(NEW YORK) — Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “special military operation” into neighboring Ukraine began on Feb. 24, with Russian forces invading from Belarus, to the north, and Russia, to the east. Ukrainian troops have offered “stiff resistance,” according to U.S. officials.
The Russian military has since launched a full-scale ground offensive in eastern Ukraine’s disputed Donbas region, capturing the strategic port city of Mariupol and securing a coastal corridor to the Moscow-annexed Crimean Peninsula.
Here’s how the news is developing. All times Eastern:
Jul 29, 2:53 PM EDT
Blinken speaks with Lavrov, pushes him to accept ‘substantial proposal’ from US
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he spoke with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Friday. Blinken said he pushed Lavrov to accept the “substantial proposal” the U.S. put forth to free detained Americans Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan.
This marked the first time the two leaders spoke since the war began.
Blinken called it “a frank and direct conversation.”
“I pressed the Kremlin to accept the substantial proposal that we put forth on the release of Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner,” he said. “I’m not going to characterize his responses and I can’t give you an assessment of whether I think things are more or less likely.”
On Russia’s stated plans to annex parts of Ukraine, Blinken said he told Lavrov that “those plans will never be accepted. The world will not recognize annexations. We will pose additional significant costs on Russia if it moves forward with its plans.”
Blinken did reaffirm that their call did not cover brokering peace in Ukraine.
“Unfortunately, tragically, we’ve seen no opening–willingness on the part of Russia to engage meaningfully on ending the aggression,” Blinken lamented. “At the same time, I’ve also said that if there are issues where we could make a difference in senior Russians hearing directly from me or from colleagues, we would of course, pursue that.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry confirmed the conversation and said it was initiated by the U.S.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said, “Regarding the possible exchange of imprisoned citizens of Russia and the United States, the Russian side is urged to return to the mode of professional, without speculative information stuffing, dialogue in the mode of ‘quiet diplomacy.'”
White House spokesperson John Kirby said Friday, “We very much tried to keep details of the negotiations of this nature as private as possible so that we can allow as much space for negotiators to come to a successful conclusion. We felt that in the context of what was happening in both Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan’s cases, as well as what was not happening, that it was important to lay out publicly that there was, in fact, a serious offer made by the American side that has not been acted on.”
Jul 29, 2:12 PM EDT
White House doesn’t consider fighting in eastern Ukraine ‘stalled’
The U.S. doesn’t consider fighting in eastern Ukraine “stalled,” White House spokesman John Kirby said Friday.
“I don’t believe we consider what’s going on in the Donbas is stalled,” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “There’s a lot of activity still going on in the Donbas.”
He did note that over the last “48 to 72 hours, there has not been that many significant changes in the battle lines” in the east and the south.
“It can be true that in some places in eastern and southern Ukraine, the Russians appear to be taking a knee, refitting, refreshing, moving troops around,. And in other places in the east and in the south, there’s actual battle going on between Russian and Ukrainian forces,” Kirby said.
“There are units that are in actual contact with one another, and there are days where the Russians make a mile or two, and then there are days when the Ukrainians push them back a mile or two. And there’s days when the Ukrainians are going on the counter-offensive on a tactical level and then they will stop to reconsider their next move,” he said.
Jul 29, 8:28 AM EDT
US ambassador to Ukraine speaks to ABC News as grain ships prepare to leave
U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink told ABC News on Friday morning that she is “optimistic” ships carrying grain will begin leaving Ukraine this weekend, but that it’s up to Russia to keep its side of the deal.
During an interview in the Ukrainian port city of Odesa, Brink told ABC News there is currently “no obstacle” to the ships’ departure.
“Ukraine is ready to ship this grain, but it’s also up to Russia to agree on the grain corridor and the ships will be ready to go,” Brink said. “It can be done, it should be done and, in fact, it must be done.”
She declined to say whether the United States would impose consequences on Russia if it disrupted the United Nations-brokered deal or attacked the ships. But she underlined her country’s support for Ukraine and the deal, saying it was important that Ukrainian grain starts reaching countries that need it.
“Twenty-four hours after the deal was agreed a week ago today, Russia bombed this very port where we’re standing,” Brink noted. “So I think it’s imperative on Russia to live up to its commitments and to implement the agreement it signed onto, and imperative on all of us to ensure that Russia lives up to those commitments.”
When asked if there was a “Plan B” if the deal failed, Brink said the focus was on doing everything to ensure “Plan A” works.
Earlier Friday, Brink and ambassadors of other G-7 countries held a press conference in Odesa while overseeing the preparations. She told reporters that she hopes an agreement confirming the safe corridors of the grain ships to sail through this weekend would be reached. Under the deal, Ukraine and Russia have been negotiating the precise routes the vessels will take across the Black Sea.
