Ukraine Situation Report: Peace Negotiators Reportedly Hit With Chemical Weapon Attack (Updated)
Roman Abramovich, an oligarch and Putin ally, was among those reportedly sickened in a chemical weapon attack in Ukraine.
Ukrainian and Russian representatives, including a long-time Putin ally, appear to have been poisoned with an unspecified chemical weapon during negotiations over the conflict earlier this month, according to media reports. This news has emerged as officials from Ukraine and Russia say that they expect another round of talks to take place in Turkey sometime in the next few days.
In the meantime, Russia's military's objectives in Ukraine appear to be shifting and there are indications that the Kremlin may be softening on some of its most maximalist demands for what it would take to bring the fighting to an end. There are now concerns that authorities in Russia may now be aiming to bifurcate Ukraine in some way.
Before jumping into the latest news below, The War Zone readers can first get fully up to speed on the existing state of Russia's war on Ukraine through our previous rolling coverage here.
The War Zone's continuing rolling coverage of the conflict in Ukraine can be found here.
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Reuters has reported, citing an anonymous American official, that intelligence available to the U.S. government "highly suggests" that this poisoning was environmental in nature and not deliberate. However, that individual did not elaborate on any evidence to support that assessment.
A separate report from The Wall Street Journal says that Abramovich lost his sense of sight for multiple hours and received treatment in Turkey after the possible poisoning, which may have been orchestrated by hardliners in Russia looking to sabotage a peace deal. The oligarch is now reportedly in Turkey for the next round of talks between the two sides.
The Financial Times newspaper has reported that the Russian government may have abandoned its core demand that Ukraine be "denazified" as part of any deal to end the conflict, which has been seen previously as effectively calling for regime change in Kyiv. In addition, officials in Russia may accept a definition of neutrality that allows for Ukraine to potentially enter the European Union, as long as it gives up any plans to become part of NATO. Matters of demilitarizing Ukraine and formalized protections for Russian speakers in the country remain key issues in the ongoing negotiations.
A fuel depot in northwestern Ukraine's Rivne region was reportedly targeted by a Russian strike.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense says that members of the Russian private military company known as Wagner, which has strong ties to Russian intelligence agencies, are starting to deploy to eastern Ukraine.
Workers who monitor and otherwise maintain facilities at the now-defunct Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, which is currently under Russian control, say that some Russian forces moved through an area known as the "Red Forest," according to Reuters. This particular zone is highly contaminated and Russian personnel could be a risk for health complications due to the dust and other debris kicked up by their armored vehicles. There were reports back in February that Russian forces simply operating near Chernobyl could have been responsible for an uptick in detectable radiation at the site. Satellite imagery shows that are currently fires burning inside the exclusion zone, as well.
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An investigator working for Bellingcat, which describes itself as an "independent international collective of researchers, investigators and citizen journalists using open source and social media investigation to probe a variety of subjects," together with independent chemical weapons experts and medical professionals, says that Ukrainian and Russian negotiators who met on the night of March 3-4, were most likely targeted with a chemical weapon. The individuals who were sickened included Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who has strong ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin and who has reportedly been acting as a backchannel between the two sides of the current conflict.
According to Bellingcat, the possibility that some kind of microwave directed energy weapon had been employed was considered, but was determined to be less likely than some form of chemical agent. For years now, the U.S. government has been exploring the possibility that the Russian government has targeted American officials in various locations abroad using microwave radiation as part of investigations into individuals suffering from a wide variety of still largely unexplained health issues. You can read more about those possible attacks and the injuries and ailments associated with them, which have become collectively known as "Havana Syndrome," here.
So far, it remains unclear who might have carried out this attack, but the Russian government has targeted a number of dissidents and other individuals domestically and outside of its borders in recent years with novel chemical agents collectively known as Novichoks. Russian authorities have carried out similar assassination operations using other toxic substances, including radioactive polonium-210, as well. The nature of the poisoning of the negotiators in Ukraine makes it more likely that it was an attempt to send some kind of message, rather than actually kill anyone, according to Bellingcat.
Details about this reported chemical weapon attack came after Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's official spokesperson, said that negotiators could meet in Turkey face-to-face as early as tomorrow. David Arakhamia, also known as David Braun, a member of Ukraine's parliament, or Rada, who has taken part in past talks with Russian representatives in Belarus, said yesterday that a meeting in Turkey could occur sometime between today and Wednesday.
"While we cannot and will not speak about progress at the talks, the fact that they [are] continuing to take place in person is important, of course," Peskov told reporters today. "We are adhering to a policy of not disclosing any information about the talks, which we think could only hurt the negotiation process."
