Putin says war could continue until "last Ukrainian is left standing"
From CNN’s Uliana Pavlova
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday issued a warning to the West and Ukraine, saying the war might drag on until the “last Ukrainian is left standing.”
“Today we hear that they want to defeat us on the battlefield. Well, what can I say? Let them try,” Putin said during a meeting with the heads of the State Duma party factions that aired on state media television Russia-24.
"We have continuously heard that the West is ready to fight with us until the last Ukrainian is left standing. This is a tragedy for the Ukrainian people. However, it seems like everything is going towards this," he said.
Putin has also blamed the West for “encouraging and justifying genocide against people in Donbas.”
"We are not refusing peace negotiations. But those who do refuse should know that the further [the conflict continues], the more difficult it will be for them to negotiate with us," Putin said.
The eastern Donbas region has became the key centerpiece of Putin’s military ambition in Ukraine after his troops failed to take over Kyiv earlier this year.
1:52 p.m. ET, July 7, 2022
Brittney Griner's head coach: "We just want to get her home"
From CNN's Jacob Lev
Vanessa Nygaard, the head coach of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury, spoke to CNN following Brittney Griner pleading guilty to drug charges in a Russian court near Moscow on Thursday.
Nygaard said she couldn't comment on any legal matters or strategy, but she said the US government needs to "continue doing what they're doing and exhaust every measure possible to help bring BG home."
Asked if the White House was doing enough, Nygaard said she was happy with the administration's response to Griner's handwritten letter to US President Joe Biden and noted Biden's phone call to Griner's wife, Cherelle. However, she called the coverage of women sports and its athletes a "concern."
"The question is ‘Would Tom Brady be home?’ But Tom Brady wouldn’t be there, right? Because he doesn’t have to go to a foreign country to supplement his income from the WNBA. We want to keep the focus on bringing BG home but there is an undercurrent here of lack of coverage and value of women’s sports," Nygaard said.
Nygaard said she is still concerned for Griner's safety in Russia.
"In her letter (to President Biden), she said that she was scared," Nygaard said. "This is just not a regular American in another country, but this is a person who is represented our country well. She’s also a gay woman. She’s also a Black woman in Russia. We need to pay attention to that and help to bring her home. There was a lot of discussion of political pawns, but we know that there is a lot of Americans wrongfully imprisoned around the world. ... She is somebody who has worn the red, white, and blue in the Olympics and so we know that is a value to them. We just want to get her home.”
The Women’s National Basketball Players Association also issued a statement on Thursday.
“The US State Department determined that Brittney Griner was wrongfully detained for a reason and will continue negotiating for her release regardless of the legal process. We’ll leave it at that," it partly read.
CNN's Homero De La Fuente contributed reporting to this post.
2:06 p.m. ET, July 7, 2022
"We feel the unity" of American support for Ukraine, Zelensky says after meeting US senators in Kyiv
From CNN's Anastasia Graham-Yooll
Ukrainian President VolodymyrZelensky welcomed US Sens. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, and Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, in Kyiv on Thursday, recognizing the support for Ukraine from both parties of the United States.
"Bicameral and bipartisan support is really important for Ukraine. We feel it, we feel this unity," Zelensky told the senators.
Zelensky urged them to back the campaign to supply Ukraine with modern air defense systems, adding “we must ensure a level of safety so that our people are not afraid to live in Ukraine."
"The number one task for us today is for women with children to be able to return to Ukraine by September, so that children can go to school, so that students can go to universities," Zelensky told the senators.
Graham and Blumenthal informed Zelensky about their campaign in the Senate to ramp up the sanctions and brand Russia a state sponsor of terrorism.
12:46 p.m. ET, July 7, 2022
WNBA star Brittney Griner pleads guilty in Russian court as second day of trial ends
From CNN’s Anna Chernova
US basketball star Brittney Griner pleaded guilty on the second day of trial on accusations of alleged drug smuggling, Griner's lawyers confirmed to CNN on Thursday.
While Griner pleaded guilty, she said she had no intent to commit a crime, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported Thursday.
The hearing in the Khimki court of the Moscow region has ended. Griner left the courtroom without giving any comment to the press.
The next hearing is to take place on July 14. Griner faces up to 10 years in prison under the charge.
According to RIA Novosti, Griner told the court through her interpreter that she had no intent to carry luggage with hash oil but this was a result of her “packing up in a hurry.”
"Ms. Griner says she pleads guilty. She had no intent to carry drugs, no intent to commit a crime, as she was packing up [her luggage] in a hurry," her interpreter said in court, RIA Novosti reported.
According to a source close to Griner, the decision to plead guilty was made by her alone. But in recent weeks, Griner, her family, lawyers and experts discussed this decision extensively.
Given the 99% reported conviction rate in Russian criminal cases, Griner was urged to weigh all the factors, including a plea that could ultimately result in a shorter sentence.
