Russia's military pounded residential areas across Ukraine overnight, claiming gains, as Ukrainian forces pressed a counteroffensive to try to take back an occupied southern region, striking the last working bridge over a river in the Russian-occupied Kherson region, Ukrainian authorities said Saturday. A Russian rocket attack on the city of Kramatorsk killed three people and wounded 13 others Friday night, according to the mayor. Kramatorsk is the headquarters for Ukrainian forces in the country's war-torn east. The attack came less than a day after 11 other rockets were fired at the city, one of the two main Ukrainian-held ones in Donetsk province, the focus of an ongoing Russian offensive to capture eastern Ukraine's Donbas region. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed Saturday its forces had taken control of Pisky, a village on the outskirts of the city of Donetsk, the provincial capital that pro-Moscow separatists have claimed since 2014. Russian troops and the Kremlin-backed rebels are seeking to seize Ukrainian-held areas north and west of the city of Donetsk to expand the separatists' self-proclaimed republic. But the Ukrainian military said Saturday that its forces had prevented an overnight advance toward the smaller cities of Avdiivka and Bakhmut. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov also claimed that Russian strikes near Kramatorsk, 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of Donetsk city, destroyed a U.S.-supplied multiple rocket launcher and ammunition. Ukrainian authorities did not acknowledge any military losses but said that Russian missile strikes Friday on Kramatorsk had destroyed 20 residential buildings. Neither claim could be independently verified. The Ukrainian governor of neighboring Luhansk province, which is part of the fight over the Donbas region and was overrun by Russian forces last month, claimed that Ukrainian troops still held a small area. Writing on Telegram, Luhansk Gov. Serhii Haidai said the defending troops remained holed up inside an oil refinery on the edge of Lysychansk, a city that Moscow claimed to have captured, and also control areas near a village. “The enemy is burning the ground at the entrances to the Luhansk region because it cannot overcome (Ukrainian resistance along) these few kilometers," Haidai said. "It is difficult to count how many thousands of shells this territory of the free Luhansk region has withstood over the past month and a half.” Further west, the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region reported more Russian shelling of the city of Nikopol, which lies across the Dnieper River from Europe's largest nuclear power plant. Gov. Yevhen Yevtushenko did not specify whether Russian troops had fired at Nikopol from the occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Writing on Telegram, he said Saturday that there were no casualties but residential buildings, a power line and a gas pipeline were damaged. Nikopol has undergone daily bombardment for most of the past week, and a volley of shells killed three people and damaged 40 apartment buildings on Thursday, he said. Russia and Ukrainian officials have for days accused each other of shelling the Zaporizhzhia plant in contravention of nuclear safety rules. Russian troops have occupied the plant since the early days of Moscow's invasion, although the facility's pre-war Ukrainian nuclear workers continue to run it. Read: Russia takes small cities, aims to widen east Ukraine battle Ukrainian military intelligence alleged Saturday that Russian troops were shelling the plant from a village just kilometers away, damaging a plant pumping station and a fire station. The intelligence directorate said the Russians had bused people into the power plant and mounted a Ukrainian flag on a self-propelled gun on the outskirts of Enerhodar, the city where the plant is located. “Obviously, it will be used for yet another provocation to accuse the armed forces of Ukraine,” the directorate said, without elaborating. Ukrainian officials have repeatedly alleged that Russian forces were cynically using the plant as a shield while firing at communities across the river, knowing that Ukrainian forces were unlikely to fire back for fear of triggering a nuclear accident. They said Russian shelling on Friday night killed one woman and injured two other civilians in the city of Zaporizhzhia, which is 122 kilometers (76 miles) from the plant. Ukraine's southern Mykolayiv region also said a woman died there in shelling. For several weeks, Ukraine's military has tried to lay the groundwork for a counter-offensive to reclaim southern Ukraine's Russian-occupied Kherson region. A local Ukrainian official reported Saturday that a Ukrainian strike had damaged the last working bridge over the Dnieper River in the region and further crippled Russian supply lines. “The Russians no longer have any capability to fully turn over their equipment,” Serhii Khlan, a deputy to the Kherson Regional Council, wrote on Facebook. His claims could not be immediately verified. In the north, five civilians were injured overnight as Russia launched missiles at the border Kharkiv region, home to Ukraine’s second-largest city. The governor of neighboring Sumy said 200 missiles were fired at his region from Russian territory in the last 24 hours. Sumy Gov. Dmytro Zhyvytsky reported a widespread loss of crops as wheat fields caught fire, but he did not mention any casualties.
Russian House in Dhaka hosted a reception and farewell programme for students who have won the Russian government scholarships for the academic year 2022-2023. Maxim Dobrokhotov, director of the Russian House, praised the Bangladeshi youths for choosing Russia as a destination for higher education. Five thousand Bangladeshi graduates of Soviet or Russian universities have worked in government, private and international organisations in their country and abroad since 1972, he added. Md Jahirul Islam, a monitoring and evaluation specialist at the education ministry, earned a PhD from the Krasnodar University in 1991. Mahmudul Hasan Shamim, a sports journalist, did his masters in civil engineering from the Peoples' Friendship University of Russia in 1989. SK Anisur Rahman, senior scientific officer at the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Regulation Authority, earned a PhD from the Moscow Engineering Physics Institute in 2020. All of them attended the event and shared their experience of studying in Russia.
