KRAKOW, Poland — Russian President Vladimir V. Putin faced further setbacks on Friday during the invasion of Ukraine, as Sweden became the second neutral country in two days to move towards joining NATO and that the West has found ways to redirect Ukrainian grain beyond a Russian naval blockade.
Fresh signs of a Russian military retreat near Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, have also added to Putin’s challenges, appearing to reverse or at least delay the Kremlin’s goal of encircling concentrated Ukrainian forces. in eastern Ukraine.
But for Mr Putin, perhaps the greatest vexation was the most personal: Britain imposed sanctions on his ex-wife, Lyudmila Ocheretnaya, about a former Olympic gymnast who has long been said 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 luxurious lifestyle and tightens the noose on those around him,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.
The West has had to face its own challenges. Even as Sweden signaled that it would benefit from NATO membership – a day after Finland declared it was ready to join – Turkey’s president voiced his objections to an enlargement of the alliance, a possible complication that could work in favor of Russia. The alliance’s foreign ministers were meeting in Germany on Saturday and invited their Swedish and Finnish counterparts to join them.
In a sign that all diplomatic channels have not been cut off, the American Secretary of Defense, Lloyd J. Austin III, spoke on Friday with Sergei K. Shoigu, Russian Minister of Defense, for the first time since the 18 February, six days before. the invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Austin pushed for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and stressed the importance of maintaining lines of communication, according to John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman.
The Russian Defense Ministry said the call was held “on the initiative of the US side”, which two senior US officials confirmed.
Senior Pentagon officials, including Mr. Austin, had made several attempts to contact their Russian counterparts in the aftermath of the invasion. Until Friday, these efforts had been unsuccessful.
“What made them change their minds and be open to it, I don’t think we know for sure,” a senior Pentagon official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe a confidential call . He said the hour-long conversation was “professional” but didn’t break new ground. Still, Mr Austin hoped it would “serve as a springboard for future conversations”, the official said.
It was the highest-level contact between U.S. and Russian leaders 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 around 80% of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine, where its latest offensive has been concentrated. If Moscow can hold this territory, it would gain significant leverage in all future talks. Yet it is struggling to gain ground against Ukrainian forces wielding heavy weaponry supplied by the West.
On Friday, Russian forces shelled largely abandoned and devastated towns in the Donbass as Ukrainian forces pushed Russian troops away from Kharkiv in the northeast. The Ukrainian counteroffensive was beginning to rival the one that pushed Russian troops away from Ukraine’s capital Kyiv last month, said the Institute for the Study of Warfare, a Washington-based research group.
The UK Ministry of Defense said satellite imagery confirmed Ukrainian forces also decimated a Russian battalion as it tried to cross pontoon bridges over a river in northeast Ukraine earlier this week. Although it is unclear how many soldiers were killed, the scattering of burned and destroyed vehicles along the river suggested that Russia had suffered heavy casualties.
In moving closer to NATO membership, Sweden claimed in a report that Russian aggression in Ukraine had fundamentally altered Europe’s security and that Sweden’s membership in the alliance would have “a deterrent effect in Northern Europe”.
“By joining NATO, Sweden would not only strengthen its own security, but would also contribute to the security of like-minded countries,” the report said.
If Sweden joined, it would end more than 200 years of neutrality and military non-alignment and deliver another rebuke to Mr Putin, who had cited NATO expansion as justification for the invasion.
But adding 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 welcome them into the covenant.
“Right now we are following developments regarding Sweden and Finland, but we don’t have positive opinions,” Erdogan told reporters after attending Friday prayers at a mosque in Istanbul.
Turkey generally supported Western responses to the invasion, agreeing to prevent Russian warships from passing through the Turkish Strait.
But Sweden and Finland would need the unanimous support of NATO’s 30 members to join. Mr Erdogan could withhold Turkey’s approval to lobby on issues close to his heart, such as Turkey’s longstanding concerns over a guerrilla group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which launched a violent separatist movement in Turkey in the early 1980s.
“Unfortunately, Scandinavian countries are almost like guesthouses for terrorist organizations,” Erdogan said, 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 assume that Turkey opposes Finland and Sweden joining NATO.
“We respect the ongoing political processes in Finland and Sweden,” she said.
In Germany, agriculture ministers from the Group of 7, representing the world’s wealthiest democracies, discussed ways to circumvent Russian warships that blocked Ukrainian grain from reaching world markets through the Black Sea . Ukraine is the world’s fourth largest grain exporter and the blockade threatens to deepen a 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 via the Danube. He called the blockade “part of Russia’s treacherous strategy not only to eliminate a competitor, which it 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 a civilian, the first trial involving an alleged war crime by a Russian serviceman since the start of the invasion.
Prosecutors said the soldier, Sgt. Vadim Shysimarin, shot and killed a 62-year-old man on a bicycle in a village in the Sumy region, about 200 miles east of kyiv, on February 28 to prevent the man from reporting him and his fellow soldiers, to the Ukrainians.
Sergeant Shysimarin, who is 21 and faces 10 to 15 years in prison, was brought into the courtroom handcuffed and seated in a locked glass box. Head down, he ignored reporters who asked him how he felt.
“For me, it’s just work,” said Viktor Ovsyannikov, a Ukrainian court-appointed lawyer, when asked about Sergeant Shysimarin’s defence. “It’s very important to make sure that my client’s human rights are protected, to show that we are a different country than the one he is from.”
In the Russian town of Khimki, near Moscow, a court has extended the pretrial detention of American basketball star Brittney Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, until June 18, her lawyer said.
Ms Griner has been detained in Russia since mid-February on drug trafficking charges that could carry up to 10 years in prison. The charge is based on allegations that she had vaping cartridges containing hashish oil in her luggage when she was arrested at an airport near Moscow in February.
“She is fine,” Ms Griner’s lawyer, Aleksandr Boikov, said in an interview, adding that the court had rejected his request to transfer Ms Griner to house arrest. He said he expected the trial to start in about two months.
The State Department said this month that Ms Griner had been “wrongfully detained”, signaling that it may become more actively involved in trying to secure her release.
Marc Santora brought from Krakow, Marc Landler of London and Michael Levenson from New York. The report was provided 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 of Montreal and Steven Erlanger from Tallinn, Estonia.