Ukraine War Hangs Over UN Meeting on Nuclear Treaty’s Legacy

There was already plenty of trouble to talk about when a major U.N. meeting on the landmark Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty was originally supposed to happen in 2020.

Now the pandemic-postponed conference finally starts Monday as Russia’s war in Ukraine has reanimated fears of nuclear confrontation and cranked up the urgency of trying to reinforce the 50-year-old treaty.

“It is a very, very difficult moment,” said Beatrice Fihn, the executive director of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons.

Russia’s invasion, accompanied by ominous references to its nuclear arsenal, “is so significant for the treaty and really going to put a lot of pressure on this,” she said. “How governments react to the situation is going to shape future nuclear policy.”

The four-week meeting aims to generate a consensus on the next steps, but expectations are low for a substantial — if any — agreement.

Still, Swiss President Ignazio Cassis, prime ministers Fumio Kishida of Japan and Frank Bainimarama of Fiji, and more than a dozen nations’ foreign ministers are among attendees expected from at least 116 countries, according to a U.N. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly before the conference.

In force since 1970, the Nonproliferation Treaty has the widest adherence of any arms control agreement. Some 191 countries have joined.

Nations without nuclear weapons promised not to acquire them, while nuclear-armed Britain, China, France, Russia (then the Soviet Union) and the United States agreed to negotiate toward eliminating their arsenals someday. All endorsed everyone’s right to develop peaceful nuclear energy.

India and Pakistan, which didn’t sign, went on to get the bomb. So did North Korea, which ratified the pact but later announced it was withdrawing. Non-signatory Israel is believed to have a nuclear arsenal but neither confirms nor denies it.

Nonetheless, the Nonproliferation Treaty has been credited with limiting the number of nuclear newcomers (U.S. President John F. Kennedy once foresaw as many as 20 nuclear-armed nations by 1975) and serving as a framework for international cooperation on disarmament.

The total number of nuclear weapons worldwide has shrunk by more than 75% from a mid-1980s peak, largely thanks to the end of the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union. But experts estimate roughly 13,000 warheads remain worldwide, the vast majority in the U.S. and Russia.

Meetings to assess how the treaty is working are supposed to happen every five years, but the 2020 conference was repeatedly delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.

Challenges have only grown in the meantime.

When launching the Ukraine war in February, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that any attempt to interfere would lead to “consequences you have never seen” and emphasized that his country is “one of the most potent nuclear powers.” Days later, Putin ordered Russia’s nuclear forces to be put on higher alert, a move that U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called “bone-chilling.”

“The prospect of nuclear conflict, once unthinkable, is now back within the realm of possibility,” he said.

The events in Ukraine create a tricky choice for the upcoming conference, said Patricia Lewis, a former U.N. disarmament research official who is now at the international affairs think tank Chatham House in London.

“On the one hand, in order to support the treaty and what it stands for, governments will have to address Russia’s behavior and threats,” she said. “On the other hand, to do so risks dividing the treaty members.”

Another uncomfortable dynamic: The war has heightened some countries’ apprehensions about not having nuclear weapons, especially since Ukraine once housed but gave up a trove of Soviet nukes.

Ukraine is hardly the only hot topic.

North Korea appears to have been preparing recently for its first nuclear weapons test since 2017. And talks about reviving the deal meant to keep Iran from developing nukes are in limbo.

The U.S. and Russia have only one remaining treaty curtailing their nuclear weapons and have been developing new technologies. Britain last year raised a self-imposed cap on its stockpile. China says it’s modernizing — or, the U.S. claims, expanding — the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal.

U.S. Ambassador Adam Scheinman, the presidential special representative for nuclear nonproliferation, said Washington hopes for a “balanced” outcome that “sets realistic goals and advances our national and international security interests.”

The Associated Press sent inquiries to Russia’s U.N. mission about Moscow’s goals for the conference. There was no immediate response.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said his country wants to work toward improving global nuclear governance and upholding the international order and will “firmly safeguard the legitimate security and development interests and rights of China and the developing world.”

If the world can’t speak with one voice, disarmament advocates say a strong statement from a large group of countries could send a meaningful message.

In recent years, frustration with the Nonproliferation Treaty catalyzed another pact that outright prohibits nuclear weapons. Ratified by more than 60 countries, it took effect last year, though without any nuclear-armed nations on board.

At a recent meeting in Vienna, participating countries condemned “any and all nuclear threats” and inked a lengthy plan that includes considering an international trust fund for people harmed by nuclear weapons.

Fihn, whose Geneva-based group campaigned for the nuclear ban treaty, hopes the vigor in Vienna serves as inspiration — or notice — for countries to make progress at the U.N. conference.

“If you don’t do it here,” she said, “we’re moving on without you elsewhere.”

England Beats Germany in Extra Time to Win Women’s Euro 2022

England beat Germany 2-1 in the final of the European Championship after extra time on Sunday to win its first major women’s soccer title.

Chloe Kelly scored the winning goal on a rebound in the second half of extra time after Germany failed to clear a corner. The game had finished 1-1 after 90 minutes at Wembley Stadium with Lina Magull for Germany canceling out Ella Toone’s goal for England.

After the final whistle, the England players danced and the crowd sang their anthem “Sweet Caroline.” The good-natured atmosphere inside the stadium Sunday drew contrasts with the violent scenes when the England men’s team lost its European Championship final to Italy at the same stadium a year ago.

“I always believed I’d be here, but to be here and score the winner, wow. These girls are amazing,” said Kelly, who returned from a serious knee injury in April. “This is amazing, I just want to celebrate now.”

Kelly took her shirt off to celebrate her goal, earning a yellow card but also a shout-out from Brandi Chastain, who celebrated in similar style when her penalty kick won the World Cup for the U.S. in 1999.

“Enjoy the free rounds of pints and dinners for the rest of your life from all of England. Cheers!” Chastain wrote on Twitter.

The tournament-record crowd of more than 87,000 underlined the growth of women’s soccer in Europe since the last time England and Germany played for a continental title 13 years ago.

On that occasion, Germany surged to a 6-2 win over an England team that still relied on part-time players. Two years later, England launched its Women’s Super League, which has professionalized the game and grown into one of the main competitions worldwide.

That has meant increasing competition for Germany, which was a pioneering nation in European women’s soccer and increasingly faces well-funded rivals in England, Spain and France. England’s title comes 56 years after the nation’s only major men’s title which was also an extra-time win at Wembley over Germany at the 1966 World Cup.

Wiegman remains unbeaten in 12 games as coach at the European Championships after winning the tournament first with the Netherlands and now with England. One of her first moves after England won was to share a hug with 35-year-old midfielder Jill Scott, the only remaining player on either team from England’s 2009 loss to Germany.

The game was refereed by Ukrainian Kateryna Monzul, who fled her home country after Russia invaded. One of Europe’s leading referees, Monzul left her home in Kharkiv, a major city that has been heavily bombarded by Russian forces — and spent five days living in a basement at her parents’ house before leaving the country and eventually living and working in Italy.

Nigerian Street Vendor Brutally Killed in Italy

Hundreds of people from the Nigerian community of the central Italian city of Civitanova Marche took to the streets Saturday to protest the slaying of a Nigerian street vendor.

The killing was caught in cellphone video, but no one intervened to stop the slaying of the disabled man.

Police say an Italian man, Filippo Claudio Giuseppe Ferlazzo, 32, has been arrested in connection with the brutal beating of Alika Ogorchukwu, a 39-year-old husband and father.

The footage of the incident shows Ferlazzo using the vendor’s crutch to strike him down. Ogorchukwu had lost his job as a laborer after being hit by a car. He needed to use a crutch to walk after the accident.

