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Latest Developments in Ukraine: Dec. 8

Ukrainian service members carry weapons in Bakhmut in Donetsk region as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, Dec. 7, 2022.
Ukrainian service members carry weapons in Bakhmut in Donetsk region as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, Dec. 7, 2022.

For full coverage of the crisis in Ukraine, visit Flashpoint Ukraine.

The latest developments in Russia’s war on Ukraine. All times EST.

10:09 p.m.: The Slovak government approved a new package of military aid to Ukraine on Dec. 7. It includes ammunition for fighter jets, warm clothes for the military, and other equipment.

8:41 p.m.: The mother of notorious arms dealer, Viktor Bout, on Thursday thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for her son's release as part of a swap with the United States, according to Agence France-Presse.

The release happened "thanks to our president," Raisa Bout said in televised remarks.

"I am so grateful. A low maternal bow to the Russian foreign ministry with Lavrov Sergei Viktorovich at its helm," she said.

She said she was also grateful to "kind people" in the United States, thanking them for having "faith."

"You cannot say that all of them are evil," she added.

His wife Alla said Bout's release was a "true New Year's gift."

Bout, dubbed the "Merchant of Death" was released Thursday in a swap with the United States involving American basketball star Brittney Griner.

8 p.m.: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday vowed to continue attacking Ukrainian energy systems despite global criticism of strikes that have left millions without electricity and water at the start of winter, Agence France-Presse reported.

"There's a lot of noise about our strikes on the energy infrastructure of a neighboring country. Yes, we do that. But who started it?" Putin said at an awards ceremony in the Kremlin, adding that the criticism would "not interfere with our combat missions."

He presented the strikes as a response to a blast on Moscow's bridge to annexed Crimea and other attacks, accusing Kyiv of blowing up power lines from the Kursk nuclear power plant and not supplying water to Donetsk in eastern Ukraine.

7:15 p.m.:

6:27 p.m.: Paul Whelan, an ex-U.S. Marine detained in Russia, expressed dismay on Thursday that more had not been done to secure his release and urged President Joe Biden to act fast following a prisoner swap that freed U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, Reuters reported.

Griner was released in exchange for arms dealer Viktor Bout, a transaction that may leave the United States with little leverage to negotiate for Whelan, who is serving 16 years on espionage charges which he denies. He was detained in 2018 and convicted two years later.

"I am greatly disappointed that more has not been done to secure my release, especially as the four-year anniversary of my arrest is coming up," he told CNN. "I would say that if a message could go to President Biden, that this is a precarious situation that needs to be resolved quickly."

Biden said the United States would never give up on seeking Whelan's freedom, but that the prisoner swap involving Griner left few options.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a news conference: "This was not a choice of which American to bring home. The choice was one or none."

Paul's brother, David Whelan, said the U.S. made the right decision to get the deal that was possible rather than wait for one that wasn't going to happen, but that did not bode well for his twin.

5:57 p.m.: Russian forces attacked settlements in eastern Ukraine from the ground and air, officials said on Thursday, in support of the Kremlin's apparently scaled-back ambition to secure only the bulk of Ukrainian lands it has claimed in the war, Reuters reported.

Fighting was under way along the entire line of demarcation in the Donetsk region, with the frontline town of Avdiivka shelled by Russian tanks on Thursday morning, said Tatiana Ignatchenko, a spokeswoman for the regional administration.

The Kremlin said on Thursday it was still set on securing at least the bulk of the territories in east and south Ukraine that Moscow has declared part of Russia, but appeared to give up on seizing other territory in the west and northeast that Ukraine has recaptured in a steady reversal of early Russian gains.

5 p.m.: Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout arrived in Moscow on Thursday in a prisoner swap with the United States. He hugged his mother and wife after stepping onto the tarmac, images on live television showed, according to Reuters.

