Ukraine Live Updates: Russia Captures More Ground as It Nears Full Control of Luhansk

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The battle for the twin cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk has left both the Russian and Ukrainian armies severely depleted, offering a window into the bloody struggle still to be fought for wider control of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.

Russian forces are closing in on what would be their first significant territorial gain in weeks in Ukraine, as they advance on the two cities, the last major pieces of Luhansk province not to fall into Russian hands. Each side has suffered thousands of casualties and whole swaths of the cities have been reduced to rubble.

But capturing all of Donbas would mean taking both Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk province, and the Russian advances in Donetsk in the past month have been small.

The capture of the twin cities would eliminate an advantage the Ukrainians have in being able to use the Siversky Donets River as a natural defensive barrier that Russian forces have suffered heavy losses trying to cross.

Even so, the Russians would face a difficult road to capturing towns and cities to the west in Donetsk, including Kramatorsk and Sloviansk. Russian attempts to advance on the region from the north remain stalled, with both sides trading a few miles of land each day in battles around the city of Izium.

Military analysts have suggested that heavy losses by both sides already might necessitate an “operational pause” in fighting similar to the lull seen between late March and mid-April, as Russia regrouped from its early failures to capture Kyiv, the capital, and retreated from northern Ukraine.

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Credit…Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters

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Credit…Oleksandr Ratushniak/Reuters

“There is evidence that both sides, due to high numbers of casualties and ammunition expenditure, are nearing exhaustion,” Mick Ryan, a retired Australian general and commander of the Australian Defence College, wrote in a recent analysis. “An operational pause in the next month or two is highly possible.”

Some military analysts have questioned the wisdom of Ukraine investing so much blood and equipment to defend territory with marginal strategic value. However, much as the 86-day-long fight for Mariupol forced Russia to devote resources to the battle and gave Ukrainian forces in other parts of the country time to mount a defense, the fight in Luhansk has bought them time, allowing for more powerful weapons to flow into the country.

The Ukrainians have sought to take advantage of stretched Russian forces to set the stage for counter offensives around Kherson in the south and Kharkiv in the northeast. Control over southern Ukraine is central to Moscow’s efforts to strangle Ukraine economically, while holding the Kharkiv area is critical to maintaining supply lines for its forces in the east.

It remains to be seen how the flow of Western weapons to Ukraine might alter the strategic balance, but military analysts and the Ukrainians say they will make any new Russian offensives much more costly, and enable more counter offensives.

For now, Russia continues to bombard Ukrainian positions along the entire Donbas front. The Ukrainians reported on Wednesday that 21 buildings in Donetsk were damaged in Russian shelling over the past day, including a school and several houses, leaving one person killed and 10 injured.

“Massive air and artillery strikes,” had struck the region, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine said in his address on Wednesday night.

“The goal of the occupiers in this direction remains the same — they want to destroy the whole Donbas step by step,” he added. “They aim to turn any city into Mariupol. Completely ruined.”

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Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times
Street fighting in Sievierodonetsk continued to rage this week even as Russian forces appear to have broken through the Ukrainian defensive line, capturing the villages of Mirna Dolina, Pidlisne and Toshkivka, south of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.

DRUZHKIVKA, Ukraine — After weeks of artillery barrages, airstrikes and tank battles, Russian forces appear to have broken through a key part of Ukraine’s defensive line in the east, signaling the next step of their campaign to capture the last two major cities in the mineral-rich province of Luhansk.

The successful Russian advance is a watershed moment for Ukraine’s defense of the cities of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk. Either Ukraine’s forces will stay and defend, risking severed supply lines and the encirclement of thousands of troops, or they will withdraw, forfeiting the last urban centers of a region that makes up a large part of the Donbas, which Moscow has pledged to seize.

The two cities are split by the Siversky Donets River. Russian forces now control most of Sievierodonetsk, save a few pockets of resistance, and Ukrainian forces hold Lysychansk, where the hills bristle with their artillery.

The cities are part of a 30-mile-wide pocket where Ukrainian troops are holding out, gradually squeezed by Russian forces. If the pocket collapses and Lysychansk falls, the Russians will have taken all of Luhansk, and will be able to reconsolidate and prepare to focus their offensive on the neighboring Donetsk region.

