Key developments on Dec. 28:
- Nikkei Asia: Putin told China's Xi Russia will fight for 'at least 5 years' in Ukraine
- Russia’s 76th Airborne Division likely linked to execution of Ukrainian POWs in Zaporizhzhia Oblast, prosecutors report
- Military: Civilian vessel hits Russian mine in Black Sea, 2 sailors injured
- AP: Russian occupation authorities deliberately undercounted victims of Kakhovka dam disaster
- Russian attacks on Zaporizhzhia, Kherson, Kharkiv oblasts kill 2, injure 9.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin allegedly told his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping during a meeting in March that Russia planned to continue its war against Ukraine for “at least five years,” Nikkei Asia reported on Dec. 28, citing its anonymous sources.
The article follows media reports suggesting that Putin may be ready for a ceasefire in case Russia keeps the territories it illegally occupies in Ukraine, while the West's strategy on supporting Ukraine is leaning towards preparing conditions for Kyiv-Moscow talks.
In its analytical piece, Nikkei Asia wrote that Putin's words to Xi were apparently his way of summarizing a situation on the battlefield that was at that time unfavorable for Russia and assuring the Chinese leader that Russia would eventually win the war.
Putin's statement likely meant to imply that a prolonged war would benefit Russia and warn Xi to not change his pro-Russian stance, the media outlet added.
Xi traveled to Moscow on March 20 at Putin's invitation for his first state visit to Russia since the beginning of its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February last year.
Beijing has supported Russia diplomatically and economically amid the Western push to isolate it but appears to have steered clear of providing direct military assistance.
The New York Times reported on Dec. 23, citing its unnamed sources, that Putin has been signaling behind closed doors that Russia would be open to a ceasefire along the current front line.
Putin's sought ceasefire would mean Russia would keep the territories it illegally occupies in Ukraine, where the population is subject to abductions and summary executions.
However, according to Nikkei Asia's analysis, Putin's words to Xi, revealed by multiple sources familiar with diplomatic maneuvering between Moscow and Beijing, indicate that his supposed willingness to stop the hostilities should not be taken at face value.
“It could be that Putin wishes to merely create the illusion that he is moving toward a ceasefire or even peace ahead of Russia's presidential election in March, believing such an atmosphere would favor him at the polls,” the outlet argued.
An unnamed White House official and a European diplomat told Politico on Dec. 27 that the Biden administration and European officials are beginning to shift focus from supporting total victory over Russia to improving Ukraine's position in eventual peace talks with Russia.
These negotiations could force Ukraine to cede territory to Russia, which is widely unpopular among the Ukrainian population.
Ukraine laid out its 10-point “peace formula” in November 2022. One of the key points as a precondition for starting peace talks is the full withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukrainian territory, including the regions illegally annexed by Russia in 2014.
Russian officials have previously reiterated that this would be considered a nonstarter for any negotiations.
Ukrainian and Western leaders have repeatedly said that they do not believe Russia is interested in good-faith peace negotiations.
Russia’s 76th Airborne Division likely linked to execution of Ukrainian POWs
Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office has verified the video showing a recent execution of Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) in Zaporizhzhia Oblast and believes that Russia’s 76th Airborne Division may be involved in the killings.
A video emerged online a day before, which appeared to show Russian soldiers shooting three Ukrainian servicemen. Later in the footage, one Russian soldier shoots an already dead Ukrainian soldier again at close range.
“This division is already known for war crimes committed in Ukraine, particularly in Kyiv Oblast,” Yurii Bielousov, an official within the Prosecutor General’s Office, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) on Dec. 28.
The Prosecutor General’s Office received this footage on Dec. 16 and launched an investigation into the incident on the same day, Bielousov said. According to the investigation, the Ukrainian soldiers shown in the video had been captured by Russian forces east of Robotyne and killed an hour later.
The names of the killed Ukrainian POWs are currently being verified and will be announced later, with other details of the suspected war crime, Bielousov told the RFE/RL. He also declined to comment on the whereabouts of the bodies of fallen soldiers.