Bout, 55, was given a 25-year prison sentence by a U.S. court in 2012 on charges related to his arms-dealing career. He was swapped for U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, who had been held by Russia since February.

"I made it. That's the main thing," Bout said, adding he had not been told ahead of time what would happen.

"In the middle of the night they simply woke me up and said 'Get your things together' and that was it," Bout said in brief remarks to a reporter from national television.

Bout came down the steps carrying a large bouquet of flowers before embracing his mother and then his wife.

4:10 p.m.:

3:12 p.m.: After months of tough negotiations with the Kremlin, the Biden administration has finally secured the release of U.S. women’s basketball star Brittney Griner from a Russian prison.

The administration said December 8 that it had agreed with Moscow to swap convicted Russian arms trader Viktor Bout for Griner, 32, whose arrest, trial, and conviction sparked outrage in the United States.

The case has been viewed in Washington through the prism of strained U.S.-Russian relations, with officials saying the Kremlin was using Griner as a pawn to secure the release of high-profile Russians serving prison terms in the United States.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has published a list of U.S. and Russian individuals who could be involved in another potential prisoner swap.

2:30 p.m.:

2:05 p.m.: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday said he is convinced the United States will be able to call Sweden and Finland NATO allies soon and said Turkey's concerns about the two nations joining the alliance are being addressed.

Blinken, speaking at a press briefing following meetings at the State Department with his Swedish and Finnish counterparts, said that the two nations are already integrating into the work of the alliance.

"This is not a bilateral issue between the United States and Turkey. And it's not going to turn into one," Blinken said, adding that Finland and Sweden have had a productive process working with Turkey to address concerns and concrete steps have been taken.

1:35 p.m.:

1:10 p.m.: When Russian forces advanced in the middle of last winter, the villagers of Posad-Pokrovske began to flee, joining compatriots from across the southern Ukrainian province of Kherson in a mass westward exodus, Reuters reported.

Over the past month, since Ukraine’s army recaptured the provincial capital and surrounding territory, they have been slowly returning to homes damaged or reduced to rubble by Russian shells, set in a landscape of shattered trees, downed telegraph poles and spent munitions.

“Some come, repair (their house) and leave. The ones that still have something to save, they save it,” said 31-year-old returnee Liudmyla Hupalo.

Russian forces took control of Kherson city and surrounding areas in late February and early March, and Posad-Pokrovske - with a prewar population of over 3,000 - ended up on the war’s front line.

Hupalo estimates that, so far, between 170 and 180 have returned.

12:50 p.m.:

12:30 p.m.: The Moscow-based human rights group Support of Political Prisoners Memorial has recognized Russian poets Artyom Kamardin, Nikolai Daineko, and Yegor Shtovba as political prisoners, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Thursday.

The three were arrested in September on a charge of inciting hatred after they presented verses critical of the Kremlin's ongoing invasion of Ukraine.

Kamardin’s girlfriend said earlier that police raped the poet with a dumbbell during the arrest. Last month, a court sent Kamardin to a psychiatric clinic for a 30-day forced evaluation.

12:10 p.m.:

11:55 a.m.: Finland's defense minister Antti Kaikkonen said the sooner Turkey ratifies its NATO membership bid the better and it would consider granting arms export permits to Turkey on a case by case basis, Reuters reported.

In an interview with Reuters after meeting his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar in Ankara, Kaikkonen said he could not foresee a timetable for Turkey's ratification of his country's NATO membership application.

A leading Turkish politician from Turkey's ruling AK party said however the speed of ratification lay in Finland and Sweden's hands and how swiftly they met Turkey's requests.

11:40 a.m.:

11:25 a.m.: Pope Francis broke down and cried on Thursday as he mentioned the suffering of Ukrainians during a traditional prayer in central Rome, Reuters reported.

