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Frontlines moving in “Battle of the Donbas’, Ukraine mounts counter-offensive

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Ukrainian servicemen walk amidst rubble at a damaged area, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kharkiv, Ukraine, May 14, 2022. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

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By Tom Balmforth

KYIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – A Ukrainian counteroffensive was underway near the Russian-held town of Izium, but its military reported on Sunday that Russian forces were advancing elsewhere in the Donbas region, which has become the main theatre of war over the past month.

Having resisted fiercely since Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24, Ukraine’s military has notched a string of successes, first forcing Russia’s commanders to abandon an advance on the capital Kyiv, and then making rapid gains in the northeast in recent week to drive the enemy away from the second biggest city of Kharkiv.

Since mid-April, Russian forces have focussed much of their firepower on the east for what has become known as the “Battle of the Donbas”.

Delivering an update on Sunday morning, Ukraine’s military said: “Despite losses, Russian forces continue to advance in the Lyman, Sievierodonetsk, Avdiivka and Kurakhiv areas in the broader Donbas region.”

Ukraine’s military reported destroying eight Russian tanks, five artillery systems, along with other armoured vehicles, and drones in fighting across the Donbas over the previous day.

A regional governor said Ukrainian forces had mounted a counter attack near Izium, a strategic city straddling the Donets river, about 120 km (75 miles) southeast on the highway from Kharkiv.

“The hottest spot remains the Izium direction,” Governor Oleh Sinegubov said in comments aired on social media. “Our armed forces have switched to a counteroffensive there. The enemy is retreating on some fronts and this is the result of the character of our armed forces.”

Reuters could not independently verify the Ukrainian reports.

But British military intelligence delivered a damning assessment on Sunday of Russia’s Donbas campaign. It reckoned that Russia had lost about a third of the ground combat force deployed in February, and its offensive in the Donbas had fallen “significantly behind schedule” and was unlikely to make rapid advances during the coming 30 days.

Keeping up pressure on Izium and Russian supply lines will make it harder for Moscow to encircle battle-hardened Ukrainian troops on the eastern front in the Donbas.

Russia’s defence ministry said its forces killed at least 100 Ukrainian “nationalists” in a series of strikes on military sites, including in the Donbas. Reuters could not independently verify that report.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the situation in Donbas remained very difficult, adding that Russian forces were still trying to salvage some kind of victory there.

“They are not stopping their efforts,” he said.

Elsewhere, the Ukrainian military said there was no let-up on Sunday in Russia’s bombardment of the steel works in the southern port of Mariupol, where a few hundred Ukrainian fighters are holding out weeks after the city fell into Russian hands.

Zelenskiy said talks were underway seeking a way to evacuate wounded soldiers from Mariupol in return for the release of Russian prisoners of war.

A large convoy of cars and vans carrying refugees from the ruins of Mariupol arrived in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia after nightfall on Saturday after waiting days for Russian troops to allow them to leave.

Russia, rejecting Ukraine’s claim to have struck and set alight a modern navy logistics ship in the Black Sea, showed photos of what it said was the Vsevolod Bobrov with no signs of damage.

EUROVISION MORALE BOOSTER

On Saturday night, Ukraine celebrated a morale-boosting triumph in the Eurovision Song Contest that was seen as sign of the strength of popular support for Ukraine across Europe.

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe! Next year Ukraine will host the Eurovision song contest,” Zelenskiy said in an online message after Kalush Orchestra won with their entry “Stefania”.

Eurovision’s winners traditionally get to host the event the following year.

In another token of international solidarity, U.S. Republican senators paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv. The delegation discussed further strengthening sanctions on Russia, Zelenskiy said.

As well as losing large numbers of men and much military equipment, Russia has been hit by economic sanctions. The Group of Seven industrial powers pledged on Saturday to “further increase economic and political pressure on Russia” and supply more weapons to Ukraine.

NATO APPLICANTS

Moscow’s invasion, which it calls a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists, has jolted European security. Kyiv and its Western allies say the fascism assertion is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression.

