Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Prague and Sofia on Thursday for talks with Czech and Bulgarian leaders aimed at bolstering Kyiv’s bid to join the NATO alliance. The diplomatic tour came as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko told reporters that Wagner mercenary chief Yevgeny Prigozhin was in Russia, apparently contradicting earlier reports that he had moved to Belarus. Follow our live blog to see how the day’s events unfolded. All times are Paris time (GMT+2).
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10:44pm: Ukraine offensive ‘not fast’ but ‘we advance’, says Zelensky
President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday that Ukraine’s counteroffensive was “not fast” but Kyiv’s troops were advancing.
“The offensive is not fast, that’s a fact. But nevertheless, we are advancing, not retreating, like Russians,” Zelensky told reporters alongside Czech President Petr Pavel. “We now have the initiative,” he said.
10:25pm: NATO member Romania aims to open pilot training facility for allies, partners, and Ukraine
Romania’s top defence body said in a meeting Thursday that the country aims to open a regional training hub for F-16 fighter jet pilots from fellow NATO countries and other partners, including Ukraine.
President Klaus Iohannis, who chaired the Supreme Council of National Defense meeting in Bucharest, said in a statement that, “Together with other allies and the company that designs this fighter plane, a regional hub will be created in Romania for the training of pilots.”
“Romanian pilots who operate F-16 aircraft will be trained here, and the facility will later be opened to the participation of pilots from allied and NATO partner states, including Ukraine,” the statement read.
10:18pm: Biden administration did not sanction unofficial April talks with Russians
President Joe Biden did not sanction the secret meetings that former top US national security officials held with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and other Russians on potential talks to end the Ukraine war, a State Department spokesperson said on Thursday
NBC News reported that the former US officials met Lavrov in New York in April, joined by Richard Haass, a former US diplomat and outgoing president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and two former White House aides.
8:46pm: Zelensky arrives in Prague
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Prague on Thursday for talks with Czech leader Petr Pavel and other officials.
He then headed to Prague to meet Czech counterpart Petr Pavel before scheduled talks in Istanbul on Friday with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, an important broker in the war in Ukraine.
7:29pm: President Zelensky announces visit to Czech Republic
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he was visiting Prague on Thursday, and would meet Czech President Petr Pavel, Prime Minister Petr Fiala and the heads of both parliamentary houses.
“Prague is next,” Zelensky tweeted.
“The focus will be on defence support, European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine and the Vilnius NATO Summit, the situation around the ZNPP, the implementation of the #PeaceFormula, and the rebuilding of Ukraine.”
Prague 🇨🇿 is next. I will hold substantive negotiations with President Petr Pavel, Prime Minister Petr Fiala, Presidents of the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies Miloš Vystrčil and Markéta Pekárová Adamová, meet with members of the government, parliament and media. The focus…
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) July 6, 2023
7:11pm: UNESCO condemns Russian bombing of ‘historic building’ in Lviv
UNESCO on Thursday condemned the bombing of a historic building in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv and expressed “its sincere condolences” to the families of five victims.
“This attack, the first to take place in an area protected by the World Heritage Convention since the outbreak of the war on 24 February 2022, is a violation of this Convention,” the UN cultural agency said, adding the Russian strike also violated “the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict.”
7:01pm: “This attack, yet again, shows that nowhere is really safe in Ukraine.”
The city of Lviv has been hit with what the Mayor has called the biggest attack on civilian areas since the Russian invasion began. Some 60 apartments and 50 cars were destroyed overnight, leaving at least four people dead.
FRANCE 24’s Emmanuelle Chaze is on the ground in Kyiv with the latest.
6:45pm: Ukrainian spy chief says nuclear threat at Zaporizhzhia plant subsiding
Ukraine’s military spy chief said on Thursday that the threat of a Russian attack on the vast Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant was receding, but that it could easily return as long as the facility remained under occupation by Moscow’s forces.
The intelligence chief, Kyrylo Budanov, made the comment in an interview with Reuters after days of warnings by Ukrainian and Russian officials accusing each other of plotting an attack at Europe’s largest nuclear plant.
“The threat is decreasing”, said Budanov, who is the head of Ukraine’s Main Directorate of Intelligence at the Ministry of Defence, declining to say how he was able to say.
6:35pm: US plans to supply Ukraine with cluster munitions
The United States plans to send cluster munitions to Ukraine to help it battle Russian invaders, US officials said on Thursday, a move opposed by human rights groups but which would provide a powerful new element to Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
A weapons aid package that includes cluster munitions fired by a 155mm Howitzer cannon was expected to be announced Friday, said two US officials speaking on condition of anonymity.
The White House said sending cluster munitions to Ukraine is “under active consideration” but it had no announcement to make at this time.
5:09pm: Sweden and Turkey to meet ahead of NATO summit Monday
The leaders of Turkey and Sweden will meet on the eve of a NATO summit next week to try and unblock Stockholm’s stalled membership bid, alliance head Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday.
The talks in Lithuania Monday are a last-ditch attempt to convince Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan to drop his objections after over a year of delays.