Pope Francis cries while speaking about Ukraine as he attends the Immaculate Conception celebration prayer in Piazza di Spagna in Rome, Italy, Dec. 8, 2022.
Pope Francis cries while speaking about Ukraine as he attends the Immaculate Conception celebration prayer in Piazza di Spagna in Rome, Italy, Dec. 8, 2022.

The pope's voice began to tremble as he mentioned the Ukrainians and he had to stop, unable to speak, for about 30 seconds. When he resumed the prayer, his voice was cracking.

The crowd, including Rome Mayor Roberto Gualtieri who was right was next to the pope, applauded when they realized he was unable to talk and saw him crying.

11:10 a.m.:

10:55 a.m.: The Kremlin said Thursday it’s up to Ukraine’s president to end the military conflict in the country, suggesting terms that Kyiv has repeatedly rejected, while Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to press on with the fighting despite Western criticism, The Associated Press reported.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that ”(Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelenskyy knows when it may end. It may end tomorrow if he wishes so.”

The Ukraine war has deteriorated relations between Russia and much of the rest of the world, but limited cooperation continues in some areas, such as exchanges of prisoners. On Thursday, in a dramatic swap that had been in the making for months, Russia freed American basketball star Brittney Griner while the United States released a jailed Russian arms dealer.

The Kremlin has long said that Ukraine must accept Russian conditions to end the fighting, now in its tenth month. It has demanded that Kyiv recognize Crimea — a Ukrainian peninsula that Moscow illegally annexed in 2014 — as part of Russia and also accept Moscow’s other land gains in Ukraine.

10:25 a.m.:

10:10 a.m.: The United Arab Emirates president and Saudi crown prince led mediation efforts that secured the release of U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner in a prisoner swap with Russia, a joint UAE-Saudi statement said on Thursday, according to Reuters.

Griner arrived in the United Arab Emirates capital Abu Dhabi by private plane from Moscow after her release by Russian authorities, the statement said, as Russian citizen Viktor Bout, a former arms dealer, came in on another private plane from Washington after being released by U.S. authorities.

“The success of the mediation efforts was a reflection of the mutual and solid friendship between their two countries and the United States of America and the Russian Federation,” the joint statement said.

It “highlighted the important role played by the leaderships of the two brotherly countries in promoting dialogue between all parties.”

9:50 a.m.: Jonathan Franks, spokesperson for the Bring Our Families Home Campaign, an advocacy group seeking the release of Americans held as hostages or detainees abroad, released a statement Thursday.

“We celebrate the long overdue return of Brittney Griner and her safe return home to her wife, family, teammates, and the WNBPA who fought for her relentlessly,” he said.

“While we celebrate Brittney's homecoming, our hearts break for the Whelan family. Paul Whelan has been let down and left behind at least three times by 2 Presidents. He deserves better from his government, and our Campaign implores President Biden to urgently secure Paul’s immediate return using all tools available," Franks added.

9:35 a.m.:

9:20 a.m.: In announcing WNBA star Brittney Griner’s release in a prisoner swap Thursday, U.S. President Joe Biden said the U.S. has “not forgotten about Paul Whelan” and will “never give up” trying to secure his release from Russia, The Associated Press reported.

Whelan, a Michigan corporate security executive, has been jailed in Russia since December 2018 on espionage charges that his family and the U.S. government has said are baseless.

Russia freed Griner on Thursday in a dramatic high-level prisoner exchange, with the U.S. releasing notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout. The swap, at a time of heightened tensions over Ukraine, achieved a top goal for President Joe Biden.

The fact that the deal was a one-for-one swap was a surprise given that U.S. officials had for months expressed their determination to bring home both Griner and Whelan.

Whelan’s brother David said in a statement he was “so glad” for Griner’s release but also disappointed for his family. He credited the White House with giving the Whelan family advance notice and said he did not fault officials for making the deal. “The Biden Administration made the right decision to bring Ms. Griner home, and to make the deal that was possible, rather than waiting for one that wasn’t going to happen,” he said.

