Russia–Ukraine War (May 23): Moscow Not Sure It Needs Ties With West, Will Work on Ties With China: Lavrov

The latest on the Russia–Ukraine crisis, May 23. Click here for updates from May 22.

Moscow Not Sure It Needs Ties With West, Will Work on Ties With China: Lavrov

Russia’s foreign minister said on Monday that Moscow would consider offers from the West to re-establish ties and determine whether that is needed, but will focus on developing relations with China.

Sergei Lavrov, in a question and answer session at an event in Moscow, said Western countries had espoused “russophobia” since Russia launched its incursion into Ukraine—described by Moscow as a “special military operation.”

Russia was working to replace goods imported from Western countries, he said, and in the future, would rely only on “reliable” countries not beholden to the West.

“If they (the West) want to offer something in terms of resuming relations, then we will seriously consider whether we will need it or not,” Lavrov said, according to a transcript on the foreign ministry’s website.

“We must cease being dependent in any way on supplies of absolutely everything from the West for ensuring the development of critically important sectors for security, the economy, or our homeland’s social sphere,” he said.

Lavrov said Moscow’s goal now is to further develop ties with China.

“Now that the West has taken a ‘dictator’s position,’ our economic ties with China will grow even faster,” Lavrov said.

Lavrov said Russia would count on “only ourselves and on countries which have proved themselves reliable and do not ‘dance to some other piper’s music’. If Western countries change their minds and propose some form of cooperation, we can then decide.”

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Pentagon Says More High-Tech Weapons Going to Ukraine

Nearly 50 defense leaders from around the world met Monday and agreed to send more advanced weapons to Ukraine, including a Harpoon launcher and missiles to protect its coast, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters.

And Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “low-level” discussion is underway on how the U.S. may need to adjust its training of Ukrainian forces and on whether some U.S. troops should be based in Ukraine.

Speaking to Pentagon reporters, Austin declined to say if the United States will send Ukraine high-tech mobile rocket launchers, which it has requested. But Austin said that some 20 nations announced Monday that they will send new packages of security assistance to Ukraine, as its war with Russia reaches the three-month mark.

In particular, he said that Denmark has agreed to send a Harpoon launcher and missiles to Ukraine to help Ukraine defend its coast. Russia has ships in the Black Sea and has used them to launch cruise missiles into Ukraine. The Russian ships have also stopped all commercial ship traffic from entering Ukraine ports.

“We’ve gained a sharper, shared sense of Ukraine’s priority requirements and the situation on the battlefield,” Austin told reporters at the close of the virtual meeting with the defense leaders. “Many countries are donating critically needed artillery ammunition, coastal defense systems and tanks and other armored vehicles. Others came forward with new commitments for training.”

The U.S. and other countries have been training Ukrainian forces in nearby European countries.

Austin added that the Czech Republic recently donated attack helicopters, tanks, and rockets, and that Italy, Greece, Norway and Poland announced new donations Monday of artillery systems and ammunition.

“The nature of the fight, as you’ve heard us describe a number of times is … really shaped by artillery in this phase,” said Austin. “And we’ve seen serious exchanges of artillery fires over the last several weeks.”

Austin said that during the virtual meeting, Ukraine officials made clear their security needs. And he said those are consistent with what has been identified in recent weeks—long-range artillery and rocket systems, armored personnel carriers, and drones.

Milley provided the greatest detail to date on the increased U.S. presence in Europe since Russia invaded in late February. Last fall. there were roughly 78,000 U.S. troops in the region, and that has gone up to 102,000—including 24 surface ships, four submarines, 12 fighter jet squadrons, two combat aviation units, and six Army brigade combat teams, along with their division and corps leaderships.

Ukraine’s Zelenskyy Says He Would Meet With Putin to End the War

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Monday (May 23) that President Vladimir Putin was the only Russian official he was willing to meet with to discuss how to end the war.

Zelenskyy, addressing by video link an audience at the World Economic Forum in Davos, also said that arranging any talks with Russia was becoming more difficult in light of what he said was evidence of Russian actions against civilians under occupation.

Russia denies targeting civilians in what it calls a “special operation” to degrade Ukraine’s military capabilities.

“The president of the Russian Federation decides it all,” said Zelenskyy through an interpreter. “If we are talking about ending this war without him personally, that decision cannot be taken.”

Zelenskyy said the discovery of mass killings in areas occupied by Russian troops earlier in the war, particularly outside Kyiv, made it more difficult to arrange talks and he would rule out any discussions with other officials.

“I cannot accept any kind of meeting with anyone coming from the Russian Federation but the president,” he said. “And only in the case when there is one issue on the (table): stopping the war. There are no other grounds for any other kind of meeting.”

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators have held sporadic talks since Russian forces poured into Ukraine at the end of February, but both sides say the talks have stalled.

Zelenskyy told Ukrainian television last week that it was impossible to halt the war without some sort of diplomacy involved.

