Monday, 13 March 2023 06:01

What to know after Day 382 of Russia-Ukraine war

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Hatred of Putin makes US officials ‘do dumb things’ – Seymour Hersh

Legendary investigative journalist Seymour Hersh on Sunday offered a theory for what he sees as “complete idiocy” in foreign policy from US officials. He told Chinese state television that he believes they’re so consumed by hatred of Russian President Vladimir Putin that they stumble into bad decisions.

Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who reported last month that US President Joe Biden ordered last fall’s sabotage of the Nord Stream natural gas pipelines, has called the alleged plot one of Washington’s “dumbest” decisions in years. However, the blunder didn’t reflect a lack of intelligence among top officials in Biden’s administration, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Hersh said in an interview with CGTN.

Top administration officials “all have high degrees of, plenty of, intelligence,”Hersh said. “It’s just what they're so driven by, I think, hatred of all things particularly Putin, and also communism per se. They’re so cold warriors, they’re really out of sorts. It makes them do dumb things.”

The White House dismissed Hersh’s bombshell report on the Nord Stream blast as “complete fiction.” The New York Times, where Hersh did award-winning work on the Watergate scandal and other stories as a star reporter in the 1970s, claimed earlier this month that a “pro-Ukraine group” was behind the Nord Stream attack. The story cited unidentified US officials.

Hersh told CGTN that neither the Ukrainian navy nor a non-state actor had the resources to carry out the sabotage, which involved planting C4 explosives on four concrete-encased steel pipelines at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. He said the false claim was made to distract from the fact that US Navy divers planted the remotely detonated explosives under cover of a NATO exercise in the Baltic.

“They’re trying to divert attention from the story that I wrote, which included enormous specifics,” Hersh said. “I was describing a process that began before Christmas of 2021. . . . They had a series of meetings at a secret room in the White House, that I gave clues I know the title of the room.”

The veteran journalist argued that being “antagonistic” with China and Russia is counterproductive for Washington. “They make it personal. They don’t make it professional.” He added that Biden’s foreign policy has alienated governments around the world since Russia’s military operation in Ukraine began last year.

“Russia has made more friends in the Third World since this began than anybody in this administration seems to appreciate,” Hersh said. “This notion of American hegemony, if you will, just doesn’t work anymore.”

** US returns ancient weapons to Ukraine

American authorities have handed over a cache of ancient weapons to the Ukrainian embassy in Washington DC. It is unclear who tried to smuggle the artifacts into the US.

Three metal swords and a stone ax head were handed over on Friday, the embassy announced in a tweet. The Ukrainian mission thanked US authorities for helping to “repatriate our cultural property and a part of our history.”

The items were seized by US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers at a mail facility in New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport in September, the CBP said in a statement on Friday. The swords arrived from Russia and the ax from Ukraine, the agency said.

Although the swords were posted from Russia, all the items “were identified as Ukrainian cultural property by representatives from the Ukrainian government,”the statement read. CBP did not say who had sent them, or explain the circumstances of their apparent theft.

Swords and axes might not be the only weapons recently smuggled out of Ukraine. Modern arms – including missile launchers and other “high-precision weapons” – provided to Kiev by the US and its allies have been sold on the black market to criminals and terrorists, Russian President Vladimir Putin said last year. 

Referencing reports of Western arms shipments going missing inside Ukraine, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova claimed in October that up to $1 billion worth of these weapons are funneled from Ukraine to the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia every month.

** US-Ukraine relationship ‘cracking’ – Politico

The US and Ukraine are increasingly at odds over Kiev's plans for the conflict with Russia, Politico reported on Sunday. President Joe Biden’s insistence that Ukraine will decide when to seek peace might not remain “tenable” for much longer, Washington officials reportedly believe.

Ukraine’s refusal to abandon the encircled city of Artyomovsk (Bakhmut) has caused some Biden administration officials to worry that it is “expending so much manpower and ammunition” that it could be unable to mount a counteroffensive against Russian forces elsewhere, Politico claimed. 

Although the Pentagon has suggested that holding the city is not strategically important for Ukraine, “Kiev has, for now, ignored Washington’s input,” the report stated.

The dispute over Bakhmut’s value has been reported by US media already, but it is just one area of disagreement highlighted by Politico. President Vladimir Zelensky’s attitude towards military support from the US is another. While the US has given Ukraine tens of billions of dollars worth of weapons out of a $113 billion fund, Zelensky has repeatedly demanded more.

“There have been grumblings about the constant requests and, at times, Zelensky not showing appropriate gratitude,” Politico wrote, citing two anonymous White House officials. 

Biden has repeatedly stated that the US will keep American weapons flowing into Ukraine “for as long as it takes,” and that Kiev alone will decide when to sit down to peace talks with Russia. However, officials reportedly worry that Zelensky’s promise to capture Crimea – which voted to join Russia in 2014 – will only “extend the war,” and could trigger “a dramatic escalation from Moscow.”

Politico’s report is not the first indication that Washington doesn’t back Zelensky’s plans for Crimea. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley warned in January that attacking the Russian peninsula would be “very, very difficult,”while the Pentagon has reportedly been telling Congress that Ukraine lacks the capability to launch such an operation in the first place.

