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Tensions rise between Russian mercenaries and Kremlin; Ukraine allies focus on air defenses for Kyiv

This has been CNBC's live blog covering updates on the war in Ukraine. [Follow the latest updates here.]

Tensions are emerging between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russia's highest-profile mercenary organization, the Wagner Group.

There's no love lost between the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Russia's Ministry of Defense — Prigozhin has openly and repeatedly criticized the ministry's most senior officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, on Russia's strategy in Ukraine.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, claimed in May that his mercenary fighters captured Bakhmut after nine months of intense fighting there.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

Now, however, Putin has endorsed the Defense Ministry's demand for volunteer formations, like Wagner, to sign contracts with the ministry. Prigozhin has already refused to sign any contracts.

In other news, Ukraine and its allies are meeting Thursday to discuss Kyiv's ongoing military needs and requirements, with Kyiv's military command saying that strengthening air defense, artillery and counter-battery capabilities are "important objectives."

'We are appealing to the world for weapons,' Zelenskyy says in nightly address for additional Western arms

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits a site of residential buildings recently damaged by a Russian missile strike, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on March 27, 2023.
Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | via Reuters

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for additional Western weapons for its fight against a full-scale Russian invasion on his official Telegram channel.

"Ukraine has never been the instigator of any aggressive wars," Zelenskyy said in a nightly address posted on Telegram, according to an NBC News translation.

"We are appealing to the world for weapons so that our Ukrainian territory can once again be a place of peace—a land for all our people," Zelenskyy said, adding that "only through the force of arms can we defend against Russian aggression and safeguard our peace."

Zelenskyy also thanked allies and partners who have provided weapons, financial assistance and humanitarian aid since Russia's war began more than a year ago.

— Amanda Macias

State Department approves $48.2 million sale to Spain for Raytheon artillery rounds

The M982 Excalibur 155mm round leaves the barrel of an M777 Howitzer during a live fire shoot conducted by soldiers at Oro Grande Range Complex, New Mexico.
Sgt. Sean Harriman | US Army

The U.S. State Department has approved a potential foreign military sale to Spain for 271 M982A1 Excalibur artillery rounds.

The sale will cost an estimated $48.2 million, according to a State Department release. The weapon system is manufactured by Raytheon in McAlester, Oklahoma.

"This proposed sale will support the foreign policy and national security of the United States by improving the security of a NATO ally which is an important force for political stability and economic progress in Europe," the State Department wrote in a statement announcing the sale.

The proposed weapons deal comes as NATO allies look to bolster their borders and arsenals as Russia's war in Ukraine marches into its 500th day.

— Amanda Macias

US presidential candidates should continue bipartisan support for Ukraine, Zelenskyy says

Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky pictured during a meeting with De Croo and Rutte (both not pictured) a meeting regarding the situation in Ukraine and the European support to the country, in The Hague, the Netherlands, Thursday 04 May 2023.
Dirk Waem | AFP | Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told NBC News that U.S. presidential candidates running in the 2024 election should want to continue leading bipartisan support as Kyiv fights off a full-scale invasion.

"If Ukraine would lose, if Russia would occupy Ukraine, Russia will continue going towards Baltic countries, Poland etcetera," Zelenskyy told Richard Engel of NBC News in an interview.

"They will start war with one of the NATO countries and at this moment the United States will have to choose: the collapse of NATO, or go to war," Zelenskyy added referencing NATO's mutual defense clause, known as Article 5.

The 31-member alliance has only invoked Article 5 once in its history — in defense of the United States in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

— Amanda Macias

IAEA chief visits Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant to inspect damage caused by Kakhovka dam attack

Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), visits the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine on June 15, 2023. 
Olga Maltseva | Afp | Getty Images

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA, visited the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant in Ukraine.

IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi said last week that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested the help of the nuclear watchdog agency following the attack on the Kakhovka dam.

Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), visits the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine on June 15, 2023. 
Olga Maltseva | Afp | Getty Images

The explosion at the dam not only triggered rising flood waters in southern Ukraine but also jeopardized the reservoirs of cooling water used for the reactors at the nuclear power plant.

Grossi said that the situation at the plant, Europe's largest nuclear power plant, remained serious but added that the level of reservoir water was stable, according to RIA news agency.

Rafael Grossi, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), holds a press conference during his visit to the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine on June 15, 2023.
Olga Maltseva | AFP | Getty Images

— Amanda Macias

Three vessels depart Ukraine carrying agricultural goods

An aerial view of a dry cargo ship transporting grain from Ukraine under the U.N.-brokered Black Sea deal.
Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Three ships carrying 157,872 metric tons of corn left Ukraine's ports of Chornomorsk and Odesa, according to a U.N.-backed organization that tracks exports under the Black Sea Grain Initiative.

The vessels are destined for Spain.

— Amanda Macias

U.S. defense boss Austin urges allies to 'dig deep' with arms for Ukraine

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a joint press conference with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley (not pictured), following an online meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, at the Pentagon in Washington, May 25, 2023.
Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called on Kyiv's allies on Thursday to "dig deep" to provide more arms and ammunition to fight Russia's invasion, particularly for air defenses.

