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Ukraine latest: US establishes direct line with Russia

A U.S. defense official said the “de-confliction line” was established March 1 “for the purpose of preventing miscalculation, military incidents, and escalation.”
Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a damaged logistic center after shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022. Russian forces have escalated their attacks on crowded cities in what Ukraine's leader called a blatant campaign of terror. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)
Firefighters work to extinguish a fire at a damaged logistic center after shelling in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, March 3, 2022. Russian forces have escalated their attacks on crowded cities in what Ukraine's leader called a blatant campaign of terror. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky) [ EFREM LUKATSKY | AP ]
Published Mar. 3|Updated Mar. 3

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has established a channel of direct communication with the Russian ministry of defense to avoid unintended conflict related to the war in Ukraine.

A U.S. defense official said the “de-confliction line” was established March 1 “for the purpose of preventing miscalculation, military incidents, and escalation.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the communication line has not been announced.

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Associated Press Writer Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

More latest developments on the Russia-Ukraine war:

UNITED NATIONS — More than 4 million refugees may end up fleeing Ukraine due to Russia’s ongoing invasion, the United Nations said.

On Wednesday, the United Nations said that 1 million people have already fled since Russia began invading last week, an exodus without precedent in this century for its speed.

The United Nations says that “while the scale and scope of displacement is not yet clear, we do expect that more than 10 million people may flee their homes if violence continues, including 4 million people who may cross borders to neighboring countries,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Thursday.

Syria, whose civil war erupted in 2011, remains the country with the largest refugee outflows — nearly 5.7 million people, according to UNHCR’s figures. But even at the swiftest rate of flight out of that country, in early 2013, it took at least three months for 1 million refugees to leave Syria.

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BERLIN — The United Nations’ atomic watchdog says Ukraine has informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that staff who have been kept at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant since Russian troops took control of the site a week ago are facing “psychological pressure and moral exhaustion.”

IAEA Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi said Thursday that the staff must be allowed to rest and rotate so their crucial work can be carried out safely and securely.

Grossi received “a joint appeal from the Ukraine Government, regulatory authority and the national operator which added that personnel at the Chornobyl site ‘have limited opportunities to communicate, move and carry out full-fledged maintenance and repair work,’” the IAEA said in a statement.

Reactor No. 4 at the power plant exploded and caught fire in 1986, shattering the building and spewing radioactive material high into the sky. Even 36 years later, radioactivity is still leaking from history’s worst nuclear disaster.

Ukraine has lost regulatory control over all the facilities in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone to the Russians and asked the IAEA to undertake measures “in order to reestablish legal regulation of safety of nuclear facilities and installations” within the site, the statement added.

Grossi has repeatedly stressed that any military or other action that could threaten the safety or security of Ukraine’s nuclear power plants must be avoided.

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“I remain gravely concerned about the deteriorating situation in Ukraine, especially about the country’s nuclear power plants, which must be able to continue operating without any safety or security threats,” he said. “Any accident caused as a result of the military conflict could have extremely serious consequences for people and the environment, in Ukraine and beyond.”

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CHERNIHIV, Ukraine — Video taken in the aftermath of shelling in the city of Chernihiv shows firefighters standing in rubble dousing flames with hoses as rescue crews carried at least one person on a stretcher and another helper assisted a person down a ladder.

Smoke spewed from a high-rise building just behind what appeared to be a children’s swing set, according to video released Thursday by the Ukrainian government.

Ukraine’s state emergencies agency says at least 33 civilians were killed and another 18 wounded in a Russian strike Thursday on a residential area in Chernihiv, a city of 280,000 in Ukraine’s north.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration on Thursday announced new sanctions against Russian oligarchs and others in President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle as Russian forces continue to pummel Ukraine.

Those targeted by the new sanctions include Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, and Alisher Burhanovich Usmanov, one of Russia’s wealthiest individuals and a close ally of Putin. The U.S. State Department also announced it was imposing visa bans on 19 Russian oligarchs and dozens of their family members and close associates.

“These individuals and their family members will be cut off from the U.S. financial system; their assets in the United States will be frozen and their property will be blocked from use,” the White House said in a statement announcing the new penalties.

The White House described Peskov, the Kremlin spokesperson, as a “top purveyor of Putin’s propaganda.”

The property of Usmanov and the others will be blocked from use in the U.S. and by Americans. His assets include his superyacht, one of the world’s largest. Usmanov’s private jet, one of Russia’s largest privately owned aircraft, is also covered by the sanctions.

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PRAGUE — The Czech Republic won’t punish those Czech nationals who decide to join international brigades to help Ukraine fight the invading Russian army.

Prime Minister Petr Fiala said on Thursday he and President Milos Zeman have agreed on the plan.

To serve in a foreign army is punishable by a prison term in the Czech Republic, but Fiala said that such a person would be pardoned by the president, with him co-signing it.

Several hundred Czechs have asked the presidential office and the Defense Ministry for approval to serve in foreign armed forces following Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call for international brigades of volunteers.

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JUNEAU, Alaska — In a ceremonial vote, the Alaska House of Representatives has approved a measure calling on the United States to supply military aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia.

The so-called “sense of the House” vote lacks binding authority. However, some lawmakers say it effectively foreshadows more substantial action, including divesting the state of Alaska’s investments in Russian companies.

The measure approved Wednesday also calls on the U.S. to support Ukraine’s membership application to the European Union and to promote energy independence from Russian sources, globally and domestically.

The lone dissenting vote came from state Rep. David Eastman, a Wasilla Republican who declined to answer why he voted that way when asked by the Anchorage Daily News.

