Latest in Ukraine: Pardoned Convicts Likely to Keep Wagner Jobs, UK Says
Belarus says its military is training with fighters from Russia’s Wagner mercenary group at a site near the Belarus-Poland border. European Union foreign ministers met Thursday to discuss a proposed four-year, $22.4 billion military aid plan for Ukraine.
The last of the Wagner Group’s convict-prisoner mercenaries are due to be released from their mandated service “in the coming days,” the British Defense Ministry said Friday.
In the ministry’s daily intelligence report about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it said “a significant number” of the pardoned convicts will “likely” continue with Wagner as professional contractors. Russia now controls Wagner’s prison recruitment pipeline, according to the ministry.
The Wagner Group grew to become the organization that staged a mutiny against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authority last month.
The end of the Wagner Group’s prison recruitment program marks one of the bloodiest episodes in modern military history, the British ministry said, with as many as 20,000 convict-recruits killed in a few months.
Late Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his daily address that Russia has used almost 70 missiles “of various types” against Ukraine since Monday “and to a significant extent – against Odesa and Odesa region, Mykolaiv, our other southern cities and communities.”
Unfortunately, he said, “our defenders of the sky” were unable “to protect the entire Ukrainian sky,” but Ukraine is working to obtain other air defense systems.
Russia attacked Ukraine’s southern cities with drones and missiles for a third consecutive night Thursday, particularly targeting Odesa, the country’s key Black Sea port.
Two people were killed in Odesa and at least 19 injured in Mykolaiv, a city close to the Black Sea, Ukrainian officials said.
In recent days, Russia has focused its attacks on Ukraine’s critical grain export infrastructure after Moscow ended its support for safe passage of Ukrainian grain exports past Russian war ships on the Black Sea.
Moscow has also vowed “retribution” this week for Ukraine’s attack on a crucial bridge linking Russia to Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which Russia illegally annexed in 2014.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the recent Russian attacks.
“These attacks are also having an impact well beyond Ukraine. We are already seeing the negative effect on global wheat and corn prices which hurts everyone, but especially vulnerable people in the global south,” his spokesman said in a statement.
The Russian military described its hits on Odesa as “retaliatory.”
Regional Ukrainian governor Vitaliy Kim said on Telegram that one airstrike hit the center of Mykolaiv, and that the wounded there included five children. Kim added that two people were rescued from the rubble.
Oleksandr Snkevych, Mykolaiv’s mayor, said the strike damaged at least five high-rise buildings as well as several garages.
Russia has targeted Odesa and Mykolaiv with aerial attacks multiple times this week.
“Russian terrorists continue their attempts to destroy the life of our country,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Telegram.
Meanwhile, Russia-installed officials in Crimea said a Ukrainian drone attack killed one person and damaged multiple administrative buildings in the northwestern part of the peninsula.
Black Sea shipping
On Wednesday, Russia’s defense ministry issued warnings to vessels bound for Ukrainian ports, after canceling the agreement that allowed ships carrying Ukrainian grain to pass through the Black Sea.
The statement said that starting at midnight Moscow time on July 20, “All vessels sailing in the waters of the Black Sea to Ukrainian ports will be regarded as potential carriers of military cargo.”
It added, “Countries of such vessels will be considered to be involved in the Ukrainian conflict on the side of the Kyiv regime.”
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told VOA that the U.S. takes the Russian threat seriously.
“We are working, and we will work with Ukraine and our allies and partners to try to find other ways to get the grain out of Ukraine,” Kirby said. “It’ll most likely have to go through ground routes. We’ve done this before – we did it before the grain deal was in effect. It’s not as efficient… you can’t get as much grain out that way. We understand that, but we’re going to keep trying.”
The Russian statement said several areas in the Black Sea have been “declared temporarily dangerous for navigation” and that Russia has issued “warnings on the withdrawal of safety guarantees to mariners.”
Another Security Council spokesman, Adam Hodge, said in a statement Wednesday that the United States has information indicating Russia placed additional sea mines in areas leading to Ukrainian ports.
“We believe that this is a coordinated effort to justify any attacks against civilian ships in the Black Sea and lay blame on Ukraine for these attacks,” Hodge said.
Kurt Volker, the former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told VOA that Russia “has no right to threaten third-party vessels” operating in international waters in the Black Sea.
“The U.S. Navy, the U.S. Marines and the British and the Dutch, we have all stood for the principle of freedom of navigation for commercial vessels really since the beginning of the time the U.S. Navy was founded, and for Russia just to come out and say that any vessel that it decides it wants to attack it’s going to attack, that is the equivalent of piracy. And we have to speak up against this,” Volker said.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative, a deal brokered last year by the United Nations and Turkey, lifted a Russian blockade on Ukrainian ports that Russia imposed after its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.
Russia announced Monday it would not renew the deal, which is credited with easing food shortages and inflation in many countries that depend on Ukrainian grain to feed their populations.
USAID chief Samantha Power told VOA in Kyiv on Wednesday that countries should publicly condemn Russia for withdrawing from “an initiative that was all about getting food out of Ukraine to the rest of the world.”
“I saw firsthand in places like Somalia, Kenya and Lebanon over the course of the last year just how dependent those economies are on the import of Ukrainian wheat. So, you know, this is not a time for countries to stand back and lament this development. This is a chance for them to come out publicly or better yet, engage Russian diplomats on the costs of this decision for global food prices,” Power told VOA.
More US Sanctions
The U.S. Treasury Department said Thursday it has imposed new Russia-related sanctions, targeting 18 individuals and dozens of organizations to block Moscow’s access to products that support its war against Ukraine.
In a statement, Treasury said the measures are designed to “reduce Russia’s revenue from the metals and mining sector, undermine its future energy capabilities and degrade Russia’s access to the international financial system.”
VOA national security correspondent Jeff Seldin, VOA Pentagon correspondent Carla Babb and VOA’s Anna Chernikova in Kyiv contributed to this story. Some information came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.