Live Update: Russia’s “Special Operation” in Ukraine; Day 478

Russia, wary of NATO’s eastward expansion, began a military campaign in Ukraine in February 2022 after the Western-leaning Kiev government turned a deaf ear to Moscow’s calls for its neighbor to maintain its neutrality. In the middle of the mayhem, Moscow and Kiev are trying to hammer out a peaceful solution to the conflict. Follow the latest about the Russia-Ukraine conflict here:

White House denounces nuclear rhetoric from Putin

The White House has denounced comments from President Vladimir Putin on the possible use of nuclear weapons, but said the United States had made no adjustments to its nuclear posture in response to the rhetoric.

The White House comments came after Putin said earlier on Friday that Russia could “theoretically” use nuclear weapons if there was a threat to its territorial integrity or existence, but that it did not need to.

Responding to questions aboard Air Force One, White House deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton also reaffirmed the US commitment to NATO’s principle of collective defense.

Zelensky rules out talks with Russia as he meets African leaders

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has ruled out talks with Russia as he met with a delegation of African leaders.

“I clearly said several times at our meeting that to allow any negotiations with Russia now that the occupier is on our land is to freeze the war, to freeze pain and suffering,” Zelensky told reporters after meeting several leaders including South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa.

The delegation is to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday.

Zelensky has also questioned why a visiting delegation of African leaders planned to travel to Moscow for talks with Putin.

“…This is their decision, how logical it is, I don’t really understand,” he told reporters at a joint news conference with the African leaders.

South Africa’s president: Important to listen carefully to Russia and Ukraine

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa has said that international investigations on alleged abuses in the Ukrainian city of Bucha should be allowed to go on, and that it was important to listen to what both Russia and Ukraine had to say.

Ramaphosa added the African leader’s discussions with President Vladimir Putin would be about respect for the United Nation’s Charter.

Ramaphosa has called on Ukraine and Russia to de-escalate their conflict, as he arrived in the war-torn country on a mission to broker peace.

“This war must be settled and there should be peace through negotiations,” he told reporters.

“We argue that there must be de-escalation on both sides,” he added.

Putin: Russia could use nuclear weapons if existence is threatened

President Vladimir Putin says Russia could “theoretically” use nuclear weapons if there was a threat to its territorial integrity or existence but that it does not need to.

“Nuclear weapons have been made to ensure our security in the broadest sense of the word and the existence of the Russian state, but we … have no such need [to use them],” he said.

Putin: There is a ‘serious danger’ of NATO joining the conflict

President Vladimir Putin says there is a “serious danger” that the NATO military alliance could be pulled further into the Ukraine conflict at the plenary session of the St Petersburg International Economic Forum.

He also added Russia’s military could destroy parts of central Kyiv but had chosen not to, and attacks on the border regions were attempts to distract Moscow’s forces from other fronts.

Zelensky says peace talks possible only after Russian troops leave

After meeting African leaders in Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelensky said that peace talks with Russia would be possible only after Moscow withdraws its forces from occupied territory, the Interfax Ukraine news agency has reported.

Zelensky stated that peace talks with Moscow now would simply freeze the war in Ukraine.

The African leaders were invited to take part in a global peace summit.

US to provide Ukraine with $205m in humanitarian aid

The United States will provide an additional $205m in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has stated.

A statement released by the US Department of State said the humanitarian assistance will provide help with food, safe drinking water, protection services, education, livelihoods, legal assistance, accessible shelter and healthcare.

Since the war began, the US has given to Ukraine more than $605m in humanitarian aid.

Putin says sent nuclear warheads to Belarus

Russian President Vladimir Putin has confirmed that Russia has sent nuclear arms to its ally Belarus which borders Ukraine.

“The first nuclear warheads were delivered to the territory of Belarus … This is the first part,” Putin told an annual economic forum.

The Russian leader had announced the plans to send tactical nuclear weapons – less powerful than strategic ones – in March.

“By the end of summer, the end of the year, we will complete the process,” of transferring tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus, Putin added.

Putin says Ukraine will soon run out of military equipment

Russian President Vladimir Putin says Ukraine will soon run out of its own military equipment, thus making itself totally reliant on the West.

Speaking at an economic forum in St Petersburg, Putin stated, “Soon Ukraine will stop using its own equipment altogether. Nothing remains of it. Everything with which they fight and everything that they use is brought in from the outside. You can’t fight for long like that.”

He also insulted Volodymyr Zelensky’s Jewish roots and added, “I have many Jewish friends. They say Zelensky is not a Jew, he is a disgrace to the Jewish people.”