The 31-year-old Griner, who has played in Russia during the Women's National Basketball Association's (WNBA) offseason, was arrested Feb. 17 at a Moscow airport, a week before Russia invaded Ukraine. Russian authorities claimed she had cannabis oil in her luggage and accused her of smuggling significant amounts of a narcotic substance, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone Wednesday with Brittney Griner's wife, Cherelle. Griner wrote in a letter delivered to Biden on Monday that she is afraid that she could be detained in Russia indefinitely.
Brittney and Cherelle Griner have been exchanging letters but have not had a phone call since the basketball star’s arrest. A call was scheduled for the couple’s anniversary late in June but did not happen due to a "mistake" later admitted by the US embassy.
Asked by reporters outside the court if Griner can contact her wife, Griner’s lawyer Maria Blagovolina said, “This can be done in the form of a call. Unfortunately, due to the fact that Brittney now goes to the court, it is logistically difficult to arrange.”
Because Griner is either traveling to the court from her detention center north of Moscow or she is kept at the detention center in Khimki by the court, Blagovolina added that "we have not yet been able to organize it technically.”
Griner has been held in custody in Russia since February, her detention was extended for six months pending trial last week.
What US officials are saying: The top diplomat at the US Embassy in Russia shared a letter from Biden to Griner at her trial on Thursday.
US Charge D’Affaires Elizabeth Rood and members of the US Embassy in Moscow’s consular team attended the trial, and Rood shared with Griner the letter from Biden, which the President discussed on the call with Griner’s wife.
“Again, I was able to speak with Ms. Griner in the courtroom. She said that she is eating well. She's able to read books and under the circumstances, she's doing well,” Rood said.
"Most important, I was able to share with Ms. Griner a letter from President Biden, and Mr. Griner was able to read that letter,” Rood said.
Griner appreciated the letter from Biden, Griner’s lawyer Alexander Boykov said Thursday.
“She appreciated it like every citizen of every country would appreciate a personal letter from the President,” Boykov told reporters.
In a tweet following Griner’s guilty plea, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said, “We will not relent until Brittney, Paul Whelan, and all other wrongfully detained Americans are reunited with their loved ones.”
The charge d’affaires emphasized “the commitment of the United States government at the very highest levels to bring home safely Ms. Griner and all U.S. citizens wrongfully detained, as well as the commitment of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow to care for and protect the interests of all U.S. citizens detained or imprisoned in Russia.”
CNN's Betsy Klein, Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood and Abby Phillip contributed reporting to this post.
12:45 p.m. ET, July 7, 2022
Zelensky says he is confident that UK policy towards Ukraine will not change after PM Boris Johnson resigns
From CNN’s Artemis Moshtaghian in New York and Anastasia Graham-Yooll and Lauren Kent in London
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky called British Prime Minister Boris Johnson “a true friend of Ukraine,” adding that he is confident that the UK’s policy toward Ukraine won’t be changing any time soon despite Johnson's resignation.
Ukraine gained a lot from their relationship with the prime minister, including first and foremost military support, Zelensky told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer in an interview on Thursday when asked about his comments on Johnson’s resignation.
Johnson resigned following a revolt within his Conservative Party, saying in an address to the nation that the process of choosing a new prime minister "should begin now." Johnson is not planning to leave office immediately, however. He will stay until a new leader is in place, he said, in a televised speech outside 10 Downing Street.
In his resignation speech, Johnson addressed Britain's role in supporting Ukraine in its war and said the UK will fight for freedom as long as it takes.
"Let me say now to the people of Ukraine. I know that we in the UK will continue to back your fight for freedom for as long as it takes," he said.
The two leaders spoke on the phone later on Thursday, and Johnson assured Zelensky of the UK’s continued support and called the Ukrainian president a “hero.”
Johnson called Zelensky a “hero,” and said “everybody loves you,”according to an official read out of the call.
Zelensky’s office said he thanked Johnson for his “decisive” action on Ukraine and told the outgoing prime minister that news of his resignation was received "with sadness" by him and the "entire Ukrainian society."
“We have no doubt that Great Britain's support will be preserved, but your personal leadership and charisma made it special," Zelensky added.
Johnson reportedly pledged to continue to work “at pace” towards “ending the grain blockade in the coming weeks.”
8:54 a.m. ET, July 7, 2022
Missile strike hits Kramatorsk in Donbas region
From CNN's Tim Lister and Oleksandra Ochman
A missile has struck the center of Kramatorsk in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region, according to a regional official.
"There are victims" after the attack on the city, according to the mayor of Kramatorsk.
"We are investigating the consequences, rescue services are working," Oleksandr Honcharenko said on Telegram.
Stay in shelter, the danger is not over," he added.
Some background: As the battle for control in the east intensifies and Russian forces prepare for a renewed assault in Donetsk, hundreds and thousands of people have been urged by Ukrainian officials to evacuate the region.
