An apparent pause in Russian operations, a new drone for Ukraine, and NATO ministers meet on a strategic border line.
1. Russia pausing offensive ahead of renewed assault
Moscow is easing its offensive in Ukraine only temporarily and it is most likely preparing for a renewed assault, analysts claim.
On Wednesday, Russian forces made no claimed or assessed territorial gains in Ukraine "for the first time in 133 days of war", according to the Institute for the Study of War.
The think tank based in Washington suggested that Moscow may be taking an "operational pause" that does not entail "the complete cessation of active hostilities".
"Russian forces will likely confine themselves to relatively small-scale offensive actions as they attempt to set conditions for more significant offensive operations and rebuild the combat power needed to attempt those more ambitious undertakings," the institute said.
Slowing down the assault, however, does not mean that Russia has not carried on with bombardment across Ukraine. Shelling continued in Ukraine's east, where at least nine civilians were killed and six wounded in 24 hours, Ukrainian officials said.
2. Lithuania shows off 'crowdfunded' military drone it's giving to Ukraine
Lithuania showed off a crowdfunded Turkish-made military drone on Wednesday, which it plans to send to Ukraine to help the war-torn country fight Russia's invasion.
"This weapon will be sent to Ukraine immediately after it has been presented to the public," Lithuanian Defence Minister Arvydas Anusauskas said at a press conference at the Baltic state's northern air base in Siauliai.
Lithuanians raised €5.9 million over three days to buy the drone for Ukraine. However, inspired by the act of generosity, the Turkish manufacturer Bayraktar announced that it was donating it instead.
Part of the funds was then used to equip the drone, with the rest devoted to financing humanitarian aid for Ukraine.
3. Polish and Lithuanian presidents meet at strategically important site
The presidents of NATO members Poland and Lithuania met at a strategically vital corridor on Thursday, and expressed support that allied troops can fully safeguard the area.
The Swialki Gap is a a 70-kilometer corridor between Poland and Lithuania, which separates Belarus from the Kaliningrad exclave, where Russia's Baltic Fleet — and nuclear-capable missiles — are based.
There has been concern over NATO's ability to defend the Suwalki Gap, and President Andrzej Duda of Poland and Gitanas Nauseda of Lithuania said they were visiting to show how safe it is.
“This is a very sensitive area and the eyes of an aggressor could potentially be directed here,” Nauseda said in Szypliszki, on the Polish side.
“We have decided to come to this place ... to show that it is safe ... just because of what you can see here today: the daily, calm but full of vigilance service of the Polish, Lithuanian and other NATO troops,” Poland's Duda said.
At the urging of Poland and the Baltic states, NATO leaders decided at a summit last week in Madrid that the number of allied troops in Eastern Europe will be significantly increased. At the Suwalki Gap, battalions numbering hundreds of troops will be boosted to brigades with thousands of troops.
Nauseda said the two countries are increasing their spending on defense to about 2.5% of their gross domestic product.
4. Putin to Ukraine: Russia has barely started its action
With Russia's military action in Ukraine in its fifth month, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday warned Kyiv that it should quickly accept Moscow's terms or brace for the worst, adding ominously that Russia has barely started its action.
Speaking at a meeting with leaders of the Kremlin-controlled parliament, Putin accused Western allies of fueling the hostilities, charging that "the West wants to fight us until the last Ukrainian.”
“It's a tragedy for the Ukrainian people, but it looks like it's heading in that direction,” he added.
“Everybody should know that largely speaking, we haven’t even yet started anything in earnest,” Putin said in a menacing note.
He declared that Russia remains ready to sit down for talks to end the fighting, adding that “those who refuse to do so should know that the longer it lasts the more difficult it will be for them to make a deal with us.”
“We are hearing that they want to defeat us on the battlefield,” Putin said. “Let them try.”
Earlier in the conflict, the Kremlin demanded that Kyiv acknowledge Russian sovereignty over the Crimea peninsula it annexed from Ukraine in 2014 and recognize the independence of Moscow-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine. Moscow also said it expected Ukraine to bow to the existing situation on the ground, a reference to other land gains it has made since the Russian troops rolled into Ukraine on 24 February.
After failing to capture Kyiv and other big cities in Ukraine's northeast early in the campaign, the Russian military shifted its focus to Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland of Donbas where Moscow-backed separatists have fought Ukrainian troops since 2014.
Earlier this week, the Russian military claimed control of the Luhansk province, one of the two regions that make up Donbas, and is preparing to press its offensive into the second one, the Donetsk region.
5. Brittney Griner: US basketball star pleads guilty to drug charges in Russia
Brittney Griner has pleaded guilty to drug possession and smuggling during her trial in Moscow but said she had no intention of committing a crime
The jailed American basketball star said she had acted unintentionally because she was packing in haste, according to court reports.
Griner was detained in February at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport after vape canisters with cannabis oil were allegedly found in her luggage.
She faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted of large-scale transportation of drugs.
The trial of the two-time Olympic gold medalist began last week amid growing calls for Washington to secure her freedom, nearly five months after her arrest.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned on Thursday that “attempts by the American side to make noise in public ... don’t help the practical settlement of issues.”
The White House said US President Joe Biden had called Griner’s wife on Wednesday to assure her that he’s doing all he can to obtain the athlete’s release, as soon as possible.
They spoke after Biden read a letter from Griner in which she said she feared she’d never return home.
The United States may have little leverage with Moscow because of heightened tensions due to Russia’s war in Ukraine.