U.S. to send $275 million in military aid to Ukraine; NATO chief worries war could become wider conflict

Kremlin critic Ilya Yashin sentenced to 8.5 years in prison

Russian opposition figure and Moscow city councillor Ilya Yashin, charged with “discrediting” the Russian army fighting in Ukraine, flashes a victory sign inside a defendants’ box during a verdict announcement at the Meshansky district court in Moscow on December 9, 2022.

Yuri Kochetkov | AFP | Getty Images

Prominent Kremlin critic and former Moscow city council member Ilya Yashin was sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for allegedly spreading “false information” about the Russian military during its invasion of Ukraine, multiple outlets reported.

Russian investigators said Yashin’s statements about extrajudicial killings of civilians and other war crimes in Bucha were a criminal offense under recent legislation that criminalized criticisms of the Russian armed forces.

Yashin said in a Telegram post following the verdict that the judges were “too optimistic” about Putin’s prospects.

“With this hysterical verdict, the government wants to intimidate us all, but in fact it only shows its weakness,” Yashin said. “Strong leaders are calm and self-confident, and only weaklings seek to shut everyone up, burn out any dissent. So today it only remains for me to repeat what was said on the day of my arrest: I am not afraid, and you are not afraid.”

It is unclear whether the prison sentence includes the time he already spent in jail during court proceeding, according to CNN.

— Rocio Fabbro

Bout’s release sets a ‘dangerous precedent’, Sen. Cotton says

U.S. Senator Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) listens to testimony from Twitter Inc.’s former security chief Peiter “Mudge” Zatko during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to discuss allegations from Zatko’s whistleblower complaint that the social media company misled regulators, on Capitol Hill in Washington, September 13, 2022.

Evelyn Hockstein | Reuters

Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said the United States “should have never traded” Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout and that his release sets a “dangerous precedent.”

“This is not someone who was selling firearms for street gangs in Moscow,” Cotton said on Fox News. “We’re talking about anti-aircraft systems, tanks and artillery, missiles and rockets, that fueled thousands and thousands of deaths, rapes, amputations, torture, dismemberment.”

Bout is referred to as the “Merchant of Death” for his deadly arms dealings.

Cotton worried that Bout will now help Russian President Vladimir Putin obtain such arms, noting that Moscow’s calls for Bout’s release increased since the start of the war in Ukraine. This agreement was “a dangerous concession” to Putin, Cotton contended.

The U.S. traded Bout for WNBA player Brittney Griner, who received a nine-year sentence in Russia for possession of cannabis. Legal experts dubbed Griner’s trial and subsequent sentencing a “sham.”

“Why do we think Vladimir Putin held Brittney Griner, sentenced her to such a long term earlier this year?” Cotton questioned. “Because he realized that he could use her as leverage against Joe Biden to get back one of the world’s most dangerous men, that he could then unleash against the United States and our allies all around the world.”

— Rocio Fabbro

Turkey’s Erdogan to speak with Putin and Zelenskyy about grain deal

ISTANBUL, TURKIYE – AUGUST 09: An aerial view of “Glory” named empty grain ship as Representatives of Russia, Ukraine, Turkiye and the United Nations (UN) of the Joint Coordination Center (JCC) conduct inspection on vessel in Istanbul, Turkiye on August 09, 2022. The UN, Russia, and Ukraine signed a deal on July 22 to reopen three Ukrainian ports — Odessa, Chernomorsk, and Yuzhny — for grain that has been stuck for months because of the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, which is now in its sixth month. (Photo by Ali Atmaca/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy separately in the coming days to discuss the conflict and strengthen the United Nations-backed Black Sea grain deal.

“In order to resolve this crisis, I will have talks with Putin on Sunday. Likewise, there will be one with Zelenskyy,” Erdogan said during a forum in Istanbul.

He said that he aimed to bolster the deal he helped broker over the summer, and “in Putin’s words, to send [grain] through this corridor to underdeveloped countries.”

The deal saw the reopening of vital Black Sea ports which had been blocked by Russian warships since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February. Those blockades triggered sharp food price inflation and fears of a hunger crisis, particularly in parts of Africa and the Middle East, as a large share of the world’s grain and other produce comes from Ukraine.

“We put an end to the threat of poverty as we are indeed advocating for our rights and our interests,” Zelenskyy had said of the deal.

