offensive but to no avail.

Russia’s Defence Ministry said units had repelled two counterattacks by Ukrainians in Vovchansk and Hlyboke to the west, the two main areas where Russian troops were seeking to penetrate deeper into Ukrainian territory.

But as the Kremlin has gained momentum by exploiting its advantage over Ukraine’s ammunition supplies and manpower, fighting in the eastern region of Donetsk has intensified as Russia seeks to pierce defences. Moscow’s forces pressed forward near the strategically positioned settlement of Chasiv Yar, which they aimed to capture “at all costs”, Syrskyi said.

In Kharkiv, residents have struggled under nearly daily bombardment by Putin’s forces in recent months, as the city’s proximity to the border allows Russian forces to use a wider assortment of weapons, including air defence missiles and guided bombs.

Russian forces hit Kharkiv and the nearby town of Lyubotyn with 15 simultaneous missile strikes, regional governor Oleh Synehubov said on Telegram. In addition to fatalities, at least 17 were injured, Interior Minister Ihor Klymenko said on Telegram.

G7 closing in on US-led push to tap frozen Russian assets

The Group of Seven (G7) countries are converging on a US plan to squeeze value out of frozen Russian assets, a move that would secure as much as $50-billion in critical financing for Ukraine and help shield it from political shifts on both es of the Atlantic.

Officials familiar with the discussions said G7 governments were all now broadly supportive of a US proposal to leverage future revenue generated from about $280-billion in Russian central bank funds — most of which lies immobilised in Europe — to back the massive loan to Kyiv.

Finance ministers from the G7 economies are discussing the matter during a meeting this week in Stresa, Italy, to agree on a set of options for their leaders for a final decision when they meet on June 13-15.

While the G7 is closing in on the broad strokes of the agreement, many critical details are still being negotiated and would need to be agreed upon, according to the people, who asked not to be identified as the talks are private and ongoing.

Those include the exact mechanism of the loan, the size of the amount that will be raised upfront and, crucially, how the risk will be shared among the participating parties, they said.

Still, one thing where there is consensus among the G7 is that more financing for Ukraine will be needed.

With the war showing no signs of abating and Russia’s military offensive gaining ground, the focus has shifted to securing medium-term assistance for Kyiv and sending a strong signal to Moscow that G7 allies are committed to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes.

At stake is not just ensuring Ukraine can continue to fund its defence and service its debt but also that it will be able to receive sustainable financial support through 2025 and beyond.

The money raised from such a plan could be used to assist Ukraine with reconstruction and military needs, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said on Thursday. She added that the amount raised would help Ukraine not just through 2025 but further down the line.

“Our hope would be to show that those assets do provide a viable stream of support in the years to come,” she told reporters ahead of meetings with her G7 counterparts. “This is an assured source of financing and it’s important that Russia realise that we will not be deterred from supporting Ukraine for lack of resources.”

Italian Finance Minister Giancarlo Giorgetti struck a similarly positive note, saying he was “optimistic” on this “key issue” and that the hope was to present the G7 leaders with a plan.

“The problem is what legal basis we have,” he told reporters. “It’s not simple, we’re working on it, we need to be a bit creative. Currently, legally the idea is to use the interest to repay the loans we give to Ukraine. The issue is we have to see if that’s feasible.”

Putin allows US assets in Russia to be seized for retaliation

Putin ordered the government to prepare retaliation for any seizure of assets by the US as Washington tries to build support for using revenue from frozen Russia funds to support Ukraine.

Under the measure, US assets in Russia could be confiscated to compensate for losses suffered by the Russian government or central bank, according to the decree published on Thursday on a government website.

Russian companies whose assets are confiscated can file a court complaint to potentially receive compensation from assets that US and US-affiliated entities still hold in Russia, including the property of US citizens, according to the order.

Putin’s order directs a Russian government commission on foreign investments to compile a list of assets, securities and property rights belonging to the US government or its citizens that can be used to help determine future compensation.

China condemns UK claims it’s giving Russia combat gear

China rejected UK accusations it was working to provide Russia with combat equipment in Ukraine, something that could represent an escalation in Beijing’s military support for Moscow.

