Russia-Ukraine War (March 31): Russian Forces Block Buses Leaving Mariupol: Ukraine Government

Russia-Ukraine War (March 31): Russian Forces Block Buses Leaving Mariupol: Ukraine Government
Ukrainian refugees wait to board a bus after crossing the Ukrainian border with Poland at the Medyka border crossing, southeastern Poland, on March 30, 2022. (Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP via Getty Images)

The latest on the Russia–Ukraine crisis, March 31. Click here for updates from March 30.

Russian Forces Block Buses Leaving Mariupol: Ukraine Government

The Ukrainian government said Russian forces blocked 45 buses that had been sent to evacuate civilians from the besieged port city of Mariupol, and only 631 people were able to get out of the city in private cars.

Twelve Ukrainian trucks were able to deliver humanitarian supplies to Mariupol, but the supplies were seized by Russian troops, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said late Thursday.

According to Ukrainian officials, tens of thousands of people have made it out of Mariupol in recent weeks along humanitarian corridors, reducing the prewar population of 430,000 to about 100,000 by last week.

Vereshchuk said about 45,000 Mariupol residents have been forcefully deported to Russia and areas of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists.


Russia Bars More Top EU Officials in Response to Sanctions

Russia said on Thursday it had greatly expanded the number of European Union officials, lawmakers, public figures, and journalists barred from Russia for allegedly being responsible for sanctions and stoking anti-Russian feelings.

“The restrictions apply to the top leadership of the European Union, including a number of European commissioners and heads of EU military structures, as well as the vast majority of members of the European Parliament who promote anti-Russian policies,” Russia’s foreign ministry said.

The EU, the United States, and numerous other Western countries have imposed sweeping economic and political sanctions on Russia, some Russian media, and prominent or wealthy Russians in response to Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24.

Moscow said its blacklist also included representatives of some EU member states as well as public figures and journalists who it said were “personally responsible for promoting illegal anti-Russian sanctions, inciting Russophobic sentiments and the infringement of the rights and freedoms of the Russian-speaking population.”


Russian Forces Have Left Chernobyl Plant: Ukraine State Nuclear Firm

The Ukrainian state nuclear company said on Thursday that all of the Russian forces occupying the Chernobyl nuclear power station had withdrawn from the territory of the defunct plant.

There was no immediate comment from the Russian authorities. The U.N. nuclear watchdog, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said it is preparing to send a mission to the radioactive waste facilities at Chernobyl in northern Ukraine.

Though Russian soldiers seized control of Chernobyl soon after the Feb. 24 invasion, the plant’s Ukrainian staff continued to oversee the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel and supervise the concrete-encased remains of the reactor that exploded in 1986, causing the world’s worst nuclear accident.

“According to the staff of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, there are now no outsiders on site,” Energoatom said in an online post. State-owned Energoatom had earlier said most troops had gone, leaving only a small number behind.

Russian forces have also retreated from the nearby town of Slavutych, where workers at Chernobyl live, the company said.


Britain, Allies to Send More Lethal Aid to Ukraine

Britain and its allies have agreed to send more lethal military aid to Ukraine to help defend it against Russia’s invasion, British defense minister Ben Wallace said on Thursday.

“There’ll be more lethal aid going into Ukraine as a result of today. A number of countries have come forward either with new ideas or indeed more pledges of money,” Wallace told reporters after hosting over 35 international partners at the second International Defense Donor Conference for Ukraine (IDDCU).

The aid will include the provision of air and coastal defense systems, longer-range artillery, and counter battery capabilities, armored vehicles, as well as wider training and logistical support.

“Today’s donor conference demonstrates the international community’s determination to support Ukraine in the face of President Putin’s illegal and unprovoked invasion by Russian forces,” Wallace said in a later statement.

“We are increasing our coordination to step up that military support and ensure the Armed Forces of Ukraine grow stronger as they continue to repel Russian forces.”


US State Department Urges Americans to Leave Russia

The U.S. State Department this week warned that Russia may detain Americans and urged U.S. citizens to leave the country amid the conflict in Ukraine.

In a travel advisory warning on Wednesday, the agency said that Russian officials may single out and detain U.S. citizens in Russia before repeating earlier warnings for citizens not to travel to Russia.