European Union governments agreed Tuesday to ration natural gas this winter to protect themselves against any further supply cuts by Russia as Moscow pursues its invasion of Ukraine. EU energy ministers approved a draft European law meant to lower demand for gas by 15% from August through March. The new legislation entails voluntary national steps to reduce gas consumption and, if they yield insufficient savings, a trigger for mandatory moves in the 27-member bloc. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen welcomed the move, saying in a statement that “the EU has taken a decisive step to face down the threat of a full gas disruption by (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.” On Monday, Russian energy giant Gazprom said it would limit supplies to the EU through the Nord Stream 1 pipeline to 20% of capacity, heightening concerns that Putin will use gas trade to challenge the bloc’s opposition to the war in Ukraine. “The winter is coming and we don’t know how cold it will be,” said Czech Industry Minister Jozef Sikela, whose policy portfolio includes energy. “But what we know for sure is that Putin will continue to play his dirty games in misusing and blackmailing by gas supplies.” The ministerial agreement was sealed in less than a week. It’s based on a proposal last Wednesday from the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm. Keen to maintain a common EU front over a conflict that shows no sign of ending, the commission said coordinated rationing would enable the bloc as a whole to get through the winter should Russia stop all gas deliveries. Read: EU prepared for Russian gas cut-off: von der Leyen Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February and the West protested with economic sanctions, 12 EU countries have faced halts to, or reductions in, Russian gas deliveries. Although it has agreed to embargo oil and coal from Russia starting later this year, the EU has refrained from sanctioning Russian natural gas because Germany, Italy and some other member states rely heavily on these imports. “Germany made a strategic error in the past with its great dependency on Russian gas and faith that it would always flow constantly and cheaply,” said German Economy Minister Robert Habeck, who is also responsible for energy and serves as the country’s vice chancellor. “But it is not just a German problem.” The disruptions in Russian energy trade with the EU are stoking inflation already at record levels in Europe and threatening to trigger a recession in the bloc just as it was recovering from a pandemic-induced slump. The energy squeeze is also reviving decades-old political tests for Europe over policy coordination. While the EU has gained centralized authority over monetary, trade, antitrust and farm policies, national sovereignty over energy matters still largely prevails. In a sign of this, the energy ministers scrapped a provision in the draft gas-rationing law that would have given the European Commission the power to decide on any move from voluntary to mandatory actions. Instead, the ministers ensured any decision on mandatory steps will be in member-state hands. They also diluted other elements of the original proposal, including with exemptions for island countries. Nonetheless, Tuesday’s deal marks another milestone in EU policy integration and crisis management. The accord comes just six days after the commission rushed out the draft law — a stark contrast to past EU legislative initiatives in the area of energy that often involved months or years of negotiations among national governments. In that respect, the new gas-rationing plan resembles developments in EU health policy two years ago when, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, member states agreed to act in unison. This included letting the commission negotiate agreements with pharmaceutical companies on the supply of vaccines to all 27 countries.
As Russian forces press their offensive to take the eastern Ukrainian cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, civilians who have managed to flee say intensified shelling over the past week left them unable to even venture out from basement bomb shelters. Despite the attacks, some managed to make it to the town of Pokrovsk, 130 kilometers (80 miles) to the south, and boarded an evacuation train Saturday heading west, away from the fighting. Fighting has raged around Lysychansk and neighboring Sievierodonetsk, the last major cities under Ukrainian control in the Luhansk region. Luhansk and the Donetsk region to its south make up the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland which is the focus of Russia’s current offensive. Moscow-backed separatists have controlled parts of the Donbas for eight years and Russian forces are now trying to capture at least the whole Donbas. Bouncing her 18-month-old son on her lap, Yana Skakova choked back tears as she described living in a basement under relentless bombing, and having to leave her husband behind when she fled with her baby and 4-year-old son. READ: Russia takes small cities, aims to widen east Ukraine battle Initially after the war broke out, there were quiet times when they could come out of the basement to cook in the street and let the children play outdoors. But about a week ago, the bombing intensified. For the past five days, they hadn’t been able to venture out of the basement at all. “Now the situation is bad, it’s scary to go out,” she said. It was the police who came to evacuate them Friday from the basement where 18 people, including nine children, had been living for the past two and a half months. “We were sitting there, then the traffic police came and they said: ‘You should evacuate as fast as possible, since it is dangerous to stay in Lysychansk now,'” Skakova said. Despite the bombings and the lack of electricity, gas and water, nobody really wanted to go. “None of us wanted to leave our native city,” she said. “But for the sake of these small children, we decided to leave." She broke down in tears as she described how her husband stayed behind to take care of their house and animals. “Yehor is 1 1/2-years old, and now he’s without a father,” Skakova said. Oksana, 74, who was too afraid to give her surname, said she was evacuated from Lysychansk on Friday by a team of foreign volunteers along with her 86-year-old husband. There were still other people left behind in the city, she said, including young children. Sitting on the same evacuation train as Skakova, she broke down and cried. The tears came hard and fast as she described leaving her home for an uncertain future. “I’m going somewhere, not knowing where,” she wept. “Now I am a beggar without happiness. Now I have to ask for charity. It would be better to kill me.” She had worked for 36 years as an accountant, a civil servant, she said, and the thought of now having to rely on others was unbearable. “God forbid anyone else suffers this. It’s a tragedy. It’s a horror,” she cried. “Who knew I would end up in such a hell?”