Troops in Lysychansk are bracing for an onslaught. “The last city is Lysychansk, and it will be very hard here, a lot of good guys will die,” said one Ukrainian soldier defending the city, who gave only his first name, Sergiy, for security reasons.

In recent days, Ukrainian tanks and other equipment have flooded into Lysychansk, which sits on higher ground, dominating nearby Sievierodonetsk and the rolling fields beyond. Ukrainian troops have dug new trenches on street corners and erected new roadblocks to create chokepoints for the Russian troops that are expected to arrive in the coming days and weeks.

Sergiy’s acknowledgment that a final battle for Lysychansk is near came as regional officials announced on Wednesday that Russian troops had overrun three small towns to the southeast of his city.

The towns — Myrna Dolyna, Pidlisne and Toshkivka — are little more than postage stamps in the country’s vast eastern expanse. But their collapse within days of one another marks a significant breach in Ukraine’s front line, bringing Russian forces to the doorstep of Lysychansk and threatening the few supply routes into the city.

“The surprising aspect here is that Ukraine has chosen to reinforce as Russian forces inch closer to the city,” said Michael Kofman, the director of Russia studies at CNA, a research group in Virginia. “Both cities, Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk could fall in the near term. However, Russia may not have the forces to exploit this localized offensive, and will find itself in a grinding fight against yet another set of Ukrainian defensive lines.”

Since the war began four months ago, Ukrainian commanders have often chosen to stand and fight rather than retreat, raising the cost of the invasion for Russia in men and equipment and buying time for more heavy arms from Ukraine’s allies to arrive. In the port city of Mariupol, Ukrainian forces held out for weeks in a steel mill complex after the rest of the city had fallen.

Russia’s forces are trying to flank the two cities on the Siversky Donets River from the east and west, Ukrainian military officials said.

In the west, Russian troops have positioned themselves to build pontoon bridges near the town of Siversk, a strategic hub for Ukrainian supply routes into Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk, according to those officials. And in the east, Russian reconnaissance units have tried to scout Ukrainian artillery positions in an attempt to destroy them and seize high ground behind Lysychansk.

“We are being pressed closer to the city,” said Oleksandr Voronenko, a military police officer stationed in Lysychansk. “As long as there is a corridor through Siversk to Lysychansk, we will stand.”

Natalia Yermak contributed reporting.

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WASHINGTON — Congress is poised to force the Pentagon to study how it assesses allies’ will to fight, amid criticism from lawmakers that the U.S. government has regularly failed to make such assessments accurately.

A provision approved for inclusion in the Senate version of the annual defense policy bill would mandate a study by the Defense Department of how it judges the willingness of foreign militaries to fight their enemies.

In Ukraine, U.S. officials initially forecast that the Russians would take Kyiv, the capital, within a few days. In Afghanistan, some U.S. officials thought the Afghan military could hold together and continue to fight the Taliban after the American withdrawal. Both predictions were wrong.

The Pentagon has pushed back against accusations that it misjudged Ukraine, while acknowledging problems with its assessment of Afghanistan’s military. Intelligence officials have said errors in predicting the course of the Russian invasion were more a matter of overestimating the Russians than underestimating the Ukrainians.

Senator Angus King, the Maine independent who pushed for the provision to be included in the annual bill, said that the Pentagon and intelligence agencies had made errors in judging an ally’s willingness to fight, but that such assessments are far more difficult, and more subjective, than counting up tanks.

I am not naïve enough to think that this is easy or straightforward,” Mr. King said. “What I do believe is it’s damned important and that we have to do a better job. Within one year we had two pretty straight up failures in the opposite direction.”

Lawmakers from both parties have echoed Mr. King’s views, but a Pentagon spokesman disputed the contention that the Ukrainians had been underestimated.

“The Department respectfully rejects the notion that there was any doubt about Ukraine’s will to fight,” said Marine Corps Lt. Col. Anton T. Semelroth, a Defense Department spokesman. “It remains inspiring to see the courage and bravery of the Ukrainian people as they stand up against Russia’s unprovoked and brutal invasion.”

