June 20, 2024

Russia

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War from above: A day with drone unit defending Ukraine's south
Among the dead in were two children, the city’s mayor said. Russia has recently increased the pace and intensity of its strikes on the capital.

Russia targeted the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, yet again in the early morning hours on Thursday, with air raid sirens warning residents to take shelter and loud booms from the air defense systems heard throughout the city.

Kyiv’s mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said on the Telegram messaging app that according to preliminary information from emergency medical workers, three people had been killed, two of them children, and at least 14 injured, probably from debris that fell when the air defense systems shot down incoming drones.

Of the injured, nine were hospitalized, the mayor added.

It was yet another night when explosions in different parts of the city of 3.6 million jolted people out of bed and sent them scurrying for cover.

While Kyiv has been attacked since the first days of the war, the pace and intensity of the assaults over the past month have been jarring even for civilians now used to spending long hours in bomb shelters and sleepless nights huddled in corridors. And Thursday’s strikes seemed to suggest it would be more of the same in June.

Two guards stand on a dock in front of a large gray ship.
The missile cruiser Peter the Great, part of the Russian Navy’s northern fleet, at its Arctic base in Severomorsk in 2021. Russia, China and the West are all seeking to expand their military presence in the Arctic. Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

As polar ice melts, Russia, already a major Arctic power, wants to make the region its own. China has ambitions for a “Polar Silk Road.” And NATO is embracing Finland — and Sweden too, Washington hopes — giving the alliance new reach in the Far North.

Climate change is accelerating and amplifying competition in the Arctic as never before, opening the region to greater commercial and strategic jostling just at a moment when Russia, China and the West are all seeking to expand their military presence there.

The rising importance of the region is underscored by the travels of Antony J. Blinken, the U.S. secretary of state, who will attend an informal meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Norway on Thursday.

Mr. Blinken is making a point of visiting Sweden and Finland as well, meeting the leaders of all three countries as they press Turkey to ratify Sweden’s quick entry into NATO. He is scheduled to deliver a major speech on Russia, Ukraine and NATO on Friday in Helsinki, the capital of NATO’s newest member.

For a long time, countries were reluctant to discuss the Arctic as a possible military zone. But that is quickly changing.

Russian aggression plus climate change make “a perfect storm,” said Matti Pesu, an analyst at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. There is a new Cold War atmosphere, mixed with melting ice, which affects military planning and opens up new economic possibilities and access to natural resources.

Two men shake hands at the bottom of the stairs to an airplane.
Tobias Billstrom, the foreign minister of Sweden, welcoming Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday. Credit…TT News Agency/via Reuters

“So all these are connected and are magnifying each other,” Mr. Pesu said. “It makes the region intriguing.”

While NATO has been cheered by Russia’s difficulties in Ukraine, the alliance in fact has significant vulnerabilities in the north.

Russia remains a vast Arctic power, with naval bases and nuclear missiles stationed in the Far North but also along Russia’s western edge: in the Kola Peninsula, near Norway, where Russia keeps most of its nuclear-armed submarines, and in Kaliningrad, bordered by Poland and Lithuania.

change, shipping routes are becoming less icebound and easier to navigate, making the Arctic more accessible and attractive for competitive commercial exploitation, as well as military adventurism.

Russia has said it wants to make the Arctic its own — a fifth military district, on a par with its other four — said Robert Dalsjo, research director at the Swedish Defense Research Agency.

China has also been busy trying to establish itself in the region and use new unfrozen routes, one reason the NATO considers China a significant security challenge.

In its most recent strategy paper, adopted last summer in Madrid, NATO declared Russia to be “the most significant and direct threat to allies’ security and to peace and stability,” but for the first time addressed China, saying that its “stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values.”

How to create a “northern bubble” to deter Russia and monitor China is one of NATO’s newest and biggest challenges.

In response to NATO’s enlargement, “Russia is putting increasing emphasis on the Arctic, where they’re stronger and less surrounded by NATO,” said Mr. Pesu of the Finnish Institute. Russia may have drawn down its troops to fight in Ukraine, but retains its air power, northern fleet, nuclear submarines and nuclear-armed missiles in the northern realms.

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Rows of colorful houses in a snowy coastal landscape.
Longyearbyen, Norway, in 2022. Fearing the Russian threat, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark are merging their air forces, creating one with more planes than either Britain or France.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

“So it remains a pretty urgent concern,” he said. Finland, Sweden and Norway “see this most urgently,” even if some in NATO do not, he said. As a consequence, Finland, Sweden, Norway and Denmark have decided to merge their air forces, creating one with more planes than either Britain or France.

Until now, competition in the region was largely mediated through the Arctic Council, founded in 1996, which includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the United States, and promotes research and cooperation.

But it does not have a security component, and soon all members but Russia will be NATO members. The council has been “paused” since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. When Russia’s chairmanship ended in May, Norway took over, so activity may pick up again.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 caused rethinking throughout NATO, and there was new anxiety about the Baltic States — Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania — combined with submarine hunts in Sweden and more serious war gaming, said Anna Wieslander, the director for Northern Europe at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based research institution.

Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, then the supreme allied commander Europe, called for “an anti-access area denial” — to deny Russia entry to the Baltic Sea from Kaliningrad, the isolated Russian toehold with access to the sea.

