On Wednesday, Moscow turned off the natural gas tap to the Eastern European frontline states of Poland and Bulgaria, signaling its willingness to economically target those helping Ukraine, where Russian forces have made raining shells to the east as they continued with their devastating 2-month invasion.
Addressing the first such supply disruption since the start of the war, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov strongly hinted that other European economies could be next. Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, he said that while some customers “refuse to pay under the new system” that Russia has instituted – i.e. in rubles instead of dollars or euros – they could “of course” face the same treatment.
Meanwhile, along a 300-mile battlefront in Ukraine’s Donbass region, Russian forces managed to capture a small town, Zarichne, the Ukrainian military said in an early morning operational report. The giant Azovstal steelworks in the southern port city of Mariupol, which has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, also came under renewed bombardment, the military said.
Russia has been trying since the start of the war to seize Mariupol, and the city’s last defenders and some civilians are entrenched inside the sprawling Soviet-era steel complex, dotted with tunnels and bunkers. Even though the fighting continues, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already claimed victory in the siege of the city, which Ukraine refuses to acknowledge.
In the northeastern city of Kharkiv, partially surrounded by Russian troops and under heavy shelling since the start of the war, loud explosions rocked the city shortly after midnight. Later, the regional governor said on the Telegram messaging app that overnight strikes in outlying towns had killed three people and injured 15 others.
A heavy hammering ahead of major ground movement, sometimes including strikes on civilian areas, is key to Russian strategy in the east, British military intelligence said in an assessment on Wednesday.
Amid fears of a spreading war, officials in a breakaway pro-Russian region of Moldova – Ukraine’s small, impoverished western neighbor – on Wednesday accused Ukraine of attacking it. Last week, Russia telegraphed its aim to seize Ukraine’s southern coast in order to link up with that separatist region, Transnistria, as well as the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow has illegally seized. Ukraine in 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an overnight address, said developments show that the Kremlin’s ultimate goal is “not just to seize the territory of Ukraine, but to dismember all of central and eastern Europe and deliver a comprehensive blow to democracy”.
Because of this, he said, “the free world has a right to defend itself. And that’s why it will help Ukraine even more.
Russia’s state-owned oil company Gazprom’s Wednesday announcement of the cutoff of Poland and Bulgaria came a day after Western allies, at the request of the United States, pledged to redouble arms shipments to help Ukraine fight Russian forces in what could turn out to be a protracted confrontation.
Germany, in a change of policy, said it would send armored anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, speaking at Tuesday’s gathering of NATO and other allies at a US airbase in western Germany, called on those who want to help Ukraine to “move at the speed of war” to rush into heavier weaponry. .
As Russia prepares more troops and armor for its expanded offensive in eastern Ukraine, its defense ministry said 59 Ukrainian military targets were destroyed in airstrikes overnight. He said the targets included hangars containing foreign-supplied weapons and ammunition, but did not provide details. The claims could not be independently verified.
The suspension of gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria came after the two countries, along with most other European Union countries, rejected Russia’s demand that energy deliveries be paid for in rubles , which would help support the Russian currency. Existing contracts almost uniformly specify dollar payments.
The EU promised on Wednesday it would forge a unified response to the cut, which European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called a Russian attempt to “blackmail” Europe.
“This is unwarranted and unacceptable,” Von der Leyen said in a statement. “And this once again shows Russia’s unreliability as a gas supplier.”
Polish Prime Minister Mareusz Morawiecki also scoffed at Moscow’s decision. He told lawmakers that power supplied by Russia should be replaced by a combination of local generation and gas transported from Norway.
Poland has drawn particular ire from Russia because it has not only supplied arms to Ukraine, but has also been a key conduit for arms from other NATO countries. The Polish government has said it is prepared for the Russian stage, which the onset of spring and warmer temperatures makes less alarming than if it had happened just weeks ago.
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The allegation of Ukrainian aggression in Transnistria came from the self-proclaimed breakaway region’s Interior Ministry, which said Ukraine had launched drones and fired gunfire targeting its territory. Local officials said this week that two radio towers were damaged in strikes, with explosions also reported in the capital of the pro-Moscow enclave, Tiraspol.
The Ukrainian government in kyiv has denied any hostile action directed against Transnistria, where a Russian garrison is stationed.
In Mariupol, the prospects of alleviating the dire humanitarian situation of civilians – tens of thousands of whom remained trapped in the city, in addition to the few thousand sheltering at the steelworks – remained remote.
Ukrainian officials said no agreement had been reached to set up a humanitarian corridor on Wednesday to try to get civilians out. A trickle of people managed to flee the town, but Ukraine says Russia has repeatedly reneged on promises of safe passage for non-combatants.
City authorities estimated that the siege claimed some 20,000 lives from shelling and starvation, and satellite images show the presence of several mass graves on the outskirts of Mariupol.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has said there is no prospect of face-to-face talks between Zelensky and Putin, which kyiv has repeatedly demanded.
“The time of the meeting of the presidents of the two countries and the context of the meeting have not yet been determined,” said Ukraine’s chief negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak.
Bulos reported from Kharkiv and King from Krakow, Poland.