A Ukrainian court sentenced a 21-year-old Russian soldier to life in prison on Monday for killing a Ukrainian civilian, in the first war crimes trial since Russia’s invasion. Sgt. Vadim Shishimarin was accused of shooting a Ukrainian civilian in the head in a village in the northeastern Sumy region in the early days of the war. Read: Record 100 million people forcibly displaced worldwide: UNHCR He pleaded guilty and testified that he shot the man after being ordered to do so. He told the court that an officer insisted that the Ukrainian man, who was speaking on his cellphone, could pinpoint their location to the Ukrainian forces. During the trial, Shishimarin asked the widow of the victim to forgive him. Read: Russia presses Donbas attacks as Polish leader praises Kyiv Shishimarin’s defense attorney Victor Ovsyanikov argued that his client, a member of a Russian tank unit who was eventually captured, had been unprepared for the “violent military confrontation” and mass casualties that Russian troops encountered when they first invaded Ukraine.
Russian troops were withdrawing from around Ukraine’s second-largest city after bombarding it for weeks, the Ukrainian military said Saturday, as Kyiv and Moscow's forces engaged in a grinding battle for the country’s eastern industrial heartland. Ukraine’s military said the Russian forces were pulling back from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and focusing on guarding supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern province of Donetsk in order to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new — long-term — phase of the war.” In a show of support, a U.S. Senate delegation led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday in Kyiv. A video posted on Zelenskyy's Telegram account showed McConnell, who represents the state of Kentucky, and fellow Republican senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas greeting him. Their trip came after Kentucky's other senator, Rand Paul, blocked until next week Senate approval of an additional $40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies withstand Russia’s 3-month-old invasion. In a statement after leaving Ukraine, McConnell said the United States “stands squarely behind Ukraine and will sustain our support until Ukraine wins this war.” After failing to capture Kyiv following the Feb. 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shifted his focus eastward to the Donbas, an industrial region where Ukraine has battled Moscow-backed separatists since 2014. The offensive aims to encircle Ukraine's most experienced and best-equipped troops, who are deployed in the east, and to seize parts of the Donbas that remain in Ukraine's control. Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move around in the east, hindering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it appears to be a back-and-forth slog without major breakthroughs on either side. Russia has captured some Donbas villages and towns, including Rubizhne, which had a prewar population of around 55,000. Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s forces have also made progress in the east, retaking six towns or villages in the past day. In his nightly address Saturday, he said “the situation in Donbas remains very difficult” and Russian troops were “still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious.” “Step by step,” Zelenskyy the president said, “we are forcing the occupants to leave the Ukrainian land.” Kharkiv, which is near the Russian border and only 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has undergone weeks of intense shelling. The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million was a key military objective earlier in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities. READ: Ukraine opens first war crimes trial of captured Russian Ukraine “appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv,” the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said. “Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from around the city, as they did to Russian forces attempting to seize Kyiv.” Regional Gov. Oleh Sinegubov said via the Telegram messaging app that there had been no shelling attacks on Kharkiv in the past day. He added that Ukraine launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a city 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that has been held by Russia since at least the beginning of April. Fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine has launched counterattacks but failed to halt Russia’s advance, said Oleh Zhdanov, an independent Ukrainian military analyst. “The fate of a large portion of the Ukrainian army is being decided — there are about 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers,” he said. However, Russian forces suffered heavy losses in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they were using to try to cross the same river in the town of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said. Britain’s defense ministry said Russia lost “significant armored maneuver elements” of at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of about 1,000 troops. The ministry said the risky river crossing was a sign of “the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine.” Zelenskyy has warned of a global food crisis as Russia blockades Ukrainian grain from leaving port. The Group of Seven leading economies echoed that Saturday, saying that “Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history, which now threatens those most vulnerable across the globe.” Putin launched the war in Ukraine aiming to thwart NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. But the invasion has other countries along Russia’s flank worried they could be next, and this week the president and prime minister of Finland said they favor seeking NATO membership. Officials in Sweden are expected to announce a decision Sunday on whether to apply to join the Western military alliance. In a phone call Saturday, Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that there are no threats to Finland’s security and joining NATO would be an “error” and “negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations.” The Kremlin said the two leaders had a “frank exchange of views.” Niinisto said the discussion “was straightforward and unambiguous and was held without exaggeration. Avoiding tensions was considered important.” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said accession to NATO by Finland and Sweden would heighten security tensions in the Arctic, “turning it into an arena of military competition.” Russian energy group Inter RAO suspended deliveries of electricity to Finland on Saturday, according to a statement from the Finnish national electrical grid operator. But only around 10% of Finland’s electricity comes from Russia, and authorities did not expect shortages. The Nordic nations' potential bids were thrown into question Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country is “not of a favorable opinion.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to meet his NATO counterparts, including Turkey's foreign minister, this weekend in Germany.