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Camouflaged soldiers conduct a training exercise in front of two tanks.
Swedish Army conscripts during a training exercise on the island of Gotland, Sweden, last year. A NATO command created in 2018 defends the Atlantic sea routes, Scandinavia and the Arctic.Credit…Sergey Ponomarev for The New York Times
Washington started reinvesting militarily in the Arctic then with more ships, planes and military exercises, as did other NATO countries in the region. In 2018 NATO went so far as to set up a new operational command — a kind of regional headquarters that plans and conducts military operations to defend specific areas of NATO. The new command, based in Norfolk, Va., is navy-focused and defends the Atlantic sea routes, Scandinavia and the Arctic.

There remains a concern that China, which now has even closer ties to Russia, remains active in the Far North, building big icebreakers. “China will reach Europe through the Arctic,” Ms. Wieslander said.

One main question is whether the real Russian threat to Scandinavia will come from the sea, as Norway fears, or from the land, with a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States or Finland, then a move westward.

Both Finland and Sweden, when it joins, want to be part of the same NATO operational command, given their long history of defense cooperation.

Norway belongs to the Norfolk command, and there is a logic to making both Finland and Sweden part of that command, since reinforcements would likely come from the West, across the Atlantic.

But there is perhaps more logic, given the current threat from Russia, for them to join the land-oriented command based in Brunssum, the Netherlands, which is charged with defending Central and Eastern Europe, including Poland and the Baltic nations.

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Icebergs near Kulusuk, Greenland, in 2019. Climate change is opening new sea routes and economic possibilities in the Arctic.
Credit…Felipe Dana/Associated Press

“There is logic for both,” said Niklas Granholm, deputy director of studies at the Swedish Defense Research Agency. “It’s not yet resolved.”

According to the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper, NATO is recommending putting both countries in the Brunssum command, despite Finland’s early interest in being part of Norfolk, which Sauli Niinisto, Finland’s president, visited in March.

That’s because it is easier for Finland to be reinforced from Norway and Sweden, Mr. Pesu, the Finnish Institute analyst, noted.

The fear is that a modernized Russian Northern Fleet could swing down through the straits between Greenland, Iceland and Britain, a move known in NATO as a “red right hook,” to cut sea lanes and underwater cables and threaten the American East Coast with cruise missiles.

Mr. Dalsjo of the Swedish Defense Research Agency, calling himself a heretic, cautions in a recent paper that this threat is real but may be overblown, especially after Russia’s losses in Ukraine.

Russia is predominantly a land power, and its northern fleet is considerably smaller than it was during the Cold War, when there were worries about the kind of major Soviet naval attack depicted in the Tom Clancy novel “Red Storm Rising.”

“If they didn’t do it then with 150 ships,” Mr. Dalsjo asked, “why would they do it now with 20?”

Police officers photographed from the rear in front of large apartment buildings.
Police officers stood outside several apartment buildings damaged after a drone attack in Moscow on Tuesday. Credit…Kirill Kudryavtsev/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A day after a drone strike on Moscow, Kremlin officials jumped on the refusal of Ukrainian allies to denounce the attack as proof that Russia’s real war was with the West.

The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, said Russia “would have preferred to hear at least some words of condemnation” from Western capitals.

“We will calmly and deliberately think how to deal with this,” he said.

While none of Ukraine’s allies went so far as to endorse the drone attack, Britain’s foreign secretary said on Tuesday that Kyiv had “the right to project force beyond its borders.”

The U.S. response was more circumspect, but it stopped short of criticizing the first military strike to hit civilian areas in the Russian capital since the start of the war. Ukraine officials have said they were not “directly involved” in the drone strike.

From the outset of the conflict, Russia has portrayed the invasion of Ukraine as a defensive war provoked by the West, and on Wednesday it seized on the attack.

Dmitri A. Medvedev, the deputy head of Russia’s national security council and a former president, said Britain “de facto is leading an undeclared war against Russia” by providing Ukraine with military aid and called it “our eternal enemy.”

Known since the war began for staking out extreme positions, Mr. Medvedev argued that now any British official “can be considered as a legitimate military target.”

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A man sitting at a desk in front of papers, next to a flag.
Dmitri A. Medvedev, deputy head of Russia’s national security council, accused Britain of “leading an undeclared war against Russia.”Credit…Ekaterina Shtukina/Sputnik

The Russian ambassador in Washington, Anatoly Antonov, called the U.S. refusal to condemn the attack “an encouragement for Ukrainian terrorists,” his embassy said on the Telegram messaging app.

Russia has repeatedly hit civilian areas of Ukraine over the course of the war, though it has denied targeting nonmilitary sites. And in recent weeks it has turned up the barrage of missiles and attack drones aimed at Kyiv, the capital. Thousands of Ukrainian civilians, including children, have been killed in Russian airstrikes and artillery bombardments, U.N. officials say.

Though the drone strike on Tuesday was unusual, it was not the first one on Russian soil since the war began. Drones have hit military air bases deep inside Russia, as well as an oil facility near an airfield in the province of Kursk. And this month, drones exploded over the Kremlin.

The incursions continued on Wednesday, when, the Russian authorities said, Ukrainian drones attacked two oil refineries in the region of Krasnodar. They also said that four people had been injured by shelling in the border region of Belgorod.

Russia has long accused the West of waging a proxy war against it. Those claims grew louder this month when a group of Ukraine-based Russian paramilitary members staged a multiday raid in Russia’s Belgorod border region — apparently with U.S. armored vehicles.

