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Ukraine updates: Presence of foreign troops 'open secret'

Published March 20, 2024last updated March 20, 2024

Poland's foreign minister said in a an interview with DPA that Western soldiers were already in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the EU reached a provisional deal to extend tariff-free Ukrainian agricultural produce.

As part of their training in Germany, Ukrainian soldiers practice operating a Leopard 1 A5 main battle tank
Ukrainian soldiers practice operating a Leopard 1 A5 main battle tank during training in Germany. Western soldiers are also present in Ukraine, according to Poland's foreign ministerImage: Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert/dpa/picture alliance
Skip next section What you need to know

What you need to know

In an interview with the German news agency DPA, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski called it an "open secret" that Western soldiers are already in Ukraine.

In Brussels, the European Union has reached a provisional agreement on granting Ukraine's food producers tariff-free access to the bloc’s markets until June next year. 

Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has thanked Ukraine’s allies, who met at the US air base in Ramstein, for their efforts. 

Here is a roundup of developments in Russia's war in Ukraine on Wednesday, March 20:

Skip next section White House: 'We will get this aid to Ukraine'
March 20, 2024

White House: 'We will get this aid to Ukraine'

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told Ukraine during a trip to Kyiv on Wednesday that a major US support package worth some $60 billion that has been blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives for months would "get to Ukraine," and vowed to continue US support.

"From our perspective we are confident we will get this done. We will get this aid to Ukraine," he said after a meeting with Ukrainian Presidential Chief of Staff Andriy Yermak.

The much-needed US aid has been held up since last year and led to ammunition shortages for Kyiv's soldiers.

"It has already taken too long," Sullivan said. "I'm not going to make predictions about exactly when this will get done, but we are working to get it done as soon as possible... but I cannot make a specific prediction today." 

Skip next section Zelenskyy says rule of law needs to 'work again'
March 20, 2024

Zelenskyy says rule of law needs to 'work again'

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called on the countries of the world to reinvigorate the international rules-based order, in a video address to the Summit for Democracy conference in South Korea.

"Together we have to make the force that has gone mad come back to the rules, and make the rules work again," he said.

"I believe that peace can be solid. But for it to happen, countries in the world have to be the co-authors of solid reliability."

The conference was set up by US President Joe Biden as a forum for countries to discuss the problems of democratic backsliding and attacks on freedoms and rights.

Zelenskyy also used the opportunity to encourage "all nations of the world who respect the international rules-based order" to take part in the upcoming Global Peace Summit in Switzerland.

Skip next section UN report says Russia using 'fear' to control occupied Ukraine
March 20, 2024

UN report says Russia using 'fear' to control occupied Ukraine

Russia has tortured and arbitrarily detained people in occupied Ukraine, creating a "climate of fear" and suppressing Ukrainian identity, a UN report said. 

Russia illegally occupied the Crimean Peninsula in 2014, and its proxy separatist groups seized two regional capitals in eastern Ukraine that same year. The 2022 invasion led to Moscow's seizure of additional land in eastern and southern Ukraine. It now controls more than 17% of Ukraine's territory, where several million people remain.

The report, which the UN Human Rights Office said was based on over 2,300 interviews, accused Moscow of "committing widespread violations" of human rights law. Russia has imposed its "language, citizenship, laws, court system, and education curricula on the occupied areas," while suppressing a Ukrainian identity, the UN office said in a release accompanying the report.

Russia had tried to suppress Ukrainian identity among children, replacing the curriculum in schools with a Russian one seeking to "justify" Moscow's invasion, the report added.

Peaceful protests have been met with "force" from the Russian army, which has restricted free expression and pillaged homes and businesses, the report said, adding that Moscow has blocked access to Ukrainian media and phone networks in the regions to control information. 

"The actions of the Russian Federation have ruptured the social fabric of communities and left individuals isolated, with profound and long-lasting consequences for Ukrainian society as a whole," the release quoted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk as saying. 

Putin vows to secure border city Belgorod, warns of counterattack

Skip next section US sanctions Russian firms for disinformation campaign
March 20, 2024

US sanctions Russian firms for disinformation campaign

The United States has imposed sanctions on two individuals and two companies it accuses of supporting disinformation efforts directed by the Russian government, the US Treasury Department said. 

"We are committed to exposing Russia's extensive campaigns of government-directed deception, which are intended to mislead voters and undermine trust in democratic institutions in the United States and around the world," Treasury's Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson said in the statement.

According to the Treasury, the targeted individuals and entities provided services to the Russian government in connection with a foreign malign influence campaign. This included attempts to impersonate legitimate media outlets, the implementation of a network of more than 60 websites masquerading as legitimate news sites, and the use of deceptive social media accounts.

Those targeted are: Moscow-based Social Design Agency, its founder Ilya Andreevich Gambashidze, Russia-based Company Group Structura LLC and its CEO and owner Nikolai Aleksandrovich Tupikin. The sanctions freeze any of their US assets and generally bar Americans from dealing with them.