— Natasha Turak

NATO chief fears Ukraine war could become a wider conflict

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks during a news conference at the Alliance’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium January 12, 2022.

Johanna Geron | Reuters

The head of NATO expressed worry that the fighting in Ukraine could spin out of control and become a war between Russia and NATO, according to an interview.

“If things go wrong, they can go horribly wrong,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in remarks to Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

“It is a terrible war in Ukraine. It is also a war that can become a full-fledged war that spreads into a major war between NATO and Russia,” he said. “We are working on that every day to avoid that.”

Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, said in the interview that “there is no doubt that a full-fledged war is a possibility,” adding that it was important to avoid a conflict “that involves more countries in Europe and becomes a full-fledged war in Europe.”

The Kremlin has repeatedly accused NATO allies of effectively becoming a party to the conflict by providing Ukraine with weapons, training its troops and feeding military intelligence to attack Russian forces.

— Associated Press

White House says Russia and Iran are working on joint production line for drones

White House National Security Council Strategic Communications Coordinator John Kirby addresses the daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, July 27, 2022.

Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

The Biden administration said Iran and Russia are in the process of establishing a joint production facility for unmanned aerial vehicles.

The production line will be based in Russia, according to U.S. intelligence.

“Support is flowing both ways. Russia is seeking to collaborate with Iran on areas like weapons development and training,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on a conference call.

“Russia intends to provide Iran with advanced military components,” Kirby said, adding that Moscow may be providing Tehran with equipment such as helicopters and air defense systems.

Kirby said that Iranian pilots are currently learning how to fly Russian SU-35 fighter jets and that Tehran may begin receiving aircraft from Russia within the next year.

— Amanda Macias

U.S. to send $275 million security package to Ukraine

John Kirby, U.S. National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications, speaks to reporters during a press briefing at the White House in Washington, U.S., June 23, 2022. 

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

The United States will send an additional $275 million security package to Ukraine, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.

The package “will provide Ukraine new capabilities to boost its air defenses and counter the threats that Ukraine is facing,” Kirby said in a briefing.

The U.S. will also provide critical defense equipment including ammunition for HIMARS, a multiple rocket launcher that Ukraine has used to defend itself against Russian attacks, according to Kirby.

The U.S. has committed more than $19 billion in security aid to Ukraine since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion in February.

— Rocio Fabbro

Bulgarian parliament approves military aid to Ukraine

Flags wave outside the Alliance headquarters ahead of a NATO Defense Ministers meeting, in Brussels, Belgium, October 21, 2021. 

Pascal Rossignol | Reuters

Bulgarian lawmakers approved the country’s first military assistance package to Ukraine involving a classified list of weapons prepared by the government.

The National Assembly voted 148-46 with one abstention in favor of the weapons to Kyiv following months of political squabbling on the issue in the Balkan NATO member state.

Bulgaria previously agreed to repair Ukrainian military equipment at its factories but refused to send weapons directly due to opposition from President Rumen Radev and the country’s Moscow-friendly political parties.

Along with Hungary, Bulgaria was the only European Union member country to initially refuse to give Ukraine weapons following Russia’s invasion.

While the full list of weapons remains classified, cabinet members told reporters ahead of the vote that the package included small arms and ammunition. Defense Minister Dimitar Stoyanov said in a TV interview that the aid “is fully aligned with Ukraine’s priorities” but added that Bulgaria will neither provide S-300 missile systems nor MiG-29s fighter jets.

Lawmakers also ratified an agreement between the defense ministries of Bulgaria and Ukraine on the transfer of armaments, equipment, and ammunition. The agreement includes the training of up to 60 personnel from Ukraine’s armed forces as combat medics.

— Associated Press

Brittney Griner prisoner exchange opened the door for other talks with Washington, Putin says

Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Dmitri Lovetsky | Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow remains open to future negotiations with the United States following the high-profile prisoner exchange with WNBA player Brittney Griner and Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.

“The contacts and communications continue and in fact, they never stopped,” he said. “Are other exchanges possible? Everything is possible. This is the result of negotiations and the search for compromises.”

The negotiations were initiated by U.S. President Joe Biden and led by Russia’s Federal Security Services, said Putin, citing the CIA and Russian intelligence. Neither side had “supernatural” expectations of the negotiations, but Putin noted that they took place within a standard framework.

Putin also affirmed that contacts between the two nations’ special services could “be regarded as a prologue to dialogues” on other issues and that both sides agreed to continued communications.