The deal, the second such exchange in eight months with Russia, procured the release of the most prominent American detained abroad. Griner is a two-time Olympic gold medalist whose monthslong imprisonment on drug charges brought unprecedented attention to the population of wrongful detainees.

Biden’s authorization to release a Russian felon once nicknamed “the Merchant of Death” underscored the escalating pressure that his administration faced to get Griner home, particularly after the recent resolution of her criminal case and her subsequent transfer to a penal colony.

9:00 a.m.: U.S. President Joe Biden spoke at the White House about U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner’s release in a prisoner swap with Russia.

8:45 a.m.: President Joe Biden says WNBA star Brittney Griner is safe in American custody and on her way home after being released from Russia in an extraordinary prisoner swap for convicted Russian arms dealer Victor Bout.

News agencies have provided more information about the two people at the heart of this high-profile prisoner exchange.

The Associated Press published this timeline of key events in Griner’s career on and off the basketball court.

And Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty published this profile of Bout, nicknamed the "Merchant of Death," who was serving a 25-year sentence in the United States for arms dealing.

8:20 a.m.:

8:15 a.m.: U.S. President Joe Biden said on Twitter Thursday that he had spoken with American basketball star Brittney Griner, who has been released from jail in Russia.

8:00 a.m.: A U.S. official said on Thursday that U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner, who had been jailed in Russia in charges of possessing and smuggling illegal drugs, was now in U.S. custody, Reuters reported.

Russia said she had been traded for Viktor Bout, a Russian arms dealer jailed in the United States.

Griner, 32, is a double Olympic champion and seven-times All-Star player in the U.S. Women's National Basketball Association (WBNA).

Griner was detained at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport on February 17 with vape cartridges containing cannabis oil in her luggage, exactly a week before Russia took relations with the West to their lowest level in decades by invading Ukraine.

U.S. officials and prominent athletes say Griner had been wrongly detained and convicted and had called for her immediate release, saying she was being used as a political pawn.

U.S. President Joe Biden met with Griner's wife Cherelle in September to tell her he was working to secure Griner's release as soon as possible.

7:55 a.m.: European defense spending topped 200 billion euros for the first time in 2021, the European Defense Agency (EDA) said on Thursday, accounting for 1.5% of the 26 EDA member states' gross domestic product, Reuters reported.

It rose 6% from 2020 to 214 billion euros ($225 billion), EDA said in its annual Defense Data Report, the strongest growth since the region started boosting military expenditure in 2015 following Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

EDA said the countries with the highest increases were Italy, Finland, Greece and Slovenia. "Member states' announcements following Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine signal that the increases in expenditure are likely to continue in the years ahead," it added.

7:40 a.m.:

7:25 a.m.: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is being praised and criticized for proposing legislation that could crack down on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church for alleged ties to Moscow, The Associated Press reported.

He is proposing that parliament forbid “religious organizations affiliated with centers of influence in the Russian Federation” from operating in Ukraine. And he’s called for an examination of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s historic ties to Moscow.

The church declared independence from Moscow in May. But many still accuse its clerics of supporting Russia with propaganda and intelligence. Critics say the crackdown only hands a propaganda victory to Moscow, which has claimed to be defending persecuted Orthodox believers.

7:10 a.m.:

6:45 a.m.: The Kremlin said Thursday it was vulnerable to Ukrainian attacks on the Crimean peninsula after the Russian military downed a drone near its largest city, according to Agence France-Presse.

"There are certainly risks because the Ukrainian side continues its policy of organizing terrorist attacks. But, on the other hand, information we get indicates that effective countermeasures are being taken," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.

Russia earlier Thursday said it had shot down a drone over the Black Sea near Sevastopol, which is the largest city on the Crimean peninsula and hosts a key Russian naval base.

6:30 a.m.:

6:15 a.m.: The son of a Russian businessman close to President Vladimir Putin has been acquitted in Norway of violating a law that bars Russians from flying drones, The Associated Press reported.

