The West increases pressure on Putin, including sanctions against famous girlfriend

KRAKOW, Poland – Russian President Vladimir V. Putin faced new setbacks on Friday due to the invasion of Ukraine, as Sweden became the second neutral country in two days to move towards NATO membership and l ‘The West has come up with ways to redirect Ukrainian grain beyond a Russian naval blockade.

New signs of a Russian military retreat near Ukraine’s second largest city, Kharkiv, have added to Putin’s challenges, appearing to subvert or at least delay the Kremlin’s goal of encircling Ukrainian forces concentrated in eastern Ukraine.

But for Putin, the biggest harassment may have been the most personal: Britain sanctioned his ex-wife, Lyudmila Ocheretnaya, about a former Olympic gymnast who has long been rumored to be his girlfriend, Alina Kabaeva, and about three cousins: Igor, Mikhail and Roman Putin.

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

The West faced challenges of its own. Although Sweden has signaled that it would benefit from NATO membership – a day after Finland said they were ready to participate – the president of Turkey has signaled his objections to an expansion of the alliance, a possible complication that could work in Russia’s favor. Foreign ministers of the alliance met in Germany on Saturday and invited counterparts from Sweden and Finland to join them.

As a sign that not all diplomatic channels have been cut off, US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III spoke to Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu on Friday for the first time since February 18 – six days earlier. invasion of Ukraine. Mr. Austin pushed for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine and stressed the importance of maintaining lines of communication, according to John F. Kirby, a spokesman for the Pentagon.

The Russian defense ministry said the call took place “at the initiative of the American side,” two senior US officials confirmed.

Top Pentagon officials, including Mr. Austin, had repeatedly tried to contact their Russian counterparts in the aftermath of the invasion. Until Friday, those efforts had not been successful.

“What prompted them to change their minds 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 call. He said the hour-long conversation was “professional” but it didn’t break new ground. Mr. Austin hoped, however, that it “would serve as a springboard for future conversations,” the official said.

He has been the highest-level contact between US 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, to reiterate the strong US opposition to the invasion.

Russia took about 80 percent of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine, where its latest offensive was concentrated. If Moscow can hold that territory, she would gain significant leverage in any future interview. Yet she struggled to gain more ground against Ukrainian forces wielding heavy weapons supplied by the West.

On Friday, Russian forces bombed largely abandoned and devastated cities in Donbas, while Ukrainian forces drove Russian troops away from Kharkiv in the north-east. The Ukrainian counteroffensive was beginning to rival the one that pulled Russian troops away from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, last month, said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group.

The British Defense Ministry said satellite images confirmed that Ukrainian forces had done so too decimated a Russian battalion while attempting to cross pontoon bridges over a river in northeastern Ukraine earlier this week. Although it was not clear how many soldiers had been killed, the scattering of burnt and wrecked vehicles along the river bank suggested that Russia had suffered heavy losses.

Approaching NATO membership, Sweden argued in a report that Russian aggression in Ukraine had radically altered 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 would also contribute to the security of like-minded countries,” the relationship declared.

If Sweden unites, it would to end more than 200 years of neutrality and military non-alignment and deliver another reprimand to Mr. Putin, who had invoked NATO expansion as the motivation for the invasion.

But the addition of Sweden and Finland could be complicated by the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who on Friday suggested that his country, which has one of the largest armies among NATO members, would be reluctant to welcome them into the alliance.

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

Turkey has generally supported Western responses to the invasion, agreeing to prevent Russian warships from passing through the Turkish Strait.

But Sweden and Finland would need the unanimous support of the 30 NATO members to join. Mr. Erdogan may refuse Turkey’s approval to leverage issues he cares about, such as Turkey’s longstanding concerns about 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 pensions for terrorist organizations,” Erdogan said, naming the PKK.

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.” You said US officials do not take for granted that Turkey opposes the NATO membership of Finland and Sweden.

“We respect political processes that are clandestine in both Finland and Sweden,” he said.

In Germany, agriculture ministers of the Group of 7, representing the richest democracies in the world, discussed ways to bypass Russian warships that prevented Ukrainian wheat from reaching global markets across the Black Sea. ‘Ukraine is the world’s fourth largest exporter of wheat and the blockade has threatened to exacerbate a global food crisis.

Cem Özdemir, the German agriculture minister, said the G7 will look for routes to transport Ukrainian wheat by road and rail, as well as across the Danube River. He called the blockade “part of Russia’s treacherous strategy of not only eliminating a competitor, which they will not be able to do, but it is also an economic war that Russia is waging.”

In Kiev, Ukrainian judicial authorities have opened a hearing against a Russian soldier accused of shooting a civilian, the first trial involving a suspected war crime by a Russian military service member since the invasion began.

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

Sergeant Shysimarin, who is 21 and faces 10 to 15 years in prison, was brought to court in handcuffs and seated in a locked glass box. With his head down, he ignored reporters who asked him how he felt.

“For me, it’s just work,” said Viktor Ovsyannikov, a Ukrainian court-appointed lawyer, when asked to defend Sargeant Shysimarin. “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 one they come from.”

In the Russian town of Khimki, near Moscow, a court extended the custody of the American basketball star Britney Grinertwice Olympic gold medal, until June 18, his lawyer said.

Ms. Griner has been in Russian custody since mid-February on drug charges that can lead to 10 years in prison. The charge is based on the allegation that she had vaporizer cartridges containing hash oil in her luggage when she was detained at an airport near Moscow in February.

“She is fine,” Ms. Griner’s lawyer Aleksandr Boikov said in an interview, adding that the court had rejected her request to transfer Ms. Griner to house arrest. He said he expected the trial to start in about two months.

The State Department said this month that Ms. Griner had been “unjustly detained” indicating that he may be more actively involved in trying to secure his release.

Marco Santora reported from Krakow, Marco Landler from London e Michele Levenson From New York. The report was provided by Eric Schmitt Other Edoardo Wong from Washington, Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia, Valerie Hopkins from Kiev, Ukraine, Matthew Mpoke Bigg Other Cassandra Vinograd from London, Dan Bilefsky from Montreal and Steven Erlanger from Tallinn, Estonia.