A New York Times analysis found that at least three of what appeared to be American-made MRAPs had been part of the attack. A leader of one of the groups claimed the weapons had not been provided by the Ukrainian military.

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Damaged armored military vehicles stand in mud after a fight.
The aftermath of a cross-border raid in Russia’s Belgorod region last week. The image was released by the Russian military.Credit…Russian Defense Ministry Press Service

Russian officials have said that NATO’s decision to send weapons, which have become increasingly advance as the war has worn on, raises the risk of a direct confrontation and a potential nuclear war.

On Tuesday, President Vladimir V. Putin also made an oblique reference to this threat, calling the drone strike on Moscow an attempt “to create a response reaction from Russia.” He accused unspecified forces of trying to sabotage a Ukrainian nuclear plant occupied by Russia or to use “a type of a dirty bomb related to the nuclear industry.”

Although Western governments initially focused their military support for Ukraine on bolstering its defenses, over time, the desire to hasten an end the war has led to growing deliveries of offensive weapons to Kyiv.

Tensions between Moscow and Western capitals have worsened since the invasion, as have the economic sanctions imposed on Russia as penalty.

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The Russian president standing in an office with flags.
President Vladimir V. Putin said the drone strike in Moscow was an attempt “to create a response reaction from Russia.”Credit…Mikhail Metzel/Sputnik

At a security conference on Wednesday in Slovakia, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, said that Western allies must give Ukraine “tangible and credible” security guarantees in its battle against Russia.

“If we want a credible, durable peace, if we want to hold our own against Russia, if we want to be credible with the Ukrainians, we must give Ukraine the means to prevent any new aggression and to include Ukraine in any new security architecture,” he said in a speech.

Mr. Macron was criticized early in the war over his insistence on not antagonizing Russia, but his approach toward Mr. Putin has hardened. He also expressed regret that France and other Western European countries had failed to heed warnings from countries on the European Union’s eastern edge about Russian belligerence.

On Wednesday, Germany said it had ordered four of the five Russian Consulates in the country to close after Moscow limited the number of German diplomatic staff allowed in Russia, the latest in an escalating tit-for-tat diplomatic dispute between the two countries.

The Russian Foreign Ministry was told to start shutting down its consulates in Germany immediately and to finish by the end of the year, said Christofer Burger, a spokesman for Germany’s Foreign Ministry.

One Russian Consulate and the Russian Embassy in Berlin will be allowed to remain open.

In Sweden, the U.S. secretary of state, Antony J. Blinken met with European officials on Wednesday to discuss trade and technology issues, cracking down on exports that could aid Russia.

On Thursday, Mr. Blinken is scheduled to meet with NATO foreign ministers to discuss the alliance summit planned for July, as well as the war in Ukraine and the prospects for Swedish membership in the alliance.

In February, an oil tanker transmitted a signal showing it was sailing west of Japan.

But the tanker’s path was highly unusual. Over the course of a day, its signals showed erratic behavior as the ship rapidly changed position.

satellite image, taken during this time, deepened the mystery: There was no ship there at all.

The Cathay Phoenix was sending a fake location signal. This is known as “spoofing.”

In reality, the ship was 250 miles north loading oil at the Russian port of Kozmino, part of a journey to China that likely caused a breach of U.S. sanctions.

Sources: Planet Labs, Copernicus Sentinel-2, Maxar Technologies, ESRI, GEBCO, Spire Global, MarineTraffic

The Cathay Phoenix is not a lone rogue ship, but one of at least three tankers identified by The New York Times taking extraordinary steps to hide their true activity, a practice that helps them to elude U.S. government oversight and puts their American insurer at risk of violating recent sanctions on Russian crude oil.

For years, ships wanting to hide their whereabouts have resorted to turning off the transponders all large vessels use to signal their location. But the tankers tracked by The Times go beyond this, using cutting-edge spoofing technology to make it appear they’re in one location when they’re really somewhere else.

During at least 13 voyages, the three tankers pretended to be sailing west of Japan. In reality, they were at terminals in Russia and shipping oil to China.

The vessels are part of a so-called dark fleet, a loose term used to describe a hodgepodge array of ships that obscure their locations or identities to avoid oversight from governments and business partners. They have typically been involved in moving oil from Venezuela or Iran — two countries that have also been hit by international sanctions. The latest surge of dark fleet ships began after Russia invaded Ukraine and the West tried to limit Moscow’s oil revenue with sanctions.

“The type of spoofing we are seeing is uncommon and sophisticated,” said David Tannenbaum, a former sanctions compliance officer at the U.S. Treasury, referring to the tankers identified by The Times. “It definitely looks like evasion on all parts.”

To date, it’s been rare to prove the true location of a ship pretending to be somewhere else. But a Times analysis of publicly available shipping data, satellite imagery and social media footage helped clearly establish that the tankers were not where they claimed to be.

The ships most likely sell their Russian oil to China above a price limit set by the sanctions. Since neither country recognizes the sanctions, the tankers themselves are not in violation by spoofing or carrying the oil.

But the tankers still have motive to spoof: to maintain their insurance coverage, without which they cannot operate in most major ports. The only insurers financially able to cover tankers are mostly based in the West and bound by the sanctions. If a client ship were to carry Russian oil that’s sold above the price limit, the Western insurer would be in violation of the sanctions and must drop its coverage.

