Latest news on Russia and the war in Ukraine

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France beefs up training with NATO allies along Ukraine’s borders

A French fighter jet, the Dassault Rafale, performs an aerial display.

Roslan Rahman | AFP | Getty Images

The French military released a map detailing its commitment to bolstering the security of NATO’s eastern flank amid Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

French jets and surveillance aircraft are conducting patrol missions over Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia while French troops carry out a training mission dubbed “Aigle” in Romania alongside Belgian, Dutch and Romanian forces.

A map that shows French military prescense on NATO’s eastern flank.

French Joint Staff

In Russia’s backyard, French forces are carrying out training exercises in Estonia dubbed “Thunder Lynx.” The training scenario is aimed at deploying an airborne force from France to Estonia in less than six hours.

French troops are also deployed in NATO member countries along Ukraine’s borders.

— Amanda Macias

Biden and Harris speak to wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner

U.S. President Joe Biden is seen through a window in the Oval Office as he speaks by phone with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House in Washington, December 9, 2021.

Leah Millis | Reuters

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Cherelle Griner, the wife of WNBA star Brittney Griner who is wrongfully detained in Russia, according to a White House readout of the call obtained by NBC News.

Biden reassured her that he is working to secure her wife’s release as soon as possible, as well as the release of Paul Whelan and other U.S. nationals wrongfully detained in Russia as well as around the world.

He also read her a draft of a letter he plans to send to Griner today.

Earlier in the week, Griner wrote a letter to Biden asking for his help with her case in Russia. The 31-year-old Olympian, who is currently on trial in Moscow, was arrested in February on accusations of smuggling hashish oil, a charge that carries up to 10 years in prison. Griner plays professional basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason.

“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner wrote to Biden.

Biden’s phone call comes on the heels of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s discussions with Cherelle.

 — Amanda Macias

Estonia welcomes Sweden and Finland into NATO following parliament ratification

Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde and Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto attend a news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, after signing their countries’ accession protocols at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 5, 2022. 

Yves Herman | Reuters

Estonia’s Minister of Defense Kalle Laanet welcomed the decision of the Estonian Parliament to ratify Finland and Sweden’s ascension protocols to the NATO alliance, a crucial step that brings the two countries closer to joining the military group.

Estonia, which is about twice the size of New Jersey, sits on the Baltic Sea and shares a border with Russia and NATO ally Latvia.

“It is important to note that Finland and Sweden joining NATO will certainly strengthen the security of the Baltic Sea region,” Laanet wrote in a statement. “NATO’s military posture on land, sea and air will increase significantly and NATO’s intelligence, cyber and other capabilities will be strengthened in our region,” he added.

In May, both nations began the formal process of applying to the NATO alliance.

— Amanda Macias

More than 150 cultural sites in Ukraine have been partially damaged or destroyed

World War II “tank trap” in the Kyiv Museum is used as a barricade in Kyiv, Ukraine on March 11, 2022.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

More than 150 cultural sites in Ukraine have been partially or totally destroyed as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine, according to a tally compiled by UNESCO.

United Nations experts identified 152 cultural sites, including 70 religious buildings, 30 historical buildings, 18 cultural centers, 15 monuments, 12 museums as well as seven libraries.

A view shows the building of a theatre destroyed in the course of Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of Mariupol, Ukraine April 10, 2022. Picture taken with a drone. 

Pavel Klimov | Reuters

The majority of the damaged cultural sites are located in Donetsk, Kharkiv and in Kyiv.

“These repeated attacks on Ukrainian cultural sites must stop. Cultural heritage, in all its forms, should not be targeted under any circumstances,” wrote Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO in a statement.

 — Amanda Macias

British foreign secretary urges NATO allies to bring Finland and Sweden into Article 5 umbrella

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg welcomes British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss before their bilateral meeting in Brussels, Belgium, January 24, 2022.

Olivier Matthys | Reuters

British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss urged NATO allies to bring Sweden and Finland into the alliance’s Article 5 umbrella “as swiftly as possible.”

“Both countries’ decision puts them at risk of a potentially aggressive Russian response. Russia has already made several threatening comments in the public domain regarding the possibility of Swedish and Finnish membership of NATO,” Truss wrote in a statement.

The 30-member-strong alliance has consistently warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that an attack on one NATO member state will be viewed as an attack on all, triggering the group’s cornerstone Article 5 mutual defense clause.