Addressing a meeting of defence ministers from the U.S.-led Contact Group of some 50 countries that give military aid to Ukraine, Austin stressed Kyiv needed both short-term and long-term support as the war was a "marathon, not a sprint".

At the meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Austin noted the group had already given Patriot, IRIS-T and NASAMS air defense systems that had protected Ukraine from Russian missile attacks. But he said Ukraine needed even more.

"I ask that the members of this Contact Group continue to dig deep to provide Ukraine with the air defense assets and munitions that it so urgently needs to protect its citizens," Austin said in opening remarks.

"We'll also continue to adapt our assistance to meet the changing circumstances on the ground in the changing needs of Ukraine's forces."

It was the 13th meeting of the contact group, which Washington set up last year to coordinate western aid for Kyiv. Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov attended the meeting and was expected to brief his counterparts on Ukraine's counteroffensive to retake more territory from Russian forces, which Kyiv launched this month. The campaign is expected to use hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles supplied by the West.

Later in the day, NATO defense ministers will meet separately with Reznikov to discuss their support for Kyiv. The meeting comes as NATO members are engaged in intense discussions over Ukraine's desire to join the alliance and long-term plans to assure the country's security after the war ends.

— Reuters

Zelenskyy's hometown and Kherson come under fire again

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's hometown of Kryvyi Rih and the southern and eastern regions of Kherson and Donetsk were hit with further Russian missile attacks on Thursday.

Mayor of Kryvyi Rih Oleksandr Vilkul said three missiles struck two industrial enterprises overnight, adding that the destruction was "significant" and the buildings were nothing to do with the military. The latest attack comes after missile strikes on the industrial city on Tuesday killed 12 people.

Burnt vehicles are seen in front of damaged residential building after a missile hit a residential building in Kryvyi Rih on June 13, 2023.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Elsewhere, the regional governor of the southern Kherson region said an 80-year-old died when the Zelenivka settlement was shelled. The governor of Donetsk said a person had died and three were injured as various settlements came under fire.

CNBC was unable to immediately verify the reports.

— Holly Ellyatt

Ukraine says it has retaken 100 square kilometers of land in counteroffensive

Ukrainian servicemen take part in a military training exercise not far from front line in the Donetsk region on June 8, 2023.
Anatolii Stepanov | Afp | Getty Images

Ukraine has regained control of over 100 square kilometers, or 38 square miles, of territory in its counteroffensive against Russian forces, a senior Ukrainian military commander said on Thursday.

"We are ready to continue fighting to liberate our territory even with our bare hands," Brigadier-General Oleksii Hromov told a media briefing.

He confirmed that in the early stages of the offensive, which Ukraine said had begun last week, seven settlements had been liberated in the eastern region of Donetsk and in the southern region of Zaporizhzhia.

The army has advanced by to 3 km (1.8 miles) near the village of Mala Tokmachka in the Zaporizhzhia sector and by up to 7 km near a village south of Velyka Novosilka in the Donetsk sector, military officials said.

Reuters could not verify the battlefield situation.

Russia, which began its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, has not officially acknowledged the Ukrainian advances. Each side says the other has suffered heavy losses since the counteroffensive started, and Moscow and Kyiv rarely comment on their own losses.

— Reuters

Kremlin downplays prospects for grain deal renewal

An aerial view of a dry cargo ship transporting grain from Ukraine under the U.N.-brokered Black Sea deal.
Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The Kremlin again downplayed the prospect of the Black Sea grain export deal with Ukraine being extended when it expires in mid-July.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters Thursday that "work is ongoing, but to be honest we don't see any particularly positive prospects. Everything that was agreed on regarding us has not been fulfilled."

On Wednesday, Peskov said Russia's "goodwill" over the deal, which has enabled millions of metric tons of agricultural products to leave three of Ukraine's ports, was wearing thin.

Russia has reluctantly extended the U.N. and Turkey-brokered deal several times but has complained that its own own grain and fertilizer exports face continuing obstacles due to restrictions on payments and access to insurance.

— Holly Ellyatt

Norway, Denmark to donate 9,000 rounds of artillery to Ukraine

Ukrainian soldier of Da Vinci Wolves Battalion next to artillery shells inside a building near Bakhmut in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine on April 3, 2023.
Diego Herrera Carcedo | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Norway and Denmark have agreed to donate an additional 9,000 rounds of artillery to Ukraine, the Norwegian ministry of defense said in a statement on Thursday.

Norway will provide the shells, while Denmark will donate fuses and propellant charges, the Norwegian ministry said.

Norway will also donate 7,000 rounds from its own stocks, which have already been sent to Ukraine, according to the ministry.

The artillery rounds can be used in several types of artillery, including the M109 that Norway has previously donated, the ministry said.

The ammunition will be replaced through acquisition of new munitions, it added.

— Reuters

Tensions emerging between Wagner mercenaries and Putin

Close followers of Russia are keeping a close eye on emerging tensions between the Kremlin and the head of Russian private military company, the Wagner Group.

