The latest on the Russia–Ukraine crisis, May 26. Click here for updates from May 25.
Mayor: Some 1,500 Killed in Sievierodonetsk
The Ukrainian city of Sievierodonetsk is the center of fierce fighting in the east. Mayor Oleksandr Stryuk says it’s holding out even though a Russian reconnaissance and sabotage group went into a city hotel.
Stryuk said at least 1,500 people have been killed in Sievierodonetsk and about 12,000 to 13,000 remain in the city, where he said 60 percent of residential buildings have been destroyed.
Sievierodonetsk is the only part of the Luhansk region in the Donbas under Ukrainian government control, and Russian forces have been trying to cut it off from the rest of Ukrainian-controlled territory.
Stryuk said the main road between the neighboring town of Lysychansk and Bakhmut to the southwest remains open, but travel is dangerous.
He said only 12 people were able to be evacuated Thursday.
Putin: Russia Is Ready to Help Solve Food Crisis If West Lifts Sanctions
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi by phone on Thursday that Russia was ready to help ease the international food crisis, but only if the West lifts sanctions, the Kremlin said.
“Vladimir Putin emphasized that the Russian Federation is ready to make a significant contribution to overcoming the food crisis through the export of grain and fertilizers, provided that politically motivated restrictions from the West are lifted,” it said in a statement.
Russia’s blockade of Ukrainian ports has prevented it from shipping out grain, of which both countries are major exporters. Russia accuses Ukraine of mining the ports.
The conflict is fuelling a global food crisis by sending prices for grains, cooking oils, fuel, and fertilizer soaring.
Separately, Russia’s defense ministry said civilian vessels may now safely use the Azov Sea port of Mariupol in Ukraine, where its forces took full control last week after Ukrainian fighters surrendered at the besieged Azovstal steelworks.
It said the danger from mines around Mariupol port had now been eliminated.
The ministry said six foreign dry cargo vessels in the port were now free to leave. It said they were from Bulgaria, Dominica, Liberia, Panama, Turkey, and Jamaica, and urged those governments to get the owners of the vessels to remove them.
Russian Strikes Kill at Least 7 in Ukraine’s Kharkiv: Governor
Russian strikes killed at least seven civilians and wounded 17 in the city of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine on Thursday, local authorities said.
“It’s too early to relax,” Kharkiv region Governor Oleh Synehubov said, reporting heavy fighting to the north and northeast of the city. “The enemy is again insidiously hitting the civilian population, terrorizing them.”
Russia didn’t immediately comment on the situation in Kharkiv. It has denied targeting civilians in the “special military operation” launched on Feb. 24.
When Kharkiv resumed its metro service on Tuesday, it asked the hundreds of people who had used the underground as a bomb shelter to free up the train carriages, but many said they were still too scared to return home.
Putin: West Will Fail to Isolate Russia Over Ukraine Invasion
Russian President Vladimir Putin says the West will fail in its attempts to isolate Russia and face growing economic problems.
Speaking Thursday via video link to members of the Eurasian Economic Forum, Putin said Russia wasn’t going to shut itself off from international cooperation. The forum includes several ex-Soviet nations.
Putin said that trying to isolate Russia is “impossible, utterly unrealistic in the modern world” and “those who try to do it primarily hurt themselves.”
The Russian leader cited growing economic challenges in the West, including “inflation unseen in 40 years, growing unemployment, rupture of supply chains and the worsening of global crises in such sensitive spheres as food.”
“This is not a joke,” he said. “This is a serious thing that will have an impact on the entire system of economic and political relations.”
He lambasted the West for seizing Russian reserves, saying that “the theft of others’ assets never brought any good.”
Russia Broadcasts Its State Television News in Mariupol and Other Captured Cities
Russia has started broadcasting its state television news in the ravaged port city of Mariupol and other locations it controls in eastern Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian officials said Thursday.
Russia’s Ministry for Emergency Situations, or MChS, said it has launched “three mobile complexes for informing and alerting the population” that will be “broadcasting news for two hours in different parts of Mariupol.”
Such mobile units also operate in the city of Volnovakha and the Lyman district of Ukraine’s Donetsk Province, broadcasting state news shows, “practical information” and cartoons for children, Russian state news agency Tass reported Thursday.
Petro Adnryushchenko, an advisor to Mariupol’s Ukrainian mayor, posted on his Telegram channel footage of MChS trucks with TV screens broadcasting Russian news shows to crowds of people in the Russian-occupied city.
Finland’s Prime Minister Visits Ukraine
Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin has become the latest European leader to visit Ukraine.
Marin met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday in Kyiv.
Zelenskyy thanked Marin for Finland’s weapons deliveries and its support for sanctions against Russia.
Jolted by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Finland recently broke with its policy of non-alignment and applied for membership in NATO, together with neighboring Sweden.
Putin Will Not Dictate Ukraine Peace Terms: Scholz
Russia will not win its war in Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin must not dictate the terms of any peace agreement, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Thursday.
