What happened on the 79th day of the war in Ukraine
KRAKOW, Poland — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin faced fresh setbacks over the invasion of Ukraine on Friday, as Sweden became the second neutral country in two days to join NATO and the West devised ways to ship Ukrainian grain to a to divert past the Russian naval blockade.
Fresh signs of a Russian military retreat near Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, also added to Putin’s challenges and appeared to undermine, or at least delay, the Kremlin’s goal of encircling Ukrainian forces concentrated in eastern Ukraine.
But for Mr Putin, the biggest anger was perhaps the most personal: Britain imposed sanctions on his ex-wife Lyudmila Ocheretnaya. about a former Olympic gymnast long rumored to be his girlfriend, Alina Kabaeva, and about three cousins: Igor, Mikhail and Roman Putin.
“We are exposing and targeting the shady network that underpins Putin’s luxury lifestyle and tightening the vise around his inner circle,” said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.
The West faced its own challenges. Even as Sweden signaled that it would benefit from joining NATO – a day after Finland declared its readiness to join – Turkey’s president signaled his objections to expanding the alliance, a possible complication that could work in Russia’s favour. The alliance’s foreign ministers met in Germany on Saturday and invited counterparts from Sweden and Finland to join them.
As a sign that not all diplomatic channels have been cut off, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III. on Friday for the first time since February 18 – six days earlier – with Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu invaded Ukraine. According to Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby, Austin urged an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and stressed the importance of maintaining lines of communication.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the call was held “at the initiative of the American side,” which two senior US officials confirmed.
Senior Pentagon officials, including Mr. Austin, had repeatedly attempted to contact their Russian counterparts after the invasion. As of Friday, those efforts had been unsuccessful.
“What motivated her to change her mind and be open about it, I don’t think we know for sure,” said a senior Pentagon official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a confidential call. He said the hour-long conversation was “professional” but didn’t break new ground. Mr Austin still hoped it “would serve as a springboard for future talks,” the official said.
It has been the highest-level contact between US and Russian leaders since Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, spoke with General Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of Russia’s Security Council, on March 16 to address strong opposition from the United States to affirm invasion.
Russia has taken about 80 percent of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where its recent offensive has been concentrated. If Moscow can hold this area, it would gain significant leverage in future talks. Still, it is struggling to gain more ground against Ukrainian forces using western-supplied heavy weapons.
On Friday, Russian forces bombed largely abandoned and devastated towns in Donbass, while Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops further away from Kharkiv in the northeast. The Ukrainian counteroffensive began to rival the one that drove Russian troops out of Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, last month, said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said satellite images confirmed Ukrainian forces also decimated a Russian battalion earlier this week as it attempted to cross pontoon bridges over a river in north-east Ukraine. Although it was not clear how many soldiers were killed, the scattering of burnt-out and wrecked vehicles along the river bank suggested that Russia had suffered heavy casualties.
As Sweden moved closer to joining NATO, it claimed in a report that Russian aggression in Ukraine had fundamentally changed Europe’s security and that Sweden’s membership of the alliance “would have a deterrent effect in northern Europe”.
“By becoming a member of NATO, Sweden would not only strengthen its own security, but also contribute to the security of like-minded countries,” says the report.
Sweden’s accession would end more than 200 years of neutrality and military non-alignment, and give another rebuke to Mr Putin, who cited NATO enlargement as a reason for the invasion.
But admitting Sweden and Finland could be complicated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who hinted on Friday that his country, which has one of the largest armies among NATO members, would be reluctant to admit them into the alliance.
“At the moment we are following the developments regarding Sweden and Finland, but we have no positive views,” Mr Erdogan told reporters after attending Friday prayers at a mosque in Istanbul.
Turkey has generally supported Western responses to the invasion and has agreed to prevent Russian warships from crossing the Turkish Straits.
But Sweden and Finland would need the unanimous support of the 30 NATO members to join. Mr Erdogan could refuse Turkey’s approval to influence issues important to him, such as Turkey’s longstanding concerns about a guerrilla group called the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which launched a violent separatist movement in Turkey in the early 1980s Has.
“Unfortunately, the Scandinavian countries are almost like guest houses for terrorist organizations,” said Erdogan, naming the PKK
Karen Donfried, the deputy secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters in Washington on Friday that the United States is “working to clarify Turkey’s position.” She said US officials do not believe Turkey is opposed to Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
“We respect the political processes that are going on in both Finland and Sweden,” she said.
In Germany, agriculture ministers from the Group of Seven, representing the world’s wealthiest democracies, discussed ways to bypass Russian warships that have been preventing Ukrainian grain from reaching global markets through the Black Sea. Ukraine is the world’s fourth largest grain exporter and the blockade threatens to worsen a global food crisis.
Cem Özdemir, Germany’s agriculture minister, said the G7 will look at ways to transport Ukrainian grain by road, rail and via the Danube. He called the blockade “part of Russia’s perfidious strategy not only to eliminate a competitor, which they will not be able to do, but it is also an economic war that Russia is waging”.
In Kyiv, Ukrainian judicial authorities began hearing a case against a Russian soldier accused of shooting dead a civilian. This was the first trial involving an alleged war crime by a Russian military member since the beginning of the invasion.
Prosecutors said the soldier, Sgt. Vadim Shysimarin, shot dead a 62-year-old man on a bicycle on February 28 in a village in the Sumy region, some 200 miles east of Kyiv, in an attempt to prevent the man from killing him and his comrades show Ukrainians.
21-year-old Sargeant Shysimarin, who faces 10 to 15 years in prison, was brought into the courtroom in handcuffs and placed in a locked glass case. With his head bowed, he ignored journalists who asked him how he was feeling.
“It’s just work for me,” said Viktor Ovsyannikov, a lawyer appointed by the Ukrainian court, when asked about defending Sargeant Shysimarin. “It is very important to ensure that my client’s human rights are protected, to show that we are a different country from where he is from.”
In the Russian city of Khimki, near Moscow, a court extended the pre-trial detention of American basketball star Brittney Griner, a two-time Olympic champion, until June 18, her lawyer said.
Ms. Griner has been in Russian custody since mid-February for drug offenses, which can result in up to 10 years in prison. The charges stem from allegations that she had vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage when she was stopped at an airport near Moscow in February.
“She’s fine,” Ms. Griner’s lawyer Aleksandr Boikov said in an interview, adding that the court had rejected his request to place Ms. Griner under house arrest. He said he expects the trial to begin in about two months.
The State Department said this month that Ms Griner was “wrongly detained,” signaling that it may become more actively involved in trying to secure her release.
Markus Santora reported from Kraków, Mark Landler from London and Michael Levenson from New York. Reporting was contributed by Eric Schmitt and Edward Wong from Washington, Ivan Nekhepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, Ukraine, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Kassandra Vinograd from London, Dan Bilefsky from Montreal and Stephen Erlanger from Tallinn, Estonia.