“Russia has turned the entire Donetsk region into a hot spot where it is dangerous to remain for civilians,” the head of the Donetsk regional military administration, Pavlo Kyrylenko said, commenting on a missile strike in Toretsk on Wednesday.
“I call on everyone to evacuate. Evacuation saves lives,” he added.
CNN's Olga Voitovich, Yulia Kesaieva and Vasco Cotovio contributed reporting to this post.
8:59 a.m. ET, July 7, 2022
Russian minister says it is "difficult" to discuss possible Brittney Griner exchange
From CNN's Anna Chernova
A Russian government official said Thursday it is “difficult” to hold substantive negotiations with the United States on a possible prisoner exchange of WNBA star Brittney Griner.
“The tenacity with which the US administration … call those who got sentenced by us under serious articles, and those who are waiting for the completion of the investigation, 'detainees,' reflects Washington's unwillingness to perceive the world around us adequately," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said, according to the state news agency TASS.
Washington is trying to make it seem “as if the legal system functions only in the United States” while deliberately denying the result of a “normal judicial process” in other countries, Ryabkov added.
“Against this background, it is quite difficult to engage in a substantive discussion of various kinds of exchanges," Ryabkov said when asked about possible exchange for Russia’s Viktor Bout, who is currently detained in a US prison.
Some background: Earlier this month, Griner wrote in a handwritten letter to US President Joe Biden that she is "terrified" she will be detained in Russia "forever." She pleaded him not to forget about her and other American detainees.
In response Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke by phone Wednesday with Cherelle Griner, Griner's wife, according to the White House. The President also wrote a letter in response to Griner's letter, which he shared with her wife during his call.
The 31-year-old Griner, who has played in Russia during the WNBA's offseason, was arrested February 17 at a Moscow airport, a week before Russia invaded Ukraine.
Russian authorities claimed she had cannabis oil in her luggage and accused her of smuggling significant amounts of a narcotic substance, an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. She went on trial in a court near Moscow on Friday on drug smuggling charges.
Griner's supporters and US officials say she has been wrongfully detained and have called for her release as fears mount that she is being used as a political pawn amid rising tensions between Russia and the US.
A court in the Moscow region will continue considering Griner’s case Thursday.
CNN's Rosa Flores, Jacqueline Rose, Alexa Miranda, Betsy Klein and Jennifer Hansler contributed reporting to this post.
7:40 a.m. ET, July 7, 2022
Russian missile strikes tanker that has been drifting for months in the Black Sea
From CNN's Julia Kesaieva and Tim Lister
A tanker drifting in the Black Sea has been hit by a Russian cruise missile, according to the Ukrainian military.
Two KH-31 missiles were fired and one hit the Moldovan-flagged "Millennial Spirit," which was first struck soon after the Russian invasion began in waters off Odesa several months ago, according to the Operational Command South.
Since then the ship has been drifting without a crew and with the remnants of diesel fuel on board.
"At the time of the first hit, the ship was carrying more than 500 tons of diesel fuel. Because of the blockade of the shipping lanes, the tanker has been drifting in the sea without a crew for 4 months, like an environmental time bomb," the Command said.
It is unclear whether the ship sunk after the latest missile strike.
A second missile self-destructed over the sea, the Command added.
7:11 a.m. ET, July 7, 2022
Ukraine angered by release of ship carrying allegedly stolen grain
From CNN's Tim Lister and Olga Voitovych
The release of a Russian ship allegedly carrying stolen Ukrainian grain from Turkish waters is "unacceptable," the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry said.
Turkey ignored a request to arrest the vessel and cargo and the ship was released on July 6, according to a ministry statement on Thursday.
It expressed "deep disappointment and appeals to the Turkish side with an urgent request to conduct an investigation ... and provide a full response to the requests of the relevant authorities of Ukraine."
The Russian merchant ship, Zhibek Zholy, had carried the grain from the occupied port of Berdiansk to the Turkish port of Karasu.
"In relation to the unacceptable situation, the ambassador of Turkey in Kyiv was invited to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs," the ministry added.
CNN has reached out to the Turkish government for comment.
The Russian news agency TASS said Thursday that the Zhibek Zholy, "which is anchored in Turkey, plans to leave due to idle time and ship grain to a storage vessel."
"It is planned to go to the accumulative (storage) vessel and trans-ship," TASS said, citing one of the ship's crew members. "Then, when the large vessel is loaded, (it) goes to ports and unloads."
Shipping monitoring data Thursday shows the transponder of the Zhibek Zholy no longer active at its recent anchorage outside Karasu.
Satellite imagery shows that Russian ships frequently offload their cargoes to other vessels in the Black Sea.
Ukraine's Ambassador to Turkey Vasyl Bodnar previously told CNN the Zhibek Zholy was at anchor near Karasu as "it was in fact detained by Turkish customs authorities and it is not allowed to enter the port."
"Now we are waiting for the decision of the relevant authorities of Turkey regarding the actions that the law enforcement agencies of Ukraine insist on," he added.