West increases pressure on Putin, including sanctions against alleged girlfriend

KRAKOW, Poland — Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin faced fresh setbacks during the invasion of Ukraine on Friday, as Sweden became the second neutral country in two days to move towards NATO accession and the West devised ways to protect Ukrainians. to divert grain along a Russian naval blockade.

New signs of a Russian military withdrawal near Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, also added to Mr Putin’s challenges, and appeared to be the Kremlin’s goal of keeping Ukrainian forces concentrated in eastern Ukraine. to encircle, undermine or at least slow down.

But for Putin, the biggest annoyance was perhaps the most personal: Britain imposed sanctions on his ex-wife, Lyudmila Ocheretnaya, on a former Olympic gymnast long believed to be his girlfriend, Alina Kabaeva, and on three cousins: Igor, Mikhail, and Roman Putin.

“We are exposing the dark network and targeting the dark network that supports Putin’s luxurious lifestyle and tightens the vise in his inner circle,” said British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

The West faced its own challenges. Even when Sweden indicated it would benefit from joining NATO – a day after Finland said it was willing to join – Turkey’s president expressed objections to expanding the alliance, a potential complication which could work in Russia’s favor. The alliance’s foreign ministers met in Germany on Saturday and invited colleagues from Sweden and Finland to join them.

As a sign that not all diplomatic channels have been closed, US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III spoke Friday for the first time since Feb. 18 — six days earlier with Russian Defense Secretary Sergei K. Shoigu. the invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Austin called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and emphasized the importance of maintaining communication lines, said Pentagon spokesman John F. Kirby.

The Russian Defense Ministry said the call was made “at the initiative of the US side,” confirmed two senior US officials.

Top Pentagon officials, including Mr. Austin, had repeatedly attempted to contact their Russian counterparts in the wake of the invasion. Until Friday, those attempts had been unsuccessful.

“What motivated them to change their mind and be open to it, I don’t think we know for sure,” said a senior Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe a confidential conversation. He said the hour-long talk was “professional” but didn’t break the bank. Mr Austin nevertheless hoped it would “serve as a springboard for future talks,” the official said.

It was the highest contact between U.S. and Russian leaders since Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, spoke with General Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, on March 16 about the United States’ strong opposition to the invasion.

Russia has taken about 80 percent of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where its latest offensive has been concentrated. If Moscow can keep that territory, it would gain significant influence in future talks. Yet it has struggled to gain more ground against Ukrainian forces wielding heavy weapons supplied by the West.

On Friday, Russian forces bombed largely abandoned and devastated towns in Donbas, as Ukrainian forces drove Russian forces further away from Kharkov in the northeast. The Ukrainian counter-offensive there began to rival the counter-offensive that pushed Russian troops away from Ukraine’s capital Kiev last month, said the Institute for the Study of War, a research group in Washington.

The British Ministry of Defense said satellite images confirmed Ukrainian troops had also decimated a Russian battalion when it tried to cross pontoon bridges over a river in northeastern Ukraine earlier this week. Although it was not clear how many soldiers were killed, the spread of burnt and destroyed vehicles along the river suggested that Russia had suffered heavy casualties.

Moving closer to NATO, Sweden claimed in a report that Russian aggression in Ukraine had fundamentally changed Europe’s security and that Sweden’s membership of the alliance would “have a deterrent effect in Northern Europe”.

“By joining NATO, Sweden would not only strengthen its own security, but also contribute to the security of like-minded countries,” the report said.

Sweden’s accession would end more than 200 years of neutrality and military non-alignment and be another rebuke to Putin, who had cited NATO expansion as the reason for the invasion.

But the addition of Sweden and Finland may be complicated by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who suggested on Friday that his country, which has one of NATO’s largest armies, would be reluctant to welcome them into the alliance.

“At the moment we are following developments regarding Sweden and Finland, but have no positive views,” Mr Erdogan told reporters after attending Friday prayers at a mosque in Istanbul.

Turkey has generally supported Western responses to the invasion and has agreed to block Russian warships from crossing the Turkish Strait.

But Sweden and Finland need unanimous support from NATO’s 30 members to join. Mr Erdogan could withhold Turkey’s approval for influence on issues that interest him, such as Turkey’s longstanding concern over a guerrilla group known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, which launched a violent separatist movement in Turkey in the early 1980s.

“Unfortunately, the Scandinavian countries are almost like boarding houses for terrorist organizations,” Erdogan said, calling the PKK by name.

Karen Donfried, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, told reporters in Washington on Friday that the United States was “working to clarify Turkey’s position.” She said US officials do not assume Turkey is against Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership.

“We respect the political processes underway in both Finland and Sweden,” she said.

In Germany, agriculture ministers from the Group of 7, representing the world’s richest democracies, discussed ways to bypass Russian warships that have blocked Ukrainian grain from reaching world markets through the Black Sea. Ukraine is the world’s fourth largest grain exporter and the blockade threatens to exacerbate a global food crisis.

Cem Özdemir, Germany’s agriculture minister, said the G7 would seek routes to transport Ukrainian grain by road and rail, as well as via the Danube River. He called the blockade “part of Russia’s insidious strategy of not only taking out a competitor, which they won’t be able to do, but it’s an economic war that Russia is waging.”

In Kiev, Ukrainian judicial authorities began hearing a case against a Russian soldier accused of shooting a civilian, the first trial for a suspected war crime committed by a Russian soldier since the invasion began.

Prosecutors said the soldier, Sgt. Vadim Shysimarin shot and killed a 62-year-old man on a bicycle in a village in the Sumy region, about 200 miles east of Kiev, on Feb. 28 to prevent the man from turning him and his fellow soldiers over to the Ukrainians.

Sargeant Shysimarin, who is 21 and faces 10 to 15 years in prison, was brought into the courtroom in handcuffs and seated in a locked glass box. Head bowed, he ignored journalists who asked him how he was feeling.

“For me, it’s just work,” said Viktor Ovsyannikov, a Ukrainian lawyer appointed by the court, when asked about Sergeant Shysimarin’s defense. “It is very important to make sure that my client’s human rights are protected, to show that we are a different country than the country he comes from.”

In the Russian city of Khimki, near Moscow, a court has extended the pre-trial detention of American basketball player Brittney Griner, a two-time Olympic gold medalist, until June 18, her lawyer said.

Ms. Griner has been in Russian custody since mid-February on charges of drugs that could carry up to 10 years in prison. The charges are based on allegations that she had vape cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage when she was detained at an airport near Moscow in February.

“She’s fine,” Ms Griner’s lawyer Aleksandr Boikov said in an interview, adding that the court had rejected his request to have Ms Griner placed under house arrest. He said he expected the trial to begin in about two months.

The State Department said this month that Ms Griner had been “improperly detained”, indicating it may become more actively involved in trying to secure her release.

Marc Santora reported from Krakow, Mark Landler from London and Michael Levenson From New York. Reporting contributed by Eric Schmitt and Edward Won from Washington, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, Valerie Hopkins from Kiev, Ukraine, Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Cassandra VinogradI from London, Dan Bilefsky from Montreal and Steven Erlanger from Tallinn, Estonia.

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