Andrey Yakunin who holds both a Russian and a British passport and lives in Italy, flew two drones over Norway’s Arctic Archipelago of Svalbard in September. The ban on flying drones came in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine.

A Norwegian court ruled Wednesday that flying a hobby drone is not covered by the sanction regulations. Numerous drone sightings have been reported near offshore oil and gas platforms belonging to NATO member Norway, a major oil and gas producer. Several Russian citizens have been detained for flying drones or taking photographs of sensitive sites in Norway.

6 a.m.: Reuters reported that Ukraine enforced new emergency power cuts on Thursday as it tried to repair energy infrastructure damaged in Russian air strikes which the national grid operator said had caused significant supply shortages.

Russia pummeled power facilities across Ukraine in the latest big wave of attacks on Monday at a time of the year when energy consumption usually rises because winter is setting in.

"As of 11:00 a.m. on December 8, because of damage caused by missile strikes to power plants and the high-voltage network, the system has a significant shortage of electricity," grid operator Ukrenergo said.

It said the situation was complicated by the weather, with western regions facing frost, rain, snow and strong winds that were causing wires to ice over, but that the most difficult situation was in eastern areas where fighting has been fiercest.

5:45 a.m.: Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Thursday that Moscow would adhere to its moratorium on deploying intermediate-range nuclear forces (INF) in Europe, as long as the United States did not deploy such weapons in Europe or Asia, according to Reuters.

"The moratorium is still in place, but if such weapons are deployed by the United States on European or Asian territory, our approach cannot remain unchanged," Ryabkov told the Rossiya 24 news channel, echoing comments he made a year ago.

5:30 a.m.: Reuters reported that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz hopes to develop a missile defense shield in the next five years, he said in an interview with the Funke Media Group and French newspaper Ouest-France published on Thursday.

"Right now, the government is talking to the manufacturers of the various systems to get ready for concrete decisions," he said.

Scholz also reiterated his goal of boosting German defense spending to meet the 2%-of-GDP target set for NATO allies, including with the expansion of air defense for a so-called Sky Shield with other NATO states.

Germany and more than a dozen NATO partners are aiming to jointly procure air defense systems that protect allied territory from missiles.

Among the options being considered are Israel's Arrow 3 system, the U.S. Patriot and German IRIS-T units.

In November, a stray missile landed in Poland near the border with Ukraine, casting light on NATO's air defense vulnerabilities and prompting Germany to supply Patriot systems to Poland

5 a.m.: The International Committee of the Red Cross has visited Ukrainian and Russian prisoners of war over the past two weeks, delivering supplies and news to families, it said on Thursday, according to Agence France-Presse.

"The ICRC last week carried out one two-day visit to Ukrainian prisoners of war, with another happening this week. During the same period, visits were also carried out to Russian prisoners of war, with more visits planned by the end of the month," it said in a statement.

The visits allowed the group "to check on their condition and treatment and share much-awaited news with their families. Our teams were also able to provide items such as books, personal hygiene items, blankets, and warm clothes."

"ICRC teams are reaching out to families of prisoners of war to share updates from their loved ones. Most updates are short notes of love and personal news. Some ask family members not to worry. Others ask them for cigarettes, socks, and sweets. All these messages are a lifeline for anguished relatives," the statement said.

"These visits are an important step forward in preserving humanity amidst the brutality of the international armed conflict," ICRC President Mirjana Spoljaric was quoted as saying. "We are able to check how prisoners of war are being treated and to make sure families receive updates. My expectation is that these visits lead to more regular access to all prisoners of war."

Ukraine and Russia have not disclosed the numbers of prisoners of war they are holding.

4:30 a.m.:

4:17 a.m.:

3:45 a.m.: Russia said on Thursday its troops were taking part in tactical exercises in Belarus, amid fears that Moscow is pressing its ally to get more involved in its war in Ukraine, Reuters reported.