The street vendor was unable to get up after Ferlazzo attacked him, the video shows, because the Italian man used his weight to keep Ogorchukwu down.

“The aggressor went after the victim, first hitting him with a crutch,” police investigator Matteo Luconi said at a press conference.  “He made him fall to the ground, then he finished, causing the death, striking repeatedly with his bare hands.”

An autopsy has been ordered to determine the cause of Ogorchukwu’s death.

“My condemnation is not only for the [crime], but it is also for the indifference,” Civitanova Marche’s mayor, Fabrizio Ciarapica, told Sky News.

“A father was killed in an atrocious and racist way while passersby took video without stopping the aggressor,” said former Premier Matteo Renzi.  He urged people to reflect “on what we are becoming.”

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press.

Zelenskyy Calls for Evacuation of Eastern Donetsk

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called Saturday for the evacuation of eastern Donetsk province, the region that has seen the fiercest fighting as Russia seeks to fully control it.

Hundreds of thousands of people, including children and the elderly, remain in combat zones of the larger Donbas region, which includes Donetsk and Luhansk. It is also the region where Ukrainian prisoners of war died in a missile attack earlier this week.

Zelenskyy made the announcement Saturday during his nightly video address to his nation.

“The more people leave [the] Donetsk region now, the fewer people the Russian army will have time to kill,” he said, adding that residents who left would be given compensation, he said according to Reuters.

Zalenskyy promised logistical support to persuade people to leave.

“Many refuse to leave but it still needs to be done,” the president said. “If you have the opportunity, please talk to those who still remain in the combat zones in Donbas. Please convince them that it is necessary to leave.”

Earlier Saturday, Ukraine demanded that Russia be held accountable for a missile attack that killed dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war at a Russian-operated detention facility in eastern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government on Saturday called on the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to immediately investigate Friday’s attack.

With international outrage building over the missile strike, the United Nations pledged support to help investigate the prison attack.

“In relation to the recent tragedy at the prison in Olenivka, we stand ready to send a group of experts able to conduct an investigation, requiring the consent of the parties,” said Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson for the U.N. secretary-general in a statement released Saturday.

Russia and Ukraine have accused each other of carrying out the attack. Neither claim could be independently verified. So far, no international aid organizations have been granted access to the bombed-out site. The Red Cross requested access to help evacuate the wounded.

In a statement Sunday, Russia said it has invited United Nations and Red Cross experts to investigate the deaths at the prison, according to Reuters.

The statement from the defense ministry said it was acting “in the interests of conducting an objective investigation” into what it called an attack on the prison earlier in the week.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said 40 prisoners were killed and 75 were wounded at the detention facility located in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region. Russia insisted Ukraine used American-made weapons to hit the prison to prevent its own fighters from surrendering to Russian forces.

Ukraine’s armed forces disputed the claim and said Russian artillery targeted the prison camp to hide the mistreatment of the prisoners.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the attack a deliberate Russian war crime and a mass murder of Ukrainian prisoners of war.

The Ukrainian army is trying to get the bodies of those killed returned, but Russia has only released the names of the dead.

Meanwhile, fighting raged on as Ukraine’s military claimed its forces killed more than 100 Russian soldiers in the southern area of Kherson. Military officials Saturday said its forces bombed railway and road bridges inside Russian controlled territories.

Russia announced Saturday its forces killed more than 130 elite Ukrainian soldiers aboard a train in the Donbas region last week and were making gains in other locations on the battlefield.

Grain shipments

In other developments, the first ship loaded with Ukrainian grain is set to sail from the Black Sea port of Chornomorsk.

Last week Russia and Ukraine agreed to unblock grain exports from Black Sea ports, which have been threatened by Russian attacks since the invasion. The blockade of grain in Ukraine, one of the world’s biggest exporters, has led to sharp increases in global food prices.

Grain shipments from the country were allowed to resume after a U.N. brokered agreement was signed in Turkey last week.

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and mentioned the importance of Russia following through on the agreement.

Blinken also warned of consequences should Moscow move ahead with suspected plans to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

Iran Arrests Swedish Citizen on Espionage Charges

Iran has arrested a Swedish citizen on espionage charges, the official IRNA news agency reported on Saturday, after a court in Stockholm sentenced a former Iranian official for war crimes earlier this month.

Iran has arrested dozens of foreigners and dual nationals in recent years, mostly on espionage and security-related accusations. Rights groups call that a tactic to win concessions from abroad by inventing charges, which Tehran denies.

“The suspect had been under surveillance by the intelligence ministry during several previous trips to Iran because of (their) suspicious behavior and contacts,” IRNA quoted the Iranian intelligence ministry statement as saying.

It did not give a name or say when the arrest was made but added that the suspect had a history of going to the Palestinian territories, went to non-tourist destinations in Iran, and contacted people, including Europeans, under surveillance.

The intelligence ministry statement accused Sweden of “proxy spying” on behalf of Iran’s archenemy Israel, which it said would draw a “proportional reaction” from Iran.

Sweden’s Foreign Ministry said it was aware of the case.

A spokesperson said the case is that of a Swedish man whom the Foreign Ministry had said in May had been detained in Iran. Tehran did not report that arrest at that time. 

Relations between Sweden and Iran have been difficult since Sweden detained and put on trial a former Iranian official on charges of war crimes for the mass execution and torture of political prisoners at an Iranian prison in the 1980s.

On July 14, a Swedish court sentenced the man, Hamid Noury, to life in prison.

Iran condemned that as politically motivated.

Among other foreigners and dual nationals held in Iran are Ahmad Reza Jalali, a Swedish-Iranian researcher sentenced to death on charges of spying for Israel.

Pope Says He’ll Slow Down or Retire

Pope Francis acknowledged Saturday that he can no longer travel like he used to because of his strained knee ligaments, saying his weeklong Canadian pilgrimage was “a bit of a test” that showed he needs to slow down and one day possibly retire.

Speaking to reporters while traveling home from northern Nunavut, the 85-year-old Francis stressed that he hadn’t thought about resigning but said “the door is open” and there was nothing wrong with a pope stepping down.

“It’s not strange. It’s not a catastrophe. You can change the pope,” he said while sitting in an airplane wheelchair during a 45-minute news conference.

Francis said that while he hadn’t considered resigning until now, he realizes he has to at least slow down.

“I think at my age and with these limitations, I have to save (my energy) to be able to serve the church, or on the contrary, think about the possibility of stepping aside,” he said.

Francis was peppered with questions about the future of his pontificate following the first trip in which he used a wheelchair, walker and cane to get around, sharply limiting his program and ability to mingle with crowds.

He strained his right knee ligaments earlier this year, and continuing laser and magnetic therapy forced him to cancel a trip to Africa that was scheduled for the first week of July.

The Canada trip was difficult, and featured several moments when Francis was clearly in pain as he maneuvered getting up and down from chairs.

At the end of his six-day tour, he appeared in good spirits and energetic, despite a long day traveling to the edge of the Arctic on Friday to again apologize to Indigenous peoples for the injustices they suffered in Canada’s church-run residential schools.

Francis ruled out having surgery on his knee, saying it would not necessarily help and noting “there are still traces” from the effects of having undergone more than six hours of anesthesia in July 2021 to remove 33 centimeters of his large intestine.

“I’ll try to continue to do the trips and be close to people because I think it’s a way of servicing, being close. But more than this, I can’t say,” he said Saturday.

