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Kyiv braces for heavier fighting as Russia-EU tensions climb

By AFP - Jun 20,2022 - Last updated at Jun 20,2022

People knee as Ukrainian soldiers carry the coffin during the funeral ceremony for Ukrainian serviceman Roman Ratushny in Kyiv on Saturday (AFP photo)

KYIV — Moscow's blockade of Ukrainian grain exports and a rail transit row sparked fresh tensions between Russia and the European Union on Monday, as Kyiv warned that Russian troops were intensifying their battle for control of eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of holding Africa "hostage" by blocking wheat deliveries, which has spurred food shortages and fears of famines in vulnerable areas.

Nearly four months after Russia launched its bloody invasion, Zelensky said Ukraine was headed into a "fateful" week with EU leaders set to discuss Kyiv's bid to become a candidate for bloc membership on Thursday and Friday.

Zelensky warned to expect heavier fighting in the days to come in strategic areas in eastern Ukraine already under relentless Russian bombardment.

Ukraine said Russian troops appeared to be making small gains, including capturing a village near the industrial city of Severodonetsk, a focus of recent fighting.

The fallout from the war continued to reverberate beyond Ukraine's borders, with Russia threatening EU member Lithuania over its "openly hostile" restrictions on the rail transit of goods to Moscow's exclave of Kaliningrad.

The Kremlin called the situation "more than serious" and Russia's foreign ministry said if the cargo transit between Kaliningrad and the rest of Russia "is not restored in full, then Russia reserves the right to take actions to protect its national interests".

Lithuania said the ban was in line with European sanctions over Moscow's aggression, while Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Moscow had no right to threaten the Baltic nation.

The West’s deteriorating relationship with Moscow was highlighted in harsh comments from the EU’s top diplomat Josep Borrell who called Russia’s blockade of vitally needed grain exports from Ukraine “a real war crime”.

“One cannot imagine that millions of tonnes of wheat remain blocked in Ukraine while in the rest of the world people are suffering hunger,” Borrell said as EU foreign ministers met in Luxembourg.

Moscow denies responsibility for the disruption in deliveries, and blames Western sanctions for the logistical upheaval that has pushed up cereal prices and fanned fears of famines in vulnerable regions.

Zelensky said Ukraine was engaged in “complex multilevel negotiations” to end Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports.

“But there is no progress yet... That is why the global food crisis will continue as long as this colonial war continues,” he said in a video address to the African Union.

Germany said it will host a meeting on Friday on the crisis, with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken among those attending.

 

Oil site strike 

 

On the ground, Ukraine’s presidency said the intensity of shelling in the Donetsk area of the eastern Donbas region was “growing along the entire frontline”, leaving at least one person dead over the last 24 hours and injuring seven others, including a child.

Ukraine announced it had lost control of the village of Metyolkine, adjacent to Severodonetsk.

In Severodonetsk, “Russians control most of the residential areas”, the head of the city administration Oleksandr Stryuk told Ukrainian television on  Monday.

A chemical plant in Severodonetsk where hundreds of civilians are said to be sheltering was being shelled “constantly”, Ukraine said.

Kyiv also reported heavier Russian shelling in the Kharkiv region in the northeast.

The Russians for their part said Ukrainian forces had attacked oil drilling platforms in the Black Sea, off the coast of the Crimea Peninsula that was annexed by Russia in 2014.

“This morning the enemy attacked the drilling platforms of Chernomorneftegaz,” Crimea leader Sergey Aksyonov said on Telegram, referring to the Crimea-based oil and gas company.

According to him, five people had been saved, three of them injured, while an air and sea search continued for others.

It was the first reported strike against offshore energy infrastructure in Crimea since Russia launched its invasion.

NATO’s chief Jens Stoltenberg on Sunday warned that the war could grind on “for years” and urged Western countries to be ready to offer long-term military, political and economic aid.

 

Energy crisis 

 

The Ukraine war is fuelling not only a global food crisis but an energy crisis too.

Hit by punishing sanctions, Moscow has turned up the pressure on European economies by sharply reducing gas supplies, which has in turn sent energy prices soaring.

Germany has announced emergency measures including increased use of coal to offset a drop in the supply of Russian gas in recent days, but Berlin insisted on Monday it still aimed to close its coal power plants by 2030.

China’s imports of oil from Russia meanwhile jumped by 55 per cent year on year in May, customs data showed Monday, helping to make up for losses from Western sanctions as Beijing refuses to publicly condemn Moscow’s war.

Natalia Khalaimova, 54, a resident in Lysychansk, across the river from Severodonetsk, said she wanted Russia and Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war.

“Every war in any country ends — but the sooner, the better,” she told AFP. “So many civilians are killed. Most of them were not involved in the war at all.”

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