Odessa port hit by missiles as Russians advance in eastern Ukraine

© Reuters. A woman walks past the destroyed buildings of a local market after recent shelling during the Ukrainian-Russian conflict in Donetsk, Ukraine, June 19, 2022.REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Natalia Zinetz and Max Hender

Kyiv (Reuters) – Russian troops seized territory along a front river in eastern Ukraine on Monday and President Vladimir Zelensky predicted Moscow would escalate attacks ahead of a summit of European leaders expected to welcome Kyiv’s application to join the European Union .

Moscow’s separatist proxies claim to have seized Toshkivka, a town south of Sivir Donetsk on the largely Ukrainian-controlled west bank of the Donets that has become a major battleground city in recent weeks.

Ukraine acknowledged Moscow’s success in Toshkivka and said the Russians were trying to gain a foothold there in order to make a breakthrough in the wider Ukrainian-controlled eastern Donbass region. It also confirmed Russian claims of occupation in the eastern suburbs of West Viro Donetsk.

“Clearly this week we should expect Russia to step up its hostile activities,” Zelensky said in a video address Sunday night. “We’re getting ready. We’re getting ready.”

In Odessa, Ukraine’s largest Black Sea port, a food warehouse was destroyed in a Russian missile strike on Monday, the Ukrainian military said. No civilians were reported killed.

The city has been sporadically bombed and blocked by the Russian navy since the war began, with both sides accusing the other of planting mines in the sea.

Russian troops fired 14 missiles into southern Ukraine in a three-hour barrage, Combat Command South said. The Russian military did not comment on the reports.

The leader of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, said Kyiv had attacked a Black Sea drilling rig owned by a Crimean oil company. Three people were injured and seven workers were being sought, he said on the Telegram messaging app.

Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency said the platforms were 71 kilometers (44 miles) from Odessa. Reuters could not immediately verify reports of the attack.

EU leaders are expected to bless Ukraine as a candidate for formal accession at their summit on Thursday and Friday, a decision that will win in Kyiv.

“I think it’s likely to happen,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters when asked if he thought Ukraine would become a member of the European Union.

While it will take years for Ukraine to join, the bloc’s penetration into the heartland of the former Soviet Union will bring about one of the biggest economic and social changes in Europe since the Cold War. Ukraine’s application to join comes just four days after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered troops across the border in February.

Putin said the “special military operation” was aimed at disarming neighboring countries that Russia sees as a threat and protecting Russian-speaking people there. Kyiv believes that Moscow’s real purpose is to restore control over Ukraine and erase its national identity.

Toshkivka foothold

Russian troops were defeated in an offensive against the capital, Kyiv, in March, but have since deployed a new force to capture more territory in the east and consolidate control in the south.

The war has entered a brutal attrition phase in recent weeks, with Russian troops concentrating their overwhelming artillery fire on the Ukrainian-held Donbas region, which Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.

Most of the fighting took place along the Siverskyi Donets river. Toshkivka had been “liberated”, Russia’s TASS news agency said on Monday, citing Assistant Interior Minister Vitaly Kiselev of the self-proclaimed Russia-backed separatist government of the Luhansk People’s Republic.

The town is located on the west bank of the river, south of Lysychansk, the twin city of the Ukrainian fortress West Rodonetsk.

The governor of the Luhansk region, Sergei Gede, admitted that Russia’s attack on Toshkovka “had a degree of success”. He said Russian troops were trying to break through and gain a foothold there and near the small village of Ustinovka further north along the river. The Russians brought a lot of heavy equipment there, including tanks.

He also corroborated Russian claims that it had occupied Metyolkine on the eastern outskirts of Sievierodonetsk. “Unfortunately, we have no control over Metyolkine today,” he said.

The mayor of Sievierodonetsk, Oleksander Stryuk, said Russian troops controlled about two-thirds of the city, including most of the residential areas, and Moscow kept throwing troops at the Ukrainians in an attempt to take over completely.

International attention has focused on trying to revive food exports from Ukraine, which has now been shut down by Russia’s de facto blockade. Ukraine is one of the world’s main sources of food and cooking oil, leading to fears of global shortages and hunger.

The EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, called the food blockade a “true war crime”. It’s “incredible … millions of tons of wheat are still blocked in Ukraine while people are starving in the rest of the world”.

Russia blames the food crisis on Western sanctions restricting its exports.

The war has also disrupted global energy markets, including Russian oil and gas shipments to Europe, which remains the continent’s main source of energy and Moscow’s main source of income. Moscow blamed EU sanctions for the drop in gas volumes, saying they prevented it from restoring pipeline pumping equipment.

Meanwhile, Moscow has threatened to retaliate against EU member Lithuania for banning the shipment of essential goods to Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic outpost surrounded by EU territory. Lithuania’s ban, which took effect on Saturday, prohibits the shipment of coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology to outposts.

The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Lithuania’s top diplomat and demanded that Vilnius immediately withdraw the “open hostile” move, otherwise Russia “reserves the right to take action to protect its national interests.” Lithuania said the ban must be enforced in accordance with sanctions imposed by the EU.

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