Russia says it will suspend UN-brokered Ukraine export deal
By Andrew Meldrum in Kyiv
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia announced Saturday that it will move to suspend its implementation of a U.N.-brokered grain deal that has seen more than 9 million tons of grain exported from Ukraine during the war and has brought down soaring global food prices.
The Russian Defense Ministry cited an alleged Ukrainian drone attack against Russia’s Black Sea Fleet ships moored off the coast of occupied Crimea, which Russia says took place early Saturday, as the reason for the move. Ukraine has denied the attack, saying that the Russians mishandled their own weapons.
The Russian declaration came one day after U.N. chief Antonio Guterres urged Russia and Ukraine to renew the grain export deal. Guterres also urged other countries, mainly in the West, to expedite the removal of obstacles blocking Russian grain and fertilizer exports.
The U.N. chief said the grain deal — brokered by the United Nations and Turkey in July and which expires on Nov. 19 — helps “to cushion the suffering that this global cost-of-living crisis is inflicting on billions of people,” his spokesman said.
A Guterres spokesman said U.N. officials were in touch with Russian authorities over the announced suspension.
“It is vital that all parties refrain from any action that would imperil the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which is a critical humanitarian effort that is clearly having a positive impact on access to food for millions of people,” said the spokesman, Stephane Dujarric.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry on Saturday accused British specialists of being involved in the alleged attack by drones on Russian ships in Crimea.
“In connection with the actions of Ukrainian armed forces, led by British specialists, directed, among other things, against Russian ships that ensure the functioning of the humanitarian corridor in question (which cannot be qualified otherwise than as a terrorist attack), the Russian side cannot guarantee the safety of civilian dry cargo ships participating in the Black Sea initiative, and suspends its implementation from today for an indefinite period,” the Russian statement said.
Britain’s Defense Ministry had no immediate comment.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister, Dmytro Kuleba, accused Russia of playing “hunger games” by imperiling global food shipments.
“We warned about Russia’s plans to destroy the (grain agreement). Now, under false pretenses, Moscow is blocking the grain corridor that ensures food security for millions of people,” he tweeted Saturday.
The head of the Ukrainian presidential office, Andriy Yermak, denounced the suspension as “primitive blackmail.”
Turkish officials said they haven’t received any official notice of the deal’s suspension.
Russia’s agriculture minister said Moscow stands ready to “fully replace Ukrainian grain and deliver supplies at affordable prices to all interested countries.” In remarks carried by the state Rossiya 24 TV channel, Dmitry Patrushev said Moscow was prepared to “supply up to 500,000 tons of grain to the poorest countries free of charge in the next four months,” with the help of Turkey.
Patrushev also reiterated the Kremlin’s earlier allegations that a disproportionate volume of grain exported from Ukraine’s Black Sea ports was bound for European destinations.
Earlier Saturday, Ukraine and Russia offered differing versions on the Crimea drone attack in which at least one Russian ship suffered damage in the port on the Ukrainian peninsula annexed by Moscow in 2014.
The Russian Defense Ministry said a minesweeper had “minor damage” during an alleged pre-dawn Ukrainian attack on navy and civilian vessels docked in Sevastopol, which hosts the headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. The ministry claimed Russian forces had “repelled” 16 attacking drones.
The governor of the Sevastopol region, Mikhail Razvozhaev, said the port saw “probably the most massive attack” by air and sea drones. He provided no evidence, saying all video from the area would be held back for security reasons.
But an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry claimed that “careless handling of explosives” had caused blasts on four warships in Russia’s Black Sea Fleet. Anton Gerashchenko wrote on Telegram that the vessels included a frigate, a landing ship and a ship that carried cruise missiles used in a deadly July attack on a western Ukrainian city.
In other developments on Saturday, Russian troops moved large numbers of sick and wounded comrades from hospitals in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region and stripped the facilities of medical equipment, Ukrainian officials said as their forces fought to retake the province.
Kremlin-installed authorities in the mostly Russian-occupied region had previously urged civilians to leave the city of Kherson, the region’s capital — and reportedly joined the tens of thousands who fled to other Russia-held areas.
“The so-called evacuation of invaders from the temporarily occupied territory of the Kherson region, including from medical institutions, continues,” the General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the Russians were “dismantling the entire health care system” in Kherson and other occupied areas.
“The occupiers have decided to close medical institutions in the cities, take away equipment, ambulances. just everything,” Zelenskyy said.
Kherson is one of four regions in Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin illegally annexed last month and where he subsequently declared martial law. The others are Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia.