US defense secretary says Washington is focused on providing security to Ukraine

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin says the US is focused on providing security assistance to Ukraine during a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels.

When asked if the US would provide Ukraine with the Israeli security model, Austin told reporters, “What I remain focused on, just making sure that we’re providing Ukraine with security assistance that it needs to be successful in this fight.

“It’s really important that we and our partners that are fighting a fight remain focused on this. We’ll have a bilateral relationship with Ukraine going forward, as you would imagine; that’s the people who will hammer out those kinds of arrangements or are talking to each other,” he continued.

“But, my focus remains on making sure we get the right kinds of security assistance so they can be successful. And I think this is a really critical time on the battlefield,” he added.

Putin praises Russia’s finances

President Vladimir Putin has praised Russia’s public finances and says additional defence spending is needed to bolster national security as Moscow conducts its “special military operation” in Ukraine.

“Naturally, additional funds were needed to strengthen defence and security, to purchase weapons,” Putin said, speaking at the St Petersburg International Forum.

“We were forced to do this to protect our country’s sovereignty,” he continued.

“I should say that on the whole this justifies itself from an economic point of view,” Putin added.

The Russian leader stated public finances were generally balanced, putting the $42bn budget deficit largely down to the postponement of planned expenditures.

However, analysts suggest that falling energy revenues and military spending have played a key role.

Russia is a ‘terrorist state’: Ukrainian official

Andriy Yermak, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, calls Russia a “terrorist state” after air raid sirens sounded in Kyiv as a delegation of African leaders arrived in the country.

On Twitter, Yermak wrote: “Whenever a high-ranking foreign delegation visits Ukraine, Russia greets it with a missile attack on our peaceful cities. But the world already has a lot of evidence that Russia is a terrorist state. And taming it is a task for all mankind.”

“The world should support President Volodymyr Zelensky’s peace formula. The only alternative to it is Russia’s endless war continued terror of the entire international community with impunity,” he added.

Russia says forces repelled numerous counterattacks

Russia’s defence ministry says its forces have repelled numerous attempted Ukrainian counterattacks in the last 24 hours.

In its daily update, the ministry said it inflicted significant losses on the enemy during what it described as unsuccessful Ukrainian counteroffensive operations in the south Donetsk and Donetsk directions.

It added that Russian troops in the last 24 hours killed about 500 Ukrainian soldiers and destroyed five tanks.

Germany says NATO allies may be ready to remove obstacles for Ukraine

German Defence Minister Boris Pistorius says NATO allies may be ready to remove some hurdles from Ukraine’s path and join the military alliance weeks before a NATO summit in Lithuania.

“There are increasing signs that everyone will be able to agree on this,” Pistorius told reporters in Brussels when asked about reports that the US is open to allowing Kyiv to forgo a formal candidacy process.

“I would be open for this,” said Pistorius, speaking on the sidelines of a meeting with his NATO counterparts at the alliance’s headquarters.

On Thursday, The Washington Post reported that the United States is giving tentative backing to a plan to remove barriers to Ukraine’s entry into NATO without setting a timeline for its admission.

Since 1999, most countries aiming to join NATO have participated in a so-called Membership Action Plan (MAP), which is designed to help candidates meet certain political, economic and military criteria.

UAE president says nation wishes to strengthen ties with Russia

The United Arab Emirates President Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan told Russian President Vladimir Putin that his nation wished to strengthen ties, on the sidelines of an economic forum in Russia.

“I am pleased to be here today with you, your excellency, and we wish to build on this relationship, and we put our trust in you to do so,” Sheikh Mohamed told Putin.

The Persian Gulf state has not joined the West in placing sanctions on Moscow and has maintained what it says is a neutral position on the Ukraine war.

“The UAE continues to support all efforts aimed at reaching a political solution through dialogue & diplomacy – towards global peace & stability,” Sheikh Mohamed tweeted after the meeting.

Earlier on Friday, Putin thanked the president for his efforts in freeing prisoners of war in Ukraine.

Putin open to solutions to end the ‘Ukrainian problem’: Kremlin

The Kremlin says Russian President Vladimir Putin remains open to any contacts to discuss resolving the conflict in Ukraine, Russian news agencies reported.

“President Putin was and is open to any contacts to discuss possible scenarios for solving the Ukrainian problem,” Interfax quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying.

The Kremlin’s comments come as a delegation of seven African leaders begins their visits to Ukraine and Russia to mediate an end to the war.

