LVIV, Ukraine — Russian troops were leaving the Chernobyl nuclear power plant and heading towards Ukraine’s border with Belarus, the Ukrainian nuclear operator company said Thursday.
The operator, Energoatom, said that the Russian military was also preparing to leave Slavutych, a nearby city where power plant workers live.
Energoatom also said reports were confirmed that the Russians dug trenches in the Red Forest, the 10-square-kilometer (nearly four-square-mile) area surrounding the Chernobyl plant within the Exclusion Zone, and received “significant doses of radiation.”
The Russian troops “panicked at the first sign of illness,” which “showed up very quickly,” and began to prepare to leave, the operator said. The claim couldn’t be independently verified.
Energoatom said the Russians have signed a document confirming the handover of the Chernobyl plant and stating that the plant’s administration doesn’t have any complaints about the Russian troops who were “guarding” the facility.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:
— Heavy fighting rages near Kyiv as Russia appears to regroup
— Kremlin decree says foreign currency can still buy natural gas
— Ukrainians in US mobilize to help expected refugees
LONDON — The head of Britain’s military says Russian President Vladimir Putin has “already lost” in Ukraine and is weaker than he was before the invasion.
Adm. Tony Radakin at a think-tank seminar Thursday in London said Moscow’s aim to “take the whole of Ukraine” fell apart. He added that the coming weeks “will continue to be very difficult” for Ukraine.
“But in many ways, Putin has already lost,” he said. “Far from being the far-sighted manipulator of events that he would have us believe, Putin has damaged himself through a series of catastrophic misjudgements.”
Radakin also said there was “disquiet” at all levels of Russia’s military about the campaign, from troops who were not told they were invading Ukraine up to senior commanders.
Western officials say Putin’s small inner circle is not giving him the true picture of the war, and his isolation may have contributed to miscalculating the strength of resistance Russian troops would meet.
BERLIN — The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe expressed regret Thursday at Russia’s decision to veto the extension of its observer mission in Ukraine.
The OSCE’s special monitoring mission has been present in Ukraine since 2014, when fighting between Ukrainians and Russia-backed separatists broke out in the country’s eastern regions after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Polish Foreign Minister Zbigniew Rau, who holds the OSCE rotating chair, said the observers had played a “crucial role by providing objective information on the security and humanitarian situation on the ground and relentlessly working to ease the effects of the conflict on the civilian population” in Ukraine for the past eight year.
The Vienna-based body’s secretary general, Helga Maria Schmid, expressed gratitude to the mission’s members, several of whom were wounded or killed over the years.
BERLIN — Germany’s economy minister says Europe should impose additional sanctions on Russia to prevent what he described as a “barbaric” war in Ukraine.
Robert Habeck said he discussed what further measures could be taken with his French counterpart during a bilateral meeting in Berlin on Thursday.
“The last package (of sanctions) doesn’t need to be the final one, it should not be the final one,” he told reporters, adding that he and French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire had “identified additional points that could be included in a (sanctions) package.”
Habeck declined to elaborate on what those points might be.
Speaking ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement on new rules requiring countries to pay for Russia’s natural gas sales in rubles, Habeck insisted that contracts would be adhered to. These stipulate payment in euros or dollars.
BERLIN — The Austrian and German leaders have underlined their rejection of a halt to Russian energy deliveries at this point.
Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer noted that several central and eastern European countries depend to one extent or another on Russian gas deliveries.
He and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz argued that existing sanctions already are having a significant effect and said they need time to switch to new providers and renewable energy sources.
Nehammer said that “sanctions only make sense … when they hit those they are supposed to hit, and don’t weaken those who carry out sanctions.”
ROME — A Kremlin decree says “unfriendly countries” can continue to pay for natural gas in foreign currency through a Russian bank that will convert the money into rubles.
The decree published Thursday by state media came a day after the leaders of Italy and Germany said they received assurances from President Vladimir Putin.
Putin talked tougher, saying Russia will start accepting ruble payments starting Friday for Western countries that imposed sanctions over its conflict with Ukraine. He said contracts will be stopped if buyers don’t sign up to the new conditions, including opening ruble accounts in Russian banks.
European leaders had rejected paying for deliveries in rubles, saying it would undermine sanctions imposed because of the war in Ukraine.
