Top Russian, US generals discuss Ukraine over phone

This US Department of Defense handout photo shows Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen Mark A Milley (left) as he meets with Chief of Russian General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov in Helsinki, Finland, on Sept 22, 2021. (CHUCK BURTON / DOD / AFP)

MOSCOW/KYIV/BERLIN/VIENNA/UNITED NATIONS – Chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Valery Gerasimov spoke by telephone with US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark A Milley, the first conversation between the two since the start of Russia's special military operation in Ukraine in February.

The conversation – focused on issues of mutual interest including the situation in Ukraine – was initiated by the American side, Russia's Defence Ministry said in a brief statement, without providing details.

Last week, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin discussed the situation in Ukraine during their first phone conversation since the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. 

‘No shortcuts to EU membership’

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Thursday that there would be no shortcuts to Ukraine's bid to join the European Union.

The European Commission is expected to complete its initial assessment of Ukraine's EU membership application by the end of June, Scholz said in his address to the Bundestag, the lower house of the German Parliament. Not allowing shortcuts on the country's road to the EU, however, is an "imperative of fairness" towards the other countries of the Western Balkans, Scholz said.

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Accession to the EU can take several years. The Western Balkan countries of Montenegro, Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia have been recognized candidate countries for between eight and 17 years.

It is already clear, the reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure, the revival of the Ukrainian economy, all this will cost billion.

Olaf Scholz, Chancellor, Germany

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron also dampened Ukraine's hopes for a quick EU accession. "We all know perfectly well that the process which would allow them to join would in reality take several years, and most likely several decades," he said.

Ahead of the extraordinary meeting of EU leaders at the end of May, Scholz spoke in favor of a European solidarity fund for the reconstruction of Ukraine. "It is already clear, the reconstruction of the destroyed infrastructure, the revival of the Ukrainian economy, all this will cost billions," he said.

The solidarity fund would be "fed by contributions from the EU and our international partners," he said, stressing that the EU had to start preparations now to support Ukraine on "its European path."

Scholz stressed that solidarity in Europe was also required to cope with energy price increases. "At the European level, the main concern is to ensure that there are no bottlenecks in energy supply in individual member states."

Ukraine, EU leaders discuss aid

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said on Thursday he had discussed the EU aid for Kiev with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

In his tweets, Zelensky thanked von der Leyen for adopting the second tranche of macro-financial assistance to Ukraine worth 600 million euros ($634 million) and offering a loan for Kiev worth 9 billion euros ($9.51 billion).

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During the talks, they exchanged views on the "Platform for Reconstruction of Ukraine" proposed by the European Commission, which would pave the way for the EU to assist Ukraine's post-conflict recovery.

Zelensky and von der Leyen also agreed on the feasibility of joint control at the Ukrainian-Polish border.

According to European Commission Deputy Chief Spokesperson Dana Spinant, Ukraine is set to receive the second tranche of macro-financial assistance from the EU on May 20.

The EU decided to allocate 1.2 billion euros ($1.27 billion) in  assistance for Ukraine in February. 

A man searches for metal scraps in a shelled neighborhood in Kharkiv, eastern Ukraine, May 19, 2022. (BERNAT ARMANGUE / AP)

British military aid for Ukraine

The British government will provide 1.3 billion pounds in military aid for Ukraine, the Ukrainian government-run Ukrinform news agency reported Thursday citing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

During a phone conversation with President Zelensky, Johnson said that Britain would supply long-range artillery, shore-to-ship missiles and unmanned drones to Ukraine as a part of its military assistance.

We are working to find a package deal that will enable Ukraine to export food, not only by train but through the Black Sea, and will bring Russian food and fertilizer production to world markets, without restrictions.

Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary-General

The two leaders also discussed ways to address the issue of the blockade of Ukraine's seaports and options to open up critical sea and land supply routes for Ukrainian grain stocks.

Separately, Zelensky tweeted that he had informed Johnson about the course of hostilities in Ukraine and the operation to rescue the Ukrainian military from Mariupol's Azovstal steel plant.

Wildfires near Chernobyl ‘not a threat’

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said on Thursday that wildfires near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant do not pose a radioactive threat.

 The UN nuclear watchdog said it had been informed by Ukrainian authorities that the gamma levels in the vicinity of the Chernobyl plant do not exceed reference levels.

IAEA director-general Rafael Grossi said past experience suggests that such wildfires could only lead to "a very small increase of radioactive concentration in the air," and the IAEA has agreed with Ukraine's assessment that the fires do not pose a danger to human health.

Grossi added that spontaneous fires often occur in the area at this time of year, as the area is still contaminated by radioactive material from the 1986 nuclear accident.

‘Reintegrate agricultural produces’ 

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Thursday called for efforts to reintegrate the agricultural production of both Russia and Ukraine into world markets.

“Any meaningful solution to global food insecurity requires reintegrating Ukraine's agricultural production and the food and fertilizer production of Russia and Belarus into world markets – despite the war," the UN chief told a Security Council meeting on conflict and food security.

“We are working to find a package deal that will enable Ukraine to export food, not only by train but through the Black Sea, and will bring Russian food and fertilizer production to world markets, without restrictions," said the top UN official.

To meet urgent food security and nutrition needs in Niger, Mali, Chad and Burkina Faso, the secretary-general has announced to release $30 million from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). "This brings to almost 95 million dollars the funding channeled through CERF to the Sahel since the start of the year," he said.

Investing in political solutions to end conflicts, prevent new ones, and build sustainable peace is crucial in addressing food insecurity, said the secretary-general.

Russia cuts Slovenia's embassy staff 

Russia on Thursday demanded the Slovenian embassy in Moscow reduce its diplomatic staff by four people, about 40 percent of the total number, in 10 days.

The decision was taken in response to Ljubljana's move last month to reduce the size of the Russian embassy and the deterioration of its working conditions, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

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The ministry said it also decided to adjust the conditions for the functioning of the Slovenian diplomatic mission, without giving details.

On April 5, the Slovenian Foreign Ministry announced its decision to reduce the Russian embassy staff by more than 30 people in protest against the military operation of Russian troops in Ukraine.