In other comments aboard the papal plane, Francis:

Agreed that the attempt to eliminate Indigenous culture in Canada through a church-run residential school system amounted to a cultural “genocide.” Francis said he didn't use the term during his Canada trip because it didn't come to mind. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission determined in 2015 that the forced removal of Indigenous children from their homes and placement in church-run residential schools to assimilate them into Christian, Canadian constituted a “cultural genocide.” “It’s true I didn’t use the word because it didn’t come to mind, but I described genocide, no?” Francis said. “I apologized, I asked forgiveness for this work, which was genocide.” 
Suggested he was not opposed to a development of Catholic doctrine on the use of contraception. Church teaching prohibits artificial contraception. Francis noted that a Vatican think tank recently published the acts of a congress where a modification to the church’s absolute “no” was discussed. He stressed that doctrine can develop over time and that it was the job of theologians to pursue such developments, with the pope ultimately deciding. Francis noted that church teaching on atomic weapons was modified during his pontificate to consider not only the use but the mere possession of atomic weapons as immoral and to consider the death penalty immoral in all cases. 
Confirmed he hoped to travel to Kazakhstan in mid-September for an interfaith conference where he might meet with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, who has justified the war in Ukraine. Francis also said he wants to go to Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, though no trip has yet been confirmed. He said he hoped to reschedule the trip to South Sudan he canceled because of his knee problems. He said the Congo leg of that trip would probably have to be put off until next year because of the rainy season.

How Russia Spread a Secret Web of Agents Across Ukraine

When the first armored vehicles of Russia’s invading army reached the heart of Chernobyl nuclear plant on the afternoon of Feb. 24, they encountered a Ukrainian unit charged with defending the notorious facility.

In less than two hours, and without a fight, the 169 members of the Ukrainian National Guard laid down their weapons. Russia had taken Chernobyl, a repository for tonnes of nuclear material and a key staging post on the approach to Kyiv.

The fall of Chernobyl, site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster, stands out as an anomaly in the five-month old war: a successful blitzkrieg operation in a conflict marked elsewhere by a brutal and halting advance by Russian troops and grinding resistance by Ukraine.

Now a Reuters investigation has found that Russia’s success at Chernobyl was no accident, but part of a long-standing Kremlin operation to infiltrate the Ukrainian state with secret agents.

Five people with knowledge of the Kremlin’s preparations said war planners around President Vladimir Putin believed that, aided by these agents, Russia would require only a small military force and a few days to force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s administration to quit, flee or capitulate.

Through interviews with dozens of officials in Russia and Ukraine and a review of Ukrainian court documents and statements to investigators, related to a probe into the conduct of people who worked at Chernobyl, Reuters has established that this infiltration reached far deeper than has been publicly acknowledged. The officials interviewed include people inside Russia who were briefed on Moscow’s invasion planning and Ukrainian investigators tasked with tracking down spies.

“Apart from the external enemy, we unfortunately have an internal enemy, and this enemy is no less dangerous,” the secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, Oleksiy Danilov, said in an interview.

At the time of the invasion, Danilov said, Russia had agents in the Ukrainian defense, security and law enforcement sectors. He declined to give names but said such traitors needed to be “neutralized” at all costs.

Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation is conducting a probe into whether the National Guard acted unlawfully by surrendering its weapons to an enemy, a local official told Reuters. The State Bureau of Investigation didn’t comment. The National Guard defended the actions of its unit at the plant, pointing to the risks of conflict at a nuclear site.

Court documents and testimony, reported here for the first time, reveal the role played by Chernobyl’s head of security, Valentin Viter, who is in detention and is being investigated for absenting himself from his post. An extract from the state register of pre-trial investigations, seen by Reuters, shows Viter is also suspected of treason, an allegation his lawyer says is unfounded. In a statement to investigators, Viter said that on the day of the invasion he spoke by phone with the National Guard unit commander. Viter advised the commander not to endanger his unit, telling him: “Spare your people.”

One source with direct knowledge of the Kremlin’s invasion plans told Reuters that Russian agents were deployed to Chernobyl last year to bribe officials and prepare the ground for a bloodless takeover. Reuters couldn’t independently verify the details of this assertion. However, Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation has said it is investigating a former top intelligence official, Andriy Naumov, on suspicion of treason for passing Chernobyl security secrets to a foreign state. A lawyer for Naumov declined to comment.

At a national level, sources with knowledge of the Kremlin’s plans said Moscow was counting on activating sleeper agents inside the Ukrainian security apparatus. The sources confirmed Western intelligence reports that the Kremlin was lining up Oleg Tsaryov, a hotelier, to lead a puppet government in Kyiv. And a former Ukrainian prosecutor general disclosed to Reuters in June that Ukrainian politician Viktor Medvedchuk, a friend of Putin, had an encrypted phone issued by Russia so he could communicate with the Kremlin.

Tsaryov said the Reuters account of how Moscow’s operation overall unfolded “has very little to do with reality.” He did not address his relationship with the Kremlin. A lawyer for Medvedchuk declined to comment. Medvedchuk is in a Ukrainian jail awaiting trial on treason charges that pre-date the Russian invasion.

Though Russia captured Chernobyl, its plan to take power in Kyiv failed. In many cases, the sleeper agents Moscow had installed failed to do their job, according to multiple sources in Russia and Ukraine. Ukraine Security Council Secretary Danilov said the agents and their handlers believed Ukraine was weak, which was “a total misconception.”

People the Kremlin counted on as its proxies in Ukraine overstated their influence in the years leading up to the invasion, said four of the sources with knowledge of the Kremlin’s preparations. The Kremlin relied in its planning on “clowns – they know a little bit, but they always say what the leadership wants to hear because otherwise they won’t get paid,” said one of the four, a person close to the Moscow-backed separatist leadership in eastern Ukraine.

Putin now finds himself in a protracted, full-scale war, fighting for every inch of territory at huge cost.

But the Russian intelligence infiltration did succeed in one way: It has sown mistrust inside Ukraine and laid bare the shortcomings of Ukraine’s near 30,000-strong Security Service of Ukraine, or SBU, which shares a complicated history with Russia, and is now tasked with hunting down traitors and collaborators.

This internal Ukrainian turmoil burst into partial view on July 17. In a video address to the nation, President Zelenskyy suspended SBU head Ivan Bakanov, whom he has known for years, citing the large number of SBU staff suspected of treason. Ukrainian law enforcement sources told Reuters that some SBU staff recounted in conversation with them that they were unable to reach Bakanov for several days after Russia invaded, adding to a sense of chaos in Kyiv. Bakanov didn’t respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.

Zelenskyy also said 651 cases of alleged treason and collaboration have been opened against individuals involved in law enforcement and in the prosecutor’s office. More than 60 officials from the SBU and the prosecutor general’s office are working against Ukraine in Russian-occupied zones, Zelenskyy added.

Asked to comment on Reuters’ findings, the Ukrainian presidential administration, the SBU and the prosecutor general’s office did not respond. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “All these questions have no relation whatsoever to us, therefore there is nothing for us to comment on here.” The Russian intelligence agency, the FSB, and the defense ministry did not respond to Reuters’ questions.

KGB ties

Moscow’s spy apparatus has been intertwined with Chernobyl for decades. After the 1986 disaster, when a reactor blew up scattering radioactive clouds across Europe, the Soviet KGB stepped in. More than 1,000 KGB staff took part in the clean-up, according to a declassified internal memo to a Ukrainian government minister, dated 1991. Then-KGB boss Viktor Chebrikov ordered his officers to recruit agents among the plant’s staff and instructed that a KGB officer should hold the post of deputy boss of the plant in charge of security, according to another memo – an internal KGB communication from 1986.