The decree Putin signed and published by state news agency RIA Novosti says a designated bank will open two accounts for each buyer, one in foreign currency and one in rubles. The buyers will pay in foreign currency and authorize the bank to sell that currency for rubles, which are placed in the second account, where the gas is formally purchased.
ROME — Italy’s leader is urging Europe to “cultivate all available land” as a partial remedy to reductions in agricultural imports, especially of Russian grain, due to the war in Ukraine.
Premier Mario Draghi told reporters on Thursday that under existing agricultural practices in the European Union 10% of land is purposely left fallow, but that must now change as European countries search for ways to reduce dependency on farm imports.
It’s not clear whether Ukraine, one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, maize and sunflower oil, might be able to salvage any of this planting season.
Meanwhile, Draghi noted that Western Europe will be looking to food producers like Canada, the United States and Argentina to help make up the shortfall of imports from Ukraine and Russia.
STOCKHOLM — The deputy director of Sweden’s Military Intelligence and Security agency says Russia has made “a strategic miscalculation when invading Ukraine.”
Daniel Olsson said the invasion of Ukraine “has shown that the Russian leadership is ready to take great risks, larger than previously taken.”
The government agency’s analysis suggested a likely “a western containment of Russia,” including reducing trade in Russian energy.
MADRID — Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez says his country has so far received more than 30,000 Ukrainian refugees and expects that figure to reach 70,000 “within days.”
Sánchez announced the latest refugee numbers Thursday during a visit to a refugee reception center in the southeastern city of Alicante, one of four in Spain.
Also Thursday, Defense Minister Margarita Robles said Spain has sent 10 transport aircraft with weapons and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. She didn’t specify how many shipments of each type were sent, but at least two carried arms.
She also said during a visit to the Morón de la Frontera air base in southern Spain that eight Spanish F-18 fighter planes are going to Lithuania to take part in NATO patrols.
KYIV, Ukraine — The Ukrainian emergency services say the death toll after a Russian missile strike Tuesday on the regional government headquarters in the southern city of Mykolaiv has risen to 20.
The emergency services said rescuers had now found 19 bodies in the ruins since the strike devastated the government building Tuesday morning. One other person died in hospital.
The regional governor accused Russia of waiting until people arrived for work before striking the building.
Emergency services said they are still working at the scene.
HELSINKI — Greenpeace says its activists from the Nordic countries and Russia have blocked a the transfer of Russian oil between two large tankers sailing in northern Denmark.
Greenpeace said swimmers and activists in kayaks and boats from Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Russia placed themselves between two supertankers to block the transfer of 100,000 tonnes of Russian oil in waters in northern Denmark.
The environmental organization called for an embargo of Russian fuels to stop the funding of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. It said in a statement Thursday that “every time Russian oil or gas are purchased, (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s war chest grows, and so far at least 299 supertankers with fossil fuels have left Russia since the start of the war in Ukraine.”
Despite some countries declaring a ban on the arrival of Russian vessels to their ports, Russian coal, oil and gas is still arriving via ships registered in other countries, Greenpeace said.
ROME — Italian Premier Mario Draghi says Europe is pushing for a cap on gas prices with Russia because its payments are financing the war in Ukraine.
Draghi told foreign reporters Thursday that the prices that Europe is paying are out of line with the global market.
“We, Germany and Italy, along with other countries that are importers of gas, coal, grains, corn … are financing the war. There is no doubt,’’ Draghi said. “For this reason, Italy along with other countries are pushing for a cap on the price of gas. There is no substantial reason that the price of gas is so high for Europeans.”
Draghi noted that Russia has no other market for its gas, giving Europe room to maneuver. Asked about the risk that Russia would simply respond by turning off the taps, Draghi said, “no there is no danger.”
BERLIN — The German government says its energy minister has received a Ukrainian delegation that includes the foreign ministry’s special envoy for sanctions policy.
The Economy Ministry gave no details on the substance of the meeting Thursday hosted by Economy and Climate Minister Robert Habeck, who is Germany’s vice chancellor and also responsible for energy.
The Ukrainian delegation included the sanctions envoy, Oleksiy Makeev, and Wladimir Klitschko, the brother of Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko. The Klitschko brothers, both former heavyweight boxing champions, are well-known in Germany.
They were joined by Ukrainian lawmaker Halyna Yanchenko.
The German government has resisted calls to halt Russian energy deliveries, though it is working to reduce the country’s dependence on Russian fossil fuels in the longer term.