Russia using disinformation to deny Ukraine atrocities

Skip next section Russia imprisons woman who wrote 'no to war' on ballot paper
March 20, 2024

Russia imprisons woman who wrote 'no to war' on ballot paper

A Russian court sentenced a Saint Petersburg woman to eight days in jail for writing "no to war" on a ballot paper during the country's presidential election in protest of President Vladimir Putin's Ukraine campaign.

Saint Petersburg's Dzerzhinsky district court said it ordered Alexandra Chiryatyeva to be jailed for eight days and fined 40,000 rubles (€399, $432). It said she was guilty of hooliganism and "discrediting the Russian armed forces."

"Chiryatyeva took a voting ballot and with a red marker wrote 'no to war' at the back of it before placing it in the ballot box," the court said. "In this way, Chiryatyeva damaged state property and discredited the Russian armed forces."

In the three-day election over the weekend, Putin ran unopposed for a fifth Kremlin term that would extend his rule until at least 2030. The vote was condemned by the West and independent Russian election monitors as one of the most corrupt in post-Soviet history. 

The election was marred by ballot spoiling, with Putin warning in his victory speech that Russians who did so "have to be dealt with."

Meanwhile, another court in Saint Petersburg sentenced Vsevolod Korolyov, a Russian filmmaker, to three years in prison for criticizing the Kremlin's military offensive in Ukraine on social media. 

Under Russian law, information about the war in Ukraine that does not come from an official government source can be considered "false" and its dissemination prosecuted.

Skip next section Scholz says Germany won't accept Putin-dictated Ukraine peace
March 20, 2024

Scholz says Germany won't accept Putin-dictated Ukraine peace

Chancellor Olaf Scholz told Germany's lower house, the Bundestag, that Russian President Vladimir Putin had made a serious error if he thought Germany would relent in supporting Ukraine. 

Scholz, who has opposed the delivery of long-range Taurus missiles to Ukraine, nonetheless said Germany was determined to help Ukraine defend itself from Putin's ambitions.

"If the Russian president believes that he just has to sit out this war and we will weaken in our support, then he has himself miscalculated," he added.

"We will not accept a dictated peace at the expense of Ukraine," said Scholz, who stressed that borders should not be moved by force.

"Law is stronger than violence," he said, adding that Putin had wanted to change that with the attack on Ukraine, which violated international law. "We will not let him get away with this," said the chancellor.

Scholz's speech to the Bundestag preceded an EU summit in Brussels that focused, among other things, on support for Ukraine.

Scholz reaffirms Germany's relentless support for Ukraine

Skip next section Ukraine says Russian shelling in Kharkiv kills three
March 20, 2024

Ukraine says Russian shelling in Kharkiv kills three

Ukrainian officials said Russian shelling had killed three people and wounded five in the northeastern city of Kharkiv. 

Sergiy Bolvinov, head of the investigative department of Kharkiv's police, said the shelling hit an eight-story building and factory. "Three people died, five were wounded, a large-scale fire broke out," he added.

Two of the wounded workers are in bad condition, Bolvinov said, adding that "the number of casualties may increase."

Kharkiv is the second largest city in Ukraine and lies near the Russian border. It has seen increased attacks in recent months as Moscow's more than two-year invasion drags on.  

Ukraine's war widows grieve for fallen soldiers

Skip next section Modi, Zelenskyy discuss strengthening of India-Ukraine partnership
March 20, 2024

Modi, Zelenskyy discuss strengthening of India-Ukraine partnership

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrote on X, formerly Twitter, that he had a good conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on strengthening the India-Ukraine partnership.

Modi conveyed India's consistent support for all efforts to bring peace and an end to the war between Russia and Ukraine. "India will continue to provide humanitarian assistance guided by our people-centric approach," he added. 

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba will visit India next week as Kyiv looks to build support for its peace plan, two Indian officials familiar with the matter told Reuters news agency. It will be the first visit by a senior Ukrainian official since Russia's full-scale invasion two years ago.

Earlier in the day, Modi also spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin and congratulated him on his re-election. "We agreed to work together to further deepen and expand India-Russia Special & Privileged Strategic Partnership in the years ahead," Modi wrote on X.

The two leaders also discussed Ukraine, the Kremlin said in a statement. India, which has traditionally had close economic and defense ties with Russia, has refrained from criticizing Moscow over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, instead increasing its purchases of Russian oil to record levels.

Indian government: We're sticking with Russia

Skip next section Kyiv receives first €4.5 billion from EU's Ukraine Facility
March 20, 2024

Kyiv receives first €4.5 billion from EU's Ukraine Facility

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, who is in Brussels for the 9th EU-Ukraine Association Council, announced that his country has received a first tranche of €4.5 billion ($4.9 billion) from the EU's new Ukraine Facility.

"Grateful to (European Commission President) Ursula von der Leyen for her invaluable support. This strengthens our economic and financial stability," Shmyhal wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Following her meeting with Shmyhal, von der Leyen said: "This payment, in the form of bridge financing, is crucial to help Ukraine maintain the functioning of the State in this difficult moment." 