“We didn’t set ourselves the aim, from these negotiations, to initiate new ones,” Putin said. “But, of course, they create a certain atmosphere.”

— Rocio Fabbro

Russia may cut oil production over West’s ‘stupid’ price cap, Putin says

G7, the EU and Australia implemented on December 5 a cap on Russian oil prices. Market players have doubts the measure will be effective.

Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Russia, the world’s largest energy exporter, could cut its oil production in the face of a Western-coordinated price cap on its crude, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned.

It could also refuse to sell oil to any country that imposes the price cap on Russian oil, he said, though added that a decision on the matter has not been made yet.

The G-7, or Group of Seven major powers, along with the European Union and Australia, agreed last week to an unprecedented price cap on Russian seaborn oil of $60 per barrel. The price of Urals blend Russian crude is about $53 dollars per barrel.

“As for our reaction, I have already said that we simply will not sell to those countries that make such decisions,” Putin told a press conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, according to a Reuters translation.

“We will think, maybe, even about a possible, if necessary … reduction in production,” he said.

For Russia, as a major part of the OPEC+ oil producers alliance and the world’s second-largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia, such a move would have major consequences.

“We are thinking about this, there are no solutions yet. And concrete steps will be outlined in a decree from the president of Russia that will be released in the next few days,” Putin said. He lambasted the West’s plan, saying it could lead to a surge in prices and collapse of the energy sector globally.

“This is a stupid proposal,” he said, “ill-conceived and poorly thought-out.”

— Natasha Turak

Ukraine’s GDP falls by 30% year on year for Q3, but fall slows from previous quarter’s drop

People use their mobile phone lamps to look at items at a sporting goods store during a power outage, after critical civil infrastructure was hit by a Russian missile attacks in Ukraine, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, November 26, 2022.

Gleb Garanich | Reuters

Ukraine’s gross domestic product (GDP) fell by 30.8% year-on-year for the third quarter of 2022, slowing from the last quarter’s year-on-year drop of 37.2%, according to the country’s State Statistics Committee.

Monthly consumer inflation in the country for November slowed to 0.7% from 2.5% in October, but slowed to 26.5% year-on-year. The biggest shock to the economy was Russia’s missile strikes on key Ukrainian energy infrastructure, which forced businesses and factories to cut their hours and deal with significant logistical and supply chain problems due to blackouts and power shortages.

“Now the situation with food prices is gradually stabilizing. Government actions to control utility tariffs for residents have also contributed to curbing inflation,” Economy Minister Yuliya Svyrydenko said in a statement. She expects annual inflation for the year to remain below 30%.

The International Monetary Fund forecasts Ukraine’s economy will shrink by roughly 35% this year, though some earlier predictions had put that figure at 50%. Moscow has not given any indication that it will slow its bombardment of Ukraine anytime soon.

— Natasha Turak

Germany will send Skynex air defense systems to Ukraine: local media report

Germany will send two of its Skynex air defense systems to Ukraine, according to local daily Handelsblatt, which reported the news citing unnamed sources.

The systems, produced by German manufacturer Rheinmetall, are scheduled to be delivered to Ukraine in early 2024. The systems can be mounted on trucks and integrated with various types of missiles.

Air defense systems are crucial to Ukrainian forces as Russia ramps up its missiles strikes on Ukraine’s population centers and energy infrastructure, rendering large parts of the country without power as the cold winter sets in.

— Natasha Turak

Putin says Russia is ready for agreements on Ukraine, but partners cheated in the past

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia would likely have to reach agreements regarding Ukraine in the future, but felt betrayed by the breakdown of the Minsk agreements.

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with the Industrial Development Fund director Roman Petrutsa in Moscow, Russia November 17, 2022. 

Sputnik | Via Reuters

Putin said Germany and France — which brokered ceasefire agreements in the Belarusian capital Minsk between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015 — had betrayed Russia and were now pumping Ukraine with weapons.

— Reuters

No need for new mobilization, Putin says

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a ceremony to award Gold Star medals to Heroes of Russia on the eve of Heroes of the Fatherland Day, at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia December 8, 2022. 

Sergey Karpuhin | Sputnik | Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin said there is no need for a new round of mobilization of troops for deployment into Ukraine, as 150,000 conscripted men had not yet been sent to fight.

The Kremlin announced what it called a “partial mobilization” for the war in Ukraine, which it still calls its “special military operation,” in September and October, during which time it says 300,000 men were called up.