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PARIS — French President Emmanuel Macron said Thursday that he has again asked his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to halt attacks on Ukraine, but that Putin won’t do it.

“At this point, he refuses,” Macron wrote in Twitter post.

He confirmed that he had spoken to Putin on the phone earlier on Thursday and said he will continue the dialogue to prevent “more human tragedy.”

“We must prevent the worst from happening,” Macron also said in his post. Dialogue has to continue to “protect the (civilian) population, to obtain good will gestures ... to put an end to this war,” Macron said.

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BREST, Belarus — A Ukrainian official who attended talks with Russians on Thursday said that “regrettably, we haven’t reached results we were hoping for,” but emphasized the importance of humanitarian corridors, saying that many cities have been besieged by the Russian troops and are experiencing a dramatic shortage of food and medicines.

The establishment of safe corridors was the Ukrainians’ main demand heading into their second round of negotiations in Belarus, in the Brest region that borders Poland.

Ukraine’s presidential adviser Mykhialo Podolyak said that Russia and Ukraine will quickly set the necessary channels of communications and logistics to organize those safe corridors.

Podolyak added that a third round of talks will be held shortly.

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CHERNIHIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s state emergencies agency now says at least 33 civilians have been killed and another 18 wounded in a Russian strike on a residential area in Chernihiv, a city of 280,000 in Ukraine’s north.

The agency said Thursday night that it was forced to suspend the search for more casualties in the rubble because of new shelling.

Earlier Thursday, the agency had said at least 22 civilians had been killed, and had warned that the death toll could rise.

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LONDON — Britain has slapped sanctions on two more Russians it says are linked to the Kremlin, cutting them off from properties and interests in the U.K.

The government says Alisher Usmanov and Igor Shuvalov face immediate asset freezes and travel bans.

The U.K. says the two men are worth a combined $19 billion.

Mining and telecoms tycoon Usmanov, who has held major stakes in Premier League soccer teams Arsenal and Everton, owns two English mansions and other assets. Britain called Shuvalov, a former Russian government chief of staff who headed up Russia’s bid for the 2018 Football World Cup, a core member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.

The announcement comes as the government is under pressure to hit the assets of more Russians in the U.K., which has long been a favored haven for Russian wealth. The U.K. has imposed sanctions on fewer wealthy Russians than the European Union or the U.S.

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WASHINGTON — U.S. officials say Russia has fired 480 missiles at Ukraine as Russian troops make more progress in the south, but are largely stalled in the north.

The official says about 90% of the Russian combat power that had been arrayed around Ukraine is now in the country.

Specifically, the official said that the majority of the Russian missile launches since the war began – or more than 230 of them – are coming from mobile systems within Ukraine. More than 150 missiles have been fired from within Russia, more than 70 from Belarus and only a very small number from ships in the Black Sea. Ukrainian air defenses are still intact and have been effective against the missiles, the official said.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss military assessments, said Russian progress in the south has been aided by the country’s eight-year presence in Crimea, where Russia has built infrastructure and systems to sustain troops. As a result, the supply lines to troops in the south are much shorter and more effective.

The official said the U.S. has not seen any Russian naval activity or other appreciable moves by Russia to move on Odesa. He said he is not challenging Ukrainian reports of activity there, but that the U.S. can’t independently confirm them. He added, however, that the U.S. believes that Russia’s goal may be to move past Kherson to Mykolayiv in order to set up a base of operations there that they can then use in a move to encircle and take Odesa.

The U.S. also assesses that Russian forces are just outside the city of Kharkiv, close to the ring road, the official said.

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Associated Press Writer Lolita Baldor in Washington contributed to this report.

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WASHINGTON — The leaders of the Quad held virtual talks Thursday to discuss the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine as Russian forces continue their offensive.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Japan Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, and U.S. President Joe Biden agreed the Indo-Pacific group would create a channel for communication as each country responds to the war in Ukraine, according to a joint statement released after the meeting.

Biden has sought to strengthen the Quad since the beginning of his presidency in last year, viewing the relationship as an increasingly vital one as he looks to counter the growing economic and military strength of China in the Pacific.

But on the Ukraine crisis, there has been some differences with India, which has been reluctant to criticize Russia over its invasion of Ukraine. Last week, India chose to abstain from voting on a U.N. Security Council resolution demanding that Russia cease its invasion of Ukraine

India is reliant on its Cold War ally Russia for energy, weapons and support in conflicts with neighbors.

During Thursday’s meeting between leaders, Modi emphasized the need to return to a “path of dialogue and diplomacy,” according to a statement issued by India’s External Affairs Ministry.

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BOSTON — The CEO of a top cryptocurrency transaction-tracking firm said Thursday that it was not yet seeing any large-scale evasion of Western sanctions on Russian businesses and individuals using the virtual currencies. U.S. officials have said they are looking at the sector for possible bans as punishment for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“The size of the crypto economy is still relatively small to be a viable substitute for access to the global financial system and to the U.S. dollar,” said Esteban Castaño, CEO of San Francisco-based TRM Labs. He said that in monitoring crypto flows his firm has seen some but not very significant spikes in crypto trading on “certain exchanges” he did not name.

Castaño said he could not comment on whether any of them would be sanctioned or when sanctions might occur. TRM Labs monitors more than 300 Russia-based crypto exchanges and brokers, some of which could be targets of sanctions.