“It’s significant when you look at dollar terms,” said Samir Madani, co-founder of TankerTrackers.com, which monitors global shipping, who first alerted The Times to several of the suspicious ships. “It’s around $1 billion worth of oil that is going under the radar while using Western insurance, and they’re using spoofing in order to preserve their Western insurance.”

In addition to the three tankers transporting oil, Times reporters tracked another three vessels spoofing while off the coast of Russia, though it’s unclear what cargo they carried.

All six tankers are insured by a U.S.-based company, the American Club. The Times provided the company with the names of the tankers, as well as details about the voyages on which they spoofed.

In an emailed response, Daniel Tadros, the American Club’s chief operating officer, said he could not comment on any potential investigations because of legal and privacy requirements. “Insurance cover is automatically excluded in the event of sanctions’ violations,” he said.

The U.S. has also created so-called safe harbor provisions to protect insurers from liability if they inadvertently cover ships violating sanctions. As of May 30, a regularly updated list of American Club’s clients posted on its website showed the company is most likely still insuring the six tankers.

There has been at least one change since The Times approached the company with evidence of spoofing. The website had said the Cathay Phoenix’s current policy would expire in February 2024. But recently, the expiration date suddenly shifted much earlier to June 2023. The company would not comment on the reason for the change.

Explosions echoed across Ukraine’s capital for hours before dawn on Sunday as air defense teams raced to combat the largest swarm of Russian attack drones targeting Kyiv since the war began more than 15 months ago.

The Ukrainian Air Force said it had shot down 58 out of 59 Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones aimed at targets in central Ukraine, describing the number launched as a record. More than 40 drones were intercepted over the capital, where city officials said at least one person had been killed and another injured, probably by falling debris.

As Ukraine draws closer to launching a counteroffensive aimed at reclaiming land lost in the first months of the war, Moscow has stepped up its assaults on Kyiv. The capital has been attacked 14 times this month by waves of Russian drones, cruise missiles and sophisticated ballistic missiles.

“This was the largest-ever drone attack on the capital since the beginning of the full-scale invasion, particularly using Shahed loitering munitions,” the Kyiv military administration said in a statement.

Ukraine’s complex air defense network has become adept at intercepting the Russian barrages, often shooting down the majority of the dozens of drones and missiles. The arrival this spring of the American-made Patriot system, the most advanced U.S. ground-based air-defense system, has given it an added layer of protection. This month Ukrainian air defenses managed for the first time to shoot down some of the most sophisticated conventional weapons in Russia’s arsenal, hypersonic Kinzhal missiles, according to Ukrainian and American officials.

While nearly every assault on Kyiv in May has been thwarted, the attack on Sunday was the first to result in the loss of life.

ImageA yellow building shows signs of damage.
A tobacco factory damaged by debris in Kyiv on Sunday. Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times
A yellow building shows signs of damage.

One person died and another was hospitalized after debris from a downed drone hit a seven-story nonresidential building, the Kyiv military administration said in a statement. It said the roof of a shopping mall caught fire and a warehouse was set ablaze.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine praised the work of Ukraine’s air defense forces, calling them heroes.

“Every time you shoot down enemy drones and missiles, lives are saved,” he wrote in a statement on the Telegram messaging app.

The assault on the capital came as Ukrainians prepared to mark the city’s founding 1,541 years ago, a holiday traditionally celebrated on the last Sunday in May.

“The history of Ukraine is a longstanding irritant for complex Russians,” Andriy Yermak, a senior adviser to Mr. Zelensky, said after the assault, vowing revenge.

Mykola Oleshchuk, the commander of the Ukrainian Air Force, said the “record number” of drones aimed at Kyiv were “gifts” from Russia on Kyiv Day but that air defense teams working through the night had probably saved hundreds of lives by ensuring “only fragments” remained by the time the assault ended.

Ukrainian officials were quick to note that Moscow has targeted the capital since the first days of the war, when they hoped to quickly seize Kyiv. The intensity of the assaults has ebbed and flowed — with Ukrainian officials saying that Russia is constantly trying to adapt its tactics.

In the latest attack, air alarms sounded in Kyiv at around 1 a.m. on Sunday as the first wave of Shahed-136 drones streaming toward the city was detected.

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A triangle shaped drone seen in the sky.
An unmanned aerial vehicle in the distinctive shape of an Iranian-made Shahed-136 in the sky over Kyiv during a drone attack in October. Credit…Roman Petushkov/Reuters
A triangle shaped drone seen in the sky.

“The routes of these aircraft were somewhat unconventional,” Natalia Humeniuk, the spokeswoman for Ukraine’s southern command, said in an appearance on national television.

“They tried to bypass the southern air defense as much as possible, as evidenced by the fact that they flew mainly over the temporarily occupied territories and then dispersed across Ukraine,” she added, saying that the drones had hugged riverbeds in an attempt to evade radar.

The Ukrainian Air Force has explained how missiles and drones become less visible on radar the closer they press to the ground, which is one reason it is hard to shoot them down outside the Kyiv city limits.

Ukraine’s most sophisticated air-defense systems like the Patriot — which employs interceptor missiles that cost $4 million per shot — are largely reserved for countering Moscow’s most sophisticated missiles. To counter the Iranian-made drones Russia has been launching, Ukraine has tended to rely on less expensive weapons like antiaircraft guns and Stinger missiles.

At around 2 a.m., the skies above Kyiv lit up with tracer fire as the Ukrainian air defense teams took aim at the drones over the heart of the city.