One of the aims of Russia’s action in Ukraine was to prevent the former Soviet republic ever joining NATO.

But in a telephone call, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country, which shares a 1,300-km (800-mile) border with Russia, wanted to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to bolster its own security.

Putin told Niinisto it would be a mistake for Helsinki to abandon its neutrality, the Kremlin said, adding that the move could harm bilateral relations.

Turkey has not shut the door to Sweden and Finland joining NATO but wants negotiations with them and a clampdown on what it sees as terrorist activities, President Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman said, referring to the activities of Kurds living in the Nordic countries.

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Analysis-Australian women unleash new political force on climate, integrity

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Voters line up outside a Marrickville suburb polling station to cast their ballots on the day of the national election in Sydney, Australia, May 21, 2022. REUTERS/Jaimi Joy/File Photo

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By Kirsty Needham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Professional women and voters concerned about climate change unleashed a third force in Australia’s election, taking a swath of seats that ended nine years of conservative rule even as votes for the winning Labor Party fell.

Women who left successful careers in business, medicine and media to enter politics as independents were on track to win five seats from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s Liberal party in its affluent urban heartland in Saturday’s general election, as moderate voters abandoned the government.

Independents or the minor Greens party looked set to win at least 15 of the 151 lower house seats, ABC election analysts said. Labor remained five seats short of the 76 seats it needs to form a government as counting continued on Sunday.

Personifying the disruptive change were centrists, mostly women, dubbed “teal” candidates because of teal-coloured marketing material used as they targeted seats held by Morrison’s conservative party.

“You seldom see this in Australian politics – a campaign that springs up and catches fire,” said Simon Jackman, a University of Sydney professor, referring to teal community campaigns run by women volunteers.

The election showed women’s anger at Morrison and at inaction on climate change, underpinned by “a fierce desire to get accountability back into Australian politics”, said Chris Wallace, a professor at the University of Canberra.

“There was a large overlap between women outraged by the government and voters overall who wanted action on climate policy,” she told Reuters. 

This “mobilised women in never before seen numbers – including the affluent, middle-class professional women who donned teal T-shirts and took several safe seats off the coalition,” Wallace said.

Independent Sophie Scamps, a doctor who won a Sydney seat held by the Liberals for 70 years, told Sky News, “There were so many people in Mackellar saying, ‘I have voted Liberal my entire life and they no longer represent me.'”

‘AUSTRALIA HAS MOVED ON’

Monique Ryan, a paediatric neurologist who defeated Treasurer Josh Frydenberg in Melbourne, cited the gender pay gap and violence against women as key issues on Sunday.

Climate change struck the biggest chord with voters, said Jackman, who worked on polling data with Climate 200, a group funded by a former Liberal donor that gave money to around 20 independents.

Highly educated voters were also angry at the government on integrity issues, including the handling of gender and sexual assault claims in parliament that would not have been tolerated in most Australian workplaces, he said.

“Women were powerfully motivated,” Jackman said, while their male partners were also coming to believe “that the Liberals are the past. Australia has moved on, we’ve moved on on climate, we’ve moved on on gender equality.”

Former Liberal finance minister Simon Birmingham said the Morrison government should have embraced a more ambitious 2030 emission reduction target, and the election showed the Liberal Party needed to be more inclusive.

“Especially Australian women who are much more highly educated today,” he told ABC television. “It’s a cohort that we have clearly failed to have represented in sufficient numbers.”

Jackman said businesswoman Allegra Spender, who won the Liberal Sydney seat of Wentworth as an independent, should have been Liberal party royalty. Her father was a Liberal lawmaker for a decade and her grandfather negotiated Australia’s pillar ANZUS security treaty with the United States as foreign minister.

Instead, he said, Wentworth became a case study in how sophisticated moderate Liberal voters who understood climate science, and entrepreneurs who wanted to invest in greener technology had abandoned the party.

Greens appeared to have won two seats in the Queensland city of Brisbane that were badly hit by floods, and were leading in the flood-affected Brisbane electorate.

Greens leader Adam Bandt said Liberals and Labor both lost vote as a record number of people voted for the Greens. “This result is a mandate for action on climate and equality.”

