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Russian ground forces are advancing in Ukraine



The skies around Antonov international airport in Hostomel, a north-western suburb of Kyiv, were thick with Russian mi-8 helicopters. As one came under attack by a surface-to-air missile, it released an explosive burst of flares. The air assault by Russia—perhaps one of the largest of recent decades—was a bold and brazen attempt to seize a strategic airport near Ukraine’s capital.

As this article was published, the rough contours of the fighting in Hostomel and the whole of Ukraine were only just becoming discernable. At one stage, Russian troops were seen patrolling the airport. Ukrainian forces later counter-attacked, and claimed to have taken back the facility by the evening. The sounds of the fighting could be heard from several kilometres away.

The battle is a pivotal one: Russian control of the airfield would allow more troops and heavier equipment to be airlifted in. Christo Grozev, the director of Bellingcat, an investigative group, said that 18 Russian transport planes had left Pskov, home of the country’s 76th Guards Air Assault Division, heading for Ukraine’s capital. These were probably carrying large numbers of paratroopers. “They’re making a move on Kyiv,” says a senior us defence official. British officials concur that Russian ground forces in Belarus are “advancing towards” Kyiv. They appear to have captured the site of the Chernobyl reactor, to the north of the capital.

The struggle for Hostomel was one of the first and most important battles between Russia and Ukraine in the war launched by Vladimir Putin shortly before dawn on February 24th. It is soon likely to become the largest inter-state conflict in Europe since the Balkan wars of the 1990s. It has the potential to become much bigger still.

Russia’s first attacks involved volleys of missiles against important Ukrainian military facilities, including airports and air-defence radars—a tactic designed to allow Russian warplanes to fly safely over the country. American officials say that Russia launched more than 100 cruise and ballistic missiles from Belarus, Russia and warships at sea. Around 75 aircraft, including bombers, are thought to have been involved. Russia’s defence ministry says that it attacked 11 air bases and 18 air-defence sites, among other targets. Around the same time, Russian ground forces—some of the more than 110 battalion tactical groups that Russia had amassed around Ukraine since November—crossed the border.

Tracking their progress is difficult. Russia and Ukraine share much of the same Soviet-era military equipment. It is hard to distinguish a Russian tank from a Ukrainian one in the satellite imagery and mobile-phone footage that has provided a window into the Russian build-up and now the war. Even so, it soon became clear that Russian forces had made some important breakthroughs. By mid-afternoon Russian armour coming from Belgorod, one of the main staging areas in western Russia (see map), had begun to encircle Kharkiv, the second-largest city in Ukraine, in the east of the country. Russian tanks were near the city’s ring road, said its mayor, noting that there had been no civilian casualties. In the city of Okhtyrka, to the north-west of Kharkiv, video footage showed armoured vehicles in the street, buildings on fire and small-arms fire.Yet it is far from a rout. Ukraine’s army appears to have had more opportunities to employ anti-tank weapons than many supposed. America, Britain and other European allies gave Ukraine thousands of such weapons, including long-range American Javelins and shorter-range Anglo-Swedish nlaws, over the past two months. In places, these presented serious resistance to Russian advances in the north and east. It is thought that nlaws have never been used in combat before. Video footage taken around Kharkiv appears to show damaged tanks. Ukrainian officials said that Javelins and other weapons had “neutralised” an entire column of 15 t-72 tanks in Hlukhova, in the north-west of the country close to the Russian border. Ukraine’s fleet of Turkish drones, which have been used to good effect in recent wars in Libya, Syria and Azerbaijan, has also been used to mount attacks.

Ukraine put up a strong fight around the airport at Hostomel, too. Ukraine’s armed forces say they shot down three out of the 34 helicopters sent by Russia. A ka-52 helicopter was pictured, damaged, on the ground after an apparent forced landing. Ukraine also paraded captured Russian personnel, whose insignia marked them out as members of the 1st Guards Tank Army, one of Russia’s most vaunted offensive units. Elsewhere, Ukraine’s armed forces claim to have secured the surrender of a reconnaissance platoon near Chernihiv, north-east of Kyiv, though this could not be verified.

In the south, however, Russia’s forward thrusts seemed to meet with greater success. “Russian forces are literally pouring into Ukraine from Crimea,” said Konrad Muzyka of Rochan Consulting, who tracks Russian military movements. So rapid was their advance that some simply drove past Ukrainian units heading in the other direction. Ukraine’s ministry of defence said there was fighting around Genichesk, a port city on the Sea of Azov to the north-east of Crimea, Skadovsk, to the north-west, and Chaplinka, a little way inland. Video footage from Genichesk showed prisoner transport trucks belonging to the Rosgvardia, Russia’s national guard. There was also heavy fighting in Kherson, on the road to Odessa.

Before the war, Western security sources had said that they expected Russia’s army to encircle Ukrainian forces west of the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine, preventing them from falling back to protect the capital, and to advance on Kyiv from the south. Michael Kofman of CNA, an American research outfit, who had prepared a map of Russia’s likely axes of invasion—and which was similar to official assessments—says that “on the whole it looks relatively close as a representation of where Russian units are attempting to advance”. Mr Kofman warns that only a “fraction” of the Russian force has been committed so far. “What we’re seeing is [the] very early hours of the campaign.”

British defense intelligence said that there had been “heavy casualties” on both sides. Civilian casualties are unknown, though very few have been reported so far. The war “has sent an ominous chill down my spine”, said Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross. “Now I fear increased suffering, with the potential of massive casualty numbers and extensive destruction of civilian objects like water and electricity plants, as well as mass displacement, trauma, family separation, and missing persons.” ■


China moves closer to Russia, but wary on Ukraine



China and Russia set off alarms in the West this month with the most robust declaration of their friendship in decades but Beijing has signalled it would not back Vladimir Putin if he sent troops in to invade Ukraine.