ROME — Italian Premier Mario Draghi says the Russian president told him during a 40-minute phone call Wednesday evening that European companies can continue to pay for existing energy contracts in euros and dollars.
Draghi also indicated that Russia’s desire for payments in rubles remained intact, but it may be the case that the currency conversion would be up to Russia. Draghi said he is referring the discussion to experts and that analysis was under way on whether “European companies can continue to pay as foreseen, if this means something for the ongoing sanctions.”
“It is absolutely not simple to change the currency of payments without violating the contracts,” he said.
BRUSSELS — NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg says Russia does not appear to be scaling back its military operations in Ukraine but is instead redeploying forces to the eastern Donbas region.
Russia promised during talks in Istanbul on Tuesday that it would de-escalate operations near Kyiv and Chernihiv to “increase mutual trust and create conditions for further negotiations.” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the West were skeptical.
Stoltenberg told reporters Thursday that “Russia has repeatedly lied about its intentions,” and must be judged on its actions alone, not the word of its leaders.
“According to our intelligence, Russian units are not withdrawing but repositioning. Russia is trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce its offensive in the Donbas region,” he said.
At the same time, he said pressure is being kept up on Kyiv and other cities and “we can expect additional offensive actions bringing even more suffering.”
The U.S. says Russia has begun to reposition less than 20% of its troops that had been arrayed around Kyiv. The Pentagon says that most moved north, although some crossed into Belarus where they could be resupplied and sent back into Ukraine.
The Kremlin has expressed “regret” and “concern” over U.S. officials’ reports that the Russian president is being misinformed by advisers about his military’s performance in Ukraine.
Vladimir Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that “neither the State Department nor the Pentagon possess the real information about what is happening in the Kremlin.”
“They simply don’t understand what’s going on in the Kremlin, they don’t understand President Putin, they don’t understand the mechanism of decision-making, they don’t understand the way we work,” Peskov said.
“It is not just regrettable, it elicits concern, because this complete lack of understanding leads to erroneous decisions, tragic decisions that could have very bad consequences,” he added.
U.S. intelligence officials said Putin is being misinformed by advisers about his military’s poor performance in Ukraine, according to the White House. The advisers are scared to tell him the truth, the intel says.
White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said Wednesday the U.S. believes Putin was being misled not only about his military’s performance but also “how the Russian economy is being crippled by sanctions because, again, his senior advisers are too afraid to tell him the truth.”
LONDON — Britain has imposed sanctions on more than a dozen Russian media figures and organizations accused of spreading propaganda and disinformation about the war in Ukraine.
The latest group subjected to asset freezes and travel bans includes Rossiya television anchor Sergey Brilev, who previously lived in the U.K., Gazprom-Media chief executive Aleksandr Zharov and Alexey Nikolov, managing director of Kremlin-backed broadcaster RT.
Sanctions have also been slapped on media organizations TV-Novosti, which owns RT, and Rossiya Segodnya, which controls the Sputnik news agency.
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Thursday’s sanctions would hit “the shameless propagandists who push out Putin’s fake news and narratives.”
The U.K. also said it was sanctioning Colonel-General Mikhail Mizintsev, chief of Russia’s National Defence Command and Control Center, accusing him of orchestrating atrocities including the siege of Mariupol.
MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree on the spring draft, with 134,500 new conscripts to be added to the Russian army amid the country’s war on Ukraine.
Both Putin and Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu have said that conscripts will not be taking part in the operation in Ukraine. Earlier this month, however, the Russian military admitted that a number of conscripts ended up in Ukraine and were even captured there.
The decree signed on Thursday outlines the draft which will kick off on April 1 and last through July 15.
BERLIN — The International Committee of the Red Cross says its teams are ready to facilitate the evacuation of civilians out of the besieged city of Mariupol.
The Red Cross said “for logistics and security reasons, we’ll be ready to lead the safe passage operation tomorrow, Friday, provided all the parties agree to the exact terms, including the route, the start time, and the duration.”
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Ukraine is sending out several dozen buses to collect civilians from Mariupol after Russia’s military said it committed to a localized cease-fire from the city to Ukraine-held Zaporizhzhia from Thursday morning.
“It’s desperately important that this operation takes place. The lives of tens of thousands of people in Mariupol depend on it,” the Red Cross said.
AMSTERDAM — Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has spoke by video link to the Dutch parliament.
Zelenskyy, who delivered his speech in Ukrainian, called on the Netherlands to be prepared to stop importing Russian energy, to halt trade with Russia and to provide more weapons.