While the drones themselves, with their distinctive triangular wing design, were often not immediately visible to civilians watching the battle in the sky, when the Ukrainians found their target, the resulting explosion looked like a fireworks display.

For nearly five hours, explosions echoed across the capital until the last drone disappeared from Ukrainian radar.

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Debris is seen inside a dark room.
Damage inside a building struck by debris in Kyiv on Sunday. Credit…Nicole Tung for The New York Times
Debris is seen inside a dark room.

Here’s what else is happening in Ukraine:

  • Frontline Strikes: Russian attacks on towns and cities closer to the front line continued. Ukrainian officials said Russian shelling of the city of Kherson in southern Ukraine injured at least one person. Russian fire killed at least one person in the town of Kostiantynivka in eastern Ukraine, the officials said. Nearly two dozen villages near the front in the southern Zaporizhzhia region were hit in artillery attacks, injuring at least four civilians, local officials said. Russia also continued to shell towns and cities close to the border, killing two people in the Kharkiv region, local officials said.

  • Dnipro Death Toll: Local officials said the death toll from a Russian missile strike on a medical facility in Dnipro on Friday has climbed to four. The authorities initially expressed hopes that people still listed as missing might be found alive.

    “The three people who went missing during the missile attack on Dnipro have been found,” the Dnipro military administration said in a statement on Sunday. “Unfortunately, they have been killed.”

    A 56-year-old doctor, a 64-year-old employee of the damaged medical facility and a 57-year-old employee of a neighboring veterinary clinic were among the victims.

  • Bakhmut: Combat has largely subsided in the city of Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine, with only one clash reported over the past 24 hours, Serhiy Cherevaty, a spokesman for Ukraine’s eastern forces, said Sunday on national television.

    Russia now controls the shattered city after a bloody months long battle, and the Wagner mercenary group — whose fighters led much of the assault — appears to be following through on a pledge by its founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, to withdraw from there. Mr. Cherevaty said that Russia was “rotating its troops, replacing Wagner” fighters with other units. That echoed an assessment from Britain’s defense intelligence agency on Saturday.

    Ukrainian officials have said Kyiv’s forces had recaptured land on the northern and southern outskirts of Bakhmut. But Hanna Maliar, Ukraine’s deputy minister of defense, said on Saturday that Ukraine had halted combat operations there for now.

Andrei Medvedev fought with Russia’s Wagner mercenaries in Ukraine, then requested asylum in Norway. The authorities there must now weigh his plea against solidarity with Ukraine.

A man in a baseball cap and jacket leaning against a building.
Andrei Medvedev, who fought with Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, is seeking asylum in Norway, while providing information on Wagner’s fight in Ukraine. Credit…Andrea Gjestvang for The New York Times
Sipping a $12 beer in one of the world’s wealthiest capitals, Andrei Medvedev reflected on the question hanging over him since he left the battlefields of Ukraine: Is he a hero or a war criminal?

He claims to have deserted from Russia’s notorious Wagner mercenary force during the monumental battle for the Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, and later to have escaped his native Russia by running across a frozen Arctic river. Now in Norway, Mr. Medvedev, 26, is seeking asylum, while providing information on Wagner to Norwegian authorities.

Since arriving in the country in January, Mr. Medvedev has voluntarily attended about a dozen interviews with Norwegian police officers investigating war crimes in Ukraine, including his potential role in them. Mr. Medvedev has described killing Ukrainians in combat and witnessing summary executions of comrades accused of cowardice. He claims that he did not participate or witness war crimes such as killings of prisoners of war and civilians.

“Yes, I have killed, I saw comrades die. It was war,” he said in an interview at an Oslo bar. “I have nothing to hide.”

His unlikely journey has made Mr. Medvedev one of only a handful of publicly known Russian combatants to seek protection in Europe after participating in the invasion. His asylum request is now forcing Norway to decide a case that pits the country’s humanitarian ethos against an increasingly assertive national security policy and solidarity with Ukraine.

To his lawyer, the credible threat of revenge facing Mr. Medvedev if he were sent back home qualifies him for asylum. And some Norwegian politicians have said that encouraging soldiers like Mr. Medvedev to defect would weaken Russia’s army and hasten the end of the war.

But as Norway evaluates his claim, it is facing pressure from activists in Ukraine and Western Europe, who say giving safe haven in Europe to Russian fighters, especially mercenaries like Mr. Medvedev, fails to hold Russians accountable for the invasion. And the former fighter may have complicated his own request with bar fights and detentions in Norway, and by briefly posting a video on YouTube suggesting he wanted to return to Russia.

More broadly, Mr. Medvedev’s case puts a spotlight on a policy dilemma that European governments have largely avoided grappling with in public: How should the region treat Russian deserters, and the hundreds of thousands of combatants in Russia’s war in Ukraine, in general?

“It goes to the core of who we are in Europe,” said Cecilie Hellestveit, an expert in armed conflict law affiliated with Norway’s human rights watchdog and a former member of the country’s asylum appeal board. “It forces us to re-evaluate our approach to human rights in a way that we have not been willing to do until now.”

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Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags in front of buildings.
Ukrainian flags in near the Russian Embassy in Oslo. Credit…Andrea Gjestvang for The New York Times

The European Union, and affiliated states like Norway, have had to balance humanitarian needs with war crimes accountability before, most recently in processing immigration claims of people who fought in the Balkan and Syrian civil wars.

