Ukraine live briefing: Russian defense minister meets with Belarusian president; Kremlin decries price cap on oil

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, meets with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk on Dec. 3. (Belarusian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu met with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko in Minsk on Saturday, a publicized meeting that underscores their nations’ military alliance and preparedness for a potential escalation in the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Lukashenko called Russia’s and Belarus’s forces “a single army” that is ready to “fight to either the last Ukrainian or the last Pole,” Belarusian state-news outlet Belta reported Saturday. Belarus has hosted Russian military members and supported their attacks in Ukraine since the early days of the war.

Meanwhile, Moscow on Saturday denounced an international price cap imposed on Russian oil, describing it as a “dangerous and illegitimate instrument.” The Group of Seven nations and Australia agreed a day earlier to cap the price they pay for Russian oil at $60 per barrel, although it is not clear whether the move will seriously hit Moscow’s finances in the near term, since the cap is close to current prices.

The cap was good news but did not go far enough and would be better lowered to $30 per barrel “to destroy the enemy’s economy quicker,” Ukrainian presidential aide Andriy Yermak said Saturday. In his nightly address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called the limit a “weak position,” considering Russia has already “caused huge losses to all countries of the world by deliberately destabilizing the energy market.”

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

1. Key developments

  • Lukashenko reiterated his nation’s commitment to Russia’s military goals Saturday, saying in his meeting with Shoigu that “Both our and your officers train Belarusian and Russian soldiers, so that, if necessary, our defenders of the Union State could repel any aggression.” Neither Ukraine nor its allies have attacked Belarus, though Lukashenko has insisted that Western forces are gunning for his nation and Russia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was to have met this week with his Belarusian counterpart, Vladimir Makei, who died suddenly last week.
  • “Russian oil will continue to be in demand,” Moscow’s Embassy in the United States said Saturday while decrying a Western price cap as “a reshaping of the basic principles of free markets.” It added that “from now on no country is immune to the introduction of all sorts of ‘caps’ on its exports, rolled out for political reasons.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia “will not accept the ceiling on oil prices.”
  • The Biden administration called the oil price cap “welcome news,” even as financial analysts said the current cap was so high that it may not hit the Kremlin’s war chest. The cap will involve regular reviews to make sure the ceiling stays at least 5 percent below average market prices for Russian seaborne crude oil, and Biden administration officials have stressed that the cap will allow Russian oil flows to continue but ensure that Moscow cannot benefit from a price surge.
  • The cap is set to be implemented starting Monday, the day the European Union’s embargo on Russian seaborne crude goes into force. The idea of the cap, pitched hard by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen, is to limit how much Putin can make on the oil he diverts elsewhere in the world without creating a massive disruption in global supply.
  • The U.S. is “disappointed” Russia postponed negotiations over a nuclear arms treaty but remains ready to meet, the State Department said Friday. The Kremlin postponed talks on the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty — the sole remaining strategic nuclear arms control treaty between Washington and Moscow — this week, citing “political reasons” and Washington’s weapons supplies to Ukraine.
  • A wealthy Russian businessman was arrested Thursday at his multimillion-pound home in London on alleged financial crimes including money laundering, the National Crime Agency said in a statement Saturday. The 58-year-old man, whom authorities did not identify, is believed to have conspired to defraud the Home Office and conspired to commit perjury, the agency said. He was released on bail. In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, British authorities have cracked down on Russian oligarchs with ties to Putin.

2. Global impact

  • Putin is expected “eventually” to visit the Donbas region, Peskov told state media, without giving a timeline. This would be Putin’s first known visit to the eastern Ukrainian territory since his full-scale invasion began in February. Russia illegally annexed the Donbas region in late September despite its forces not having full control there. The Donbas region holds a significant meaning for Putin because it was controlled by the Russian Empire in the mid-18th century.
  • A Banksy mural near Kyiv was almost stolen, the regional governor of the capital said. Thieves tried to remove the artwork by the anonymous British graffiti artist painted amid the rubble in Ukraine. One person was detained and the artwork is being protected by police, said Oleksiy Kuleba on Telegram, calling the images “a symbol of our struggle against the enemy.” Banksy is one of the world’s best-known street artists, and his work has sold for millions of dollars.
  • Several Ukrainian embassies and European government buildings received “bloody packages” containing animal eyes and letter bombs, in what Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said Friday was a “well-planned” campaign of intimidation and terror. Outposts in Spain, Italy and elsewhere are stepping up their security in response.
  • Putin blamed “Western states, including Germany,” for Ukraine’s refusal to negotiate any matters relating to the war, in a phone call Friday with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Ukraine has said it is willing to negotiate but that Russia first needs to withdraw. The Russian president also accused the West of “pumping up the Kyiv regime with weapons.” The conversation was the first between an E.U. leader and Putin since the Kremlin’s recent string of battlefield defeats.
  • Kremlin and White House officials minimized the idea of talks between Putin and President Biden. Earlier this week, Biden suggested that he was prepared to meet with Putin if the latter was serious about pulling his troops out of Ukraine. But Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, dismissed that Friday, saying the United States must recognize the Ukrainian territories Russia annexed in September. Later Friday, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said that “the president has said he has no plans to speak with Mr. Putin since Mr. Putin has shown no signs that he’s willing to end the brutal war against the people of Ukraine.”

3. Battleground updates

  • The U.N. nuclear watchdog says it’s nearing a deal between Ukraine and Russia to protect the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe. Russia seized the facility soon after it invaded, and repeated shelling near the site has raised fears of a global nuclear catastrophe. “We are almost there. … Now we have a proposal on the table which, simply put, is aiming to stop the folly of bombing the largest nuclear power plant in Europe,” said International Atomic Energy Agency head Rafael Grossi.
  • Ukrainian officials in Kherson will temporarily allow residents to cross the Dnieper River from Russian-occupied territory into the Ukrainian-held regional capital because of “intensifying hostilities” in the area, authorities announced Saturday. A ban on crossing the river was to be lifted Saturday through Monday during daylight hours, Kherson’s regional administration said on Telegram, with the river serving as an evacuation route for residents on the eastern bank. Russian shelling across the river into Kherson has intensified in recent days, after a relatively quiet period in the city, which was recently liberated by Ukrainian forces.
  • Russian troops remain focused on capturing Bakhmut in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, according to an update from Britain’s Defense Ministry on Saturday. “Russia’s plan is likely to encircle the town with tactical advances to the north and south,” it said. Russia has prioritized Bakhmut as its main offensive effort since August, it added, although the capture will likely have “limited operational value” but be “primarily a symbolic, political objective for Russia.”
  • Satellite images released by Maxar Technologies offer a rare, detailed look at Mariupol, the Black Sea port city that Russia seized in May after a long and bloody siege. The latest images were taken Nov. 30 and depict a significant number of new graves in the city’s primary cemetery, as well as a freshly built Russian military installation.

4. From our correspondents

After Kherson, Ukraine’s military ponders new push south and east: After recent battlefield success, Ukraine may be shifting its attention to the Zaporizhzhia region and its southern front line less than 100 miles north of the Azov Sea, where Ukrainians are eager to sever a “land bridge” connecting mainland Russia to Crimea — which Russia illegally annexed in 2014, write Samantha Schmidt and Serhii Korolchuk for The Post.

The Kremlin is also gearing up for a fight and building up more fortified defensive positions on the muddy and flat fields in the area. “Everyone is talking about Zaporizhzhia. Everyone,” said military analyst Konrad Muzyka.

Kyiv is also intent on liberating nearby cities such as Melitopol and Enerhodar, where the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant is located.

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