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The US believes that Russia is facing "severe" shortages of military personnel in Ukraine and is seeking new ways to beef up its troop levels, two US officials told CNN.
"The Russian military is suffering from severe manning shortages in Ukraine. We believe that the Russian Ministry of Defense (MOD) is seeking to recruit contract service members to make up for these personnel shortages, including by compelling wounded soldiers to reenter combat, acquiring personnel from private security companies, and paying bonuses to conscripts," a US official told CNN.
The latest US assessment is based on downgraded intelligence and confirmed to CNN by two US officials. It is the latest effort by the Biden administration to downgrade and publicly release intelligence findings about Russia's war effort.
The officials also said that the US has "credible reporting" that Russia's Defense Ministry is "likely to begin" recruiting convicted criminals in Ukraine "in exchange for pardons and financial compensation."
As with previous releases of downgraded intelligence, the officials did not provide additional details about the intelligence behind these assessments.
Russian President Vladimir Putin last week ordered the military to increase the number of troops by 137,000, though it was not clear how the Russian Defense Ministry intended to reach that target.
The Pentagon estimated earlier this month that as many as 80,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded during the war in Ukraine.
A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) — the UN nuclear watchdog — is in Zaporizhzhia and are expected to visit the nuclear power plant on Thursday. It comes as fighting continues around the plant, with both the Ukrainians and Russians have accused each other of shelling it.
Ukraine and countries around the world want the IAEA to be able to safely assess the facility, which is occupied by Russian forces, to avoid a nuclear incident.
Here's what else to know today:
- IAEA's visit: Inspectors from the UN’s nuclear watchdog will visit the Zaporizhzhia power plant for “a few days,” the head of the delegation said. Director General Rafael Grossi described his team as being on a “technical mission” and said there is the possibility of a permanent or continuing IAEA presence at the plant
- Ukraine's counteroffensive: The Ukrainian Armed Forces have had in fighting in the cities of Kherson, Beryslav and Kakhovka, according to Yurii Sobolevskyi, deputy head of the regional council. Meantime, Russia's defense ministry claimed that Ukrainian attempts in the south had failed. The ministry said Russian forces inflicted heavy losses of equipment and personnel.
- Crimea: Ukraine’s defense ministry is asking people in Crimea to relay details of the movements of Russian forces — specifically exact locations of "deployment points and residential addresses of the occupying forces." It also is asking for information about where military equipment is moving.
- Assistance to Ukraine: The US says it is expecting to announce more military aid for Ukraine in the coming days, according to John Kirby. This would come after US President Joe Biden announced $2.98 billion in military assistance for Ukraine last
- Tightening visas: Following a two-day informal meeting in Prague, the European foreign ministers reached a political agreement to fully suspend EU’s visa facilitation agreement with Russia — but the bloc remains split when it comes to an outright visa ban. Right now, the EU’s foreign policy chief said the decision means the process would become more difficult and take longer for Russians. The agreement will have to be approved by all member states at an European Council level. Russian warned of consequences over a move to fully suspend the visa facilitation agreement between the European Union and Russia, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.
The Ukrainian Energy Minister, Herman Halushchenko, says he hopes that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) mission to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant goes beyond the technical and examines the security threats at the plant.
The nuclear plant — the largest in Europe — is occupied by Russian forces but operated largely by Ukrainian technicians.
Halushchenko said on Urainian television Wednesday, "We hope that the IAEA representatives will have a slightly broader view of the situation. For example, in addition to purely technical functions, the mission should show security threats posed by the presence of armed forces at a nuclear facility, the presence of weapons and heavy equipment at the blocks themselves, mining. There are actually many things that need to be evaluated in terms of their impact on nuclear safety."
He said IAEA specialists are "really professionals" and that he hopes no pressure or manipulation from Russian soldiers affect their work.
Halushchenko reiterated that in the Ukrainian view, the key results of the mission should be deocupation of the power plant, to return it to full Ukrainian control, and to demilitarize the area around the plant.
Russian on Wednesday warned the European Union of consequences over the bloc moving to fully suspend the visa facilitation agreement between the European Union and Russia, according to state news agency RIA Novosti.
“Violation, circumvention or withdrawal by the EU from the visa facilitation agreement with Russia won't be left without consequences. We will decide for ourselves whether the measures will be symmetrical, asymmetric or something that the EU does not expect," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko told the news agency.