The Pentagon, Mr. King said on Wednesday, needs to study what went wrong, where misjudgments were made and whether there is a better way to make predictions. The provision would require that the report be completed by next April. Avril D. Haines, the director of national intelligence, has begun a review of how American spy agencies assessed the Ukrainian and Afghan militaries.

Pentagon officials declined to comment on the provision, which has not yet been voted on by the full Senate.

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Credit…Patrick Chauvel/Reporters Without Borders

Two lifeless bodies found on the ground in a forest about 12 miles north of Kyiv, one with a bullet wound in the chest and two in the head.

A charred Ford Maverick belonging to one of the men.

The discarded food packaging and plastic cutlery of Russian soldiers discovered nearby in an area that had been occupied by Russian forces.

These are just a few of the clues pieced together by the press freedom group Reporters Without Borders in an investigation of the killings of Maks Levin, a Ukrainian photojournalist, and his friend, Oleksiy Chernyshov, a soldier. While the circumstances remain murky, the organization reported on Wednesday that the evidence suggested the journalist had been executed “in cold blood.”

The men’s bodies were discovered on April 1 in a forest near the village of Moshchun, near Kyiv, which came under heavy bombardment in early March when Russian forces tried to take the Ukrainian capital. The men, according to organization, were killed on March 13.

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Credit…Patrick Chauvel/Reporters Without Borders

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Credit…Patrick Chauvel/Reporters Without Borders

Analysis of the photos of the crime scene, the observations made on the spot and the material evidence recovered clearly point to an execution that may have been preceded by interrogation or even acts of torture,” said Christophe Deloire, secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, which published a 16-page report on the killings.

“We owe them the truth,” he added.

Reporters Without Borders, based in Paris, sent two investigators to Ukraine to look into the deaths. The group said that the evidence suggested that the men had been killed after Mr. Levin went to retrieve a drone he had lost on March 10 in the forest near Moshchun, while trying to get footage of Russia’s military.

The group said Mr. Levin abandoned his first attempt to find his drone after coming under Russian fire. But, it said, he returned three days later to continue his search in a hostile area. It said he had been accompanied by Mr. Chernyshov, who was carrying an AK-74 rifle and wearing a military uniform.

“The terrain was hostile but Levin was determined to recover his drone at all costs because he was convinced that the last images it had taken were very important,” the report said, adding that the last image Mr. Levin had shared with a friend showed Russian armored vehicles near houses in a village.

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Mr. Levin, who had covered the conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region, was the father of four sons. Reporters Without Borders said Mr. Levin, 40, was an experienced freelance journalist who had worked often with LB.ua, a Ukrainian news site, and Reuters.

The group stressed that Mr. Levin was not a member of the military. But it said photos of his body showed a blue armband similar to those worn by Ukrainian soldiers, a marker it said frontline journalists sometimes wore to identify themselves to the Ukrainian military as “friendlies.”

It added that Mr. Levin may have provided images taken by his drone, including images showing Russian positions, to Ukrainian forces.

Investigators found Mr. Chernyshov’s identity papers at the scene of the killings, and also “located a bullet that had probably struck Levin,” the group said.

According to a statement by Ukrainian prosecutors, Mr. Levin was killed by two shots fired by Russian soldiers using small arms.

Reporters Without Borders said it had handed over its evidence to the Ukrainian judicial authorities. By its count, eight journalists, including Mr. Levin, have been killed since the invasion began.

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Dozens of organizations representing people of color, women and L.G.B.T.Q. voters called on President Biden on Wednesday to strike a deal for the release of Brittney Griner, the W.N.B.A. star who has been detained in Russia since February.

In a letter sent to Mr. Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the groups said Ms. Griner “continues to endure inhumane treatment, deprived of contact with her family.”

The letter said the United States “has acknowledged that Brittney is essentially a political pawn in classifying her as wrongfully detained.” And while the signatories cited “deep appreciation” for the administration’s efforts to free Ms. Griner, “we now urge you to make a deal to get Brittney back home to America immediately and safely.”

