The West increases pressure on Putin, including sanctions on celebrity girlfriends

KRAKOW, Poland — Russian President Putin faced fresh setbacks on Friday regarding his invasion of Ukraine, as Sweden became the second neutral country in two days to move towards NATO and The West has devised a way to reroute Ukrainian grain in the face of a Russian naval blockade.

New signs of Russia’s troop withdrawal near Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, also add to challenges for Mr. Putin, seemingly aimed at toppling or at least delaying the Kremlin’s goals of how much encircle Ukrainian forces concentrated in eastern Ukraine.

But for Mr Putin, the biggest resentment may be the most personal: Britain has 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 supports Putin’s lavish lifestyle and tightens his internal vision,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.

The West faces its own challenges. Even if Sweden signaled that it would benefit from joining NATO – the day after Finland said it was ready to join – The President of Turkey has signaled his opposition to the expansion of the alliance, a possible complication that could benefit Russia. The alliance’s foreign ministers met in Germany on Saturday, and invited their counterparts from Sweden and Finland to join them.

In a sign that not all diplomatic channels have been cut, US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III spoke Friday with Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu, for the first time. since February 18 – six days before. Ukraine invasion. Mr. Austin has pushed for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and stressed the importance of maintaining lines of communication, according to John F. Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the call was organized “on the initiative of the US side”, two senior US officials confirmed.

Top Pentagon officials, including Mr. Austin, repeatedly attempted to contact their Russian counterparts after the invasion. As of Friday, those efforts had been unsuccessful.

“What prompted them to change their mind and be open to that, I don’t think we know for sure,” a senior Pentagon official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe a secret call. He said the hour-long conversation was “professional” but was nothing new. However, Mr. Austin hopes it will “act as a springboard for future conversations,” the official said.

It was the highest-level contact between the leaders of the United States and Russia since Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, spoke with General Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, on March 16, to reiterate the strong opposition of the United States to the invasion.

Russia has taken over about 80% of the Donbas region, in eastern Ukraine, where its latest offensive was concentrated. If Moscow can get hold of that territory, it will gain significant leverage in any future negotiations. However, the country has struggled to gain more ground against Ukrainian forces using heavy Western-supplied weapons.

On Friday, Russian forces bombarded abandoned and largely devastated towns in the Donbas while Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops away from Kharkiv to the northeast. The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington think tank, said last month that Ukraine’s counter-offensive was beginning to confront the counteroffensive that pushed Russian troops out of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, last month.

The British Ministry of Defense says that satellite images confirm that Ukrainian forces have also destroy a Russian battalion when it attempted to bridge a pontoon bridge over a river in northeastern Ukraine earlier this week. While it is not clear how many soldiers were killed, the strewn of burned and destroyed vehicles along the riverbank suggests that Russia has suffered heavy losses.

As it moved closer to joining NATO, Sweden protested in a report that Russia’s aggression in Ukraine had fundamentally changed Europe’s security and that Sweden’s membership in the alliance would “Having a deterrent effect in Northern Europe”.

“Through NATO membership, Sweden will not only strengthen its own security, but also contribute to the security of like-minded nations.” report mentioned.

If Sweden joins, it will ending more than 200 years of neutrality and military designation and delivered another rebuke to Mr. Putin, who cited NATO expansion as the basis for the invasion.

But the addition of Sweden and Finland could be complicated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who suggested on Friday that his country, which has one of the largest militaries of all NATO members, would be reluctant to welcome them into the alliance.

“At the moment, we are monitoring developments regarding Sweden and Finland, but do not take a positive view,” Erdogan told reporters after attending Friday Prayer at a church. Islam in Istanbul.

Turkey generally supported the Western response to the invasion, agreeing to block Russian warships from passing through the Turkish Strait.

But Sweden and Finland will need the unanimous backing of the 30 NATO members to join. Mr. Erdogan could refuse Turkey’s approval for leverage over issues of interest to him, such as Turkey’s longstanding concern about a guerrilla group known as the Workers’ Party. Kurdistan, or PKK, launched the violent separatist movement in Turkey in the early 1980s.

“Sadly, the Scandinavian countries are almost like a hostel for terrorist organizations,” said Mr. Erdogan, naming the PKK.

Karen Donfried, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters in Washington on Friday that the United States was “working to clarify Turkey’s position”. She said US officials do not believe that Turkey is opposed to Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership.

“We respect the political processes underway in both Finland and Sweden,” she said.

In Germany, agriculture ministers from the Group of Seven, which represent the world’s wealthiest democracies, discussed ways to bypass Russian warships that have blocked Ukrainian grain from reaching the market. globally across the Black Sea. Ukraine is the world’s fourth-largest grain exporter, and the blockade has threatened to exacerbate the global food crisis.

Cem Özdemir, Germany’s agriculture minister, said the G7 would look for routes to transport Ukrainian grain by road and rail, as well as across the Danube. He called the blockade “part of Russia’s shrewd strategy to not only eliminate a competitor, which they will not be able to do, but also the economic war Russia is waging.”

In Kyiv, Ukrainian judicial authorities have begun hearing the case of a Russian soldier accused of shooting a civilian, the first trial involving a suspected war crime by a Russian soldier since when the invasion begins.

Prosecutors said the soldier, Sgt. Vadim Shysimarin, shot dead a 62-year-old cyclist in a village in the Sumy region, about 200 miles east of Kyiv, on February 28, to prevent the man from alerting him and his companions. his men to the Ukrainians.

Sergeant Shysimarin, 21 and facing 10 to 15 years in prison, was brought into the courtroom in handcuffs and seated in a locked glass case. Bowing his head, he ignored journalists asking how he was feeling.

“For me, it’s just work,” Viktor Ovsyannikov, a lawyer appointed by the Ukrainian court, said when asked about Shysimarin’s defense. “It’s very important to make sure my client’s human rights are protected, to show that we’re a different country from his.”

In the Russian town of Khimki, near Moscow, a court extended the pre-trial detention period for the American basketball star. Brittney Grinera two-time Olympic gold medalist, until June 18, her lawyer said.

Ms. Griner has been detained by Russia since mid-February on drug charges that carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years. The allegation is based on allegations that she had a vape box containing hash oil in her luggage when she was stopped at an airport near Moscow in February.

“She’s fine,” Griner’s lawyer, Aleksandr Boikov, said in an interview, adding that the court had rejected his offer to put Griner under house arrest. He said he expected the trial to begin in about two months.

The US State Department said this month that Ms. Griner had “Wrongfully detained,” signaled that it might become more involved in trying to secure her release.

Marc Santora report from Krakow, Mark Landler from London and Michael Levenson from New York. Report contributed by Eric Schmitt and Edward Wong from Washington, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, Ukraine, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Cassandra Vinograd from London, Dan Bilefsky from Montreal and Steven Erlanger from Tallinn, Estonia.

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