“We condemn the irresponsible smearing of China by British politicians,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said on Thursday at a regular news briefing in Beijing.

“It must be pointed out that it is the British side, not the Chinese side, who are involved in fuelling the Ukraine issue,” he added.

On Wednesday, UK Defence Secretary Grant Shapps said in a speech in London that trade growth between the two neighbours had expanded into items with more obvious military applications.

“Today, I can reveal that we have evidence that Russia and China are collaborating on combat equipment for use in Ukraine,” Shapps said, adding, “They’re covering each other’s back.”

Estonia says Russia removed border markers as tension rises

Estonian border authorities accused Russian counterparts of removing a set of buoy markers on the Narva River, as Baltic leaders raised concerns this week over confusing signals from Moscow over demarcating its frontiers.

The border guard service of the Baltic nation accused Russian officials of carrying off 24 of 50 buoys helping to separate the two countries on the waterway at 3am local time, according to a statement. The markers had been placed within Estonian waters by authorities over the last 10 days.

“Russia uses border issues as a means to create fear and anxiety,” Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas said at a press conference in Tallinn on Thursday. “We will approach this incident soberly, in a balanced way, if needed also in communication with partners and allies.”

The incident comes a day after a Russian Defence Ministry proposal to modify the country’s Baltic Sea border and territorial waters prompted vocal responses from Lithuania and Finland. The document outlining the draft proposal was later removed from a government website without explanation.

The Narva River border had been a matter of dispute earlier this year, when Russia said it didn’t accept the location of half of the 250 buoys proposed by Estonian officials, the border guard statement said. The floating markers, positioned each spring, are used for boats to navigate the river without veering into Russian waters.

Poland tightens Ukraine aid hub security over sabotage concerns

Polish authorities were stepping up security around the main transit hub for foreign military aid to Ukraine as a series of arrests announced this week laid bare mounting concerns over Russian-backed sabotage operations.

Interior Minister Tomasz Siemoniak confirmed that measures were being taken to boost security around the Rzeszow-Jasionka airport. Located less than 100km from the Ukrainian border, the facility has handled as much as 90% of Western materiel headed to the frontline. It’s also become a main stopover point for foreign officials visiting Kyiv.

“We are facing a foreign state that is conducting hostile and — in military parlance — kinetic action on Polish territory,” Siemoniak said in an interview in Warsaw, without elaborating on security measures at the airport. “There has never been anything like this before.”

The minister said Poland was grappling with an unprecedented level of foreign interference after Prime Minister Donald Tusk announced that as many as 12 people had been detained as part of a crackdown on alleged acts of sabotage directed from Russia. The cases involve arson, attempted arson as well as physical attacks.

The role of Rzeszow-Jasionka airport as part of Kremlin-backed operations came to light in April. Prosecutors said they arrested a male suspect accused of assisting a plot to assassinate Zelensky. The man was allegedly prepared to collect information on airport security as part of the plan.

In March of last year, 16 foreign nationals were detained on suspicion of taking part in a surveillance network monitoring deliveries to Ukraine in the southeastern Subcarpathian region, which includes the regional capital Rzeszow. Polish agents seized cameras, electronic devices and GPS transmitters.

Russia detains deputy to army chief in bribery investigation

Russia detained a deputy to army chief Valery Gerasimov on corruption allegations, the latest in a series of cases against Defence Ministry officials as the war in Ukraine continues.

General Vadim Shamarin, deputy chief of the Russian General Staff and head of its main communications directorate, was ordered to be held in custody for two months by a military court in Moscow on a charge of receiving an especially large bribe, the state-run Tass news service reported on Thursday.

The case follows the detention last week of the former head of Russia’s 58th army in Ukraine, Major General Ivan Popov, on fraud allegations. Deputy Defence Minister Timur Ivanov was held on bribery charges last month, and the head of the ministry’s personnel department was detained last week in a bribery case.

Putin replaced long-serving Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu with former First Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Belousov, an economist, in a shakeup of his security officials this month. He said Belousov’s key task was to improve the effectiveness of Russia’s defence spending on the battlefield. DM

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