Ukraine Live Briefing: Blinken calls on Lavrov to accept ‘significant proposal’ to bring home Whelan and Griner

A ship in the grain elevators section at the port in Odessa, Ukraine, on July 29.
A ship in the grain elevators section at the port in Odessa, Ukraine, on July 29. (Wojciech Grzedzinski/For The Washington Post)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke by telephone with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday and pressed him to accept a U.S. proposal for the return of WNBA star Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan. The top U.S. diplomat, speaking to reporters at the State Department, offered no indication that the discussion was fruitful. “I raised exactly what I said I would raise with him — that is the significant proposal that has been on table for some weeks now that would lead to bringing home Paul Whelan and Brittney Griner.”

Here’s the latest on the war and its global impact.

Russia wants Victor Bout back, badly. The question is: Why?

Key developments

  • Lavrov said earlier in the day that it would be “interesting” to hear Blinken talk about a potential prisoner swap. Speaking at a news conference in Uzbekistan, Lavrov said that talks on prisoner exchanges had taken place since a Biden-Putin summit last year in Geneva. There is speculation that the United States is seeking to swap Whelan and Griner for Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year sentence in Illinois. Blinken has not confirmed that the United States is floating a prisoner exchange.
  • The White House dismissed as “not serious” an informal counteroffer, made through intelligence channels several weeks ago by Russia’s FSB state security agency and reported by CNN, to include the release of another Russian, Vadim Krasikov. Krasikov was convicted last year of gunning down a Chechen opposition figure in Berlin in 2019 and is imprisoned in Germany. German authorities have said Krasikov was operating on behalf of the FSB. “Holding two wrongfully detained Americans hostage for the release of a Russian assassin in a third country’s custody is not a serious counter-offer,” National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
  • Blinken will travel to South Africa, Congo and Rwanda next month with an itinerary that includes trade, human rights, food security and climate. Lavrov toured several countries on the continent this week to court favor and drag them into the war with Ukraine, according to a Washington Post analysis.
  • The first grain shipments from Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea are expected to begin shortly, after confirmation from the United Nations, Ukrainian authorities announced Friday. “We have solved all the technical questions and are waiting on confirmation today from the U.N. in regards to the corridor through which the vessels will sail on the Black Sea,” Ukrainian Infrastructure Minister Oleksandr Kubrakov said. More than 20 million tons of grain have been stuck in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February. In a rare trip outside Kyiv, Zelensky visited a Black Sea port Friday.

Battlefield updates

  • Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, was hit by Russian shelling overnight, local officials reported. Mayor Ihor Terekhov said in a post on social media that a two-story building and a university in the northeastern city were hit and that rescue teams were looking for people buried beneath rubble.
  • A district in the southern city of Mykolaiv has been shelled with cluster munitions, Mayor Oleksandr Syenkevych said in a post on Telegram on Friday. “There are victims,” he said. The report could not be independently verified. Cluster munitions, banned under a 2008 convention, scatter dozens or hundreds of smaller bomblets indiscriminately. Human rights group have previously accused Russian forces of using them.
  • A missile attack on a flight academy in the central city of Kropyvnytskyi killed five people and wounded 26, city officials said in a Friday update. Casualties from Thursday’s attack included military personnel and civilians, regional governor Andriy Raikovych said.
  • Ukraine and pro-Russian forces are accusing each other of killing Ukrainian prisoners of war in an occupied area of the eastern Donetsk region. A representative of the breakaway Donetsk People’s Republic said a Ukrainian strike using U.S.-supplied High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems hit a prison, killing at least 53 Ukrainian troops captured in Mariupol. Ukraine’s military denied the claim and said Russian forces carried out “intentional artillery shelling” of the prison “to accuse Ukraine of committing ‘war crimes’ as well as to hide the torture of prisoners and executions.” Zelensky said his diplomats have sent data about the attack to the United Nations Security Council.

Global impact

  • From the State Opera to Charlottenburg Palace, Berlin is turning off the lights at its landmarks one by one in a scramble to save the energy it needs to heat homes in winter, Ellen Francis writes. “In the face of the war against Ukraine and Russia’s energy threats, it is vital that we handle our energy as carefully as possible,” Berlin’s senator for the environment, Bettina Jarasch, said in an announcement on the switch-off at 200 sites.
  • Russia’s threat to shut down a prominent Jewish organization has stoked fears among Jews planning to leave the country because of its war against Ukraine, while deepening a rift between Russia and Israel, write The Post’s Robyn Dixon and Natalia Abbakumova. A Moscow court held a preliminary hearing Thursday about the Justice Ministry’s application to abolish the Russian branch of the Jewish Agency for Israel.
  • U.S. authorities charged Russian Aleksandr Viktorovich Ionov on Friday with a years-long malign influence campaign targeting American politics — alleging that he used American groups in Florida, Georgia and California to sow discord and push pro-Russian propaganda, Devlin Barrett writes. After Russia invaded Ukraine earlier this year, Ionov allegedly told his FSB handlers that he had enlisted an American political group to support Russia in the “information war unleashed” by the United States and Europe.

From our correspondents on the ground

Ukraine could be turning the tide of war again as Russian advances stall, The Washington Post’s Liz Sly writes. Newly delivered Western weapons are helping Ukrainian forces reclaim much of the advantage they had lost in recent months, providing an opportunity to turn the tide of the war in their favor again.

Many Western officials and analysts suspect that the Russians are close to exhausting their capacity to make further territorial gains as their depleted army confronts Ukrainian forces with newly acquired capabilities. Already forced to abandon their hopes of capturing the capital, Russian forces may soon have to reckon with their inability to conquer the entirety of the Donbas region — the only publicly declared goal of the initial invasion and the focus of current offensive ambitions.

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia fired at least 85 missiles on at least six major cities in Ukraine on November 15, in one of the most widespread attacks of the war so far. The strikes came just hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking by video link, presented a 10-point peace plan to G-20 leaders at a summit in Indonesia. As in previous Russian missile attacks, critical civilian infrastructure appeared to be primary targets. Parts of several cities that were hit were left without electrical power on Tuesday afternoon.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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