The February 4 joint statement by the neighbours included unprecedented support from Beijing for Moscow’s opposition to the expansion of NATO, and came as Washington and its allies were warning of full-scale Russian military action against Kyiv.

It was “quite a quantum shift from what has been a steady intensification, elevation of the content of Russia-China declarations over the last 20 years”, former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd said during an online discussion co-hosted by the Atlantic Council think tank and the Asia Society.

“It is China becoming a global security actor in a way that I personally have not seen before.”

China’s unusually direct position on NATO and support for Moscow’s “reasonable” security concerns have, however, placed it on a diplomatic tightrope, forcing it to balance its close Russia ties with major economic interests in Europe.

With more than 150,000 troops massed on the border with Ukraine, Russia has demanded guarantees that Kyiv will never be allowed to join NATO — a position in stark contrast to China’s long-standing stated foreign policy red line: no interference in other countries’ internal affairs.

When asked if there was a contradiction, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the Munich Security Conference via video link Saturday that the sovereignty of all nations should be respected.

“Ukraine is no exception,” he said.

That position was tested in just two days.

Russian President Putin on Monday recognised two “republics” in Ukraine held by pro-Moscow separatist rebels, and ordered the deployment of troops there.

The United States and its allies blasted Russia for violating the sovereignty of Ukraine at an emergency UN Security Council meeting, but China was circumspect, urging restraint by “all sides”.

Putin has “denied the territorial independence and sovereignty — indeed, the very existence — of Ukraine”, Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO, wrote on Twitter.

“Both were core… (tenets) of China’s approach to the crisis. Putin has blown both to bits.”

This is not the first time China has had to strike a delicate balance between its interests and a major international escalation by its strategic partner Russia.

When Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, China did not join Russia’s veto of a UN Security Council resolution on the issue, instead abstaining and mainly offering economic support.

Eight years later, experts say there are again limits to what Beijing can — or wants to — do for Moscow.

Among the key factors are trade and financial links with Europe. Overt backing of any Russian belligerence could also threaten the major investment deal Beijing is trying to seal with the bloc.

Further, some analysts say China may not want to escalate already high tensions with the United States.

“The Ukraine crisis… carries significant risk of the bottom falling out of (China’s) relationships with the EU and the US,” wrote Bill Bishop in the Sinocism China Newsletter.

“I do not believe that Xi and his team want to see Russia invade Ukraine, as they understand the risks from the expected reaction to any invasion.”

Others said that, with its support for Moscow’s concerns about NATO, Beijing may be looking to its own future security interests.

By implicitly siding with Moscow, Beijing gains “considerable diplomatic leverage” and “presumes that Russia will act likewise when China finds itself in a critical security situation”, Richard Ghiasy, an expert at the Hague Centre for Strategic Studies, told AFP.

Despite Beijing’s guarded language on Ukraine, observers say the China-Russia joint announcement is still a stark challenge to the United States and its allies beyond the current crisis.

The statement contained challenges to the definitions of democracy and human rights, which Moscow and Beijing have been accused of violating by the West for years.

This prompted scathing criticism in Europe, with some accusing two authoritarian regimes of trying to redefine universal concepts to suit their agenda.

“It’s an act of defiance,” EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said at the Munich Security Conference on Sunday.

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Oil breaks $90/bbl for the first time since 2014 on Russia tensions



NEW YORK: Oil touched $90 a barrel for the first time in seven years on Wednesday, supported by tight supply and rising political tensions in Russia that raised concerns about further disruption in an already-tight market.

Brent crude rose $2.02, or 2.3%, to $90.22 by 11:21 a.m. EST (1621 GMT), the first time the global benchmark has broken $90 since October 2014. US West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude was up $2.09, or 2.4%, to $87.69.

US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday he would consider personal sanctions on President Vladimir Putin if Russia invades Ukraine. On Monday, Yemen’s Houthi movement launched a missile attack on a United Arab Emirates base.

“World inventories have continued to decline as producers have struggled to restore production to pre-pandemic levels,” said Andrew Lipow, president of Lipow Oil Associates in Houston. “Mix that in with geopolitical tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine and prices have continued their march upward.”

Oil broadly stable as tight supply counters falling US markets

The tensions have only added to worries about the various factors contributing to an already tight market. OPEC+ is having trouble meeting monthly production targets as it restores supply to markets after drastic cuts in 2020, and the United States is more than a million barrels short of its record level of daily output.

At the same time, demand remains strong, suggesting that inventories may continue to decline.

“Historically, markets led higher by tightening product and crude inventories are difficult to solve absent a demand destruction event or an injection of supply. Neither appear on the horizon, currently,” wrote Michael Tran, commodity strategist at RBC Capital Markets, in a note.

The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and allies, known as OPEC+, meets on Feb. 2 to consider another output increase.

Inventories in the United States rose in the most recent week, with crude stocks up by 2.4 million barrels, against expectations for a modest decline in stocks. Gasoline inventories rose to their highest levels in almost a year – a needed salve for the market.

US refined product supplied – a measure of demand – surged again, putting the four-week moving average at 21.2 million barrels per day, ahead of pre-pandemic trends. The increases have been led by consumption of distillates like diesel, as gasoline use has fallen off modestly in recent weeks.

Investors across the markets are awaiting the coming policy update from the US Federal Reserve at 2 p.m. EST. The Fed is expected to signal plans to raise interest rates in March as it focuses on fighting inflation.

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