Ukraine says fierce fighting for Donbas may decide fate of country

Von der Leyen accuses Russia of ‘hoarding its own food exports as a form of blackmail’

Ukraine has said Russia’s forces are trying to surround its troops in the eastern Donbas region during potentially decisive battles that represent the most intense fighting in three months of all-out war between the neighbours.

Kyiv said Russia’s artillery was pounding residential districts in Donbas as its forces sought to encircle Ukrainian units around the towns of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk, but insisted that any retreat from territory in the area was purely tactical and temporary.

The fierce fighting in Donbas continued as western powers voiced growing fears over Russia's naval blockade of Ukraine's Black Sea ports, and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen accused Moscow of "using hunger and grain to wield power".

"In general, the actions of the Russian army indicate that Russia is preparing for a long-term military operation. Now we are witnessing the most active phase of full-scale aggression that Russia has unleashed against our state," Ukrainian defence ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk said on Tuesday.

He described the situation in Donbas as “extremely difficult, because now, perhaps, the fate of this country is being decided . . . The occupiers are in fact striking around the clock with artillery and aviation, and they are hitting residential areas.”

Offensive

Ukrainian officials said Russia had not made any strategic breakthroughs in Donbas however, after Moscow named the "liberation" of the region as its new target after its forces failed to capture Kyiv and Kharkiv, Ukraine's two main cities.

"The enemy has focused its efforts on carrying out an offensive in order to encircle Lysychansk and Severodonetsk," said Serhiy Haidai, governor of Luhansk province which, with neighbouring Donetsk, makes up the industrial and coal-rich area known as Donbas.

“The intensity of fire on Severodonetsk has increased by multiple times, they are simply destroying the city,” he added.

The Kremlin's all-out invasion has had most success in southern Ukraine, where Russian troops now control the Azov Sea port of Mariupol and most of the Kherson region, creating a land corridor between the Russian border and Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula that Moscow occupied in 2014.

In Mariupol, the dead were still being found. Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to the city's Ukrainian mayor, said on Tuesday that about 200 decomposing bodies were buried in rubble in a basement of one high-rise building.

Russia has destroyed farm and transport infrastructure in Ukraine, transported thousands of tonnes of Ukrainian grain to territory it controls, and is blockading ports controlled by Kyiv, prompting western powers to warn of threats to world food supply.

Blockading

"In Russian-occupied Ukraine, the Kremlin's army is confiscating grain stocks and machinery . . . And Russian warships in the Black Sea are blockading Ukrainian ships full of wheat and sunflower seeds," Dr von der Leyen told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“Russia is now hoarding its own food exports as a form of blackmail – holding back supplies to increase global prices, or trading wheat in exchange for political support . . . This is using hunger and grain to wield power.”

According to the US state department, secretary of state Antony Blinken told Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba that "the global food security crisis resulting from [Russia's] brutal war requires a global response, and they discussed potential means to export Ukraine's grain to international markets."

Mr Kuleba tweeted: “Russian thieves steal Ukrainian grain, load it onto ships, pass through Bosporus, and try to sell it abroad. I call on all states to stay vigilant and refuse any such proposals . . . Don’t become accomplices to Russian crimes.”

Moscow says any food shortages will be the result of western sanctions on Russia. – Additional reporting: Reuters