Ukraine war: Germany NATO spending, Wagner mercenary group bombed, Griner appeal

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1. Ukraine hits Russian mercenary HQ

Ukrainian artillery hit the headquarters of Russia’s infamous Wagner Group of mercenaries in eastern Ukraine, say reports. 

The attack happened in the Russian-occupied town of Popasna at a base used by Wagner’s paid soldiers to stage their operations in Ukraine. 

Details remain sketchy and there is no indication of casualties, though it has been reported that the military site was struck by US-supplied HIMARS missiles. 

Serhiy Haidai, the head of the Luhansk Regional Military Administration, said in a Facebook post: “The Armed Forces of Ukraine again successfully struck the enemy’s headquarters. This time in Popasna, where a base of PMC Wagner was destroyed.”

British military intelligence says 1,000 mercenaries from the Wagner Group have been deployed in Ukraine. 

Over the past eight years, the troops for hire have been accused of human rights abuses and war crimes in Ukraine, Syria and countries in Africa. 

They were first deployed in Crimea in 2014, which Kremlin-backed forces seized from Ukraine in what some consider the beginning of the country’s war with Russia. 

Wagner mercenaries have played an active role in the fighting in Donbas, often deployed as infantry to advance on towns from which Ukrainian forces have withdrawn.

The shadowy group, which was reportedly started by a Russian army veteran of the Chechen wars, is linked to Yevgeny Prigozhin, known as Putin’s chef because he rose from being a caterer for the Kremlin. 

Russia denies any connection to the Wagner group. 

2. Germany to miss NATO spending targetthink tank

An economic think tank warned on Monday that Germany will fall short of its defence spending target.  

Europe’s largest economy faces an almost €18 billion shortfall in defence spending next year despite a recent boost spurred on by the Ukraine war, according to the German Economic Institute.

Germany pledged to spend 2% of its GDP on its neglected armed forces in line with NATO targets and has set up a €100 billion special fund to beef them up. 

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said it was necessary to “invest significantly more in the security of our country in order to protect our freedom and our democracy”.

In its report, the Cologne-based institute said that Berlin will not hit the 2% goal, noting that no more cash has been promised this year. 

Next year there will be a near €18 billion shortfall despite an increase in outlays.

The UK, which currently spends around 2% of GDP on defence, has said it will up spending to 2.5% of GDP, along with several other NATO allies. 

Under current projections, the Insitute said Germany will not get near its target until 2027. 

By then, the €100 billion set aside could be used up, and defence spending will fall back to around 1.2% of GDP. 

The dedicated fund was created to bypass Germany’s constitutionally enshrined debt brake. 

However, the German Economic Insitute claims that political commitments — which rule out raising taxes or cutting spending (along with the debt brake) — prevent Germany from meeting its defence spending commitments.

3. Putin and Kim Jong Un in diplomatic love-in

Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un swapped letters on Monday indicating they were pushing for stronger bilateral relations, according to North Korean state media. 

In his letter, Kim said to Putin that Russian-North Korean cooperation was at “a new high stage in the common front for frustrating the hostile forces’ military threat and provocation”.

Pyongyang uses the term “hostile forces” to refer to the United States and its allies.

Putin told Kim that Moscow would “continue to expand the comprehensive and constructive bilateral relations” it has with Pyongyang, reported the North Korean news agency KCNA.

The letters follow Pyongyang’s recognition of Russian-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine and its reported preparedness to send workers to help their reconstruction.

This move was condemned by Ukraine, which promptly cut ties with North Korea.

Putin’s message comes on the anniversary of the end of Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule over the Korean Peninsula — marked as Liberation Day by North Korea.

Kim gave a nod to this history in his letter, saying that the Russia-North Korea friendship was “forged in the anti-Japanese war” and had “consolidated and developed century after century”. 

Both countries fought against Japan in World War II, and the Soviet Union was once a major ally of North Korea, engaging in economic and cultural exchange. 

The Kremlin has not yet commented on Putin’s reported letter to Kim.

North Korea last month became the third state after Russia and Syria to recognise the sovereignty of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics that have broken away from Ukraine. 

4. Brittney Griner: Defence team appeals conviction

Jailed US basketball hotshot Brittney Griner has appealed against her conviction for drug charges, her lawyer told Reuters on Monday.

Griner, widely considered one of the best basketball stars in the world, was jailed for nine years in Russia on charges of possession and trafficking of illegal substances. 

Her lawyer Maria Blagovolina confirmed that an appeal of this verdict was taking place, without specifying on what grounds. 

Griner’s sentencing is seen as paving the way for a prisoner swap between Moscow and Washington, with US President Joe Biden under pressure to bring her home. 

Up for trade is Viktor Bout a Russian arms dealer imprisoned in the US, who is nicknamed the “merchant of death”. His colourful life inspired the film Lord of War, which depicts a cynical arms dealer. 

Russian officials have said that all legal avenues must be exhausted before a potential exchange can be discussed.

Over the weekend, Moscow admitted for the first time that political negotiations were taking place between Russia and the US, who are experiencing mounting tensions over Ukraine. 

Griner, who once played for a Russian club, was arrested at a Moscow airport in February after cannabis-infused vape cartridges were found in her luggage.

She pleaded guilty to the charges but said she had made an “honest mistake” by entering Russia with cannabis oil, which is illegal in the country. 

The US government says Griner was wrongfully detained. 

5. New Zealand pitches in to Ukraine training effort

New Zealand is sending its armed forces to Britain to help get Ukrainian troops combat-ready. 

Wellington said on Monday it would send 120 military personnel to assist the UK’s effort to train Ukrainian soldiers. 

The deployment of two infantry training teams will equip Ukrainian personnel with the core skills to be effective in combat, including weapon handling, first aid, operational law and other skills, according to New Zealand’s government. 

Some 800 Ukrainian soldiers will be trained, at one of four locations in Britain, which itself is delivering extensive training support to the Ukrainian army.  

New Zealand defence staff will not travel to Ukraine, the government said in a statement.

“We have been clear that a blatant attack on a country’s sovereignty and the subsequent loss of innocent lives is wrong and intolerable,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told a news conference to announce the deployment.

“Our condemnation will continue to extend beyond words and include critical support,” she added. 

Ardern stressed that New Zealand troops have not and would not engage in combat in Ukraine.

Thirty New Zealand defence personnel completed a deployment in May to train Ukrainian military personnel in operating artillery.

These deployments are part of a broader package of measures by Wellington to support Ukraine, including more than NZ$40 million (€25.05 million) in financial support and the sanctioning of 840 Russian people and businesses.