The Phoenix Mercury basketball player was detained in Russia on Feb. 17 on accusations that she had hashish oil in her luggage. At first, Ms. Griner’s camp was worried that publicity could make the situation worse because of tensions between Russia and the United States, including the war in Ukraine.

But the group’s approach has changed since the State Department said on May 3 that it had determined Ms. Griner had been “wrongfully detained.” That meant the United States could expend greater efforts toward bringing her home despite the legal action against her in Russia.

In recent weeks, players with the W.N.B.A., working with Ms. Griner’s wife, Cherelle, and others, have tried to draw attention to her case.

The latest effort, the letter from groups including the National Organization for Women, the Human Rights Campaign, the National Urban League and the National Action Network, was coordinated by Ms. Griner’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas, who worked with the Democratic strategist Karen Finney and others. The groups, which represent a coalition of constituencies that helped to elect Mr. Biden, are speaking out amid growing frustrations over the pace of the effort to bring Ms. Griner home.

“To my understanding, they have not started negotiating her release, and so this letter is very powerful because it’s much-needed support to highlight the fact that we are at the phase where you guys should be making a deal,” Cherelle Griner said.

“I wish I could say I have a clear understanding of it,” she said of the White House strategy. “They do a lot of talking in code with me.”

The administration, she said, is “debating whether they should start negotiating,” when it has already been determined that her wife was wrongfully detained. “Instead, they’re debating and they’re wasting time from my wife’s life.”

White House officials, commenting after this article was published online, said, “President Biden has been clear about the need to see all U.S. nationals who are held hostage or wrongfully detained abroad released, including Brittney Griner. The U.S. government continues to work aggressively — using every available means — to bring her home.”

Administration officials have said Mr. Biden’s team is in regular contact with the Griner family and that Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with Cherelle Griner in May. The special envoy for hostage affairs is also in touch with Ms. Griner’s team.

Bill Richardson, the former governor of New Mexico and the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, also has been working to try to free Ms. Griner and another American in Russia, the former Marine Paul Whelan, who has been detained since 2018.

Still, Cherelle Griner said she was uncertain about how much the White House was prioritizing the case. She told The Associated Press that she was supposed to speak to her wife by phone for the first time in roughly four months over the weekend, but a logistical problem at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow upended the plans.

According to The A.P., the embassy was supposed to facilitate the call between the two women. But when Brittney Griner called the embassy to get patched through to her wife in the United States, there was no answer. Brittney Griner’s lawyers said she tried calling the line 11 times while her wife waited in vain for the call, The A.P. reported.

“I was distraught. I was hurt. I was done, fed up,” Cherelle Griner told The A.P.

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Credit…Laetitia Vancon for The New York Times

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MYKOLAIV, Ukraine — There is no door on Anna Svetlaya’s fridge. A Russian missile blew it off the other day. The detached door saved her, protecting her chest from shrapnel as she passed out in a pool of blood.

It was just before 7 a.m. in a residential district here in the southern Ukrainian port city of Mykolaiv when Ms. Svetlaya, 67, felt her world explode in a hail of metal shards, glass and debris as she prepared breakfast.

Her face a mosaic of cuts and bruises, her gaze dignified, Ms. Svetlaya said: “The Russians just don’t like us. We wish we knew why!” A retired nurse, she surveyed her small apartment, where her two sisters labored to restore order.

“It’s our ‘brother Russians’ who do this,” said one, Larisa Kryzhanovska. “I don’t even hate them, I just pity them.”

Since the war began, Russian forces have pummeled Mykolaiv, frustrated by their failure to capture it and advance west toward Odesa. But the city’s resistance has hardened.

Almost encircled in the first weeks of fighting, it has pushed back, becoming a linchpin of Ukrainian defiance on the southern front. But at regular intervals, with missiles and artillery, Russia reminds the 230,000 people still here that they are within range of Moscow’s indiscriminate slaughter.

Once a summer tourist destination, a city with a lovely setting at the confluence of the Southern Buh and Ingul rivers, Mykolaiv has become ghostly.

Weeds advance across sidewalks. Buildings are shuttered. Drinking water is in short supply. More than half the population has left; those who remain are almost all jobless. Every now and then another explosion electrifies the summer air, tipping people into desperation when it does not kill them.

