Ukraine war: Five new developments linked to Russia’s invasion

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1. Russia’s Supreme Court brands Azov Regiment a terrorist organisation

Russia’s Supreme Court declared Ukraine’s Azov Regiment a terrorist organisation, a designation that could lead to terror charges against some of the captured fighters who made their last stand inside Mariupol’s shattered steel plant.

Scores of Azov fighters are being prisoner held by Moscow since their surrender in mid-May. Russian authorities have opened criminal cases against them, accusing them of killing civilians. The addition of terrorism charges could mean even longer prison sentences.

The penalties for a terrorist organisation’s leaders would be 15 to 20 years in prison and five to 10 years for members of the group, Russian state media said.

The Azov Regiment dismissed the ruling, accusing the Kremlin of “looking for new excuses and explanations for its war crimes”. It urged the US and other countries to declare Russia a terrorist state.

The Azov soldiers played a key part in the defence of Mariupol, holding out for weeks at the southern port city’s steel mill despite punishing attacks from Russian forces. Ukraine’s president hailed them and other defenders at the plant as heroes.

Moscow has repeatedly portrayed the Azov Regiment as a Nazi group and accused it of atrocities, though no evidence to back up those claims has been made public.

The regiment, a unit within Ukraine’s National Guard, has a checkered history. It grew out of a group called the Azov Battalion, formed in 2014 as one of many volunteer brigades assembled to fight Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.

The Azov Battalion drew its initial fighters from far-right circles and elicited criticism for some of its tactics. Its current members have rejected accusations of extremism.

The regiment’s far-right origins have been seized on by the Kremlin as part of its effort to cast Russia’s invasion as a battle against Nazi influence in Ukraine. Russian state media has repeatedly shown what it claimed to be Nazi insignias, literature and tattoos associated with the regiment.

Last week, dozens of Ukrainian POWs, including defenders of the Mariupol plant, were killed in an explosion at a barracks at a penal colony in Olenivka, an eastern town controlled by pro-Russian separatists. Moscow and Kyiv have blamed each other for the blast, with Kyiv saying Russia blew up the barracks to cover up torture against the POWs.

2. France’s Le Pen demands end of EU sanctions against Russia

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen called on Tuesday for EU sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine to be scrapped, claiming they “serve no purpose” except to “make Europeans suffer”.

The head of the Rassemblement National (National Rally) said she wished that the sanctions would “disappear to avoid Europe being faced with a blackout, especially concerning gas imports”.

“Contrary to our government’s bragging, the Russian economy is not on its knees and has not ceased payments,” the lawmaker told a news conference at the French parliament.

“We are much more victims of these sanctions than Russia is,” Le Pen said, claiming that Moscow “has found other customers” and “gets around the various embargoes”. She accused the EU of “a succession of failures”.

On June 1, Marine Le Pen already warned of the “cataclysmic consequences on the French people’s spending power” of the bloc’s six rounds of sanctions against Russia. She argued instead that provoking the collapse of gas and oil prices would have been “the real sanction against Russia”, as this “would have financially strangled” the country much more.

A Yale University study last week said Russia’s economy had been “catastrophically crippled” by western sanctions and the mass exodus of international companies.

Le Pen’s comments echo those of Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who said last month that the EU had “shot itself in the lungs” with its sanctions against Russia.

Le Pen lost to Emmanuel Macron in April’s run-off for the French presidency, but her party became the third largest in parliament in June’s elections, winning 89 seats.

Macron has accused his rival of “depending on Russian power” and of talking “to your banker” in her relations with Moscow, a reference to a loan her former National Front party took out from a Russian bank.

Until its invasion of Ukraine in February, French far-right leader consistently defended Moscow’s foreign policy, backing its annexation of Crimea. Earlier this year she squarely blamed NATO and the West for Russia’s military build-up on the Ukrainian border, and even with the war underway her presidential manifesto advocated an alliance with Moscow on European security.

Le Pen has also openly expressed her admiration for Russia’s leader. “The big political lines that I stand up for are the big lines which Mr Trump stands up for, which Mr Putin stands up for,” she said in 2017.

3. Turkey expects a grain ship a day to leave Ukraine

Turkey expects roughly one grain ship to leave Ukrainian ports each day as long as an agreement that ensures safe passage holds, a senior Turkish official said on Tuesday after the first wartime vessel safely departed Odesa on Monday.

The first authorised shipment of Ukrainian grain since the start of the war on February 24 arrived off the northern Black Sea coast of Istanbul on Tuesday evening, an AFP team reported. The Razoni, carrying over 26,000 tonnes of corn to Lebanon, is due to be inspected on Wednesday by Russian, Turkish, Ukrainian and UN officials.

“The plan is for a ship to leave…every day,” the senior Turkish official told Reuters, referring to Odesa and two other Ukrainian ports covered by the deal. “If nothing goes wrong, exports will be made via one ship a day for a while.”

The sailing was made possible after NATO member Turkey and the United Nations brokered a grain and fertiliser export agreement between Russia and Ukraine last month, in a rare diplomatic breakthrough.

The exports from one of the world’s top producers are intended to help ease a global food crisis.

On Monday Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry said that 16 more ships, all blocked since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, were awaiting their turn in Odesa.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Monday it was “too early” to rejoice over the resumption of grain shipments, while other Ukrainian officials have warned that Russia may seek to sabotage the operation.

4. Russia accuses US of direct involvement in Ukraine war

Russia accused the United States of being directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine, claiming that US spies were approving and coordinating Ukrainian missile strikes on Russian forces.

Russia’s defence ministry, headed by a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, said Vadym Skibitsky, Ukraine’s deputy head of military intelligence, had admitted to the Telegraph newspaper that Washington coordinates HIMARS missile strikes.

“All this undeniably proves that Washington, contrary to White House and Pentagon claims, is directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine,” the defence ministry said.

US President Joe Biden has said he wants Ukraine to defeat Russia and has supplied billions of dollars of arms to Kyiv but US.officials do not want a direct confrontation between US and Russian soldiers.

Russia said the Biden administration was responsible for missile attacks on civilian targets in areas controlled by Russian-backed forces in eastern Ukraine.

“It is the Biden administration that is directly responsible for all Kiev-approved rocket attacks on residential areas and civilian infrastructure in populated areas of Donbas and other regions, which have resulted in mass deaths of civilians,” the defence ministry said.

Washington said on Monday it would send $550-million (€535m) worth of aid in new weapons to Ukrainian forces fighting the Russian invasion, including ammunition for HIMARS rocket launchers.

5. ‘Left behind’: How war is hitting the disabled in Ukraine

Some of Ukraine’s most vulnerable have been caught up in a savage conflict far beyond their control.

Before the Russian invasion, there were around 2.7 million people with some form of physical or intellectual disability in Ukraine, according to Inclusion Europe, an EU disability organisation.

It says that even before the war, many were “experiencing prolonged stigma, isolation and barriers to accessing community support”.

Human Rights Watch says disabled people often need special accessibility cars or ambulances, and have been struggling to find safety. 

There is concern for the fate of the tens of thousands of disabled people living in residential institutions, such as orphanages or care homes.

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