Russian forces have seized control of half of eastern Ukraine’s key city of Severodonetsk, a senior official said Tuesday, while EU leaders were split over banning gas from Moscow after agreeing to embargo most of its oil.
Ukraine, meanwhile, pushed on with an investigation into war crimes since the Russian invasion. Officials said thousands had been committed in the eastern Donbas region alone and that it had jailed two Russian soldiers elsewhere in the country.
Severodonetsk is one of the industrial hubs that lie on Russia’s path to capturing the Donbas’s Lugansk region, where Moscow has shifted the bulk of its firepower since failing to capture Kyiv in the war’s early stages.
“Unfortunately, the front line divides the city in half. But the city is still defending itself, the city is still Ukrainian, our soldiers are defending it,” said Oleksandr Stryuk, head of Severodonetsk’s military and civil administration.
Lugansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday earlier described the situation as “extremely complicated”, conceding that Russian forces occupied parts of the city. Later Tuesday, Gaiday warned that Russian forces had hit a tank containing nitric acid at a Severodonetsk chemical plant and called on people to stay in their shelters.
As Russian troops edged closer to Severodonetsk city centre, EU leaders meeting for a second day in Brussels were only partly succeeding in tightening the economic screws on Moscow. A compromise oil embargo deal reached late Monday, meant to punish Russia for its invasion, cuts “a huge source of financing for its war machine”, European Council chief Charles Michel tweeted.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had urged Europe to forge its “independence” from Russian energy.
Talks on gas embargo
But the EU remained divided on the issue of gas supplies, and leaders played down the chances of a rapid ban to follow the embargo on two thirds of oil imports from Russia. Europe relies on Russian gas for some 40 per cent of its supplies, and a ban would add to the existing pain from an energy and inflation crisis on the continent.
“With gas it is quite different,” Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said. “Therefore, the gas embargo will not be an issue in the next package of sanctions.”
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen suggested Brussels had gone far enough for now on hitting Russian fossil fuels and that it was time to focus more on the “financial and the economic sector”. The oil ban “will effectively cut around 90 per cent of oil imports from Russia to the EU by the end of the year”, she said.
The compromise oil deal hatched on Monday exempts deliveries by pipeline, after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban warned halting supplies of cheap Moscow crude would wreck his nation’s economy.
“Families can sleep peacefully tonight, we kept out the most hair-raising idea,” Orban, whose country borders war-torn Ukraine to the west, said in a video message.
Denmark became the latest European country to be targeted by Russia over gas exports in the meantime, following in the footsteps of the Netherlands, Finland, Poland and Bulgaria. Danish energy firm Orsted said Tuesday that Russian energy monopoly Gazprom Export would cut gas supplies on Wednesday after the Danish company refused to pay in rubles as the Russian government demands.
‘Save your lives’
The situation on the eastern front line in Donbas has become increasingly desperate, with Ukrainian towns facing near constant shelling from Russian forces.
“We see some cars driving around with Ukrainian flags, so we figure that means we are still part of Ukraine,” said Yevgen Onyshchenko, a 42-year-old plumber in a powerless apartment in Severodonetsk’s twin city Lysychansk. “But otherwise, we are in the dark.”
French journalist Frederic Leclerc-Imhoff was killed while covering civilian evacuations in the area on Monday. An overnight rocket attack killed at least three people and wounded six in the city of Slovyansk, Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kirilenko said Tuesday on Telegram.
“I repeat once again that there are no safe places in the Donetsk region, so I call again: evacuate – save your lives,” he said.
Ukraine’s prosecutor general said authorities had identified a “few thousand” cases of war crimes in the Donbas, including murder, torture and the forced displacement of children. Prosecutor Iryna Venediktova, who met international counterparts in The Hague on Tuesday, said Kyiv was already going to prosecute 80 suspects for alleged war crimes on Ukrainian soil.
A Ukrainian court on Tuesday jailed two Russian soldiers for 11 and a half years for shelling civilian areas. Earlier this month, another was jailed for life for murdering a civilian. The servicemen convicted on Tuesday – Alexander Bobykin and Alexander Ivanov – were both convicted of firing Grad missiles on two villages in the northeastern Kharkiv region in the early days of the war.
Odessa blockade proposal
Russia’s invasion of its pro-western neighbour is also threatening a global food crisis, with Ukraine’s huge grain harvest effectively taken off the world market.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Tuesday that he and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had urged Vladimir Putin to end Russia’s blockade of the Ukrainian port of Odessa under the terms of a UN resolution. Under Macron’s proposal, a UN resolution will set up a framework under which mines laid by the port’s Ukrainian defenders could be removed, and grain shipments resume.
“The decision does not depend on us, but it does indeed depend on an agreement from Russia,” Macron said in Brussels.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said it was up to the West and Kyiv to resolve the crisis, starting with the lifting of sanctions.
(Written by David Stout, with Julien Girault in Brussels)