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Ukraine updates: Fighting in south increases sharply

January 20, 2023

Russian forces have stepped up fighting in southern Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region, claiming they have captured a village. DW has the latest.

Ukrainian servicemen in a frontline in Zaporizhzhia region, Ukraine
Ukrainian servicemen fire a shell from a howitzer towards Russian troops in a frontline in Zaporizhzhia regionImage: REUTERS

Fighting has "sharply increased" in the southern Ukrainian region of Zaporizhzhia, where the front has been largely stagnant for months, a senior Moscow-installed official in the area said on Friday.

"In the direction of Zaporizhzhia, the intensity of military activity has sharply increased," the official, Vladimir Rogov, said on the Telegram social media platform.

Both Rogov and the Russian army said Moscow's forces had seized the village of Lobkove, some 50 kilometres (30 miles) south of the Ukrainian-held regional capital also called Zaporizhzhia. 

According to Rogov, Russian forces had fired at Ukrainian positions with "tanks, mortar and artillery" in a dozen villages in the region. He had also announced a "local offensive" near the town of Orikhiv a day earlier. 

The Ukrainian army did not confirm the Russian claims, but said that "more than 20 settlements" in the region had been attacked.

The front in southern Ukraine has been considerably quieter recently than the east, with Moscow withdrawing from the major city of Kherson in November.

Also on Friday, Russia said it had captured a hamlet Klishchiivka near the town of Bakhmut, now the epicentre of fighting between Kyiv and Moscow's forces. 

Klishchiivka, which had an estimated population of around 500 people before Moscow sent troops to Ukraine, lies southwest of Bakhmut, suggesting Russian forces were attempting to encircle the town.

Volunteers take aid to Bakhmut despite intense fighting

Here are other updates on the war in Ukraine on Friday, January 20:

Wagner Group to be designated 'transnational criminal organization'

The US will be imposing additional sanctions against Russian private military company, the Wagner Group.

The US Treasury will also designate the notorious military contractor as a "transnational criminal organization," according to White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

"Wagner is a criminal organization that is committing widespread atrocities and human rights abuses, and we will work relentlessly to identify, disrupt, expose, and target those

assisting Wagner," Kirby said during a White House briefing.

Wagner has some 50,000 personnel fighting in Ukraine, including 10,000 contractors and 40,000 convicts that it has recruited from prisons, according to a US assessment.

Inspections of Ukrainian grain ships halved since October

Inspections of ships carrying Ukrainian grain and other food exports have slowed to half their peak rate under a UN-brokered wartime agreement, creating backlogs in vessels meant to carry supplies to developing nations where people are going hungry, United Nations and Ukrainian officials say.

As the grain initiative got rolling in August, only 4.1 inspections of ships both heading to and leaving Ukraine took place each day on average, according to data from the Joint Coordination Center in Istanbul. In September, inspections jumped to 10.4 per day, then a peak rate of 10.6 in October. Since then, it's been downhill: 7.3 in November, 6.5 in December and 5.3 so far in January.

"The hope had been that going into 2023, you would see every month the daily rate of inspection going up, not that you would see it halved,'' USAID Administrator Samantha Power said at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.

More than 100 vessels are waiting in the waters off Turkey either for inspection or for their applications to participate to clear, with the waiting time of vessels between application and inspection averaging 21 days in the last two weeks, according to the UN.

Despite fewer average daily inspections, UN figures showed that more grain actually got through last month, up 3.7 million metric tons from 2.6 million in November. The coordination center explained that that was due to use of larger vessels in December.

Der Spiegel: German intelligence concerned about Ukraine's Bakhmut losses

Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND, is concerned by the losses Ukraine is suffering in fighting against Russian forces in the eastern Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, news magazine Der Spiegel reported.

The Ukrainian army is losing a three-digit number of soldiers every day, the BND told a group of Bundestag lawmakers focused on security at a secret meeting this week, Der Spiegel reported. 

The BND also warned that the capture of Bakhmut by Russian forces would have significant consequences, as it would allow Russia to make further advances. 

Although Russian losses are considerably high as well, the report said this plays no role in the war tactics of the Russian army leadership as it is acting mercilessly around Bakhmut and throwing soldiers forward like cannon fodder.

