Russian forces launched offensives on towns in eastern Ukraine on Wednesday, with constant mortar bombardment destroying several houses and killing civilians, Ukrainian officials said, as Russia focuses its attack on the industrial Donbas region.
Russia has been focused on attempting to seize the separatist-claimed Donbas’s two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and trap Ukrainian forces in a pocket on the main eastern front, according to Ukrainian officials.
In the easternmost part of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, the city of Severodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskiy Donets River and its twin Lysychansk, on the west bank, have become a pivotal battlefield. Russian forces were advancing from three directions to encircle them.
President Volodymyr Zelensky’s office said Russian forces launched an offensive on Severodonetsk early on Wednesday and the town was under constant fire from mortars.
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said six civilians were killed and at least eight wounded, most near bomb shelters, in Severodonetsk.
“At the moment, with the support of artillery, the Russian occupiers are attacking Severodonetsk,” Gaidai said.
Ukraine’s military said it had repelled nine Russian attacks on Tuesday in the Donbas, where Moscow’s troops had killed at least 14 civilians, using aircraft, rocket launchers, artillery, tanks, mortars and missiles.
Reuters could not immediately verify information about the fighting.
The Donbas fighting follows Russia’s biggest victory in months: the surrender last week of Ukraine’s garrison in the port of Mariupol after a siege in which Kyiv believes tens of thousands of civilians were killed.
Three months into the invasion, Russia still has only limited gains to show for its worst military loss in decades, while much of Ukraine has suffered devastation in the biggest attack on a European state since 1945.
The war has also caused growing food shortages and soaring prices due to sanctions and disruption of supply chains. Both Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of grain and other commodities.
Grain, food exports remain blocked
Russia said it was ready to provide a humanitarian corridor for vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine, in return for the lifting of some sanctions, the Interfax news agency cited Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko as saying on Wednesday.
Ukraine’s Black Sea ports have been blocked since Russia sent thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, and more than 20 million tonnes of grain are stuck in silos in the country.
Russia and Ukraine account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies, and the lack of significant grain exports from Ukraine ports is contributing to a growing global food crisis.
Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn and sunflower oil.
Western powers have been discussing the idea of setting up “safe corridors” for grain exports from Ukraine’s ports, adding that any such corridor would need Russian consent.
“We have repeatedly stated on this point that a solution to the food problem requires a comprehensive approach, including the lifting of sanctions that have been imposed on Russian exports and financial transactions,” Rudenko was quoted as saying.
“And it also requires the demining by the Ukrainian side of all ports where ships are anchored. Russia is ready to provide the necessary humanitarian passage, which it does every day,” he said.
Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of planting drifting mines in the Black Sea.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Tuesday that Russia was using food supplies as a weapon with global repercussions.
“We are always ready for dialogue with all those who seek … peaceful resolution of all problems. I leave Ursula von der Leyen’s statement to her conscience,” Rudenko said.
He said that Russia would discuss the possibility exchanging prisoners with Ukraine once those who surrendered had been convicted. Russian and separatist officials have said some of those who surrendered should be tried for war crimes.
British military authorities say Ukraine’s overland export routes are “highly unlikely” to offset the problems caused by Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea port of Odesa.
The U.K. Ministry of Defence, in an update posted Wednesday morning, says there has been no “significant” merchant shipping in or out of Odesa since the start of the Russian invasion.
The ministry says that the blockade, combined with the lack of overland routes, means that significant supplies of grain remain in storage and can’t be exported.
“While the threat of Russia’s naval blockade continues to deter access by commercial shipping to Ukrainian ports, the resulting supply shortfalls will further increase the price of many staple products,” the ministry said.
Russia could be squeezed by U.S. move on debt
Meanwhile, in a decision that could push Russia closer to the brink of default, the Biden administration announced it would not extend a waiver set to expire on Wednesday that enabled Russia to pay U.S. bondholders.
The U.S. Treasury Department said on its website late on Tuesday it would not extend the waiver, set to expire Wednesday, which allowed Russia to make interest and maturity payments on its sovereign debt to U.S. persons.
That waiver has allowed Russia to keep up government debt payments, but its expiry now appears to make default inevitable — the country’s first major one on international sovereign bonds in more than a century.
Almost $2 billion US worth of payments on Russian international bonds fall due before year-end.
Unlike in most default situations, Moscow is not short of money. Russia’s debt repayment dues pale in comparison to its oil and gas revenues, which stood at $28 billion in April alone thanks to high energy prices.
For their part, Russian lawmakers gave the first stamp of approval to a bill that would allow Russian entities to take over foreign companies that have left the country in opposition to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, a government online portal showed.
British retailer Marks & Spencer on Wednesday and Starbucks Corp on Monday are among the latest Western brands to announce they were leaving Russia, following a similar decision last week by McDonald’s.