As Kyiv’s forces sought gains in the south, Russia kept up its shelling and missile attacks in the country’s east, Ukrainian authorities said Saturday. Three more civilians died and eight more were wounded in the Donetsk region, which has again become a front-line hotspot as Russian soldiers try to capture the city of Bakhmut, an important target in Russia’s stalled eastern offensive.
Russian shelling also an industrial building in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region. Around a quarter of the region — including its capital, also called Zaporizhzhia — remains under Ukrainian military control.
In the latest prisoner exchange, 52 Ukrainians, including two former defenders of the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, were released Saturday as part of a swap with Russia, according to Yermak. The steelworks in that bombed-out port city now symbolize Ukrainian resistance.
Also released, he said, was a sailor who defended Ukraine’s Snake Island, a strategic Black Sea outpost seized by Russia in the opening hours of the war. Others coming home were Ukrainian soldiers captured by Moscow near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant — the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986 — which Russian forces briefly occupied from February to March.
This version has been corrected to show the Russian Defense Ministry said one ship, not two, was slightly damaged in Crimea port.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
Ukraine trying to end battlefield stalemate in what may be start of counteroffensive
By Susie Blann in Kyiv
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian forces were making a major effort to end a battlefield stalemate and punch through Russian defensive lines in southeast Ukraine for a second day Monday, in what may herald the start of a long-anticipated counteroffensive after 15 months of war.
Russian officials seemed to be trying to portray the Ukrainian attacks as the start of the counteroffensive, saying that Moscow’s forces foiled at least one assault. While not explicitly confirming such a large-scale effort, Kyiv authorities said their forces were indeed increasing offensive operations and making gains, but suggested some of the Russian announcements were misinformation.
Vladimir Rogov, an official in the Russia-backed administration of Ukraine’s partly occupied Zaporizhzhia province, said fighting resumed on its border with the eastern Donetsk province on Monday after Russian defenses beat back a Ukrainian advance the previous day.
“The enemy threw an even bigger force into the attack than yesterday (Sunday),” and the new attempt to break through the front line was “more large-scale and organized,” Rogov said, adding: “A battle is underway.”
Rogov interpreted the Ukrainian military movements as part of an effort to reach the Sea of Azov coast and sever the land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which Moscow annexed in 2014. Analysts have long viewed that strategy as likely because it would cut the Russian forces in two and severely strain supplies to Crimea, which has served as a key Russian military hub in the war that started Feb. 24, 2022.
Rogov’s comments came after Moscow also said its forces thwarted large Ukrainian attacks in Donetsk province, near its border with the Zaporizhzhia province.
Reacting to Russia’s declarations that it repelled Ukrainian offensives, a U.S. official said on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters: “We have no reason to believe any Russian action has had any spoiling effect on pending or ongoing Ukraine operations.”
Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said the Ukrainian military has scored gains.
“Despite fierce resistance and attempts of the enemy to hold the occupied lines and positions, our units moved forward in several directions during the fighting,” she said.
Malyar drew no distinctions between phases of the war, insisting that Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s invasion “contains everything, including counter-offensive actions.” She acknowledged that Kyiv’s forces “in some areas … are shifting to offensive operations.”
Retired Gen. Richard Barrons, former Commander of the U.K. Joint Forces Command, said that Ukraine was “clearly in the preliminary phase” of its counteroffensive and would probe Russian defenses to find weak spots, then focus its resources to ram through them and hold ground. Barrons, now co-chair of the U.K.-based strategic consulting firm Universal Defence & Security Solutions, told The Associated Press the Ukrainians are “trying to increase the chances of surprise about when you do it, where you do it and how you do it.”
Commenting on the Russian military’s assertion that it thwarted a big Ukrainian attack, he said it could be part of Ukrainian efforts to probe Russian defenses and test its units in combat. He added that Moscow could have exaggerated the scale of the fighting and claimed victory to assuage its domestic Russian audience.
Barrons predicted that the Ukrainian counteroffensive would involve a series of moves and take weeks.
“It’s a process, not an event,” he said.
Ukraine often waits until the completion of its military operations to confirm its actions.
A Ukrainian Defense Ministry video showed soldiers putting a finger to their lips in a sign to keep quiet. “Plans love silence,” it said on the screen. “There will be no announcement of the start.”
Zaporizhzhia and Donetsk are two of the four provinces that President Vladimir Putin claimed as Russian territory last fall and which Moscow partially controls.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said it had pushed back a “large-scale” assault Sunday at five places in Donetsk province. The announcement couldn’t be independently verified, and while Ukrainian officials reported fighting in that area, they didn’t confirm a retreat.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said in an unusual overnight video that 250 Ukrainian personnel were killed in the fighting in Donetsk province, and 16 Ukrainian tanks, three infantry fighting vehicles and 21 armored combat vehicles were destroyed.