In September, the U.S. Treasury department banned transactions with the Russian virtual currency broker SUEX OTC over its handling of transactions of ransomware and other cybercriminals. SUEX was what is known as a “parasite exchange.” Such brokerages are difficult to detect by legitimate exchanges, where they open accounts with fraudulent credentials to meet know-thy-customers requirements.

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MOSCOW — Russian negotiators in talks with Ukraine say another round of talks will likely be held shortly.

Vladimir Medinsky, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s adviser who led the Russian delegation in the talks Thursday in Belarus near the Polish border, said the parties’ “positions are absolutely clear, they are written down point by point,” including issues related to a political settlement of the conflict. He added without elaboration that “mutual understanding was found on part of them.”

He confirmed that Russia and Ukraine reached a tentative agreement to create safe corridors for civilians to exit besieged cities and observe local cease-fires in areas where they will be created.

Leonid Slutsky, a senior Russian lawmaker who was part of the Russian delegation in talks, said that the details of safe corridors will need to be worked out quickly. He said that the next round of talks could lead to agreements, some of which would need to be ratified by Russian and Ukrainian parliaments.

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KYIV, Ukraine — A member of Ukraine’s delegation in talks with Russia says the parties have reached a tentative agreement to organize safe corridors for civilians to evacuate and for humanitarian supplies to be delivered.

Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy who took part in Thursday’s talks in Belarus near the Polish border, said that Russia and Ukraine reached a preliminary understanding that cease-fires will be observed in areas where the safe corridors are established.

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MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin says the Russian military has offered safe corridors to civilians to allow them to leave areas of fighting in Ukraine.

Putin, speaking in a video call with members of his Security Council, has charged that Ukrainian nationalist groups are preventing civilians from leaving.

The Russian leader said the groups were also using civilians as shields, taking up firing positions to provoke the Russian retaliatory fire. Putin’s claim couldn’t be independently verified.

The Russian military says it has only struck military facilities and haven’t targeted residential areas, a claim that has been contradicted by the abundant evidence of massive casualties and damage to residential areas of Kyiv, Kharkiv, Chernihiv and other cities in Ukraine documented by The Associated Press.

Putin reaffirmed his claim that the Russian military was fighting “neo-Nazis,” adding that some Ukrainians were also “fooled by nationalist propaganda.”

He hailed the Russian military as heroes and ordered additional payments to families of the soldiers who were killed and servicemen who were wounded in action.

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BEN-GURION AIRPORT, Israel — The chief rabbi of Kyiv, Ukraine, says the Russian invasion has produced “a catastrophe,” and that most Jews have fled.

Jonathan Markovitch spoke as he arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport Thursday. He said the scene on the ground in Ukraine is “a catastrophe.

Planes are bombing places right next to residential buildings,” as well as a train station “maybe 100 meters from where my son lives and 50 meters from the synagogue.”

Most Jews, he said, have left the country. As he spoke, a group of about 150 young men and women held banners and sang as part of a welcome ceremony for new immigrants arriving from Ukraine.

Israel is expecting a wave of perhaps thousands of Ukrainians fleeing the invasion. So far this month, they’ve received a little over 500 people, the government says.

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TORONTO — Canada is calling for Russia’s membership in Interpol to be suspended.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says international law enforcement cooperation depends on mutual respect among members. Britain is also seeking to suspend Russia from the international policing body.

Defense Minister Anita Anand also says Canada is sending more weapons to Ukraine. Anand says Canada is sending 4,500 rocket launchers and 7,500 grenades.

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KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has challenged Russian President Vladimir Putin to sit down for talks while urging the West to offer a stronger military assistance to Ukraine to fight the Russian invasion.

In a sarcastic reference to a long table Putin used for his recent meetings with foreign leaders and Russian officials, Zelenskyy said: “Sit down with me to negotiate, just not at 30 meters,” adding, “I don’t bite. What are you afraid of?”

During Thursday’s news conference, Zelenskyy said that prospects for another round of talks between Russian and Ukrainian negotiations don’t seem promising, but emphasized the need to negotiate, adding that “any words are more important than shots.”

He said the world was too slow to offer support for Ukraine and prodded Western leaders to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine to deny access to the Russian warplanes. The U.S. and NATO allies have ruled out the move that would directly pit Russian and Western militaries.

Zelenskyy charged that if the West remains reluctant to declare a no-fly zone over Ukraine, it should at least provide Kyiv with warplanes.

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MOSCOW — Maj. Gen. Andrei Sukhovetsky, the commanding general of the Russian 7th Airborne Division, was killed in fighting in Ukraine earlier this week.

His death was confirmed by a local officers’ organization in the Krasnodar region in southern Russia. The circumstances of his death were not immediately clear.

Sukhovetsky, who was 47, began his military service as a platoon commander after graduating from a military academy and steadily rose through the ranks to take a series of leadership positions. He took part in Russia’s military campaign in Syria.

He was also a deputy commander of the 41st Combined Arms Army.

A funeral ceremony will be held in Novorossiisk, but further details weren’t immediately announced

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KHERSON, Ukraine — Zainish Hussain, a Pakistani citizen who moved to Kherson after marrying a Ukrainian woman, spoke to The Associated Press from his home, showing a nearly empty street outside.

For the past week they have struggled to hide the war from their 3-year-old daughter, trying to have her watch cartoons with headphones on to keep out the sounds of bombs or gunfire, but on Wednesday it became harder.

During what he described as the “scariest day of this life,” Hussain said that Russian tanks rolled down the street in front of his home and soldiers fired into the air to get civilians off the street. The city now has a curfew from 6 p.m. until 10 a.m.

Hussain said he is getting help from his family with cryptocurrency and hopes to hire a driver to escape to Romania.