UK joins international push to hold Russia accountable for Ukraine invasion

The UK said it joined a group of international partners pursuing criminal accountability for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The government said in a statement it had been invited by Ukraine to join the group and encouraged other G7 nations to also take part.

British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said, "These atrocities must not go unpunished," citing the deaths of soldiers and civilians and the displacement of millions of Ukrainians.

"That’s why the UK has accepted Ukraine’s invitation to join this coalition, bringing our legal expertise to the table to explore options to ensure Russia’s leaders are held to account fully for their actions,” he added.

The statement said Britain's involvement would include assessing the feasibility of a new 'hybrid' tribunal, which it described as a specialized court integrated into Ukraine’s national justice system with international elements. 

Defense ministers discuss tanks for Ukraine at Ramstein

Defense ministers and senior military officers from around the world are weighing how best to support Ukraine, with the provision of powerful battle tanks high on the agenda, in talks at a US air base in western Germany.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin invited the members of the Ukraine Contact Group to the conference at Ramstein, the largest US air base outside the United States, and urged them to "dig deeper" into their stocks to supply Ukraine with the weapons it needs to repel Russia's invasion.

Pressure is mounting on Germany to send its Leopard 2 battle tanks to help Ukraine fight off the Russian invasion and to allow its allies to do so as well.

Berlin has so far refused to act unilaterally, insisting that it can only do so in concert with its allies, though domestically and abroad calls are growing louder to provide more modern and heavier weapons to Ukraine.

German and US defense chiefs meet in Berlin

Czech Republic and Slovakia ready to send Leopard tanks — reports 

The Czech government supports the idea of supplying Ukraine with Leopard 2 tanks that it received recently from Germany, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported citing diplomatic sources.

Both the Czechs and the Slovaks have already supplied Ukraine with dozens of their own Soviet-era tanks, but now they want to hand over the Leopards they received from Germany in a so called ring exchange

In this exchange, Germany would replace the Soviet-era tanks with refurbished Leopard 2A4s. The first of these tanks were delivered to the Czech Republic and Slovakia in December, and crew training has already begun.

First UN aid convoy reaches sites near Ukraine's Soledar

A UN spokesperson said that a three-truck humanitarian convoy had brought aid to around 800 people close to Soledar in Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region.

The supplies of food, water, hygiene and medicines are the first such UN convoy to reach the area where intense fighting between Ukrainian and Russian forces is taking place.

Jens Laerke from the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that the vehicles, which departed from Dnipro, were being offloaded on Friday morning in areas controlled by the Ukrainian government, without giving an exact location.

Russian forces say they control Soledar, while Ukrainian sources say the military is still fighting in the area.

US media report CIA director met Zelenskyy in Kyiv last week

CIA Director William Burns met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy late last week in Kyiv to discuss what he believes Russia is planning in the weeks and months ahead, The Washington Post and other outlets reported.

A US official told the paper, “Director Burns traveled to Kyiv where he met with Ukrainian intelligence counterparts as well as President Zelenskyy and reinforced our continued support for Ukraine in its defense against Russian aggression."

Burns, a former ambassador to Russia, stressed "the urgency of the moment on the battlefield" but communicated that "at some point assistance would be harder to come by."

Sources told the paper that Zelenskyy and his aides had the impression from the talks that the US administration still strongly supports the $45 billion (€41.5 billion) in emergency funding passed by Congress in December. 

That funding expected to last through July or August.

Poland ready to send Ukraine tanks regardless of German permission

Poland could send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine even without Germany's re-export approval, a Polish deputy foreign minister said.

"I do not rule out that we are ready to take such a step," Pawel Jablonski told radio station RMF FM. Jablonski was referring to the possibility of sending tanks to Ukraine even if Germany opposes it.

He said he hoped Poland would encourage Berlin "also to do so themselves."

On Wednesday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki suggested Warsaw could send Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine as part of a wider coalition, should Germany fail to give its approval.

Finland to send heavy artillery to Ukraine

Finland announced a new donation of more than €400 million euros ($434 million) worth of defense equipment for Ukraine, not including Leopard 2 heavy tanks, which it said it could also send if there is an agreement with allies.

It is the Nordic country's twelfth package of defense materiel to Ukraine. The previous 11 aid packages had a combined value of €190 million.

