Ukraine live briefing: U.S. defense secretary speaks with Russian counterpart; Zelensky warns Moscow plans ‘false flag’ attack

A road bridge at the Kakhovka Hydroelectric Power Plant, Kherson Oblast, Ukraine, on May 20. (Olga Maltseva/AFP/Getty Images)
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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin held calls with his Russian and Ukrainian counterparts Friday — the first such exchange since May. Details of the call between Austin and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu were closely guarded. According to Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, Austin “emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid the ongoing conflict.” Russia’s Defense Ministry said the two officials discussed “relevant aspects of international security, including the situation in Ukraine.” The last time Shoigu and Austin spoke was in May.

Austin also spoke with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov and reiterated the United States’ unwavering commitment to “supporting Ukraine’s ability to counter Russia’s aggression,” according to Ryder.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of mining the dam at a major hydroelectric power station near the Russian-occupied city of Kherson in preparation for a “false flag attack,” which he said could lead to widespread flooding and destroy the water supply in much of the south of the country. A member of the president’s team pledged that Ukraine would “hit back even harder” if such an attack took place.

Here’s the latest on the war and its ripple effects across the globe.

1. Key developments

  • The European Union agreed early Friday to pursue measures to “protect its citizens and businesses” against Russia’s “weaponization of energy,” though there was no consensus on capping the price of natural gas. The agreement responds to Russia’s efforts to limit exports of natural gas to Europe over E.U. support for Ukraine and Western moves to avoid importing Russian energy more broadly, resulting in skyrocketing energy bills.
  • A U.S. think tank said a Russian effort to sabotage the Kakhovka dam could be used to cover up a future Russian retreat from the region. The Institute for the Study of War said it could be a tactic to distract from Russian losses. Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential office, said Ukraine would not “succumb to peace by coercion.”
  • The European Council signed a “unanimous commitment” to lower energy prices, guarantee supply and reduce demand, European Council President Charles Michel said. But E.U. countries still need to agree on details on how to achieve those goals. The bloc had been fiercely divided about directly intervening in energy markets. The leaders of Germany and Hungary have expressed concerns that price caps would result in reduced gas supplies for the European Union, driving producers to seek higher bidders in other regions.
  • Russia “is deliberately delaying” grain exports from Ukraine, Zelensky said Friday evening, though he did not provide details as to how the Kremlin may be doing so. The Washington Post could not confirm the veracity of his statement. In a U.N.-brokered deal this summer, The Post reported, the two countries agreed to allow agricultural exports after a Russian blockade locked more than 20 million tons of grain in Ukrainian Black Sea ports. Last year, Ukraine accounted for 10 percent of global wheat exports, according to the United Nations.

2. Battleground updates

  • The U.N. human rights office has recorded 15,956 civilian casualties in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February, 6,322 of them deaths, U.N. Undersecretary Rosemary Di Carlo told the Security Council on Friday, adding that “the actual figures are likely considerably higher.” At the council, the United States and its allies again accused Russia of war crimes and violations of international law, including massive missile and drone attacks against civilian infrastructure across Ukraine this month. Before walking out of the meeting, Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya accused the “the criminal regime” in Kyiv of numerous attacks on civilians in Russian-occupied zones of Ukraine that he said the West “prefers to cover up.”
  • Zelensky said “Russian terrorists” have added mines to the dam at the Kakhovka hydroelectric power plant, one of the Ukraine’s largest power facilities, in preparation for a “false flag” attack. He did not provide evidence of the Russian plot but told European Council leaders it could lead to flooding in 80 settlements, including Kherson, and destroy much of southern Ukraine’s water supply. In recent days, Moscow proxy officials have claimed that Ukraine was planning to blow up the dam to flood Kherson and have removed thousands of people from the city. Ukraine blew up a dam early in the war as part of its efforts to defend Kyiv.
  • Sergei Surovikin, the commander of Russian forces in Ukraine, claimed earlier this week that Ukraine would attack the dam, which the Ukrainian side portrayed as groundwork for a Russian attack.
  • Moscow claims that four civilians, including two Russian journalists, were killed in Kherson late Thursday night. State media quoted a Russian proxy official as saying that a Ukrainian strike targeted the bridge, while a local pro-Ukrainian outlet reported that it was being used by retreating Russian forces. The reports could not be independently verified, but many civilians have been removed from Kherson in recent days by Russia and a curfew is in place. Occupying authorities have begun to leave the town of Berislav, in the Kherson region, Ukraine’s armed forces claimed in a statement Friday.
  • Russia has sent a further 2,000 recently mobilized fighters “to replenish losses and strengthen units” in Kherson, the general command of Ukraine’s armed forces said Friday.

3. Global impact

  • President Biden said he is worried that Republicans may cut aid to Ukraine if they win back the House. This week, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) — who would probably become speaker if Republicans prevail in midterm elections next month — signaled that the GOP would oppose more aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia.
  • Moscow has been forced to cannibalize existing airline parts it can no longer obtain abroad, the State Department said as it outlined the effects of the sanctions and export controls introduced after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Russian production of hypersonic ballistic missiles has also almost ceased as it reverts to Soviet-era defense stocks, and the country has been forced to turn to “less technologically advanced” nations such as Iran and North Korea for supplies and equipment, according to the department.
  • The E.U. and Britain announced further sanctions against Tehran on Thursday over Russia’s use of Iranian-made drones in Ukraine. The United States also said Iranian military personnel in Crimea are assisting Russia in its drone attacks against Ukraine by providing tech support and training. In a phone call with the European Union’s top diplomat, Iran’s foreign minister denied sending arms to either side, adding that his country “wants an end to the war and an end to the displacement of people.”

4. From our correspondents

Ukraine urges citizens to turn off appliances, save power after airstrikes. As Ukraine braced for severe power shortages following an extensive bombing campaign by Russia of civilian infrastructure, the governor of Kyiv urged residents of the capital region to save power, writes David L. Stern. The governor called on people to shut off electrical appliances including electric heaters, refrigerators and WiFi routers between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m.

The warnings of potential rolling blackouts, and the pleas for a nationwide conservation effort, including from Zelensky, highlighted how Russia’s merciless airstrike campaign is forcing Ukrainians, already worn down by eight months of invasion and war, to sacrifice even more.