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Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday described for the first time what was discussed at a Kremlin event attended by 35 Wagner commanders, including the group's boss Yevgeny Prigozhin.
The meeting was held on June 29, just days after Wagner fighters launched a short-lived mutiny against Moscow.
"On the one hand, at the meeting I gave an assessment of what they had done on the battlefield (in Ukraine), and on the other hand, of what they had done during the events of June 24. Thirdly, I showed them possible options for their further service, including the use of their combat experience. That was it."
Putin, who was being interviewed by Russian newspaper Kommersant, was asked if Wagner would be retained as a fighting unit.
"Well, Wagner PMC does not exist!" Putin exclaimed. "We do not have a law for private military organizations! It simply does not exist!"
"There is no such legal entity," Putin explained.
"The group exists, but legally it does not exist!" Putin repeated in the interview. "This is a separate issue related to actual legalization. But this is a question that should be discussed in the State Duma, in the government. It's not an easy question."
Putin said he offered the 35 Wagner commanders multiple employment options, including one under the leadership of their direct commander, who goes by the call sign Sedoy [Grey hair] – a man under whom Wagner fighters had fought for the past 16 months.
"They could have all gathered in one place and continued to serve," Putin said, "and nothing would have changed for them. They would be led by the same person who has been their real commander all along."
Ukraine's grinding counteroffensive continues along the southern and eastern front lines this week, with Kyiv claiming some progress Thursday in the country's south.
It's past midnight now in Ukraine. If you're just checking in, here are some of the key developments from the war today:
Ukraine reports battlefield gains: Ukraine's troops have taken back territory in the country's south, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Thursday, including three reclaimed villages outside the town of Orikhiv. Troops are also on the offensive around the cities of Melitopol and Berdiansk, Maliar said.
Major strike on southern base: Maliar's report follows claims by another Ukrainian official Thursday that a recent strike killed as many as 200 Russian soldiers and the commandant of the occupied town of Tokmak.
Tokmak is located roughly in the center of the three cities referenced in Maliar's report.
A pro-Russian social media outlet and a Russian-appointed official both spoke of explosions rocking the area, but CNN cannot independently verify Ukraine's claim about the death toll or its recent battlefield gains.
Cluster munitions have arrived: American-supplied cluster munitions have been delivered to Ukraine, a military official said Thursday. US and Ukrainian officials have said that cluster munitions could prove vital to breaking through Russia's stubborn defenses. But the weapons are also controversial for their potential risk to civilians.
The US official reiterated a vow that Ukraine will use the cluster munitions to defend and reclaim their own soil, and in a way that will pose less danger to civilians.
Another grain deal deadline looms: Russian President Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Russia may quit the Black Sea grain deal if its demands are not met, again imperiling an agreement that it has put in doubt as previous deadlines approached. The deal is due to expire Monday.
It was fashioned by Turkey and the UN to allow Ukrainian wheat and other crops to be shipped to international markets through secure corridors. While global supplies are not as tight as they were last year, traders say prices would rise if the deal is not renewed.
Among other demands, Russia wants access to international payments mechanisms currently out of bounds to its banks due to sanctions.
US President Joe Biden authorized the Pentagon on Thursday to send up to 3,000 reserve forces to Europe as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues.
The US has more than 100,000 service members in Europe, a number that has grown since Russia’s invasion began in February 2022.
Under the new authorization, the reservists would be part of Operation Atlantic Resolve, the ongoing rotational deployments that bolster NATO and its eastern flank. The newly signed executive order designates Operation Atlantic Resolve as a contingency operation, which gives reservists the same benefits as active-duty service members.
No US troops are directly involved in the war in Ukraine as Kyiv is not a member of the NATO alliance.
“This new designation benefits troops and families with increases in authorities, entitlements, and access to the Reserve component forces and personnel,” said Joint Staff Director of Operations Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims at a press briefing.
The move gives the Defense Department another option to send more capabilities to assist US European Command. But a defense official said it would likely take approximately six months to send these reservists to the theater because of the advance notice required.
The added troops would likely work in logistics and sustainment, or medical fields like dentistry and health care — roles that the reserves typically have more of than the active-duty force.
Since 2014, US forces have deployed to Europe under Atlantic Resolve to work with allies and partners in the region. Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Patrick Ryder added that the new designation will enable the Defense Department to “provide better system support and sustain our forces.”
“(T)his includes things like increased contracting responsiveness, personnel-related entitlements that give activated reservists the same benefits as active component personnel,” he said. “It also, as a secretary-level operation, enhances our ability to track spending directly associated with this contingency.”
The executive order approving the mobilization of more forces gives officials the ability to call on troops “to come support Atlantic Resolve, and as I just highlighted, be entitled to the same kind of benefits as their active-duty counterparts.”