The announcement triggered fear among many Russians and spurred a mass exodus of hundreds of thousands, if not more than a million, of Russian men from the country and into neighboring ones like Georgia, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Finland and the Baltic states.

Putin has said numerous times that the last round of mobilization is over, but the Kremlin has yet to end its original decree for the order. This has left many Russians fearful that a second mobilization call could come at any time.

— Natasha Turak

Russia trying to be an ‘independent power’ is shocking for the U.S., Bout says

FILE PHOTO: Suspected Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout arrives at a courthouse in Bangkok February 16, 2010. Bout arrived at a Bangkok criminal court for a pre-trial meeting following the rejection of a U.S. request last August for his extradition. The case is now with the appeal court and Bout has been denied bail. 

Sukree Sukplang | Reuters

Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout spoke with Russian state media about attitudes of the United States and the West toward Russia one day after his release from U.S. prison in exchange for WNBA player, Brittney Griner.

“The West believes that they did not finish us off in 1990, when the Soviet Union began to disintegrate,” he told RT. “And what we’re trying to do now, live and not to depend on anyone, to be a truly independent power, of course, this is shocking news for them.”

Bout also said that he was not treated differently in prison for being Russian, likely because he was located in the “‘red belt’ of America.”

“I have not met with such Russophobia,” he said. “Basically, almost all of my fellow prisoners were set up with some kind of sympathy for Russia.”

Bout, known as the “Merchant of Death,” was arrested in Thailand in 2008 and was later sentenced to 25 years in U.S. prison for conspiracy and terrorism-related charges. At the time of his release, Bout had served less than half of his sentence.

— Rocio Fabbro

Twenty oil tankers halted near Istanbul in insurance dispute

The Sierra Leone-flagged cargo ship Razoni, carrying Ukrainian grain, is seen in the Black Sea off Kilyos, near Istanbul, Turkey August 2, 2022.

Yoruk Isik | Reuters

The number of oil tankers waiting in the Black Sea to pass through Istanbul’s Bosphorus Strait on the way to the Mediterranean rose to 20 on Friday, Tribeca shipping agency said, as Turkey held talks to resolve an insurance dispute behind the build-up.

Dismissing pressure from abroad over the lengthening queue, Turkey’s maritime authority said on Thursday it would continue to block oil tankers that lacked the appropriate insurance letters, and it needed time for checks.

The ship backlog is creating growing unease in oil and tanker markets and comes as the G7 and European Union introduce a price cap on Russian oil. Millions of barrels of oil per day move south from Russian ports through Turkey’s Bosphorus and Dardanelles straits into the Mediterranean.

The maritime authority said that in the event of an accident involving a vessel in breach of sanctions it was possible the damage would not be covered by an international oil-spill fund.

— Reuters

UK announces new sanctions on Russian individuals

U.K. Foreign Secretary James Cleverly announced his government is sanctioning more individuals from Russia and other countries tied to acts of torture, repression and sexual crimes.

Cleverly outlined the move in an op-ed in The Guardian newspaper, writing, “Today, I will announce new sanctions on individuals in 11 countries, including Iran, Russia, Mali and Nicaragua, targeting those responsible for acts of torture, sexual violence and the repression of protests.”

He also wrote: “After Vladimir Putin launched his latest onslaught against Ukraine in February, the UK put together the biggest package of sanctions ever enacted against a major economy. So far we have targeted over 1,200 Russian individuals, including at least 100 oligarchs and their families, with a net worth exceeding £140bn.”

“We’ve hit whole sectors of the Russian economy, immobilising Russian central bank reserves, preventing Russian companies from raising funds in the City of London, and placing UK financial services beyond the Kremlin’s reach,” the foreign secretary added.

— Natasha Turak

Plane carrying freed athlete Brittney Griner lands in Texas

In this handout video grab released by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), US basketball player Brittney Griner is seen aboard a plane before her departure to the United States in Abu Dhabi, UAE. Griner, who was sentenced in Russia to nine years in jail and a fine of 1 million rubles ($16,576) in early August on charges of bringing drugs illegally into the country, was released on December 8 in prisoner exchange for Russian national Viktor Bout.

Sputnik | AP

A plane carrying freed U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner has landed in her home state of Texas, nearly 10 months after she was arrested in Russia on drug charges.