"If Brussels decides to shoot itself in the foot again, then it is their choice," he said.
Following a two day informal meeting in Prague, EU's foreign ministers on Wednesday reached political consensus to fully suspend the visa facilitation agreement between the European Union and Russia.
EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said that the decision “will significantly reduce the number of new visas issued by the EU member states” given that the process would become more difficult and take longer.
Visas were already restricted to some categories of Russian nationals. Borrell said that this is not a legal text but only a political agreement at this point.
In the buildup to the current Ukrainian counteroffensive, the US urged Kyiv to the keep the operation limited in both its objectives and its geography to avoid getting overextended and bogged down on multiple fronts, multiple US and western officials and Ukrainian sources tell CNN.
Those discussions involved engaging in "war-gaming" with Kyiv, the sources said — analytical exercises that were intended to help the Ukrainian forces understand what force levels they would need to muster to be successful in different scenarios.
The Ukrainians were initially considering a broader counteroffensive, but narrowed their mission to the south, in the Kherson region, in recent weeks, US and Ukrainian officials said.
Pentagon spokesperson Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told CNN that "the United States has routine military-to-military dialogue at multiple levels with Ukraine. We will not comment on the specifics of those engagements. Generally speaking, we provide the Ukrainians with information to help them better understand the threats they face and defend their country against Russian aggression. Ultimately, the Ukrainians are making the final decisions for their operations."
Officials say they believe there is now increased parity between the Ukrainian and Russian militaries. But western officials have been hesitant to label the nascent Ukrainian operation — which appeared to begin on Monday in the southern province of Kherson — a true "counteroffensive."
How successful Ukraine is likely to be in regaining lost territory remains an open question, sources familiar with the latest intelligence tell CNN. Ukrainian officials have already said this offensive will likely be a slow operation, and punishingly cold winter weather is coming and then an early spring mud, both of which could force pauses in the fighting.
Read more here.
Ukraine's defense ministry has appealed to informants in Crimea to relay details of the movements of Russian forces.
The Defense Intelligence Unit said on its Telegram channel that it wanted residents of Crimea to provide "the exact location of the deployment points and residential addresses of the occupying forces (preferred geo-referencing with coordinates)" as well as details of where senior officers lived.
It also asked people to provide the "locations and routes of movement of military equipment" and "accurate data of local collaborators who switched to the side of the enemy."
Ukraine has not acknowledged any attacks on Russian military locations and equipment in Crimea.
There are multiple reports of heavy explosions in the Nova Kakhovka area of the Ukrainian region of Kherson in the south.
The town, which is occupied by Russian forces, is strategically placed on river Dnipro, with a bridge that has been repeatedly attacked by Ukrainian forces.
In the last few weeks, ammunition depots in the area have also been struck.
Local social media accounts speak of air strikes and a large fire in the vicinity of a furniture factory.
There are also reports of fresh explosions near the main Antonivskiy bridge across the Dnipro south of Kherson city, as well as explosions in the nearby Oleshkiy area.
There has been no official comment from either side on the reports.
The reports come days after Ukraine announced a new offensive in the south aimed at dislodging Russian forces in Kherson.
Divisions within the European Union remain following today’s informal EU foreign ministers meeting held in Prague.
While the ministers reached a political agreement to fully suspend EU’s visa facilitation agreement with Russia, the bloc remains split when it comes to an outright visa ban.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto said Wednesday that several member states, including his country, “have raised their voice” against an EU blanket visa ban.
In a statement released after the meeting, Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said that he supported ending the EU’s visa facilitation agreement with Russia but that “this alone would not be enough,” adding that Estonia and other neighboring countries that share a border with Russia and Belarus would consider a national visa ban.
“Until we have reached an agreement on how to restrict the entry of Russian nationals to the European Union, Estonia and other countries that share a border with Russia and Belarus will consider a national visa ban or restricting border crossings for Russian nationals with EU visas,” Reinsalu said in the statement released on the foreign ministry’s website.
“At the informal meeting, the foreign ministers of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland issued a joint statement on the substantial increase in Russian citizens entering the European Union and the Schengen area and the security threat it poses,” the statement added.
Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told journalists that the EU today took a step “in the right direction,” according to Finnish public broadcaster YLE.
“A common approach will prevent a potential visa shopping by Russians going here and there trying to look for the better conditions,” EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a news conference following the meeting.