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BRUSSELS — With close to a million of refugees fleeing Ukraine already in the eastern nations of the European Union, the EU member states decided Thursday to grant them temporary protection and residency permits.

EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson said Thursday that millions more were expected to move into the 27-nation bloc to seek shelter, employment and education for the young.

Johansson called the quick adoption of the protection rules a “historic result” and said “the EU stands united to save lives.”

The EU Commission has already promised at least 500 million euros ($560 million) in humanitarian aid for the refugees. Johansson pointed to nations like Poland, where the population has gone out of its way to be welcoming to the refugees, as an example for others to follow.

“They need financial support now because they’re going to have to find accommodation for people to have to find schools for the children,” she said.

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GENEVA — The U.N. human rights office says its latest count of casualties in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last week has risen to 249 civilians killed and 553 injured.

That was only a small increase from its previous tally a day earlier, when it counted 227 civilian deaths and 525 people injured, likely a testament to the difficulty it has had in confirming deaths amid the continued fighting and bloodshed. Seventeen of those killed were children, and 27 were women, the latest count found.

The rights office admits that its figures so far are a vast undercount. It uses a strict methodology and counts only confirmed casualties. The latest count is as of midnight local time from Tuesday to Wednesday. Ukrainian officials have presented far higher numbers.

The U.N. office acknowledged that many reports are pending corroboration, such as in the town of Volnovakha in the government-controlled part of eastern Ukraine, “where mass civilian casualties have been alleged.”

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STOCKHOLM — The eight-nation Arctic Council said its representatives will not travel to Russia for the body’s meetings and are temporarily “pausing participation in all meetings.”

In a statement, the members of the council, which include Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States, said they “condemn Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and note the grave impediments to international cooperation, including in the Arctic, that Russia’s actions have caused.”

Russia currently holds the chairmanship of the intergovernmental forum that was created in 1996. Its aim is to promote cooperation, coordination and interaction, Indigenous peoples and other Arctic inhabitants on common Arctic issues, in particular on issues of sustainable development and environmental protection in the Arctic.

The Arctic regions are home to more than 4 million people.

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ENERHODAR, Ukraine — The mayor of Enerhodar, site of Europe’s largest nuclear plant, says Ukrainian forces are battling Russian troops on the edges of the city.

Enerhodar is a major energy hub on the left bank of the Dnieper River and the Khakhovka Reservoir that accounts for about one quarter of the country’s power generation due to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, which is Europe’s largest.

Dmytro Orlov, the mayor of Enerhodar, said Thursday that a big Russian convoy was approaching the city and urged residents not to leave homes.

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GENEVA — The U.N. human rights chief says military operations in Ukraine are “escalating further as we speak” and warned of “concerning reports” of the use of cluster bombs.

Michelle Bachelet said the Ukrainian town of Volnovakha in the eastern Donetsk region, where pro-Russian separatists seized territory in 2014, leading to a drawn-out military conflict, “has been almost completely destroyed by shelling,” with residents hiding in basements.

She spoke Thursday during an “urgent debate” at the Human Rights Council, where country after country spoke out against Russia’s invasion. Many Western envoys sported blue or yellow ties, scarves, jackets or ribbons on their lapels – colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Delegates will vote Friday on a resolution that would create a three-person panel of experts to monitor human rights and report on rights abuses and violations in Ukraine.

U.S. Ambassador Sheba Crocker said her country was “deeply alarmed” by reports of “Russia’s deployment of weapons such as cluster munitions and thermobarics against cities where innocent people are sheltering.” She urged countries to vote for the resolution.

Chen Xu, China’s ambassador, hailed diplomatic talks between Russia and Ukraine but said his country opposed efforts to “politicize” human rights. He said China would vote against the resolution.

KYIV, Ukraine — Russian forces have taken a strategic Ukrainian seaport and set siege to another as Moscow tries to cut its neighbor off from the Black Sea.

The Russian military said Thursday it had control of Kherson, which has a population of 280,000 people, making it the first major city to fall since a Russian invasion began last week.

Russian armored vehicles were seen in the otherwise empty streets of Kherson, in videos shared with The Associated Press by a resident

Meanwhile, heavy fighting continued in Mariupol, in the outskirts of the strategic the Azov Sea port city. Electricity and phone connections are mostly not working in Mariupol, which faces food and water shortages.

The Russians are pressing their offensive on a variety of fronts, even as the Kremlin says it is ready for talks to end the fighting that has triggered more than 1 million refugees.

LONDON — The British government is defending its sanctions against rich Russians amid criticism it is lagging compared to its American and European allies.

The U.K. has slapped sanctions on only a handful of wealthy Russians accused of links to the Kremlin who have assets in Britain. That is fewer than the European Union or the U.S.

The Conservative government is under pressure to add more names, including Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich, who has announced plans to sell the team.

The government says more individuals will be sanctioned but it has not said when. It denies the delay is giving oligarchs time to move assets out of the U.K., long a favored haven for Russian wealth.

Opposition lawmakers are also urging the government to seize oligarchs’ properties in Britain.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman, Max Blain, denied the government was dragging its feet. He said penalizing individuals was only part of the picture and it was sanctions on large banks and companies that would put the most pressure on the Russian government.

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VILNIUS, Lithuania -- The mayor of the Lithuanian capital Vilnius has come up with a novel way of punishing Russia for its invasion of Ukraine: by changing the name of a street.

Mayor Remigijus Simasius said a quiet alley in downtown Vilnius where the Russian embassy is located will change its name to “Heroes of Ukraine street.”