Russia has repeatedly said it is open to negotiations to end the conflict, but Ukraine must recognise the “new realities” on the ground, including the regions Moscow annexed in September 2022.

Ukraine says its peace plan is based on the withdrawal of Russian troops from all Ukrainian land.

Explosions in Kyiv as African peace delegation arrives

An air raid alert was issued in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and the wider region as African leaders begin a visit to mediate an end to the conflict.

The alert was issued after the Ukrainian Air Force said several Russian Kalibr missiles had been launched from the Black Sea and were “heading north” towards Kyiv.

The Kyiv military administration later announced Ukrainian forces had put air defence systems into action outside the capital and urged residents to stay in shelters.

Ukraine to send several dozen pilots to train on F-16s

Ukraine plans to send several dozen combat pilots to train on US-made F-16 fighter jets, Ukrainian air force spokesman Yuriy Ihnat says.

“Everything is being done to get it started as early as possible,” Ihnat told Ukrainian national television, adding that the pilots picked for training would have combat experience.

“It’s not training. It’s retraining,” Ihnat added.

NATO members the Netherlands and Denmark are leading efforts in an international coalition to train pilots and support staff, maintain aircraft and ultimately supply the F-16s.

Ukraine has repeatedly said it needs new Western aircraft to successfully counter Russia’s aerial dominance.

Situation in eastern Ukraine ‘tense’: Commander

Colonel General Oleksandr Syrskyi, commander of Ukraine’s ground forces, says the situation in the east of the country remains “tense” and plans need to be adjusted.

“Despite the advance of our troops in the south and the loss of territory and settlements in this direction, the enemy continues to move some of the most combat-capable units to the Bakhmut direction, combining these actions with powerful artillery fire and strikes by assault and army aircraft on the positions of our troops,” Syrskyi wrote on Telegram.

“At the same time, we continue to conduct offensive actions in separate directions. … Realizing this, the enemy units put up a desperate resistance,” he continued.

“Therefore, it is clear that our plans need periodic adjustments and clarification,” the commander added.

Putin will visit Turkey ‘soon’

President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have agreed that the Russian leader will visit Turkey “soon”, the Interfax news agency cited a Kremlin aide as saying.

The visit would be Putin’s first to a NATO country since he ordered troops into Ukraine last year.

“There is an invitation from the President of Turkey. Putin and Erdogan agreed that the visit will be in the near future, but we have not yet talked about a specific day, specific dates,” Interfax cited Kremlin foreign policy advisor Yury Ushakov as saying.

Erdogan, who was re-elected last month for another five-year term, has sought to maintain strong ties with both Moscow and Kyiv since the start of the conflict in Ukraine.

US says Kremlin oil tax changes to hit Russia’s crude output capacity

The Kremlin’s changes to the way it taxes oil sales were forced by Western sanctions and will hit its oil production capacity over time, US Deputy Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo has said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin in February signed a law fixing the discount on Russia’s dominant Urals blend of crude oil for tax calculations.

Adeyemo stated the price cap and sanctions have forced Moscow to change its tax plan, locking in a “massive discount” for Russia’s oil, the country’s most important commodity.

“When it comes to the price cap, either Russia continues to accept the steep discount that our actions have imposed on their energy exports, or they institutionalise it themselves with these changes to their tax regime,” Adeyemo said in prepared remarks of a speech to Washington think tank Center for a New American Security just over six months after the cap was agreed.

The tax changes “will constrain Russia’s oil companies going forward, leaving them with fewer funds to invest in exploration and production and over time diminishing the productive capacity of Russia’s oil sector”.

US criticises Russia in annual human trafficking report

The US has sharpened its criticism of Russia’s record on human trafficking, citing Moscow’s treatment of conscripts and Ukrainian children, in an annual report on countries that Washington says are failing to protect victims.

The Department of State’s 2023 Trafficking in Persons report kept Russia on a list of “state sponsors” of human trafficking and ranked Russia among the world’s worst at addressing the problem.

A section on Russia included more criticism than last year of Moscow’s detention of people in Ukraine. The report also cited the “forcible transfer of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia” – which is the subject of an International Criminal Court prosecution against Russian officials including President Vladimir Putin.

“There was a government policy or pattern of trafficking of Ukrainian citizens and North Korean workers,” it added.

“There were also reports of Russian officials forcing, deceiving, or coercing foreign national adults to fight in Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine,” it noted.

Zelensky appeals to Swiss parliament as it debates whether to re-export weapons to Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to Swiss lawmakers to export weapons to Ukraine Thursday to make the country “a territory of peace again.”