Even after Ukraine became independent in 1991, Moscow’s spy chiefs remained powerful there. The first head of Ukraine’s domestic intelligence service was Nikolai Golushko, who started his career in Soviet Russia. Before his appointment he led the Ukraine arm of the Soviet KGB. Golushko kept most of the Soviet-era officers in their jobs, he wrote in a 2012 memoir.

After four months as Ukraine’s spy chief, Golushko moved back to Moscow to rejoin KGB headquarters, and in 1993 became head of Russia’s newly created Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, precursor to today’s FSB.

In Moscow, Golushko received a visit from the deputy head of Ukraine’s State Security Service, Golushko wrote in the memoir. He recalled how Oleg Pugach, the Ukrainian official, asked for Golushko’s help finding fabric to make the uniforms for Ukraine’s intelligence officers. Golushko also wrote that Kyiv, short of its own resources and expertise, signed deals under which the SBU agreed to share intelligence information with Moscow. In exchange, Moscow provided supplies, technology and expert help with investigations. Reuters approached Golushko for comment. A colleague from an intelligence veterans’ group told Reuters Golushko, now 85, was in ill health and could not answer questions. Reuters was unable to reach Pugach and couldn’t independently confirm Golushko’s account.

Intelligence officers working at Chernobyl officially became part of Ukraine’s security apparatus in 1991, but they continued to take orders from Moscow, said the person with direct knowledge of the invasion plan. “In effect, these were FSB employees,” said the person. The SBU did not respond to questions about Chernobyl or historical ties to Russian intelligence.

The Chernobyl nuclear plant is a vast facility. A giant steel structure encases Reactor No. 4, ground zero of the 1986 disaster. The plant lies just 10 kilometers at the closest point from the border with Belarus, in a dense and highly irradiated forest. Russia’s war planners considered control of Chernobyl to be strategically important because it sat on the shortest route for their advance on Kyiv, according to Western military analysts.

The source with direct knowledge of the invasion plan said that in November 2021 Russia started sending undercover intelligence agents to Ukraine, tasked with establishing contacts with officials responsible for securing the Chernobyl power plant. The agents’ goal was to ensure there would be no armed resistance once Russian troops rolled in. The source said Chernobyl also served as a drop-off point for documents from SBU headquarters. In return for payment, Ukrainian officials handed Russian spies information about Ukraine’s military readiness.

Reuters could not independently verify details of the source’s account, and neither Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation nor the SBU responded to the news agency’s questions. But a review of Ukrainian testimony and court documents and an interview with a local official show that Kyiv is conducting at least three investigations into the conduct of people who worked at Chernobyl. The investigations have identified at least two people suspected of providing information to Russian agents or otherwise helping them seize the plant, according to these documents.

One of the men suspected by Ukrainian prosecutors and investigators of helping Russian forces is Valentin Viter, a 47-year-old colonel in the SBU. At the time of the Russian invasion, Viter was the deputy general-director of the plant responsible for its physical protection.

In May last year, Viter oversaw a routine training exercise that was meant to simulate an attack by armed saboteurs. Armed members of the National Guard unit that protects Chernobyl took part, and rehearsed repelling the attackers by force. Viter said the exercise was a success, according to a video interview posted shortly afterwards on the plant’s website. He also said he hoped Chernobyl’s security team would “not need to apply the knowledge and skills we acquired in a real-life situation.”

Viter was seconded from the SBU to work at Chernobyl as security chief in mid-2019, according to a statement he gave to investigators. In a further statement, he said that on Feb. 18 this year – six days before the Russian invasion – he went on sick leave with a respiratory problem.

By then, Russia was bolstering its troops in Belarus in preparation for an invasion, U.S. officials said at the time. Satellite images shot by U.S. satellite imagery company Maxar on Feb. 15 showed a military pontoon bridge under construction across the Pripyat River in Belarus, north of the power plant. Ukraine’s police, and the SBU, were on heightened alert in response to the Russian threat, and the national police chief said in a statement at the time that security was reinforced at the Chernobyl plant.

On the morning of the Russian invasion, Feb. 24, Viter said, in a statement to investigators, that he was at his home in Kyiv. He telephoned the head of the Chernobyl National Guard unit, who was at his post. By then, people at the plant knew a column of Russian armored vehicles was heading their way.

Viter, according to his testimony to Ukrainian investigators, told the commander, in Russian: “Spare your people.” Viter had no official authority over the National Guard, and Reuters could not determine whether the commander was heeding Viter’s words when the unit surrendered after discussions with the Russian invaders. A National Guard statement identified the unit commander as Yuriy Pindak.

When the Russian soldiers finally retreated from Chernobyl after a 36-day occupation, they took Pindak and most of his unit away as captives. Ukraine says the guards are being held in Russia or Belarus. Russian officials did not comment on the unit’s whereabouts.

Ukraine’s State Bureau of Investigation is conducting a probe into whether the National Guard broke the law by laying down arms, said Yuriy Fomichev, mayor of the town of Slavutych where most of the Chernobyl workers live. Fomichev said he was not aware of anyone having been charged. The State Bureau of Investigation didn’t respond to Reuters’ questions about the matter.

The National Guard declined to comment on the actions of individual commanders and members of the unit tasked with protecting Chernobyl. “Fighting on the territory of nuclear facilities is prohibited by the Geneva Convention,” it said, adding that this was “one of the reasons” why there was no heavy fighting at the site. It referred questions about any investigation to the Bureau.

Article 56 of an additional protocol to the Geneva Conventions states that nuclear power plants and other dangerous installations should not be attacked.

Viter was arrested in western Ukraine and is now in pre-trial detention there on suspicion of absenting himself from his post. An extract from the court’s register, seen by Reuters, shows that law enforcement agents have initiated a second investigation into Viter for suspected treason by “deliberately assisting the military units of the aggressor country, the Russian Federation, in carrying out subversive activities against Ukraine.” They have yet to uncover evidence tying him to Russian special services.

Viter has said in court statements that he fled Kyiv for the safety of his family two days after Chernobyl was seized but tried to stay in contact with colleagues at the plant.

His lawyer, Oleksandr Kovalenko, said Viter had a legitimate reason for being off work and was unaware that he should stay at Chernobyl. The lawyer said any treason allegation was unfounded and Viter had not been served with a letter of suspicion, a step which usually precedes charges. According to the lawyer, Viter said “Spare your people” to remind the National Guard commander that many people depended on him. Viter did not discuss surrender, Kovalenko said. He added that investigators had not asked Viter about any exchange of documents at Chernobyl.

Cash and emeralds

The extent to which Russia infiltrated Chernobyl has focused Ukrainian authorities’ attention on the SBU, the agency Viter worked for, sources said. In particular, military prosecutors on Viter’s case are interested in his connection to a former Ukrainian official called Andriy Naumov, according to sources with knowledge of the investigation and a transcript of Viter’s questioning seen by Reuters.

Previously an official in the Ukrainian prosecutor’s office, by 2018 Naumov had been appointed head of COTIZ, a state enterprise responsible for estate-management of the radioactive exclusion zone around Chernobyl. A major part of COTIZ’s role was to promote “extreme tourism” in the exclusion zone, but the enterprise also had a role in keeping the site secure, according to its website.

After his stint at Chernobyl, Naumov was made the head of the SBU’s department of internal security, a division that investigates other officers suspected of criminal activity. Last year, the agency said it thwarted an assassination attempt on Naumov by other SBU officers. Naumov was later fired as department chief, according to Ukrainian media outlet Ukrainska Pravda and a law enforcement source.

