War in Ukraine live updates: Marine veteran Trevor Reed is released from Russia in a prisoner swap
Reed had been held in Russia since 2019. His family had advocated fiercely for his return, and his health was reportedly failing. Also, workers in Kyiv demolished a Soviet-era statue representing its friendship with Russia.
Here's what we're following today:
Russia reportedly aims to form a breakaway government in Kherson: Residents are fleeing in order to disrupt a referendum that Russia plans, Ukraine's defense ministry says.
Russia halts gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria: Energy giant Gazprom said it stopped exports because the countries refuse to pay in rubles.
Odesa grapples with its identity: Most residents of the city on the Black Sea have deep ties to Russia — ties now strained amid Russian attacks.
Kyiv demolished a Soviet-era statue representing its friendship with Russia
In response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv officials announced earlier this week that they would dismantle part of a monument symbolizing the friendship with the Soviet Union, specifically Russia.
A bronze statue of two men jointly raising up a Soviet order of friendship has stood under the iconic titanium People's Friendship Arch in the city center since 1982.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Monday that the statue would be dismantled. On Tuesday, workers pulled it apart — starting with the men's heads — while a crowd of onlookers cheered.
Reuters reports that a crane lifted the statue off its base and gradually lowered it to the ground, as around 100 observers applauded and shouted slogans like "Glory to Ukraine."
Several people in the crowd told reporters it was a fitting move, given the toll that Russia's war has taken on Ukraine's people and infrastructure.
"Russia invaded Ukraine ... Can we be friends with Russia? What do you think? This is our worst enemy, that is why the monument to Russian-Ukrainian friendship doesn't make sense any more," said Serhiy Myrhorodsky, one of the statue's designers.
The Friendship Arch — on which activists had painted a large crack following Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea — will remain in place.
Klitschko says it will be painted in Ukraine's national colors of blue and yellow and renamed the "Arch of Freedom of the Ukrainian People."
Russia stripped as host of 2023 ice hockey world championship, its second such loss
The International Ice Hockey Federation Council has stripped Russia of its role as host of next year's world championship, citing safety concerns.
The tournament was scheduled to take place in St. Petersburg in May 2023. Organizers did not immediately announce an alternative venue, saying that decision will be confirmed during the final week of this year's championship in Finland.
Officials said they made their decision during a Tuesday council meeting in Zurich, according to one of its bylaws and "out of concern for the safety and well-being of all participating players, officials, media, and fans."
It's the second event that the IIHF has withdrawn from Russia since the invasion of Ukraine. It moved the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship out of Russia in late February and also banned Russia and Belarus from international play until further notice.
"As was the case with Council’s earlier decision to withdraw the 2023 IIHF World Junior Championship that was to be held in Omsk and Novosibirsk, Russia, the Council expressed significant concerns over the safe freedom of movement of players and officials to, from, and within Russia," officials said this week.
When the IIFH awarded the hosting rights back in 2019, it said that Russia was building a new arena to host the championship, "one that shall become the biggest ice hockey venue in the world."
At the time, it said the arena in St. Petersburg would be able to fit some 21,500 to 23,000 spectators. It is due to be completed in 2023.
The U.S.'s goal of weakening Russia comes with risks
After visiting Poland and Kyiv this week, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin outlined the current U.S. aims in Ukraine, in addition to helping the country repel Russia's invasion.
"We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can't do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine," Austin said.
To do that, Washington is increasing the amount of aid and weaponsit issendingto Ukraine as well as working closely with NATO allies to strengthen the alliance. Western sanctions are having an effect on Russia, weakening its economy and military-industrial base, reports NPR's Michele Kelemen.
But the goal of weakening Russia comes with risks, says Samuel Charap of the Rand Corporation, especially because no one knows exactly what could provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin to use nuclear weapons.
"We don't want Russia to be a total basket case, reviving the sort of loose nukes fears of the 1990s and so on, or to become an incorrigible international spoiler, because it can cause us a lot of problems everywhere else," Charap says.
He said sanctions and weapons shipments run the risk of provoking a more direct confrontation between Russia and NATO, which could have serious consequences, and suggested that strong sanctions could be lessened at some point to help Ukraine reach a peace settlement with Russia.
"Because of the lack of clarity about where the red line is, because we're operating here without any precedent, nobody knows if there is a step that will sort of send Putin over the edge, so to speak," Charap says.
On state television this week, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has warned that no one should underestimate the threat of a nuclear confrontation, a comment the U.S. State Department called "irresponsible."