Ukraine’s top prosecutor disclosed plans Wednesday for the first war crimes trial of a captured Russian soldier, as fighting raged in the east and south and the Kremlin left open the possibility of annexing a corner of the country it seized early in the invasion. Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said her office charged Sgt. Vadin Shyshimarin, 21, in the killing of an unarmed 62-year-old civilian who was gunned down while riding a bicycle in February, four days into the war. Shyshimarin, who served with a tank unit, was accused of firing through a car window on the man in the northeastern village of Chupakhivka. Venediktova said the soldier could get up to 15 years in prison. She did not say when the trial would start. Venediktova’s office has said it has been investigating more than 10,700 alleged war crimes committed by Russian forces and has identified over 600 suspects. Many of the alleged atrocities came to light last month after Moscow’s forces aborted their bid to capture Kyiv and withdrew from around the capital, exposing mass graves and streets and yards strewn with bodies in towns such as Bucha. Residents told of killings, burnings, rape, torture and dismemberment. Also Read: Russia pummels vital port of Odesa targeting supply lines Volodymyr Yavorskyy of the Center for Civil Liberties said the Ukrainian human rights group will be closely following Shyshimarin’s trial to see if it is fair. “It’s very difficult to observe all the rules, norms and neutrality of the court proceedings in wartime,” he said. On the economic front, Ukraine shut down a pipeline that carries Russian gas across the country to homes and industries in Western Europe, marking the first time since the start of the war that Kyiv disrupted the flow westward of one of Moscow’s most lucrative exports. But the immediate effect is likely to be limited, in part because Russia can divert the gas to another pipeline and because Europe relies on a variety of suppliers. Meanwhile, a Kremlin-installed politician in the southern Kherson region, site of the first major Ukrainian city to fall in the war, said officials there want Russian President Vladimir Putin to make Kherson a “proper region” of Russia — that is, annex it. “The city of Kherson is Russia,” Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Kherson regional administration appointed by Moscow, told Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency. That raised the possibility that the Kremlin would seek to break off another piece of Ukraine as it tries to salvage an invasion gone awry. Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, which borders the Kherson region, after a disputed referendum in 2014, a move denounced as illegal and rejected by most of the international community. Kherson, a Black Sea port of roughly 300,000, provides Crimea with access to fresh water and is seen as gateway to wider Russian control over southern Ukraine. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said it would be “up to the residents of the Kherson region after all to decide whether such an appeal should be made or not.” He said any move to annex territory would have to be closely evaluated by legal experts to make sure it is “absolutely legitimate, as it was with Crimea.” Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak mocked the notion of Kherson’s annexation, tweeting: “The invaders may ask to join even Mars or Jupiter. The Ukrainian army will liberate Kherson, no matter what games with words they play.” Inside Kherson, people have taken to the streets to decry the Russian occupation. But a teacher who gave only her first name, Olga, for fear of Russian retaliation said such protests are impossible now because Moscow’s troops “kidnapped activists and citizens simply for wearing Ukrainian colors or ribbons.” She said “people are scared of talking openly outside their homes” and “everyone walks on the street quickly.” “All people in Kherson are waiting for our troops to come as soon as possible,” she added. “Nobody wants to live in Russia or join Russia.” On the battlefield, Ukrainian officials said a Russian rocket attack targeted an area around Zaporizhzhia, destroying unspecified infrastructure. There were no immediate reports of casualties. The southeastern city has been a refuge for civilians fleeing the devastated port city of Mariupol. Russian forces continued to pound the steel plant that is the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, its defenders said. The Azov Regiment said on social media that Russian forces carried out 38 airstrikes in the previous 24 hours on the grounds of the Azovstal steelworks. The plant has sheltered hundreds of Ukrainian troops and civilians during a monthslong siege. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Ukraine has offered to release Russian prisoners of war if Russia will allow the badly injured fighters to be evacuated. An adviser to the Mariupol mayor said Russian forces have blocked all evacuation routes out of the city. Petro Andriushchenko said there are few apartment buildings fit to live in and little food or drinking water. He said some remaining residents are cooperating with occupying Russian forces in exchange for food. