By The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — A private Russian military contractor that has been accused of human rights abuses has deployed to Eastern Ukraine, according to Britain’s Defense Ministry.
The ministry’s Defense Intelligence said the Wagner Group was expected to bring up to 1,000 mercenaries to take part in combat operations in Ukraine after the regular Russian military experienced heavy losses.
Air Vice-Marshal Mick Smeath, London’s defense attaché in Washington, said in a statement that Russia has likely been forced to reprioritize Wagner personnel for Ukraine at the expense of its operations in Africa and Syria.
Smeath’s statement comes after Pentagon officials said recently that they expected Russia to look for ways to replace their combat losses with Russian troops based in other countries. Last Friday, the Pentagon said it appeared Moscow was drawing on Russian troops based in Georgia, but no details were available on their number or the timing of their expected deployment.
Thousands of mercenaries from Wagner Group have been deployed in Syria since 2015. The U.S. and EU consider the group to be a surrogate of the Russian military, but the Kremlin denies it even exists.
In December, the EU imposed sanctions on the Wagner Group and its founder, Dmitry Utkin, for fomenting violence and committing human rights abuses in the Middle East, Africa and Ukraine.
KEY DEVELOPMENTS IN THE RUSSIA-UKRAINE WAR:
— Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says his country could declare neutrality to secure peace, as Ukrainian troops claim to retake ground
— U.S. President Joe Biden says his weekend comments about Russian President Vladimir Putin come from a place of “moral outrage,” not a new U.S. policy
— Russia is shifting its focus to grinding down Ukrainian forces in the east
— As the number of Ukrainian refugees near 4 million, the pace of the exodus has slowed
— Holocaust survivors flee from Ukraine to Germany for safety
— Ukraine war threatens food supplies in a fragile Arab world
— Go to https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine for more coverage
LVIV. Ukraine — A missile attack hit an oil depot in western Ukraine late Monday, Rivne’s regional governor said, marking the second attack on oil facilities in the region and the latest in a series of such attacks in recent days.
Western Ukraine has not seen ground combat, but missiles have struck oil depots and a military plant in Lviv, a major city close to Poland where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have gone to escape fighting elsewhere.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested in an interview with Russian journalists released on Sunday that the attacks on oil depots are intended to disrupt the planting season in Ukraine, which is a major grain producer.
WASHINGTON — U.S. President Joe Biden says he makes no apologies for calling for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ouster, but he says he was expressing his “moral outrage,” not a new U.S. government policy.
Biden’s comments on Monday come after he said of Putin: “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” Biden made the initial comment over the weekend while in Poland. His administration spent the next 48 hours saying the U.S. government policy was not to support regime change in Russia after its invasion of Ukraine.
“I was expressing the moral outrage I felt toward this man,” Biden said Monday. “I wasn’t articulating a policy change.”
He added: “I’m not walking anything back.”
A “massive” cyberattack knocked Ukraine’s national telecommunications provider Ukrtelecom almost completely offline Monday in what network monitors called its most severe outage since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.
The chair of Ukraine’s state service for special communication, Yurii Shchyhol, blamed “the enemy” in a statement without specifically naming Russia. So that service could continue to Ukraine’s military, most customers were cut off from service, he said.
The outage began Monday morning and persisted into the evening, when Shchyhol said services were being restored.
Alp Toker, director of the London-based monitor Netblocks, said connectivity for Ukrtelecom has collapsed to just 13 percent of pre-war levels.
Ukrtelecom is the seventh-largest provider in Ukraine in traffic moved but, as the pre-independence incumbent, is likely the lone provider in much of rural Ukraine, said Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at the network management firm Kentik.
Urktelecom provides telephone, internet and mobile service.
Despite repeated and withering Russian attacks on its telecommunications and other infrastructure, Ukraine’s digital communications networks have proven remarkably resilient, in part due to risks crews have taken under fire to repair damaged fiber optic cables and toppled cell towers.
BUCHAREST, Romania — Romanian naval forces say they successfully carried out a mission to destroy a mine that was found drifting in the Back Sea.
The mine, the origin of which was not stated, was discovered Monday morning about 72 kilometers (44 miles) from Romania’s coast. A naval ship was then deployed with a specialist team from a port in eastern Constanta County, authorities said.
The naval forces said in an online statement that the mine was detonated. Photos posted online showed a huge jet of water spurting up in the air as the mine was destroyed.
Romania’s Maritime Hydrographic Directorate had warned last week of the existence of mine danger in the northwestern Black Sea, after which the ministry of defense said the navy had “urgently ordered the intensification” of maritime surveillance.
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would meet “briefly” with the Ukrainian and Russian delegations ahead of their talks on Tuesday.
In a televised address following a Cabinet meeting Monday, the Turkish leader also said that separate telephone calls he has been holding with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin were progressing in a “positive direction.” He did not elaborate.
Russian and Ukrainian negotiators are scheduled to begin two days of face-to-face talks in Istanbul on Tuesday.
Earlier talks between the sides, held both by video and in person, failed to make progress. Zelenskyy says Ukraine is prepared to declare its neutrality and consider a compromise on contested areas in the country’s east to secure peace — but he said only a face-to-face meeting with Putin can end the war. A meeting like that hasn’t happened yet.
