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Ukraine live briefing: U.S. warns of Russia-North Korea arms negotiations; Wagner commander buried

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, during a meeting in Moscow on Aug. 23; North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party at its headquarters in Pyongyang in early 2023. (Pool/Sputnik/Kremlin; KCNA/KNS/AP)

Russia and North Korea are “actively advancing” negotiations for weapons that would be used in the war in Ukraine, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said at a news conference. She called the development “new” and “deeply troubling,” as Washington’s tensions with Pyongyang and Moscow continued to deepen.

In Russia, the funeral of a prominent Wagner Group commander, Dmitry Utkin, took place Thursday, independent Russian media reported. Utkin, who died in the same plane crash that killed the mercenary group’s chief Yevgeniy Prigozhin last week, was one of Prigozhin’s top associates, as well as a reputed operational leader of the group in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere. The U.S. Treasury Department had sanctioned Utkin for his involvement in Ukraine. Prigozhin was buried in a secret ceremony in St. Petersburg on Tuesday.

Here’s the latest on the war and its impact across the globe.

“Russia is negotiating potential deals for significant quantities and multiple types of munitions from the DPRK to be used against Ukraine,” Thomas-Greenfield said, using the abbreviation for North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. She accused Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu of using his visit to North Korea last month as an opportunity to “try to convince Pyongyang to sell artillery ammunition to Russia.” She also condemned Shoigu’s attendance at the secretive state’s military parade, which featured weapons prohibited by the U.N. Security Council.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un exchanged letters after Shoigu’s visit to Pyongyang in July, Thomas-Greenfield said. She added that another group of Russian officials traveled to North Korea “for follow-up discussions about potential arms deals,” and that negotiations may include buying raw materials that could be used for Russia’s “defense industrial base.” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in response to the report of the Putin-Kim letters that “Moscow and Pyongyang maintain good relations.” He said Thursday, “This is our neighbor, a very important neighbor in its region, so these relations will be further developed.”

Ukraine is investigating its military medical commissions for corruption after finding that some branches have accepted bribes in exchange for falsified health documents that made men ineligible to draft. President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address that the number of men removed from military registers by the medical commissions increased tenfold in some regions since February and that it was “absolutely clear” there were “corrupt decisions.” He said bribes from $3,000 to $15,000 have been paid to escape the draft, while other eligible men were able to flee abroad.

Grant Shapps was appointed Britain’s new defense minister after Ben Wallace resigned. Wallace, who announced his plans to resign in July after four years in the position, was a key figure in London’s military support for Kyiv. “The United Kingdom is respected around the world for our armed forces and that respect has only grown more since the war in Ukraine,” Wallace wrote in his resignation letter. Shapps, who previously served as energy security secretary, pledged to continue Britain’s “support for Ukraine in their fight against Putin’s barbaric invasion.”

Russia will discuss an alternative to the Black Sea grain deal with Turkey this week, the Russian Foreign Ministry said. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, are expected to meet in Moscow over a proposal to send grain to Turkey with the financial help of Qatar. The grain would be processed in Turkey and exported to countries “in need,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said. The Kremlin has also said the leaders of Russia and Turkey would meet in Russia “soon.”

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led to “one of the most disruptive periods in decades for global food security,” according to a report from the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence. It also said that Russian forces stole about 6 million tons of Ukrainian wheat from areas they controlled for export and Russia’s own consumption.

Operations at a military airfield in Pskov, Russia, returned to normal Thursday after it was struck this week in a drone attack that damaged four Il-76 planes, according to Russia’s state-run Tass news agency. A barrage of missiles and drone attacks against Kyiv followed the strike early Wednesday, killing two people in the Ukrainian capital. Russia had reported drone strikes in at least six of its regions.

Russia experienced at least 25 “separate drone attacks” in August, according to a daily intelligence update from Britain’s Defense Ministry on Thursday. It said many of the drones “reached their targets, which likely means that Russian air defence is having difficulty detecting and destroying them.” Russia is probably reconsidering its air defense strategies to better equip itself against these attacks, it added.

The Russian Embassy in Washington condemned the United States’ decision to send an additional $250 million in military aid to Ukraine, calling it the “height of hypocrisy.” The embassy said on Telegram: “Washington will not give up the concept of fighting Russia to the last Ukrainian.”

Ukraine’s foreign minister has lashed out at those criticizing the pace of the country’s counteroffensive. Dmytro Kuleba, speaking in Spain on Thursday, said “criticizing the slow pace of [the] counteroffensive equals … spitting into the face of [the] Ukrainian soldier who sacrifices his life every day,” he told reporters at a meeting of European foreign ministers, Reuters reported. “I would recommend all critics to shut up, come to Ukraine and try to liberate one square centimeter by themselves,” he added.

Putin is struggling with the falling ruble and rising prices as sanctions bite: When Putin addressed top economic officials last week after a bruising month in which the Russian ruble plummeted to a 16-month low against the U.S. dollar, he sought to set a confident tone, Catherine Belton, Jeff Stein and Robyn Dixon report.

But he could not avoid addressing a growing weakness that is stalking the economy as Western sanctions bite ever deeper, and one that has been exacerbated by the ruble’s plunge.

“Objective data shows that inflationary risks are increasing, and the task of reining in price growth is now the number one priority,” Putin said. “I ask my colleagues in the government and the Central Bank to keep the situation under constant control.”

The government’s spending on Russia’s defense industry is bringing Putin’s war home to many Russians for the first time.

Natalia Abbakumova and Robyn Dixon contributed to this report.

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