There's no love lost between the head of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and Russia's Ministry of Defense, with Prigozhin openly and repeatedly criticizing the ministry's most senior officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, on Russia's strategy in Ukraine.

Prigozhin and Wagner fighters have spent months fighting in Donetsk, mainly in and around Bakhmut, and claimed to have finally captured the town last month, before handing it over to Russian regular units.

Tensions are rising again, however, after Russia's Defense Ministry demanded last Saturday that members of "volunteers formations" such as Wagner Group sign contracts directly with the Ministry of Defense. Wagner's Prigozhin refused to sign any contracts, although the defense ministry's demand was explicitly endorsed by President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday.

Yevgeny Prigozhin, head of the Wagner Group, claimed in May that his mercenary fighters captured Bakhmut after nine months of intense fighting there.
Mikhail Svetlov | Getty Images

Putin's endorsement and Prigozhin's refusal to sign contracts puts Prigozhin — a long-term ally of Putin and one who's been careful never to criticize the Russian leader in public — in a precarious position, and in potential direct confrontation with Putin.

In its latest intelligence update, Britain's Defense Ministry remarked on rising tensions, noting that "for several months, Wagner owner Yevgeny Prigozhin has been aiming vitriolic criticism at the MoD hierarchy but deferred to Putin's authority." 

Now, however, the U.K. noted that "Prigozhin's rhetoric is evolving into defiance of broader sections of the Russian establishment." July 1, the deadline for the volunteers to sign contracts, is likely to be a key way point in the feud, it warned.

— Holly Ellyatt

Bolstering Ukraine's air defenses and artillery on the agenda as allies meet

Ukraine and its allies are meeting Thursday to discuss Kyiv's ongoing military needs and requirements, with Kyiv's military command saying that strengthening air defense, artillery and counter-battery capabilities are "important objectives."

The meeting of the so-called Ukraine Defense Support Group in Brussels, Belgium, will "focus on bolstering Ukraine's air defense and other near-term capability priorities, as well as training and sustainment to enhance Ukraine's enduring strength over the long term," according to a readout of a phone call between U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksii Reznikov earlier this week.

The Ukraine Defense Support Group includes 54 countries, ranging from those in the NATO military alliance to non-members such as Australia, Japan, South Korea and Ireland.

Ukrainian soldiers at their artillery position on the Donetsk front line in Ukraine on April 24, 2023.
Diego Herrera Carcedo | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Ahead of Thursday's meeting, the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine Valerii Zaluzhnyi said he had spoken to U.S. Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and updated him on the counteroffensive Ukraine launched last week to reclaim Russian-occupied territory.

"Heavy defensive and offensive battles are currently taking place in the east and south of our country. While we have achieved certain successes and are implementing our plans, we continue to push forward," he said on Telegram.

"Priorities for the Ukrainian army were discussed in preparation for the upcoming regular meeting of the contact group on defense issues, which follows the "Ramstein" format. Strengthening air defense, artillery, and counter-battery capabilities were identified as important objectives."

— Holly Ellyatt

Photos show devastating Russian missile strike in eastern Ukraine

At least three people died after shelling destroyed seven homes and damaged dozens more in the eastern Ukrainian cities of Kramatorsk and Kostiantynivka on Wednesday, according to a Telegram post from Pavlo Kyrylenko, governor of the Donetsk province.

The Associated Press reported that the Ukrainian presidential office said a missile hit the Ukrainian-controlled city of Kramatorsk, where Kyiv's forces are headquartered. The office said that strike killed two civilians and wounded two others while damaging 29 homes.

Meanwhile, Russian shelling in the eastern city of Kostiantynivka in Ukraine killed one civilian, with 57 houses damaged, it added.

This aerial view shows municipal workers as they use a mechanical digger to clear debris from a residential area in the aftermath of a Russian attack on Kramatorsk, June 14, 2023.
Ihor Tkachov | Afp | Getty Images
Residents stand in the remains of their homes as municipal workers clear debris in the aftermath of a Russian attack on Kramatorsk, June 14, 2023.
Anatolii Stepanov | Afp | Getty Images
Residents stand in the remains of their homes in the aftermath of a Russian attack on Kramatorsk, June 14, 2023.
Anatolii Stepanov | Afp | Getty Images
A resident salvages belongings from the remains of her home in the aftermath of a Russian attack on Kramatorsk, June 14, 2023.
Anatolii Stepanov | Afp | Getty Images
Residents salvage belongings from the remains of their home in the aftermath of a Russian attack on Kramatorsk, June 14, 2023.
Anatolii Stepanov | Afp | Getty Images

— The Associated Press and Anatolii Stepanov | AFP | Getty Images

Blinken set to galvanize allies in London as Ukraine plans reconstruction efforts

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken boards his plane for travel to Berlin at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on June 22, 2021.
Andrew Harnik | Pool | Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to London to meet with his counterparts from the U.K. and Ukraine during the Ukraine Recovery Conference.

He will also meet with several allies on the sidelines of the conference and is expected to galvanize allies and the private sector to support Ukraine's reconstruction efforts.

— Amanda Macias<