“Russian Embassy, update your business cards: Ukrainian Heroes Street 2,” Simasius said on Facebook about the new address. He noted that the business card of every Russian embassy employee will have to honor Ukrainian heroes.

“Everyone who writes a letter to the embassy will have to think about the victims of Russian aggression and heroes of Ukraine,” he said.

The name will be changed next week. The Russian embassy did not comment on the change.

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LONDON — The British satellite company OneWeb says it is cancelling all launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which is run by the Russian Aerospace Forces and Russia’s space agency, Roscosmos.

The firm said in a one-line statement that “the Board of OneWeb has voted to suspend all launches from Baikonur.”

OneWeb had been due to launch a batch of its internet satellites Friday on Russian rockets from the base.

The launch was put in doubt after Russia demanded the British government sell its stake in OneWeb, which it partly owns. It also wanted a guarantee from the company that none of its satellites would have military uses.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has thrown international space cooperation into turmoil and put a planned Europe-Russian mission to Mars this year on hold.

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TOKYO — Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says his country will freeze the assets of Russian oligarchs close to President Vlaimir Putin as Tokyo steps up sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Kishida said Thursday that Japan is adding oligarchs to the list of sanctions as part of a collective effort by the United States and European countries. The step adds to Japan’s freezing of the assets of Putin and top officials in his government.

Kishida also said that Japan has taken steps to disconnect seven Russian banks from the SWIFT international financial messaging systems.

“The Russian invasion is a unilateral attempt to change the status quo by force, and it shakes the foundations of the international order, not only in Europe and in Asia,” Kishida said.

Japan, which wants to regain control over some Russian-held islands in a dispute that still prevents the two countries from signing a peace treaty formally ending their World War II hostilities, used to be reluctant to impose strict sanctions on Russia.

But it has been quick to respond this time as Tokyo worries about the impact of the Russian invasion in Asia.

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MADRID — Spain’s prime minister says the 27 European Union countries will be strict about applying sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his circle, aiming to asphyxiate the Russian economy over the invasion of Ukraine.

“Putin has to know that we are not going to stop applying the sanctions against him and the oligarchy that has prospered within his regime, to isolate it and choke it economically to end an unjustified and unfair invasion,” Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said Thursday.

Spain’s defense ministry announced that two planes loaded with Spanish offensive military material will depart for Ukraine on Friday.

The cargo includes 1,370 anti-tank grenade launchers and 700,000 rounds of ammunition for rifles and machine guns, as well as an unspecified number of light machine guns.

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GENEVA — The U.N.’s top human rights body is holding an urgent debate on the situation in Ukraine and the possibility of creating a panel to investigate any abuses during Russia’s war with its neighbor.

The Human Rights Council meeting is set to culminate in a vote Friday on whether to set up a three-person expert panel, following Russia’s invasion last week.

The vote by the 47-member-state body, which counts Ukraine and Russia as members, offers a bellwether of international sentiment about the Kremlin’s invasion. It comes a day after the U.N. General Assembly in New York voted 141-5, with 35 abstentions, to demand an immediate halt to Moscow’s attack on Ukraine.

The panel would seek to collect and analyze evidence that could be used by a court, such as the International Criminal Court, which has already launched its own investigation over Russia’s invasion.

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HELSINKI — In the latest economic fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Finnish national airline Finnair says it is planning temporary layoffs of up to 90 days for its flight crews.

That is due to the closure of Russian airspace, which is causing significant changes to long-haul traffic and is a severe financial blow for the carrier.

Meanwhile, the biggest Czech carmaker Skoda Auto says it is halting car production at its two Russian plants and all exports to Russia over aggression against Ukraine.

Skoda Auto belongs to Volkswagen Group, which has halted all its business in Russia. Russia was Skoda’s second-biggest market in 2021.

Flat-pack furnishings retailer Ikea also said it was temporarily closing its operations in Russia and halting all exports and imports involving Russia and Belarus.

The Swedish group added that the decision will have a direct impact on 15,000 IKEA workers.

The tourism sector in Egypt, where nearly 20,000 Ukrainian tourists are said to be stranded, is also expected to take a hit.

Ukrainians account for the country’s second-largest number of European visitors, especially to Egypt’s Red Sea resorts. More than 1.4 million Ukrainian tourists reportedly visited Egypt in 2021.

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JERUSALEM — Two buses carrying more than 100 Jewish refugee children from a foster home in Odesa are making their way across Europe to Berlin, where the local Jewish community will provide them with accommodation.

The children are just a few of the roughly 1 million people who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded it last week.

Rabbi Mendy Wolff, 25, spoke to the Associated Press on Thursday as the convoy made its way across Romania, after the group crossed from Ukraine into Moldova the previous day.

He said many of 105 children, the youngest only 37 days old, lack proper documentation, which prevented them from fleeing the Black Sea port of Odesa until Wednesday.

“We cannot fly because nobody has documents,” he said. Instead they are making a roughly 2,000 kilometer (1,200 mile) overland trek across the continent to the German capital.

The Jewish children have received financial assistance from Jewish aid groups, and diplomatic support from Israel, Germany and other European states, who have facilitated their swift passage so that they reach Berlin before sundown on Friday, when the Jewish Sabbath begins.

“We’re not making them feel for a second that they are refugees, that’s our main thing,” said Wolff, an Odesa native who is fleeing his hometown.

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BRUSSELS — A senior European Union official says that in the wake of Ukraine’s formal application this week to join the bloc, bids for entry are also expected “imminently” from Moldova and Georgia.

