Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised a military operation in eastern Ukraine on Thursday in what appeared to be the start of war in Europe over Russia’s demands for an end to NATO’s eastward expansion.
Shortly after Putin spoke in a special televised address on Russian state TV, explosions could be heard in the pre-dawn quiet of the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, Reuters reported. Gunfire rattled near the capital’s main airport, the Interfax news agency said.
Explosions also rocked the breakaway eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk and civilian aircraft were warned away as the United States said a major attack by Russia on its neighbour was imminent.
Putin said he had authorised a special military operation in breakaway areas of eastern Ukraine and clashes between Russian and Ukrainian forces were only a matter of time.
Hours earlier, pro-Russian separatists issued a plea to Moscow for help to stop alleged Ukrainian aggression – claims the United States dismissed as Russian propaganda.
Putin said he had ordered Russian forces to protect the people and demanded Ukrainian forces lay down their arms.
“All responsibility for bloodshed will be on the conscience of the ruling regime in Ukraine,” Putin said.
The scope of the Russian military operation was not immediately clear. Moscow has long denied that it has plans to invade despite massing tens of thousands of troops near its neighbour.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Wednesday that Moscow had approved an offensive and had not replied to an invitation for talks.
“Today I initiated a telephone conversation with the President of the Russian Federation. The result was silence,” he said.
Ukraine restricted civilian flights in its airspace due to “potential hazard”, hours after a conflict zone monitor warned airlines should stop overflights over the risk of an unintended shooting down or cyber attack.
An El Al flight from Tel Aviv to Toronto and a LOT Polish Airlines flight from Warsaw to Kyiv turned out of Ukraine’s airspace around the time a notice was issued, according to flight tracking website FlightRadar24.
Convoys of military equipment including nine tanks were seen moving towards Donetsk earlier on Wednesday from the direction of the Russian border, a Reuters witness reported.
Shelling has intensified since Monday when Putin recognised two separatist regions as independent and ordered the deployment of what he called peacekeepers, a move the West calls the start of an invasion.
Satellite imagery taken on Wednesday showed new deployments in western Russia, many of them within 10 miles (16 km) of the border with Ukraine and less than 50 miles from the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, U.S. satellite company Maxar said.
The images showed field deployment, military convoys, artillery and armoured personnel carriers with support equipment and troops. The images could not be independently verified by Reuters.
US puts sanctions on Turkish businessman, citing links to Iran’s Quds Force
The Biden administration levied sanctions on Thursday on prominent Turkish businessman Sitki Ayan and his network of firms, accusing him of acting as a facilitator for oil sales and money laundering on behalf of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Reuters reported.
The US measures come at a time of strained ties between the two nations over a host of issues, including disagreement over Syria policy and Ankara’s purchase of Russian air defense systems.
According to Reuters Ayan’s companies have set up international sales contracts for Iranian oil, arranged shipments and helped launder the proceeds and obscured the origin of the Iranian oil on behalf of Iran’s Quds Force, an arm of the IRGC, the Treasury said in a statement first reported by Reuters.
“Ayan has established business contracts to sell Iranian oil worth hundreds of millions of dollars to buyers,” in China, Europe and the United Arab Emirates, it said, adding that he then funneled the proceeds back to the Quds Force.
Ayan’s son Bahaddin Ayan, his associate Kasim Oztas and two other Turkish citizens involved in his business network are also designated, along with 26 companies, including his ASB Group, a Gibraltar-based holding company and a vessel.
In an emailed response to a Reuters’ request for comment, Sitki Ayan said, “We will defend our legal rights against everyone.”
He had been involved in two business activities with Iran, he added. These were trade of oil and petroleum products ended by sanctions in 2010, and the sale of Iranian electricity to Turkey from 2009 to 2015, which he quit over payment problems.
“I have never worked with anyone other than Iranian official government institutions in any period of my life,” he said.
Ayan’s son Bahaddin and Oztas were not immediately available for comment. Ayan’s ASB Group and Turkey’s communications directorate did not immediately respond to requests for comment, Reuters reported.
The Treasury action freezes any US assets of those designated and generally bars Americans from dealing with them. People engaging in certain transactions with those designated also risk sanctions.
