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Ukraine’s defence ministry in turmoil at key point in war

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Ukraine's defence ministry in turmoil at key point in war

Ukraine sent mixed messages over the fate of its defence minister on Monday, leaving a key post in its war effort in doubt even as it braces for a new Russian offensive.

A day after announcing that Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov would be replaced, a top ally of President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appeared to row back for now, saying no personnel changes in the defence sector would be made this week.

David Arakhamia, chief of the parliamentary bloc of Zelenskiy’s party, had said Reznikov would be made minister of strategic industries, while the head of military intelligence, Kyrylo Budanov, would take over the defence ministry.

But Zelenskiy remained silent on the issue, while Reznikov himself said on Sunday he had not been informed of any move, and would reject the strategic industry job if offered it.

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The doubt over the minister’s fate comes as Russian forces have been advancing for the first time in half a year in relentless battles in the east. A regional governor said Moscow was pouring reinforcements into eastern Ukraine for a new offensive that could come as soon as next week.

Two senior lawmakers on Monday noted that rules require Ukraine’s defence minister to be a civilian, which would appear to put an obstacle in the way of the immediate appointment of Budanov, a 37-year-old military officer.

Removing Reznikov, who has been warmly received in Western capitals including Paris just last week, would be the highest profile reshuffle in a slew of resignations and sackings in recent weeks, some of which followed corruption scandals.

Ukraine has a decades-long reputation for graft, and Zelenskiy is under pressure to demonstrate the country can be a reliable steward of billions of dollars in Western military and civilian aid. In announcing a personnel purge last month, Zelenskiy pledged to meet Western standards of clean governance.

Reznikov, a lawyer by profession, has not been publicly implicated in any scandals. But one of his deputies and several other officials have left, and prosecutors have announced a probe into allegations that a defence ministry contract would have corruptly overpaid for food for troops.

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‘WAR DICTATES CHANGES’

Arakhamia said Ukraine’s armed forces should not be overseen by politicians during wartime, but by people with a background in defence or security.

“War dictates changes in personnel policy,” he wrote on the Telegram messaging app on Sunday.

Reznikov said on Sunday that any decision on a reshuffle was up to Zelenskiy, but told the Ukrainian Fakty ICTV online media that a planned transfer to a new ministry was news to him.

“If I suddenly received such an offer from the president of Ukraine or the prime minister, I would refuse it, because I do not have the expertise,” Reznikov was cited as saying.

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Budanov, identified by Arakhamia as Reznikov’s replacement, is an enigmatic young officer decorated for his role in secret operations, who rapidly rose through the ranks to head up the military’s Main Directorate of Intelligence.

The possible shakeup coincides with Ukrainian fears that Russia is planning a major new offensive this month. Ukraine is planning its own counter-offensive but is waiting on Western supplies of battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles.

“We are seeing more and more (Russian) reserves being deployed in our direction, we are seeing more equipment being brought in,” Serhiy Haidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region, said, adding that shelling was no longer round-the-clock.

“They are slowly starting to save, getting ready for a full-scale offensive,” he said on television. “It will most likely take them 10 days to gather reserves. After Feb 15 we can expect (this offensive) at any time.”

MILITARY AID OVERSEER

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Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak, when asked on national television on Sunday night how likely a reshuffle was, said: “Reznikov was extremely efficient in terms of communication with our partners. And this is a very important component in this case.”

As a wartime defence minister, Reznikov, 56, fostered ties with Western defence officials and helped oversee the receipt of billions of dollars of military aid to help Kyiv fend off the Russian invasion.

Podolyak said that Reznikov’s “wonderful” personal relations with allies have helped with the military supplies.

“Negotiations are not just mathematical formulae but also personal relationships. And trust. Unfortunately, today we are losing a measure of trust in us,” Podolyak said.

Reznikov singled out Ukraine’s “de facto” integration into the NATO military alliance as a top priority, even if joining the bloc was not immediately possible.

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During his tenure as defence minister, he spoke out strongly about wartime corruption, which he said was akin to “marauding”.

But in recent weeks his ministry became embroiled in a corruption scandal over an army food contract that envisaged paying vastly inflated prices. It caused a public outcry.

The emergence of that scandal was followed by a major reshuffle that saw the exit of an array of regional governors, deputy ministers and other officials.

Reznikov hosted a news conference on Sunday afternoon, in which he said Ukraine expected a possible major Russian offensive this month, but that Kyiv had the resources at hand to hold them at bay.

He also said that his ministry’s anti-corruption department needed to be overhauled and that it had not done what it was supposed to do.

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

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US Coast Guard boards Chinese fishing boats near Kiribati, official says

The US Coast Guard and Kiribati police boarded two Chinese fishing boats during a patrol against illegal fishing in the Pacific Islands nation’s vast exclusive economic zone this month but found no issues aboard, a coast guard official said.

