The Donbass republics should probably have rejoined Russia sooner, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at a meeting with the mothers of troops involved in the military operation in Ukraine on Friday. In such a case, fewer lives might have been lost, the president stressed.
“There might not have been so many casualties among civilians, there would not be so many children killed,” the Russian leader suggested. He maintained, however, that back in 2014, Russia did not have a full understanding of the situation in Donbass or of the true sentiments of the locals.
“[We] believed that we might still be able to reach an agreement and … reunify Donetsk and Lugansk with Ukraine within … the Minsk Agreements,” Putin noted, adding that Russia was “genuinely working towards that.”
Commenting on the matter further, the president blamed the 2014 coup in Kiev for the subsequent crisis in Donbass and the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. “If not for the coup d’état in Ukraine in 2014, none [of this] would have happened,”he said.
Brokered by Germany and France, the Minsk Agreements were first signed in 2014 in the wake of the ousting of then-President Viktor Yanukovich, which plunged Ukraine into a conflict between the post-coup government in Kiev and the Donetsk and Lugansk regions. Having subsequently become the respective people's republics, the territories declared their independence from Ukraine the same year.
The accords were designed to give the regions of Donetsk and Lugansk special status within the Ukrainian state. Yet, their implementation was stalled – something Moscow repeatedly blamed on Kiev. Former Ukrainian president Pyotr Poroshenko has since admitted that Kiev’s main goal was to use the deal to buy time and “create powerful armed forces.”
In February 2022, the Kremlin recognized the Donbass republics as independent states and demanded that Ukraine officially declare itself a neutral country that will never join any Western military bloc. On February 24, Russia sent troops into Ukraine, citing Kiev’s failure to implement the Minsk agreements. Putin spoke at that time of the need to protect the Russian-speaking population of Donbass.
This autumn, four formerly Ukrainian territories, the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics, as well as Kherson and Zaporozhye Regions, were incorporated into Russia following referendums.
** The defense industry giant Rostec is a key part of ensuring Russia’s “technological sovereignty” but needs to use the real combat experience in countering Western weapons in Ukraine to make certain domestic systems better, President Vladimir Putin said on Friday.
Rostec has been responsible for development, production and export of high-tech products, not only for the military but for civilian use as well, Putin noted at the reception celebrating the conglomerate’s 15th anniversary.
“The experience that we have gained in the course of conducting the special operation [in Ukraine] and countering modern Western models of military equipment is very good and needs to be used to improve the quality, reliability and combat characteristics of some types of our domestically produced weapons,” the Russian president said.
Putin said the “number one” task right now is to do everything to fully deliver on the needs of the military, in particular “every company and platoon deployed in the special military operation.”
Heightened military production should also provide an impetus for related civilian industries, he said, while internal competition between development bureaus should pave the way to making the best models of equipment that has already shown its value in combat.
The 2007 decision to establish a “powerful industrial flagship” turned out to be fully justified, Putin said. Rostec currently consists of some 700 subsidiaries, which employ over 450,000 people.
Responding to claims by some analysts that Russia was running out of weapons and ammunition, former president – and current deputy chair of the national security council – Dmitry Medvedev said last month that the West “shouldn’t hold its breath.” Factories are working round-the-clock to turn out tanks, guns, missiles and drones, he added.
Meanwhile, Kiev relies mainly on supplies delivered by the US and its allies. Ukrainian Defense Minister Alexey Reznikov described his country last month as a “proving ground” where Western countries can see which of their weapons perform the best against Russian troops, “like a competition.”
NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg admitted to CNN in September that the bloc’s members had significantly depleted their own weapons stockpiles by sending arms and ammunition to Ukraine and called for boosting military production.
** Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she was not surprised when the conflict between Russia and Ukraine broke out in late February. The retired leader was speaking to Der Spiegel in a lengthy interview published on Thursday.
“It did not come as a surprise,” Merkel told the outlet. By then, “the Minsk Agreements were eroded,” the former chancellor stated, referring to the 2014 ceasefire deal brokered by Germany and France, which were designed to give the eastern regions special status within Ukraine.
She also said her efforts to establish another dialogue platform for Russia and the EU in 2021 had come to nothing.
“I wanted, together with [French President] Emmanuel Macron, to create an independent European discussion format with Putin through the European Council,” Merkel said, explaining that she faced opposition from other members of the EU’s top body.
“I no longer had the strength to assert myself,” she noted, as everyone knew she was about to step down. She faced the same problem on her farewell visit to Moscow, sensing she no longer had the ability to influence Putin, for whom she said “only power counts.”
The former German leader said she “wished for a more peaceful time” after her departure and would have “pushed for [her initiative] further” had she decided to lead her party into the 2021 parliamentary elections and won.