“It is absolutely possible to have a positive decision at the summit next week,” Stoltenberg said after talks with Sweden and Turkey’s foreign ministers at NATO’s Brussels headquarters Thursday.
Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom said he was hoping for a breakthrough but underscored it remained a “Turkish decision”.
Sweden’s entry would be a symbolically powerful moment and the latest indication that Russia’s war on Ukraine is driving countries to join the alliance.
3:30pm: Russia and Ukraine announce POW exchange
Russia and Ukraine announced a prisoner of war exchange on Thursday involving the return of 45 soldiers from each side.
Russia’s defence ministry said that 45 Russian servicemen had been returned from Ukrainian custody, the Russian news agency RIA reported.
Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential staff, said 45 service personnel and two civilians had been returned to Ukraine.
2:46pm: Zelensky to meet Erdogan Friday in Istanbul, say Turkish media
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will visit Istanbul on Friday for talks with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkish media reported.
The meeting is expected to focus on an expiring deal to ship Ukrainian grain across the Black Sea as well as next week’s NATO summit, the reports said.
Analysts expect Zelensky to push Erdogan to give his green light for Sweden’s membership of NATO ahead of the July 11-12 alliance summit in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius.
Turkey is blocking Sweden’s candidacy because of a longstanding dispute about Stockholm’s allegedly lax attitude toward Kurdish militants living in the Nordic country.
2:44pm: Russia says struck ‘assigned’ targets after Ukraine flats hit
Russia said Thursday its forces hit “all” assigned targets in Ukraine as Ukrainian authorities said a missile killed at least four people in the western city of Lviv.
“All assigned targets have been hit,” the Russian defence ministry said, adding that its sea-based long-range “precision weapons” struck points of temporary deployment of Ukrainian troops and depots storing foreign-made armoured vehicles. No other details were provided.
2:32pm: Ukraine and Bulgaria agree on more defence cooperation, says Zelensky
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday his country and Bulgaria had agreed on more active cooperation in the defence sector, and that he had invited Sofia to take part in Ukraine’s reconstruction.
“We discussed the military aid which Bulgaria gives to our country. We count on the continuation of the co-operation which has already saved many lives,” he told a press conference in Sofia, where he met Bulgarian leaders.
2:30pm: Russia’s Patrushev says threats to Russia from NATO are growing, says TASS
The secretary of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, said on Thursday that threats to Russia from the U.S.-led NATO military alliance were growing, according to the TASS news agency.
TASS quoted Patrushev as referring to a build-up of NATO military infrastructure near Russia’s borders, the intensification of reconnaissance activities and the presence of ,tactical nuclear weapons in Europe.
1:05pm: Russia says US granted access to detained reporter on ‘reciprocal basis’
Russia will allow the US ambassador to Moscow to visit detained Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich “on a reciprocal basis”, foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has said.
Ambassador Lynne Tracy was able to visit Gershkovich this week for only the second time since he was detained in March on espionage charges, which he, his employer and Washington all deny.
Russian embassy staff were given access on the same day to Vladimir Dunaev, a Russian national in pre-trial detention in Ohio on cybercrime charges.
The Kremlin said this week there were “certain contacts” with the United States over Gershkovich’s case but “they must be carried out and continued in complete silence”.
12:48pm: Ukraine to move to professional army after war with Russia ends
Ukraine plans to abandon conscription and move to a professional army after the war with Russia to bring Kyiv closer to NATO standards, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal has said.
After a meeting with top defence and security officials at which reforms known as “the Ukrainian shield” were discussed, Shmyhal said the government would also continue to focus on supporting a further increase in domestic weapons production.
“The primary task is to complete the transition of the Security and Defence Forces of Ukraine to NATO standards. In all aspects: from equipment and weapons to planning and analysis,” Shmyhal said on the Telegram messaging app.
“After the end of the war, Ukraine will abandon the draft as it existed before the war. The foundation of our defence will be a professional army.”
12:39pm: Russia expels nine Finnish diplomats in retaliatory move, closes consulate
Russia’s foreign ministry says it is expelling nine diplomats from Finland, Russia’s neighbour and NATO’s newest member, in a tit-for-tat measure, and closing the Finnish consulate.
The ministry said it had summoned the Finnish ambassador to object to what it called Helsinki’s anti-Russian stance.
Finland said last month it was expelling nine Russian diplomats, accusing them of working on intelligence missions.
11:05am: Zelensky arrives in Bulgaria for talks on security, NATO
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has arrived in the Bulgarian capital of Sofia for talks with the country’s president and prime minister on issues including security and next week’s NATO summit.
“Defense support, (Ukraine’s) Euro-Atlantic integration, the NATO Summit, security guarantees, and the implementation of the Peace Formula (for ending Russia’s war on Ukraine),” Zelensky wrote on Twitter.
Sofia. Bulgaria 🇧🇬. I will hold substantial talks with Prime Minister Nikolai Denkov, meet with President Rumen Radev, government officials, parliamentarians, politicians, and journalists. Defense support, 🇺🇦 Euro-Atlantic integration, the @NATO Summit, security guarantees, and…
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) July 6, 2023
9:50am: Belarus president says Wagner chief is back in Russia
Russian mercenary leader Yevgeny Prigozhin is no longer in Belarus, the country’s strongman ruler Alexander Lukashenko has told reporters.
