A member of the Ukrainian troops stands on an armoured vehicle moving towards the front line in the city of Lysychansk in the eastern Ukraine region of Donbas on June 9, 2022. AFP
Russian forces said Sunday they had struck a site in western Ukraine storing large amounts of weapons supplied by the United States and European countries, as the battle intensified for the key eastern city of Severodonetsk.
The strike on the town of Chortkiv, a rare attack by Russia in the relatively calm west of Ukraine, left 22 people injured, the regional governor said.
Meanwhile, the situation in Severodonetsk was “extremely difficult”, after the Russian army destroyed a second bridge into the city and was heavily bombarding the last one, regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said.
Away from the battlefield, the head of the European Commission on Saturday promised it would provide a clear signal by the end of next week on Ukraine’s bid to become a candidate to join the European Union.
“Ukraine has achieved a lot in the past ten years and much still needs to be done. Our opinion will reflect this carefully,” Ursula von der Leyen said after a surprise trip to the capital Kyiv.
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Despite reservations among some member states, EU leaders are expected to approve the bid at a summit later this month, although with strict conditions attached.
“The challenge will be to come out of the (EU) council with a united position, which reflects the enormity of these historic decisions,” von der Leyen said as she travelled back to Poland.
Ukraine’s geopolitical vulnerability has been laid bare by Russia’s February 24 invasion, which has killed thousands, sent millions fleeing and reduced swathes of the country to rubble.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday that it was a “decisive time”.
“Russia wants to ruin European unity, wants to leave Europe divided and wants to leave it weak. The entirety of Europe is a target for Russia. Ukraine is only the first stage in this aggression,” he said.
The United States and EU have sent weapons and cash to help Ukraine fend off the Russian advance, alongside punishing Moscow with unprecedented economic sanctions.
Russia’s defence ministry said the strike on Chortkiv destroyed a “large depot of anti-tank missile systems, portable air defence systems and shells provided to the Kyiv regime by the US and European countries”.
Regional governor Volodymyr Trush said that four missiles fired from the Black Sea had partially destroyed a military installation in the town, about 140 kilometres (85 miles) from the border with Romania, on Saturday evening.
Residential buildings were also damaged and 22 people were hurt, all of them — including seven women and a 12-year-old — taken to hospital, he said in a Facebook post.
It was a rare attack in western Ukraine, with the east and south of the country have borne the brunt of Russian firepower.
The cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, which are separated by a river, have been targeted for weeks as the last areas still under Ukrainian control in the region of Lugansk.
“The situation in Severodonetsk is extremely difficult,” said Lugansk governor Gaiday on Sunday, adding that by attacking the bridges, Russian forces wanted to cut off the city completely.
“Most likely, today or tomorrow, they will throw all reserves to capture the city and also possibly in other directions to cut and fully control the road” southwest to Bakhmut.
He said the Azot chemical plant was being shelled, with fighting around the area.
About 800 civilians have taken refuge in the plant’s bunkers, according to the tycoon whose company owns the facility.
Crisis and famine
The war has caused a spike in the global prices of energy — Russia is a major producer of oil and gas — and basic foodstuffs.
Before the war, Russia and Ukraine produced 30 per cent of the global wheat supply, but the grain is stuck in Ukraine’s ports and Western sanctions have disrupted exports from Russia.
Addressing the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore on Saturday, Zelensky warned of an acute food crisis, adding that the “shortage of foodstuffs will inexorably lead to political chaos”.
Also Saturday, Gaiday cited reports of Russians loading trucks with Ukrainian wheat and taking it to Russian-controlled areas.
At the summit, Zelensky urged international pressure to end the blockade, speaking to delegates including Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, who on Sunday reiterated Beijing’s position on the crisis.
“On the Ukrainian crisis, China has never provided any material support to Russia,” he said, adding that it supported peace negotiations and hoped “NATO will have talks with Russia”.
The sanctions against Moscow have hit the Russian economy and also caused major Western brands to leave the country, with US fast-food chain McDonald’s selling its businesses there.
Its iconic restaurant on Moscow’s Pushkin Square — where the very first McDonald’s opened its doors to long queues and great fanfare in January 1990 — was set to reopen Sunday under new ownership.
It was named “Vkusno i tochka” (“Delicious. Full Stop”), Oleg Paroyev, the boss of the new group, told a press conference.
Separately, Ukrainian nuclear operator Energoatom announced that the connection between the Zaporizhzhia plant, now part of Russian-held territory in the south, and the UN’s nuclear watchdog had been restored after a month and a half.
The Russian shelling of the plant — the largest in Europe — had sparked international outrage and fears over Ukraine’s 15 operational reactors.
Energoatom said the Russians had cut off the mobile phone operator at the site on May 30, but the connection with the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) had finally been restored on Friday.
The IAEA said this week it was planning to visit the Zaporizhzhia plant to carry out essential safety work.
However, Energoatom said that such a trip would legitimise Russia’s control of the site, and said a visit would only be possible once Ukraine regained control.