“Biden continues to stick to his refrain that the United States will leave all decisions about war and peace to Zelensky,” Politico wrote. “But whispers have begun across Washington as to how tenable that will be as the war grinds on.”

Ukraine’s decision-making has also been called into question by US intelligence agents, who told the New York Times last week that a “pro-Ukrainian group” was behind the September 2022 attack on the Nord Stream gas pipelines. Although the spies stressed that Zelensky’s government was not involved, Politico claimed that the Biden administration has signaled to Kiev that “violence outside of Ukraine’s borders will not be tolerated.”

The New York Times article contradicted earlier reporting by journalist Seymour Hersh, which blamed the explosions on the Biden administration and CIA. Moscow described its publication as a “coordinated hoax” aimed at shifting blame away from the US and toward Ukraine.


Casualties in Donetsk mount as Russia, Ukraine fight for Bakhmut

Both Ukraine and Russia on Sunday reported high casualties in Ukraine's Donetsk region with the slow, long-lasting and bloody fight for the small town of Bakhmut continuing as Moscow presses to advance into its neighbour's territory.

Ukraine forces control west of the now ruined and nearly deserted Bakhmut, while Russia's Wagner Group controls most of the eastern part, British intelligence said, with the Bakhmutka River that bisects the town marking the front line.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russian forces had suffered more than 1,100 dead in the past few days fighting along the Bakhmut section of the frontline.

"In less than a week, starting from the 6th March, we managed to kill more than 1,100 enemy soldiers in the Bakhmut sector alone, Russia's irreversible loss, right there, near Bakhmut," Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.

He said Russian forces had also sustained 1,500 "sanitary losses" - soldiers wounded badly enough to keep them out of further action.

Russia's defence ministry said its forces were conducting further military operations in the Donetsk region which, together with adjacent Luhansk region, makes up Donbas.

The ministry said Russian forces had killed more than 220 Ukrainian service members over the past 24 hours.

"In the Donetsk direction... more than 220 Ukrainian servicemen, an infantry fighting vehicle, three armoured fighting vehicles, seven vehicles, as well as a D-30 howitzer were destroyed during the day," the ministry said.

Both sides have admitted to suffering and inflicting significant losses in Bakhmut over the past few months, while the exact number of casualties is difficult to independently verify.

Ukraine has repeatedly said that the defence of Bakhmut would continue, with top commanders saying over the weekend the fight there allows to gain time needed to prepare a broader Kyiv's counterattack soon.

"On Bakhmut: the situation there is difficult, very difficult, the enemy is fighting for every metre," Yevgeny Prigozhin, founder of the Wagner Group of mercenaries said on Sunday in a voice recording published on the Telegram channel of his press service.

"And the closer to the city centre, the fiercer the fighting."

Moscow says capturing Bakhmut would punch a hole in Ukrainian defences and be a step toward seizing all of the Donbas industrial region, a major target.

But fighting and heavy shelling has been also ongoing along the entire frontline in Ukraine's east and south, including other parts of Donetsk.

According to Russia-installed officials in the Russia-controlled city of Donetsk, the city was shelled four times by Ukraine forces on Sunday, affecting residential areas and damaging power lines.

Reuters was unable to independently verify the report. Both sides have repeatedly said they are not targeting civilians in their attacks.

Tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been killed as well as soldiers on both sides. Russia has bombarded Ukrainian cities and set millions of civilians to flight in what Kyiv and the West call an unprovoked war of conquest.

Svetlana Boiko, 66, was wounded in the Donetsk shelling when her apartment was struck. She told Reuters that shelling "used to fly over without ever hitting us".

"This is the first time since 2014 that it has hit us. So, this is what 2023 looks like," Boiko said.

In September, Russia claimed it had annexed the Donetsk region and three other Ukrainian regions, including parts that have been held by Russian-backed separatists since 2014.

** Russian mercenary chief sets out ambitions for an 'army with an ideology'

The head of Russia's Wagner mercenary force said in an interview published over the weekend that he had ambitions to turn his private military company into an "army with an ideology" that would fight for justice in Russia.

Wagner chief Yevgeny Prigozhin's fighters - some of them convicts - have spearheaded the assault in eastern Ukraine for months, focusing their efforts on the small city of Bakhmut, which Russia calls Artyomovsk and sees as a useful stepping stone to seize bigger cities like Kramatorsk and Sloviansk.

"After the capture of Artyomovsk (Bakhmut), we will begin to reboot," Prigozhin said in a clip posted on Telegram channels associated with Wagner. "In particular, we will start recruiting new people from the regions."

"The Wagner private military group must turn from just a private, the best, army in the world which is capable of defending the state, into an army with an ideology. And that ideology is the struggle for justice."

Prigozhin said on Friday Wagner had opened recruitment centres in 42 cities as he seeks to replenish its ranks after heavy losses in fighting for Bakhmut.

An ex-convict who did nine years' jail for theft and street muggings in the 1980s, Prigozhin has emerged from the shadows to assume a high profile since Russia's Feb. 24, 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

But his public profile, political influence, and fondness for profanely lambasting top army brass and anyone else in his way has angered some in government who want him reined in.

Entering the political sphere without explicit approval from the Kremlin is seen as a challenge to the system which President Vladimir Putin has crafted since he was selected by Boris Yeltsin as his successor in 1999.

Prigozhin has repeatedly denied harbouring any political ambitions.