But the scale of the war in Ukraine, its proximity to the European Union, and the participation of two conventional armies means that the Russian invasion presents a much greater challenge to the region’s asylum system, Ms. Hellestveit said.

Four months after Mr. Medvedev requested asylum, his claim remains pending. Norway’s immigration agency said all asylum cases filed by Russians who fled to evade military service were on hold while they analyze the human rights conditions in the country. The agency said it could not comment on individual applications for privacy reasons.

Some humanitarian law experts in Norway say Mr. Medvedev’s unresolved request reflects the government’s reluctance to bring further attention to a case that could divide the public, get ahead of the policies of other European states and strain relations with Kyiv. Norway has been a fervent supporter of the Ukrainian cause, committing $7.5 billion worth of economic and military aid, and accepting about 40,000 Ukrainian refugees.

“This case has a lot of conflicting rights, a lot of conflicting obligations and a lot of conflicting politics,” said Paal Nesse, the head of Norwegian Organization for Asylum Seekers, a nonprofit providing legal aid to applicants.

Norway and E.U. countries have struggled to formulate a common approach for asylum claims submitted by Russians who have fled the country to avoid military service, a much larger group of applicants than men who engaged in combat, like Mr. Medvedev.

The European Union’s Agency for Asylum said in a written response to questions that it is up to member states to decide who deserves protection.

Pavel Filatiev, a former Russian paratrooper who requested asylum in France after fighting in Ukraine, said he was waiting for a decision eight months after submitting his application. A third publicly known Russian deserter in Europe, a former army mechanic named Nikita Chibrin, has had a pending asylum claim in Spain since November.

The legal uncertainty, financial problems and social isolation are difficult to bear, Mr. Filatiev said in a phone interview, but he added that he considered himself fortunate and was grateful to his French hosts.

“I understand that my decision to leave will always haunt me,” he said.

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A man in a white shirt sitting at a restaurant table.
Pavel Filatiev in Paris in September. A former Russian paratrooper who fought in Ukraine, he has requested asylum in France. Credit…Lewis Joly/Associated Press

Mr. Medvedev’s has a troubled history of antisocial behavior. Already, he has been detained twice in Norway for getting into fights in bars and once in Sweden for entering the country illegally. (He was returned to Norway.) In Russia, he spent four years in jail for robbery and getting into fights, according to court records.

People who know him have said those actions could be a consequence of a lifetime of trauma: in a violent family home, a Siberian orphanage and Russian jails, and on Ukrainian battlefields.

In addition to his run-ins with the law, Mr. Medvedev said he had also repeatedly clashed in Oslo with Ukrainians, most recently while visiting a local Soviet military memorial on Victory Day.

Such run-ins have underlined the tensions between the Russian defectors and Ukrainian refugees across Europe. Natalia Lutsyk, the head of the Ukrainian Association in Norway, said the lack of international cooperation prevented Norway and other nations from thoroughly investigating war crimes committed in Ukraine.

“Thus, Medvedev and his companions remain unpunished,” she added.

The New York Times spent several weeks interviewing Mr. Medvedev and researching his personal history since he left the front in November and went into hiding in Russia. His account of his military service has contained contradictory or unverifiable claims. Some basic facts of his life, however, have been corroborated by public records and interviews with acquaintances.

The weight of this evidence shows that Mr. Medvedev enlisted with Wagner in July 2022, two days after finishing his latest prison sentence.

Wagner’s founder, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, in April called Mr. Medvedev a “jackass who spent two days in Wagner, who can’t identify anyone.” After his escape to Norway, Mr. Prigozhin called him dangerous. He has not publicly threatened Mr. Medvedev.

In an interview in Oslo, Mr. Medvedev described his new living conditions, provided mostly by the Norwegian state. According to him, they include a house, home visits by a Norwegian language teacher, an integration assistant, ski and mountain bike trips, and “Taco Saturdays” with a personal security detail.

He also claims to be a subject of a bidding war between filmmakers, an assertion that could not be verified.

But days after the interview, Mr. Medvedev declared that he had contacted the Russian Embassy to get help returning home.

“I hope that I could find peace and calm here, that I could leave behind the politics, the war, the army,” he said in a video published on YouTube. “It was not to be.”

He later deleted the videos and declined to speak again when contacted by phone.

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A memorial depicting a soldier in front of flowers and near graves.
Mr. Medvedev said he repeatedly clashed in public with Ukrainians, most recently during his visit to a Soviet memorial in Oslo during Victory Day. Credit…Andrea Gjestvang for The New York Times

His lawyer, Brynjulf Risnes, said his public comments should not influence the asylum claim, which is decided on humanitarian grounds. But Mr. Medvedev’s violent past and controversial behavior, which has turned him into a minor local celebrity, have confused and alienated many Norwegians, sapping sympathy for Russian defectors.

Under Norwegian law, refusing to fight in an illegal war may grant a right to asylum. However, this right does not apply to war criminals, and local prosecutors can charge people who they believe have committed war crimes elsewhere.

A Norwegian criminal police spokesman said Mr. Medvedev was a witness, not a suspect, in its investigation of war crimes in Ukraine, and that, to date, officers “have not found grounds for charges.”

Mr. Medvedev said his cooperation had helped investigators locate Wagner facilities in Ukraine and Russia and map the group’s structure.

