Ukraine live briefing: White House warns of Moscow annexation plans; Russia and Ukraine undertake more diplomatic outreach

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, right, welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran on July 19.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, right, welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran on July 19. (AFP/Getty Images)

As the White House reiterated warnings that Moscow is planning to annex Ukrainian territory, Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Iran and Ukraine’s first lady traveled to Washington. Here’s the latest on the war and the diplomatic outreach on opposite sides of the world.

Key developments

  • The White House again warned that Russia is planning to annex large swaths of Ukraine, much of which it has taken during its five-month war. Moscow is rolling out “an annexation playbook,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Tuesday, that includes installing “illegitimate proxy officials” and sham referendums. The plan is focused on the Donbas region, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, Kirby said. U.S. and Ukrainian officials have previously issued similar warnings.
  • Putin arrived in Tehran on Tuesday for a rare foreign visit, a sign of deepening ties between Russia and Iran as both countries struggle under Western sanctions. Putin met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader. He also met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Tehran, raising hopes that the premiers could make more progress on ending Russia’s blockade on grain shipments from Ukrainian ports. The trip comes after President Biden visited Israel and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rivals. Despite Putin’s talk of growing cooperation between Russia and Iran, U.S. officials said they have not yet seen evidence that Tehran has provided armed drones to Moscow for its war in Ukraine, a possibility they’ve warned about for weeks.
  • Speaking to reporters in Tehran, Putin again sought to cast the Ukrainian government as the biggest obstacle to peace, accusing Kyiv of being unwilling to meet the terms of a preliminary agreement he said was reached in March. Ukrainian officials, however, have said they would not give up territory in exchange for a cease-fire deal. Western diplomats say negotiations remain stalled and that if Russia was sincere about ending its war, it could simply withdraw its troops.
  • Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, is on a high-profile trip to Washington. She met first lady Jill Biden at the White House on Tuesday afternoon and will address Congress on Wednesday. Zelenska, who says her family has been “torn apart” by the war, also discussed her country’s dire humanitarian situation with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday.
  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Tuesday continued his purge of the country’s security services, the SBU, announcing the dismissal of one of the agency’s deputy directors. The latest firing comes after Zelensky removed the SBU’s head and Ukraine’s prosecutor general, two of its highest-profile law enforcement officials. Zelensky said they failed to root out “treason and collaboration activities” in their departments.

Putin makes rare international trip to Iran amid isolation from the West

Battlefield update

  • U.S.-supplied HIMARS rocket systems are helping to “stabilize” Ukrainian efforts to hold the front lines against Russian forces, according to the country’s top military commander, Valeriy Zaluzhny. Posting on Telegram after a conversation with Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Zaluzhny said the systems were a key factor in “delivering targeted strikes against enemy command posts, ammunition and fuel depots.” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu ordered Russian forces Monday to prioritize destroying the systems, pointing to the strength that Ukrainian forces have gained from them.
  • A residential building in the eastern city of Kramatorsk was on fire Tuesday after being hit in a Russian missile attack, officials said. Regional Gov. Pavlo Kyrylenko reported loud explosions and said at least one person was killed.
  • Russia launched a missile attack on the Odessa region of southern Ukraine early Tuesday. Russian forces fired seven Kalibr cruise missiles at “peaceful houses” in the area, Ukrainian presidential adviser Andriy Yermak said Tuesday on Telegram, accusing Moscow of trying to “break Ukrainian society with terror.” Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces used high-precision weapons on the village of Belenky in Odessa to destroy storage facilities holding ammunition supplied by Kyiv’s Western allies.
  • Russia has struggled to sustain effective offensive combat power since launching its invasion of Ukraine in February, and the problem is likely to grow, Britain’s Defense Ministry said Tuesday.

Spotlight: Russian dissent

  • There’s a growing unease among some in Russia about the human cost of the war. Robyn Dixon reports from Riga, Latvia, on a mother who is speaking out about her son, a Russian paratrooper detained for refusing to fight in eastern Ukraine. Such public appeals are rare in Russia, where civilians have been punished for criticizing the invasion.
  • The Kremlin has consistently downplayed the impact of the war on Russian soldiers, and there has been no update on the military death toll since late March, when the Defense Ministry announced that more than 1,350 servicemen had been killed. The real and current number is far higher.

Global impact

  • France on Tuesday announced a $9.7 billion takeover bid for the country’s main energy company, EDF, amid rising energy prices in Europe and concerns over the economic ripple effects of the war in Ukraine. Rick Noack in Paris notes: “EDF’s nationalization would allow the government to pursue more ambitious policies to become independent from Russian gas and other non-E.U. sources of energy, supporters of the move say.”
  • In other energy news: Russia’s Gazprom told European customers it cannot guarantee gas supplies because of “extraordinary” circumstances. German energy firms Uniper and RWE confirmed they received letters from the Russian state gas company retroactively declaring force majeure — an effort to release itself from legal obligations to meet gas deliveries. The maneuver heightens concerns about Russian gas supply to Europe, already in doubt after an escalating feud between Moscow and the West over Russia’s invasion.
  • President Biden signed an executive order to expand the U.S. government’s ability to punish hostage-taking and bring home Americans detained abroad. The order, which declares a national emergency to respond to countries detaining U.S. nationals, comes as WNBA star Brittney Griner stands trial in Russia on drug charges that could send her to prison for up to 10 years. It enables the United States to impose financial and travel sanctions on officials deemed responsible for “unjustly holding” U.S. citizens and support the families of those detained abroad.

From our correspondents on the ground

Ukraine’s farmers become the latest target of Russian missiles: Dalton Bennett reports from Pervomaiske, Ukraine, on fires — the new scourge for farmers in the Mykolaiv region.

One farmer was just days away from starting the harvest, but the Russian shelling came first — despite his modest farm’s distance from Ukraine’s southern front. In minutes, the flames threatened what was left of this year’s grain crop.

“That field was on fire. That one is burning. There it’s burning,” the farmer said, giving only his first name, Viktor, as he paced back and forth on a patch of scorched earth.

Rick Noack contributed to this report.