Russia launches fresh offensive, wants sanctions relief to free up Ukraine food supply routes

Updates from Day 91 of the invasion

  • Severodonetsk remains under attack in the east, Ukraine officials say.

  • Zelenksy addresses Davos gathering, repeats willingness to negotiate with Russia.

  • Russia wants relief in exchange for access to food supply corridors.

  • Russia to eliminate upper age limit for military service.

  • US won’t extend waiver that has allowed Russia to keep up with debt payments.

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.

Smoke rises above a self-propelled howitzer manned by pro-Russian troops toward the direction of Severodonetsk on Tuesday in the Luhansk region of Ukraine. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

“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, missile launchers, guns, tanks, mortars and missiles.

WATCH | Russian troops would have to know some orders are: expert:

Expect dozens more war crimes trials to come due to Russia-Ukraine war, expert says

Targeting unarmed civilians during war is ‘always criminal’ said Michael Newton, a law professor and former US State Department official. There are dozens of more war crimes trials to come out of the war between Ukraine and Russia, he said.

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 had only limited gains to show for its worst military loss in decades, while much of Ukraine had suffered devastation in the biggest attack on a European state since 1945.

Zelensky said Wednesday that Russia must pull back to its prewar positions as a first step before diplomatic talks, a negotiating line that Moscow is unlikely to agree to anytime soon.

Speaking by video link to attendees at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Zelensky expressed a willingness to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin directly, but stressed that Moscow needs to make clear it, too, is ready to “shift from the bloody war to diplomacy.”

“[Diplomacy is] possible if Russia shows at least something. When I say at least something, I mean pulling back troops to where they were before Feb. 24,” Zelensky said, referring to the day Russia’s invasion began. “I believe it would be a correct step for Russia to make.”

Grain, food exports remain blocked

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.

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 by 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 tons of grain are stuck in silos in the country.

WATCH | Recriminations, but a few solutions so far to free up food supply routes:

Ukraine war deepens global food crisis

The impact of the Ukraine war extends far beyond the country’s borders as Russian forces have destroyed crops and blockaded ports along the Black Sea, affecting the food supply in Africa and the Middle East.

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 of 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 likely” to offset the problems caused by Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea port of Odesa.

The UK Ministry of Defense, 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.

WATCH | Canada sends more military aid to Ukraine:

Canada is sending almost $100M in military aid to Ukraine

Defense Minister Anita Anand announced that the federal government is set to send Canada’s biggest single donation of military equipment to Ukraine since the start of Russia’s 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 US 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 US bondholders.

The US 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 US persons.

A boy plays in front of houses ruined by shelling in Borodyanka, Ukraine, Tuesday, near Kyiv. While the Russian military has largely abandoned that region at present, the damage from the earliest days of the invasion is apparent. (Natacha Pisarenko/The Associated Press)

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.

Russia to amend military service age rules

Russia’s approved a law on Wednesday removing the upper age limit for contractual service in the military, amid heavy liability in Ukraine. The bill now needs only the signature of Putin to become law.

Currently, only Russians aged 18-40 and foreigners aged 18-30 can enlist as professional soldiers in the Russian military.

Russia’s defense ministry said on March 25 that 1,351 service personnel had been killed and 3,825 wounded since Moscow sent its armed forces into Ukraine on Feb. 24. It has not updated its casualty figures since.

Both Ukrainian and Western intelligence officials have said Russia’s losses in Ukraine were significantly higher at the time, and have risen sharply since March.

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