President Joe Biden said Griner was “in good spirits” but needed “time and space to recover.” She landed in San Antonio where she will be offered medical care and counselling.

Griner was released as part of a prisoner swap between Washington and Moscow. In exchange for her release, the U.S. returned the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who had been arrested in Thailand in 2008 as part of a U.S.-led sting operation and detained in the U.S. since 2010.

Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medal winner and plays for the WNBA team Phoenix Mercury.

She was originally detained in Russia after cannabis oil was found in her bag, which she says was packed by accident. Her lawyers say the cannabis was prescribed to her as a pain treatment. Drug possession carries a penalty of up to 10 years’ imprisonment in Russia, but the timing of her arrest — just days before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in late February — and the animosity between Washington and Moscow added a political dynamic to the story.

Griner being openly gay and African American also spurred concern for her safety in Russia’s penal system, a country with a poor record on the treatment of the LGBTQ+ community and racial minorities.

The release is something the Biden administration has been pursuing for months, although it failed to secure the release of another American in Russian detention — former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, who has been in prison on espionage charges since 2018. The U.S. says those charges are false. Whelan’s family in a statement celebrated Griner’s return, but expressed disappointment that Whelan’s release was not achieved.

—Natasha Turak

Washington to levy more sanctions on Russia, China: Reports

The U.S. is set to place more sanctions on Russia for its use of Iranian drones in Ukraine, according to a Wall Street Journal report citing multiple unnamed sources with knowledge of the matter.

The sanctions are aimed at both Russia and China — as regards China, the penalties are related to human rights abuses and Beijing’s involvement in illegal fishing in the Pacific ocean, the Journal wrote.

Most of the sanctions will come under the Global Magnitsky Act, which was designed to go after human rights abusers and is named after a Russian lawyer who died in prison there while working to uncover crimes of corruption by high-ranking Russian officials.

— Natasha Turak

Russia likely received a resupply of Iranian drones, UK says

Renewed reports of Russian attacks on Ukraine by Iranian drones are surfacing after a few weeks, suggesting Russian forces ran out of the weapons but have been resupplied, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said.

“For the first time in three weeks, there have been reports of attacks by Iranian-provided one-way attack (OWA) uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs),” the ministry wrote in its daily intelligence update on Twitter.

“These events remain to be verified, but it is likely that Russia exhausted its previous stock of several hundred Shahed-131s and 136s and has now received a resupply.”

Ukraine’s military has reported shooting down several of these drones in the past few days, while the last such report before that was in mid-November.

“If verified,” the ministry wrote, “it is likely that Russia has recommenced attacks with newly delivered OWA UAV systems.”

— Natasha Turak

Ukraine claims Russia put rocket launchers at nuclear power plant

A view shows the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in the course of Russia-Ukraine conflict outside the city of Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region, Russian-controlled Ukraine, November 24, 2022.

Alexander Ermochenko | Reuters

Russian forces have installed multiple rocket launchers at Ukraine’s shut-down Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Ukrainian officials claimed, raising fears Europe’s largest atomic power station could be used as a base to fire on Ukrainian territory and heightening radiation dangers.

Ukraine’s nuclear company Energoatom said in a statement that Russian forces occupying the plant have placed several Grad multiple rocket launchers near one of its six nuclear reactors. It said the offensive systems are located at new “protective structures” the Russians secretly built, “violating all conditions for nuclear and radiation safety.”

The claim could not be independently verified.

The Soviet-built multiple rocket launchers are capable of firing rockets at ranges of up to 40 kilometers (25 miles), and Energoatom said they could enable Russian forces to hit the opposite bank of the Dnieper River, where each side blames the other for almost daily shelling in the cities of Nikopol and Marhanets. The plant is in a southern Ukrainian region the Kremlin has illegally annexed.

— Associated Press

Zelenskyy says Ukraine is working with EU, U.S. to strengthen sanctions on Russia

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits Kherson, Ukraine November 14, 2022.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his country aims to bolster sanctions on Russia as Moscow shows no signs of ending its brutal war.

“We are actively working to support and strengthen the next sanctions against Russia – by European, American and other partners,” he said, according to a translation of his nightly address posted to messaging platform Telegram.

He noted that a proposed ninth European Union sanctions package is “in progress.”

Zelenskyy added that Ukraine is awaiting more steps its allies can take to crack down on efforts to circumvent sanctions in the financial and energy sectors.

— Jacob Pramuk

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