Naumov vanished shortly before the invasion, a person in law enforcement said. He eventually turned up in Serbia in June. A Serbian police statement issued on June 8 said police and anti-corruption agents had arrested a Ukrainian citizen identified by the initials “A.N.” on the border with North Macedonia. He had been trying to cross into North Macedonia from Serbia. A search of the BMW in which he was a passenger uncovered $124,924 and 607,990 euros in cash, plus two emeralds, the statement said. It said the individual and the unnamed driver of the BMW, who was also detained, were suspected of intending to launder the cash and emeralds, which police believe originated from criminal activities. Volodymyr Tolkach, Ukraine’s ambassador to Serbia, publicly confirmed the arrested man was Naumov.

The State Bureau of Investigation confirmed a local media report that it is conducting a pre-trial investigation into Naumov for state treason. It said it was looking into whether Naumov collected information on the security set-up at Chernobyl while working at the plant and later at the SBU and passed it to a foreign state. The statement did not say what grounds it had for suspecting he passed on secrets or if it had specific evidence linking him to Russia.

On March 31, President Zelenskyy issued a decree stripping Naumov of his brigadier-general rank. The same day, the Ukrainian president announced in an emotional address that Naumov and another SBU general were “traitors” who violated their oath of allegiance to Ukraine. Zelenskyy did not make reference to Chernobyl.

Naumov remains in detention in Serbia and could not be reached for comment. His lawyer in Serbia, Viktor Gostiljac, declined to comment. The SBU did not reply to questions about Naumov.

Decapitation

For Russia’s war planners, seizing Chernobyl was just a stepping stone to the main objective: taking control of the Ukrainian national government in Kyiv. There, too, the Kremlin expected that undercover agents in positions of power would play a crucial part, according to four sources with knowledge of the plan.

Yuriy Lutsenko, who served as Ukraine’s prosecutor general from 2016 until 2019, revealed to Reuters that at the time he left the role “hundreds” of Defense Ministry employees were under surveillance, approved by his office, because they were suspected of ties to the Russian state. Lutsenko said he believed there were similar numbers of suspected spies in other ministries.

Russia’s war planners were also counting on other allies to help in the takeover, five sources said.

One of the most visible loyalists was Viktor Medvedchuk, a leader of Ukraine’s Opposition Platform – For Life party. Putin is god-father to one of Medvedchuk’s children. Since 2014, Medvedchuk has been a vocal opponent of the popular protests that called for closer ties to the European Union.

Medvedchuk was charged with state treason on May 11, 2021. Investigators from the SBU alleged at the time that Medvedchuk passed secret details about Ukrainian military units to Russian officials, and intended to recruit Ukrainian agents and covertly influence Ukrainian politics. The day before the invasion, he left his home in Kyiv and was planning on leaving the country, in violation of the terms of his bail, according to the SBU.

Medvedchuk was detained on April 12, Zelenskyy announced that day. Zelenskyy immediately posted pictures of him handcuffed, in Ukrainian military fatigues and looking bedraggled. Medvedchuk has since been in detention.

Medvedchuk has denied the treason charges, saying they were falsified and part of a political plot against him. Kremlin spokesman Peskov told reporters on April 13 Medvedchuk had no back-channel communication with the Russian leadership.

Lutsenko, the former Ukraine prosecutor general, told Reuters that before the Russian invasion, Medvedchuk used an encrypted telephone that was issued to him by the Kremlin, equipment reserved only for the most senior Russian officials and pro-Russian separatist leaders. Lutsenko said Ukrainian investigators had managed to hack the encrypted phone system, without disclosing what they found.

Medvedchuk’s lawyer, Tetyana Zhukovska, declined to comment until a court has handed down a decision in the case. The Ukrainian prosecutor’s office did not comment.

Another key figure, according to three sources familiar with the Russian plans, was Oleg Tsaryov, a square-jawed 52-year-old former member of Ukraine’s parliament. He was picked by Kremlin invasion planners to lead the new interim government they planned to install, these sources said. Their comments are the first confirmation from within Russia of U.S. intelligence assessments, reported by the Financial Times earlier this year, that Moscow was considering putting Tsaryov in a leadership role in a puppet government in Kyiv.

Tsaryov has been under Ukrainian and U.S. sanctions since 2014, when, after a bid to win election as Ukrainian president collapsed, he headed up a body called “Novorossiya,” or New Russia. The group pushed the idea of turning southeastern Ukraine into a separate pro-Russian statelet. By the start of this year, he was in Russian-annexed Crimea, where he owns two hotels.

In the early hours of Feb. 24, at the start of the invasion, Tsaryov told his more than 200,000 Telegram followers he had crossed into Kyiv-controlled territory. “I’m in Ukraine. Kyiv will be free from fascists.”

But Zelenskyy did not capitulate. Any expectations in Moscow that he would flee Kyiv or negotiate a deal that would cede to Russia’s demands soon evaporated. In the weeks that followed, Ukrainian forces halted Russian troops’ advance on Kyiv.

Tsaryov never made it to the capital. On June 10, he posted an advertisement to his Telegram followers for his seaside hotel in Crimea, where a one-night stay costs 1,500 rubles ($28) per person per night. Tsaryov is now spending his time in Crimea with visits to Moscow, according to his social media posts.

Paranoia and mistrust

Russia’s campaign of infiltration did, however, stir suspicion and mistrust at some levels of the Ukrainian state, which hampered its ability to govern, especially in the first few days after the invasion.

One stark incident that fueled the tensions in Kyiv’s power corridors related to the death in early March of Denys Kirieiev, a former bank executive, several sources said. He was a member of the Ukrainian delegation that took part in short-lived talks with Russian negotiators on the Ukraine-Belarus border, starting on Feb. 28. A photograph showed Kirieiev sitting alongside Ukrainian officials at the negotiating table.

An advisor to the Zelenskyy administration said, in an online interview, that officers from the SBU shot Kirieiev while trying to arrest him as a Russian spy.

But Ukraine’s Military Intelligence Agency said Kirieiev was its employee and intelligence officer, and that he died a hero while conducting an unspecified special assignment defending Ukraine. A source close to the Ukrainian military told Reuters that Kirieiev was indeed a spy working for Ukraine. He had access to the highest levels of the Russian leadership, this source said, and was feeding back valuable information on invasion plans and other matters to his handlers in Kyiv.

Amid the chaos early in the war, Bakanov, then the head of the SBU, left Kyiv for at least three days after the Russian invasion, according to three people in Ukrainian law enforcement. Two of these people said some SBU staff recounted they were unable to reach Bakanov for several days after Russia invaded. In suspending Bakanov on July 17, Zelenskyy cited an article in Ukraine’s Armed Forces statute, under which servicemen can be relieved of their duties for improper conduct leading to casualties or a threat of casualties.

Bakanov and the SBU did not respond to Reuters’ questions.

Zelenskyy, in his speech, stressed the toll Russian infiltration was taking on his embattled country by speaking of the numerous officials who have been accused of betraying Ukraine.

“Such an array of crimes against the foundations of the national security of the state … poses very serious questions to the relevant leaders,” Zelenskyy said.

“Each of these questions will receive a proper answer.”

Women’s Soccer Energizes England in a League of Their Own

Izzy Short, 13, struggles to pick her favorite England player as she anticipates the team’s appearance in Sunday’s final of the European soccer championships.

There’s forward Ellen White. Defender Lucy Bronze. Midfielder Georgia Stanway. Captain Leah Williamson. The whole team basically.

“I just look up to them really,” the high school player from Manchester said, excitement filling her voice. “They are all very positive … they all, like, appreciated one another and how they are such a good team and all of them just working together really. And they’re just so kind and so good as well.”