Without providing examples, the advisory said that “Russian security services have arrested U.S. citizens on spurious charges, singled out U.S. citizens in Russia for detention and/or harassment, denied them fair and transparent treatment, and have convicted them in secret trials and/or without presenting credible evidence.”

The alert also said Moscow may “unreasonably delay U.S. consular assistance” to detained Americans, adding that Russian officials “arbitrarily enforce local laws against U.S. citizen religious workers and open questionable criminal investigations against U.S. citizens engaged in religious activity.”

Read the full article here


Ruble Rebounds After Sanctions

Russia’s currency, the ruble, has recovered from much of the devaluation suffered in the aftermath of Western sanctions imposed due to Moscow’s attack on Ukraine.

On Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the ruble was trading against the U.S. dollar at an exchange rate of around 81. After the United States and the European Union imposed sanctions, the exchange rate spiked to about 158 rubles on March 7. As of March 31, 16:58 UTC, the ruble was trading at around 83 against the dollar, almost reaching back to the level at which the currency was trading when the war began.

The market movements of the ruble are, to an extent, decided by artificial forces. The currency is being influenced by state capital controls, including a ban on buying dollars and euros. The Russian central bank has demanded that exporters exchange 80 percent of their hard-currency revenue for rubles, thereby creating new demand for the currency.

Read the full article here


Biden to Release 180 Million Barrels of Oil From Reserve

President Joe Biden announced Thursday that the United States will release an unprecedented 180 million barrels of oil from the nation’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) over the next several months.

The oil will be put out into the market at a pace of 1 million barrels per day on average for the next six months starting in May, and this will come in concert with releases from other countries around the world, according to a senior administration official on a call with reporters ahead of the president’s announcement.

The administration plans to restock the reserves when oil prices come down, “to prepare for future emergencies and also to provide the right signal to the market,” a senior administration official said.

Read the full article here


Ukraine Reveals How Badly Its Defense Industry Is Destroyed

Russian forces have almost completely destroyed the Ukrainian defense industry and are “finishing off” the civilian one, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Alexey Arestovich, said.

Commenting on the most recent round of the negotiations between Moscow and Kyiv, which took place on Tuesday in Istanbul, Arestovich underlined that any “large-scale military aggression and peace agreement are always compromises between the sides.”

“Because both sides suffer losses. If you think that we do not suffer losses, then you are deeply mistaken. They have practically destroyed our military industry and in many ways are finishing it off. And in many ways they are finishing off the civilian one, deliberately destroying it,” he explained.


Ukraine Nuclear Operator Claims Russian Troops Leave Chernobyl

Russian troops were leaving the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and heading toward Ukraine’s border with Belarus, the Ukrainian nuclear operator company claimed on Thursday.

The operator, Energoatom, claimed that the Russian military was also preparing to leave Slavutych, a nearby city where power plant workers live.


Red Cross Prepares for Mariupol Evacuations

A team with the International Committee of the Red Cross has arrived in a Ukraine-held city where staff are preparing to take civilians out of the beleaguered port city of Mariupol.

Julien Lerisson, deputy director of operations for the ICRC, said Thursday that the team assembling in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia, has medicines, food, water, hygiene items and other essentials.

He said the organization has high-level agreement for the mission but is focused on making sure “the order trickles down the chain of command,” allowing the team to enter and leave Mariupol safely.

The Russian military has said it committed to a cease-fire along the route from Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia. Ukrainian authorities have said 45 buses would be sent to collect citizens and provide resources to those who remain.

Lucile Marbeau, a staff member with the ICRC team hoping to enter Mariupol, said on Thursday: “We’re here because really, we hope to be able to facilitate safe passage for civilians desperately wanting to flee Mariupol.”


Germany and France React to Russia’s Gas-for-Ruble Demand

French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire and German Economy Minister Robert Habeck said on Thursday that their countries won’t buy Russian gas with rubles, insisting that gas contracts in euros “must be observed.” Earlier, Russian President Vladimir Putin told Berlin that payments in euros would be converted to rubles upon arrival in Russia.