In response, the Center for Strategic Communications of the Armed Forces of Ukraine said Russian forces were “stepping up their information and psychological operations.”
“To demoralize Ukrainians and mislead the community (including their own population), Russian propagandists will spread false information about the counteroffensive, its directions and the losses of the Ukrainian army. Even if there is no counteroffensive,” a statement on Telegram read.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the Russians overreacted to its latest push.
“We see how hysterically Russia perceives every step we take there, every position we take,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address.
Ukrainian officials have said for months that a spring campaign with advanced weapons supplied by Western allies to reclaim territory seized by Russia during the war was planned, but they have kept quiet about when, how and where it might start, or whether it had already been launched.
Recent military activity, including drone attacks on Moscow, cross-border raids into Russia and sabotage and drone attacks on infrastructure behind Russian lines, has unnerved Russians. Analysts say those actions may represent the start of the counteroffensive.
In other disruption, TV and radio broadcasts in several regions of Russia were hacked Monday, according to Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov. A fake broadcast featured a voice impersonating Putin and stated that Ukrainian forces had invaded the Belgorod, Bryansk and Kursk regions of Russia.
Those Russian regions have occasionally been targeted in cross-border strikes during the war.
The impersonator announced that martial law was declared in those regions, where people were urged to evacuate, and all Russians eligible for military duty were being mobilized.
The Russian military said Monday it repelled the latest Ukrainian incursion into the Belgorod region, on the border in Ukraine. Russians who purport to be fighting alongside Ukrainian forces said they attacked on Sunday. They were driven back by airstrikes and artillery fire, according to the Russian Defense Ministry.
At least two factors have been at play in the counteroffensive’s timing: better ground conditions for the movement of troops and equipment after the winter, and the deployment of more advanced Western weapons and training of Ukrainian troops to use them.
Ukraine’s Western allies have sent the country more than 65 billion euros ($70 billion) in military aid to help its defense. Driving out the Kremlin’s forces is a daunting challenge for Kyiv’s planners. Russia has built extensive defensive lines, including trenches, minefields and anti-tank obstacles.
After months of a battlefield stalemate, with neither side making significant gains and suffering losses of personnel and weapons, Ukraine could launch simultaneous pushes in different areas of the front line that stretches for around 1,100 kilometers (nearly 700 miles), analysts say.
In the devastated eastern city of Bakhmut, the site of the war’s longest and bloodiest battle, Malyar, the deputy defense minister, said Ukrainian forces are advancing and “occupy dominating heights.” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address, “Bakhmut direction — well done, warriors!”
The leader of Russia’s Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin — a frequent critic of his country’s military brass whose statements are sometimes unreliable — said that Russian forces lost control of part of the village of Berkhovka outside Bakhmut. Prizoghin said last month that his forces had seized all of the city of Bakhmut, with Ukrainian forces remaining in control of many surrounding areas.
Danica Kirka contributed to this story from London.
Blinken warns Ukraine cease-fire now would result in ‘Potemkin peace,’ legitimizing Russian invasion
By Susie Blann And Matthew Lee in Kyiv
KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Friday that the United States and its allies should not support a cease-fire or peace talks to end the war in Ukraine until Kyiv gains strength and can negotiate on its own terms.
As an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive appeared to be taking shape, Blinken said heeding calls from Russia and others, including China, for negotiations now would result in a false “Potemkin peace” that wouldn’t secure Ukraine’s sovereignty or enhance European security.
“We believe the prerequisite for meaningful diplomacy and real peace is a stronger Ukraine, capable of deterring and defending against any future aggression,” Blinken said in a speech in Finland, which recently became NATO’s newest member and shares a long border with Russia.
His use of the term “Potemkin” referred to the brightly painted village fronts that 18th century Russian government minister Grigory Potemkin reportedly used to have built to create an illusion of prosperity for Russia’s empress.
Blinken repeated the U.S. view that “a cease-fire that simply freezes current lines in place” and allows Russian President Vladimir Putin “to consolidate control over the territory he has seized, and rest, rearm, and re-attack — that is not a just and lasting peace.”
Allowing Moscow to keep the one-fifth of Ukrainian territory it’s occupied would send the wrong message to Russia and to “other would-be aggressors around the world,” according to Blinken, implying that a cease-fire shouldn’t be arranged until either Ukraine pushes Russia back or Russia withdraws its troops.
Blinken’s position is similar to that of Ukrainian officials, including his statement that Russia must pay for a share of Ukraine’s reconstruction and be held accountable for the full-scale invasion of its neighbor in February 2022.