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Russian Diplomat to UN in Geneva Resigns Over War in Ukraine

A veteran Russian diplomat in Geneva says he handed in his resignation before sending out a scathing letter to foreign colleagues inveighing against the “aggressive war unleashed” by Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.

Boris Bondarev, 41, confirmed his resignation in a letter Monday after a diplomatic official passed on his English-language statement to The Associated Press.

“For twenty years of my diplomatic career I have seen different turns of our foreign policy, but never have I been so ashamed of my country as on Feb. 24 of this year,” he wrote, alluding to the date of Russia’s invasion.

Reached by phone, Bondarev—a diplomatic counselor who has focused on Russia’s role in the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva after postings in places like Cambodia and Mongolia—confirmed he handed in his resignation in a letter addressed to Amb. Gennady Gatilov.

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Police Continue Daily Evacuations Due to War

Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai says police are continuing daily evacuations due to the war with Russia and the number of those willing to leave is increasing.

Haidai posted a video Monday on Facebook taken from a vehicle that he said was traveling along a highway near Sievierodonetsk.

The vehicle is racing down the road, dodging debris, mounds of earth, barricades, and destroyed vehicles as shells explode in the fields just yards away.

A photo in the post shows about a dozen civilians, with luggage, packed tightly inside what appears to be the back of a vehicle.

Haidai wrote that people “are agreeing to the risk because what is happening in the cities is much worse.”

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Lithuania to Withdraw Its Ambassador to Russia From June 1

Lithuania will withdraw its ambassador to Russia from June 1, according to a presidential decree signed on Monday. No replacement has been named.

The Baltic country expelled Russia’s envoy on April 4.

The Lithuanian government said at that time it intended to lower the level of diplomatic representation between the two countries.

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Erdogan: Sweden Must Bolster Turkish Security

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose country has objected to Sweden and Finland joining NATO, called on Stockholm on Monday to take “concrete steps” that would alleviate Turkey’s security concerns.

Turkey has said it opposes the two Nordic states membership in the alliance citing their alleged support to the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK and other groups that Turkey views as terrorists. The country is also demanding a lifting of military export bans on Ankara.

“We can in no way ignore the fact that Sweden is imposing sanctions against us,” Erdogan said Monday during a ceremony marking the docking of a submarine. “Turkey’s rightful expectations concerning (an end to the) support to terrorism and sanctions must be met.”

In his speech, Erdogan made no reference to Finland amid reports that most of Turkey’s grievances are directed at Sweden, which has a large community of Kurdish exiles.

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Azovstal Prisoners Face Tribunal in Donetsk

The head of the Russia-backed separatist region in eastern Ukraine says that Ukrainian fighters from the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol who were captured by Russian forces are being held in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and will face “international tribunal” there.

“The plan is to arrange the international tribunal on the territory of the republic as well,” Denis Pushilin was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying. Pushilin added that “at the moment the charter for the tribunal is being worked out.”

Pushilin said earlier that 2,439 people from Azovstal were in custody, including some foreign citizens, though he did not provide details.

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Belarus’ Lukashenko Accuses Poland and NATO of Plotting to Partition Ukraine

Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said on Monday he was concerned about what he called moves by the West to “dismember” Ukraine, and accused Poland of seeking to seize the Western part of the country.

He offered no evidence for his assertions.

“What worries us is that they are ready, the Poles and NATO, to come out, to help take western Ukraine like it was before 1939,” Lukashenko said during a televised meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Lukashenko, a close ally of Putin, said Kyiv would eventually have to ask for help in preventing the seizure of western Ukraine.

Moscow has in the past suggested that Poland seeks to establish control over historical Polish lands in Ukraine, a claim that Warsaw denies as disinformation.

Belarus said in March its armed forces were not taking part in what Moscow calls its “special operation” in Ukraine, but it did serve as a launchpad for Russia to send thousands of troops across the border on Feb. 24.

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Russia’s Putin Jokes About Being Blamed for All the World’s Woes

Russian President Vladimir Putin quipped on Monday that he would have a serious talk to the West about its assertions that he was to blame for all the economic chaos sown by the conflict in Ukraine and the West’s crippling sanctions.

At a televised meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Putin told Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko that Russia’s economy was doing well, despite the Western sanctions.

Lukashenko said the sanctions had given both countries the impetus to focus on self-development, and that the elites of the West were deluded about the causes of their economic woes.

“On the economy, thanks are really due to them (in the West) as they have given us such a push to our own development,” Lukashenko told Putin, who smiled and nodded.

“What is happening over there is that they really underestimated it by reading their own media. They got inflation yet the truth is ‘Putin is to blame,’ ‘Putin is to blame for everything,'” Lukashenko said.

“We will have a serious talk to them,” Putin said.

Lukashenko chuckled and said “Yes.”

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World Faces a Turning Point, Ukraine’s Zelenskyy Warns Leaders at Davos

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told global business leaders meeting at Davos on Monday that the world faces a turning point and has to ratchet up sanctions against Russia as a warning to other countries considering using brute force.

“History is at a turning point … This is really the moment when it is decided whether brute force will rule the world,” Zelenskyy, sporting his trademark olive green T-shirt, said in an address via video link.

