KYIV: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky warned Saturday (May 21) that only a diplomatic breakthrough rather than an outright military victory could end Russia’s war on his country, as Moscow cut gas supplies to Finland.
“There are things that can only be reached at the negotiating table,” Zelensky said, just as Russia claimed its long-range missiles had destroyed a shipment of Western arms destined for Ukraine’s troops.
Zelensky also appealed for more military aid, even as US President Joe Biden formally signed off on a $40-billion package of aid for the Ukrainian war effort.
And the Ukrainian leader insisted his war-ravaged country should be a full candidate to join the European Union, rejecting a suggestion from France’s President Emmanuel Macron and some other EU leaders that a sort of associated political community be created as a waiting zone for a membership bid.
“We don’t need such compromises,” Zelensky said during a joint press conference with visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa.
“Because, believe me, it will not be compromise with Ukraine in Europe, it will be another compromise between Europe and Russia. I am absolutely sure of that,” he warned.
After just over 12 weeks of fierce fighting, Ukrainian forces have halted Russian attempts to seize Kyiv and the northern city of Kharkiv, but are under renewed and intense pressure in the eastern Donbas region.
Moscow’s army have flattened and seized the southeastern port city of Mariupol and subjected Ukrainian troops and towns in the east to a remorseless ground and artillery attacks.
Zelensky’s Western allies have shipped modern weaponry to his forces and imposed sweeping sanctions on the Russian economy and President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
But the Kremlin has responded by disrupting European energy supplies, and on Saturday cut off gas shipments to Finland, which angered Moscow by applying to join the NATO alliance.
“IT WILL BE BLOODY”
Against this backdrop, Zelensky told Ukrainian television the war would end “through diplomacy”.
The conflict, he warned, “will be bloody, there will be fighting but will only definitively end through diplomacy” – promising only that the result would be “fair” for Ukraine.
“Discussions between Ukraine and Russia will decidedly take place. Under what format I don’t know – with intermediaries, without them, in a broader group, at presidential level,” he said.
In order to side-step financial sanctions and force European energy clients to prop up his central bank, Putin has demanded that importers from “unfriendly countries” pay for gas in rubles.
Russian energy giant Gazprom said it had halted supplies to neighbouring Finland as it had not received ruble payments from Finland’s state-owned energy company Gasum by the end of Friday.
Gazprom supplied 1.49 billion cubic metres of natural gas to Finland in 2021, about two thirds of the country’s gas consumption but only eight percent of its total energy use.
Gasum said it would make up for the shortfall from other sources, through the Balticconnector pipeline, which links Finland to Estonia, a fellow European Union member.
Moscow cut off gas to Poland and Bulgaria last month in a move the European Union described as “blackmail”, but importers in some other EU countries more dependent on Russian gas plan to open ruble accounts with Gazprom’s bank.
Finland and neighbouring Sweden this week broke their historical military non-alignment and applied to join NATO, after public support for the alliance soared following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Moscow has warned Finland that joining NATO would be “a grave mistake with far-reaching consequences” and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said it would respond by building military bases in western Russia.
But both Finland and Sweden are now apparently on the fast track to join the military alliance, with US President Joe Biden this week offering “full, total, complete backing” to their bids.
All 30 existing NATO members must agree on any new entrants, and Turkey has condemned Sweden’s alleged tolerance for the presence of exiled Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants, but diplomats are confident of avoiding a veto.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan urged Swedish and Finnish leaders to abandon financial and political support for what he called “terrorist” groups.
Erdogan told Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson that “Sweden’s political, financial and weapon support to terrorist organisations must end,” his office said.
Russia’s foreign ministry on Saturday imposed travel bans on 26 Canadians “in response to the latest anti-Russian sanctions announced by Canadian authorities”.
Among the new additions is Sophie Trudeau, the wife of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Moscow has now imposed travel bans on 963 people, according to a foreign ministry list released Saturday, including Biden and Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman.
On the ground in Ukraine, the fighting is fiercest in the eastern region of Donbas, a Russian-speaking area that has been partially controlled by pro-Kremlin separatists since 2014.
In Severodonetsk, a frontline city now at risk of encirclement, 12 people were killed and another 40 wounded by Russian shelling, the regional governor said.
And in the neighbouring Donetsk region, according to Ukraine’s interior ministry, Russian fire hit a church sheltering scores of civilians, including children and clergy. At least 60 people were rescued, and the final casualty toll was not immediately clear.
The Russian defence ministry, meanwhile, claimed it had destroyed a large shipment of US and European weapons in a long-range missile strike targeting the Malin railway station west of Kyiv in the Zhytomyr region.
There was no Ukrainian or independent confirmation of the success of the strike.
On Friday, Moscow said the battle for the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol – a symbol of Ukraine’s dogged resistance since Putin launched the invasion on Feb 24 – was now over.
Russian defence ministry spokesman Igor Konashenko said 2,439 Ukrainian personnel had surrendered at the steelworks since May 16, the final 500 on Friday.
Ukraine hopes to exchange the surrendering Azovstal soldiers for Russian prisoners. But in Donetsk, pro-Kremlin authorities are threatening to put some of them on trial.
Biden has cast the Ukraine war as part of a US-led struggle pitting democracy against authoritarianism.
The US Congress this week approved a US$40 billion (38 billion euro) aid package, including funds to enhance Ukraine’s armoured vehicle fleet and air defence system – and Biden signed it into law on Saturday.