Latest in Ukraine: Respected Russian Military Leader Returns to Ukraine

New developments:

Eleven people were killed and 21 were injured in Russian airstrikes in the Ukrainian city of Sloviansk. Rescue crews are trying to reach victims trapped in the rubble of an apartment building.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has enacted a law making it easier to mobilize Russians into the military, even as one of his allies says it’s time to end military operations in Ukraine.
America’s top diplomat says Russia is not granting U.S. officials access to Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters at a news conference in Hanoi, that “we need consular access now.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his daily address Saturday that he had a long conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, and they discussed the Ukrainian peace formula that Zelenskyy described as being, “absolutely realistic and quite concrete.” The two leaders also discussed, according to Zelenskyy, their participation in the Vilnius NATO summit this summer.

The British Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence update Sunday on the Russian invasion of Ukraine that it is “highly likely” that General Colonel Mikhail Teplinsky, commander of Russia’s corps of airborne troops, the VDV, has returned to a major role in Ukraine, after being dismissed in January 2023.

The ministry described Teplinsky as “likely one of the few senior Russian generals widely respected by the rank-and-file” and that his “recent turbulent career suggests intense tensions between factions within the Russian General Staff about Russia’s military approach in Ukraine.”

His return means he will “highly likely” promote the VDV’s traditional role as an elite force, according to the intelligence update, and it is “unlikely” that his role will be limited to VDV units.

“In recent days,” the intelligence report said, “the VDV have resumed a key mission in the battle for Bakhmut, and likely undertaken novel integration with TOS-1A thermobaric rocket launchers in the Kremina sector.”

Bakhmut, the main target of Russia’s offensive in the east and the scene of months of grinding warfare, is experiencing some of its bloodiest fighting, Ukraine’s military said Saturday.

“Bloody battles unprecedented in recent decades are taking place in the middle of the city’s urban area,” Serhiy Cherevatyi, spokesperson for Ukraine’s eastern military command, said of the eastern Ukrainian city that was once home to 70,000 people.

“Our soldiers are doing everything in bloody and fierce battles to grind down [the enemy’s] combat capability and break its morale. Every day, in every corner of this city, they are successfully doing so,” he told the 1+1 television channel.

His comments came as the Russian Defense Ministry said Saturday that the Wagner mercenary group now controlled two more areas on the northern and southern outskirts of the city. Reuters could not independently confirm the report.

Wagner’s reported gains Saturday came one day after the group’s founder said Russia has should end its “special military operation” against its neighbor.

“Russia has achieved the results it wanted” and has “eradicated most of active male population of Ukraine and intimidated the rest,” Yevgeny Prigozhin posted Friday on Telegram, omitting any of Ukraine’s victories over Russia.

Death toll rising in Sloviansk

The death toll from a Russian airstrike Friday rose to at least 11 people, with 21 wounded in the eastern Ukrainian city of, northwest of Bakhmut.

In his nightly video address Saturday, Zelenskyy said that the rescue operation continues in Sloviansk and Donbas after Friday’s Russian missile strike.

“It is reported that under the rubble of buildings, there are still bodies of the dead, unfortunately,” he said. Among them, he said, is a 2-year-old boy. Fifty residential buildings, of which more than 30 are apartment buildings, were damaged or destroyed, he said.

“None of those who are guilty of this aggression can be forgiven and forgotten,” he added.

Gershkovich prisoner swap

Russia has not allowed access of U.S. officials to Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich since he was detained last month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saturday.

“We continue to call for his immediate release,” Blinken told reporters during a news conference in Hanoi. “We need consular access now,” The Washington Post reported.

According to The Wall Street Journal, Russia could consider a prisoner exchange for the jailed reporter once a Russian court reaches a verdict on espionage charges against him, a senior Russian official said.

Poland curbs imports

Poland’s government said Saturday it would temporarily stop grain and other food imports from Ukraine to stem the rising anger of Polish farmers, who say they cannot compete with the lower-priced Ukrainian grain on the market.

Ruling party leader Jarosław Kaczyński said at a party convention in eastern Poland that while Poland supports Ukraine, it is forced to act to protect its farmers who are facing a “moment of crisis.”

“Today, the government has decided on a regulation that prohibits the importation of grain, but also dozens of other types of food, to Poland,” Kaczyński said. The government announced its import ban on agricultural products such as sugar, eggs, meat, dairy and vegetables would last until June 30.

Farmers in neighboring countries also have complained they are losing money because of Ukrainian grain flooding into their countries, causing prices to fall.

Orthodox Easter

Russian President Vladimir Putin attended Easter services Saturday in Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral.

He crossed himself several times during the midnight service, known as the Divine Liturgy. When Patriarch Kirill announced, “Christ has risen,” Putin, along with other members of the congregation, replied, “Truly he is risen.”

Some material in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.