His speech kicked off the 4-day World Economic Forum that gathers some 2,000 business and economic leaders as well as experts, with Ukraine topping the agenda.

In stark contrast to the past, Russian state institutions and private companies which threw some of the most glitzy parties with black caviar, vintage champagne, and foie gras, have not been invited to the Alpine resort this year.

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Russian Sentenced to Life in Ukraine’s 1st ‘War Crimes’ Trial

A Ukrainian court sentenced a 21-year-old Russian soldier, Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin, to life in prison Monday, accusing him of killing a civilian.

Ukrainian prosecutors are investigating thousands of potential war crimes, as the world has pushed for Russia to be held accountable for its invasion.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for “maximum” sanctions against Russia on Monday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

He said by video that sanctions needed to go further to stop Russia’s aggression, including an oil embargo, all of its banks blocked, and cutting off trade with Russia completely.

On the battlefield, Russian forces have stepped up shelling in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland as they press their offensive in the region that is now the focus of fighting.

Grinding battles in the Donbass, where Ukrainian and Russian forces are fighting town by town, have forced many civilians to flee their homes.

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Kremlin Says West Triggered Global Food Crisis With Sanctions

The Kremlin said on Monday that the West had triggered a global food crisis by imposing the severest sanctions in modern history on Russia over the war in Ukraine.

The war—and the West’s attempt to isolate Russia as punishment—have sent the price of grain, cooking oil, fertilizer, and energy soaring.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday that he was in intense contact with Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, the United States, and the European Union in an effort to restore grain exports from Ukraine as a global food crisis worsens.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin said, agreed with the United Nations assessment that the world faced a food crisis that could cause famine.

“Russia has always been a rather reliable grain exporter,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

“We are not the source of the problem. The source of the problem that leads to world hunger are those who imposed sanctions against us, and the sanctions themselves.”

Russia and Ukraine together account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies.

The United Nations has said 36 countries count on Russia and Ukraine for more than half their wheat imports, including some of the poorest, among them Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Kremlin said Ukraine had made commercial shipping impossible by mining its waters.

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Russian Forces Step Up Shelling in Ukraine’s East

Russian forces have stepped up shelling in Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland as they press their offensive in the region that is now the focus of fighting in the 3-month-old war.

Grinding battles in the Donbass, where Ukrainian and Russian forces are fighting town by town, have forced many civilians to flee their homes.

In Tokyo on Monday, President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida joined in condemning Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Earlier on his trip to Asia, Biden signed legislation granting Ukraine $40 billion more in U.S. support for its defense against the Russian attack.

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Ukraine Says It Holds Off Latest Russian Assault in East

Ukraine said on Monday it had held off the latest assault on an eastern city that has become the main target of Moscow’s offensive since Russian forces finally seized Mariupol last week.

Russian forces tried to storm Sievierodonetsk, but were unsuccessful and retreated, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said.

The city, on the banks of the Siverskiy Donets river that winds through eastern Ukraine, has been the main Russian target in recent days as Moscow tries to encircle Ukrainian forces in the east and fully capture the Luhansk and Donetsk Provinces.

In Mariupol, where hundreds of Ukrainian fighters finally laid down their arms last week after a nearly three-month siege, Russian mine-clearing teams were combing through the ruins of the giant Azovstal steel plant.

A huge armored bulldozer painted with a white letter “Z”, which has become the symbol of Russia’s assault, pushed debris to the side as a small group of soldiers picked their way through the wreckage with metal detectors.

“The task is huge. The enemy planted their own landmines, we had also planted anti-personnel mines while blocking the enemy. So we’ve got some two weeks of work ahead of us,” said a Russian soldier, going by the nomme de guerre Babai.

Air raid sirens blared across Ukraine on Monday morning, sounding the daily alarm ahead of anticipated attacks by Russian forces in the east and south of the country, three months after Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion to “denazify” the country.

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Hungary Must Work With EU on Russian Oil Embargo: German Economy Minister

German Economy Minister Robert Habeck has warned Hungary against blocking efforts to impose a European Union-wide embargo on Russian oil imports in response to the war in Ukraine.

“There are different solutions for different countries,” Habeck said at the World Economic Forum in Davos on Monday. “I expect everyone, including Hungary to work on a solution,” he added.

Earlier on Monday, the minister told German radio that he was disappointed the EU had not yet found agreement on the planned oil embargo, which has been in the works for weeks now, and that Germany would be willing to forego Hungary’s participation to speed up the process.

“If the Commission president says we’re doing this as 26 without Hungary, then that is a path that I would always support,” Habeck told the Deutschlandfunk broadcaster. “But I have not yet heard this from the EU,” he added.

The Commission has proposed phasing out Russian oil imports by the end of the year in most EU member states, while Hungary and others could be given more time.

But Budapest has said it wants hundreds of millions of euros from the bloc to mitigate the cost of ditching Russian crude. The EU needs all 27 states to agree to the embargo for it to go ahead.

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The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.