kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP), May 21 – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has warned that only a diplomatic breakthrough rather than an outright military victory can end Russia’s war on his country, while arguing for its EU membership.
Zelensky also called for more military aid, even as US President Joe Biden formally approved a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine’s war effort.
And he insisted on Saturday that his war-ravaged country should be a full-fledged candidate to join the EU, rejecting a suggestion by French President Emmanuel Macron and some other European leaders to create some sort of associated political community. as a waiting area for an application for membership. .
“We don’t need such compromises,” Zelensky told a joint press conference with visiting Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa.
“Because, believe me, it will not be a compromise with Ukraine in Europe, it will be another compromise between Europe and Russia.”
Speaking on Ukrainian television on Saturday, Zelensky said: “There are things that can only be achieved at the negotiating table.”
The war “will be bloody, there will be fighting but will only end definitively with diplomacy”.
“Discussions between Ukraine and Russia will definitely take place. In what format, I don’t know,” he added.
But he promised the result would be “fair” for Ukraine.
– Cruise missile “strike” –
After just over 12 weeks of fierce fighting, Ukrainian forces have halted Russian attempts to seize kyiv and the northern city of Kharkiv, but they are under intense pressure in the eastern region of Donbass.
Moscow’s army razed and seized the Black Sea port of Mariupol and subjected Ukrainian troops and eastern towns to relentless ground and artillery attacks.
On Saturday, the Russian Defense Ministry claimed to have struck with cruise missiles a large stockpile of weapons supplied by the West in the region of Zhytomyr, in the northwest of the country.
“Long-range, high-precision Kalibr missiles launched from the sea destroyed a large shipment of weapons and military equipment supplied by the United States and European countries,” the ministry said. The strike has yet to be independently confirmed.
– Russia cuts gas from Finland-
Zelensky’s Western allies have shipped a steady stream of modern weapons to his forces and imposed sweeping sanctions on the Russian economy and President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle.
The Kremlin reacted by disrupting the European energy supply.
On Saturday, Russian energy giant Gazprom said it had cut off supplies to neighboring Finland because it had not received ruble payments it was owed.
Helsinki had refused to pay its bill in roubles, which Moscow had demanded in a bid to circumvent financial sanctions.
In 2021, Gazprom supplied around two-thirds of the country’s gas consumption, but only 8% of its total energy consumption.
Gasum, Finland’s state-owned energy company, said it would use other sources, such as the Balticconnector gas pipeline, which connects Finland to Estonia, another EU member.
Moscow cut off gas to Poland and Bulgaria last month, a move the European Union has denounced as “blackmail”.
The row over Finland’s gas bill comes just days after the country joined neighboring Sweden in breaking its historic military non-alignment and applying to join NATO.
Moscow warned Finland that joining NATO would be “a serious mistake with far-reaching consequences”, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said he would respond by building military bases in western Finland. Russia.
But Finland and Sweden are now apparently on the fast track to joining the military alliance, with Biden this week offering “full, total and complete support” for their offers.
NATO’s current 30 members must agree, however, and Turkey has condemned Sweden’s alleged tolerance of the presence of exiled Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants.
– Fierce resistance –
On the ground in Ukraine, the fighting remains fiercest in the eastern region of Donbass, a Russian-speaking area partially controlled by pro-Kremlin separatists since 2014.
In Severodonetsk, a frontline town now under threat of encirclement, 12 people were killed and 40 others injured by Russian shelling, regional governor Sergiy Gaiday said.
“The Russians use artillery day and night,” he said.
In neighboring Donetsk region, Governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram on Saturday that seven civilians had been killed and 10 injured.
Further north in Kharkiv, just 50 kilometers from the border with Russia, new networks of trenches and checkpoints have sprung up as the city prepares to defend itself against a fresh onslaught.
“When we were here on February 24, there was no position,” says “Doctor”, a National Guard medic, referring to the day the Russians invaded.
“But now we have trenches, we have well-protected areas, so for them it would be incredibly difficult to capture (that position).”
On the roads out of town – some of which have been closed – civilians help soldiers fill sandbags for checkpoints.
“We have a problem, we are at war,” a soldier jokes as he checks a vehicle and turns back.
-Prisoner exchange mentioned-
On Friday, Moscow declared its months-long bloody battle for the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol over.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenko said 2,439 Ukrainians had visited the plant since May 16, up from 500 on Friday.
Ukraine hopes to exchange the surrendered soldiers for Russian prisoners. But in Donetsk, pro-Kremlin authorities have threatened to bring some of them to justice.
A Russian negotiator said on Saturday that Moscow would consider swapping prisoners from the far-right Ukrainian Azov Battalion for Viktor Medvedchuk, a wealthy Ukrainian businessman known for his close ties to Putin.
“We will study the possibility,” said Leonid Slutsky, a senior member of Russia’s negotiating team, speaking from the separatist city of Donetsk, RIA Novosti news agency reported.
Medvedchuk, 67, is a politician and one of the richest people in Ukraine. He escaped house arrest after Russia invaded in February, but was arrested again in mid-April.