The march to Sunday’s final against Germany has energized people throughout England, with the team’s pinpoint passing and flashy goals attracting record crowds, burgeoning TV ratings and adoring coverage. The Lionesses, as the team is known, have been a welcome distraction from the political turmoil and cost-of-living crisis that dominate the headlines.

The final, set to be played before a sellout crowd of more than 87,000 at historic Wembley Stadium, is seen as a watershed moment for women’s sports in England. Although the game, known here as football, is a national passion, female players have often been scoffed at and were once banned from top-level facilities. Now the women’s team has a chance to do something the men haven’t done since 1966: Win a major international tournament.

Hope Powell played 66 times for England and coached the team from 1998 to 2013.

“I think we have to give thanks to the people that worked really hard before us, that went through all of that, being banned, fighting for the right to play,” Powell told the BBC. “I think we have to remember what came before is what got us to the point we are today.”

There were 68,871 people in the stands at Old Trafford, the home of Manchester United, when England beat Austria 1-0 in its opening game of this year’s European championship. That helped push total tournament attendance so far to 487,683 — more than double the record of 240,055, according to tournament organizer UEFA.

But it’s not just the victories that are attracting fans. It is how the team is winning.

With money from sponsorship deals and a new TV contract supporting full-time professional players, there is more flash and polish than many expected. While they don’t play like the men’s team, that’s not a bad thing.

There are fewer players flopping to the ground to draw fouls, less rolling around on the turf dramatically clutching purportedly injured knees or ankles and little shouting at the referees. Instead there is teamwork, artful passes and stunning goals like Stanway’s 20-meter (22-yard) screamer in the quarterfinal victory over Spain and the backheel from Alessia Russo in England’s 4-0 semifinal win against Sweden.

And here’s the thing: People like it.

Naomi Short, Izzy’s mom and the goalie for Longford Park Ladies Football Club, said fans are being treated to a “totally different vibe” at the stadium and on the field — one that’s more welcoming than the lager-fueled tribalism that has put some people off the men’s game.

“It’s not just girls watching it — it’s families, it’s men, women, children. Everybody’s watching it. It’s brought everybody together,” said Short, 44. “Whereas, you know, sometimes when you go to a men’s game, there is sometimes (a) slightly different atmosphere.”

There is also less distance between fans and the players, who know they have a responsibility to build a game their mothers and grandmothers were excluded from. The players stay after games and sign autographs. They take selfies. There is time for a chat. They know that little kids look up to them.

Coach Sarina Wiegman has made a point of noting that there’s more at stake than victory alone.

“We want to inspire the nation,” Wiegman said after the team’s semifinal victory. “I think that’s what we’re doing and we want to make a difference — and we hope that we will get everyone so enthusiastic and proud of us and that even more girls and boys start playing football.”

The groundswell of support for the team is also being fueled by the country’s dismal record in international competition and hopes that they can bring a European championship home to England, which prides itself as the place where modern football was invented.

England’s last major international championship, men’s or women’s, came at the 1966 World Cup — a lifetime ago for most fans. The men’s team disappointed fans again last year when they lost to Italy in the final of their European championship.

That leaves it to the women to end the drought.

Women’s football has a long and sometimes controversial history in England.

The women’s game flourished during and for a few years after World War I, when teams like Dick, Kerr Ladies Football Club filled the sporting gap created as top men’s players went off to the trenches to fight. Women’s teams, many organized at munitions plants, attracted large crowds and raised money for charity. One match in 1920 attracted 53,000 spectators.

But that popularity triggered a backlash from the men who ran the Football Association, the sport’s governing body in England. In 1921, the FA banned women’s teams from using its facilities, saying “the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.”

The ban remained in place for the next 50 years.

Women organized their own football association in 1969, and soon after the FA ended its ban on women. The FA took over responsibility for the women’s game in 1993, beginning the slow process of improving funding and facilities.

Things accelerated after the 2012 London Olympics, when authorities began to recognize there was a global audience for the women’s game, said Gail Newsham, author of “In a League of Their Own!” that tells the story of Dick, Kerr Ladies.

Last year, the FA signed a three-year deal for broadcast rights to the Women’s Super League, increasing funding and exposure for the game. Sky Sports will broadcast a minimum of 35 games a year on its pay TV channels, and the BBC will carry another 22 on its free-to-view network.

“It’s not that long ago that girls, you know, top players, were paying for their own travel to get to matches and then having to get up to go to work the next day. So all of this is helping,” Newsham said of the funding. “You can see the difference now in the professionalism of the girls playing football.”

The excitement about Sunday’s final has triggered a scramble for tickets.

Tickets that originally sold for 15-50 pounds ($18-$61) are now selling for 100-1,000 pounds ($122-$1,216) on resale sites.

The Short family has decided to watch the game at the local pub, making an afternoon of it, like fans around the country.

“I don’t think it will matter if it’s men or women,” Naomi Short said. “It’s England now. It’s coming home. You know, I’d like to think that’s what people are getting excited about.”

Top US, Russian Diplomats Discuss Proposed Prisoner Swap

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by telephone Friday with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, pressing him to accept a U.S. proposal to secure the release of American professional basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan.  

The call is the first conversation between the two top diplomats since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February and the highest-level known contact between the two countries since that time.

“We had a frank and direct conversation,” Blinken told reporters Friday at the State Department.

“I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner,” he said.

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement did not say whether the two sides had made any headway but chastised the United States for not pursuing “quiet diplomacy.”

“Regarding the possible exchange of imprisoned Russian and U.S. citizens, the Russian side strongly suggested a return to the practice of handling this in a professional way and using ‘quiet diplomacy’ rather than throwing out speculative information,” the statement said.

The United States announced this week that it made an offer to Russia for a prisoner swap back in June but nothing has yet come of it.

U.S. government officials describe the proposed terms of the swap as sending convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout back to Moscow in exchange for the release of Americans Griner and Whelan.  

CNN reported Friday that Russia has requested that another Russian prisoner be added to the swap. The news agency cited multiple sources familiar with the discussions as saying Russia requested the inclusion of Vadim Krasikov, a former colonel from the country’s domestic spy agency who was convicted of murder in Germany last year.

   

News of a possible prisoner swap came as Griner, who has admitted arriving in Russia in February with vape canisters containing cannabis oil in her luggage, testified at a court hearing Wednesday that a language interpreter provided to her translated only a fraction of what was being said as authorities arrested her.  

   

Griner, who faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of transporting drugs, said she was instructed by officials to sign documents at the Moscow airport without them providing an explanation for what she was acknowledging. A Russian court has authorized her detention until December 20.  

   

Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, has been imprisoned in Russia since 2018, accused of espionage. His family and Griner’s have been pleading with the White House to expedite efforts to gain their release.  

Russia for years has sought the release of Bout, an arms dealer once labeled the “Merchant of Death.” He was sentenced to 25 years in prison in 2012 after his conviction in a scheme to illegally sell millions of dollars in weapons.  

The possible prisoner swap was approved by U.S. President Joe Biden, CNN reported, with Biden’s support overriding opposition from the Department of Justice, which is generally against prisoner trades for fear they would incentivize other governments to seize Americans overseas in hopes of prisoner swap deals of their own.  

   

The U.S. secured the release from Russia of American Trevor Reed in April. He was a former Marine who was held captive in Russia for more than two years after being accused of assaulting a Russian police officer. He was traded for Konstantin Yaroshenko, a Russian pilot then serving a 20-year federal prison sentence for a cocaine smuggling conspiracy.  

   

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

Russia, Ukraine Accuse Each Other of Prison Attacks That Killed Ukrainian POWs   

Dozens of Ukrainian prisoners of war were killed when a prison in eastern Ukraine was destroyed in a missile strike. Russia and Ukraine on Friday accused each other of carrying out the attack. Neither claim could be independently verified.