U.S. Marine veteran Trevor Reed is released from Russia in a prisoner swap
The Biden administration and the family of Trevor Reed say the U.S. Marine veteran is out of Russian prison and safely on his way back to the U.S. The decision follows years of advocacy by his family and recent reports that his health was rapidly declining.
Russian Foreign Ministry says Reed was exchanged for jailed pilot Konstantin Yaroshenko in a prisoner swap that took place in an unspecified European country. Yaroshenko was sentenced in 2011 to 20 years in prison for conspiring to import more than $100 million worth of cocaine into the U.S.
"Today, we welcome home Trevor Reed and celebrate his return to the family that missed him dearly. Trevor, a former U.S. Marine, is free from Russian detention," Biden said in a statement. "I heard in the voices of Trevor’s parents how much they’ve worried about his health and missed his presence. And I was delighted to be able to share with them the good news about Trevor’s freedom."
Biden said, "The negotiations that allowed us to bring Trevor home required difficult decisions that I do not take lightly." He did not elaborate.
Reed was detained during a trip to the country in 2019 and accused of attacking a Moscow police officer. He was sentenced in 2020 to nine years in jail. He says he doesn't remember the events of that night because he was drunk, and his family has accused Russian officials of fabricating the charge. John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, has said the alleged crime "obviously did not occur" and called his trial "a theater of the absurd."
The 30-year-old had made headlines recently for holding a second hunger strike in prison to protest his treatment by Russian authorities, saying he was not being treated for symptoms of possible tuberculosis and instead was placed to solitary confinement. His parents, Joey and Paula Reed, staged a protest outside of the White House last month in order to raise awareness about his situation and (successfully) press for an in-person meeting with Biden.
A Russian court decided to delay Reed's appeal at a hearing earlier this month, and he was expected to remain in prison as the appeal was sent to a lower court.
In an unexpected but welcome turn of events, the family announced on Wednesday that Reed had been released after being wrongfully detained for 985 days.
"While we understand the interest in Trevor’s story — and as soon as he’s ready, he’ll tell his own story, we’d respectfully ask for some privacy while we address the myriad of health issues brought on by the squalid conditions he was subjected to in his Russian gulag," they added.
In a statement shared through their spokesperson, the Reeds thanked a slew of local and federal elected officials and diplomatic staff for advocating for their son and helping to secure his release. They specifically credited Biden with "making the decision to bring Trevor home," saying that move may have saved his life.
While the Biden administration and Reed's family are celebrating his release, they are also drawing attention to the plight of other Americans detained in Russia. Those include Paul Whelan, who was arrested in Moscow in 2018 on espionage charges, and WNBA star Brittney Griner.
"We welcome this important release, while continuing to call for the release of wrongfully detained U.S. citizen Paul Whelan," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement. "We also remain committed to securing the freedom of all U.S. nationals wrongfully detained abroad."
Reed's family said they stand with the families of Whelan and all other wrongfully detained Americans "who are still waiting for their own release moment," and pledged to continue advocating for their freedom.
Biden called Reed's return a testament to the priority his administration has put on bringing home Americans who are being held hostage abroad.
"We won’t stop until Paul Whelan and others join Trevor in the loving arms of family and friends," he added.
Russia halts gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria, striking back at Europe over sanctions
Russian energy giant Gazprom says it has stopped fuel exports to Poland and Bulgaria, marking a rise in tensions with the European Union over Russia’s war against Ukraine.
In a statement, Gazprom attributed the stoppage to the Polish gas company PGNiG’s refusal to pay in rubles, the Russian currency. The gas is delivered via the Yamal pipeline, which runs from Siberia to Europe.
President Vladimir Putin ordered nations deemed “unfriendly” by Moscow should settle their gas bills in rubleslast month — a response to Western sanctions against Russia over its military actions in Ukraine.
The move was widely seen as an effort to prop up the currency and strike back at Europe amid an onslaught of Western penalties levied against Russia’s banking sector.
Writing on his Telegram channel, Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, likened the move to blackmail and said Russia “always” disregarded rules. He urged the EU to stay united in support of Ukraine and deprive Russia of its “energy weapons.” The European Union buys a significant portion of its fuel from Russia.
PGNiG says the stoppage has not affected energy delivery to its customers.
“We are prepared,” said Poland’s climate and environment minister Anna Moskwa in a press conference on Tuesday. “We have introduced energy diversification strategies that allow us to feel safe.” Poland imports energy from elsewhere and also has plenty of fuel in storage, she says.
The other country targeted — Bulgaria — imports more than 90% of its gas from Russia.
Julian Popov, a former environment minister in Bulgaria, says his country has reserves as well as the capability to import gas from neighboring countries, including Turkey and Greece. He sees Russia’s fuel cutoff as a “warning” to Bulgaria over its delivery of ammunition to Ukraine.