The two eastern European countries are already part of EU outreach programs, but a membership request would be a major development in their relations with the 27-nation bloc.

Any membership application and consideration is a process that would take many years and involve fundamental political adjustments, ranging from trade, to rule of law measures and anti-corruption commitments.

The EU official who spoke Thursday asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of recent geopolitical developments after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

— By Raf Casert.

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BERLIN — German automaker Volkswagen says it is halting production of vehicles in Russia until further notice due to the Russian attack on Ukraine.

The VW Group said in a brief statement Thursday on Twitter that “vehicle exports to Russia will also be stopped with immediate effect.”

The company said it takes its “responsibility for the affected employees in Russia very seriously” and all those affected will receive short-time working benefits, paid by Volkswagen.

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea’s government says it is in talks with governments of international organizations and nearby countries to send essential medical supplies to Ukraine.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in spoke Thursday by telephone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who requested further help in resisting Russia’s invasion of his country.

South Korea has joined the U.S.-led economic pressure campaign on Moscow over the invasion, banning exports of strategic materials to Russia and supporting efforts to cut off key Russian banks from global payment systems.

Moon’s office said he expressed his condolences for war victims and saluted the courage of Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people.

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DHAKA, Bangladesh — Bangladesh officials say a missile has hit one of the country’s cargo ships at the Ukrainian port of Olvia, killing one crew member.

The junior minister for shipping, Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, said 29 crew were aboard the vessel, which is owned by the state-run Bangladesh Shipping Corporation.

He said the ship was carrying cement clay and was on its way to Italy.

Hadisur Rahman, an engineer onboard, was struck in the attack late Wednesday and died. The other 28 members were safe, Chowdhury said. It was unclear whether it was a Ukrainian or Russian missile.

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PARIS — French authorities say they have seized a yacht linked to Igor Sechin, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, as part of European Union sanctions over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The French Finance Ministry said in a statement Thursday that customs authorities carried out an inspection of the yacht Amore Vero in the Mediterranean resort of La Ciotat.

The boat arrived in La Ciotat on Jan. 3 for repairs and was slated to stay until April 1. When French customs officers arrived to inspect the yacht, its crew was preparing an urgent departure, even though the repair work wasn’t finished, the statement said. The boat was seized to prevent its departure.

It says the boat is owned by a company that lists Sechin as its primary shareholder. Sechin runs Russian oil giant Rosneft.

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BUDAPEST, Hungary — Hungary’s government is insisting it will not allow any arms shipments bound for neighboring Ukraine to cross its territory, as the European Union country receives tens of thousands of refugees from the conflict and frets about the reliability of its energy links to Moscow.

A large Hungarian ethnic minority, around 150,000 people, lives in the western Ukrainian region of Transcarpathia, just across the border.

The prime minister’s chief of staff, Gergely Gulyas, says allowing weapons into Ukraine would endanger that minority.

Gulyas said Thursday that some 120,000 refugees fleeing the conflict have crossed into Hungary so far.

Hungary has agreed to all EU sanctions imposed on Russia, Gulyas said. But he argued against allowing sanctions to affect Hungary’s energy sector, which relies heavily on Russian natural gas.

Gulyas also said that Hungary will not pull out of the planned Russian-backed expansion of Hungary’s only nuclear power plant, which will be financed primarily by a Russian state bank.

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BERLIN — A German magazine says it has hired 15 reporters in Ukraine and Russia to cover the war after existing staff waived part of their salaries and the publication received a flood of donations from supporters.

Editor-in-chief Benjamin Fredrich said Katapult magazine is sending its new hires in Ukraine urgently needed equipment such as protective vests, helmets and smartphones to help them do their work. Fourteen of the new hires are women.

“It’s a bit of a wild effort,” Friedrich told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Thursday. The magazine hopes to hire a total of 21 staff for the new venture, which will initially be published online in English and Ukrainian, he said.

“Russian would be great too, eventually,” Friedrich said, noting that coverage of the war in Russian media is very limited and not often impartial.

Katapult magazine, a quarterly based in the northeast German town of Greifswald, has made a name for itself in recent years explaining complex social issues with easy-to-understand graphics and charts that are widely shared on social media. It claims to have 150,000 print subscribers.

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MOSCOW — Russia’s foreign minister says Moscow is ready for peace talks but will press its effort to destroy Ukraine’s military infrastructure, which the Kremlin claims is threatening Russia.

Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Thursday that the Russian delegation to the talks submitted its demands to Ukrainian negotiators earlier this week and is now waiting for Kyiv’s response in a meeting set for Thursday.

Lavrov said that Russia will insist on provisions that Ukraine will never again represent a military threat to Russia. He said it will be up to Ukrainians to choose what government they should have.

Lavrov voiced regret for civilian casualties during the Russian action in Ukraine, which started last week, and insisted that the Russian military is using only precision weapons against military targets.

He tacitly acknowledged that some Russian strikes could have killed civilians, saying that “any military action is fraught with casualties, and not just among the military but also civilians.”

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BEIJING — China is denouncing a report that it asked Russia to delay invading Ukraine until after the Beijing Winter Olympics as “fake news” and a “very despicable” attempt to divert attention and shift blame over the conflict.

“The New York Times report is purely fake news, and such behaviors of diverting attentions and shifting blames are very despicable,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Thursday.

The Times article cited a “Western intelligence report” considered credible by officials, which indicated that “senior Chinese officials had some level of direct knowledge about Russia’s war plans or intentions before the invasion started last week,” the Times wrote.