Speaking at a press conference in Berlin, Habeck said that Europe would not be “blackmailed” by Russia into using Russian currency to buy gas. Putin has demanded that, as of Friday, “unfriendly” countries—those who “illegally” sanctioned Russia’s central bank in response to the conflict in Ukraine—will have to pay for Russian gas in rubles or have their supply cut off.


Talks Between Ukraine and Russia Will Resume on Friday by Video

The talks between Ukraine and Russia will resume on Friday by video, according to the head of the Ukrainian delegation, David Arakhamia.

The delegations met in-person on Tuesday in Istanbul, after two weeks of meeting by video, and the faint outlines of a possible peace agreement seemed to emerge.

The Ukrainian delegation offered a framework under which the country would declare itself neutral—dropping its bid to join NATO, as Moscow has long demanded—in return for security guarantees from a group of other nations.

Russian diplomats responded positively to Ukraine’s proposal.


Germany and Austria Reject a Halt to Russian Energy Imports

The Austrian and German leaders have underlined their rejection of a halt to Russian energy deliveries at this point.

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer noted that several central and eastern European countries depend to one extent or another on Russian gas deliveries.

He and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz argued that existing sanctions already are having a significant effect and said they need time to switch to new providers and renewable energy sources.

Nehammer said that “sanctions only make sense … when they hit those they are supposed to hit, and don’t weaken those who carry out sanctions.”


German Officials Calls for More Sanctions

Germany’s economy minister says Europe should impose additional sanctions on Russia to prevent what he described as a “barbaric” war in Ukraine.

Robert Habeck said he discussed what further measures could be taken with his French counterpart during a bilateral meeting in Berlin on Thursday.

“The last package [of sanctions] doesn’t need to be the final one, it should not be the final one,” he told reporters, adding that he and French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire had “identified additional points that could be included in a [sanctions] package.”

Habeck declined to elaborate on what those points might be.

Speaking ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement on new rules requiring countries to pay for Russia’s natural gas sales in rubles, Habeck insisted that contracts would be adhered to. These stipulate payment in euros or dollars.


Kremlin Decree: Foreign Currency Can Still Buy Natural Gas

A Kremlin decree says “unfriendly countries” can continue to pay for natural gas in foreign currency through a Russian bank that will convert the money into rubles.

The decree published Thursday by state media came a day after the leaders of Italy and Germany said they received assurances from President Vladimir Putin.

Putin talked tougher, saying Russia will start accepting ruble payments starting Friday for Western countries that imposed sanctions over its conflict with Ukraine. He said contracts will be stopped if buyers don’t sign up to the new conditions, including opening ruble accounts in Russian banks.

European leaders had rejected paying for deliveries in rubles, saying it would undermine sanctions imposed because of the war in Ukraine.

The decree Putin signed and published by state news agency RIA Novosti says a designated bank will open two accounts for each buyer, one in foreign currency and one in rubles. The buyers will pay in foreign currency and authorize the bank to sell that currency for rubles, which are placed in the second account, where the gas is formally purchased.


Putin Says Russian Gas Must Be Paid for in Roubles From Friday

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that he had signed a decree saying foreign buyers must pay in roubles for Russian gas from April 1, and contracts would be halted if these payments were not made.

“In order to purchase Russian natural gas, they must open rouble accounts in Russian banks. It is from these accounts that payments will be made for gas delivered starting from tomorrow,” Putin said in televised remarks.

“If such payments are not made, we will consider this a default on the part of buyers, with all the ensuing consequences. Nobody sells us anything for free, and we are not going to do charity either—that is, existing contracts will be stopped.”

Putin’s decision to enforce rouble payments for gas has boosted the Russian currency, which fell to historic lows when the West applied sweeping sanctions after he sent his army into Ukraine on Feb. 24.

But Western companies and governments have rejected the move as a breach of existing contracts, which are set in euros or dollars.

Putin said the switch was meant to strengthen Russia’s sovereignty, and it would stick to its obligations on all contracts. Russia supplies about a third of Europe’s gas.


Kremlin Responds to US Intelligence Claims on Putin

The Kremlin has expressed “regret” and “concern” over U.S. officials’ reports that the Russian president is being misinformed by advisers about his military’s performance in Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon possess the real information about what is happening in the Kremlin.”