To date, the 30-member alliance has only invoked Article 5 once — in defense of the United States in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

— Amanda Macias

Biden slated to respond to WNBA star Brittney Griner, White House officials tell NBC News

US WNBA basketball superstar Brittney Griner arrives to a hearing at the Khimki Court, outside Moscow on June 27, 2022.

Kirill Kudryavtsev | AFP | Getty Images

President Joe Biden is expected to respond to WNBA star Brittney Griner as soon as today, administration officials tell NBC News.

Biden’s response comes on the heels of a handwritten letter she penned on Monday asking him for help with her case in Russia.  

The 31-year-old Olympian, who is currently on trial in Moscow, was arrested in February on accusations of smuggling hashish oil, a charge that carries up to 10 years in prison. Griner plays professional basketball in Russia during the WNBA offseason.

“I’m terrified I might be here forever,” Griner wrote to Biden.

On Tuesday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden had read Griner’s letter. She added that the administration has been working aggressively behind the scenes and through diplomatic channels for Griner’s release.

— Amanda Macias

U.K. intelligence warns Sloviansk may be the next frontline city in Donbas battle

A July 6, 2022 map from the UK’s Defense Intelligence showing Russian attack and troop locations.

UK Defense Intelligence

The British Ministry of Defense said the Ukrainian town of Sloviansk faces the “realistic possibility” that it will be the next key contest in the struggle for the Donbas. Sloviansk is a city in the Kramatorsk district of the Donetsk region of Ukraine.

In a daily intelligence update, the ministry said Russia’s eastern and western groups are likely now about 10 miles north of the Ukrainian town of Sloviansk.

— Amanda Macias

Russian military claims it has destroyed two U.S.-made HIMARS

A Ukrainian army unit shows the rockets on HIMARS vehicle in eastern Ukraine on July 1, 2022.

The Washington Post | The Washington Post | Getty Images

Russia’s Ministry of Defense has claimed that it has destroyed two U.S.-made High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, better known as HIMARS.

“High-precision air-based missiles have destroyed 2 U.S.-made Himars multiple-launch rocket launchers and 2 ammunition depots near Malotaranovka in Donetsk People’s Republic,” the ministry claimed in its latest military update on Wednesday.

CNBC and NBC News have not been able to immediately verify the claim, nor a video that the ministry has shown claiming to be the strike on the HIMARS.

If verified, however, the destruction would be a blow for Ukraine as it has only just been sent a small number of the weapons from the U.S. In total, the U.S. said it would send eight HIMAR systems to Ukraine with some arriving in the last few weeks, according to Ukraine’s defense minister, who said some had arrived on June 23.

HIMAR systems are seen as a potential game-changer in Ukraine’s resistance against Russia’s advances in Ukraine, particularly in the east, with the U.S. Department of Defense announcing in early June that it would be giving Ukraine four such systems that allow for the launching of multiple long-range, precision-guided rockets.

Ukraine’s army celebrated the HIMAR as “beautiful, fast [and] accurate” in a tweet earlier this week showing the rocket systems in use.

Neither the U.S. nor Ukraine has commented on Russia’s claim.

Holly Ellyatt

Ukraine tries to hold back Russian forces at the border of Donetsk

A view of damaged artillery equipment facing Severodonetsk from a hillside in Lysychansk, Ukraine, Monday June 13, 2022.

Marcus Yam | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Ukrainian forces are trying to hold back Russian fighters at the border between the neighboring regions of Luhansk and Donetsk regions, according to Serhiy Haidai, the head of Luhansk Regional Military Administration.

Haidai said on Telegram Wednesday that the Russian occupiers were suffering “significant losses” as they tried to advance from one region, which they captured last weekend, into Donetsk as part of their mission to, as Moscow calls it, “liberate” the Donbas.

He said Russian forces had been trying to advance toward Donetsk but had been cut off at the Bakhmut-Lysychansk highway, running near Bilohorivka. “Under the pressure of our defenders, the enemy was forced to retreat,” Haidai wrote.

The official said that Russian forces were not able to carry out orders to advance because of “significant losses in terms of personnel.”

“During the assault on Lysychansk alone, thousands of Russian soldiers were killed and injured. In addition, Russian occupiers are facing problems with ammunition supplies, as the Ukrainian military have destroyed several ammunition depots in the occupied areas in recent weeks,” Haidai said.

Haidai was confident that Russia’s advantage in terms of the number of personnel would be reduced as soon as the Ukrainian military receive more long-range weapons.

— Holly Ellyatt

Kremlin slams France’s decision to release Macron-Putin phone call comments

French President Emmanuel Macron, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, in Versailles on May 29, 2017.

