A Ukrainian official said Wednesday that Russian forces have taken over Ukraine’s second-biggest power plant and are carrying out a “massive redeployment” of troops to three regions in southern Ukraine.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, confirmed the capture of the Vuhlehirsk power plant in the eastern Donetsk region. But Arestovych said the development was a “tiny tactical advantage” for the Russians.
He said Russia’s troop redeployment involved sending forces to the Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson areas as part of an apparent shift to strategic defense efforts.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday he will speak to his Russian counterpart in coming days, with issues of discussion expected to include the implementation of a deal to resume grain exports through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports and Russia’s annexation of the Donbas region.
Blinken said he will also speak to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov about a “substantial” offer aimed at bringing home American basketball star Brittney Griner and former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan, both currently detained in Russia. People familiar with the matter described it as a prisoner swap that would send convicted Russian arms trafficker Viktor Bout back to Moscow.
Blinken and Lavrov last spoke in person on February 15, days before Russia launched its military invasion in Ukraine.
The tentative deal on grain exports that Ukraine, Russia, Turkey and the United Nations reached last week is also high on the list of U.S. priorities. U.S. officials urged Moscow to uphold its commitment after Russian missiles struck infrastructure Saturday in Ukraine’s port of Odesa – the day after the deal was signed.
Blinken said Russia needs to follow through on its pledge to allow the grain vessels to pass through the Black Sea.
“End this blockade, allow the grain to leave, allow us to feed our people, allow prices to come down. … The test now is whether there’s actual implementation of the agreement. That’s what we’re looking at. We’ll see in the coming days.”
Turkish officials have opened a joint coordination center for Ukrainian grain exports and say they expect shipments to begin in the coming days. Kyiv said work had resumed at three Black Sea ports in preparation for the shipments.
At the United Nations, spokesperson Farhan Haq welcomed the opening of the joint coordination center which, he said, will “establish a humanitarian maritime corridor to allow ships to export grain and related foodstuffs” from Ukraine.
Lavrov, wrapping up a four-nation trip to Africa in Addis Ababa, pushed back Wednesday on Western allegations that his country is to blame for the global food crisis. Lavrov said food prices were rising as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and what he called “green policies” pursued by the West.
State Department officials cautioned the expected call between Blinken and Lavrov does not mean business as usual between the U.S. and Russia, but rather is an opportunity to convey Washington’s concerns clearly and directly.
There is no plan for in-person meetings between the two on the margins of the ASEAN Regional Forum that will be held in Cambodia in early August.
The chief U.S. diplomat said he will warn Lavrov in the phone conversation that Russia must not annex occupied areas of Ukraine as the war enters its sixth month.
VOA’s Margaret Besheer contributed to this story. Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.