The case is also being followed by Ukrainian officials, who are conducting their own investigation of Mr. Medvedev. Shortly after his arrival in Norway, Ukraine’s ambassador in Oslo told local news media that her government could request his extradition.

Such a request would present Norway with another dilemma, forcing it to choose between a show of support for an ally and upholding the basic principle of its asylum law. This law states that an asylum seeker cannot be sent to a country where they may not get a fair trial.

The office of Ukraine’s prosecutor general said in a written response to questions that it checked all Russian servicemen who arrive in foreign countries for potential participation in war crimes, and that it had requested Norway’s legal assistance in investigating Mr. Medvedev.

Mr. Medvedev said he had refused to see Ukrainian investigators who asked to meet him in Norway.

“They are always after me,” he said. “I’m helping them to end this war.”

Constant Méheut contributed reporting from Paris, Alina Lobzina from London and Natalia Yermak from Kyiv, Ukraine.

A person was killed by falling debris from an intercepted drone. Ukraine said it shot down more than 40 drones, the largest attack on Kyiv since the start of the war.

At least one person was killed and another was injured on Sunday morning in Kyiv as Russia fired its largest wave of attack drones at the Ukrainian capital since the start of the war.

A 41-year-old man died after fragments from a drone that was shot down fell to the ground, according to Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, and the city’s military administration. The first wave of explosions, including three that damaged buildings across the city, came shortly after 2 a.m. local time, according to Mr. Klitschko. The air-raid warning was lifted at about 6 a.m.

Russia has intensified its focus on Kyiv in May, unleashing its biggest and most sustained attack there since at least March, with near-nightly volleys of missiles and drones. Sunday’s attack, the 14th this month, appeared to be the first deadly one in May. Ukraine’s air defenses destroyed more than 40 drones, the most fired at Kyiv in one night, the city’s military administration said on Telegram.

Ukraine’s armed force have become adept at intercepting the Russian barrages, often shooting down dozens of drones and missiles. As of this month, Ukraine has been using U.S.-made Patriot antimissile systems, one of the most advanced air defense systems, as part of its growing arsenal of weapons.

In a show of just how skilled Ukraine’s armed forces have become, its air defense system shot down Kinzhals aimed at Kyiv earlier this month on more than one occasion, according to Ukrainian and U.S. officials. The weapon is one of Russia’s most sophisticated conventional weapons. And while some analysts have cast doubt on the abilities of the Kinzhal, Ukraine’s defense against them demonstrates a great capability to withstand Russia’s arsenal, which includes Iranian-made Shahed-136 drones.

On Saturday, Ukraine’s top military commander, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, signaled that the nation’s armed forces were ready to launch their counteroffensive, but stopped short of declaring an official start to it. In recent weeks, Ukrainian forces have grown bolder and attacked deeper into Russian territory, trading drone and missile attacks with Russia, and targeting military and industrial facilities key to Russia’s war effort.

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कथा सुनाने का 10 लाख फीस लेने वाले ढोंगी पाखंडी लोग कहते हैं कि सब मोह माया छोड़कर ईश्वर में ध्यान लगाओ लेकिन खुद का ध्यान 10 लाख पर टिका है। यदि आप देवकीनंदन से कथा करवाते हैं तो उनकी फीस 12 लाख से लेकर 15 लाख तक है। अनिरुद्धाचार्य की फीस भी 15 लाख से 20 लाख है। जया किशोरी, धीरेन्द्र कृष्ण शास्त्री इत्यादि कथावाचकों से कथा करवाने के लिए कम से कम 15 से 20 लाख तक का खर्चा आना Normal है। उसके बाद यह सभी कथावाचक आपको प्रवचन मे बुद्धि प्रदान करते है सब मोह माया है भौतिक सुख का त्याग कर ईश्वर की भक्ति करो, ईश्वर की भक्ति मे परम सुख है भले खुद बिना मर्सिडीज एक कदम भी ना चले।

Ukraine, in the meantime, has trained new formations, armed and equipped by the West, and is expected to launch a broader counteroffensive somewhere along the roughly 600-mile front line.

An aerial view of the devastated and mostly abandoned city of Bakhmut, with high-rise buildings partially destroyed and charred, their windows blown out, and rubble strewn between them.
A drone image of the destruction in Bakhmut taken on Friday while embedded with the 93rd Mechanized Brigade of the Ukrainian Army.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
An aerial view of the devastated and mostly abandoned city of Bakhmut, with high-rise buildings partially destroyed and charred, their windows blown out, and rubble strewn between them.

This has Russia in somewhat of a defensive crouch, its forces stretched, as they build fortifications and prepare for the war’s next phase.

“We’ll probably see more localized tactical assaults,” Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said of Russian forces. “But Russia will likely primarily focus on defense and prepare for Ukraine’s counteroffensive.”

Russian forces have spent much of the winter and spring digging in and preparing for Ukraine to strike, though some units have continued to attack in areas such as Kreminna north of Bakhmut and Avdiivka to the south. Those assaults have gained the Russians little ground, and instead have decimated the population centers in their path while depleting their own ranks.

In the south, which some military analysts predict will be the focus of Ukraine’s offensive, Russian forces have dug an intricate network of primary and secondary trench lines and minefields to thwart any Ukrainian advance, according to satellite photos and analysts.

If Ukraine does manage to retake territory, analysts say, that could give Russia’s far larger air force an upper hand as Ukrainian troops push forward, outside the range of their air defenses.