Stephane De Sakutin | Reuters

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has criticized the publication of fragments of phone conversations between President Putin and his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron.

“I think that diplomatic ethics, of course, does not imply such a one-sided leak of records,” the minister told reporters following his visit to Vietnam, according to comments reported by state news agency Ria Novosti.

A diplomatic rift has arisen between Moscow and Paris following the release of a documentary in France in which excerpts of a phone conversation between the presidents that took place on Feb. 20 were revealed.

The excepts included the Russian president complaining about the Ukrainian government, saying it was not “democratically elected” and Putin also saying he was speaking to Macron — who was trying unsuccessfully to persuade him to meet President Joe Biden in Geneva — from the gym.

Moscow has slammed the apparent breach of diplomatic norms, despite having itself published diplomatic correspondence between Russia, France and Germany over Ukraine last November.

On Wednesday, Lavrov tried to defend Russia’s actions in light of the latest spat with France, saying that “before we published the content of my talks with colleagues from France and Germany, we warned them three times that if we do not get clear explanations why they refuse the documents agreed upon with their direct participation, we will be forced to make public,” he said.

— Holly Ellyatt

Russia’s Chechen allies vow to fight until Putin stops them

The Chechen allies of President Vladimir Putin have vowed to continue fighting in Ukraine, saying they would even go beyond the country, until the president stops them.

“There should be no doubt: The DPR [the Donetsk People’s Republic — a pro-Russian breakaway region], Mykolaiv, Kherson, Odesa, until Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin stops us. Inshallah [God willing] we’ll get to Berlin,” Chechen Parliament speaker Magomed Daudov told reporters.

Pro-Russian Chechen fighters have been part of Russia’s forces in Ukraine and have a fearsome reputation in battle, being experienced in urban combat following several conflicts with Russia itself in the ’90s and 2000s before a rapprochement between Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov and Putin a few years ago.

It’s doubtful that Daudov’s comments reflect any official policy in Moscow. There are also Chechens fighting for Ukraine.

— Holly Ellyatt

The battle for Sloviansk is fast approaching, UK says

A market in Sloviansk was struck on July 5, 2022, following a suspected missile attack amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Miguel Medina | AFP | Getty Images

Britain’s Ministry of Defense said a battle for the major city of Sloviansk on the front line in Donetsk is coming. Russian forces are advancing into the province of Donetsk following their capture of neighboring region Luhansk.

“Russian forces from the Eastern and Western Groups of Forces are likely now around 16 km north from the town of Sloviansk. With the town also under threat from the Central and Southern Groups of Forces, there is a realistic possibility that the battle for Sloviansk will be the next key contest in the struggle for the Donbas,” the ministry said on Wednesday.

A market in Sloviansk was struck yesterday, killing two people and injuring seven others, the city’s mayor, Vadym Lyakh, said Wednesday.

The ministry noted that Russia is likely continuing to consolidate its control over Lysychansk and the Luhansk Oblast (province) where there has been severe fighting for weeks on end, culminating last weekend with Russia’s capture of the last Ukrainian-held city in the province.

To the north of Sloviansk, the British noted, Russia has “committed most of the remaining available units from the Eastern and Western Groups of Forces to the Izium axis,” referring to the route between Sloviansk via Izium, to Kharkiv in the northeast of Ukraine.

“Over the last week, Russian forces have likely advanced up to another 5 km down the E40 main road from Izium, in the face of extremely determined Ukrainian resistance,” the ministry said.

— Holly Ellyatt

Russia looks to mobilize economy to sustain war

Russia’s Parliament has taken several steps toward putting the country’s economy on a war footing, with two bills being passed in the State Duma that would allow the government to compel Russian businesses to supply the military with goods for the war effort.

Natalia Kolesnikova | Afp | Getty Images

Russia’s Parliament has taken several steps toward putting the country’s economy on a war footing, with two bills being passed in the State Duma (the lower house of Parliament) that would allow the government to compel Russian businesses to supply the military with goods for the war effort.

“The load on the defense industry has increased significantly. In order to guarantee the supply of weapons and ammunition, it is necessary to optimize the work of the military-industrial complex and enterprises that are part of cooperation chains,” Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov told lawmakers Tuesday, according to a Reuters translation.

A second bill, also passed by the Duma after an initial reading, would amend the labor code. That means businesses supplying goods that assist the war effort could make their employees work at night, on weekends and holidays, and without annual leave, if necessary.

Both bills still need to undergo second and third readings in the Duma and must be approved by the upper chamber and signed off by President Vladimir Putin.