Russia’s defense ministry said 40 prisoners were killed and 75 were wounded in the strike on the prison in Olenivka, a part of Donetsk province held by separatists.

A spokesman for the Russian separatists put the death toll at 53 and accused Kyiv of targeting the prison with U.S.-made HIMARS rockets.

Ukraine’s armed forces denied carrying out the attack, saying Russian artillery had targeted the prison to hide the mistreatment of the prisoners.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson described the attack as a “bloody provocation” aimed at discouraging Ukrainian soldiers from surrendering.

Ukraine’s military intelligence said Russian claims were part of an “information war to accuse the Ukrainian armed forces of shelling civilian infrastructure and the population to cover up their own treacherous action.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Russia had committed a war crime, and he called for international condemnation.

The International Committee of the Red Cross asked on Friday for access to the site and to evacuate the wounded.

Separately, Ukraine said at least five people had been killed and seven wounded in a Russian missile strike on the southeastern city of Mykolaiv, a river port just off the Black Sea.

Russia did not immediately comment on the situation. 

 

Ukraine’s Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said the country was ready to restart grain shipments from its southern ports under the U.N.-brokered agreement but noted that no dates had been set. 

 

Russia and Ukraine agreed last week to unblock grain exports from Black Sea ports, which have been threatened by Russian attacks since the invasion. 

 

The blockade of grain in Ukraine, one of the world’s biggest exporters, has fed into global food price increases. 

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by phone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and mentioned the importance of Russia’s following through on the agreement.   

 

Blinken also warned of consequences should Moscow move ahead with suspected plans to annex portions of eastern and southern Ukraine.   

 

During the call, Blinken urged Moscow to accept a U.S. offer to release two American detainees — basketball star Brittany Griner and Paul Whelan, who is in a Russian prison.    

 

Meanwhile, a Russian operative who worked on behalf of one of the Kremlin’s main intelligence services has been charged with recruiting political groups in the United States to advance pro-Russia propaganda. That includes the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the Justice Department said Friday. 

 

Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov is accused of using groups in Florida, Georgia and California to spread pro-Kremlin talking points, with prosecutors accusing him of funding trips to Russia and paying for travel for conferences. 

 

He is also charged with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government. 

An appeals court in Kyiv on Friday reduced to 15 years the life sentence of a Russian soldier convicted in the first war crimes trial since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.  

 

Critics said the sentencing of Vadim Shishimarin, a 21-year-old contract soldier who pleaded guilty of killing a civilian and was convicted in May, was unduly harsh.  The soldier had confessed to the crime, expressed remorse and said he was following orders.  

 

His lawyer had appealed to the court to reduce the sentence to 10 years. He said it was highly likely Shishimarin would be returned to Russia in a prisoner exchange.  

 

In other news, the British Defense Ministry posted an intelligence update on Twitter Friday that said Russia, “in a significant change,” has handed over responsibility for portions of its frontline activities to the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company.    

 

The post said the move makes it difficult for Russia to deny links between such companies and the Russian state. The measure was undertaken, according to the ministry, because Russia likely has “a major shortage of combat infantry.”  

 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

Україна отримає від Канади додаткових 450 мільйонів канадських доларів кредиту – Мінфін

Кошти планується спрямувати до державного бюджету на пріоритетні видатки, в тому числі – на першочергові соціальні й гуманітарні платежі

Russian Charged with Using US Groups to Spread Propaganda

A Russian operative who worked on behalf of one of the Kremlin’s main intelligence services has been charged with recruiting political groups in the United States to advance pro-Russia propaganda, including during the invasion of Ukraine earlier this year, the U.S. Justice Department said Friday.

Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov is accused of using groups in Florida, Georgia and California to spread pro-Kremlin talking points, with prosecutors accusing him of funding trips to Russia and paying for travel for conferences.

He is charged in federal court in Florida with conspiring to have U.S. citizens act as illegal agents of the Russian government. It was not immediately clear if he had a lawyer who could speak on his behalf, and he is not currently in custody.

The indictment alleges Ionov directed one of the political activists to post a petition on the website created by former President Barack Obama’s team, change.org. The petition, entitled “Petition on Crime of Genocide against African People in the United States,” could still be found on change.gov on Friday and had more than 113,000 signatures.

The organizations were not identified in the indictment, which was filed in a federal court in Florida.

The Treasury Department also announced sanctions Friday against Ionov, accusing him of giving money to organizations that he and Russian intelligence services thought would create a social or political disturbance in the U.S., and also looked into ways to support an unspecified 2022 gubernatorial candidate.

“As court documents show, Ionov allegedly orchestrated a brazen influence campaign, turning U.S. political groups and U.S. citizens into instruments of the Russian government,” Assistant Attorney General Matthew Olsen, the head of the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said in a statement.

The case is part of a much broader Justice Department crackdown on foreign influence operations aimed at shaping public opinion in the U.S. In 2018, for instance, the Justice Department charged 13 Russian nationals with participating in a huge but hidden social media campaign aimed at sowing discord during the 2016 presidential election won by Republican Donald Trump.

FBI Special Agent in Charge David Walker in Tampa called the Russian efforts “some of the most egregious and blatant violations we’ve seen.”

“The Russian intelligence threat is continuous and unrelenting,” Walker said at a news conference in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Today’s actions should serve as a deterrent.”

Record EU Inflation Expected; Economy Continues to Grow

The European Union’s statistical office, Eurostat, on Friday estimated inflation is expected to reach a record 8.9% in July, while the Eurozone and EU economy overall continued to grow during the first quarter of 2022.

In its report, Eurostat indicated inflation in July was driven largely by the energy sector with 39.7% growth, down from 42% in June. The food, alcohol and tobacco sector follows, with a rise of 9.8%, compared with 8.9% in June. The non-energy industrial goods sector grew 4.5% compared with 4.3% in June, and the services sector grew 3.7%, compared with 3.4% in June.

For months, inflation has been running at its highest levels since 1997, when record-keeping for the euro began, leading the European Central Bank to raise interest rates last week for the first time in 11 years and signal another boost in September.

Meanwhile, Eurostat also reported Friday the eurozone’s seasonally adjusted GDP increased by 0.7% and by 0.6% in the EU overall, compared with the previous quarter. In the first quarter of 2022, GDP had grown by 0.5% in the euro area and 0.6% throughout the EU.

The positive numbers come despite stagnant growth in Germany, Europe’s largest economy. France showed modest 0.5% growth, while Italy and Spain exceeded expectations with 1 and 1.1% economic expansions, respectively.

Eurostat says the numbers for both GDP growth and inflation are preliminary flash estimates based on data that are incomplete and subject to further revision.

The Associated Press, citing regional economic analysts, reports a rebound in tourism following the COVID-19 pandemic helped drive economic growth. The analysts caution, however, that inflation, rising interest rates and the worsening energy crisis are expected to push the region into recession later this year.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press.

Ukraine Celebrates Its Tank-Towing Farmers

Towed away gleefully as if it were parked illegally, the Soviet-era armored personnel carrier doesn’t look so intimidating as it is paraded before the delighted Ukrainians gathered to celebrate its seizure.

Theoretically, the 1970s MT-LB belongs to the Russian forces, but they abandoned it in Ukraine’s northeast, around 30 kilometers from the warring neighbors’ shared border.

It was found by tractor driver Vitaliy Denysenko, who grins, a mischievous twinkle in his eye, as he pulls his prize around a field in the village of Mala Rogan, where it was left during a hasty withdrawal at the end of March.