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In Japan, Biden to launch economic plan for region sceptical on benefits

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© Reuters. U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks with Hyundai Motor Group Chairman Euisun Chung (not pictured) on the automaker’s decision to build a new electric vehicle and battery manufacturing facility in Savannah, Georgia, as Biden ends his visit to Seoul

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By Trevor Hunnicutt and Yoshifumi Takemoto

TOKYO (Reuters) – President Joe Biden headed to Japan on Sunday to launch a plan for greater U.S. economic engagement with the Indo-Pacific, facing criticism even before the programme is announced that it will offer scant benefit to countries in the region.

On the second leg of his first Asia trip as president, Biden is to meet with leaders of Japan, India and Australia, the “Quad,” another cornerstone of his strategy to push back against China’s expanding influence.

In Tokyo on Monday, Biden will call on Emperor Naruhito before talks with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. He and Kishida are expected to discuss Japan’s plans to expand its military capabilities and reach in response to China’s growing might.

Tokyo will also see the launch on Monday of Biden’s long-awaited Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity (IPEF), a programme intended to bind regional countries more closely via common standards in areas including supply-chain resilience, clean energy, infrastructure and digital trade.

Washington has lacked an economic pillar to its Indo-Pacific engagement since former President Donald Trump quit a multinational trade agreement now known as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving the field open to China to expand its influence.

But the IPEF is unlikely to include binding commitments, and Asian countries and trade experts have given a decidedly lukewarm response to a programme limited by Biden’s reluctance to risk American jobs by offering the increased market access the region craves.

The White House had wanted it the IPEF announcement to represent a formal start of negotiations with a core group of like-minded countries, but Japan wanted to ensure broader participation to include as many Southeast Asian countries as possible, trade and diplomatic sources said.

Given this, Monday’s ceremony will likely signal an agreement to start discussions on IPEF rather than actual negotiations, the sources said.

“Japan wanted as many participants as possible … and also wanted the U.S. to conduct an inclusive process of dialogue after the launch,” a person familiar with the discussions said.

This source said the launch was expected to be attended in person by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Biden and Kishida, and by other leaders virtually.

LACK OF INCENTIVES

A Japanese Finance Ministry official said many Southeast Asian countries would not join IPEF because of the lack of practical incentives like tariff reductions.

“It’s not a cold decision but a practical one, probably because it doesn’t really have significant contents,” the official said.

However, an Asian diplomat said a least half the 10 nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) could join the launch ceremony.

“It seems the White House has decided to make the IPEF launch more like a party with an open bar that all are invited to, with the real work to start on Monday morning,” said Matthew Goodman, a trade expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Eventually the administration is going to have to offer more tangible benefits if it wants to keep countries on board.”

On Tuesday in Tokyo, Biden will join the second in-person meeting of the Quad group of countries.

All share concerns about China, but the Quad as a group has avoided expressing an overtly anti-China agenda, largely due to Indian sensibilities.

India’s strong security ties with Russia and refusal to condemn its invasion of Ukraine will likely prevent any strong joint statement on that issue, analysts said.

However, at their last summit in March, Quad leaders agreed that what has happened to Ukraine should not be allowed to happen in the Indo-Pacific – a reference to the threat posed to self-governed Taiwan by China, though Beijing was not mentioned by name.

Chinese envoy for Korean affairs Liu Xiaoming said on Twitter (NYSE:TWTR) that Washington was “putting together a closed & exclusive ‘clique’.”

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Biden says ‘everybody’ should be concerned about monkeypox outbreak

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden pauses while speaking during a briefing from senior officials on efforts to prepare for and respond to future hurricanes, at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., May 18, 2022. REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

SEOUL (Reuters) – The monkeypox outbreak is something “everybody should be concerned about,” U.S. President Joe Biden said on Sunday, adding that U.S. health officials are looking into possible treatments and vaccines.

“We’re working on it hard to figure out what we do,” Biden told reporters at an air base in South Korea before departing on Air Force One for Japan.

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