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested Tuesday that Ukraine’s military is gradually pushing Russian troops away from Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city and a key to Russia’s offensive in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region whose capture the Kremlin says is its main objective. Ukraine is also targeting Russian air defenses and resupply vessels on Snake Island in the Black Sea in an effort to disrupt Moscow’s efforts to expand its control over the coastline, according to the British Ministry of Defense. Separately, Ukraine said it shot down a cruise missile targeting the Black Sea port city of Odesa. Elsewhere, the governor of a Russian region near Ukraine said at least one civilian was killed and six wounded by Ukrainian shelling in the village of Solokhi, near the border. Belgorod Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov’s account couldn’t be independently verified, but he said the village will be evacuated. Ukraine’s natural gas pipeline operator said it moved to stop the flow of Russian gas through a compressor station in part of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists because enemy forces were interfering with the station’s operation and siphoning off gas. The hub handles about one-third of Russian gas passing through Ukraine to Western Europe. But analysts said much of the gas can be redirected through another pipeline from Russia that crosses Ukraine, and there were indications that was happening. In any case, Europe also gets natural gas from other pipelines and other countries. It was not clear whether Russia would take any immediate hit, since it has long-term contracts and other ways of transporting gas. Still, the cutoff underscored the broader risk to gas supplies from the war. “Yesterday’s decision is a small preview of what might happen if gas installations are hit by live fire and face the risk of extended downtimes,” said gas analyst Zongqiang Luo at Rystad Energy. In other developments, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry accused Russia of stealing Ukrainian grain and trying to sell it on global markets. The ministry estimates Russia may have already stolen up to 500,000 metric tons of grain valued at more than $100 million. And U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said a ban on sales of semiconductors and other technology to Russia by the West is limiting Russia’s ability to manufacture military equipment. Ukrainians who have found Russian equipment reported that it was “filled with semiconductors that they took out of dishwashers and refrigerators,” Raimondo said.
When abuses were reported in recent weeks in Mali — fake graves designed to discredit French forces; a massacre of some 300 people, mostly civilians — all evidence pointed to the shadowy mercenaries of Russia's Wagner Group. Even before these feared professional soldiers joined the assault on Ukraine, Russia had deployed them to under-the-radar military operations across at least half a dozen African countries. Their aim: to further President Vladimir Putin's global ambitions, and to undermine democracy. The Wagner Group passes itself off as a private military contractor and the Kremlin denies any connection to it or even, sometimes, that it exists. But Wagner's commitment to Russian interests has become apparent in Ukraine, where its fighters, seen wearing the group's chilling white skull emblem, are among the Russian forces currently attacking eastern Ukraine. In sub-Saharan Africa, Wagner has gained substantial footholds for Russia in Central African Republic, Sudan and Mali. Wagner's role in those countries goes way beyond the cover story of merely providing a security service, experts say. "They essentially run the Central African Republic," and are a growing force in Mali, Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of U.S. armed forces in Africa, told a Senate hearing last month. The United States identifies Wagner’s financer as Yevgeny Prigozhin, an oligarch who is close to the Russian president and sometimes is called “Putin’s chef" for his flashy restaurants favored by the Russian leader. He was charged by the U.S. government with trying to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the Wagner Group is the subject of U.S. and European Union sanctions. Russia's game plan for Africa, where it has applied its influence as far north as Libya and as far south as Mozambique, is straightforward in some ways, say analysts. It seeks alliances with regimes or juntas shunned by the West or facing insurgencies and internal challenges to their rule. The African leaders get recognition from the Kremlin and military muscle from Wagner. They pay for it by giving Russia prime access to their oil, gas, gold, diamonds and valuable minerals. Russia also gains positions on a strategically important continent. But there's another objective of Russia's “hybrid war” in Africa, said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. Siegle said Russia is also waging an ideological battle, using Wagner as a “coercive tool" to undermine Western ideas of democracy and turn countries toward Moscow. Putin wants to challenge the international democratic order “because Russia can't compete very well in that order,” Siegle said. “If democracy is held up as the ultimate aspirational governance model, then that is constraining for Russia," Siegle said. Rather, Wagner promotes Russian interests with soldiers and guns, but also through propaganda and disinformation, as Prigozhin has done for Putin before. READ: Ukrainian counterattacks slowing Russian offensive in east In Central African Republic, Wagner fighters ride around the capital Bangui in unmarked military vehicles and guard the country's gold and diamond mines. They have helped to hold off armed rebel groups and to keep President Faustin-Archange Touadera in power, but their reach goes much further. Russian national Valery Zakharov is Touadera's national security advisor but also a “key figure” in Wagner's command structure, according to European Union documents accusing the mercenary group of serious human rights violations. A statue erected last year in Bangui depicts Russian soldiers standing side by side to