Finland state

Russia stops gas flow to Finland, steps up efforts for Donbass

  • Russia launches an assault on Luhansk
  • Russia claims victory after several weeks of siege in Azovstal
  • Russia halts Finnish gas flows over payment dispute
  • Russian military claims to have destroyed Western weapons in Zhytomyr region

KYIV/OSLO, May 21 (Reuters) – Russia halted gas supplies to Finland amid an escalation of an energy payments row with the West on Saturday, and stepped up its offensive in the Donbass region, in eastern Ukraine.

After ending weeks of resistance by the last remaining Ukrainian fighters in the strategic southeastern city of Mariupol, Russia is conducting what appears to be a major offensive in Luhansk, one of the two provinces of Donbass.

Russian-backed separatists already controlled swaths of territory in Luhansk and neighboring Donetsk province before the Feb. 24 invasion, but Moscow wants to seize the last remaining territory under Ukrainian control in Donbass.

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An end to the fighting in Mariupol, the largest city Russia has captured so far, could be crucial for that ambition and give Russian President Vladimir Putin a rare victory after a series of setbacks in nearly three months of fighting.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told local television that while the fighting would be bloody and victory difficult, the end would only come through diplomacy.

“For them, all these victories – the occupation of Crimea or Donbass – are very temporary. And all this will come back – since this is our territory,” he said on Saturday.

Full control of Mariupol could give Russia command of a land route linking the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized in 2014, with mainland Russia and areas of eastern Ukraine held by pro-Russian separatists.

Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said in a social media post on Saturday that Russia was trying to destroy the city of Sievierodonetsk, with fighting taking place on the outskirts of the city.

“The shelling continues from morning to evening and also throughout the night,” Gaidai said in a video post on the Telegram messaging app.

Although they have lost ground elsewhere in recent weeks, Russian forces have advanced on the Luhansk front.

Sievierodonetsk and its twin Lysychansk across the Siverskiy Donets River form the eastern part of a Ukrainian-held pocket that Russia has been trying to invade since mid-April after failing to capture kyiv.

GAS DISPUTE

Russian state gas company Gazprom (GAZP.MM) said it had halted gas exports to Finland after it refused to accept Russian demands to pay for Russian gas in rubles due to Western sanctions imposed over to the invasion of Ukraine. Read more

Finland and Sweden applied this week to join the NATO military alliance, a move prompted by the war in Ukraine. Read more

Finland’s state-owned gas wholesaler Gasum, the Finnish government and individual gas-consuming companies in Finland have said they are ready for a Russian flow halt and the country will be without it.

Most European supply contracts are denominated in euros or dollars and Moscow cut off gas to Bulgaria and Poland last month after refusing to comply with new payment terms.

In addition to trying to isolate Russia through sanctions, Western countries have stepped up arms shipments to Ukraine.

Kyiv received another huge boost on Saturday when US President Joe Biden signed a bill to provide nearly $40 billion in military, economic and humanitarian aid to the country. Read more

“Rejoice in powerful new defense assistance. Today it is needed more than ever,” Zelenskiy tweeted.

Moscow said Western arms deliveries to kyiv and the imposition of sanctions amounted to a “proxy war” by the United States and its allies.

The Russian military said it destroyed a large shipment of Western weapons in Ukraine’s Zhytomyr region, west of kyiv, using sea-launched Kalibr cruise missiles. Reuters could not verify the report independently. Read more

Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa has become the latest Western leader to visit Kyiv and Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said he had signed an agreement for unspecified financial support.

Putin says Russian troops are engaged in a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine and rid it of radical anti-Russian nationalists. Western countries call this an unprovoked war of aggression.

Thousands of people in Ukraine have been killed and urban areas destroyed by war. Almost a third of Ukrainians have fled their homes, including more than 6 million who have left the country.

SIEGE OF AZOVSTAL COMPLETED

The last Ukrainian forces locked down the vast Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol which surrendered on Friday, the Russian Defense Ministry said. He said 2,439 defenders had surrendered in recent days, including 531 in the final group. Read more

Earlier, Zelenskiy said the Ukrainian military had told the last defenders there they could get out and save their lives. The Ukrainians did not immediately confirm the figures on Azovstal.

It is unclear what will become of the fighters.

The Red Cross said it had registered hundreds of Ukrainians who surrendered at the Azovstal plant as prisoners of war and kyiv says it wants a prisoner exchange. Moscow says the prisoners will be treated humanely, but Russian politicians have said some should be tried or even executed.

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Reporting by Natalia Zinets, Max Hunder, Tom Balmforth in Kyiv and Reuters offices, Writing by Madeline Chambers, Patricia Zengerle and Richard Pullin Editing by Rosalba O’Brien, Bradley Perrett, Frances Kerry and Timothy Heritage

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