Photo : Andrii Klymenko/Euromaidan
29 August 2023, Tuesday | NIAS Europe Daily Brief #607
War in Ukraine: Day 551
War on Ground
On 28 August, according to Ukrinform, in Zaporizhzhia region’s reclaimed village of Robotyne, Ukraine’s defenders were consolidating their position, focusing on stabilization, demining, and preparation for further actions. Oleksandr Shtupun, the Joint Press Center’s spokesperson, highlighted recent progress southeast of Robotyne, enabling greater troop deployment and manoeuvrability. Anticipating resistance, Shtupun expects challenging fighting ahead for control of Tokmak, about 20 kilometers away.
On 28 August, despite Russia’s warning and the recent naval incidents, the Liberian-flagged cargo ship PRIMUS safely arrived in Istanbul after departing Odesa, becoming the second civilian vessel from Ukraine to sail since Russia’s exit from a UN-backed Black Sea grain export agreement.
On 28 August, according to Ukrinform, as confirmed by Dmytro Lunin, the head of the Poltava Regional Military Administration, a Russian attack struck an industrial facility in the Poltava region. He stated that details about casualties are being verified.
On 27 August, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s President, expressed his desire for holding presidential and parliamentary elections in 2024, contingent on legislative changes, funding from partners, and international observers even at the front lines. Zelenskyy engaged with Lindsey Graham, US Senator, acknowledging potential US support for holding elections during wartime. He emphasized the need for legal changes and financial assistance for legitimate elections, proposing observers in trenches to ensure fairness. Zelenskyy mentioned the challenge of enabling seven million Ukraine’s refugees to vote. He underscored the urgency of elections within a year, aiming to avoid a prolonged absence of elections.
The Moscow View
Claims by Russia
On 28 August, TASS reported that according to Maria Zakharova, Russia’s Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman, Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister and Hakan Fidan, Turkey’s counterpart, are scheduled to hold talks in Moscow soon. The upcoming discussions reflect ongoing diplomatic engagement between the two countries amidst the complex regional situation.
On 28 August, Interfax reported that Robert Shonov, former US Consulate General employee in Vladivostok, was apprehended by Russia’s Federal Security service (FSB). The arrest was for allegedly gathering information on mobilization, military operations, and protests in Russia, based on instructions from American embassy diplomats. The FSB revealed that Shonov, charged under Article 275.1, cooperated confidentially with US embassy political department members Jeffrey Cillin and David Bernstein to collect sensitive data. Interrogations of the implicated American diplomats are planned, with summonses sent to the US Embassy in Moscow.
On 28 August, according to TASS, according to Sergey Sobyanin, Mayor of Moscow, Russia’s Air Defence troops successfully intercepted and destroyed an approaching unmanned aerial vehicle near Moscow. The incident occurred in the Lyubertsy area of the Moscow Region, resulting in no casualties or damage.
The West View
Responses from the US and Europe
On 28 August, according to Anadalu Ajansi, Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s President, is set to visit Russia’s Sochi soon, aiming to address the global food crisis. Turkey’s officials are working to revive the Black Sea grain deal, which was suspended by Russia in July. Moscow cites Western obligations’ failure in its own grain exports. However, Ankara seeks negotiations to end the Russia-Ukraine war and restore the grain deal paused due to the conflict.
On 28 August, government officials from Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia urged Belarus to expel the Wagner mercenary group, citing territorial integrity concerns amid Russia’s conflict in Ukraine. The NATO members, except Estonia, share borders with Belarus. If a critical incident occurs, they will close all border crossings with Belarus. The death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, Wagner leader, adds uncertainty to the group’s future. Western officials believe Russia might bring Wagner under more direct control while maintaining its fighting capability. Some Wagner troops in Belarus have reportedly left over low pay, raising concerns about their whereabouts.
On 28 August, according to The Guardian, a Swedish citizen of Russian origin was charged with gross illegal intelligence activities against Sweden and another foreign power. He is accused of transferring advanced technology with potential military use to Russia through his business activities. The suspect’s actions were allegedly aimed at enhancing Russia’s military capabilities. Sweden’s security police are actively countering such threats and preventing foreign powers from acquiring sensitive technology. They have also intensified efforts against illegal intelligence activities from foreign powers, particularly Russia, which seeks Swedish hi-tech products for military advancement. The suspect however denies the allegations.