After months of battlefield stalemate across a 685-mile (1100-km) front line, Ukrainian officials have given confusing signals about whether a counteroffensive, relying heavily on recently deployed advanced Western weapons and training, is coming or already underway.
Some have suggested the campaign will not be a barrage of simultaneous attacks across the entire front but rather a series of more targeted, limited strikes, first to weaken Russia’s supply lines and infrastructure, then expanded to broader targets with greater intensity.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy weighed in again on Friday.
“This is not a movie,” he told reporters in Kyiv. “It is hard to say how you’ll see the counteroffensive. The main point here is for Russia to see it. And not just see but feel it. Especially, we speak about the troops that have occupied our territories. De-occupation of our territories – this is the result of our counteroffensive. When you see this, you’ll understand that it has started.”
Zelenskyy has said his goal is to drive Russian troops out of the four territories it partially occupies and illegally annexed last fall, as well as from the Crimean Peninsula the Kremlin illegally seized in 2014.
Putin has said two of his goals in invading Ukraine were to improve Russia’s security and prevent Ukraine from joining NATO but the Kyiv government has applied to join the alliance, and Sweden is hoping to be accepted as a member in July. That would surround Russia with NATO countries in the Baltic Sea.
Blinken described the Russian invasion of Ukraine as a catastrophic strategic failure for Moscow that had strengthened NATO, the European Union and Ukraine. Russia has become more isolated, he said, shackled to China as a junior partner in a relationship that Beijing has increasingly come to resent, and no longer able to use energy as a political tool in countries it once counted as its own or satellites.
For its part, Russia wants any talks to address Ukraine’s request to join NATO.
“Naturally, this (issue) will be one of the main irritants and potential problems for many, many years to come,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday.
Blinken said Washington was ready to support peace efforts by other countries, including those by China and Brazil but that any peace agreement must uphold the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence.
China, which says it is neutral and wants to serve as a mediator but has supported Moscow politically, on Friday urged countries to stop sending weapons to Ukraine. The United States is a leading Western ally and supplier of arms to Kyiv.
In Kyiv, in the sixth air attack in as many days, Ukrainian air defenses late Thursday and early Friday intercepted all 15 incoming cruise missiles and 21 attack drones, Ukraine’s chief of staff, Valerii Zaluzhnyi, said.
The Ukrainian capital was simultaneously attacked from different directions by Iranian-made Shahed drones and cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea region, senior Kyiv official Serhii Popko wrote on Telegram.
A 68-year-old man and an 11-year-old child were wounded in the attack, in which falling debris damaged private houses, outbuildings and cars, according to Ukraine’s Prosecutor General’s Office.
Elsewhere, several explosions occurred Friday in the Azov Sea port of Berdyansk in the Russian-occupied part of Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region, one of the four provinces Russia illegally annexed. Russian-appointed officials blamed Ukrainian rocket attacks and said nine people were wounded. Videos posted on social media appear to show smoke rising in the port area. Ukrainian officials acknowledged their forces were responsible and claimed Russian ships were evacuating the port.
The Moscow-appointed governor of Ukraine’s occupied Donetsk province, Denis Pushilin, claimed Friday that Ukrainian strikes had killed three people and wounded four, including a 3-year-old-girl.
In other developments Friday, border regions of Russia again came under fire. One of the most frequently hit targets of cross-border shelling, Russia’s Belgorod region, was bombarded by artillery shells and drone strikes in multiple villages, Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov said. At least two women died in a car, multiple people were injured, and apartment buildings, cars, power transmission lines and farm equipment were damaged, he said on Telegram.
The Freedom of Russia Legion, one of the groups that has claimed responsibility for prior attacks on Belgorod, blamed the Russian military for the deaths. The group alleged the Russian army had mistakenly believed the car belonged to the paramilitary group. Thousands of people have been evacuated from the region, and many roads have been closed.
Air defense systems shot down several Ukrainian drones in Russia’s southern Kursk region, Gov. Roman Starovoit reported. In Russia’s Bryansk region, Gov. Alexander Bogomaz said Ukrainian forces shelled two villages, with no reported casualties.
Two drones also attacked energy facilities in Russia’s western Smolensk region, which borders Belarus, officials said.
The U.K. Ministry of Defense said the incursions could be a Ukrainian strategy to disperse Russian forces before a counteroffensive.
“Russian commanders now face an acute dilemma of whether to (strengthen) defenses in Russia’s border regions or reinforce their lines in occupied Ukraine,” the ministry said.
Matthew Lee reported from Oslo, Norway. Karl Ritter contributed from Stockholm and Andrew Katell from New York.
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