Live updates | Russia-Ukraine War

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department says U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin has spoken on the phone to Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu.

Friday’s call was the first time the two had spoken since May 13. Defense officials have said that for some time the Russians had not responded to U.S. efforts to set up calls.

Austin “emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication amid the ongoing war against Ukraine,” Pentagon Press Secretary Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said.

Austin also spoke with Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov “to reiterate the unwavering U.S. commitment to supporting Ukraine’s ability to counter Russia’s aggression” as well as the international community’s support for Ukraine’s future defense, according to a Defense Department statement.

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KEY DEVELOPMENTS:

— Russian, Ukrainian troops gird for major battle in Kherson

— General who led Syrian bombing is new face of Russian war

— Russian threats revive old nuclear fears in central Europe

EU leaders divided on gas price cap at energy crisis summit

— Analysis: The ripples of the war Russia says isn’t a war

— US: Iranian troops in Crimea backing Russian drone strikes

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OTHER DEVELOPMENTS:

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin has been open for negotiations with Ukraine “from the very beginning,” and “nothing has changed” in that respect, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Friday, commenting on remarks made by the Turkish president.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan said earlier that Putin appeared to be “much softer and more open to negotiations” than in the past. “We are not without hope,” he said of the possibility of negotiations to end the conflict.

“If you remember, President Putin tried to initiate talks with both NATO and the United States even before the special military operation,” Peskov said, referring to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine that started almost eight months ago.

“Putin was open to negotiations when a document was almost agreed on between Russian and Ukrainian (negotiators). So in that respect, nothing has changed. The position of the Ukrainian side has changed. … Ukrainian law now prohibits any negotiations.”

Russian officials have repeatedly said they will not negotiate the return of the four Ukrainian regions Moscow illegally annexed last month. After the land grab, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ruled out any talks with Moscow as long as Putin remains president.

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MOSCOW — Authorities in a region in southern Ukraine that has been annexed by Russia last month say that at least four civilians have been killed by Ukrainian shelling of a river crossing.

Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the Moscow-installed regional administration in Kherson said four people were killed by a Ukrainian strike on a bridge over the Dnieper River in Kherson late Thursday. Vadim Ilmiyev, the top health official in Kherson, said 13 others were wounded in the attack.

Ukrainian military officials confirmed that the bridge was struck, but denied that the civilians were killed as they “cannot be on the bridge at this time because of a curfew,”

After Ukrainian strikes had made the bridge across the Dnieper in Kherson inoperable, Russian authorities organized ferry crossings and pontoon bridges to bring supplies to the city that sits on the western bank of the river and Russian troops in the area.

The strike comes as Ukrainian forces are pressing their offensive on the western bank of Kherson.

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ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin appears to be “much softer and more open to negotiations” on ending the war in Ukraine than in the past.

“We are not without hope,” he said of the possibility of negotiations.

Erdogan made the comments late on Thursday on his return from a trip to Azerbaijan. Hurriyet newspaper and other media reported his comments on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Turkish leader, who has held meetings with Putin during the war, says he is optimistic that a U.N.- and Turkish-brokered deal that allowed the shipment of millions of tons of Ukrainian grain to world markets can be extended.

Erdogan told a group of journalists that he had discussed extending the grain corridor deal with both Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

“There is no obstacle concerning extending the shipping agreement,” Erdogan said. “But if there is a blockage there is no obstacle in us overcoming it.”

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