On 28 August, the UK's Ministry of Defence stated that Russia is highly likely to have cancelled Exercise ZAPAD 23, a planned joint strategic exercise (JSE) scheduled for September 2023. In recent years, Russia has prioritized western Russia for these exercises due to perceived NATO threats. However, the limited training value and domestic criticism following underwhelming performance in Ukraine likely contributed to this cancellation decision. Russia's military may lack sufficient troops and equipment for the exercise, and wartime sensitivities could be a factor as well.
“Ukrainian military gain foothold in Robotyne, make preparations for further actions,” Ukrinform, 28 August 2023
“Second Ukraine Port Ship Safely Reaches Istanbul,” Barron’s, 28 August 2023
“Russian forces hit industrial facility in Poltava region,” Ukrinform, 28 August 2023
Olena Roshchina, “Zelenskyy says he wants elections in 2024: billions and observers in trenches needed,” Ukainska Pravda, 27 August 2023
“The USA and the EU should share the risks of possible elections in Ukraine during the war - Volodymyr Zelenskyi,” President of Ukraine, 27 August 2023
“Top diplomats of Russia, Turkey to hold talks in Moscow soon — Russian MFA,” TASS, 28 August 2023
“FSB imputed to a former employee of the US Consulate General the collection of data on SVO,” Interfax, 28 August 2023
“Russian Air Defense Troops destroy drone flying towards Moscow — mayor,” TASS, 28 August 2023
Diya Guldogan, “President Erdogan to visit Russia 'soon,' Turkish official says,” Anadalu Ajansi, 28 August 2023
Constant Meheut, “NATO Neighbors Demand Belarus Expel Wagner Fighters,” The New York Times, 28 August 2023
“Swedish man charged with passing hi-tech equipment to Russia,” The Guardian, 28 August 2023
“Latest Defence Intelligence update on the situation in Ukraine- 28 August 2023,” UK’s Ministry of Defence, 28 August 2023
Greece wildfire update: Day ten
On 28 August, Greek officials increased fire fighting operations in the country’s northeastern region, where a major catastrophic wildfire was burning for the tenth day and showed no signs of abating. The fire in the Alexandroupolis and Evros areas near the Turkish border is responsible for 20 of Greece’s 21 wildfire-related deaths. Several European countries provided reinforcements to the army. Authorities are investigating what caused the fire, which has devastated massive swaths of forest, scorched homes, and forced the evacuation of thousands of people. Greece’s firefighting troops are stretched to the breaking point, and the country has therefore called for help from other European countries. Germany, Sweden, Croatia, and Cyprus have sent aircrafts, while dozens of Romanians, French, Czech, Bulgarian, Albanian, Slovak, and Serbian firefighters are helping on ground. (Elena Becatoros, “Greece reinforces firefighting forces to tackle massive blaze in the country’s northeast,” Associated Press, 28 August 2023)
Legionnaires’ disease outbreak through water supply
On 28 August, Politico reported that the Legionella bacteria had been found in the water supply system of the south eastern Polish city of Rzeszow, prompting the country’s counterintelligence agency, ABW, to investigate whether the city was intentionally contaminated. Rzeszow is Poland’s key logistical hub for bringing military and humanitarian goods to Ukraine, as well as a US military facility. Since mid-August, the city has been the epicentre of a Legionnaires’ disease outbreak in the country, with 11 deaths and 144 cases reported. However the source of the pollution is unknown. According to the WHO, “the most common form of transmission is inhalation of contaminated aerosols from contaminated water,” which can occur through air conditioning cooling towers, hot and cold water systems, humidifiers, and whirlpool spas. Rzeszow cleaned its water supply over the weekend as a precaution. (Wojciech Kosc, “Poland launches probe as Legionella confirmed in city water supply,” Politico, 28 August 2023)
Football Chief’s mother on hunger strike to seek justice for son
On 28 August, Spain’s football chief’s mother locked herself in a church in southern Spain and went on an indefinite hunger strike to seek justice for her son, as authorities launched an investigation into his behaviour. Rubiales, Spain’s football Chief, was sanctioned by FIFA after he refused to resign and stated that he was the victim of a “witch-hunt” by “fake feminists.” Rubiales stated that forward Jenni Hermoso had agreed to the “mutual” kiss. In response, Hermoso claimed that this was incorrect and that she had been the victim of an abuse of power. She further accused the federation of attempting to coerce her into backing Rubiales. (“Spanish football chief Luis Rubiales's mother on hunger strike over her son's treatment,” Euronews, 28 August 2023)
EU to add new members by 2030