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KYIV, Ukraine — As Ukrainian forces launch a renewed assault on Snake Island in the Black Sea, recent strikes suggest that they are using powerful Western anti-ship weapons in an effort to undermine Russian naval domination.

The Ukrainian military’s southern command said late on Tuesday that it was using “various forces and methods of destruction” to attack Russian infrastructure on Snake Island, a speck of land south of Odesa that is critical to efforts to control the Black Sea. On Wednesday morning, the military said it had destroyed a Russian air defense system, radar installation and vehicles on the island.

Russia’s defense ministry said it had thwarted the attack, which it said had featured 15 drones and long-range missiles, and was intended to land Ukrainian soldiers on the island. “The unsuccessful fire attack forced the enemy to abandon the landing to Snake Island,” the Russian military said.

The Russians said that “after being convinced that the attempt to seize the island had failed,” the Ukrainians had used long-range anti-ship missiles and drones to attack Russian gas infrastructure facilities in the northwestern part of the Black Sea.

The details of the battle offered by the two sides could not immediately be verified. But Ukrainian officials defended the targeting of Russian offshore drilling infrastructure, saying that Moscow was converting its drilling platforms to military installations by installing high-tech surveillance and communications systems on the rigs.

The current round of fighting around Snake Island appeared to kick off on Friday, when the Ukrainians struck a Russian naval tugboat as it was on a mission to deliver weapons and personnel to the island.

On Tuesday, the British military’s intelligence agency said that Ukraine had “almost certainly” used newly delivered Harpoon missiles in the attack — their first demonstrated use. Ukrainian coastal defense capabilities have now “largely neutralized” Russia’s ability to project maritime force in the northwestern Black Sea, the British analysis said.

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Credit…Ukraine Forces Of Southern Ukraine/Via Reuters

Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister, said that Ukrainian weapons had hit a former natural-gas rig on Monday where Russian forces had placed radio-jamming equipment, blocking Ukraine from getting an accurate picture of the area. Mr. Zagorodnyuk said the strikes might be an indication that important naval weapons Ukraine has been seeking from its Western allies had arrived.

The Russians said that the Ukrainian attack on the drilling rig had resulted in an intensive fire and could lead to “an environmental disaster.”

The strikes at sea come amid an intensification of bombardment across southern Ukraine. The Ukrainian military has reported more than two dozen Russian missile attacks in recent days. Serhii Bratchuk, the spokesman for the Odesa regional military administration, said a Russian missile barrage on Odesa on Monday had struck targets including a food warehouse and a cemetery.

As both sides duel in the Black Sea, the world is wrestling with a global food crisis caused by a Russian naval blockade that is keeping Ukrainian ships from leaving port with millions of tons of grain.

Snake Island — which covers just 46 acres of rocks and grass — is vital to both the Ukrainians and the Russians. If the Russians have control of the island, a little over 20 miles miles off the coast, they can control shipping lanes in the northwestern corner of the Black Sea.

After a series of attacks in May by Ukrainian forces in and around Snake Island, Russia has reinforced its outpost there with multiple surface-to-air rocket systems, according to satellite imagery and Ukrainian officials.

Mr. Bratchuk said the Russians were trying to turn the garrison on the island into “something that could be the analogue of the warship Moskva.” The Ukrainians sank the Moskva, the flagship on the Russian Black Sea Fleet, in April. Although at that time Ukraine had a handful of domestically made anti-ship missiles, called Neptunes, powerful Harpoon systems appear now to be arriving in the country from the West.

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Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

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Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

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Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

LVIV, Ukraine — Artemiy Dymyd’s closest friends unwrapped his parachute and spread it gently over his grave. The red, silky material swaddled his coffin as it was lowered down.

The men, many soldiers themselves, covered the freshly dug hole with dirt. The first shovelfuls landed with a thud.

The funeral for Mr. Dymyd, a marine killed in action, was the first funeral of the day in Lviv, a western city in Ukraine where residents have seen a relentless stream of their sons killed in the war with Russia. By Tuesday’s end, three other freshly dug graves near Mr. Dymyd’s would also be filled with young soldiers who had died in battle for the country’s east, hundreds of miles away.