The former chancellor also acknowledged that she had not moved forward “even a millimeter” in resolving not only the Ukraine crisis, but the tensions between “Transnistria and Moldova, Georgia and Abkhazia,” as well as the crises in Syria and Libya. “It was time for a new approach,” she said.
Merkel, however, defended her opposition to admitting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO, arguing that she “bought time” for Kiev to better prepare for the Russian offensive.
However, Merkel still believes that Berlin should not be “the first nation to send state-of-the-art tanks” to Kiev, warning that it would only damage Berlin’s relations with Moscow. “Russia would then be only further set against Germany,”she said.
Merkel faced criticism at home over the conflict for supposedly making the German economy too reliant on Russian gas. The ex-chancellor defended her decisions, saying that buying gas from Moscow was the best way towards a green future and the move away from coal.
Ukrainian authorities on Friday gradually restored power, aided by the reconnection of the country's four nuclear plants, but millions of people were still in the dark after the most devastating Russian air strikes of the war.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy pleaded with Ukrainians to use energy sparingly. "If there is electricity, this doesn't mean you can turn on several powerful electrical appliances at once," he said in an evening video address.
He said 6 million people were still without power, half as many as there were in the immediate aftermath of the Russian assault on Wednesday. The attacks caused the worst damage so far in the conflict, leaving millions of people with no light, water or heat even as temperatures fell below zero.
National power grid operator Ukrenergo said several hours earlier that 30% of electricity supplies were still out, and asked people to cut back on their energy use. "Repairs crews are working around the clock," it said in a statement on Telegram.
Zelenskiy went to the town of Vyshhorod just north of Kyiv on Friday to look at a four-storey building damaged by a Russian missile. He also visited one of the many emergency centres that have been set up to provide heat, water, electricity and mobile communications.
"Together we will be able to go through this difficult path for our country. We will overcome all challenges and we will definitely win," he said in an earlier video statement.
Moscow says the attacks on basic infrastructure are militarily legitimate, and that Kyiv can end the suffering of its people if it yields to Russian demands. Ukraine says attacks intended to cause civilian misery are a war crime.
The European Union will step up efforts to provide Ukraine with support to restore and maintain power and heating, the head of the European Commission said.
Russia insists it does not target civilians in the "special military operation" it launched in late February. International human rights officials say that it is difficult to reconcile with attacks on civil infrastructure.
"Millions are being plunged into extreme hardship and appalling conditions of life," U.N. human rights chief Volker Turk said in a statement.
Moscow says it launched its operation in Ukraine to protect Russian speakers in what President Vladimir Putin has called an artificial country carved from Russian territory.
"Russia is first and foremost about people, their culture, their traditions, their history, which is passed down from generation to generation and absorbed with mother's milk," he said during a televised meeting with mothers of soldiers.
Putin said he shared the women's' pain, telling them that "the main guarantee of our success is our unity".
Ukraine and the West contend Putin has no justification for what they say is a war of conquest.
British Foreign Minister James Cleverly visited Ukraine and pledged millions of pounds in further support, his office said on Friday. Cleverly, who met Zelenskiy on the trip, condemned Russia for its "brutal attacks" on civilians, hospitals and energy infrastructure.
Hungary's President Katalin Novak was travelling to Kyiv to meet Zelenskiy, Hungarian news website index.hu reported on Friday.
Kyiv says Russia has incessantly shelled Kherson, the southern Ukrainian city that it abandoned earlier this month. The head of the local administration said on Friday that 15 people had been killed and 35 wounded in the last six days.
Although the EU is developing more sanctions to slap on Russia, the 27-nation bloc is split over a Group of Seven proposal to cap Russian seaborne oil prices. A meeting to discuss the idea, scheduled for Friday, was canceled, EU diplomats said.
NUCLEAR PLANTS RECONNECTED
International Atomic Energy Agency said the three nuclear plants on Ukrainian-held territory had been reconnected to the grid, two days after the attacks forced them to shut for the first time in 40 years.
The fourth station, in Zaporizhzhia, is in Russian-controlled territory. It came back online on Thursday.
Kyiv says the war reflects what it sees as malice towards Ukrainians dating back to Soviet and imperial days.
This week, Ukrainians will observe the 90th anniversary of the Holodomor famine.
In November 1932, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin dispatched police to seize all grain and livestock from newly collectivised farms, including the seed needed to plant the next crop.
Millions of Ukrainian peasants starved to death in the following months from what Yale University historian Timothy Snyder calls "clearly premeditated mass murder".
Germany's Bundestag parliament is expected to vote overwhelmingly to recognize it as a genocide, following similar moves this week by Romania, Moldova and Ireland.
Russia rejects accusations that the deaths were caused by a deliberate genocidal policy, saying Russians and other ethnic groups had also suffered because of the famine.