Further to the southwest, Ukraine now holds the southern port city of Kherson after reclaiming it in November. But with the Dnipro River serving as a natural boundary, Russian artillery units can shell the city from the eastern side with little risk of being overrun by Ukrainian ground forces, given the difficulty of crossing a wide, exposed waterway.

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Two Ukrainian soldiers in combat fatigues, one of them holding a mortar shell in each hand, crouch behind a mortar.
Members of the 93rd Mechanized Brigade firing an 82-mm mortar at Russian positions in Bakhmut.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Two Ukrainian soldiers in combat fatigues, one of them holding a mortar shell in each hand, crouch behind a mortar.

To the north, Ukrainian-backed proxy units have penetrated the Russian border in recent days, seizing a small patch of territory in what is considered a propaganda move to tie up Russian forces and embarrass the Kremlin following the seizure of Bakhmut.

But the battle for Bakhmut came at a significant cost for Russia and Ukraine and will weigh heavily on what comes next. Both sides made outsize investments in men and matériel to take and hold a relatively small and now-devastated city, which had a prewar population of more than 70,000.

Such is the nature of the 15-month-old war: Both militaries, still rooted in Soviet-style tactics, continue to rely heavily on artillery, tanks and limited troop advances to seize and control ground.

“The battle for Bakhmut is less important in terms of territory and more in its impact on both forces and what it reveals about them,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russian studies at CNA, a research institute in Arlington,

Russian forces were defeated on three fronts last year — around Kyiv, in the northeastern Kharkiv region and at Kherson. Moscow is nursing its exhausted and casualty-ridden formations after brutal urban combat in Bakhmut. Ukraine, too, is plagued by casualties, but is digging in along far more favorable and higher terrain outside Bakhmut.

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Two women carrying shopping bags walk past a damaged bus stop with sandbags piled around it.
Women at a sandbagged bus stop damaged by Russian shelling in the southern Ukrainian city of Kherson this month. Credit…Finbarr O’Reilly for The New York Times

In recent days, Ukrainian forces have made small gains to the north and south of Bakhmut, putting their forces in a better position to prevent Russian troops from advancing further. The head of the Wagner paramilitary force, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, whose fighters were primarily responsible for the seizure of Bakhmut, has pledged to pull them from the city and turn its defense over to Russia’s uniformed ranks, risking a disorganized turnover of troops.

Wagner “isn’t really designed for defensive operations,” Mr. Lee said.

Mr. Prigozhin’s Wagner group has proved to be one of Ukraine’s most formidable foes and it remains unclear how its departure from the battlefield could affect Ukraine’s ability to put pressure on Bakhmut and beyond.

Military analysts, Western intelligence agencies and Ukrainian officials have argued over the strategic significance of the Bakhmut campaign for months. Moscow could have invested the resources elsewhere on the front line instead of wasting lives and ammunition for a few miles of land, they said. Kyiv could have retreated earlier, saving its battalions, brigades and supplies for future offensives.

Both sides’ decisions to stand and fight will have lasting effects on their future maneuvers.

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Across an open field bounded by trees and a fence, a plume of thick smoke rises to the sky.
Smoke rising near Bakhmut last week. Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Across an open field bounded by trees and a fence, a plume of thick smoke rises to the sky.

The battle for Bakhmut was unique in that the Wagner group relied on formations of prison inmates to attack Ukrainian trenches, to both overwhelm their defenses and expose Ukraine’s firing positions. Russia’s ability to replenish its ranks, often with undertrained forces, had at one point been one of its advantages as it has forced Ukraine to risk its better-trained units to stop raw troops the Russians treated as expendable.

But Ukraine fought back, despite losing ground in the city and taking an outsized number of casualties. They took advantage of the open fields and tree lines on the outskirts, and used Western-supplied precision artillery such as HIMARS rocket launchers and 155-mm howitzers to wound and kill Russian troops at a distance.

Now, Moscow has to decide whether to try to advance west of Bakhmut. A few miles away lies the town of Chasiv Yar, but Ukraine can pull back to high ground in between, where it could fire down at advancing Russian troops. More likely, the Russians will focus on defending Bakhmut and its approaches.

The aftershocks of the battle for Bakhmut are not yet fully known, both in terms of overall casualties on both sides or how much equipment or ammunition was lost or destroyed. Western estimates early this year put Russia’s casualties in wounded and dead at about 200,000 since its invasion, and Ukraine’s are thought to be similar. The fight for Bakhmut has since claimed thousands more casualties.

“This chapter will close, even as fighting continues in the fields outside the city, but it speaks volumes about the Ukrainian will to fight, though soldiers may wonder whether the fight for Bakhmut was driven by political considerations over military ones,” Mr. Kofman said.A tall pile of bricks and other debris lies behind an open gate, where bombardment struck a school, with badly damaged buildings on either side.

A school hit by bombardment in Chasiv Yar, Ukraine, near Bakhmut, last month.Credit…Mauricio Lima for The New York Times
A tall pile of bricks and other debris lies behind an open gate, where bombardment struck a school, with badly damaged buildings on either side.

Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a Ukraine correspondent and a former Marine infantryman. @tmgneff

A top Ukrainian official essentially acknowledged that the devastated city had been lost. Thousands of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers died there, but the cost for Moscow was especially steep, experts say.Russia Claims Bakhmut, but Some See a ‘Pyrrhic Victory’