Ukraine live briefing: E.U. proposes war crimes tribunal; energy woes continue; White House ‘concerned’ about Paul Whelan

Ukrainian soldiers rush to change position on Sunday after firing toward Russian forces on the front line near Bakhmut. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

The European Union proposed establishing a specialized court to investigate and prosecute Russia for war crimes, following renewed calls by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pursue Moscow for the “crime of aggression” against Ukraine. “Russia must pay for its horrific crimes,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted Wednesday, proposing that the tribunal be backed by the United Nations and work with the International Criminal Court.

NATO ministers met for a second day in Bucharest, Romania, after alliance officials condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin for targeting vital infrastructure and pledged wide-ranging support for Ukraine, including fuel and generators. About 6 million energy customers in most regions of the country and in Kyiv are disconnected from electricity, Zelensky said in his nightly address.

On the sidelines of the NATO talks, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a U.S. plan to help Ukraine rapidly procure transformers, circuit breakers and other hardware to repair the electrical grid ahead of winter, following weeks of missile and drone attacks.

The Biden administration said Wednesday that it was concerned about the well-being of Paul Whelan, an American imprisoned in Russia whose release U.S. officials have been working to secure, probably as part of a prisoner swap. Whelan had missed a scheduled call home. Our embassy in Moscow has been working to understand exactly Paul’s condition and why his family hasn’t heard from him,” John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesman, told reporters.

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

What are war crimes, and is Russia committing them in Ukraine?

1. Key developments

  • Von der Leyen’s proposal comes after months of Ukrainian calls for such a court. In his nightly address Tuesday, Zelensky said a special tribunal was needed “so that every Russian murderer receives the deserved punishment.” The International Criminal Court has already launched its own investigation into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, but it does not have jurisdiction to prosecute other crimes, such as aggression.
  • A Ukrainian Embassy employee in Spain was injured by a letter bomb Tuesday, Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said on Twitter. Ukraine would increase security at all embassies, he said. Spanish police have opened an investigation and placed a security cordon around the building in northern Madrid, Agence France-Presse reported.
  • Ukraine will receive six air-defense missile systems as part of a new $1.2 billion contract between the U.S. military and Raytheon Missiles and Defense, the Army announced Wednesday. The Biden administration had already promised Ukraine it would send more National Advanced Surface to Air Missile Systems, or NASAMS. The challenge for the Pentagon and Raytheon will be making the equipment as quickly as possible. The Army announced it would work with industry partners to shorten the 24-month production lead time.
  • “NATO’s door is open” for Ukraine’s eventual membership, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Tuesday in Bucharest, adding that “Russia does not have a veto” on countries joining. But there are few signs the alliance is focused on the issue while the war is ongoing.
  • Finland’s and Sweden’s NATO applications are “nearly complete,” Stoltenberg said following a ministerial meeting in Bucharest attended by the two Nordic nations. “Their accession will make them safer, our alliance stronger and the Euro-Atlantic area more secure.” Stoltenberg also said the alliance would continue providing military support to Ukraine, particularly through the supply of air defenses.
  • “It is somehow unfortunate that it was exactly here in this palace in 2008 when, in our view, a strategic mistake was made by delaying Ukraine’s membership to NATO,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told reporters as the meeting concluded. “We believe … that the discussion on Ukraine’s application should begin. And we believe that mistakes made in the past can be corrected.”
  • Blinken downplayed disagreements within NATO over Finland’s and Sweden’s membership, and those over a proposed plan to cap the price of Russian oil, at a news conference in Bucharest on Tuesday. “Sometimes it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees,” he said. “The forest is dense, strong, substantive, and that is convergence among allies and partners on all of the critical issues,” he said. Of Finland’s and Sweden’s membership, he said the ratification by 28 of 30 member nations had happened “in record speed,” adding that the two Nordic nations were engaging with Turkey to address its concerns.
  • Germany’s parliament on Wednesday recognized the Holodomor famine in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933 as a genocide perpetrated by the Soviet Union. “Truth always wins,” Zelensky tweeted in response.
  • Canada has finishing issuing 500 million Canadian dollars, or about $370 million, in bonds to support Ukraine, according to a news release from the Canadian Finance Ministry. Zelensky, in his nightly address, thanked Canada, adding that Canada is assuming the debt. “The funds will assist the Government of Ukraine so it can continue to provide essential services to Ukrainians this winter, such as pensions, the purchasing of fuel, and restoring energy infrastructure,” according to the news release.

2. Battleground updates

  • Russia resumed strikes on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure overnight, targeting a gas distribution point in the southeastern Zaporizhzhia region, according to a local official. The official said that there were no known casualties but that three streets had been left without gas. The strikes follow weeks of Russian missile and drone attacks targeting Ukraine’s energy grid.
  • Moscow will not discuss the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty until the United States stops supplying Ukraine with weapons, a top Russian diplomat suggested, according to Tass news agency. “They will keep supplying all those arms and goad the Kyiv regime … while we sit down to discuss mutual security issues with them?” Maria Zakharova, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said on Sputnik radio. Her comments followed Russia’s decision to postpone talks on the strategic nuclear arms control treaty that had been scheduled to begin Tuesday in Cairo.
  • The Pentagon is considering supplying Kyiv with a Patriot air defense system, a senior defense official said Tuesday. Receiving the surface-to-air missile system is a top Ukrainian priority, alongside transformers to support its energy grid going into winter. “In a nutshell, Patriots and transformers is what Ukraine needs the most, and we’re discussing it here in Bucharest,” Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, said Tuesday at the NATO summit.
  • The area around Bakhmut has become a center of gravity in the east, the Pentagon said Tuesday, as Ukrainian and Russian forces struggle for the strategic city of Donetsk, where important roads and rail lines meet. Recent Russian counteroffensives have eroded Ukrainian gains there, a senior U.S. military official said during a background briefing.

3. Global impact

  • The United States pledged $53 million to help Kyiv procure circuit breakers and other hardware after a sustained Russian air campaign battered the country’s infrastructure. Blinken announced the plan during talks in Bucharest with counterparts from the Group of Seven industrialized nations.
  • The European Commission announced plans to manage frozen Russian assets through a new centralized structure, which it could use to compensate Ukraine. Von der Leyen said the E.U. has blocked 300 billion euros ($311 billion) of Russian Central Bank reserves since the beginning of the invasion, along with 19 billion euros ($19.7 billion) belonging to Russian oligarchs.
  • U.S. arms giant Raytheon plans to manufacture Patriot missiles in Europe for the first time as demand for the air defense systems surge amid the war in Ukraine, the company and its European partner said Wednesday. Patriot GEM-T interceptor missile systems are to be produced in southern Germany in a tie-up with defense firm MBDA in order to “counter the current threat situation,” the companies said in a statement.
  • German energy company Uniper announced Wednesday that it would sue Russian state gas giant Gazprom over service disruptions amid the Ukraine war.

4. From our correspondents

Setbacks in Ukraine war diminish Russia’s clout with regional allies: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exposed Putin’s weaknesses to smaller neighbors, resulting in a regional realignment expected to sharpen as international sanctions, a global shift away from fossil fuels and deepening political isolation erode Russia’s economic power.

And with Russia weakened, writes Robyn Dixon, Europe has been wooing Central Asian nations, in particular Kazakhstan, as an alternative energy source to replace Russian hydrocarbons.

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