Peskov also stressed the importance of in-person negotiations. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on March 10 in Turkey, but since then all further talks appear to have been conducted remotely.
Whether or not a new round of talks in Turkey will make any progress toward a negotiated settlement to the conflict remains to be seen. Kuleba came away from his meeting with Lavrov saying that the Russian Foreign Minister had not been in a position to truly negotiate and that officials in Russia were living "in their own reality."
At the same time, in the past few days, the Russian government appears to, at least publicly, be trying to reframe its invasion of Ukraine, which has gone anything but according to plan by all indications. This may reflect a pivoting in the Kremlin regarding the objectives of this "special military operation."
Just today, Nikolai Patrushev, head of Putin's Security Council, insisted that the Russian government was not seeking regime change in Ukraine, according to a report from Inferfax. Whether or not this accurately reflects the country's official position now, it is definitely at odds with past Russian statements and actions, including numerous reported assassination attempts against Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Ukrainian authorities said that they had foiled another plot just this weekend.
The Russian military has also recently indicated that it could be moving toward limiting the scope of its operations in Ukraine to the country's eastern Donbas region and certain adjacent areas. The U.S. military assessed last week that Russia's forces might be abandoning attempts to capture the Ukrainian capital Kyiv and instead are turning their focus to digging in, and consolidating, existing gains. A senior U.S. defense official said today that there is now additional evidence for this assessment based on other Russian military movements in the eastern half of Ukraine.
This would all lend credence to worries that the new plan in the Kremlin may be to try to bifurcate or even outright annex portions of Ukraine, something The War Zone
posited in the past was one very plausible outcome to the conflict. It is also worth noting that the Russian government under Putin has officially declared victory in previous conflicts, most notably in Syria, and then continued to prosecute them either directly or indirectly.
For his part, Ukrainian President Zelensky has indicated that Ukraine might be willing to accept some of Russia's more significant demands as part of a peace deal. This could include accepting some sort of formalized neutrality that would see the country officially abandon plans to join international military and economic blocs, such as NATO and the European Union. Speaking to independent Russian journalists yesterday Zelensky stressed that any proposed peace deal with Russia would have to be put to a public referendum in Ukraine.
Regardless, fighting on the ground in Ukraine is very much ongoing at present. Ukrainian forces have continued to counterattack in certain areas, as indicated by the areas now labeled as "contested" on the map accompanying the U.K. Ministry of Defence's daily update on the conflict. The U.S. military has separately assessed that Russian forces have now fired more than 1,370 cruise and ballistic missiles at targets in Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces continue to contest the skies above the country and the bulk of their long-range air defense capacity remains intact, according to a senior U.S. defense official. The U.S. government remains in talks with allies and partners about ways to bolster Ukraine's air defense capabilities, including through the transfer of additional S-300 surface-to-air missile systems from third countries like Slovakia.
The mayor of the Ukrainian city of Irpin, to the west of the capital Kyiv, says that the country's forces have retaken it from the Russians. He stressed that the situation remained too dangerous for residents to return. A senior U.S. defense official said today they could not confirm the liberation of Irpin, but that other cities had been retaken.
Grueling fighting continues in Ukraine's southern port city of Mariupol on the Sea of Azov, which has been under a punishing Russian seige for weeks now.
The video below reportedly shows Russian forces employing commercial pickup trucks with mounted machine guns in Ukraine, rather than heavier armored vehicles. A truck towing a tracked armored vehicle, possibly an MT-LB multi-purpose carrier, can be seen in the background at one point. Russia's military has lost hundreds of tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and other heavy armor in the course of the fighting so far.
Ukraine's main military intelligence agency, commonly referred to by the acronym GUR, has released what it says are the names of, and various details about, hundreds of Russian Federal Security Service, or FSB, employees.
The Romanian military has safely neutralized a naval mine in the Black Sea, which appears to have drifted from Ukraine's shores.
As part of the ongoing bolstering of NATO's eastern periphery in light of the conflict in Ukraine, the U.S. Navy is preparing to deploy a contingent of six EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft to Germany. Approximately 240 Navy personnel will accompany the jets.
Authorities in various states in Germany are indicating that individuals could be committing criminal acts by displaying the letter "Z" in the context of supporting Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Russian forces operating in Ukraine are using the letter Z, among other markings, to help differentiate themselves from Ukrainian units. Those invasion markings, and Z in particular, have since become a way to show support for Russia's "special military operation."
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