“The headline for me in this whole thing is that we’re transferring this concept, the fog of war, into energy markets,” he says. With Gazprom, “everything in the past was about predictability, and now everything is becoming unpredictable.”
Europe should learn to live in this kind of world, Popov says.
He adds that Russia may be retaliating against Poland because its government has been so outspoken about Russia’s war against Ukraine. Poland is one of the loudest critics of EU dependence on Russian fuel imports. The Polish government announced earlier this month that it would phase out all Russian fuel imports by the end of the year, and has been urging other member-states to do the same. The EU planned a more gradual phase-out — by 2030 — but planned to drastically reduce its purchase of Russian gas by the end of the year.
Aleksandra Gawlikowska-Fyk, director of the Power Sector Program at Forum Energii, a Warsaw-based think tank, says Poland is shielded for now, since warm weather requires less energy. But, she adds, the stoppage could affect energy prices.
“This was probably taken into account by the EU,” she says. “It underlines what kind of unreliable supplier Russia and Gazprom are.”
Agata Łoskot-Strachota, a senior fellow in energy policy at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw, says some EU countries, like Germany and Hungary, are highly dependent on Russian fuel imports and are more cautious about denouncing Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
By shutting off the gas tap, she says, “what Russia can achieve is to divide Europe. We must do everything possible to make sure that doesn’t come true.”
Odesa has deep historical and cultural ties to Russia. Now things are complicated
Heavy fighting continues today in the east and south of Ukraine. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, who met with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday, says he's hopeful civilians will be able to escape safely.
Though NPR's Brian Mann notes that we've seen these kinds of statements repeatedly without any real results — for example regarding Mariupol, where Russian attacks on the besieged steel plant continue.
Mann spoke to Morning Edition from Odesa, a port city on the Black Sea with a population of nearly 1 million. The situation there, like in so much of Ukraine, is tense: The Russian army is about three hours away to the east, and the city has been hit by missile attacks in recent days. Funerals are being held today for a young mother and 3-month-old child who were among the victims of a cruise missile strike over the weekend.
For the first time in weeks, Mann says, some people are deciding to evacuate.
And in addition to making decisions about safety, he points out that people in Odesa are also grappling with complicated conversations about culture and identity.
We'll also talk with #odesa historian Oleksandr Babich another Russian speaker deeply committed to #Ukraine independence. He says the debate over Russian identity is possible because his country is free. "If the Russians capture Odessa they'll hang me," he told @NPR 3/ pic.twitter.com/R4d8scbUdN— Brian Mann (@BrianMannADK) April 27, 2022
Odesa is largely Russian-speaking, and many of its residents have deep family and historical ties to the country. The city is home to prominent symbols and statues linked to Russia, like one dedicated to Russian Empress Catherine The Great, who Mann says is now viewed by many Ukrainians as an aggressor.
Artem Dorokhov, a Russian speaker involved in the debate, told Mann that it's time for Odesa to reevaluate such monuments, comparing the situation to that of Confederate monuments in the American South.
"The U.S. example was very good, very good because the history is very complicated, a lot of oppression and mass killings. Same here. The Ukrainian culture has been oppressed by Russia over hundreds of years."- Atem Dorokhov
Volodymyr Yermolenko, a leading Ukrainian journalist and philosopher, told Mann that it's time for cities like Odesa to shift away from Russia's cultural influences.
"They should be in the Ukrainian cultural information space, not in the Russian cultural information space," he said. "That means the music that you listen to, that means the movies that you watch, the books that you read."
While rejecting Russian culture may sound harsh, Mann says that Ukrainians tell him this is just another unintended consequence of Putin's invasion. They think a city like Odesa with these deep ties to Russia could actually wind up far more deeply integrated into Ukrainian society.
Ukrainians flee Kherson as Russia tries to establish a breakaway government there
Ukrainian officials say more people are fleeing the occupied region around Kherson near the Black Sea. According to Ukraine's defense ministry, Russia plans to hold a referendum in the area aimed at establishing a new breakaway government.
One of Russia's strategies in occupied areas of Ukraine is to create what it describes as autonomous governments. According to the Ukraine military, the vote in Kherson in southern Ukraine is planned soon.
Dmytro Pletenchuk, a military spokesman in neighboring Myloliav, told NPR that more displaced people say they are fleeing as part of an effort to disrupt Russian efforts to legitimize their occupation.
People want to leave on the eve of the illegal referendum, Pletenchuk said, turning nonparticipation into a protest.
This comes with reports of more intense fighting along the southern front.