Ukraine steps up counteroffensive; Moldova orders 45 Russian diplomatic staff to leave

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Ukrainian forces have stepped up their counteroffensive after two months of gruelling, incremental gains, mounting a new push in the south of the country while edging closer to the fiercely contested eastern city of Bakhmut. The Ukrainian army is pouring thousands of western-trained and equipped reinforcements into a perceived weak spot in Russian defences in the Zaporizhzhia region. Ukraine is also attempting a partial encirclement of Bakhmut, pushing from the north and south to threaten Russian forces within.

The Ukrainian security service has claimed responsibly for the Crimea Bridge blast that happened in October last year. Vasyl Malyuk, the head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), said his agency was behind the attack, speaking in comments shown on television as he presented a commemorative postage stamp marking wartime special forces operations.

Nato said on Wednesday it was stepping up surveillance of the Black Sea region as it condemned Russia’s exit from a deal assuring the safe passage of ships carrying Ukrainian grain. The announcement came after a meeting of the Nato-Ukraine Council, a body established earlier this month to coordinate cooperation between the Western military alliance and Kyiv.

The Kremlin said it was impossible for Russia to return to the Black Sea grain export deal for now, as an agreement related to Russian interests was “not being implemented”. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters, however, that Vladimir Putin had made it clear the deal could be revived if its Russia-focused part was honoured.

The Kremlin said on Wednesday that just 17 African heads of state would be attending this week’s Russia-Africa summit. This is far fewer than at its 2019 conference or at similar summits held elsewhere, including a meeting in December with Joe Biden that dozens of African leaders flew to Washington DC to attend.

The EU announced a ban on exports of battlefield equipment and aviation parts to Belarus. Spain, the current holder of the EU’s rotating chair, said in a post on social media that the new sanctions were a response to “the situation in Belarus and the involvement of Belarus in the Russian aggression against Ukraine”.

Moldova has ordered 45 Russian diplomats and embassy staff to leave “over numerous unfriendly actions”, officials said on Wednesday, with tensions between the two countries running high. Moldova’s pro-EU government has firmly condemned Russia’s invasion of neighbouring Ukraine and alleged a Russian plot to overthrow the current government.

A criminal case was opened against a Ukrainian lawmaker suspected of taking a luxury Maldives holiday. Private trips abroad by officials have been banned since January. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy appeared to allude directly to the case in his nightly speech on Tuesday, in which he railed against corruption and officials who shirk their responsibilities during the war.

Ukraine will spend $1bn on domestic drone manufacturing this year. Prime minister, Denys Shmyhal announced 40bn hryvnia ($1.08b) would be invested into domestic drone manufacturing.

Russian armed forces claimed to have struck at a Ukrainian fuel warehouse and training centre in Donetsk. Suspilne, Ukraine’s state broadcaster, also reported that “during the night and morning of 26 July, the Russian army shelled six communities of Sumy oblast”

A decade-long failure by the British government has allowed the Wagner network to grow, spreading its tentacles deep into Africa and exploit vulnerable countries, according to a highly critical report from the UK’s foreign affairs select committee. It called on the government to proscribe the Wagner group in the UK and to make a far more concerted effort to stop it using the City of London as a financial centre.

President Vladimir Putin is planning to visit China in October, the Kremlin has said. “It is known that we have received an invitation and that we intend to go to China when the Belt and Road Forum is held in October,” Yuri Ushakov, an aide to the Russian president on international affairs, said in comments carried by Russian news agencies.

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