Ukraine-Russia War Live News and Latest Updates
BRUSSELS — Russia’s faltering war in Ukraine suffered two setbacks on Thursday when the flagship of Russia’s Black Sea fleet sank after a catastrophic explosion and fire as the European Union drew closer to an embargo on Russian oil imports.
Ukraine claimed to have hit the ship, the guided missile cruiser Moskva, with two of its own Neptun missiles, while Russia said the blast was caused by munitions on board the ship. If confirmed, the missile attack would be a major blow to Russia, both militarily and symbolically — proof that its ships can no longer operate with impunity and another severe blow to morale.
It would also give Ukrainian hopes a boost, while simultaneously demonstrating the defenders’ homegrown technological prowess and exposing an embarrassing weakness in the Russian Navy’s anti-missile defences.
Moscow also faces the possible loss of Europe’s fossil fuel markets, which provide billions of dollars each month to support its war effort. The European Union has long resisted calls to reduce its energy dependency on Russia, but officials announced on Thursday that an oil embargo is in the works and likely to be passed in the coming weeks.
In addition, there is an already announced import ban on Russian coal. Taken together, the moves will inevitably raise fuel and electricity prices in Europe, potentially disrupting the economy and provoking a political backlash.
Ukraine continues to prepare for a Russian offensive in the eastern Donbass region – where Moscow has said it will concentrate its war effort after failing to capture the capital Kyiv – while Russian forces are penetrating the shrinking pocket of resistance in the devastated southern port of Pressuring Mariupol. The devastation that has rained there was a dire warning of what might happen to other cities in the event of a prolonged Russian siege, leading to a mass exodus of civilians from Donbass.
The Kremlin, deepening its international isolation, reacted ominously to mounting signs that Finland and Sweden would join the NATO alliance in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On Thursday, the government warned that such an expansion of NATO would lead to an increased Russian military presence, including nuclear weapons, in the region.
CIA Director William J. Burns on Thursday warned of the possibility that Mr Putin could use a tactical or weak nuclear weapon in the face of a debacle in Ukraine, although he stressed he had seen no “practical evidence” that such a move stood at. It was the first time he had spoken publicly on an issue much discussed in the White House.
“Given the potential desperation of President Putin and the Russian leadership, given the setbacks they have faced militarily to date, none of us can take lightly the threat posed by the possible resort to tactical or low-yield nuclear weapons . said Mr. Burns while answering questions after a speech in Atlanta.
Prominent voices in Russia’s state media have recently made increasingly inflammatory statements calling for more brutality in battles that have already sparked calls for war crimes investigations into Russian forces.
Much remained unclear about Russia’s backlash in the western Black Sea, where an explosion on Thursday morning – Wednesday night in the United States – and a subsequent fire forced many of the Moskva’s crew of around 500 to abandon ship. There was not a word about casualties. Ukraine said it hit the ship with two Neptun missiles and sank it.
The Russian Defense Ministry initially said its sailors managed to put out the fire and the Moskva, which entered service in 1983, stayed afloat. But hours later, the ship was said to have sunk while being towed into port in a storm.
Western defense officials said they couldn’t be sure what caused the explosion aboard the 12,000-ton ship. Three American officials briefed on the incident said all signs indicated it had been hit by missiles. Officials warned that early battlefield reports can sometimes change, but expressed deep skepticism about the Russian accidental fire report.
Ukraine has stressed the need for coastal defense weapons, and the US announced this week that it would send more of them. Pentagon officials said other Russian ships have moved farther from Ukraine’s coast, lending credence to claims of missile strikes.
“It will have an impact on their fleet capabilities, certainly in the short term,” but the long-term picture is unclear, said Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby, a former Navy rear admiral.
Until now, Russian ships have been able to launch missiles at coastal cities at will. They have blocked the southern coast of Ukraine and threatened an amphibious assault in the south-western region. The presence of an effective Ukrainian anti-ship weapon — Ukraine says the Neptune has a range of about 190 miles — could change those calculations, though Ukraine’s merchant shipping is unlikely to resume any time soon.
Current and former US naval commanders have said a successful missile strike would show a shocking lack of Russian combat readiness.
“This shouldn’t happen to a modern warship,” said Adm. James G. Foggo III, a former commander of the US Sixth Fleet, which operates in Europe. “If this was a Neptune missile strike, it suggests complacency and the lack of an effective integrated air and missile defense capability.”
Ukraine has endured most of the suffering in the war that began on February 24, with untold casualties, widespread destruction and millions of people displaced, but the blow to Russia has also been severe. Moscow’s vaunted military has often appeared hapless, suffering unexpectedly heavy losses in men and equipment, while unprecedented sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies have rocked Russia’s economy.
President Vladimir V. Putin acknowledged some of those costs in a video conference on Thursday with senior government officials and oil and gas industry executives, citing “the disruption of export logistics” in that industry and “setbacks in payments for Russian energy exports.”
Fossil fuels are Russia’s biggest export, a large part of Russia’s economy, employing millions of people and providing the government with much of the revenue needed to support its war machine.
Now EU officials and European diplomats say the bloc is moving towards blocking oil imports from Russia, a ban that would be phased in over months to allow countries to arrange alternative supplies. They said European leaders will not make a final decision until after April 24, when France will hold its presidential election; A rise in fuel prices could hurt President Emmanuel Macron’s prospects and bolster his right-wing opponent Marine Le Pen, who has praised Mr Putin.
The government of Germany, the most influential country in the European Union, is particularly reluctant to shut down Russian fuel, which would be costly and could create shortages. But pressure from allies and mounting evidence of Russian atrocities in Ukraine gradually overcame this resistance. Germany refused to commission the virtually completed $10 billion Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, backed the coal ban and now appears to be on board with an oil embargo.
The shifting stance of the neutral Scandinavian states is another unintended consequence for Mr Putin. By waging a war he said was aimed at keeping Ukraine out of NATO — a distant prospect at best — he may have succeeded in drawing two countries that had been steadfastly non-aligned for generations into the alliance’s arms to drive.
Dmitri A. Medvedev, a senior Russian security official, said Thursday that if Sweden and Finland join NATO, “there will be no more talk of a nuclear-weapon-free Baltic.” Moscow would be forced to “seriously increase” its air and ground forces in the region, said Mr. Medvedev, a former president and prime minister, and could station nuclear-armed warships “at arm’s length” from Finnish and Swedish coasts.
Vladimir Solovyov, a TV presenter who is considered the leading voice in Kremlin propaganda, said on Wednesday that Russia should destroy all of Ukraine’s infrastructure, including basic services.
Russia “must bring these terrorists to their senses in the most cruel way,” he said on state broadcaster Russia-1. “We have to talk to terrorists differently,” he added. “There should be no illusions that they can win.”
Russia has forced independent news outlets to shut down or leave the country and made it a criminal offense to challenge the Kremlin’s account of the war. But Margarita Simonyan, the head of state news organization RT, said earlier this week that the government should limit information even more.
No great power can exist “without having information under their control,” she said, adding, “We’re all waiting for it.”
Matina Stevis-Gridneff reported from Brussels, and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York. Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nekhepurenko and Anton Trojanowski from istanbul, Michael Schwartz from London and Helen Cooper, Eric Schmitt David E Singer and Julian E Barnes from Washington.