The United States is seeking a bigger role for its coast guard in helping remote Pacific Islands nations monitor millions of kilometres of ocean – a rich tuna fishing ground – a move that also boosts surveillance as a rivalry with China over security ties in the region intensifies.

Reuters reported on Friday that Chinese police are working in Kiribati, with uniformed officers involved in community policing and a crime database program.

Kiribati, a nation of 115,000 residents, is considered strategic despite being small, as it is relatively close to Hawaii and controls a 3.5 million square kilometre (1.35 million square mile) exclusive economic zone. It is also host to a Japanese satellite tracking station.

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Washington has flagged plans to build an embassy in Kiribati to compete with China, but has not yet done so.

Kiribati police officers were on patrol with the US Coast Guard as “ship riders” for the first time in almost a decade, between Feb. 11-16, a US Coast Guard Guam spokeswoman said.

“The two People’s Republic of China (PRC) flagged fishing vessels were boarded as part of routine maritime law enforcement activities to ensure compliance with regulations within the Kiribati Exclusive Economic Zone,” the spokeswoman said in an emailed comments.

No concerns were reported during the boardings, she said.

“Both Kiribati officers from the Kiribati Police Maritime Unit and US Coast Guard officers were involved in the boarding operations. This collaboration underscores the partnership between the two nations in upholding maritime law and good governance,” she added.

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The Kiribati president’s office and Chinese embassy did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Kiribati’s acting police commissioner, Eeri Aritiera, told Reuters last week that Chinese police on the island work with local police.

China built a large embassy on the main island, Tarawa, after Kiribati switched ties from Taiwan to Beijing in 2019. 

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

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Ukraine downs nine Russian drones, three missiles, air force says

Russia launched 14 attack drones and a barrage of missiles at Ukraine overnight, with air defence systems destroying nine drones as well as three guided missiles over the Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk regions, Ukraine’s air force said on Monday.

Russia also launched two S-300 missiles from anti-aircraft missile systems and one air-to-surface Kh-31P missile, the air force said on the Telegram messaging app.

It was not clear what happened to the missiles and drones that were not downed. 

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

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Taiwan ally Tuvalu names Feleti Teo as new prime minister

Tuvalu on Monday announced former attorney general and fisheries official Feleti Teo as its new prime minister, after he was elected unopposed by lawmakers in the Pacific Islands nation, officials said.

Former Prime Minister Kausea Natano lost his seat in a general election on Jan. 26 closely watched by Taiwan, China, the US and Australia, amid a geopolitical tussle for influence in the South Pacific.

Tuvalu, with a population of about 11,200 spread across nine islands, is one of three remaining Pacific allies of Taiwan, after Nauru cut ties last month and switched to Beijing, which had promised more development help.

Teo received unanimous support from the 16 lawmakers, two lawmakers told Reuters on Monday.

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Teo, who was educated in New Zealand and Australia, was Tuvalu’s first attorney general. He has decades of experience as a senior official in the regional fisheries organisation and has worked with the Pacific Islands Forum, the region’s major political and economic group. Fishing is a major source of revenue in the Pacific islands.

“Feleti Teo was declared by the Governor General as Prime Minister for Tuvalu,” Tuvalu’s government secretary, Tufoua Panapa, said in an emailed statement.

Tuvalu lawmaker Simon Kofe congratulated Teo in a social media post.

“It is the first time in our history that a Prime Minister has been nominated unopposed,” he said.

The election result in Tuvalu had been delayed by a month as dangerous weather stopped boats from bringing new lawmakers to the capital to vote for prime minister, highlighting why climate change is the top political issue in the Pacific Islands nation.

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Taiwan’s foreign ministry said its ambassador to Tuvalu, Andrew Lin, expressed Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen’s congratulations to Teo, adding that deputy foreign minister Tien Chung-kwang will visit Tuvalu in the near future.

Teo is a friend of Taiwan’s and has visited many times, and has said relations are stable and that maintaining ties is the widespread consensus in Tuvalu, the ministry added.

Taiwan previously said it was paying close attention to the election after Tuvalu’s finance minister in the previous government, Seve Paeniu, said the issue of diplomatic recognition of Taiwan or China should be debated by the new government.

There had also been calls by some lawmakers to review a wide-ranging deal signed with Australia in November, that allows Canberra to vet Tuvalu’s police, port and telecommunication cooperation with other nations, in return for a defence guarantee and allowing citizens threatened by rising seas to migrate.

The deal was seen as an effort to curb China’s rising influence as an infrastructure provider in the Pacific Islands.

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Teo’s position on Taiwan ties, and the Australian security and migration pact, have not been made public.

Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said on social media he looked forward to working with Teo.

“Australia deeply values our relationship with Tuvalu, in the spirit of the Falepili Union,” he wrote, referring to the migration pact.

Tuvalu’s ministry would be announced at an oath taking ceremony for the new government later this week, Panapa said.

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