The funeral had begun in a Greek Catholic church, an eastern branch of Catholicism that is widespread in Lviv. Mr. Dymyd’s father, a priest, delivered his eulogy. And then his mother, her voice thick with emotion, sang a final lullaby for her son.

The procession then made an all-too-familiar journey from the church to the city’s main market square, where dozens of young people in scouting uniforms formed a honor guard. Mr. Dymyd, 27, had been a part of Ukraine’s scout organization since the age of 7. Young children, teenagers and adults from the group were there to say a final goodbye.

At the bottom of the square, four white placards announced the details of the military funerals to be held in the city on Tuesday, all for men killed in the battle for the country’s east in recent weeks. Three of them never reached their 30th birthday.

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One young woman, wearing the distinctive green scarf of the scouts, closed her eyes, drew sharp breaths and clenched her fists to keep her tears at bay as she joined the slow procession for Mr. Dymyd.

Scouting was just one part of his life. Mr. Dymyd also loved traveling and adventure, and extreme sports like parachuting. His nickname was Kurka, which means chicken. Friends said that Metallica music would have been more fitting for his funeral than the military dirges that now play in Lviv’s Lychakiv cemetery daily.

“He is one of the most decent men I’ve ever met,” said Dmytro Paschuk, 26. “He lived many lives in his 27 years. People write books about characters like him, and maybe there will be books soon.”

Mr. Paschuk, who ran a wine bar before the war, served alongside Mr. Dymyd in a special operation unit of the Ukrainian marines. They had become like brothers in the last few months, he said.

On the night of the attack that ended his friend’s life, Mr. Paschuk said, he woke to the sound of an explosion and soon knew that something was wrong. He immediately looked for Mr. Dymyd and saw that another friend was giving him first aid. When he saw Mr. Dymyd’s eyes, he knew it was bad.

“I was scared to be beside him,” he said slowly. “Because when I saw him I felt that he wouldn’t make it.”

Mr. Dymyd died a short time later.

Mr. Paschuk said he had mixed feelings about returning to the front lines in a few days. He described waves of emotions, but he said he was not angry or vengeful.

“I don’t have the feeling I want to kill everyone because this happened,” Mr. Paschuk said. “Thanks to Kurka. He taught me to remain calm.”

Roman Lozynskyi, a fellow marine, had been a friend of Mr. Dymyd for two decades, having met him when they were young scouts. Mr. Lozynskyi, who is a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, volunteered for the military three months ago and served in the same unit as Mr. Dymyd and Mr. Paschuk.

He described his lifelong friend as a “crazy man” with a lust for life who had raced back to Ukraine from a parachuting trip in Brazil to enlist when the war began. Mr. Dymyd wanted to continue parachuting during the war and finally had a chance last month as part of a mission, his friends said.

It was Mr. Dymyd’s brother, Dmytro Dymyd, who thought of placing the parachute in his grave, Mr. Lozynskyi said, in a nod to Mr. Dymyd’s passion for the sport of parachuting. The brother, who is also a soldier, was given permission to attend the funeral but would return to the Donetsk region in a few days.

As the mourners slowly made their way from the cemetery, the grave diggers tamped down the earth on Mr. Dymyd’s grave to a sturdy mound.

There were still three more to go.

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Turkish and Russian military delegations met in Moscow on Tuesday, Turkey’s defense ministry said, part of an ongoing effort by Turkey to help unlock a Russian blockade of Ukrainian grain exports that is spurring a global food crisis and reverberating as far away as Africa.

Cargo ships holding more than 20 million tons of grain are trapped by the blockade in Ukrainian ports, Ukrainian and United Nations officials have said.

Turkey’s defense ministry said in a statement on Wednesday that representatives of Russia, Ukraine, the United Nations and Turkey were expected to meet in Turkey in the coming weeks to discuss the blockade.

A Russian government statement said this week’s talks had included “the safe exit of Turkish merchant ships and the export of grain from Ukrainian ports, as well as approaches to ensuring safe navigation in the Black Sea.”

Russia has bombed, blockaded and plundered Ukraine’s grain production capacity, which accounts for one-tenth of global wheat exports, fueling accusations that President Vladimir V. Putin is using food as a weapon.

