Ukraine live briefing: Body of U.S. citizen killed in war released to Ukraine; Russia stages nuclear force drills

Ukrainian forces fire a mortar this month near Bakhmut, in eastern Ukraine. On Tuesday, the Ukrainian military pushed Russian mercenaries back from the city. (Wojciech Grzedzinski)

Russia began its annual nuclear exercises Wednesday, with President Vladimir Putin observing the large-scale drills of the country’s strategic forces via video. While the drills are routine, Moscow has threatened to use nuclear weapons several times since invading Ukraine in February.

The exercises came as Putin, in a meeting with the security services of former Soviet states on Wednesday, repeated the unfounded claim that Ukraine is planning to use a “dirty bomb,” an explosive device that includes radioactive material. Western officials have repeatedly denounced the claim as misinformation.

“Nobody believes the nonsense Russian accusations toward Ukraine,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said in an interview with The Washington Post. Still, recent nuclear rhetoric has Western governments concerned, Reinsalu said, because of fear that Russia could “itself commit a nuclear terror attack” as a form of provocation.

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

1. Key developments

  • CIA Director Bill Burns traveled to Ukraine earlier this month to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other officials, CNN reported Wednesday, citing two sources familiar with the trip. If confirmed, the visit comes amid a Russian escalation in Ukraine, including the illegal annexation of four territories and ramped-up airstrikes targeting the country’s energy infrastructure.
  • Russia’s exercises Wednesday included training for a “massive nuclear strike... in retaliation for the enemy’s nuclear strike,” state media quoted Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying. The drills also included the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile and other cruise missiles, according to the RIA Novosti news agency.
  • Despite the drills, Russia’s ambassador to the U.K. said that Moscow has no plans to use nuclear weapons. “It is out of the question," Andrey Kelin said in an interview with CNN that was broadcast Wednesday. He said that Shoigu, who has spoken with his counterparts in multiple countries in recent days, has “assured every minister” that Russia is not going to use nuclear weapons.
  • The body of a U.S. citizen who died fighting in Ukraine has been identified and released to Ukrainian custody, the State Department said in a statement Wednesday. Joshua Jones, 24, was fighting alongside Ukraine’s military when he was killed in August, Ukrainian officials said. A CNN team witnessed the transfer from Russian to Ukrainian forces in the Zaporizhzhia region on Wednesday. “The remains will soon be returned to the family,” the State Department said.

2. Battleground updates

  • Ukrainian efforts to push Russian forces out of the southern Kherson region have been hampered by rainy weather and the local terrain, Ukraine’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Wednesday, Reuters reported. “The south of Ukraine is an agricultural region, and we have a lot of irrigation and water supply channels, and the Russians use them like trenches,” he said, adding: “This is the rainy season, and it’s very difficult to use fighting carrier vehicles with wheels.”
  • A Russian antiwar group claimed responsibility for an explosion on a railway near the Russia-Belarus border this week, Britain’s Defense Ministry said. The incident is the sixth carried out by the Stop the Wagons group against rail infrastructure since June, according to the ministry, which noted that the Russian military is heavily reliant on railways for its deployments to Ukraine.
  • Ukrainian citizens residing abroad should not return home for the winter, a Ukrainian official said Tuesday, citing the need to save energy from power facilities recently crippled by Russian strikes. “We need to survive the winter, but unfortunately, the networks will not survive,” Iryna Vereshchuk said in a plea on Ukrainian television, according to the Associated Press.

3. Global impact

  • The Polish Senate passed a resolution Wednesday recognizing Russia’s government as a “terrorist regime.” In the resolution, lawmakers highlighted reports of Russian forces torturing, murdering, kidnapping and deporting Ukrainian civilians. “We know all these acts of state terrorism well from the history books. Europeans believed that they would never again be threatened with genocide and war crimes,” a Senate release said.
  • The United States announced new sanctions Wednesday targeting individuals and entities it said were “instruments of Russia’s global influence campaign” in Moldova. “In advance of the 2021 Moldovan elections, Russia planned to undermine Moldovan president Maia Sandu and return Moldova to Russia’s sphere of influence,” the Treasury Department said in a statement. Among those targeted are Moldovan politician Ilan Mironovich Shor and wife, Russian pop singer Sara Lvovna Shor.
  • Mercedes-Benz is the latest international company to withdraw from Russia after the invasion of Ukraine. The company confirmed in a statement Wednesday that it planned to sell its shares in its Russian subsidiaries to a local investor, named by Russia’s Industry and Trade Ministry as Avtodom. Mercedes-Benz previously suspended both local manufacturing in Russia and the export of passenger cars and vans to the country.

4. From our correspondents

European allies worry U.S. could dial back support for Ukraine: U.S. allies in Europe are growing increasingly concerned that the united front presented by the West in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could quickly unravel if Republicans are victorious in the midterm elections, ceding an advantage to President Vladimir Putin just when Ukraine is making progress on the battlefield, Liz Sly writes.

In the eight months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a rare level of transatlantic consensus has taken hold over the need to support Ukraine. Collectively, Ukraine’s allies have pledged more than $93 billion in military, financial and humanitarian assistance, with the lion’s share of that promised by the United States.

Since comments by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) that a Republican-controlled House wouldn’t continue to issue “blank check” funding for Ukraine, officials in both Kyiv and Western Europe have begun to wonder whether Ukraine can continue to count on the United States.

Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.