protect a woman and her children. Russia is cast as the country's savior and pro-Russia marches have been held in support of the war in Ukraine and to criticize former security partner France — though several protesters said they are paid. “A Central African adage says that when someone helps you, you have to reciprocate. This is why we have mobilized as one to support Russia,” said Didacien Kossimatchi, an official in Touadera's political party. “Russia has absolved us of the unacceptable domination of the West." Kossimatchi said Russia was “acting in self-defense” in Ukraine. Such support from African countries is a strategic success for Russia. When the United Nations voted on a resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine, 17 of the 35 countries that abstained from the vote — nearly half — were African. Several other African nations did not register a vote. “Africa is fast becoming crucial to Putin’s efforts to dilute the influence of the United States and its international alliances,” said a report in March by the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, a non-profit set up by the former British prime minister. Russia's strategy in Africa comes at a minimal cost economically and politically. Analysts estimate Wagner operates with only a few hundred to 2,000 mercenaries in a country. Many are ex-Russian military intelligence, Siegle said, but because it's a private force the Kremlin can deny responsibility for Wagner's actions. The real price is paid by ordinary people. The people of Central African Republic aren't more secure, said Pauline Bax, Africa Program deputy director of the International Crisis Group think tank. “In fact, there’s more violence and intimidation,” she said. France, the U.S. and human rights groups have accused Wagner mercenaries of extra-judicial killings of civilians in Central African Republic. A U.N. panel of experts said private military groups and "particularly the Wagner Group” have violently harassed people and committed rape and sexual violence. They are just the latest accusations of serious abuses by the group. Central African Republic in 2021 acknowledged serious human rights violations by Russians, which forced Russian ambassador Vladimir Titorenko to leave his post. The Wagner group has responded with a charm offensive — creating films designed to please the public, sponsoring beauty pageants and distributing educational materials that promote Russia’s involvement in Africa. Russian is now being taught in universities. Russia has taken its Central African Republic blueprint to Mali and elsewhere in Africa. In Mali, there has been an “uprooting of democracy,” said Aanu Adeoye, an analyst on Russia-Africa affairs at the London-based Chatham House think tank. Following coups in 2020 and last year, France is withdrawing troops from its former colony that had been helping fight Islamic extremists since 2013. Wagner moved in, striking a security deal with Mali's new military junta, which then expelled the French ambassador and banned French TV stations. Tensions with the West have escalated. So has the violence. Last month, Mali's army and foreign soldiers who witnesses suspected were Russian killed an estimated 300 men in the rural town of Moura. Some of those killed were suspected extremists but most were civilians, Human Rights Watch said, calling it a “deliberate slaughter of people in custody." This week, when French forces handed over control of the Gossi military base, suspected Wagner agents hurriedly buried several bodies nearby and a Russian social media campaign blamed France for the graves. The French military, however, had used aerial surveillance after their withdrawal to show the creation of the sandy graves. Both atrocities bear the hallmarks of Wagner mercenaries and Russia's foreign policy brand under Putin, say several analysts. "They have no concerns about minor things like democracy and human rights,” said Chatham House's Adeoye.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Russia is targeting all of Europe with its aggression, and that stopping the invasion of Ukraine is essential for the security of all democracies. In his late night address to Ukrainians on Saturday, Zelenskyy said that Russian aggression "was not intended to be limited to Ukraine alone” and the “entire European project is a target for Russia.” “That is why it is not just the moral duty of all democracies, all the forces of Europe, to support Ukraine’s desire for peace," he said. ”This is, in fact, a strategy of defense for every civilized state." His address came as civilians continued to flee eastern parts of the country before an expected onslaught and firefighters searched for survivors in a northern town no longer occupied by Russian forces. Several European leaders have made efforts to show solidarity with the battle-scarred nation. Zelenskyy thanked the leaders of Britain and Austria for their visits Saturday to Kyiv, Ukraine's capital, and pledges of further support. He also thanked the European Commission president and Canada's prime minister for a global fundraising event that brought in more than 10 billion euros ($11 billion) for Ukrainians who have fled their homes. Zelenskyy repeated his call for a complete embargo on Russian oil and gas, which he called the sources of Russia’s “self-confidence and impunity.” “Freedom does not have time to wait,” Zelenskyy said. "When tyranny begins its aggression against everything that keeps the peace in Europe, action must be taken immediately." More than six weeks after the invasion began, Russia has pulled its troops from the northern part of the country, around Kyiv, and refocused on the Donbas region in the east. Western military analysts said an arc of