By Natalia Zinets and Max Hunder
KYIV -Russian forces captured territory along a frontline river in eastern Ukraine on Monday, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy predicted Moscow would escalate attacks ahead of a summit of European leaders expected to welcome Kyiv’s bid to join the EU.
Moscow’s separatist proxies claimed to have captured Toshkivka, a town on the mostly Ukrainian-held western bank of the Siverskyi Donets river, south of Sievierodonetsk, which has become the main battlefield city in recent weeks.
Ukraine acknowledged that Moscow had success in Toshkivka and said the Russians were trying to gain a foothold there to make a breakthrough into the wider, Ukrainian-held pocket of the eastern Donbas region. It also confirmed a Russian claim to have captured Metyolkine on Sievierodonetsk’s eastern outskirts.
“Obviously, this week we should expect from Russia an intensification of its hostile activities,” Zelenskiy said in a Sunday nightly video address. “We are preparing. We are ready.”
Moscow, for its part, threatened to take unspecified action to retaliate against EU member Lithuania for banning transport of basic goods to Kaliningrad, a Russian outpost on the Baltic Sea surrounded by EU territory. The Lithuanian ban, which took effect on Saturday, blocks shipments of coal, metals, construction materials and advanced technology to the outpost.
Russia’s foreign ministry summoned Lithuania’s top diplomat and demanded Vilnius reverse the “openly hostile” move immediately, or else Russia “reserves the right to take actions to protect its national interests.” Lithuania said it was required to enforce the ban under sanctions imposed by the EU.
Explosions could be heard in Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest Black Sea port, after air raid sirens blared, city authorities said, giving no immediate details of what had been hit.
The Russian-installed leader of Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014, said Kyiv had struck Black Sea drilling platforms owned by a Crimean oil company.
EU leaders at a summit later this week are expected to give their blessing to Ukraine becoming an official candidate to join, a decision that will be marked as a triumph in Kyiv.
Though it would take years for Ukraine to enter the EU, for the bloc to reach deep into the heart of the former Soviet Union would bring about one of Europe’s biggest economic and social transformations since the Cold War. Ukraine applied to join just four days after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops across the border in February.
Putin says the “special military operation” is aimed at disarming a neighbour Russia views as a threat and protecting Russian speakers there. Kyiv believes Moscow’s true aim is to restore control over Ukraine and erase its national identity.
In the strongest step yet proposed by Kyiv to enforce a cultural break with Moscow, the Ukrainian parliament passed bills on Sunday that would ban the publication of books or the public broadcast of music by citizens of post-Soviet Russia.
The measures, which require Zelenskiy’s signature to become law, “are designed to help Ukrainian authors share quality content with the widest possible audiences, which after the Russian invasion do not accept any Russian creative product on a physical level”, Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko said.
Russian forces were defeated in an assault on the capital Kyiv in March, but have since launched a new one to capture more territory in the east and solidify their hold on the south.
The war has entered a brutal attritional phase in recent weeks, with Russian forces concentrating their overwhelming artillery firepower on a Ukrainian-controlled pocket of the Donbas, which Moscow claims on behalf of separatists.
Much of the fighting has taken place along the Siverskyi Donets river. Russia’s TASS news agency quoted Vitaly Kiselev, an aide to the interior minister of the self-proclaimed Russian-backed Luhansk People’s Republic separatist administration, as saying on Monday that Toshkivka had been “liberated”.
The town is located on the river’s western bank, south of Sievierodonetsk’s twin city Lysychansk, a key Ukrainian bastion.
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai acknowledged that a Russian attack on Toshkivka “had a degree of success”. Russian forces were trying to break through and gain a foothold there and near the small village of Ustinovka further north along the river, he said. The Russians were bringing a huge amount of heavy equipment there including tanks.
He also confirmed Russia’s claim to have captured Metyolkine on Sievierodonetsk’s eastern outskirts. “Unfortunately, we do not control Metyolkine today,” he said.
Sievierodonetsk Mayor Oleksander Stryuk said Russian forces controlled about two-thirds of the city, including most residential areas, and Moscow kept throwing forces at the Ukrainians in an attempt to take over completely.
International concern has focused on trying to restore Ukrainian exports of food, now shut by a de facto Russian blockade. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading sources of grain and food oils, leading to fears of global shortages and hunger.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the grain blockade “a real war crime”. It was “inconceivable…. that millions of tonnes of wheat remain blocked in Ukraine while in the rest of the world people are suffering hunger”.
Russia blames the food crisis on Western sanctions curbing its own exports.
The war has also disrupted global energy markets, including Russian shipments of oil and gas to Europe, still the continent’s main source of energy and Moscow’s primary source of income. Moscow blames EU sanctions for a decline in gas volumes, saying the sanctions had prevented it from restoring pipeline pumping equipment.