“We needed two tractors to pull it out, which we were able to do after the military demined the field,” the 44-year-old tells a group of reporters gathered to cover the spectacle.

Footage of Russian tanks and other military vehicles being towed away by plucky Ukrainian tractors has appeared regularly on social media since Moscow’s Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine and quickly became a defining image of the country’s resistance.

Denysenko followed the example of farmers across the country by donating his quarry to the military.

“We could not use it for ourselves. What could we do with it? Drive it to the village disco?” he said.

Ukrainian farmers have commandeered so many Russian vehicles in areas occupied and then abandoned by Moscow’s withdrawing forces that wags on the internet began calling them Europe’s “fifth-largest army.”

Craze

Now their chutzpah is being celebrated by the country’s national postal service, which had representatives in Mala Rogan on Thursday to launch a new stamp depicting one of the infamous heists.

Tetyana Fomenko, manager of the Kharkiv regional postal service’s stamp-collection store, said it was the fourth military-themed stamp issued during the war, with 5 million due to go on sale.

It is unclear which Ukrainian first towed a Russian tank but the craze really took hold when Viktor Kychuk and his friends took charge of a Soviet T-80 on March 1 in Slatyne, a northeastern town of 6,000, just 13 kilometers from Russia.

“We found a lot of vehicles and equipment in our village once it was liberated… This one was really stuck,” the 44-year-old told AFP, recalling shell fire raining down as they carried out the daring operation.

“There was a lot of discarded equipment, but the local team made the best of it,” he added.

“They cut out all the wiring, punched through all the optics and everything that remained. Four units were taken out. And four pieces of equipment were taken away by our guys from the village.”

Symbol of defiance

Kychuk sent a clip of him and his friends riding the tank away to regional military head Volodymyr Usov, who uploaded it to YouTube, where it went viral, quickly clocking 350,000 views.

The Ukrposhta postal service has become something of a symbol of Ukrainian defiance after issuing a stamp in April depicting a soldier making giving the middle finger to the Russian Black Sea flagship Moskva.

The warship had been sunk days earlier by an explosion and fire that Ukraine claimed was caused by a missile strike — while Russia said the damage was due to an explosion of munitions on board.

In Kyiv on Thursday there was a huge queue of people outside the central post office waiting to snap up the latest stamp.

Those in line were told there was a three-hour wait to get their hands on the prized memento.

“This is how we support the struggle of our people against the Russian aggressor,” lifelong stamp collector Vitaliy, 60, told AFP.

“But now there is a war going on, we, as patriots, support our country. A part of the money from the sale of these stamps will go to the armed forces of Ukraine.”

Russia Says Ukrainian Shelling Kills 40 Ukrainian Prisoners of War

Russian-backed separatists say Ukrainian shelling in eastern Ukraine has killed at least 40 Ukrainian prisoners of war captured during the fighting in Mariupol.  The separatists said at least 75 prisoners were wounded.   

The Ukrainian POWs had been among those who had taken refuge in the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol where they were able to hold off Russian troops for nearly three months.  

The British Defense Ministry said in an intelligence update on Twitter Friday that Russia, “in a significant change,” has handed over responsibility for portions of its frontline activities to the Wagner Group, a Russian private military company.  

The move makes it difficult, the post said, for Russia to deny links between such companies and the Russian state.  The measure was undertaken, according to the ministry, because Russia likely has “a major shortage of combat infantry.” 

“Since March, Russian private military company (PMC) Wagner Group has operated in eastern Ukraine in coordination with the Russian military,” the British ministry posted.  “Wagner has likely been allocated responsibility for specific sectors of the front line, in a similar manner to normal army units.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his daily address Thursday, “No one in the world invests in terrorism more than Russia.” 

He said, “This really needs a legal response at the global level.  And there is no rational reason why such a reaction should not occur, particularly in the United States.”

Zelenskyy thanked U.S. senators who have “unanimously approved the resolution calling on the U.S. Department of State to recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism.”  Russia would join Cuba, North Korea, Iran and Syria.

For the first time in weeks, Russia launched missile attacks Thursday on Ukraine’s capital area, Kyiv, and the northern Chernihiv region, in what Ukraine alleged was retaliation for its continued resistance to Moscow’s invasion. 

Russia attacked the Kyiv region with six missiles launched from the Black Sea, wounding 15 people, five of them civilians, a Ukrainian regional governor said. Ukraine said it shot down one of the missiles, but that Moscow’s forces hit a military compound in the village of Liutizh outside the capital city, destroying one building and damaging two others.

Kyiv regional Governor Oleksiy Kuleba linked the attacks to the Day of Statehood commemoration that Zelenskyy instituted last year, and that Ukraine marked on Thursday for the first time.

“Russia, with the help of missiles, is mounting revenge for the widespread popular resistance, which the Ukrainians were able to organize precisely because of their statehood,” Kuleba told Ukrainian television. “Ukraine has already broken Russia’s plans and will continue to defend itself.” 

Chernihiv regional Governor Vyacheslav Chaus reported that Russia also fired missiles from neighboring Belarus at the village of Honcharivska. The Chernihiv region had not been targeted in weeks.

Russia withdrew from the Kyiv and Chernihiv areas months ago after failing to capture either region or to topple Zelenskyy’s government. 

Meanwhile, Ukraine said it had launched an offensive to recapture the Kherson region that Russia took control of earlier in the war, on Wednesday knocking out of commission a key bridge over the Dnieper River.

Ukrainian media quoted Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych as saying Kyiv’s forces are planning to isolate Russian troops and leave them with three options — “retreat, if possible, surrender or be destroyed.”

Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of Ukraine’s National Security and Defense Council, warned that the Russians are augmenting their forces in the Kherson region, saying, “A very large-scale movement of their troops has begun.”

The British military assessed that Ukraine has used its new, Western-supplied long-range artillery to damage at least three of the bridges across the Dnieper that Russia relies on to supply its forces.

The daily assessment from the British Defense Ministry said the city of Kherson “is now virtually cut off from other occupied territories.”  

Russian officials said their forces would use other ways to cross areas with damaged bridges, including pontoon bridges and ferries. 

Zelenskyy adviser Arestovych acknowledged that Russian forces have taken over Ukraine’s second-biggest power plant. He characterized the development, however, as only a “tiny tactical advantage” for the Russians. 

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

Giant Video Screen Falls on Boy Band Mirror Dancers at Hong Kong Concert

A huge video panel fell on the stage during a concert by popular Hong Kong boy band Mirror on Thursday, crushing one performer and trapping others, prompting a government investigation and the suspension of future shows.

At least two dancers were injured, with one in a serious condition and the other stable, local broadcaster RTHK reported.

Three members of the audience were also injured, local media reported, with many fans emotional after the harrowing scenes.

“I am shocked by the incident. I express sympathy to those who were injured and hope that they would recover soon,” Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee said Friday.

The government would investigate and review safety procedures to protect performers, staff and the public, he said.

Kevin Yeung, the city’s culture secretary, said the show would be suspended until the stage structure was safe. The government’s leisure bureau had already contacted the concert organizer about other stage incidents in recent days, he said in a statement.

The hugely popular cantopop group was formed in 2018 through a reality television show and had planned a series of 12 shows at Hong Kong’s Coliseum, next to the city’s Victoria harbor.

More than 13,000 Mirror fans signed an online petition asking the concert organizer to resolve the problems and ensure safety for all performers, according to the petition’s website.

MakerVille, the concert organizer which is owned by Hong Kong tycoon Richard Li’s PCCW Media Group, said it was thoroughly investigating the cause of the accident.

“We are deeply sorry that the incident caused unease to viewers or others affected.”