Viktor Orban vetoes EU drive for Russian oil embargo this month

Ukraine's intelligence chief alleges President Putin faced assassination attempt by Caucasus hit squad

An assassination attempt was allegedly made on Russian President Vladimir Putin two months ago. EPA
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Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has warned European Union leaders to scrap attempts to adopt an energy embargo on Russian oil before the end of the month.

Mr Orban on Tuesday told European Council President Charles Michel, who chairs EU summits, that tackling the issue at the May 30-31 meeting in Brussels would be “counterproductive”.

EU negotiations over a sixth package of sanctions against Russia have been held up for weeks by Hungary’s objections to a plan to phase out purchases of Russian oil by early next year.

The developments came as Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's Foreign Minister, spoke to Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, to review efforts to restart Ukraine's grain exports. Mr Kubela accused Russia of stealing Ukraine's reserves after seeing satellite images of a ship loading in Crimea, the annexed Black Sea peninsula.

After warnings from Western intelligence officials that Russian troops would inevitably seize Severodonetsk in the Donbas and Kramatorsk, Mr Kuleba also issued a plea for more weapons.

"Too early to conclude that Ukraine already has all the arms it needs," he wrote on Twitter. "Russian offensive in the Donbas is a ruthless battle, the largest one on European soil since WWII [Second World War]. I urge partners to speed up deliveries of weapons and ammunition, especially MLRS [Multiple Launch Rocket Systems], long-range artillery, APCs [armoured personnel carriers]."

Russian forces are advancing from three directions to encircle Ukrainian forces in Severodonetsk.

Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk province, said: "The enemy has focused its efforts on carrying out an offensive in order to encircle [the area].

"The intensity of fire on Severodonetsk has increased by multiple times, they are simply destroying the city."

Ukrainian officials also alleged that cracks had appeared at the top of the Russian hierarchy. An assassination attempt had been made on President Vladimir Putin, Ukraine’s head of military intelligence Kyrylo Budanov claimed. Mr Budanov said in an interview that an operation staged by “representatives of the Caucasus” was carried out in late March or early April.

“This is non-public information,” he told the Ukrainska Pravda news website. “Absolutely unsuccessful attempt, but it really took place. There is no publicity about this event, but it took place.”

Given the substantial security team surrounding Mr Putin, western officials believe a successful assassination plot would prove highly challenging.

“Putin has fewer contacts and he has fewer public engagements,” an official briefed the media on Monday. “It's a more controlled environment around him so were anyone to attempt to do something like that, it would be a hugely complex operation.”

While Mr Budanov indicated that a coup against Mr Putin was unlikely, he suggested that Russian oligarchs affected property seizures and sanctions had been in contact with Moscow security elements to discuss removing the president.

Russian President Vladimir Putin pictured in late 2021. There are allegations that he has several illnesses. AP

“The easiest way out for them is to replace Putin with another person," Mr Budanov said. "It can be said it was not Russia to blame for all the problems, but one person — Putin. It can be said he was a sick dictator, let’s remove all sanctions, remove all restrictions, start living anew, it wasn’t Russia’s fault, it was his fault.”

He suggested Putin would “end the same” as other dictators such as Adolf Hitler and Muammar Qaddafi.

Mr Budanov, 36, also claimed that Mr Putin, who is 70 in October, has suffered several illnesses, “one of which is cancer”.

Mr Putin is understood to have met an oncologist 35 times in the last four years. There are suggestions that his apparent puffy face might have been caused by steroids used to treat the illness.

However, western officials believe he still has an unchallenged grip on power.

“The observation is, at the moment, President Putin is firmly in control of his inner circle,” one official said. “The country and the decisions which are being made, irrespective of expectation about his health, President Putin is still the decision-maker.”

Updated: May 24, 2022, 4:05 PM