The Kremlin is ready for “a professional conversation and concrete steps” toward freeing WNBA star Brittney Griner and another American in a prisoner exchange, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Sunday.
Zakharova, appearing on Rossiya-1 TV, was asked about a deal that would include Russian national Viktor Bout, according to a report by Russian news agency TASS. Bout is serving a 25-year sentence on a 2011 conviction in New York on charges of conspiring to kill U.S. citizens, delivery of anti-aircraft missiles and providing aid to a terrorist organization.
“People who are to deal with these matters are ready,” Zakharova said. “And this work is not done in the public eye.”
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said last month that Russian officials had been approached about a deal to free Griner, convicted in Russia on drug trafficking and possession charges, and Paul Whelan, convicted on espionage charges. Blinken has said both Whelan and Griner are being “wrongfully detained.”
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►A U.N. ship loaded with more than 25,000 tons of Ukrainian grain destined for Ethiopia set sail Sunday from a Black Sea port near Odesa, the first shipment of its kind in a program to assist countries facing famine.
►Any future decision by the United States to name Russia a state sponsor of terrorism would mark a “point of no return,” warned Alexander Darchiev, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s North American Department. Some U.S. lawmakers have urged the Biden administration to issue the label.
►Ukraine’s health minister accused Russian authorities of committing a crime against humanity by blocking access to affordable medicines in areas its forces have occupied since invading the country.
►German businesses and public institutions should heat their offices no higher than 66.2 degrees Fahrenheit this winter to help reduce the country’s consumption of natural gas and allow Germany to wean itself off Russian energy, Economy Minister Robert Habeck said.
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Concerns that a nuclear catastrophe could take place at Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia plant were on the rise Sunday after President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pledged to target Russian soldiers using Europe’s largest nuclear facility as cover to shell nearby cities, where residents have started leaving in large numbers.
Zelenskyy, in his nightly address, accused the Russians of “constant provocations with shelling” near the plant in an attempt to “blackmail” Ukraine and the West into concessions.
“Every day of the stay of the Russian contingent on the territory of the Zaporizhzhia (plant) increases the radiation threat to Europe,” Zelenskyy said. “Every Russian soldier who either shoots at the plant, or shoots under the cover of the plant, must understand that he is becoming a special target.”
The U.S. is among 42 countries joining a statement released by the European Union on Sunday urging Russia to pull its forces from the plant.
Russia diplomat Mikhail Ulyanov called on Ukraine to provide security assurances so international inspectors can visit and help run the embattled facility.
Ukrainians remaining in the Russian-occupied Kherson region, especially women with children, should leave the area within the next few months, authorities warned. They estimate that about half the city’s population of almost 300,000 people have already left the region, which has been a focus of counterattacks by the Ukrainian military as it attempts to slow the Russian advance in the east and south. Kherson, a southern port city, is considered crucial to the fortunes of both sides.
“Evacuate,” said Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk. “A hard winter is coming. We need to help you, save you from the cold and the enemy.”
Ukrainian troops had damaged the last working bridge over the Dnieper River in the Kherson region with a strike, further hampering Russia’s ability to supply its forces.
“The Russians no longer have any capability to fully turn over their equipment,” Kherson Regional Council deputy Serhii Khlan said in a social media post.
Ukraine’s military has been working toward a counteroffensive strategy in the Kherson region, which is occupied by Russia. The British Defense Ministry, which has been analyzing the situation for Russian troops, said that Ukrainian-inflicted damage on bridges over the Dnieper River “will remain a key vulnerability.”
Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podoylak said Kyiv should make retaking the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow annexed in 2014 one of its goals of the war.
“Russia started a war against Ukraine and the world in 2014, with its brazen seizure of Crimea. It is obvious that this war should end with the liberation of Crimea,” Podoylak, the head of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office, wrote Saturday on Twitter.
Podoylak continued: “And also with the legal punishment of the initiators of the ‘special military operation’” – the Kremlin’s term for its war in Ukraine.
The comments came days after explosions at a Russian air base in Crimea apparently destroyed up to a dozen aircraft. Ukraine has not taken credit for the destruction, seen on aerial photos, and Russia has denied its aircraft were damaged.
Contributing: The Associated Press