Miika Pynnonen, special adviser to Finland's defense minister, said a decision on donating Leopard 2 tanks, of which Finland has some 200, would be taken separately, following discussions with allies at Ramstein air base in Germany.

Finland had earlier indicated it could send the German-made Leopard tanks if there were an agreement among allies.

The ministry also said Finland would sign a so-called statement of intent with Sweden on support for Ukraine to make sure the aid "would not endanger the national defense of the two countries."

"Finland supplies defense materiel to Ukraine, and Sweden expresses its readiness to support Finland as necessary," the statement said.

Ukraine says detained seven 'Russian agents'

Ukraine said it had detained seven "Russian agents" suspected of handing coordinates to Moscow's forces to carry out strikes in the city of Dnipro, where dozens of civilians were recently killed in a missile attack.

"The detainees gave the Russians the coordinates of critical infrastructure facilities," Ukraine's security services said in a statement. 

"Information about the possible involvement of the detainees in the Russian missile attack on a residential building in Dnipro on January 14, 2023 is currently being checked," the statement added.

Russian Wagner group officially registers as 'consultancy'

In its latest intelligence report, the UK Ministry of Defense said the Russian mercenary Wagner group formally registered in Russia as a legal entity, marking a new development in the history a traditionally secretive group.

Wagner now commands up to 50,000 fighters in Ukraine and has become "a key component" in Russia's war against its neighbor, the UK ministry said.

Wagner cited its business activities as "management consultancy," in the filing, which was made on December 27. No mention of its paramilitary activities appeared.

It is not clear to what extent the registration would be used to manage the group's mercenary activities. Private security and military companies are technically illegal in Russia. 

Ukrainians wrap up landmine clearance exercises in Cambodia

A group of 15 Ukrainian deminers wrapped up a week of training in Cambodia, where experts who have cleared minefields from one of the most mined countries on the planet shared their expertise with the relative newcomers to the dangerous job.

Oum Phumro, deputy secretary general of the Cambodian Mine Action Center said the training will continue with regular video conference calls and a team of three to five Cambodian experts will travel to Poland in April to train more Ukrainians.

He also said Cambodia was giving Ukraine experienced sniffer dogs and training them on how to use them to detect mines.

Cambodia is still strewn with mines from three decades of war and internal conflicts that ended in 1998, while the conflict in Ukraine is a new one since the Russian invasion last year.

Germany promises Ukraine €52 million more in reconstruction aid

Germany's Development Minister Svenja Schulze promised Ukraine an additional €52 million ($56 million) for reconstruction during a visit to the southern Ukrainian port city of Odesa.

"We are in the midst of war to rebuild Ukraine into a free, independent Ukraine," she said on Thursday. The visit was kept secret until Friday morning for security reasons.

The additional millions in aid for Ukrainian municipalities is to go toward heating, electricity generators, medical care and administrative costs.

German development minister visits Odesa, renews aid promise

In 2022, the German Development Ministry (BMZ) provided Ukraine with around €600 million in aid.

Schulze was on her second visit to Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February last year, after making a trip to Kiev at the end of May. She was accompanied by Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister and Infrastructure Minister Olexandr Kubrakov.

Nearly one-fifth of Western companies remaining in Russia are German

Despite widespread outrage over Russia's war against Ukraine, fewer Western companies than many would believe have actually left Russia, according to a Swiss study.

Politico reported that researchers at the University of St. Gallen and at the IMD institute in Lausanne in Switzerland found that less than 10% of companies from the EU and G7 nations with Russian subsidiaries had divested.

When Moscow launched its invasion, 1,404 companies based in the EU and the G7 counted a total of 2,405 subsidiaries that were active in Russia, the study showed.

By late November, only 120, or about 8.5% of those companies, had divested at least one subsidiary in Russia. There were more confirmed exits from US-headquartered companies than firms based in Europe and Japan.

Fewer than 18% of the US subsidiaries operating in Russia were completely divested in after last year's February 24 invasion.  By contrast, 15% of Japanese firms and only 8.3% of EU firms had divested from Russia, it said.

Of those who continue to do business in Russia, 19.5% are German and 12.4% are US-owned.

dh/ar (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)