territory in eastern Ukraine was under Russian control, from Kharkiv — Ukraine’s second-largest city — in the north to Kherson in the south. But counterattacks are threatening Russian control of Kherson, according to the Western assessments, and Ukrainian forces are repelling Russian assaults elsewhere in the Donbas, a largely Russian-speaking and industrial region. Civilians were evacuating eastern Ukraine following a missile strike Friday that killed at least 52 people and wounded more than 100 at a train station where thousands clamored to leave. Ukrainian authorities have called on civilians to get out ahead of an imminent, stepped-up offensive by Russian forces in the east. With trains not running out of Kramatorsk on Saturday, panicked residents boarded buses or looked for other ways to leave, fearing the kind of unrelenting assaults and occupations by Russian invaders that brought food shortages, demolished buildings and death to other cities. “It was terrifying. The horror, the horror,” one resident told British broadcaster Sky, recalling Friday’s attack on the train station. “Heaven forbid, to live through this again. No, I don’t want to.” Ukraine’s state railway company said residents of Kramatorsk and other parts of the Donbas could flee through other train stations. Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 10 evacuation corridors were planned for Saturday. Zelenskyy called the train station attack the latest example of war crimes by Russian forces and said it should motivate the West to do more to help his country defend itself. Russia denied responsibility and accused Ukraine’s military of firing on the station to turn blame for civilian casualties on Moscow. A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman detailed the missile’s trajectory and Ukrainian troop positions to bolster the argument. Major Gen. Igor Konashenkov alleged Ukraine’s security services were preparing a “cynical staged” media operation in Irpin, another town near Kyiv, intended to attribute civilian casualties to Russian forces — falsely, he said — and to stage the slaying of a fake Russian intelligence team that intended to kill witnesses. The claims could not be independently verified. Western experts and Ukrainian authorities insisted that Russia attacked the station. Remnants of the rocket had the words “For the children” in Russian painted on it. The phrasing seemed to suggest the missile was sent to avenge the loss or subjugation of children, although its exact meaning remained unclear. Ukrainian authorities have worked to identify victims and document possible war crimes in the north. The mayor of Bucha, a town near Kyiv where graphic evidence of civilian slayings emerged after Russian forces withdrew, said search teams were still finding bodies of people shot at close range in yards, parks and city squares. READ: Ukraine war: Does UN really matter? Workers unearthed 67 corpses Friday from a mass grave near a church, according to Ukraine's prosecutor general. Russia has falsely claimed that the scenes in Bucha were staged. Ukrainian and Western officials have repeatedly accused Russian forces of committing atrocities. A total of 176 children have been killed, while 324 more have been wounded, the Prosecutor General’s Office said Saturday. In an interview with The Associated Press inside his heavily guarded presidential office complex, Zelenskyy said he is committed to negotiating a diplomatic end to the war even though Russia has “tortured” Ukraine. He also acknowledged that peace likely will not come quickly. Talks so far have not included Russian President Vladimir Putin or other top officials. “We have to fight, but fight for life. You can’t fight for dust when there is nothing and no people. That’s why it is important to stop this war,” he said. Ukrainian authorities have said they expect to find more mass killings once they reach the southern port city of Mariupol, which is also in the Donbas and has been subjected to a monthlong blockade and intense fighting. The city’s location on the Sea of Azov is critical to establishing a land bridge from the Crimean Peninsula, which Russia seized from Ukraine eight years ago. As journalists who had been largely absent from the city began to trickle back in, new images emerged of the devastation from an airstrike on a theater last month that reportedly killed hundreds of civilians seeking shelter. Ukrainian officials have pleaded with Western powers almost daily to send more arms and further punish Moscow with sanctions, including the exclusion of Russian banks from the global financial system and a total EU embargo on Russian gas and oil. During his visit Saturday, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said he expects more EU sanctions against Russia, but defended his country’s opposition so far to cutting off deliveries of Russian gas. A package of sanctions imposed this week “won’t be the last one,” the chancellor said, acknowledging that “as long as people are dying, every sanction is still insufficient.” Austria is militarily neutral and not a member of NATO. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's visit came a day after the U.K. pledged an additional 100 million pounds ($130 million) in high-grade military equipment. Johnson also confirmed further economic support, guaranteeing an additional $500 million in World Bank lending to Ukraine, taking Britain’s total loan guarantee to up to $1 billion. In the interview with AP, Zelenskyy noted the increased support but expressed frustration when asked if weapons and equipment Ukraine has received from the West is sufficient to shift the war’s outcome. “Not yet,” he said, switching to English for emphasis. “Of course it’s not enough.”