In early December, the DeepState monitoring project released a video with a group of soldiers shooting two other servicemen coming out of a dugout, one of whom had his hands behind his head.
According to DeepState, the incident happened near Stepove in Donetsk Oblast when Russian troops entered the positions of Ukraine’s 45th Separate Rifle Battalion. Later, Ukraine’s military confirmed that what happened in the footage was the execution of Ukrainian POWs by Russian soldiers.
According to Ukrainian officials, Russian forces also used Ukrainian POWs as human shields during combat near Robotyne.
“This indicates the systematic nature of the practices and the fact that this is not an isolated case. The Russian command, whose subordinates commit these crimes, certainly knows about this,” Bielousov said.
Civilian vessel hits Russian mine in Black Sea
A Panama-flagged civilian cargo vessel hit a Russian mine in the Black Sea, leading to two sailors being injured, Ukraine's Southern Defense Forces reported on Dec. 28.
The news comes days after the Ukrainian military warned about an increased risk for civilians posed by drifting naval mines in the Black Sea due to lengthy storms.
Hundreds of mines have been spread throughout the Black Sea since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion in 2022. On several occasions, civilian ships or navy ships belonging to countries not party to the war struck sea mines.
The Panama-flagged ship hit the mine while heading to one of the Danube ports to get loaded with grain, the Southern Defense Forces said on Telegram.
“The ship lost speed and control, and a fire broke out on the upper deck. To avoid flooding, the captain anchored the ship aground.”
The wounded crew members have received medical attention, and the ship is being delivered to the port, according to the Ukrainian military.
“The defense forces continue to ensure the safety of civilian shipping in conditions of dense mining of the sea by the enemy. Stormy weather often increases mine hazards,” the Southern Defense Forces added.
“That is why the issue of demining the sea with the support of international partnership remains relevant.”
Reuters reported on Dec. 16 that Turkey, Romania, and Bulgaria planned to sign an agreement on the creation of a joint mine-clearing force.
For months, the three NATO countries have been leading talks on the issue of mines floating in the Black Sea as a result of Russia's aggression against Ukraine.
Russia reportedly undercounted victims of Kakhovka dam disaster
Moscow-installed illegal administration in the Russian-occupied part of Kherson Oblast “vastly and deliberately” undercounted the victims of the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant's destruction in June, an investigation by the Associated Press (AP) reported on Dec. 28.
Russia's destruction of the Kakhovka Dam on June 6 triggered one of the largest man-made environmental disasters in Ukraine's history. The southern Kherson Oblast has suffered catastrophic floods and a large-scale humanitarian crisis.
According to the United Nations' report, 29 people died as a result of the dam's destruction, and 28 were injured on the Ukrainian-controlled territory as of July 10.
While Russia has claimed that 59 people died in floods caused by the dam explosion in the territory it controls, the AP investigation discovered that in the Russian-occupied Oleshky alone, the number is at least in the hundreds.
The AP journalists talked to medical workers who kept records of the dead in Oleshky, a volunteer who buried the bodies, and Ukrainian informants who provided intelligence from the area to the Ukrainian Security Service as well as other residents, rescue volunteers, and recent escapees from the occupied area.
According to their accounts, Russian occupation authorities took control of issuing death certificates, promptly removing bodies that were not claimed by relatives, and preventing local medical workers and volunteers from dealing with the dead, threatening them when they did not follow orders.
AP also found out that, following the disaster, mass graves were dug up in the Russian-occupied territory, and unidentified bodies were taken away to be never seen again.
“The scale of this tragedy, not just Russia, but even Ukraine doesn't realize,” a nurse who initially supervised the process of collecting death certificates and later fled to Ukrainian-controlled territory told AP. “It's a huge tragedy.”
While Russia has denied responsibility for the dam's explosion, its military has occupied the Kakhovka plant since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in 2022.
Intercepted communications from the night of the disaster further show that the Russians had planned “escape points” and were waiting on a “command” from their superiors.
According to the UN's report published on Oct. 17, Russia's destruction of the Kakhovka dam has caused almost $14 billion in damages to Ukraine.