“They simply don’t understand what’s going on in the Kremlin, they don’t understand President Putin, they don’t understand the mechanism of decision-making, they don’t understand the way we work,” Peskov said.

“It is not just regrettable, it elicits concern, because this complete lack of understanding leads to erroneous decisions, tragic decisions that could have very bad consequences,” he added.

U.S. intelligence officials said Putin is being misinformed by advisers about his military’s poor performance in Ukraine, according to the White House. The advisers are scared to tell him the truth, the intel says.

White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said Wednesday the United States believes Putin was being misled not only about his military’s performance but also “how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions because, again, his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth.”


Ukraine Expects Russian Assault in East

Ukrainian forces are preparing for new Russian attacks in the southeast region where Moscow’s guns are now trained after its assault on the capital Kyiv was repelled, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday.

Moscow says it is now focusing on “liberating” the Donbass region—two southeastern provinces partly controlled by separatists Russia has backed since 2014.

In an early morning video address, Zelenskyy claimed Russian troop movements away from Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv were not a withdrawal but rather “the consequence of our defenders’ work.”

Ukraine was seeing “a build-up of Russian forces for new strikes on the Donbas and we are preparing for that,” he said.

That includes Mariupol, once a city of 400,000 people, where most buildings have been damaged or destroyed in four weeks of Russian bombardment and siege. A convoy of Ukrainian buses set out for the port city on Thursday to try to reach trapped civilians, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said.

The past week has seen a Ukrainian counteroffensive, recapturing destroyed suburbs of Kyiv and strategic towns and villages in the northeast and southwest. Russia declared on Monday that it was scaling back its offensive near the capital and the city of Chernihiv in the north, in what it called a trust-building gesture for peace talks.


Convoy of Buses on Way to Besieged Mariupol, Ukraine Says

A convoy of Ukrainian buses set out for the southern port city of Mariupol on Thursday to try to deliver humanitarian supplies and bring out civilians, Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk and the Red Cross said.

Vereshchuk said 45 buses were on their way to Mariupol after the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) confirmed Russia had agreed to open a safe corridor.

In Geneva, the ICRC said its convoy was on the way to the besieged city, but called on both sides to agree the exact terms for the safe passage of civilians.

“For logistics and security reasons, we’ll be ready to lead the safe passage operation tomorrow, Friday, provided all the parties agree to the exact terms, including the route, the start time and the duration,” ICRC spokesperson Ewan Watson said.

Robert Mardini, ICRC director-general, in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday, called on Ukraine and Russia to agree on safe evacuation of civilians from Mariupol and other frontline areas, where vital supplies are running out.

To date in the five-week-old conflict, the ICRC has led two evacuations of civilians from the northeastern city of Sumy.

The Mariupol mayor said this week that up to 170,000 residents were trapped there with no power and dwindling supplies.

“There are 45 buses en route to Mariupol,” Vereshchuk said in a statement on Thursday.

The city, which usually has a population of more than 400,000, has been a strategic focus of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and has suffered near-constant bombardment.


NATO: Russia Repositioning, Not Scaling Back

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg claims Russia does not appear to be scaling back its military operations in Ukraine but is instead redeploying forces to the eastern Donbas region.

Russia promised during talks in Istanbul on Tuesday that it would de-escalate operations near Kyiv and Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the West were skeptical.

Stoltenberg told reporters Thursday that “Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions,” and must be judged on its actions alone, not the word of its leaders.

“According to our intelligence, Russian units are not withdrawing but repositioning. Russia is trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas region,” he said.

At the same time, he said pressure is being kept up on Kyiv and other cities and “we can expect additional offensive actions bringing even more suffering.”

The U.S. claims Russia has begun to reposition less than 20 percent of its troops that had been arrayed around Kyiv. The Pentagon says that most moved north, although some crossed into Belarus where they could be resupplied and sent back into Ukraine.


NATO Bases in Central Asia ‘Unacceptable,’ Moscow Says

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Thursday that any NATO military presence in Central Asia will undermine the security of the Russian-led bloc in the region.

“We believe it’s unacceptable to have any US and NATO military infrastructure, or their Afghan helpers, on the territory of neighboring states, especially in Central Asia,” Lavrov said during an Afghanistan-themed summit in Tunxi, China, adding that “such designs go against the security interests of our countries.”