Russian troops retreating from this northern Ukrainian city left behind crushed buildings, streets littered with destroyed cars and residents in dire need of food and other aid — images that added fuel to Kyiv's calls Thursday for more Western help to halt Moscow's next offensive. Dozens of people lined up to receive bread, diapers and medicine from vans parked outside a shattered school now serving as an aid-distribution point in Chernihiv, which Russian forces besieged for weeks as part of their attempt to sweep south towards the capital before retreating. The city's streets are lined with shelled homes and apartment buildings with missing roofs or walls. A chalk message on the blackboard in one classroom still reads: “Wednesday the 23rd of February — class work.” Russia invaded the next day, launching a war that has forced more than 4 million Ukrainians to flee the country, displaced millions more within it and sent shock waves through Europe and beyond. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba warned Thursday that despite a recent Russian pullback, the country remains vulnerable, and he pleaded for weapons from NATO to face down the coming offensive in the east. Nations from the alliance agreed to increase their supply of arms, spurred on by reports that Russian forces committed atrocities in areas surrounding the capital. Also read: Ukraine appeals for weapons as fight looms on eastern front Western allies also ramped up financial penalties aimed at Moscow, including a ban by the European Union on Russian coal imports and a U.S. move to suspend normal trade relations with Russia. Kuleba encouraged Western countries to continue bearing down on Russia, suggesting that any letup will result in more suffering for Ukrainians. “How many Buchas have to take place for you to impose sanctions?" Kuleba asked reporters, referring to a town near Kyiv where Associated Press journalists counted dozens of bodies, some burned, others apparently shot at close range or with their hands bound. "How many children, women, men, have to die — innocent lives have to be lost — for you to understand that you cannot allow sanctions fatigue, as we cannot allow fighting fatigue?” Ukrainian officials said earlier this week that the bodies of 410 civilians were found in towns around the capital city. Volunteers have spent days collecting the corpses, and more were picked up Thursday in Bucha. Bucha Mayor Anatoliy Fedoruk said investigators have found at least three sites of mass shootings of civilians during the Russian occupation. Most victims died from gunshots, not from shelling, he said, and corpses with their hands tied were “dumped like firewood” into recently discovered mass graves, including one at a children’s camp. The mayor said the count of dead civilians stood at 320 as of Wednesday, but he expected the number to rise as more bodies are found in his city, which once had a population of 50,000. Only 3,700 now remain, he said. In his nightly address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested that the horrors of Bucha could just be the beginning. In the northern city of Borodianka, just 30 kilometers northwest of Bucha, Zelenskyy warned of even more casualties, saying “there it is much scarier.” Also read: Russian shelling is prelude to new attack The world should brace itself, he said, for what might soon be found in the seaport city of Mariupol, saying that on “on every street is what the world saw in Bucha and other towns in the Kyiv region after the departure of the Russian troops. The same cruelty. The same terrible crimes.” He pledged that an international war crimes investigation already underway will identify “each of the executioners” and “all those who committed rape or looting. Ukrainian and several Western leaders have blamed the massacres on Moscow's troops, and the weekly Der Spiegel reported Thursday that Germany's foreign intelligence agency had intercepted radio messages between Russian soldiers discussing the killings of civilians. Russia has falsely claimed that the scenes in Bucha were staged. Kuleba became emotional while referring to the horrors in the town, telling reporters that they couldn’t understand “how it feels after seeing pictures from Bucha, talking to people who escaped, knowing that the person you know was raped four days in a row.” His comments came in response to a reporter's question about a video allegedly showing Ukrainian soldiers shooting a captured and wounded Russian soldier. He said he had not seen the video and that it would be investigated. He acknowledged that there could be “isolated incidents” of violations. The footage has not been independently verified by the AP. In the 6-week-old war, Russian forces failed to take Ukraine's capital quickly, denying what Western countries said was Russian leader Vladimir Putin's initial aim of ousting the Ukrainian government. In the wake of that setback and heavy losses, Russia shifted its focus to the Donbas, a mostly Russian-speaking, industrial region in eastern Ukraine where Moscow-backed rebels have been fighting Ukrainian forces for eight years. The United Nations' humanitarian chief told the AP on Thursday that he's “not optimistic” about securing a cease-fire after meeting with officials in Kyiv and in Moscow this week, underlining the lack of trust the two sides have for one another. He spoke hours after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accused Ukraine of backtracking on proposals it had made over Crimea and Ukraine’s military status. It's not clear how long it will take withdrawing Russian forces to redeploy, and Ukrainian officials have urged people in the country's east to leave before the fighting intensifies there. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Ukrainian and Russian officials agreed to establish civilian evacuation routes Thursday from several areas in the Donbas. Even as Ukraine braced for a new phase of the war, Russia’s withdrawal brought some relief to Chernihiv, which lies near Ukraine's northern border with Belarus and was cut off for weeks. Vladimir Tarasovets described nights during the siege when he watched the city on fire and listened to the sound of shelling. “It was very hard, very hard. Every evening there were fires, it was scary to look at the city. In the evening, when it was dark, there was no light, no water, no gas, no amenities at all,” he said. "How did we go through it? I have no words to describe how we managed.” In addition to spurring NATO countries to send more arms, the revelations about possible war crimes led Western nations to step up sanctions, and the Group of Seven major world powers warned that they will continue strengthening the measures until Russian troops leave Ukraine. The U.S. Congress voted Thursday to suspend normal trade relations with Russia and ban the importation of its oil, while the European Union approved punishing new steps, including the embargo on coal imports. The U.N. General Assembly, meanwhile, voted to suspend Russia from the world organization’s leading human rights body. U.S. President Joe Biden said the U.N. vote demonstrated how “Putin’s war has made Russia an international pariah.” He called the images coming from Bucha “horrifying.” “The signs of people being raped, tortured, executed — in some cases having their bodies desecrated — are an outrage to our common humanity,” Biden said. The U.S. State Department said it was blacklisting the United Shipbuilding Corp., Russia's largest military shipbuilder, as well as its subsidiaries and board members. The move blocks their access to American financial systems. The department also said it would levy sanctions against the world's largest diamond mining company, Russia-backed Alrosa.