Russia’s blockade of Ukraine a ‘war crime’, says senior EU official

LONDON — The Russian blockade that has prevented Ukraine from exporting its vast warehouses of grain and other goods, threatening starvation in distant corners of the globe, is a “war crime”, the top official said on Monday. the foreign policy of the European Union.

The remarks by the official, Josep Borrell Fontelles, were among the strongest words from a Western leader to describe the Kremlin’s tactics to subjugate Ukraine nearly four months after its invasion, and with no end to the conflict in sight.

Before Russian forces began shelling Ukraine in February, it was a major exporter of grain, cooking oil and fertilizer. But the Black Sea blockade – along with Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian farmland and destruction of agricultural infrastructure – has all but crippled exports. The latest blow came on Monday, when, according to Ukrainian regional authorities, a Russian missile razed a food warehouse in Odessa, Ukraine’s largest Black Sea port.

Russia has denied any responsibility for the collapse of Ukrainian exports. But Moscow’s naval dominance of the Black Sea, Ukraine’s only sea route, gives the Russians significant leverage. President Vladimir V. Putin has said he will lift the blockade if the sanctions, imposed by Western and other governments due to the war, are lifted.

Falling grain exports from Ukraine, once the breadbasket of the former Soviet Union, have contributed to soaring global food prices. The UN has warned of hunger or even famine in some countries, especially in Africa.

“You cannot use people’s hunger as a weapon of war,” Borrell said after arriving in Luxembourg for a meeting of EU foreign ministers. “Millions of tons of wheat remain stuck in Ukraine while in the rest of the world people are going hungry. It’s a real war crime, so I can’t imagine it will last much longer.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made the same point in a remote address to the African Union on Monday. Moscow has deep ties with many African countries, which have been reluctant to criticize the invasion.

“If it hadn’t been for the Russian war against Ukraine, there simply wouldn’t be any shortages in the food market,” Zelensky said. “If it hadn’t been for the war with Russia, our farmers and agricultural businesses could have secured record harvests this year.”

The European Union, United States and others are working to improve land routes for Ukrainian exports, but Zelensky said a “much smaller volume can be supplied via new routes, and that takes much longer.”

The war was reverberating in other ways beyond Ukraine’s borders on Monday, including energy shortages, fuel inflation and climate change.

The West’s effort to penalize Russia by drastically reducing purchases of Russian oil and gas has shown new tensions.

At least three European powers have joined Germany in taking emergency measures to provide heating and electricity in winter, including through the increased use of coal, a major contributor to global warming. Italy, Austria and the Netherlands have said they are preparing to find alternative energy sources, possibly including more coal, the world’s dirtiest fuel, following a a similar announcement made on Sunday by Germany, Europe’s largest economy. Denmark said it was also activating a plan to deal with impending gas shortages supplied by Russia.

The developments came as Russia, far from feeling the pain of lost fuel sales, found a savior in China, which announced on Monday that it is now the biggest buyer of Russian oil.

New tensions are looming as European Union ministers decide later this week whether to formally consider Ukraine’s possible membership of the bloc.

In the United States, where the Biden administration has blamed high gasoline price inflation on a lack of Russian oil due to Western sanctions, President Biden has said he is considering a suspension of fuel taxes to ease the pressure on consumers.

In a fresh signal that US-Russian relations over the war could deteriorate further, the Kremlin said on Monday that two US fighters missing in Ukraine had been taken into Russian custody and would be treated as criminals, stripping them of protections afforded by the Geneva Convention. to prisoners of war.

Speaking to NBC News, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry S. Peskov said the two Americans, Alex Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, were “soldiers of fortune” who bombed and fired at Russian forces. and should be “held accountable for the crimes they have committed”.

Sanctions imposed on Russia also played a role on Monday in escalating confrontation with Lithuania, a member of both the European Union and NATO.

Russian authorities have threatened Lithuania with reprisals if the Baltic country does not quickly reverse its ban on transporting certain goods to Kaliningrad, the Russian enclave between Lithuania and Poland. Citing instructions from the European Union, Lithuanian Railways said on Friday it was halting the movement of goods from Russia that have been sanctioned by the European bloc.

Kremlin spokesman Mr Peskov told reporters the situation was “more than serious”. He called the new restrictions “part of a blockade” of the region and a “violation of everything”.

Accustomed to Russian threats, officials in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, dismissed Moscow’s warnings as bluster – the latest in a string of increasingly intemperate statements from a country that is being severely stretched militarily by his invasion of Ukraine.

“We are not particularly worried about Russian threats,” said Lauynas Kasciunas, chairman of the Lithuanian parliament’s national security and defense committee. “The Kremlin has very few options to retaliate.”

Yet Russia’s fury at Lithuania followed a Monday warning from Mr Zelensky that Moscow would launch “greater hostile activity” against Ukraine and European countries in the coming days in response to his country’s efforts to join the European Union.

Up to 50% of all rail cargo shipped between mainland Russia and Kaliningrad – which Russian officials say includes building materials, concrete and metals, among others – will be affected by the ban announced last week. The restrictions revealed the acute vulnerability of the region, which is part of Russia but not connected to the rest of the country.

Plagued by increasingly aggressive nationalism, Russia has abandoned policies that promote Russia as part of Europe and moved advanced Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad. Lithuania’s defense minister said in April that Russia had stationed nuclear weapons in the region, which Moscow denies.

Russia’s relations with Lithuania, which like Ukraine was once part of the Soviet Union, have never been close, but they have frayed even more in recent months as Lithuania has played a leading role plan by pushing for tough EU sanctions against Russia following its invasion.

Just two weeks ago, a member of the Russian parliament from the United Russia party introduced a bill outlawing Lithuania’s 1990 declaration of independence. The bill seeks to reverse the dissolution of the Soviet Union , which Mr Putin lamented as “the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century”.

Most of the fighting in Ukraine in recent days has centered on the small town of Toshkivka in Lugansk province, part of the eastern region known as Donbass. This is where Russian forces have focused much of their military power as part of a plan to take over the region after failing to occupy other parts of the country, including the capital Kyiv, and Kharkiv, the second largest city in northern Ukraine. .

Reports over the weekend suggested Russian forces had breached the Ukrainian front line at Toshkivka, about 12 miles southeast of the Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk metropolitan area. These are the last major cities of Lugansk not to have fallen into Russian hands. As of Monday, it was still unclear whether Russia had made any further advances there.

But Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had stepped up shelling in and around Kharkiv, weeks after the Ukrainians pushed them back, suggesting Moscow still had territorial ambitions beyond Donbass.

“We have deoccupied this region,” Zelensky said in an address to a conference of international policy experts in Italy. “And they want to start over.”

Matthew Mpoke Bigg reported from London, Andre Higgins from Warsaw, Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Druzhkivka, Ukraine, and Rick Gladstone from New York. The report was provided by Valerie Hopkins and Oleksandr Chubko from Kyiv; Dan Bilefsky from Montreal; Monika Pronczuk from Brussels; Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong; Stanley Roseau from London; and Zach Montague of Rehoboth Beach, Del.

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