Belarus has said it will not enter the war in Ukraine, but President Alexander Lukashenko has in the past ordered troops to deploy with Russian forces near the Ukrainian border, citing threats from Kyiv and the West.

In a statement, Russia's defense ministry said, "Servicemen of the Western Military District ... continue intensive combat training on the ranges of the armed forces of the Republic of Belarus."

It added, "Combat training events are held during both daylight and at night.

"Servicemen are shooting from all types of small arms, as well as from mortars; they hone their skills in driving combat vehicles, pass psychological obstacle courses, study tactical medicine and other disciplines."

Video clips posted by the ministry showed Russian soldiers in snow gear training near tanks in a winter landscape, firing weapons including artillery.

3:20 a.m.: Russia's fleet shot down a Ukrainian drone over the Black Sea, the Russian-installed governor of Sevastopol, the largest city in the annexed Crimean peninsula, said on Thursday, Reuters reported.

"This morning, a ship of the Black Sea Fleet shot down a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) over the sea," Sevastopol Governor Mikhail Razvozhaev said on Telegram.

Reuters was unable to immediately verify battlefield reports from either side.

1:55 a.m.: Russia's Gazprom said that it will ship 42.4 million cubic meters of gas to Europe via Ukraine on Thursday, a volume in line with recent days, according to Reuters.

1:20 a.m.: British tennis chiefs said Wednesday they were "disappointed" at being fined $1 million by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) for banning Russian and Belarusian players from their events, Agence France-Presse reported.

Following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) came under pressure from the British government to impose a ban.

Russian and Belarusian players were eventually barred from all five ATP tournaments staged by the LTA, including the longstanding Queen's Club event in London.

The All England Club, which organizes Wimbledon, also banned them from competing at this year's edition of tennis' oldest Slam.

Both the ATP and the Women's Tennis Association stripped Wimbledon of its ranking points in protest at a ban labelled "crazy" by 21-time Grand Slam title winner Novak Djokovic.

12:50 a.m.:

12:20 a.m.: Russian forces have fired more than 1,000 rockets and missiles at Ukraine's power grid, which is still working despite taking major damage, Reuters reported, citing a senior official who spoke to Interfax Ukraine news agency.

Volodymyr Kudrytsky, chief executive of the Ukrenergo grid operator, also told a meeting arranged by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development Wednesday that his officials were scouring the world for the complex equipment needed for repairs.

Eight recent waves of Russian airstrikes on critical infrastructure have seriously damaged the grid and led to emergency and planned outages across the country.

"These attacks represent the biggest blow to a power grid that humanity has ever seen. More than 1,000 shells and rockets were fired at electrical facilities and lines, including substations," Interfax Ukraine cited Kudrytsky as saying.

Ukraine now has a serious shortage of generating capacity, even though consumption is down between 25% and 30% compared to the pre-war period. "The system is still working, it is integrated, not broken or disconnected," Kudrytsky said.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy later said Ukraine was increasing the electricity supply every day but noted problems in Kyiv and several other regions.

"We should not forget ... that it is impossible to restore 100% of the energy system, as it was before the beginning of the Russian energy terror," he said in an evening video address.

"Time is needed. That is why scheduled blackouts continue in most of the cities and districts," he continued.

12:05 a.m.: The risk of Russian President Vladimir President Putin using nuclear weapons as part of his war in Ukraine has decreased in response to international pressure, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in an interview published on Thursday, Reuters reported.

The war was continuing with "undiminished brutality" though, for now, one thing had changed, Scholz told Funke media in an interview to mark his first year in office.

"Russia has stopped threatening to use nuclear weapons. As a reaction to the international community marking a red line."

Putin said on Wednesday that the risk of a nuclear war was rising but insisted Russia had not "gone mad" and that it saw its own nuclear arsenal as a purely defensive deterrent.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.

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