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UK says Wagner mercenaries on front lines

July 19, 2022

Russia is using Wagner mercenaries to bolster its troops in Ukraine, UK intelligence warns. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke out against individual EU states vetoing the bloc's foreign policy. DW rounds up the latest.

Destroyed factory in Bakhmut, Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has called for European unity as Russian attacks continue to devastate UkraineImage: Vincenzo Circosta/ZUMA/picture alliance

Russia has been employing mercenaries from the private military contractor Wagner to reinforce its regular troops fighting on the front line in Ukraine, according to the British Defense Ministry.

In its daily intelligence update, it said the Wagner Group had lowered its recruitment standards and started hiring convicts and individuals who had previously been blacklisted.

UK officials said this change, along with the limited training given to new recruits, would "highly likely impact on the future operational effectiveness of the group and will reduce its value as a prop to the regular Russian forces."

The fact that the head of Wagner, Yevgeniy Prigozhin, had recently received a high national honor for his military performance might also aggravate tensions between Russia's military and the mercenary group, the update said.

Here are the other main headlines from the war in Ukraine on July 18, 2022.

Nord Stream stalling could preempt 'gas war'

A leading Russian energy analyst has questioned Gazprom’s claims that it cannot resume gas exports to Europe.

Russia cut the flow of gas through Nord Stream last week due to routine maintenance, but on Monday it was reported that Gazprom could no longer guarantee supplies due to a “force majeure” — events beyond its control.

"When I hear that Gazprom is referring to some, well, force majeure circumstances, I think the only reason might be orders from President Putin," Mikhail Krutikhin, co-founder of consultancy firm RusEnergy, told DW.

"This is a declaration of war. A gas war."

He added that Russia has three available pipelines to export gas to Europe, and enough reserves to readily do so. Europe remains its only major export market.

The German government also rejected Gazprom’s version of events.

Banned Russian TV station relaunches broadcast from Latvia

The Russian independent Dozhd TV station that was blocked by the government in March began to broadcast again on Monday on the video platform YouTube after a monthslong hiatus.

Dozhd was blocked following its coverage of the war in Ukraine. The outlet decided to then suspend operations, closing its Moscow office and moving to neighboring Latvia.

The channel said earlier on Monday that it had received EU broadcasting licenses from Latvia, France and the Netherlands, as well as Georgia, home to many Kremlin-critical Russians who have also fled abroad.

"During the four and a half months that Dozhd wasn't operating a bloody and senseless war waged by Russian leaders against Ukraine has continued and people died and lives were destroyed," Dozhd said in a statement.

"Today, more than ever, Russian citizens should have access to independent information," the statement added.

EU looking to double gas imports from Azerbaijan — EU's von der Leyen

The European Union would like to procure double the current amount of gas from Azerbaijan as it seeks to diversify its energy supply away from Russia, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Monday during a trip to Baku.

"The EU is turning to more reliable energy suppliers. Today I'm in Azerbaijan to sign a new agreement," von der Leyen said on Twitter.

"Our goal: double the gas delivery from Azerbaijan to the EU in a few years. Azerbaijan will be a crucial partner for our security of supply and on our way to climate neutrality."

Last year, Azerbaijan supplied some eight billion cubic meters of natural gas to Europe through pipelines running via Georgia and Turkey.

Putin speaks of 'colossal' high-tech problems caused by sanctions

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday conceded that Western sanctions over Moscow's invasion of Ukraine presented "a huge challenge," but vowed that Russia would surmount the problems they had caused in the high-tech sector.

"Realizing the colossal amount of difficulties we are facing, we will look for new solutions in an energetic and competent manner," he told a meeting.

He said Russia would use "sovereign" technology and products of innovative companies at home.

Putin said that the West had imposed the sanctions to slow Russia's development.

Many top tech companies, including Apple, Microsoft and Intel suspended their operations in Russia, or left the country altogether, in response to Russia's unprovoked attack on Ukraine starting February 24.

Google fined in Russia over 'illegal content'

A Russian court has fined Alphabet's Google 21.8 billion rubles (€382 million; $387 million) for repeatedly failing to remove content regarded as illegal by the Kremlin, the Russian Interfax news agency reported on Monday.

Under recently introduced laws, it is illegal to "discredit the armed forces" by reporting on the Russian military and its actions in Ukraine in any way that goes against the Kremlin's depiction of its invasion as merely a "special military operation."

The maximum penalty for doing so is 15 years in prison.

Military analyst Mike Martin on Russia's war spinning effort

German agriculture minister doubts Putin will keep his word on grain

It is unlikely that an agreement will be reached on lifting the blockade of Ukraine's ports to allow grain exports because Russian President Vladimir Putin's word is so unreliable, German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir said on Monday.

Speaking ahead of talks with EU agriculture ministers in Brussels, Özdemir said that "anyone still believing Putin's word could also believe in Father Christmas or the Easter Bunny. That would be roughly as credible and exactly as fact-based."

Representatives from the United Nations, Ukraine, Russia and Turkey are currently negotiating in Istanbul on how to enable grain exports amid the war in Ukraine.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Friday that the first hopeful signs were emerging, adding, however, that it was too soon to speak of any easing of the situation.

Russia's RT accused of breaking impartiality rules by UK's Ofcom

Britain's broadcasting regulator Ofcom on Monday accused Russian state-funded channel RT of offending against rules on impartiality 29 times in just four days after Moscow invaded Ukraine on February 24.