Lukashenko, who last month brokered a deal to end the Wagner group’s armed mutiny in Russia, said on June 27 that Prigozhin had arrived in Belarus as part of the deal.
But he told reporters today: “As for Prigozhin, he’s in St Petersburg. He is not on the territory of Belarus.”
Lukashenko said an offer for Wagner to station some of its fighters in Belarus – a prospect that has alarmed neighbouring NATO countries – still stands.
9:15am: Turkey and Sweden discuss membership standoff at NATO headquarters
Senior officials from Sweden and Turkey gather at NATO headquarters today to examine Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s objections to the Nordic country joining the military alliance.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg will lead the meeting, which will involve the countries’ foreign ministers, intelligence chiefs and national security advisers.
Top officials from Finland, which joined NATO in April after itself addressing Turkish concerns, will also take part.
The talks come a day after US President Joe Biden welcomed Sweden’s prime minister at the White House in a show of support for the country’s membership bid.
Today I met with Prime Minister Kristersson of Sweden to review our growing defense cooperation and reaffirm our support of Sweden joining NATO. pic.twitter.com/bCL9vOORXG
— President Biden (@POTUS) July 6, 2023
7:35am: ‘Civilians are bearing the brunt of this war’
Russian missiles slammed into Lviv apartment blocks in the early hours of Thursday when most residents were asleep, giving them little chance of finding shelter, says FRANCE 24’s Emmanuelle Chaze reporting from Kyiv.
“Once again a civilian infrastructure has been hit by Russian forces – this happens on a daily basis in Ukraine,” she explains.
6:45am: Zelensky vows tangible response after Lviv strike kills four
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed a “tangible response” following a Russian missile strike on an apartment block that killed at least four people in the western city of Lviv.
“Consequences of the night attack by Russian terrorists,” he wrote alongside a Telegram video post showing a ruined building. “Unfortunately, there are wounded and dead… There will definitely be a response to the enemy. A tangible one.”
Lviv. Consequences of the night attack by Russian terrorists. Unfortunately, there are wounded and dead. My condolences to the relatives!
There will definitely be a response to the enemy. A strong one. pic.twitter.com/9yl1MT6Eu4
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) July 6, 2023
5:15am: Fatalities reported after missile strike on apartment block Lviv
At least three people were killed in a Russian missile attack that hit an apartment building in Lviv overnight, the mayor of the western Ukrainian city has said.
“Three people have been killed,” Andriy Sadovyi said in a post on his Telegram channel, adding that about 60 apartments and 50 cars were damaged.
In an earlier post he had said eight people had been injured. It was unclear whether the three people he confirmed as dead were included in that number.
3:06am: Russian missiles hit Ukraine’s western city of Lviv
Strikes on the western Ukrainian city of Lviv damaged “critical infrastructure” and wounded at least four people early on Thursday, Ukrainian authorities have said.
Russia has launched waves of drone and missile strikes across Ukraine since its invasion in February 2022.
The Lviv region – hundreds of kilometres from the frontlines – has been spared the brunt of the attacks.
“A critical infrastructure facility in Lviv has been damaged, there are injured according to initial reports,” Lviv governor Maksym Kozytski wrote on Telegram.
He did not give further details or specify whether the strikes were from drones or missiles.
Earlier, he had warned that “several” missiles were “moving in the direction of the western regions”, citing Ukraine’s Air Forces Command.
1:30am: Zelensky says sought weapons for counteroffensive to start sooner
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told CNN he wanted a counteroffensive against occupying Russian forces to have started sooner than it did in June and that he had urged Western allies to quicken the supply of weapons for that mission, according to excerpts via a translator released on Wednesday.
“I wanted our counteroffensive to happen much earlier, because everyone understood that if the counteroffensive unfolds later, then a bigger part of our territory will be mined,” Zelensky said. “We give our enemy the time and possibility to place more mines and prepare their defensive lines.”
He said difficulties in the battlefield had led to Ukrainian forces slowing down the counteroffensive, which is aimed at reclaiming territory in eastern and southern Ukraine seized by Russia since its February 2022 invasion began.
The Ukrainian leader has consistently pushed the United States and other Western allies to supply his armed forces with more sophisticated weaponry, such as US-made F-16 fighter jets and longer range missiles.
Key developments from Wednesday, July 5:
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Wednesday called for additional access to the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine to “confirm the absence of mines or explosives at the site”.
Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of planning to sabotage the site, raising alarm over risks of a radioactive disaster at Europe’s largest nuclear plant.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Moscow is yet to decide whether to renew the Black Sea grain deal, which allows for the safe export of grain from Ukraine and is due to expire on July 18.
Russia opened a criminal case into a brutal attack by masked men in Chechnya on a prominent female Russian journalist and a lawyer as the serious nature of the injuries sustained in the assault became clearer.
Read yesterday’s live blog to see how all the day’s events unfolded.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and Reuters)