Ukraine's troops have taken back territory in the country's south, Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Thursday.
Kyiv's forces have captured several settlements south of the town of Orikhiv, including the villages of Novodanylivka, Mala Tokmachka and Novopokrovka, according to the deputy defense minister.
CNN cannot independently verify battlefield reports from either side of the conflict.
Ukraine also remains on the offensive south of Orikhiv in areas surrounding the cities of Melitopol and Berdiansk, Maliar said.
"The enemy is now redeploying units and using all available reserves. Due to the fact that our soldiers destroy enemy equipment depots on a daily basis, the number of enemy attacks has slightly decreased," Maliar said.
In eastern Ukraine: Maliar said Ukrainian units are advancing south of the city of Bakhmut but are meeting strong Russian resistance.
Troops are also engaged in heavy fighting around the cities of Kupyansk, Lyman, Avdiivka and Marinka, she said.
The European Investment Bank and the European Union will provide another round of assistance worth about more than 400 million euros (about $450 million) to help the reconstruction of Ukraine, the country's Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Thursday.
The commitment will go toward "the most urgent reconstruction projects for Ukrainians, including critical infrastructure," Shmyhal wrote in a tweet.
The European Union has agreed to a package of loans and other assistance to Ukraine in 2023 worth more than $18 billion.
The aid is targeted at critical infrastructure and "sustainable post-war reconstruction," with a long-term goal of helping Ukraine "on its path toward European integration," officials said.
The war's staggering toll: The estimated cost of reconstruction and recovery in Ukraine reached $411 billion after one year of Russia's full-scale invasion, according to a joint assessment conducted in March by Ukraine's government, the World Bank, the European Commission and the United Nations.
American-supplied cluster munitions have been delivered to Ukraine, a military official said Thursday.
The acknowledgment confirmed reporting from CNN regarding the delivery of the weapons to Ukraine.
“There are cluster munitions in Ukraine at this time,” Lt. Gen. Douglas Sims, the Joint Staff director for operations, said during a news conference.
Key context: While US and Ukrainian officials have said cluster munitions could be a game-changer on the battlefield, helping break through Russia's stubborn defenses in the Ukrainian counteroffensive, the weapons are also controversial.
More than 100 countries, including key US allies, have banned cluster munitions because of their potential threat to civilians. The bombs work by scattering smaller "bomblets" across a wide area. If any of the bomblets fail to explode, they can pose a long-term risk to anyone who encounters them, similar to landmines.
Sims said Ukraine does not have “any interest in using the cluster munitions anywhere near the civilian population, unlike the Russians.”
“Russians have employed these weapons against civilians in civilian communities, which is a significant difference from what the Ukrainians intend to do,” Sims said. “The Ukrainians intend to use cluster munitions in the tactical environment, against Russians, not against civilians.”
As many as 200 Russian soldiers and the commandant of the occupied town of Tokmak were killed in a recent strike on a Russian base, a Ukrainian official said.
"Our defense forces have successfully worked on the occupiers' positions in Tokmak," Ivan Fedorov, the mayor of the occupied southern Ukrainian city of Melitopol, said on Telegram.
Fedorov is in Ukrainian-held territory and his claims cannot be confirmed, but he claimed that intelligence reports that a Russian base at a forging plant in the town had been hit
There is no way to confirm the claims and no visual evidence currently exists of an attack on the plant. However, a pro-Russian social media outlet said on Tuesday that the "AFU massively shell Tokmak. Preliminary, 6 strikes were recorded.”
A Russian-appointed official in occupied Zaporizhzhia, Vladimir Rogov, also spoke of a series of explosions in the town on the same day, posting a video of fires in an open area that could not be geolocated.
Ukrainian forces target Tokmak regularly as it is an important hub for Russian defenses.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to prolong a deal allowing the Black Sea export of Ukrainian grain — stressing that failure to do so would lead to global food insecurity.
“The world needs it. Russia has a responsibility to prolong it, otherwise, global food insecurity would be the consequence. So now the ball is in President Putin’s court, and the world is watching,” von der Leyen said.
Speaking at a news conference, von der Leyen said she looked forward to discussing the grain deal and other issues with the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, including climate change and “upholding the UN charter and respect for the international law."
What to know about the deal: The Black Sea grain deal, which was fashioned by Turkey and the UN, allows Ukrainian wheat and other crops to be shipped to international markets through secure corridors. While global supplies are not as tight as they were last year, traders say prices would rise if the deal is not renewed.
The current deal is set to expire next week.
There are alternative routes for Ukrainian grain and oilseed exports by rail through Eastern Europe, but they can't readily cope with the volume that Ukraine wants to export.
Romania has refurbished rail links and storage facilities but its main port is already clogged with waiting ships.
CNN's Tim Lister and Uliana Pavlova contributed to this report.