Washington had most recently warned Turkey to refrain from a military incursion into northern Syria after Ankara said it was preparing a possible ground invasion against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia it views as terrorists but who form the bulk of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Washington maintains sweeping sanctions on Iran and has looked for ways to increase pressure as efforts to resurrect a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran have stalled.
President Joe Biden had sought to negotiate Iran’s return of to the nuclear deal after former President Donald Trump pulled out of it in 2018.
The 2015 pact limited Iran’s uranium enrichment activity to make it harder for Tehran to develop nuclear arms in return for lifting international sanctions. Iran denies wanting to acquire nuclear weapons, Reuters reported.
Earthquake jolts Indonesia’s Java island
A 5.8-magnitude earthquake hit Indonesia’s main island of Java on Thursday with no immediate reports of damage, less than a month after another quake in the same province killed more than 300 people.
The quake struck at 07:50 am local time around 15 kilometers from the town of Cianjur, the epicenter of November’s devastating tremor, the United States Geological Survey said.
USGS said there was a low likelihood of casualties or damage following the quake, which struck at a depth of 123 kilometeres.
No damage was immediately reported in Cianjur or Sukabumi, the city nearest the epicentre, local disaster mitigation agency officials told AFP Thursday.
But schools were temporarily evacuated in Sukabumi, according to local TV.
“The epicenter of the earthquake is in Sukabumi, so it was only lightly felt in Cianjur. No reports of damage to houses or casualties,” Wawan Setawan, a disaster agency official in Cianjur told AFP.
“We have yet to receive reports of damage caused by the earthquake”, Imran Wardhani, an official in Sukabumi, said soon after the tremor.
Last month, a shallow 5.6-magnitude earthquake hit Cianjur, triggering landslides and collapsing buildings, killing at least 334 people, injuring thousands and leaving tens of thousands more homeless.
Save the Children warned this week that evacuees faced a “ticking time bomb” of disease and infection due to poor living conditions. Thousands of cases of respiratory infections and hundreds of cases of diarrhea have been reported.
Indonesian President Joko Widodo is visiting the area on Thursday to distribute aid to affected residents.
The tremor that struck Cinajur on November 21 was the deadliest in the archipelago nation since a 2018 quake and resulting tsunami killed more than 4,000 people on the island of Sulawesi.
Indonesia experiences frequent seismic and volcanic activity due to its position on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, where tectonic plates collide.
China’s Xi to meet with Saudi and Arab leaders in Riyadh
Saudi Arabia aims to increase trade with Beijing and discuss regional security when China’s president visits Riyadh this week, with the kingdom seeking to expand superpower ties beyond the increasingly fractious alliance with the United States.
Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is expected to mark Xi Jinping’s arrival on Wednesday with a lavish welcome that diplomats in the region have said may contrast starkly with the muted reception offered to U.S. President Joe Biden in July, Reuters reported adding the world’s biggest oil exporter is reshaping its foreign policy to reflect the new realities of global power.
Besides rolling out the red carpet for bilateral meetings with Xi during his two-day visit, the Saudi rulers will also convene fellow Gulf dynasts for a summit with him, followed by a wider gathering with other Arab leaders.
The United States, which for decades has been Saudi Arabia’s main security guarantor and which remains its main defense supplier, has expressed concerns about growing Chinese involvement in sensitive infrastructure projects in the Gulf.
The Chinese delegation this week is expected to sign agreements worth $30 billion with Saudi Arabia, SPA reported.
China sees Saudi Arabia as its key ally in the Middle East due not only to its oil exports but also a shared suspicion of Western interference, especially on issues such as human rights.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in October that Saudi Arabia was a “priority” in China’s overall and regional diplomatic strategy.
Although China has taken a more involved role in global politics in recent years, its relationship with Saudi Arabia remains firmly rooted in trade.
Besides oil sales, Saudi and Chinese state companies have joint ventures in refining and petrochemicals, and Riyadh is seeking foreign investment to help it diversify its economy into manufacturing, including of cars and arms.
Its plans for massive infrastructure development, including the $500 billion NEOM megaproject in the northwest, could also create new opportunities for Chinese construction companies that have grown increasingly active in the Gulf.
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