Switzerland has been a neutral country since 1815, with its legal framework ensuring it does not send weapons directly or indirectly to belligerent states.

Since Russia’s war in Ukraine began, the country has faced increasing pressure from its European neighbors to approve the re-exportation of weapons to Ukraine.

“I know that Switzerland is having a discussion about permits to re-export weapons to protect Ukraine,” Zelensky said via video, urging that his request for weapons is only to restore peace to Ukraine, “exactly as envisaged by international law.”

Zelensky told Swiss parliament that Ukraine is “not a source of aggression, not a territory of war, and not some kind of conflict zone.”

“We are a country that has always valued and will always value peace. Our peace can only withstand such aggression by force of arms,” he added.

On June 1, the lower house of the Swiss Parliament — the National Council — rejected a bill known as “Lex Ukraine” that would have allowed third-party countries to transfer Swiss-made arms to Ukraine.

A plan to allow buyers of Swiss arms to re-export them to third countries under certain conditions was backed by the upper house of Switzerland’s parliament — the Council of States — on June 7. However, that plan has further legislative hurdles to take.

During his video address to parliament, Zelensky said: “Any unbiased view will show one thing, if (the) war had not been brought from Russia to our peaceful Ukrainian land, there would have been no war. The source of evil and death is beyond our borders. By supporting us, the world supports protection from war.”

He appealed to lawmakers to imagine what it is like to fall asleep checking to see if there are warnings of Russian bombers “on the verge of launching missiles” or to imagine living in communities that border Russia.

In April, Switzerland’s President Alain Berset stated Switzerland “cannot be asked to break our own laws,” when discussing whether Swiss weapons could be re-exported to Ukraine. Berset was addressing the issue of neutrality at a joint press conference in Berlin with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

Berset added that, while discussions are ongoing regarding whether the country “should, must or could develop” its stance on re-exporting weapons to Ukraine, it is currently out of the question, with Swiss law “clear on that.”

So far, for example, Switzerland has prohibited Germany from transferring Swiss-made ammunition for the Gepard anti-aircraft systems Berlin provided to Ukraine.

Switzerland did, however, break its neutrality status quo shortly after the war began by adopting European Union sanctions in March 2022. Berset noted Switzerland is taking the implementation of these sanctions seriously and is “doing everything that can be done in order to enforce them.

UN experts raise ‘widespread’ torture concerns with Russia

A group of UN experts has said they had written to Moscow raising concerns about the use of torture by Russian military forces on Ukrainian civilians and prisoners of war.

The UN experts said in a statement the torture included electric shocks, hoodings and mock executions and had been carried out to extract intelligence, force confessions or in response to alleged support for Ukraine’s forces.

It had resulted in damage to internal organs, cracked bones and fractures, strokes and psychological trauma, they added.

Moscow has previously denied torturing or mistreating prisoners of war and says it does not deliberately target civilians in Ukraine.

While torture allegations have previously been levelled against both sides in the 15-month conflict, the team of UN independent experts stated Russian forces’ methods may be “state-endorsed”.

It is essential that water at Zaporizhzhia plant remain at same level: chief of UN nuclear watchdog

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant on Thursday to assess the situation after the Nova Kakhovka dam collapse.

In a statement published on social media, Rafael Grossi said it is essential that the water stays at the same level for the plant’s safety.

“There is evaporation, there can be some leak, but it has to be maintained at that level. With the water that is here the plant can be safe for some time,” the chief of the UN nuclear watchdog explained.

“The plant is going to be working to replenish the water so that the safety functions can continue normally,” Grossi said, adding they will be monitoring it closely.

The plant is held by Russian forces and not far from where a Ukrainian offensive in the south is evolving. This is Grossi’s third visit to the nuclear power plant since last September.

Evacuated residents of Russian border village in Belgorod region allege looting by Moscow’s troops

Two residents evacuated from a Russian village that borders Ukraine in the Belgorod region have alleged to authorities that Russian soldiers looted their homes.

In public comments to regional Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov, the two residents said that the Russian military sent to guard their village of Novaya Tavolzhanka had instead robbed their houses.

Several thousand people were evacuated from the area when Russian volunteers opposed to the rule of President Vladimir Putin launched cross-border raids late in May.

One of the residents, Natalya Chemerchenko, told the governor in a post Thursday on the VK social media site: “Military personnel of the Russian Federation break into many houses (although the state of emergency has not been introduced and they do not have the right to enter private homes).”