The crisis has underscored the international effects of a major war in a globalized world, with the blockade spurring a spike in global food prices and buffeting drought-stricken countries in Africa, some facing severe hunger. The blockade has compounded challenges that were already increasing prices and constraining supply, including the pandemic, high energy costs and recent droughts, floods and fires.

The war in Ukraine has also underlined efforts by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to project his country’s power on the global stage by playing both sides in the conflict. Turkey, a NATO member, has helped arm Ukraine with drones but also is refraining from imposing sanctions on Russia and has been thwarting Sweden’s and Finland’s NATO aspirations.

Turkey’s role as mediator can be tricky. Mr. Erdogan and Mr. Putin have had a sometimes close but also tense relationship. They have in recent years found themselves on opposite sides of conflicts in Azerbaijan, Libya and Syria.

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Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea has inflated global grain prices, raised fears of hunger in some countries and drawn widespread condemnation. It has also provoked a vexing problem: how to find a new route out for Ukraine’s agricultural exports.

Rather than using Ukraine’s ports to export its wheat, sunflower oil, corn and other produce, proposed alternatives have included either exporting it across Ukraine’s western borders into Poland or transporting it southwest into Romania, across the Danube River and out through the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta.

Western leaders have lined up in recent weeks to offer support for these solutions. President Biden said last week the United States was working with Europe to build grain storage capacity in Poland. The European Union’s foreign policy chief called the blockade a war crime. And Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain on Sunday called for a “long-term effort to develop the alternative overland routes that already exist.”

But analysts say that while moves to improve alternative routes can increase exports somewhat, they are not sufficient to meet global food demand. They also say that the relentless crop cycle will not wait.

“There’s been a mad rush to find alternatives” for Ukraine’s grain exports, said Mike Lee, a specialist in Black Sea agricultural projects at Green Square Agro Consulting in Britain. “But the only real viable route to exporting grain out is through the Black Sea ports, and there’s no alternative to get to the quantities that need to be shifted.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine has acknowledged the limitations of the alternatives being considered. He said in a speech on Monday that only a “much smaller volume can be supplied via new routes” and that “this results in a much more expensive supply.”

Exports slowed during the pandemic as the global economy contracted, but Ukraine typically ships about 50 million to 60 million tons of agricultural products per year. In May, after Russia’s invasion began, its export figure plummeted, according to figures from Strategie Grains, which is part of Tallage, a French research firm.

In other terms, Ukraine provided about 15 percent of global wheat exports in 2019 before the pandemic. But Andrée Defois, deputy chief operating officer of Strategie Grain, said the figure could now fall to around 6 percent unless there is “a miracle.”

The European Union in May presented a plan to secure alternative routes, and Hungary’s foreign minister on Monday offered his country’s territory as a possible platform for exports.

Ukraine’s deputy agriculture minister, Markian Dmytrasevych, last week made specific requests in a speech to the European Union, including measures to improve the port at Constanta and to speed up shipments across the Danube.

Experts say, however, that the obstacles are legion: Ukraine’s railway system runs on a different gauge from those of most other countries in the European Union. It will take time to build storage capacity. There are too few ferries on the Danube River to transport the produce. And Constanta is too small to handle the volume of crops from Ukraine.

In addition, securing the private investment for the infrastructure that would be necessary for such alternatives is difficult, in part because it is unclear how long the blockade will last, Mr. Lee said.

An agreement under which Russia would unblock the sea route could resolve the problem. But talks led by Turkey with the hope of achieving such an arrangement have not yielded tangible results, and fighting in the Black Sea is continuing.

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A former American national security adviser once called Kaliningrad, a Russian enclave sandwiched between the NATO members Poland and Lithuania, “a dagger in the heart of Europe.”

Now Kaliningrad, a port city captured from the Nazis by the Soviet Union during World War II, once again finds itself a fault line in a Cold War-style conflict between Russia and the West.