“The mobilization of the country’s economic and industrial potential to support the military is a tacit acknowledgment of significant losses incurred since the start of the invasion and approaching shortages of certain types of equipment,” Andrius Tursa, Central and Eastern Europe advisor at Teneo Intelligence, commented Tuesday.

“At the same time, Moscow could be seen as preparing to sustain its military operations in the longer run.”

— Holly Ellyatt

Air alert sounded over almost all of Ukraine, raising civilian anxiety, Zelenskyy says

Zelenskyy told Ukrainians not to “overthink,” saying, “you should not look for logic in the actions of terrorists.”

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said an air alert was announced over almost all of Ukraine on Tuesday night, leaving many civilians anxious after a period of relative calm in parts of the country.

“Before that, there had been no air alert in the capital and some regions for some time,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address, adding that this had left many people wondering whether Russia was planning something.

Zelenskyy told Ukrainians not to “overthink,” saying, “you should not look for logic in the actions of terrorists.”

“The Russian army does not take any breaks. It has one task — to take people’s lives, to intimidate people — so that even a few days without an air alarm already feel like part of the terror.”  

— Holly Ellyatt

Mounting evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, UN says

War crime prosecutor’s team member speaks on the phone next to buildings that were destroyed by Russian shelling, amid Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine, in Borodyanka, Kyiv region, Ukraine April 7, 2022.

Zohra Bensemra | Reuters

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said that her office has mounting evidence of Russian forces carrying out unlawful killings and summary executions.

“Growing evidence gives my office reasonable grounds to believe that serious violations of international humanitarian law in this regard have been committed by Russian armed forces,” Bachelet wrote in a statement.

Bachelet said that UN investigators have verified the recovery of more than 1,200 civilian bodies from Kyiv. She added that her office is working to corroborate more than 300 allegations of killings by Russian armed forces in situations that were not linked to active fighting.

“The arbitrary detention of civilians has also become widespread in territory controlled by Russian armed forces and affiliated armed groups. Despite restrictions on access, we have documented 270 cases of arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance,” she added.

The Kremlin has previously denied that its forces have committed crimes against civilians in Ukraine.

— Amanda Macias

U.S. and allies call for suspension of Russia and Belarus from international sports, ban on official state flags at athletic events

A fan holds up a Russian flag during the luge relay event at the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia.

Getty Images

The State Department reiterated its calls for the international sports community to suspend Russian and Belarusian sports organizations and remove Russian and Belarusian individuals from positions of influence associated with the athletic community.

“National and international sports organizations should consider suspending the broadcasting of sports competitions into Russia and Belarus,” the State Department wrote in a statement adding that “official state Russian and Belarusian flags, emblems and anthems should be prohibited.”

“Furthermore, we reiterate our encouragement for the international sport community to continue to show its solidarity with the people of Ukraine, including through supporting the continuation and reconstruction of Ukrainian sport where possible,” the State Department wrote in a joint statement with representatives from more than 30 countries.

— Amanda Macias

‘Historic day,’ NATO chief says as all 30 NATO allies approve Finland and Sweden membership

Sweden’s Foreign Minister Ann Linde and Finland’s Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto attend a news conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, after signing their countries’ accession protocols at the alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 5, 2022. 

Yves Herman | Reuters

All 30 NATO member countries approved accession protocols for Finland and Sweden to join the military alliance, a significant step in NATO enlargement.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg welcomed the “historic day for Euro-Atlantic security.”

“With 32 nations around the table, we will be stronger and safer, as we face a more dangerous world,” Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter.

In May, both nations began the formal process of applying to the NATO alliance.

— Amanda Macias

Pro-Russian forces are heading toward Donetsk, separatist leader says

Denis Pushilin (C), leader of the separatists in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) arrives to deliver a press conference in Donetsk, on April 11, 2022.

Alexander Nemenov | AFP | Getty Images

Pro-Russian separatist forces from the self-styled Donetsk and Luhansk “People’s Republics” (known as the DPR and LPR) are moving toward the Donetsk province, the head of the DPR Denis Pushilin said on Tuesday, according to Russian state news agency TASS.

“We can already say that our corps, the first corps that took part and helped our brothers [in the liberation of the LPR], is already moving to the Donetsk direction as well as the second corps [from] Luhansk,” Pushilin said.

Russia and its proxies in eastern Ukraine call the capture of the Luhansk region, which happened last weekend, a “liberation” although Russia is widely seen as using a rationale of “protecting” the breakaway separatist areas, which were founded in 2014 as Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine, as an excuse for invading Ukraine.

— Holly Ellyatt

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