NATO formally invites Sweden, Finland; US will expand European military presence: June 29 recap

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Editor's note: This page recaps the news from Ukraine on Wednesday, June 29.

On the same day NATO formally invited Sweden and Finland to join the security alliance, President Joe Biden said the U.S. will increase its military presence in eastern Europe amid Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Upon arriving at the NATO summit in Madrid on Wednesday, Biden announced the U.S. would establish its first permanent headquarters in Poland, maintain an additional rotational brigade in Romania and boost its rotational deployments in the Baltic region.

The troops in Poland would represent the first permanent U.S. forces on NATO’s eastern flank. The alliance plans to build up stocks of equipment and ammunition in the east and increase almost eightfold the size of its overall rapid-reaction force, from 40,000 to 300,000 troops, by next year.

With opposition from Turkey out of the way, NATO also intends to expand to 32 nations by welcoming previously nonaligned Sweden and Finland, which have grown wary of Russian aggression. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the war had brought “the biggest overhaul of our collective defense since the end of the Cold War.”

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Latest developments

►In the first day of the NATO summit, allies approved a new Strategic Concept for the Alliance, describing how it will address threats and challenges to security moving forward. The document includes a statement that defines Russia as the “most significant and direct threat” to allies’ security.

►The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which remained in power thanks to the 2015 intervention of Russian forces amid a civil war, said it will recognize the “independence and sovereignty” of Ukraine’s separatists eastern republics in the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces.

►Egypt will receive a $500 million loan from the World Bank to help finance wheat purchases aimed at providing subsidized food for the country's poor households as prices skyrocket because of the war in Ukraine, the bank said.

►A cyberattack temporarily knocked out public and private websites in Norway in the past 24 hours, Norwegian authorities said, pointing to a criminal pro-Russian group as the likely culprit.

Russian missile attack on mall may have been an accident, UK says

The airstrike that killed 18 people and injured dozens of others Monday in an Ukrainian shopping mall may indeed have been an accident, as Russian authorities have claimed, but their commanders don't hesitate to put civilians at risk in pursuit of military gains.

That's according to the latest intelligence assessment from the British Ministry of Defense, which points out Russia's bombing inaccuracy has resulted in mass casualties before in this war.

"Russian planners highly likely remain willing to accept a high level of collateral damage when they perceive military necessity in striking a target,'' said the assessment, deeming it a "realistic possibility'' the Russians were aiming for an infrastructure target nearby when their missile blasted the Kremenchuk shopping center.

The attack drew international condemnation, with French President Emmanuel Macron calling it a "new war crime.'' Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged the U.N. to establish an international tribunal to investigate.

REPO task force has confiscated $30 billion from oligarchs

The REPO task force is living up to its acronym.

The multinational committee in charge of confiscating the wealth of Russian elites allied with President Vladimir Putin has blocked and frozen $30 billion in property and funds of sanctioned oligarchs during its first 100 days, the Treasury Department said.

That doesn't include the yachts, other vessels and luxury real estate that have been impounded or the $300 billion in Russian Central Bank funds that have been frozen, the department said.

“We continue to increase Russia’s cost of its war,” Treasury said of the REPO task force, whose acronym stands for Russian Elites, Proxies and Oligarchs. The European Commission has set up its own Freeze and Seize Task Force to work in conjunction with the REPO group.

Likely NATO expansion a major blow for Putin

NATO's expansion to 32 nations, which got closer to reality when Sweden and Finland were invited to join Wednesday, represents a major blow to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who for years railed about the security alliance getting close to his country's doorstep.

Putin cited Ukraine's aspirations to join NATO as one of the reasons for launching his "special operation.'' Instead of splintering the bloc as he hoped, Putin is watching NATO unify in opposition to Russian aggression and grow as a result. Sweden and Finland, nonaligned for decades, were prompted to seek stronger protection once the war began.

“It’s a defeat for him. It’s a kick in the gut,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank that specializes in foreign policy and international relations.

The membership offer to the two Nordic countries became fait accompli Tuesday when Turkey withdrew its opposition after negotiating an agreement addressing concerns about Kurdish rebel groups that Turkey considers terrorists. NATO admission requires a unanimous vote from member states.

At a meeting with leaders of countries around the Caspian Sea, Putin rejected the notion his plans had backfired, saying, “For us, the membership of Finland and Sweden is nothing like the membership of Ukraine. They understand this perfectly well.”

-- Francesca Chambers and Michael Collins

Putin still aims to claim most of Ukraine, US intelligence chief says

Russian President Vladimir Putin has not changed his goals in Ukraine even though they don't seem realistic, the top U.S. intelligence official said Wednesday.

Avril Haines, the Director of National Intelligence, foresees a long, “grinding struggle” in which Russia retains the parts of the eastern Donbas region it already controls and consolidates its hold over the south by the fall but likely doesn't get beyond that.

Speaking at an event in Washington, Haines said Putin “has effectively the same political goals that he had previously, which is to say that he wants to take most of Ukraine” and push it away from NATO.

“We perceive a disconnect between Putin’s near-term military objectives in this area and his military’s capacity, a kind of mismatch between his ambitions and what the military is able to accomplish,” she said.

Russia continues to make incremental advances in Lysychansk, the last city in Luhansk province it doesn't command. The invading forces and their separatist allies control 95% of Luhansk and about half of Donetsk, which make up the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas.

Ukraine conducts biggest prisoner exchange with Russia since war began

The Ukrainian government announced its largest prisoner exchange of the war, with 144 soldiers returning home, according to a post on the country's defense ministry's Telegram account.

Of those, 95 were involved in defending the Azovstal steel plant in the devastated southern city of Mariupol, captured by Russia weeks ago. Denis Pushilin, leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, said both sides released the same number of soldiers.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ukraine updates: NATO invites Sweden, Finland to alliance