Since Russian forces invaded neighboring Ukraine on Feb. 24, the cost of grain has skyrocketed worldwide. Russia and Ukraine — often referred to collectively as Europe’s breadbasket — produce a third of the global supply of wheat and barley, but Kyiv has been unable to ship exports due to Moscow’s offensive. Last month, the Ukrainian Grain Association warned that Ukraine’s wheat harvest is expected to plummet by 40%.
In recent weeks, there has been an all-out push from the U.S. and the U.N. to facilitate exports from war-torn Ukraine, desperate to offset what they foretell is a looming global food crisis with the potential to devastate the developing world. A Russian blockade in the Black Sea, along with Ukrainian naval mines, have made exporting siloed grain and other foodstuffs virtually impossible and, as a result, millions of people around the world — particularly in Africa and the Middle East — are now on the brink of famine.
Jul 29, 7:11 AM EDT
Ukraine says 1st grain ships should leave this weekend
Ukraine announced Friday that it hopes the first ships carrying grain will finally be leaving two ports this weekend under a United Nations-brokered deal to end Russia’s blockade.
The departure of the first ships will be a major test of whether the deal with Moscow will hold and Ukrainian food can begin to ease the global hunger crisis worsened by the blockade amid Russia’s war.
Ukrainian Minister of Infrastructure Oleksander Kubrakov, who is overseeing the operation, told reporters in Odesa on Friday morning that the port as well as the nearby Chernomorsk port are prepared to begin, with 17 ships already loaded with grain.
A final agreement mediated by the U.N. and Turkey needs to be signed off on the routes the vessels will take out of the heavily mined ports. Kubrakov said Ukraine had provided a number of options and that, from its side, the country is ready. Ukraine is waiting for the U.N. to confirm the routes are accepted by both sides.
Kubrakov said the first ships should leave by the end of the weekend.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was also in Odesa on Friday morning to see the preparations and meet with Kubrakov as well as other officials, including U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink.
-ABC News’ Patrick Reevell
Jul 27, 2:51 PM EDT
Blinken and Lavrov to discuss US proposal to free Griner and Whelan
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he plans to speak with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the coming days, marking the first time the two leaders will speak since the war began.
Blinken said a critical topic of discussion would be securing the freedom of detained Americans Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner, revealing that the U.S. has already put forward a plan to accomplish that.
“We put a substantial proposal on the table weeks ago to facilitate their release. Our governments have communicated repeatedly and directly on that proposal, and I’ll use the conversation to follow up personally and I hope move us toward a resolution,” Blinken said.
“I can’t and won’t get into any of the details of what we’ve proposed to the Russians over the course of some many weeks now,” Blinken said.
Blinken said President Joe Biden played an active role in crafting the proposal for Griner and Whelan.
Blinken also stressed, “My call with Foreign Minister Lavrov will not be a negotiation about Ukraine,” adding, “Any negotiation regarding Ukraine is for its government and people to determine.”
-ABC News’ Shannon Crawford
Jul 27, 9:32 AM EDT
Ukraine uses US rocket system to strike key bridge in Russia-held Kherson
Ukrainian forces struck a strategic bridge in the Russian-occupied city of Kherson early Wednesday, according to local officials.
High-precision missile strikes by the Ukrainian military damaged the Antonivskiy bridge, forcing the occupied authorities to close the structure to civilian traffic. The mile-long bridge across the Dnieper River is an essential artery used by Moscow to supply its troops occupying southern Ukraine.
“Strikes were delivered on the bridge, on its road. The bridge is currently closed to the civilian population,” Kirill Stremousov, the deputy head of the Moscow-appointed administration for the Kherson region, told local media on Wednesday.
The bridge’s pillars and spans were still intact as of Wednesday morning, according to Stremousov.
“It is simply that the number of holes on the road has increased. The strike on the bridge has affected only the civilian population,” he added.
According to Stremousov, Ukrainian forces hit the bridge with High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) supplied by the United States. He said ferry crossings across the Dnieper River will be organized during the bridge’s restoration, and that traffic will resume in the near future.
“We have prepared a pontoon bridge. We have a ferry link,” he told local media.
Earlier on Wednesday, Ukrainian military officials said the number of Russian soldiers killed in the war has surpassed 40,000, just more than five months after Russia launched its invasion of neighboring Ukraine in late February.
-ABC News’ Edward Szekeres, Yulia Drozd, Max Uzol and Yuriy Zaliznyak
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