The Russian authorities this week threatened Lithuania with retaliation if the Baltic country did not swiftly reverse its ban on the transportation of some goods to Kaliningrad by rail. The restrictions exposed the geopolitical vulnerability of Kaliningrad, which is Moscow’s westernmost outpost but more than 200 miles from mainland Russia.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has stoked tensions in the region, where memories of Soviet subjugation run deep.

As nationalist rhetoric has grown more intense in recent years, Russia has moved advanced Iskander missiles into Kaliningrad, which is on the Baltic Sea. Lithuania’s defense minister said in April that Russia had stationed nuclear weapons in the region, which Moscow denies.

Having invaded Ukraine and deployed its troops to its pliant ally Belarus, Russia has suddenly flexed its military muscle near the borders of several NATO countries, including Baltic nations. Only a thin corridor between Lithuania and Poland, about 60 miles long, separates Russian forces in Belarus from Kaliningrad.

While analysts say that Moscow, already overextended in Ukraine, is unlikely to provoke another war in Europe, any attack on a Baltic state would trigger NATO’s mutual defense treaty. And any attempt to defend them would have to get past Kaliningrad and the missiles stationed there.

There was a time when Russia touted Kaliningrad as a symbol of its links with European culture. In the 1990s, the Russian authorities promoted Kaliningrad’s past ties to Germany to help attract tourists, lauding its role in the life and work of the 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who was born and lived in Königsberg, the regional capital now named Kaliningrad. (The Soviet authorities renamed the city in 1946 after Mikhail Kalinin, a Bolshevik revolutionary.)

The city has had other high-profile residents: Lyudmila Ocheretnaya, the former wife of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, was born there.

In the immediate post-Soviet era, Moscow tried to reinvent Kaliningrad as its own duty-free Hong Kong. The region sprouted with factories producing cars, electronics and furniture. After the provincial government negotiated visa-less travel to Polish border areas, the Ikea outlet in nearby Gdansk, Poland, became a popular destination for Russians.

But Moscow historically has also sought to obfuscate Germany’s historical ties to the area. In the 1960s, the Soviet authorities blew up a still-standing portion of a Gothic castle to make way for the House of Soviets, a towering building meant to symbolize the Soviet Union’s control over former German territory. Instead, the building was marred by structural defects, was never fully occupied and became a monument of sorts to Soviet failure.

The latest flare-up with Lithuania is not the first time Kaliningrad has been the locus of tensions.

In 2016, about 70 nautical miles off Kaliningrad, two Russian Su-24 planes buzzed the American guided missile destroyer Donald Cook, simulating an attack and drawing protests from Washington.

In another episode that same month, a Russian warplane intercepted an American reconnaissance plane at an unsafe distance over the Baltic Sea.

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Credit…Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

BRUSSELS — Spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden applied last month to join NATO, anticipating swift and smooth entry into the alliance. Instead they are in a bind, their path blocked by the unpredictable Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

With NATO’s annual summit beginning on June 29 in Madrid, expectations that the Scandinavian countries would be greeted as fast-track applicants are quickly fading, after Mr. Erdogan backtracked on earlier promises not to put obstacles in their way. Ibrahim Kalin, Mr. Erdogan’s main foreign-policy spokesman, says there is no schedule for their acceptance, and has even talked of a delay of a year.

Finland is especially frustrated, mindful of its 830 miles of border with Russia. After the Feb. 24 invasion, Finland moved quickly to prepare its application, and Finnish diplomats, according to Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto, checked with all 30 NATO members in advance and got rapid green lights from them all. That included an assurance from Mr. Erdogan himself, Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, has said.

NATO was so confident that the invitation to both countries would go smoothly that it choreographed a series of events around a vote accepting the applications in May, which the alliance had to cancel when Turkey suddenly objected.

Mr. Erdogan has made numerous demands, mostly centering on nationalist issues with domestic impact, like Kurdish separatism and terrorism, and the extradition of some followers of an exiled opposition leader, Fethullah Gulen. Mr. Erdogan blames Mr. Gulen, who lives in the United States, for a failed coup attempt against him in 2016.

Turkey wants both Finland and Sweden to strengthen their antiterrorism laws; to extradite particular people, including a number of Kurdish journalists; and to eliminate an informal embargo on arms sales to Turkey, imposed after Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria in 2019.

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