Ofcom investigated 15 RT News bulletins broadcast during this period and also reviewed a documentary entitled "Donbass Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow" following complaints by viewers and on the basis of its own monitoring.

"In each case, we found that RT's coverage failed to preserve due impartiality in relation to the conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine," the regulator said.

It said a statutory sanction might be imposed over the "serious and repeated" breaches.

Ofcom revoked RT's license to broadcast in Britain on March 18, saying it was not "fit and proper" to operate in the country.

EU to give Ukraine €500 million more in defense aid — Michel

The European Union will set aside an additional €500 million ($509 billion) for deliveries of weapons and equipment to the Ukrainian armed forces, European Council President Charles Michel said on Monday following a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

The new support will bring the amount of military aid provided to Ukraine by the bloc to €2.5 billion.

Russia's blockade of Ukrainian grain 'life and death' issue for many — EU's Borrell

Russia must cease blocking Ukrainian ports to allow grain to be exported, with tens of thousands of people at risk of going hungry if this does not happen, according to the EU's top diplomat, Josep Borrell.

"It's an issue of life and death for many human beings. And the question is that Russia has to de-block and allow Ukrainian grain to be exported," Borrell told reporters in Brussels ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers.

Ukraine's grain is a main food supply for several markets, particularly in the Middle East and Africa.

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators are to meet with UN and Turkish diplomats in Istanbul on Wednesday to discuss a possible agreement to end Russia's blockade of the ports in Ukraine.

Borrell said that if the Istanbul talks failed to reach an agreement, Brussels would continue to blame Russia for using the threat of starvation as "a weapon."

Ukrainian security chief, chief prosecutor 'suspended,' not fired — presidential aide

The head of Ukraine's SBU domestic security agency, Ivan Bakanov, and the country's prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, have been suspended but not formally dismissed amid investigations of their agencies a senior presidential aide said on Monday.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Sunday that the two had been removed from their positions, saying there were many proven cases of collaboration with Russia by officials in their agencies.

The aide, Andriy Smyrnov told Ukrainian television that Venediktova had been suspended and

Bakanov had been "temporarily removed from fulfilling his duties" while "checks and investigations" are carried out.

He said that if investigations cleared them of responsibility for the cases of collaboration, they could possibly return to their jobs, as Ukraine was "a law-abiding country."

Russia targets Ukraine's long-range weapons

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has instructed the military to prioritize destroying Ukraine's long-range missile and artillery systems.

The ministry said the weapons were being used to shell residential areas in Russian-controlled areas of the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine and deliberately set fire to wheat fields and grain-storage silos.

Ukraine says it has carried out a string of successful strikes on Russian logistics and ammunition hubs, using several multiple launch rocket systems recently supplied by the West.

DW was unable to verify battlefield reports from either side.

Canada sends Nord Stream 1 turbine to Germany — Russian daily

A turbine from the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline that underwent repair work in Canada has been sent to Germany, according to the Russian Kommersant newspaper.

Russia has cited the lack of the turbine as a reason why the gas supply to Germany is being disrupted, though the German economy minister has called this a "pretext" and accused Moscow of weaponizing gas amid tensions over Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The turbine will probably reach Russia from Germany by July 24 if there are no problems with logistics and customs, the paper reported.

That is three days after the current planned annual maintenance on the pipeline is due to be completed. Three to four more days would be needed for preparatory work, the paper said.

German and EU officials have expressed concerns that Russia may used the planned maintenance period to finally shut off gas deliveries through the pipeline after having already reduced them considerably.

Scholz calls for more EU unity on foreign policy

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has criticized what he called "selfish blockades of European decisions by individual member states," saying the European Union needs unity on foreign and security more than ever in the face of Moscow's invasion of Ukraine.

"We simply can no longer afford national vetoes, for example, in foreign policy, if we want to continue to be heard in a world of competing great powers," he told the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in an article published on Sunday.

Scholz said the EU was a "living antithesis to imperialism and autocracy," which is why it was a thorn in the flesh of rulers like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Permanent disunity, permanent dissent between member states weakens us," Scholz warned. "That is why Europe's most important response to the change of times is: Unity. We absolutely must maintain it and we must deepen it."

Scholz also said sanctions imposed by the EU on Russia would stay in place for a considerable length of time.

"It was clear to us from the beginning that the sanctions would have to be maintained for a long time," he wrote.

He reiterated a statement made in May that the West would not agree to lift sanctions if the Ukrainian conflict was resolved according to "conditions imposed by Russia."

Zelenskyy fires top officials

Catch up on DW's Ukraine content: 

Public opposition to Moscow's invasion of Ukraine has been relatively sparse in the face of the Kremlin's harsh laws punishing anyone criticizing the military. One prominent TV journalist, Marina Ovsyannikova, seems to be facing reprisals after protesting the war live on air.

DW reported on Ovsyannikova's latest detention by police.

Many sports have banned Russian and Belarusian athletes from competing internationally since the invasion of Ukraine was launched in late February.

DW looks at the bans, and in which sports athletes from both countries may still compete.

And Russia is not being excluded only from sports. In the world of art and music, Moscow's invasion of Ukraine is also creating waves, as this report on the Salzburg music festival documents.

tj/dj, jsi (Reuters, dpa)