China also commented on its decision to abstain in Wednesday’s U.N. General Assembly emergency session vote to demand an immediate halt to Moscow’s attack on Ukraine and the withdrawal of all Russian troops.

“Regrettably, the draft resolution submitted to the General Assembly emergency special session for vote had not undergone full consultations with the whole membership, nor does it take into consideration the history and the complexity of the current crisis,” Wang said.

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BERLIN — Activists from the Fridays for Future environmental movement are staging protests in dozens of German cities calling for peace in Ukraine.

The group, which has staged large marches in the past calling for greater action against climate change, said it wants to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine following Russia’s attack.

The demonstrations, including one in front of the German parliament, are scheduled to take place in 35 cities on Thursday.

Separately, churches across Germany are planning to ring their bells at noon for seven minutes, representing the seven days since the start of the war in Ukraine.

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JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister is calling on world leaders to get Russia and Ukraine “out of the battlefield and to the negotiating table” after a week of fighting.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett spoke in English on Thursday at a cyber tech conference in Tel Aviv, less than a day after he spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Israel maintains good relations with both countries. It has condemned Russia’s invasion and sent humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but the same time has avoided taking a stance that might anger Moscow. Russia and Israel cooperate on military operations in Syria.

Bennett said of the situation in Ukraine that “things are looking bad on the ground right now, but it’s important to understand that if world leaders don’t act quickly it can get much worse.”

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GENEVA — German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is backing calls to investigate potential human rights violations committed by Russia in Ukraine, with a view to holding to account those responsible.

In a video message to the U.N. Human Rights Council in Geneva, Baerbock said that grave abuses “must be prosecuted.”

“We urgently need a commission of inquiry on Ukraine to investigate all violations of human rights that have been committed by Russia since its military aggression,” she said. “We must stand strong on accountability.”

Baerbock also expressed support for activists in Russia, such as the recently closed human rights group Memorial and imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny.

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COPENHAGEN, Denmark — A Hercules C130 transport aircraft with some 2,000 anti-tank missiles for Ukraine has taken off from Norway.

The weapons are to help Ukrainian forces resist Russia’s invasion, which began last week.

Norway’s national news agency NTB said the shipment was being sent from Oslo on Thursday to a third country before being transported to Ukraine.

Also Thursday, Germany’s economy ministry approved sending 2,700 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine, the dpa news agency said.

The agency quoted unnamed Economy Ministry officials saying the weapons are Soviet-made, shoulder-fired Strela surface-to-air missiles left over from East German army supplies.

Germany reversed its previous refusal to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons last week, following Russia’s attack.

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LONDON — A British military expert says the longer Ukrainian cities can hold out against Russian attacks, the fewer troops Moscow will have at its disposal to encircle Kyiv, its main objective.

Jack Watling, an expert in land warfare at the Royal United Services Institute, said Thursday that if cities are able to resist they can draw out the conflict.

“If the conflict protracts, the Ukrainians have more leverage to be able to negotiate,” Watling said.

His assessment came as Russia claimed its troops had taken the southern city of Kherson, even as the head of the local administration said he was working to keep the Ukrainian flag flying over the city.

Russian forces pounded Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, overnight and air raid sirens were heard in the capital, Kyiv.

The next phase of the war will test the Ukrainians’ commitment and their ability to conduct small-scale offensive actions that disrupt and delay the Russian advance, Watling said.

The challenge will be to prevent cities from being surrounded so they aren’t cut off from supplies of food, water and ammunition, he added.

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GENEVA — The U.N. human rights office says 227 civilians have been killed and another 525 injured in its latest count of the toll in Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s military invasion that began a week ago.

The office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights says the tally eclipses the entire civilian casualty count from the war in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces in 2014 — which left 136 dead and 577 injured.

The rights office admits that the figures so far are a vast undercount. It uses a strict methodology and counts only confirmed casualties. Ukrainian officials have presented far higher numbers.

The rights office said in a statement late Wednesday that “real figures are considerably higher, especially in government-controlled territory and especially in recent days, as the receipt of information from some locations where intensive hostilities have been going on was delayed and many reports were still pending corroboration.”

Most of the casualties were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multi-launch rocket systems, and airstrikes, the rights office said.

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ATHENS, Greece — Greek authorities say a convoy of dozens of Greek citizens and staff from the Greek consulate in the southeastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol are making their way toward Ukraine’s western borders.

The convoy of 21 vehicles and more than 80 people left Mariupol on Wednesday, arriving in the town of Zaporizhzhia that night. Greek authorities said the convoy set out again Thursday morning from Zaporizhzhia, heading toward the border with Moldova.

Greek Ambassador Frangiskos Kostelenos, who was heading the convoy, told Greek state television ERT the convoy had been delayed Wednesday by checkpoints and a destroyed bridge but the vehicles had arrived in Zaporizhzhia without serious incident.

A Greek diaspora community in Ukraine lives mainly in the Donetsk Oblast region, in and around Mariupol. Greece’s consulate in Mariupol continues to operate.

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BERLIN — The German news agency dpa reported that Germany has approved sending 2,700 anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine.

The report quoted unnamed Economy Ministry officials on Thursday saying the weapons are Soviet-made, shoulder-fired Strela surface-to-air missiles left over from East German army supplies.

Germany reversed its previous refusal to provide Ukraine with lethal weapons last week following Russia’s invasion.

Berlin has already authorized sending 1,000 anti-tank weapons and 500 Stinger surface-to-air missiles to Ukraine.

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LONDON — Britain’s Ministry of Defense says that a Russian military column heading for Kyiv has made “little discernible progress” over the past three days and remains over 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the center of the city.