Italy Urges Europe to Use All Farming Land

Italy’s leader is urging Europe to “cultivate all available land” as a partial remedy to reductions in agricultural imports, especially of Russian grain, due to the war in Ukraine.

Premier Mario Draghi told reporters on Thursday that under existing agricultural practices in the European Union 10 percent of land is purposely left fallow, but that must now change as European countries search for ways to reduce dependency on farm imports.

It’s not clear whether Ukraine, one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, maize and sunflower oil, might be able to salvage any of this planting season.

Meanwhile, Draghi noted that Western Europe will be looking to food producers like Canada, the United States and Argentina to help make up the shortfall of imports from Ukraine and Russia.


20 Dead in Strike on Mykolaiv Government Building

The Ukrainian emergency services claim the death toll after a Russian missile strike Tuesday on the regional government headquarters in the southern city of Mykolaiv has risen to 20.

The emergency services claimed rescuers had now found 19 bodies in the ruins since the strike devastated the government building Tuesday morning. One other person died in hospital.

Emergency services said they are still working at the scene.


Europe Pushing for Gas Price Cap With Russia

Italian Premier Mario Draghi says Europe is pushing for a cap on gas prices with Russia because its payments are financing the war in Ukraine.

Draghi told foreign reporters Thursday that the prices that Europe is paying are out of line with the global market.

“We, Germany and Italy, along with other countries that are importers of gas, coal, grains, corn … are financing the war. There is no doubt,’’ Draghi said. “For this reason, Italy along with other countries are pushing for a cap on the price of gas. There is no substantial reason that the price of gas is so high for Europeans.”

Draghi noted that Russia has no other market for its gas, giving Europe room to maneuver. Asked about the risk that Russia would simply respond by turning off the taps, Draghi claimed, “no there is no danger.”


Britain Imposes Sanctions on Russian Media Figures, Organizations

Britain has imposed sanctions on more than a dozen Russian media figures and organizations accused of spreading propaganda and disinformation about the war in Ukraine.

The latest group subjected to asset freezes and travel bans includes Rossiya television anchor Sergey Brilev, who previously lived in the U.K., Gazprom-Media chief executive Aleksandr Zharov and Alexey Nikolov, managing director of Kremlin-backed broadcaster RT.

Sanctions have also been slapped on media organizations TV-Novosti, which owns RT, and Rossiya Segodnya, which controls the Sputnik news agency.

The U.K. also said it was sanctioning Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev, chief of Russia’s National Defence Command and Control Center, accusing him of orchestrating atrocities including the siege of Mariupol.


Draghi Says Putin Agreed to Keep Payments for Gas in Euros

Italian Premier Mario Draghi says the Russian president told him during a 40-minute phone call Wednesday evening that European companies can continue to pay for existing energy contracts in euros and dollars.

Draghi also indicated that Russia’s desire for payments in rubles remained intact, but it may be the case that the currency conversion would take place in Russia. Draghi said he is referring the discussion to experts and that analysis was under way on whether “European companies can continue to pay as foreseen, if this means something for the ongoing sanctions.”

“It is absolutely not simple to change the currency of payments without violating the contracts,” he said.


Ukrainian President Urges Dutch Parliament to Stop All Trade With Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked the Dutch parliament on Thursday for weapons, reconstruction aid and a halt to all business with Russia in response to the invasion of his country.

“Stronger sanctions are needed so that Russia doesn’t have a chance to pursue this war further in Europe,” he told lawmakers via video link. “Stop all trade with Russia.”

Zelenskyy, the first foreign head of state to address a plenary session of the 150-member Dutch lower house of representatives, said the Netherlands must “be prepared to stop the energy from Russia so that you do not pay billions for the war.”

Roughly 20 percent of Dutch natural gas comes from Russia, which has become an increasingly important trading partner for the Netherlands in recent years.

The Dutch, along with other EU countries including Germany, are looking for other energy sources, but quick alternatives are few and global supplies limited.

Zelenskyy asked the Dutch to “adopt a city” in Ukraine to focus post-war reconstruction efforts.

The Netherlands has supplied Ukrainian forces with military equipment, including anti-tank rockets and Patriot air defence systems and is also supporting NATO’s increased presence along the military alliance’s eastern flank.