“They live in our homes, lead an ugly lifestyle, alcohol and other things remain in the form of garbage and dirt, toilets and houses are polluted, personal belongings and property are stolen,” she wrote.

“We do not want our houses, which have already suffered from the actions of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, to be now still a haven for the outrages of our defenders!” she added.

Vladimir Zhdanov, the head of the administration of the Shebekino district, told Chemerchenko in a reply that her “appeal has been forwarded to the Security Council.”
Another comment, which was written Wednesday, claimed that Russian soldiers were living in a home that a family had fled.

“Two houses were broken into, one door was broken with a crowbar, windows were broken,” according to a comment from local resident Danil Bilych.

“All things were turned over, they were looking for small precious things, some of them were stolen, there were acts of vandalism in one of the houses, TVs were broken, furniture was ripped up. Soldiers obviously live in the house,” he added.

Other comments in response to the governor have focused on an alleged lack of social support that had been pledged to residents who were evacuated.

“We are located outside the Belgorod region, in the city of Zelenograd. For a week I have been trying to get answers, how can we receive the payment? We have two children, we do not live, we survive! Thanks to the volunteers from Moscow, at least they bring food!” according to one comment.

Ukraine can recover damaged equipment and get it “back into the fight”: US defense secretary

As Ukraine’s counteroffensive begins, Kyiv has the ability to recover and repair its damaged equipment and get it “back into the fight,” US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Thursday after a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Brussels, Belgium.

The top US general, Mark Milley, said Kyiv is “making steady progress” in its counteroffensive, but outlined some of the difficulties in the effort.

“This is a very difficult fight. It is a very violent fight. And it will likely take a considerable amount of time and at high cost,” Milley, who is the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in the news conference alongside Austin.

The US defense secretary note that “there will continue to be battle damage” but that the Ukrainian forces “still have a lot of combat capability, combat power.”

Ukraine has lost 16 US-supplied armored vehicles in the past several days, according to open-source intelligence analysis, as the country’s military announced its forces had captured three villages from Russia in an offensive in the eastern Donetsk region.

The 16 US Bradley infantry fighting vehicles either destroyed or damaged and abandoned in recent days represent almost 15% of the 109 that Washington has given Kyiv, according to Jakub Janovsky of the Dutch open-source intelligence website Oryx, which has been collecting visual evidence of military equipment losses in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began in February 2022.

African leaders to propose ‘confidence building measure’: document

African leaders could propose a series of “confidence building measures” during their initial efforts to mediate the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, according to a draft framework document seen by the Reuters news agency.

Those measures could include a Russian troop pull-back, removal of tactical nuclear weapons from Belarus, suspension of an International Criminal Court arrest warrant targeting Russian President Vladimir Putin, and sanctions relief.

A cessation of hostilities agreement could follow and would need to be accompanied by negotiations between Russia and the West, the document stated.

Chechen fighters sent to Russian border with Ukraine: Chechnya ruler

Chechen fighters have been deployed in Russia’s Belgorod region bordering Ukraine to prevent attacks from “Ukrainian sabotage groups”, Chechnya ruler Ramzan Kadyrov has said.

The Belgorod region has in the past month reported a series of cross-border incursions from pro-Ukraine Russian partisan groups calling themselves opponents of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.

Kadyrov, a Vladimir Putin ally who leads the Russian region of Chechnya, said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that fighters from the “Zapad-Akhmat” battalion had been deployed near the border village of Nekhoteevka and a checkpoint in Graivoron district, the site of a cross-border attack in May.

“Residents of the territories adjacent to the border with Ukraine can rest easy … Whoever encroaches on our borders will receive a lightning response,” Kadyrov added.

Russia’s consumer prices rise eased as central bank held rates

Russia’s consumer prices rose slightly in the second week of June, when the central bank issued its strongest signal yet that it could hike interest rates this year, warning of intensifying inflationary pressures.

The bank listed accelerating fiscal spending, deteriorating terms of foreign trade and the situation in the labour market as lingering pro-inflationary risk drivers as it held the cost of borrowing at 7.5 percent for the sixth meeting in a row.

Consumer prices rose 0.05 percent in the week to June 13, Rosstat said, compared with a 0.21 percent jump the previous week. Since the start of the year, prices have risen 2.58 percent, Rosstat said, a slower pace than in the same period of 2022.

In a separate set of data published on Thursday, Russia’s economy ministry said inflation was running at 2.87 percent on an annual basis, up from 2.68 percent a week ago.

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