WASHINGTON — The U.S. Pentagon says it is deploying six Navy aircraft that specialize in electronic warfare and about 240 Navy personnel to bolster NATO defenses in Eastern Europe.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby says the EA-18G “Growler” aircraft based at Naval Air Station Whidbey Island in Washington state were scheduled to arrive Monday at Spangdahlem air base in Germany, where they will be stationed. They are not intended for use in Ukraine, he said.
Meanwhile, a senior U.S. defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal U.S. intelligence assessments, said there has been little change in the situation on the ground in Ukraine.
The senior defense official said Russian forces largely remain in defensive positions in the area of Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and they are making little forward progress elsewhere in the country.
The official said the U.S. believes Ukrainian troops have retaken the town of Trostyanets, south of Sumy, in eastern Ukraine.
The official said the U.S. continues to see Russia prioritizing operations in the Donbas region and de-emphasizing ground operations in the Kyiv area, but the Pentagon believes it’s too early to know whether this reflects a change in Moscow’s strategic goals.
— Associated Press writer Robert Burns contributed from Washington.
BRUSSELS — French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin says that no suspected extremists or spies appear to be entering the European Union from Ukraine, but he is warning about the dangers posed to war refugees by human traffickers.
Asked whether extremists or other infiltrators who might pose a security risk are crossing into the 27-nation bloc, Darmanin conceded that “there could be attempts, but we are not seeing this today.”
Speaking after presiding over a meeting Monday of EU interior ministers, Darmanin warned of the dangers posed to the many women and children entering from Ukraine by traffickers in Europe.
Police agencies, he says, “are very alert to what we are starting to see, that is the presence of suspicious people near areas where refugees are gathering who could exploit women and, or, children.”
Around 3.8 million people have fled Ukraine to escape the conflict. About half are children. Even before the war started, Ukrainians ranked among the top five nationalities of people likely to be trafficked in the EU.
MEDYKA, Poland — The number of refugees who have flooded out of Ukraine is nearing 4 million, but data shows fewer people have crossed the border in recent days.
Border guards, aid agencies and refugees say Russia’s unpredictable war on Ukraine offers few signs as to whether it’s just a pause or a permanent drop-off.
In the first two weeks after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, about 2.5 million people in Ukraine’s pre-war population of 44 million left the country to avoid the bombs and bloodshed. In the second two weeks, the number of refugees was roughly half that.
The total exodus through Sunday now stands at 3.87 million, according to the latest tally announced Monday from UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. In the previous 24 hours, only 45,000 people crossed Ukraine’s borders to seek safety, the slowest one-day count yet.
“People who were determined to leave when war breaks out fled in the first days,” said Anna Michalska, a spokeswoman for the Polish border guards.
UNHCR says the war has triggered Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, and the speed and breadth of refugees fleeing to countries including Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia — as well as Russia — is unprecedented in recent times. Poland alone has taken in 2.3 million refugees and Romania nearly 600,000. The United States has vowed to take in 100,000.
UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations chief says he is launching an immediate effort to explore possible arrangements for “a humanitarian cease-fire in Ukraine.”
Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Monday he used his “good offices” to ask Martin Griffiths, the head of the U.N.’s worldwide humanitarian operations, to explore the possibility of a cease-fire with Russia and Ukraine.
He told reporters he is appealing for “an immediate humanitarian cease-fire to allow for progress in serious political negotiations, aimed at reaching a peace agreement.”
Guterres said that since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, there has been a “senseless loss of thousands of lives,” displacement of 10 million people, systematic destruction homes, schools and hospitals and other essential infrastructure, “and skyrocketing food and energy prices worldwide.”
A cessation of hostilities will allow humanitarian aid to be delivered and people to move safely, the secretary-general said, and “it will save lives, prevent suffering, and protect civilians.”
“I strongly appeal to the parties to this conflict, and to the international community as a whole, to work with us for peace in solidarity with the people of Ukraine and across the world,” the U.N. chief said.
PRAGUE — The Czech Republic has donated personal protective equipment to Ukraine to be used in the case of a chemical attack by the invading Russian troops.
The Czech move announced on Monday came after Ukraine asked the member states of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons for such help.
The Biden administration publicly warned earlier in March that Russia might seek to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine as the White House rejected Russian claims of illegal chemical weapons development in the country it has invaded.
The warning came after Russia, without evidence, accused Ukraine of running chemical and biological weapons labs with U.S. support.
The White House rejected that, saying it could be part of an attempt by Russia to lay the groundwork for its own use of such weapons of mass destruction against Ukraine.
The Czech Republic’s Office for Nuclear Safety said it joined forces with the National Institute for Nuclear, Chemical and Biological Protection to hand over protective masks, chemical suits, detection and decontamination systems and other materials to the Ukrainian authorities.
BERLIN — Sweden’s prime minister says her country will help refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine but won’t take in the kind of share it did during the influx of 2015.