The Dutch have so far been unable to effectively freeze or seize tens of billions of euros (dollars) in Russian assets registered in the Netherlands, due to complex tax structures that make it difficult to identify ultimate owners of corporate holdings and property.

A letter to parliament from the Finance Ministry on March 22 said 392 million euros ($431.24 million) in Russian assets and transactions had been frozen under EU sanctions imposed since the invasion on Feb. 24.


Austria Declares Gas Emergency

The Austrian government has declared a stage-one alert regarding the supply of natural gas, shortly after Germany did the same on Wednesday. Vienna made the move fearing shortages should Russia insist on payments in rubles, rather than dollars or euro, due to Western sanctions.


Russia Drafts 134500 Conscripts

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree on the spring draft, with 134,500 new conscripts to be added to the Russian army amid the country’s war on Ukraine.

Both Putin and Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu have said that conscripts will not be taking part in the operation in Ukraine. Earlier this month, however, the Russian military admitted that a number of conscripts ended up in Ukraine and were even captured there.

The decree signed on Thursday outlines the draft which will kick off on April 1 and last through July 15.


Moscow Orders Foreign Software Ban

Russian President Vladimir Putin has passed an executive order banning the purchase of foreign software for use in critical infrastructure projects by state agencies and semi-government entities, in an apparent bid to make the country less vulnerable to further Western sanctions and potential cyberattacks.

Effective from Thursday, the order allows for the purchase of foreign software for key infrastructure purposes only if permitted by “a federal executive body duly authorized by the Government of the Russian Federation.” Additionally, any government body or customer must phase out the use of foreign software on their sensitive systems by no later than the start of 2025.


Ukraine’s Zelenskyy Tells Australia Russia Must Be Held Accountable

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Australia’s parliament on Thursday (March 31) that Russia must be held accountable for past wrongs, warning that a failure to punish Moscow may encourage other countries to wage war against their neighbors.

Zelenskyy called for new and tougher sanctions to retaliate against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and suggested that years of failure to rein in the global power had emboldened Moscow.

“If we don’t stop Russia now, if we don’t hold Russia accountable, then some other countries of the world who are looking forward to a similar war against their neighbours will decide that such things are possible for them as well,” Zelenskyy said in the video address, according to an official translation. Zelenskyy, seated at a desk wearing his trademark khaki t-shirt, did not specify which countries he feared would be inspired by Russia.

Australia and its allies in the West have raised concerns about increasingly aggressive language by China regarding Taiwan, whose independence it disputes.


UK Military Intelligence Claims Russian Shelling, Missile Strikes Continue in Chernihiv

Russian shelling and missile strikes have continued in Chernihiv despite Russian statements indicating an intended reduction of military activity around the area, British military intelligence claimed on Thursday.

Russian forces continue to hold positions to the east and west of Kyiv despite the withdrawal of a limited number of units, the Ministry of Defence said in a statement. “Heavy fighting will likely take place in the suburbs of the city in coming days.”

Heavy fighting continued in Mariupol, a key objective of Russian forces, the ministry said, claiming that Ukrainian forces remain in control of the centre of the city.


Russian Hackers Targeted Nato, Eastern European Militaries: Google

Russian hackers have recently attempted to penetrate the networks of NATO and the militaries of some eastern European countries, Google’s Threat Analysis Group claimed in a report published on Wednesday.

The report did not say which militaries had been targeted in what Google described as “credential phishing campaigns” launched by a Russian-based group called Coldriver, or Callisto.

“These campaigns were sent using newly created Gmail accounts to non-Google accounts, so the success rate of these campaigns is unknown,” the report said.

Russia, which is now under heavy Western economic sanctions following its decision to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24, regularly denies accusations of mounting cyber attacks on Western targets.

In 2019, Finnish cybersecurity firm F-Secure Labs described Callisto as an unidentified and advanced threat actor “interested in intelligence gathering related to foreign and security policy” in Europe.

The group also targeted a NATO Centre of Excellence, Wednesday’s Google report said, without elaborating.

In a statement, NATO did not directly address Google’s report but said: “We see malicious cyber activity on a daily basis.”

