Ukraine war: Russian forces massing in east, bounty on Western tanks, sanctions evasion network

Ukraine war: Russian forces massing in east, bounty on Western tanks, sanctions evasion network

Russian forces massing in eastern Ukraine - officials

Russia is mustering its military might in eastern Ukraine, local officials said on Wednesday.

Moscow has begun gathering troops in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, with Kyiv suspecting it is preparing for an offensive in the coming weeks.

Kremlin forces are removing locals living near the front line so that they can't provide information about Russian troop deployments to Ukrainian artillery, Luhansk Governor Serhii Haidai said.

“There is an active transfer of [Russian troops] to the region and they are definitely preparing for something on the eastern front in February,” Haidai detailed.

Military analysts anticipate a new push soon by Moscow’s forces. Late Tuesday, the US-based Institute for the Study of War said “an imminent Russian offensive in the coming months is the most likely course of action.”

The General Staff of Ukraine's armed forces also reported today that Russia is concentrating its efforts in neighbouring Donetsk province, especially in its bid to capture the key city of Bakhmut.

Donetsk and Luhansk make up the Donbas, a prized industrial region area bordering Russia that President Vladimir Putin identified as a goal from the war’s outset.

Evgeniy Maloletka/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved
Ukrainian servicemen fire a 120mm mortar towards Russian positions at the frontline near Bakhmut, Donetsk region, Ukraine, Wednesday, Jan. 11, 2023. - Evgeniy Maloletka/Copyright 2020 The AP. All rights reserved

Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian authorities here since 2014.

Donetsk was one of four provinces that Russia illegally annexed in autumn last year, but it controls only about half of it. To take the remaining half, Russian forces have no choice but to go through Bakhmut, which offers the only approach to bigger Ukrainian-held cities.

Russian forces have been trying for months to capture Bakhmut. Moscow-installed authorities in Donetsk claimed Russian troops are “closing the ring” around the city.

US clamps down on global network helping Russia evade sanctions

The United States sanctioned 22 individuals and entities in several countries on Wednesday, accusing them of being behind a global sanctions evasion network supporting Russia's military-industrial complex.

The move -- which comes as Washington looks to increase pressure on Moscow over its invasion of Ukraine -- is part of a US push to crack down on sanctions evasion around the world.

They want to limit Russia's access to revenue it needs for the war, the US Treasury Department said in a statement.

The sanction dodging network is led by Russia and a Cyprus-based arms dealer Igor Zimenkov, who was slapped with sanctions on Wednesday, along with his son Jonatan.

Bernat Armangue/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.
Ukrainian servicemen fire towards Russian positions in the frontline near Kherson, southern Ukraine, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. - Bernat Armangue/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved.

Projects connected to Russia's military machine, including supplying high-tech devices to Moscow's forces in Ukraine, have been helped by the group, the Treasury said, alongside state-owned Russian defence companies.

Russia's embassy in Washington did not immediately comment.

The sanctions, which freeze any US assets of those on the list and bar Americans from dealing with them, mark the latest round of sanctions imposed on Russia.

"Russia’s desperate attempts to utilize proxies to circumvent U.S. sanctions demonstrate that sanctions have made it much harder and costlier for Russia’s military-industrial complex to resupply Putin’s war machine," Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo said in the statement.

Kremlin welcomes bounty put on Western tanks in Ukraine

The Kremlin on Wednesday welcomed a Russian company's offer of "bounty payments" for soldiers who destroy Western-made tanks on the battlefield in Ukraine, saying it would spur Russian forces to victory.

The Russian company Fores this week offered 5 million roubles ($72,000) in cash to the first soldiers who destroy or capture US-made Abrams or German Leopard 2 tanks in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russian troops would "burn" any Western tanks that were delivered to Ukraine, adding the bounties were extra encouragement for Russian soldiers.

Vadim Ghirda/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
A French solider walks on a tank, 2023. - Vadim Ghirda/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.

"This testifies to the unity and the desire of everybody to contribute as best they can, one way or another, directly or indirectly, to achieving the goals of the special military operation," Peskov told reporters.

"As for these tanks, we have already said they will burn. With such incentives, I think there will be even more enthusiasts."

The Western-made tanks -- far more advanced than anything used by Ukraine or Russia in the conflict so far -- are unlikely to arrive at the frontlines in eastern and southern Ukraine for several months.

Putin urges military to stop Ukrainians shelling Russia

President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that Russia's military must cease Ukrainian shelling on Russian territory, which he said had left many people homeless or without power.

Putin was addressing a government meeting about restoring destroyed housing and infrastructure in regions of southwest Russia that border Ukraine.

"Of course, the priority task is to eliminate the very possibility of shelling. But this is the business of the military department," Putin said in remarks published on the Kremlin website.

Ukraine does not claim responsibility for strikes inside Russian territory but has described them as "karma" for Moscow's invasion.

Kateryna Klochko/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved
Ukrainian firefighters work at a damaged hospital maternity ward in Vilniansk, Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine, Wednesday, Nov. 23, 2022. - Kateryna Klochko/Copyright 2022 The AP. All rights reserved

Many Ukrainian cities have been razed to the ground and Russia systematically targets the country's energy infrastructure, frequently leaving people without power and water in the depths of winter.

People were facing "very acute" problems, and repairs and compensation were needed, Putin said, detailing that houses had been damaged or destroyed in Belgorod, Bryansk and Kursk, as well as Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine and annexed in 2014

"Many people found themselves in a difficult situation, lost their homes, were forced to move to relatives or to temporary places of residence, faced interruptions in the supply of water, heat, and electricity," he said.

Putin's comments signalled Moscow's frustration at the frequency of attacks in southern Russia, which have included strikes on sites such as electricity substations and depots for weapons and fuel.

'Cherry on the cake': Ukraine hails French radar gift

Ukraine's defence minister said on Wednesday that Ukrainian lives will be saved by a sophisticated radar supplied by France.

The air defence system is powerful enough to spot incoming missiles and exploding drones in the skies over all of Ukraine's capital and its surrounding region.

The minister, Oleksii Reznikov, was so enthusiastic about what he called Ukraine's new “electronic eyes” that he quickly coined a nickname for the Ground Master 200 radar — the “Grand Master."

Christophe Ena/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov, holds a Ground Master 200 radar small model during a visit at Thales radar factory in Limours, south west of Paris, Feb, 2023. - Christophe Ena/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

Speaking through an interpreter at a handover ceremony for the radar with his French counterpart, Reznikov described the French-made GM200 as a "very effective” improvement for Ukraine's network of about 300 different types of air-defence radars.

Thales, the manufacturer, says the radar detects and tracks rockets, artillery and mortar shells, missiles, aircraft, drones and other threats.

“Because of your support, Ukrainian lives will be saved,” the minister said at the ceremony in Limours, where Thales makes the equipment.

“This radar will be the cherry on the cake," he added. “That's why it will be called ‘Grand Master.’"