He also addressed Prime Minister Mark Rutte, saying “Our EU membership depends on you.”
Rutte had told Zelenskyy at an EU summit earlier this month that Ukraine’s EU accession can’t be sped up. “There isn’t something like a fast track, a fast procedure,” Rutte said at the March 11 summit in Versailles.
BRUSSELS — European Union antitrust regulators have raided the offices of several companies in Germany involved in the supply, transmission and storage of natural gas amid concern over skyrocketing prices in Europe.
The European Commission, which polices EU competition policy, did not name the companies targeted in the March 29 “surprise inspections.” But anti-trust regulators have been probing the actions of Russian energy giant Gazprom, which has premises in Germany, in the European market. Gazprom could not be immediately reached for comment.
The Commission suspects that the companies “have violated EU competition rules that prohibit abuse of a dominant position” in the market. It says the inspections do not imply that those involved are guilty.
Russia is the biggest exporter of oil, natural gas and coal to the 27-nation EU. About 40% of the bloc’s gas imports come from Russia, much of it piped through Ukraine.
In January, the head of the International Energy Agency blamed Russia for Europe’s natural gas crisis, saying that high prices and low storage levels are largely due to Gazprom withholding supplies.
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkey’s top diplomat says Ankara is working to bring the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers together again for talks.
In an interview with Turkey’s A Haber channel, Mevlut Cavusoglu said the meeting could happen within two weeks.
His comments came days after Turkey hosted Ukrainian and Russian negotiators for face-to-face talks in Istanbul. Cavusoglu said decisions taken during the talks to reduce tensions had not fully been put into effect on the ground.
“We do not see these decisions being reflected on the field – for example, the removal of Russian soldiers from some areas,” he said.
Asked about the presence of sanctioned Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich in the negotiations, Cavusoglu said the businessman was engaged in “useful” efforts to end the fighting.
“Abramovich has been sincerely making efforts to end the fighting since the first day of the war,” he said.
During the talks in Istanbul Tuesday, Ukraine set out a detailed framework for a peace deal under which the country would remain neutral but its security would be guaranteed by a group of third countries, including the U.S., Britain, France, Turkey, China and Poland.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — A Red Cross warehouse in the besieged Ukrainian port city of Mariupol has been struck amid intense Russian shelling of the area.
Satellite pictures from Planet Labs PBC analyzed by The Associated Press on Thursday show clear damage to the warehouse’s roof along the Kalmius River near its mouth on the Sea of Azov. A red cross had been painted on the top of the warehouse.
At least one hole from suspected shelling could be seen in an image taken March 21. Some four holes in the roof were clearly visible in images taken Wednesday. The red cross had been on the warehouse’s roof from at least late August 2021, according to satellite images.
The International Committee of the Red Cross distributed all the supplies from inside the warehouse earlier in March and no staff have been at the site since March 15, the aid group said in a statement.
The Special Forces Unit “Azov,” a Ukrainian National Guard unit fighting in Mariupol whose members include far-right activists, has accused Russian forces of firing on the building. Russia did not immediately acknowledge the allegation.
CANBERRA, Australia — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has appealed directly to Australian lawmakers for more help in Ukraine’s war against Russia including armored vehicles and tougher sanctions.
Zelenskyy has been tailoring his message to individual countries through video appeals like the one shown Thursday to legislators in the Australian Parliament. Lawmakers gave him a standing ovation at the start and end of his 16-minute address.
He called for Russian vessels to be banned from international ports. Zelenskyy specifically asked for Australian-manufactured Bushmaster four-wheel drive armored vehicles.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had earlier told Zelenskyy that Australia would provide additional military assistance including tactical decoys, unmanned aerial and unmanned ground systems, rations and medical supplies.
LONDON — Britain’s defense ministry says Russia continues to pound Chernihiv in northern Ukraine, despite Moscow’s claim to have scaled back its offensive around that city and Kyiv.
The Ministry of Defense says “significant Russian shelling and missile strikes have continued.”
It said Thursday that “Russian forces continue to hold positions to the east and west of Kyiv despite the withdrawal of a limited number of units. Heavy fighting will likely take place in the suburbs of the city in coming days.”
The U.K. intelligence update also said heavy fighting continues in the southern port of Mariupol, which has been besieged by Russia for weeks, but that Ukrainian forces remain in control of the center of the city.
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