“NATO Centres of Excellence work alongside the Alliance but they are not part of NATO as such. We are in touch with them on this issue,” the statement said.


Georgia Says Breakaway Region’s Referendum on Joining Russia ‘Unacceptable’: TASS

Georgian Foreign Minister David Zalkaliani said on Thursday that talk of a referendum in the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia on joining Russia was unacceptable, TASS news agency reported.

The separatist president of South Ossetia said on Wednesday that the territory would take steps in the near future to become part of Russia—which has recognised it as independent, provided it with extensive financial help, offered its people Russian passports and stationed troops there.


UK Spy Chief Says Russian Soldiers Disobey Orders in Ukraine

Demoralized Russian soldiers in the Ukraine were refusing to carry out orders and sabotaging their own equipment and had accidentally shot down their own aircraft, a UK intelligence chief said on Thursday.

Jeremy Fleming, who heads the GCHQ electronic spy agency, made the remarks at a speech in the Australian capital Canberra.

Russian President Vladimir Putin had apparently “massively misjudged” the invasion, he said.

“It’s clear he misjudged the resistance of the Ukrainian people. He underestimated the strength of the coalition his actions would galvanize. He underplayed the economic consequences of the sanctions regime, and he overestimated the abilities of his military to secure a rapid victory,” Fleming said.

“We’ve seen Russian soldiers, short of weapons and morale, refusing to carry out orders, sabotaging their own equipment, and even accidentally shooting down their own aircraft,” Fleming added.


Russia Bombards Areas Where It Pledged to Scale Back: Ukrainian Officials

Russian forces bombarded areas around Kyiv and another city just hours after pledging to scale back operations in those zones to promote trust between the two sides, Ukrainian authorities said Wednesday.

The shelling—intensified Russian attacks on other parts of the country—tempered optimism about any progress in the talks aimed at ending the war.

The Russian military announced Tuesday that it would deescalate near the capital and the northern city of Chernihiv in order to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.” But the announcement was met with deep suspicion from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the West.

Soon after, Ukrainian officials reported that Russian shelling hit homes, stores, libraries, and other civilian sites in and around Chernihiv and on the outskirts of Kyiv. Russian troops also stepped up their attacks on the Donbas region in the east and around the city of Izyum, which lies on a key route to the Donbas, after redeploying units from other areas, the Ukrainian side said.

Olexander Lomako, secretary of the Chernihiv city council, said the Russian announcement turned out to be “a complete lie.”

“At night they didn’t decrease, but vice versa increased the intensity of military action,” Lomako said.


Germany Says to Still Pay for Russian Gas in Euros/Dollars After Scholz–Putin Call

Germany will continue to pay for Russian gas in euros or dollars, a government spokesman said, adding that Russian President Vladimir Putin had told the German chancellor that nothing would change for European partners despite his plan for rouble payments.

Russia has said that because of Western financial sanctions over Ukraine, it plans to require payment for its energy exports—especially the gas that Germany depends on—in roubles rather than the usual euros or dollars.

In a phone call between the leaders, Putin told German Chancellor Olaf Scholz that nothing would change for European partners and payments would be made in euros and transferred to Gazprom bank, which would convert the money into roubles, said the German spokesperson.

“Scholz did not agree to this procedure in the conversation, but asked for written information to better understand the procedure,” said the spokesperson.

He added that a Group of Seven agreement, stating that energy supplies from Russia would be paid for only in euros or U.S. dollars, remained.

Germany has triggered an emergency plan to manage gas supplies that could see Europe’s biggest economy ration power if the standoff over Russia’s demand to pay for fuel with roubles disrupts supplies.


Pentagon Sees Russia Starting to Reposition Under 20 Percent of Forces Around Kyiv

Russia has started to reposition under 20 percent of the forces arrayed around Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, the Pentagon said on Wednesday, but cautioned Russia was expected to refit and resupply them for redeployment, and not bring the forces home.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said some of the Russian forces may have already moved into Belarus, as opposed to their home garrisons.

Kirby also told a news briefing Russian contractor Wagner Group had deployed about 1,000 contractors into Ukraine’s Donbas region, which Moscow has declared a priority.

Jack Phillips, Nick Ciolino, Naveen Athrappully, The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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