Ukraine live briefing: E.U. calls Russia’s invasion a ‘brutal wake-up’ for Europe; Griner released from Russia

FILE - WNBA star and two-time Olympic gold medalist Brittney Griner speaks to her lawyers standing in a cage at a court room prior to a hearing, in Khimki just outside Moscow, Russia, on July 26, 2022. Russia has freed WNBA star Brittney Griner on Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the U.S. releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool, File)

WNBA star Brittney Griner has been released from Russian detention in a prisoner swap for arms dealer Viktor Bout, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday and two senior Biden administration officials told The Washington Post. “Moments ago I spoke to Brittney Griner,” President Biden tweeted Thursday. He approved the release of Bout for Griner, commuting his 25-year prison sentence, a senior Biden administation official told The Post.

Follow our live updates on Griner’s release here.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a “brutal wake-up” for Europe, which lacks the capabilities needed to defend itself from “higher level threats,” European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Thursday. “We lack critical defense capabilities,” Borrell said, adding that Europe’s military stockpiles have been “quickly depleted” amid the conflict and blaming underinvestment for Europe’s vulnerabilities.

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

1. Key developments

  • Russia is not seeking to annex more Ukrainian territories, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday, a day after President Putin hailed the absorptions as positive results of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Peskov also described some of the regions illegally annexed by Russia in September as “occupied territories” that needed to be “liberated.”
  • The conflict in Ukraine has made oligarchs in the country less powerful, The Washington Post reports. The group of fewer than 20 wealthy people have long wielded outsize — and often, anti-corruption activists contend, malign — influence over the country — but experts say vast losses from the war and a newly energized population unwilling to accept the politics of the past could give Ukraine the opportunity to rebuild a postwar society that is more democratic.
  • Kyiv’s mayor warned that the Ukrainian capital faces an “apocalypse” this winter if Russian airstrikes continue. “Kyiv might lose power, water and heat supply. The apocalypse might happen, like in Hollywood films, when it’s not possible to live in homes considering the low temperature,” Mayor Vitali Klitschko told Reuters. He added that officials are doing “everything we can” to prevent this and said there is currently no need to evacuate residents.
On Dec. 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the war in Ukraine would be “a long process,” but that there was no reason to mobilize additional soldiers. (Video: Reuters)

2. Battleground updates

  • Russia has created an “almost continuous trench system” along a 37-mile strip of land between the Russian border and the occupied city of Svatove, which sits north of Luhansk, Britain’s Ministry of Defense said Thursday. Ukraine has begun to make gains at the edges of the occupied Luhansk region, which borders Russia.
  • Fighting is intensifying in the battered city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, Ukraine’s armed forces said Thursday. “The enemy does not stop trying to go on the offensive,” officials said in a Facebook update. Ukrainian President Zelensky on Wednesday described the area is one of the “hottest spots” of the conflict.
  • Russian ally Belarus said it was moving military equipment and personnel on Wednesday and Thursday as part of a counterterrorism exercise, according to state media. Kyiv has raised concerns that Russia, facing battlefield setbacks, could attack Ukraine from Belarusian territory. Also Wednesday, Belarusian lawmakers gave their initial backing to a proposal to introduce the death penalty for treasonous officials and soldiers, Reuters reported.
  • Four Ukrainian policemen were killed and four more seriously injured in the Kherson region after a Russian land mine detonated near their patrol, law enforcement officials said Wednesday. “Police forces … are now on the front line. And together with everyone, they protect Ukrainians,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday night.
  • Russian shelling killed 10 people in the city of Kurakhove in the eastern Donetsk region, Zelensky said Wednesday. The attack, he said, was “very brutal” and “absolutely deliberate,” hitting a market, gas stations, a bus station and residential buildings.

3. Global impact

  • There will be no lasting peace in Ukraine until there is justice and human rights, Oleksandra Matviichuk, the head of the Ukrainian Center for Civil Liberties said Thursday as she arrived in Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize, the Associated Press reported. Matviichuk condemned Putin for thinking “he can do exactly what he wants.”
  • The United States has not seen evidence that Iran has transferred ballistic missiles to Russia to use in the conflict in Ukraine, White House officials said Wednesday, according to Reuters.
  • Suspicious packages sent to Ukrainian embassies were mailed from Germany, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Wednesday. The packages were sent using a Tesla dealership in the town of Sindelfingen as the sender’s address. The mailings came from post offices without security camera systems and did not have traces of any sender’s DNA on them, Kuleba said on Facebook. Thirty-one packages, at least some of which were bloody and contained animal eyes, have been sent to embassies in 15 countries.

4. From our correspondents

As Ukraine and Russia step up prisoner exchanges, scarred POWs tell of abuse: Among the 60 prisoners of war who arrived on Ukrainian soil on Tuesday afternoon, many were so malnourished during Russian captivity that they would be unable to digest more than 300 milliliters of chicken soup, or about 20 tablespoons, according to the director of a hospital treating them in northeast Ukraine.

They were supposed to be protected by the Geneva Conventions, which require humane treatment. But the prisoners’ physical condition — protruding shoulder blades and ribs, bandaged limbs, long scars — bore evidence of abuse from their months of imprisonment, in addition to injuries from combat, Jeff Stein and Kostiantyn Khudov report for The Washington Post in northeastern Ukraine.

“Tasers, currents — they beat us with clubs; they beat us with sticks. I said goodbye to my life there more than once,” said one Ukrainian fighter.

Miriam Berger in Washington and Natalia Abbakumova and Mary Ilyushina in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.