On 28 August, as the EU prepared for a new debate about its future size, Charles Michel, European Council President, announced that he wants Europe to be ready for enlargement by 2030. While eight countries are formally candidates, the accession process has stalled for many in the Western Balkans. For some countries, such as Turkey, the process has been officially halted, despite the fact that dynamics related to the conflict in Ukraine have reenergized the debate. According to Michel, the most difficult hurdle may be persuading Europeans to support the enlargement effort. He demanded that the next long-term EU budget examine enlargement ambitions and that the EU consider modifying its institutional structure for a larger form. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has focused minds in Brussels on the need for new political momentum to promote the ambitions of many applicants for membership. He also advised all applicants to settle bilateral disputes before joining the EU. Edi Rama, Albania’s Prime Minister, welcomed Michel's announcement, urging that words “materialize in... real steps forward.” He also expressed caution that Ukraine’s EU bid should not be at the expense of more established countries. ( Lili Bayer, “Charles Michel: Get ready by 2030 to enlarge EU,” Politico, 28 August 2023; “Michel says EU must be ready to admit new members by 2030,” Deutsche Welle, 28 August 2023)
EU economy’s return to trade surplus
On 28 August, after six straight quarters of deficit, the trade balance between the EU and the rest of the world returned to surplus. The shift occurred in the second quarter of this year, when the EU posted a surplus of EUR one billion. The major drivers of the increased trend were global sales of EU-made chemicals, machinery, vehicles, food, and beverages, which managed to offset purchases of energy items, such as gas and oil, whose prices remain abnormally high as a result of the war in Ukraine. The EU is heavily reliant on foreign producers of fossil fuels, making it vulnerable to significant price swings in global markets. Since mid-2021, the EU has had to foot a significant sum in order to ensure energy supplies, keep the economy going, and prevent the dreaded scenario of blackouts or rationing. Because the EU spent less money on gas and oil, the trade balance improved and reached a surplus in the second quarter of this year. (”EU economy returns to trade surplus after almost two years in deficit,” Euronews, 28 August 2023)
Legal action against three EU climate policies
On 28 August, the Polish government filed legal challenges against the European Parliament and the EU Council, arguing that three EU climate policies endanger energy security and fail to protect citizens’ well-being. Warsaw has requested that the EU’s highest court annul the three policies, which include the bloc’s historic phaseout of the combustion engine. The first contends that the EU prohibition on the sale of new CO2-emitting cars beginning in 2035 imposes undue taxes on the weakest members of society. The second lawsuit contends that the EU’s annual targets for greenhouse gas emissions established for Poland endangers the country's energy security. The EU’s so-called market stability reserve, which tries to handle the surplus of emission allowances in the EU carbon trading scheme, is the final challenge. Poland believes the policies violate EU treaties since they were enacted without majority Council approval. (Mared Gwyn Jones, "Poland asks EU Court of Justice to cancel three EU climate policies,” Euronews, 28 August 2023)
Increasing train mishaps linked to Russia’s involvement
On 28 August, Polish police investigated a series of sabotage assaults that halted dozens of trains over the weekend, amid increased concerns about Russian attempts to disrupt the country. According to Polish rail authorities, many occurrences involving the unlawful activation of an emergency stop signal occurred affecting the trains. (Loveday Morris, “Poland investigates train mishaps for possible Russian connection,” The Washington Post, 28 August 2023)
Niger Coup: France ambassador refuses to leave
On 28 August, BBC reported that despite being given a 48-hour deadline to depart from Niger, Sylvain Itte, France’s Ambassador remained in the nation. He was compelled to leave as diplomatic relations deteriorated significantly. On July 26, Mohamed Bazoum, Niger’s President, was deposed in a coup condemned by France and many of Niger’s neighbours, including the West African regional group ECOWAS. Some protesters held posters calling for the withdrawal of French troops, while a video released on social media appeared to show local Muslim imams leading prayers outside the installation. Anti-French sentiment and protests in the region have recently heightened, with some critics claiming France’s presence to be a new kind of colonialism. In the midst of this unrest, soldiers in Mali, Burkina Faso, and recently Niger, staged coups while claiming that a change in government was required to combat the jihadists. (Wedaeli Chibelushi, “Niger coup: France defies ultimatum for ambassador to leave Niamey,” BBC, 28 August 2023)