Emerging Europe This Week

‘Bakhmut must be held’: This week in emerging Europe

You can read all of our coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, including explainers and articles offering context and background information here.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

President Volodymyr Zelensky said this week that Ukraine must hold on to Bakhmut at all costs, warning that a win by Russia there would be used by President Vladimir Putin as a stepping stone in garnering international support for a peace agreement that would force Ukraine to accept painful compromises.

“If [Putin] will feel some blood — smell that we are weak — he will push, push, push,” Zelensky told the AP in an interview.

In his AP interview, Zelensky extended an invitation to Ukraine to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“We are ready to see him here,” he said. “I want to speak with him. I had contact with him before full-scale war. But during all this year, more than one year, I didn’t have.”

Zelensky’s comments about Bakhmut followed those of Ukraine’s ground forces commander, Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, who said that holding the town is a “military necessity”.

“The most intense phase of the battle for Bakhmut continues. The situation is constantly difficult. The enemy suffers significant losses in human resources, weapons and military equipment but continues to conduct offensive actions,” said Syrskyi.

Praising Ukrainian forces’ resilience in “extremely difficult conditions”, he said: “The defence of Bakhmut is due to military necessity…. We are calculating all possible options for the development of events, and will react adequately to the current situation”.

Russia’s cyberwar on Ukraine meanwhile has largely failed and Moscow is increasingly targeting Kyiv’s European allies, according to US and French analysts.

French defence firm Thales said in a report on Wednesday that Russia was hitting Poland and Nordic and Baltic countries with an arsenal of cyberweapons aiming to sow divisions and promote anti-war messages.

“These groups of independent, civilian hacktivists have emerged as a new component in the conflict. They can be assimilated to a cybercriminal group with specific political objectives and interests, acting out of conviction, yet not directly sponsored by any government. Members of such groups have a broad array of origins, technical skills and backgrounds,” Thales said in a statement.

About 60 per cent of all cyberattacks reported worldwide were conducted by Russian hackers, the report said.

Belarus claims it was “forced” to agree to host Russian tactical nuclear weapons on its territory in response to what it called “unprecedented political, economic, and information pressure” from the West.

A statement placed on the website of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday accused the United States, Britain, and the European Union of “direct and blatant interference into the internal affairs of an independent state aiming to derail the geopolitical course and change the internal political order of Belarus.”

The statement came three days after Russian President Vladimir Putin said he had reached agreement with Alexander Lukashenko, the authoritarian ruler of Belarus, to station tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus, which borders NATO and EU member states Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia, as well Russia and Ukraine.

Other news from the region

EU antitrust regulators this week gave unconditional approval for Google’s acquisition of Croatian maths app Photomath. The European Commission said the deal would not reduce competition in the markets for “online homework and study help tools that include maths as a subject offering and general search services,” it said in a statement. Google entered an agreement to acquire Photomath in May last year. It has been reported that the deal is worth anything from 220 million to 500 million euros.

Moldova is hoping for a sign by the end of the year at least that EU accession talks can begin as the country races to implement reforms proposed by Brussels, Foreign Minister Nicu Popescu told Reuters on Wednesday. Reforming the “extremely corrupt” justice system was a top priority, Popescu said, since half the European Commission’s recommendations for Moldova focused on this sector. The nation of 2.5 million has been hit hard by the fallout from the war in neighbouring Ukraine that has sent inflation soaring to more than 20% and caused power cuts after Russian attacks on Ukrainian energy facilities.

Azerbaijan’s armed forces have cut off a road that Armenians had been using to circumvent a blockade of Nagorno-Karabakh, further tightening the screws on the territory’s population. Azerbaijan’s Defence Ministry announced on March 25 that its units had taken “necessary local control measures” to cut off a rough dirt road that passed slightly to the north of the main road connecting Karabakh to Armenia, known as the Lachin Corridor. The Lachin Corridor itself has been blocked by  by Azerbaijani government-backed environmental protesters since early December.

Following successful test consignments this month of oil from Kazakhstan transited across the Caspian Sea into a pipeline running from Azerbaijan to Turkey, the volume of deliveries through that route is projected to reach 125,000 tonnes in April. Kazakh oil transportation company KazTransOil announced in a statement this week that it had delivered a maiden consignment of almost 10,000 tonnes of crude from the port of Aktau on an Azerbaijan-owned tanker that was to dock in Baku. Another equivalent amount of oil, also sourced from the Tengiz field, which is being developed by a joint venture 50 per cent owned by US major Chevron, is due for delivery by the end of this month. 

The speaker of the lower chamber of the Czech parliament, Pekarova Adamova, told Taiwanese lawmakers on Tuesday that her country and Taiwan are bound together by freedom and democracy, pledging to always stand with the island’s people. Taiwan has sought to bolster ties with fellow democracies as it faces stepped up pressure from Beijing to accept Chinese sovereignty, and has found a welcoming audience in Central and Eastern Europe given the shared history of authoritarianism.

North Macedonia will once again send a formal request to Hungary to extradite fugitive former prime minister Nikola Gruevski, who has already been sentenced for corruption and money laundering and is “involved in nine more cases”, Justice Minister Krenar Lloga said on Monday. Gruevski, the former leader of the nationalist VMRO-DPMNE party, was prime minister from 2006 to 2016, when he resigned following a wire-tapping scandal. He was first sentenced to two years in prison in November 2018 but fled to Hungary, where he was granted political asylum, claiming that North Macedonia “does not have good prison conditions for this category of convicts”.

Poland has detained a foreign citizen on charges of spying for Russia, prosecutors said on Monday, as the largest country on NATO’s eastern flank finds itself increasingly targeted by Moscow’s intelligence services. Prosecutors in the northern Polish city of Gdansk said in a statement that the suspect had been detained on March 21. “The findings made in the case show that the suspect acted for the benefit of Russian intelligence by obtaining and collecting information… on critical infrastructure in the Pomeranian and Kuyavian-Pomeranian Regions and on the activities of services and bodies responsible for security,” they said.

Albanian authorities have put up a 100,000 euros reward for information leading to the arrest of the perpetrators of the murder of a security guard at the premises of the country’s largest television station, Top Channel, on Monday. Pal Kola was shot and killed by a barrage of bullets from at least one AK-47 early Monday morning. The perpetrators are believed to have left the scene, set fire to the vehicle with the weapons inside, and gone on the run.

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