Top US, Russian generals speak for first time since Ukraine invasion

File photo. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley attends a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Department of Defense at the Capitol in Washington, DC, USA, 3 May 2022. Milley spoke by telephone with Russia's Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, the Pentagon said on 19 May 2022, the first conversation between the two since Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February. [EPA-EFE/Amanda Andrade-Rhoades / POOL]

The top US military officer, General Mark Milley, spoke by telephone with Russia’s Chief of General Staff Valery Gerasimov, the Pentagon said on Thursday (19 May), the first conversation between the two since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February.

“The military leaders discussed several security-related issues of concern and agreed to keep the lines of communication open,” said a spokesman for Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“In accordance with past practice, the specific details of their conversation will be kept private,” the spokesman added.

The US military readout did not mention any specific issues that were discussed.

RIA news agency, citing the Russian defense ministry, said the two military leaders discussed issues of “mutual interest,” including Ukraine.

The call took place after US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Russian counterpart last week, and the Pentagon chief called for an immediate ceasefire in Ukraine.

The United States and Russia have established a hotline since the invasion – which Moscow calls a “special military operation” – began on 24 February to prevent miscalculation and any widening of the conflict.

The “deconfliction” hotline is an open phone line based at the European Command’s headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, and falls under Air Force General Tod Wolters, who leads all US forces in Europe.

Speaking in Brussels on Thursday, Wolters said he hoped the call between Milley and Gerasimov was one step closer to a diplomatic solution in Ukraine.

Still, there appears to be little momentum on the diplomatic front, more than two months after the start of Russia’s invasion, which has left thousands dead or injured, reduced towns and cities to rubble, and forced more than 5 million people to flee abroad.

Donbas ‘destroyed’

Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region, the focus of recent Russian offensives, has been destroyed, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said as some of the world’s richest countries pledged to bolster Kyiv with billions of dollars.

Since turning away from Ukraine’s capital, Russia is using massed artillery and armour to try to capture more territory in the Donbas, comprised of the Donetsk and Luhansk areas, which Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.

“The occupiers are trying to exert even more pressure. It is hell there – and that is not an exaggeration,” Zelenskyy said in a late Thursday address.

“(There are) constant strikes on the Odesa region, on the cities of central Ukraine. The Donbas is completely destroyed,” he said.

Azovstal surrender

Russia said Thursday that 1,730 Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered this week at Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant, after a desperate battle that has become emblematic of the nearly three-month-old war.

The number included 80 wounded who were taken to a hospital in Russia-controlled territory in eastern Ukraine, Moscow said.

The Russian defence ministry released a video appearing to show exhausted Ukrainian soldiers trudging out of the sprawling steelworks, after a weeks-long siege forced the defenders and civilians to huddle in tunnels, enduring dire shortages of food, water and medicine.

Russian troops patted down those surrendering and inspected their bags as they left, signalling the effective end of what Ukraine’s government had called a “heroic” resistance.

In a 19-second video, the deputy commander of the Azov battalion, Sviatoslav ‘Kalyna’ Palamar, said that he and the battalion commanders were still in the steel plant and an operation was going on.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said it had registered “hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war” from the plant in Mariupol, a port city obliterated by Russian shelling.

Ukraine is hoping to exchange the Azovstal soldiers for Russian prisoners. But pro-Kremlin authorities in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region said some of them could be put on trial.

The Brief – The fall of Azov

The surrender of the Azov battalion in Mariupol is a milestone in Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. In terms of what will follow, there are two options.

The United States warned Thursday it would be watching the situation closely.

“Our expectation is… that all prisoners of war will be treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention and the law of war,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.

Ukraine has already begun its own process of trying captured troops for crimes they are alleged to have committed, with prosecutors detailing 12,595 counts — including the horrific bombing of a maternity ward in Mariupol.

‘Please forgive me’

The first Russian soldier to go on trial in Ukraine begged for forgiveness Thursday.

Vadim Shishimarin has admitted shooting dead Oleksandr Shelipov, an unarmed 62-year-old man, on February 28 — four days into the invasion.

“I know that you will not be able to forgive me, but nevertheless I ask you for forgiveness,” the 21-year-old sergeant told Shelipov’s widow in the cramped courtroom in Kyiv.

First Russian soldier accused of war crimes in Ukraine pleads guilty

A Russian soldier accused of war crimes in Ukraine pleaded guilty on Wednesday (18 May) to killing an elderly unarmed civilian.

US aid approved

The US Senate overwhelmingly approved nearly $40 billion in new aid for Ukraine on Thursday sending the bill to the White House for President Joe Biden to sign into law.

The Senate voted 86-11 in favor of the emergency package of military, economic and humanitarian assistance, by far the largest US aid package for Ukraine to date. All 11 ‘no’ votes were from Republicans.

The strong bipartisan support underscored the desire from lawmakers – most Republicans as well as Biden’s fellow Democrats – to support Ukraine’s war effort, without sending US troops. It came hours after the Senate confirmed Biden’s nominee to be US ambassador to Ukraine, career diplomat Bridget Brink, filling a post that had been vacant for three years.

“This is a large package, and it will meet the large needs of the Ukrainian people as they fight for their survival,” Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said, urging support for the emergency supplemental spending bill before the vote.

Biden said the spending bill’s passage ensured there will be no lapse in US funding for Ukraine.

“I applaud the Congress for sending a clear bipartisan message to the world that the people of the United States stand together with the brave people of Ukraine as they defend their democracy and freedom,” Biden said in a statement, noting that he would announce another package of security assistance on Thursday.

A top aide to Zelenskyy thanked the Senate and said the money would help ensure the defeat of Russia. “We are moving towards victory confidently and strategically,” Zelenskyy’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak said in an online post minutes after the vote.

(Edited by Georgi Gotev)

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