The financial support is intended to bolster the warn-torn country's public finances, including paying pensions and salaries and providing basic public services.

In February, the 27 EU members signed off a new €50 billion aid package to support Ukraine's economy through 2027. This amount is composed of up to €17 billion in grants and up to €33 billion in loans.

Skip next section EU's Borrell proposes using proceeds from Russian assets for aid to Ukraine
March 20, 2024

EU's Borrell proposes using proceeds from Russian assets for aid to Ukraine

The EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said he had presented a formal proposal ahead of a summit of the bloc's leaders to use the windfall revenues from Russia's frozen assets to help Ukraine fight Moscow's full-scale invasion.

Borrell said that "90% will be allocated via the European Peace Facility and 10% via the EU budget."

Borrell said he looked forward to a swift adoption of his proposal by the Council, which comprises the governments of the EU's 27 countries, adding that it would demonstrate the bloc's unity and commitment to supporting Ukraine and its people.

Meanwhile, Russia said that Borrell's proposal would undermine the foundations of international law. 

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the Europeans were aware of the damage to their reputation caused by the proposals, while Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Borrell's proposals amounted to banditry and theft.

West moves towards Russian asset seizure

Skip next section Polish FM says Western troops already in Ukraine
March 20, 2024

Polish FM says Western troops already in Ukraine

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has called it an open secret that Western soldiers are already in Ukraine. "As your chancellor (Olaf Scholz) said, there are already some troops from big countries in Ukraine," Sikorski said in an interview with German press agency dpa. 

Asked if it was a problem that Scholz was talking about the issue, he said: "In Polish, we have the expression 'tajemnica poliszynela', which describes a secret that everyone knows." 

Speaking to journalists on February 26, Scholz had justified his rejection of the delivery of Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine by saying, among other things, that Germany would not participate with soldiers in target control — either from Germany or on the ground.

He added: "What the British and the French are doing in terms of target control and accompanying target control cannot be done in Germany." This was interpreted as Scholz confirming the presence of Western soldiers in Ukraine.  

Sikorski reiterated that Poland would not send ground troops to Ukraine, citing historical reasons. "Ukraine and Poland have been one and the same country for 400 years. And that would be too easy propaganda fodder for the Russians. So we should be the last to do it," he said. 

However, he welcomed French President Emmanuel Macron's approach of not taking the option of sending ground troops into the war zone off the table.

Macron: Deployment of ground troops to Ukraine is an option

Skip next section EU plans to extend tariff-free access, but with more limits
March 20, 2024

EU plans to extend tariff-free access, but with more limits

Neogtiators from the European Council and the European Parliament have reached a provisional agreement to continue the freeze on import duties and quotas on Ukrainian exports to EU markets until June 2025, the Belgian EU presidency said on Wednesday.

"This renewal underscores our unwavering support to Ukraine while including safeguard mechanisms to protect EU market," the European Council said in a statement

"At the same time, the EU has decided to reinforce the protection of sensitive agricultural products by beefing up safeguards already included in the current regulation on temporary trade-liberalization measures," the statement also said, before detailing some of the tougher restrictions.

In January, the European Commission had proposed to suspend duties and quotas on Ukrainian farm produce, with an "emergency brake" for poultry, eggs and sugar, meaning that tariffs would be levied if imports surpassed the average levels of 2022 and 2023.

On Wednesday, European lawmakers extended this list to include oats, maize, groats and honey. It also said that the safeguards would kick in more quickly, after 14 rather than 21 days, where limits were exceeded.

The Parliament also said that it has attained commitments from the Commission to take action if Ukrainian wheat imports spiked.

Skip next section Zelenskyy thanks allies for pledges at Ramstein
March 20, 2024

Zelenskyy thanks allies for pledges at Ramstein

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in his nightly video address on Tuesday expressed his gratitude for promises of new defense aid, following a gathering of Kyiv's allies at the US Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

"There will be new defense packages, including scarce artillery," Zelenskyy said, referring to pledges made at the meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group at the airbase in western Germany.

The meeting in Germany comes amid the long-running delay in Congress in the US to clearing the White House's planned 2024 military assistance for Ukraine, leading to warnings of shortages in the field and from Kyiv. 

Zelenskyy said air defense remained Ukraine's main concern.

"I would also like to recognize Germany today for the announced defense package of half a billion euros," he said. 

"It includes artillery and armored vehicles. We greatly appreciate the German contribution to the protection of Ukrainian lives and our independence."

Ukraine's Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, who was at the conference, said on Telegram that participants "demonstrated their unity and resolve in helping Ukraine. Our forces are critically in need of ammunition. The ammo will be delivered!"

On Tuesday, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin cautioned that Ukraine's ability to keep fending off Russian forces was at risk as US urgent aid continues to be held up by lawmakers in Washington.

"Ukraine's survival is in danger," Austin told reporters following the meeting of Ukraine's allies.

"Our allies and partners continue to step up, the United States must also," he said.

War in Ukraine: US vows Ukraine support despite aid delay