The column has been delayed by Ukrainian resistance, mechanical breakdowns and congestion, the ministry said in its daily intelligence briefing Thursday.

Despite heavy Russian shelling, the cities of Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Mariupol remain in Ukrainian hands, the department said. Some Russian forces have entered the city of Kherson, but the military situation remains unclear, it added.

The ministry also noted that Russia has been forced to admit that 498 of its soldiers have been killed in Ukraine and another 1,597 have been wounded. The actual number of those killed and wounded will almost certainly be considerably higher and will continue to rise, it said.

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STOCKHOLM — Low-cost fashion brand Hennes & Mauritz AB has become the latest company to suspend its activities in Russia and Ukraine, saying it had decided to temporarily pause all sales in its Russian stores and temporarily close its Ukrainian shops “due to the safety of customers and colleagues.”

The Stockholm-based group said Wednesday that it was “deeply concerned about the tragic developments in Ukraine and stand with all the people who are suffering.” It added that it was “in dialogue with all relevant stakeholders.”

H&M said clothes “and other necessities” had been donated and the H&M Foundation, which is privately funded by the founders and main owners of the group, had made donations to Save the Children and to UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency.

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BRUSSELS — With close to a million refugees already fleeing Ukraine for the eastern nations of the European Union, the bloc is bracing for the arrival of many more as the Russian invasion continues.

EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson said Thursday ahead of a special meeting of justice and home affairs ministers that “we have to be prepared for millions of refugees to come to the European Union.”

The bloc is already moving toward granting temporary protection to those fleeing war, seeking to give temporary residence permits to refugees and allow them rights to education and work in the 27-nation bloc.

The EU Commission has already promised at least 500 million euros ($560 million) in humanitarian aid for the refugees. Johansson said the bloc will need funding and equipment.

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LONDON — Fitch Ratings has downgraded Russia’s credit rating, citing a “severe shock” to fundamental conditions due to its invasion of Ukraine.

Fitch said the war has raised risks to financial stability and could undermine Russia’s ability to service its government debt. It said that, in turn, will weaken the country’s finances and slow its economy, further raising geopolitical risks and uncertainty.

Among other factors, the ratings agency noted sanctions imposed by Western countries that are limiting access to foreign currency needed to repay debt and purchase imports and increased uncertainty over Russia’s willingness to pay such debts.

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BEIJING — Russian and Belarusian athletes have been banned from the Winter Paralympic Games for their countries’ roles in the war in Ukraine, the International Paralympic Committee said Thursday in Beijing.

The about-face comes less than 24 hours after the IPC on Wednesday said it would allow Russian and Belarusian athletes to compete when the Games open on Friday, but only as neutral athletes with colors, flags and other national symbols removed.

The IPC received immediate criticism for its initial decision. It was termed a betrayal that sent the wrong message to Russia’s leadership. The IPC also said it was evident that many athletes would refuse to compete against Russians or Belarusians, creating chaos for the Paralympics.

The IPC now joins sports like soccer, track, basketball, hockey and others that have imposed blanket bans on Russians and Belarusians.

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MAZYR, Belarus — A string of seven bus-size Russian military ambulances — their windows blocked with gray shades — pulled up to the back entrance of the main hospital about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from the border with Ukraine on Tuesday evening, ferrying casualties from the front.

The convoy was part of what residents and doctors said has in recent days become a steady flow of Russian soldiers wounded in fierce fighting around Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, where a Russian advance has stalled in the face of strong resistance.

A doctor at the hospital — which is in southern Belarus’s Gomel region, a main staging ground for Russia’s offensive — said injured Russian troops began arriving on Monday. “I hope they don’t jail me for sharing this,” she said.

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GENEVA — The U.N. refugee agency says 1 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion less than a week ago, an exodus without precedent in this century for its speed.

The tally from UNHCR amounts to more than 2 percent of Ukraine’s population on the move in under a week. The World Bank counted the population at 44 million at the end of 2020.

The U.N. agency has predicted that up to 4 million people could eventually leave Ukraine but cautioned that even that projection could be revised upward.

In an email, UNHCR spokesperson Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams wrote: “Our data indicates we passed the 1M mark” as of midnight in central Europe, based on counts collected by national authorities.

On Twitter, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, wrote: “In just seven days we have witnessed the exodus of one million refugees from Ukraine to neighboring countries.”

Syria, whose civil war erupted in 2011, currently remains the country with the largest refugee outflows – at more than 5.6 million people, according to UNHCR figures. But even at the swiftest rate of flight by refugees out of Syria, in early 2013, it took at least three months for 1 million refugees to leave that country.

UNHCR spokesperson Shabia Mantoo said Wednesday that “at this rate” the outflows from Ukraine could make it the source of “the biggest refugee crisis this century.”

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KYIV, Ukraine — In a video address to the nation early Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gave an upbeat assessment of the war and called on Ukrainians to keep up the resistance.

“We are a people who in a week have destroyed the plans of the enemy,” he said. “They will have no peace here. They will have no food. They will have here not one quiet moment.”

Zelenskyy didn’t comment on whether the Russians have seized several cities, including Kherson.

“If they went somewhere, then only temporarily. We’ll drive them out,” he said.

He said the fighting is taking a toll on the morale of Russian soldiers, who “go into grocery stores and try to find something to eat.”

“These are not warriors of a superpower,” he said. “These are confused children who have been used.”

He said the Russian death toll has reached about 9,000.

“Ukraine doesn’t want to be covered in bodies of soldiers,” he said. “Go home.”

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