1. NATO head fears Ukraine could spark wider war
NATO's chief has expressed a worry that fighting in Ukraine could spiral out of control and become an all-out conflict between Russia and NATO, during an interview released on Friday.
“If things go wrong, they can go horribly wrong,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in remarks to Norwegian broadcaster NRK.
“It is a terrible war in Ukraine. It is also a war that can become a full-fledged war that spreads into a major war between NATO and Russia,” he said. “We are working on that every day to avoid that.”
Stoltenberg, a former prime minister of Norway, said in the interview that “there is no doubt that a full-fledged war is a possibility.”
He added that it was important to avoid a conflict "that involves more countries in Europe and becomes a full-fledged war in Europe.”
The Kremlin has repeatedly accused NATO allies of effectively becoming a party to the conflict by providing Ukraine with weapons, training its troops and feeding military intelligence to attack Russian forces.
Ukraine says it is fighting for freedom against an unwanted invader and aggressor.
2. US alarmed by Russia-Iran partnership
The White House issued a stark warning on Friday over the ever-deepening "military partnership" between Tehran and Moscow.
It called the cooperation "large-scale", though Russia denied needing military support from anyone in Ukraine.
John Kirby, National Security Council spokesman, said Moscow had "offered Iran an unprecedented level of military and technical support", which "transforms their relationship into a full defence partnership".
He added that this development is "harmful" to Ukraine, Iran's neighbours and "the international community", while announcing sanctions against three Russian entities active in the purchase and distribution of Iranian drones.
Moscow has been accused of using Iranian-made drones to cripple Ukraine's energy and water infrastructure, knocking out power and other crucial utilities for civilians over prolonged periods amid bleak winter conditions.
Russia has denied using Iran's weaponry, though an Iranian official later said it had supplied weapons to Moscow before the Ukraine war broke out in February.
According to US intelligence, Moscow and Tehran plan to launch joint production of "killer" drones in Russia, John Kirby said, without giving further details on the project.
The spokesman also said that Iran was considering whether to sell "hundreds" of ballistic missiles to Russia, information the US has already made public.
But defence cooperation between the pair is not one-sided.
Russia has provided Iranian security forces with training amid the country's violent crackdown of anti-government protests, according to reports by IranWire.
“We are asking Iran to change course,” said Kirby, referring to the proposed missile sale and joint drone project.
"We will use every means at our disposal to expose and disrupt these activities," he added. "We are ready to do more."
At a meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday afternoon, Russia again denied receiving weapons from Tehran. it did not mention the White House's accusations.
"The Russian military-industrial complex is doing very well and does not need anyone's support," said Russian Ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzia. He noted that Russia had "refuted" these accusations on "several occasions".
3. Putin says Russia may consider pre-emptive strike to disarm foes
Russia could inflict a preemptive strike to disarm an enemy, Vladimir Putin said on Friday.
The Russian President made the remark after being asked by a journalist in Kyrgyzstan to clarify his statement on the use of nuclear weapons from earlier this week.
Days after warning that the risk of nuclear war was growing, Putin said Moscow was considering adopting what he called Washington's concept of a preemptive strike, a type of first attack that destroys an enemy's capacity to respond.
On Wednesday, he assured reporters that Moscow would not be the first to deploy atomic weapons.
"First, the United States has developed the concept of a preemptive strike. Second, they are developing a strike system aimed at disarming [the enemy]", Putin told reporters following a visit to Bishkek, the Kyrgyzstan capital.
He added that Moscow should perhaps think about adopting the "ideas developed by the Americans to ensure their own security".
"We're just thinking about it," he added.
The Russian president has repeatedly maintained that his country would not be the first to use nuclear weapons.
"Russia wouldn't use them first under any circumstances," he claimed on Wednesday.
"But if it doesn't use them first under any circumstances, it won't be the second to use them either, because the chances of using them in the event of a nuclear strike against our territory are very slim".
The US State Department condemned these statements, saying "any discussion, however vague, of nuclear weapons is absolutely irresponsible."
The spectre of nuclear war has returned to international affairs after Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February, marking a step towards old Cold War politics.
4. Lithuania to train Ukrainian battalion as part of EU mission
Lithuania is set to train a battalion of Ukrainian troops within the European Union’s new support mission for Ukraine, the country's Chief of Defence Valdemaras Rupšys said on Friday.
The mission -- led by Poland and Germany -- was launched in November, with some 15,000 Ukrainian troops expected to be trained.
“We will probably lead the training of one of the battalions,” Rupšys told reporters in Vilnius. He said Lithuania would do the teaching in Germany.
Training will focus on combat, but Lithuania is also schooling Ukrainian troops in fields such as mine clearance, engineering, mechanics and military-civilian cooperation.
Speaking in the Lithuanian capital yesterday, Robert Brieger, chairman of the EU Military Committee, said that 16 EU countries have already offered their support to train Ukrainian troops.
The UK has provided more military instruction than nearly any other country, putting nearly 6,000 Ukrainian civilians through basic training on British soil, while France has helped only a handful.
Lithuania, along with Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand, have all sent military personnel to assist the UK's effort.
Lithuania previously announced it would train around 1,500 Ukrainian troops in 2023. The Ukrainian battalion it mentioned on Friday, which would contain hundreds of soldiers, is part of this figure.
However, the number of Ukrainian troops to be trained could grow.
“We are very flexible and always respond quickly to requests from the Ukrainian military or political leadership, and we quickly organise necessary training for them,” Rupšys said.
5. Belarus drops conditions to Ukraine grain exports
Belarus told the United Nations on Friday that it would allow, without any conditions, the transit of grain from Ukraine through its territory to Lithuanian ports, according to a UN spokesperson.
Belarus -- used by its ally Russia as a staging ground for Moscow's invasion of Ukraine -- said in June that it would only let Ukrainian grain go via the country to Baltic Sea ports, if Belarus was allowed to ship its goods from the ports as well.
Ukraine did not agree to the proposal.
Belarus Deputy Foreign Minister Yury Ambrazevich met with UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in New York on Friday to tell him that there are now no longer any preconditions to the transit of Ukraine grain, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.
Ambrazevich also "reiterated the requests from his government to be able export its own fertiliser products, which are currently subject to sanctions," according to the UN spokesman.
Belarus, a major global potash producer, has been hit by harsh Western sanctions in 2021-2022 which disrupted its exports of the fertiliser via ports on the Baltic Sea.
In July, the UN and Turkey brokered a deal with Russia and Ukraine to resume Ukraine's Black Sea shipments of grain - stalled since the start of the war - and to facilitate Russia's food and fertilizer shipments.
The UN is still working to resume Russian ammonia exports, a key fertiliser ingredient, via a pipeline to a Black Sea port in Ukraine.
The UN has said Russia's war in Ukraine worsened a global food crisis, pushing some 47 million people into "acute hunger".