Russia stepping up attacks, Ukraine says, ahead of EU decision

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Russian forces have stepped up their shelling in Ukraine’s Kharkiv and Donetsk regions, Kyiv said Monday, after President Volodymyr Zelensky warned to expect greater hostilities ahead of a historic EU decision on Ukraine’s bid for candidate status. Nearly four months after Russia launched a bloody invasion of his country, Zelensky said in his evening address on Sunday there had been “few such fateful decisions for Ukraine” as the one it expects from the European Union this week.

“Obviously, we expect Russia to intensify hostile activity this week … We are preparing. We are ready,” he said. Leaders of the EU’s 27 member states will discuss at a summit on Thursday and Friday whether to add Ukraine to the list of countries vying for membership.

EU foreign ministers gathering in Luxembourg kicked off the week urging Moscow to stop blocking the export of vitally needed grain from Ukraine, a top global supplier. “One cannot imagine that millions of tonnes of wheat remain blocked in Ukraine while in the rest of the world people are suffering hunger. This is a real war crime,” the bloc’s top diplomat Josep Borrell said.

Moscow has denied responsibility for the food crisis, and blames Western sanctions for the disrupted deliveries that have pushed up cereal prices and fanned fears of famines in vulnerable regions. On the ground, Russia appeared to be making some battlefield advances in the east. In its daily update on Monday, Ukraine’s presidency reported heavier Russian shelling in the Kharkiv region in the northeast.

In the Donetsk region, the intensity of the attacks “is growing along the entire frontline” it said, leaving at least one person dead and injuring seven people, including a child. Fighting also continued in the key industrial city of Severodonetsk in the east, with Ukraine saying it had lost control of the adjacent village of Metyolkine. “Unfortunately, we do not control Metyolkine anymore. And the enemy continues to build up its reserves,” the Lugansk regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said in a statement on social media.

Moscow’s forces have for weeks been battling to seize the eastern Donbas region, after being repelled from other parts of the country following their February invasion. A chemical plant in Severodonetsk where hundreds of civilians are said to be sheltering was being shelled “constantly”, Gaiday said. NATO’s chief Jens Stoltenberg meanwhile warned on Sunday that the war could grind on “for years” and urged Western countries to be ready to offer long-term military, political and economic aid.—AFP