Magdalena Andersson told reporters in Berlin on Monday that “we will do our part in helping Ukrainian refugees, but we cannot come back to the situation we had in 2015 when Sweden took a disproportionate part of the asylum seekers.”
Andersson, a member of the Social Democratic Party, said Sweden accepted about 12% of the total number of refugees coming to the European Union in 2015, despite having only 2% of the bloc’s population.
“We cannot come back to that kind of solution, but of course we will do our part and we are right now , of course, also welcoming Ukrainians that are coming to Sweden today, yesterday and during the last weeks,” she said after a meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
Since the war began on Feb. 24, more than 3.8 million people have fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency.
ROME — The Italian premier’s office says that in a phone conversation on Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “lamented the blocking of humanitarian corridors” by Russians.
Premier Mario Draghi’s office says Zelenskyy also expressed sorrow over the continued siege and “bombings of cities, including schools, with the resulting loss of civilian lives, among them, children.’
In a statement, Draghi’s office says he reiterated the Italian government’s staunch support for Ukrainian authorities and people as well as “the full availability of Italy to contribute to the international action to put an end to the war and to promote a lasting solution to the crisis in Ukraine.”
BELGRADE, Serbia — Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has praised Serbia for refusing to impose sanctions against Moscow over its aggression in Ukraine, saying the Balkan ally has made “a smart choice.”
“We deeply respect the Serbian people, Serbian culture, Serbian history and commitment to traditional friends,” Lavrov told a group of Serbian journalists in a video conference. “We are sure that they will continue to make smart choices in this situation.”
Although Serbia voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, Belgrade has refused to join the United States and the European Union in imposing wide ranging sanctions against Moscow.
Lavrov said the sanctions are “an attempt by the United States to impose its hegemony” in the Balkans and added that the West “is trying to isolate Russia” in the region that has seen a devastating war in the 1990s.
Although formally seeking EU membership, Serbia has been forging close political, economic and military ties to Russia.
ANKARA, Turkey —A plane carrying members of a Russian delegation has landed in Istanbul ahead of talks with Ukrainian negotiators aimed at ending the month-long war.
Turkey’s private DHA news agency said the Russian government plane landed at Istanbul Airport on Monday. The face-to-face talks between the two sides are scheduled to be held on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that Ukraine could declare neutrality, potentially accept a compromise on contested areas in the country’s east, and offer security guarantees to Russia to secure peace “without delay.” He said only a face-to-face meeting with Russia’s leader could end the war.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that the two presidents could meet, but only after the key elements of a potential deal are negotiated.
Earlier talks have failed to make progress on ending the war that has killed thousands and driven more than 10 million Ukrainians from their homes — including almost 4 million from their country.
NATO-member Turkey has close relations with both Ukraine and Russia. Earlier this month, it hosted a meeting between the two countries’ foreign ministers.
MOSCOW — Russian shares have slumped as its stock market resumed trading of all companies after a monthlong halt following the invasion of Ukraine.
The benchmark MOEX index slid 2.2% Monday after the Moscow Exchange reopened for all of its several hundred listed companies, but with restrictions still in place to limit volatility.
The last full trading session in Moscow was on Feb. 25, a day after the index tumbled by a third after President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine.
Prices whipsawed last week when the exchange tentatively reopened for two days of limited trading, with investors allowed to trade only 33 of the MOEX index’s 50 companies.
Some restrictions remained in place Monday to prevent another big selloff. The daily session is shortened to four hours and there is a ban on short-selling, which essentially involves betting on stock prices to go down. Foreigners also are unable to sell shares until Friday.
SOFIA, Bulgaria — Russia uses local level corruption as a tool of influence in the Balkan region, Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov said after a meeting of leaders from southeast Europe NATO members.
The prime ministers of Bulgaria, Romania, the Republic of North Macedonia, and Montenegro condemned Russia’s military aggression and voiced support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Petkov said the leaders discussed “eradicating money laundering and helping each other fight corruption,” which he said was “used by Russia to influence the region.”
Talks also focused on strengthening the cooperation as NATO allies on the bloc’s eastern flank, as well as on reducing the dependence on Russian energy supplies, countering Russia’s fake news, improving cyber protection and widening mutual trade.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — Danish brewery group Carlsberg says it has decided to pull out of Russia, saying it’s “the right thing to do in the current environment.”
The announcement came hours after its competitor, Dutch brewing giant Heineken, said it was doing the same.
The Copenhagen-based Carlsberg said Monday it “will have no presence in Russia.” Its business in Russia will no longer be included in the Danish brewer’s revenue and operating profit, and the business “will be treated as an asset held for sale until completion of the disposal.”
In 2021, Carlsberg reported revenue and operating profit in Russia of 6.5 billion kroner ($959 million) and 682 million kroner ($101 million) respectively. The Danish brewer generates around 10% of its sales in Russia, where it operates several breweries and has about 8,400 staff which would be laid off.
Heineken said earlier Monday that it was seeking an “orderly transfer of our business to a new owner in full compliance with international and local laws.”
Heineken will continue to pay its 1,800 staff in Russia through the end of the year. The company says it will not profit from the sale of its Russian operations and expects to take a 400 million-euro ($438 million) charge as a result.