- As war enters fourth month, Russia concentrates on east
- Russia tries to encircle Ukrainian troops in twin cities
- Moscow pledges to allow food exports after global criticism
Russian forces intensified their assault on two key towns in Ukraine's industrial Donbas region on Wednesday, with constant mortar bombardment destroying houses, killing civilians and threatening the last escape route, Ukrainian officials said.
After failing to seize Kyiv or Ukraine's second city Kharkiv, Russia is trying to take the rest of the separatist-claimed Donbas' two provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk, and trap Ukrainian forces in a pocket on the main eastern front.
In the easternmost part of the Ukrainian-held Donbas pocket, the city of Sievierodonetsk on the east bank of the Siverskiy Donets River and its twin Lysychansk, on the west bank, have become a pivotal battlefield. Their fall would leave the whole of Luhansk region under Russian control, a key Kremlin war aim.
Russian forces were advancing from three directions to encircle them and shelling the main road from the towns to Ukrainian territory in a bid to cut off their key supply route.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's office said the Russians had launched an offensive on Sievierodonetsk early on Wednesday and the town was under constant fire from mortars.
"All the remaining strength of the Russian army is now concentrated on this region ... the occupiers want to destroy everything there," Zelenskiy said of the situation in Donbas in a late night address.
Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said six civilians had been killed and at least eight wounded, most near bomb shelters, in Sievierodonetsk.
Ukraine's military said it had repelled nine Russian attacks on Tuesday in the Donbas and that Moscow's troops had killed at least 14 civilians there, using aircraft, rocket launchers, artillery, tanks, mortars and missiles.
Reuters could not immediately verify that information, but saw the aftermath of the strike by at least two missiles on a train repair facility in Pokrovsk, a hub for supplies and evacuations from the Donetsk region.
In Kramatorsk, nearer the front line, the streets were largely deserted, while in Sloviansk in the western Donbas, many residents took advantage of what Ukraine said was a break in the Russian assault to leave.
"My house was bombed, I have nothing," said Vera Safronova, seated in a train carriage among the evacuees.
Along with the eastern Donbas region, Moscow is also targeting southern Ukraine, where officials said shelling had killed a civilian and damaged scores of houses in Zaporozhzhia and missiles had destroyed an industrial facility in Kryviy Rih.
Moscow has blockaded ships from southern Ukraine that would normally export Ukrainian grain and sunflower oil through the Black Sea, pushing up prices globally and threatening lives.
"It cannot be in Russia's interest that because of Russia, people are dying of hunger abroad," European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told Reuters on Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, calling for a dialogue.
Russia, which has blamed Ukraine and the West for the food crisis, said on Wednesday it was ready to provide a humanitarian corridor for vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine but said Western sanctions would need to be lifted in return.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying solving the food problem required a "comprehensive approach". Russia was in touch with the United Nations, and "does not rule out the possibility of global talks to unblock Ukraine's ports", he said.
Ukrainian lawmaker Yevheniia Kravchuk told Reuters time was running out to get grain out as the new harvest would be in six weeks, although it was only expected to be 70% of the normal level because of territory being occupied or mined.
Separately, Russia's defence ministry said the port of Mariupol, the Ukrainian city taken by Russia last week after devastating bombardment and a three-month siege, was operating normally.
Rudenko said it was premature to establish a Russian military base in Ukraine's Kherson region, adjacent to Crimea, which Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Three months into the invasion, Russia still has only limited gains to show for its worst military losses in decades, while much of Ukraine has suffered devastation as Moscow stepped up artillery strikes to compensate for its slow progress.
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said Russia was deliberately advancing slowly in what it calls its "special operation" to avoid civilian casualties, comments Zelenskiy dismissed as "absolutely unreal".
Western nations have imposed severe sanctions on Russia. The Biden administration said on Tuesday it would not extend a waiver set to expire on Wednesday that enabled Russia to continue to pay US bondholders.
The decision could push Moscow closer to the brink of default, but unlike in most default situations, Moscow is not short of money. Russia's debt repayment dues pale in comparison to its oil and gas revenues, which stood at $28 billion in April alone thanks to high energy prices.
British retailer Marks & Spencer MKS.L on Wednesday became the latest company to announce it would pull out of Russia completely, taking a charge of 31 million pounds ($39 million).
Zelenskiy told Davos that the conflict could only be ended with direct talks between him and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and said Russia should withdraw to lines in place before its Feb. 24 invasion.
"That might be a first step towards talks," he said.
The prime minister of Estonia, another former Soviet republic which fears Russian aggression, said Ukraine should not be forced into compromises.
"It is much more dangerous giving in to Putin than provoking him. All these seemingly small concessions to the aggressor lead to big wars. We have done this mistake already three times: Georgia, Crimea and Donbas."