“Putin must not win his war, and I am convinced he will not win,” Scholz said in a speech at the World Economic Forum in the Swiss resort of Davos. “A capture of the whole of Ukraine seems further away now than at the beginning of the war.”
Although some have suggested that Ukraine should negotiate with Putin and consider ceding territory, Scholz rejected the idea of letting Putin dictate the terms of an agreement.
“There will be no dictated peace,” Scholz added. “Ukraine will not accept this, and neither will we.”
Putin is only likely to seriously negotiate once he accepts that the war cannot be won, making continued Western support for Ukraine essential, he said.
Scholz, however, did not address Ukrainian demands for the delivery of more heavy weapons to Kyiv, despite concrete requests by Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in Davos on Wednesday.
Kyiv has been seeking to acquire German Marder infantry fighting vehicles and ideally also Leopard main battle tanks but has not made significant headway with the government in Berlin, Kuleba said.
Hoping to weaken Russia’s economy and thus its ability to wage war, Scholz said Germany would end imports of Russian oil by the end of 2022 and also reduce its reliance on Russian gas.
Ukraine’s Zelenskyy Says Money Making Some Countries Tolerant of Russia
The appeal of Russian money is making some countries tolerant of its aggression, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday as he rejected calls to accept territorial concessions to appease Moscow.
“Today we hear that allegedly Russia should be given what it wants, supposedly it is necessary to agree that some peoples may be deprived of some of their foreign policy rights,” Zelenskyy said in a video address to the Latvian parliament.
“We must fight for the principle that nation(hood) is important,” he said.
Advancing Russian Forces Reach Key Highway Out of Donbass Cities
Advancing Russian forces came closer to surrounding Ukrainian troops in the east, briefly seizing positions on the last highway out of a crucial pair of Ukrainian-held cities before being beaten back, a Ukrainian official said on Thursday.
Russia has poured thousands of troops into its assault in the eastern Donbass region, attacking from three sides in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces in Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. The cities’ fall would bring nearly the whole of Luhansk Province under Russian control, a key Kremlin war aim.
Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk province, acknowledged that Ukrainian forces were retreating, but said the last road out of Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk, which straddle the Siversky Donets river, remained outside Russian control.
In an interview posted on social media, Gaidai said “around 50” Russian soldiers had reached the highway linking Lysychansk to Ukrainian-held Bakhmut, and “managed to gain a foothold for some time. They even set up some kind of checkpoint there.”
“From the first day, the entire territory, all the positions of the military, have been shelled. Many of our fortified structures were destroyed,” Gaidai said. “It is clear that our boys are slowly retreating to more fortified positions—we need to hold back this horde.”
Western military analysts see the battle for the two cities as a potential turning point in the war, now that Russia has defined its principal objective as capturing the east.
Russia Tells Ukraine to Accept ‘Real Situation’
The Kremlin says it expects Ukraine to recognize the existing situation and accept Moscow’s demands.
Asked Thursday if Russia expects Ukraine to make territorial concessions, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “Moscow expects the acceptance of its demands and the understanding of the real situation that exists de-facto.”
Russia has previously demanded that Ukraine recognize the Russian sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014 and acknowledge the independence of Russia-backed separatist regions in eastern Ukraine.
During the talks in March, Ukrainian officials said that the status of Crimea and the separatist regions could be discussed later, but in recent weeks they have toughened their stand and said that Russian troops should pull back to areas where they were before Moscow launched a military action in Ukraine on Feb. 24.
Speaking in a conference call with reporters on Thursday, Peskov said that “Kyiv must acknowledge the de-facto situation and just have a sober assessment of it.”
Kremlin Says West Needs to Lift Sanctions Against Russia for Grain Shipments to Resume
The Kremlin says that the West needs to lift some of its sanctions against Russia for grain shipments from Ukraine to resume.
Western allies have accused Russia of blocking grain exports from Ukraine in a move that is exacerbating food shortages in Africa and other regions.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Thursday that “we categorically reject the accusations and accuse Western countries of taking a series of unlawful actions that has led to the blockade.”
Speaking in a conference call with reporters, he added that the West, in particular, “must cancel the unlawful decisions that hamper chartering ships and exporting grain.”
Russian Central Bank Slashes Rates, Flags More Cuts
The Russian Central Bank has cut its key interest rate to 11 percent from 14 percent, citing a slowdown in inflation.
It is the third three-point cut since the Central Bank hiked the rate to 20 percent in late February after Russian forces entered Ukraine. It said inflation had been at 17.8 percent in April, but slowed slightly to 17.5 percent as of a May 20 estimate.
“External conditions for the Russian economy are still challenging, considerably constraining economic activity,” the Central Bank said in a statement. “Financial stability risks decreased somewhat, enabling a relaxation of some capital control measures.”
The Central Bank’s next meeting to review the rate is June 10.
Germany’s Scholz Claims Putin Won’t Win War
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has reiterated his conviction that Russian President Vladimir Putin won’t win the war in Ukraine.
“He has already failed to achieve all his strategic goals,” Scholz said Thursday in his speech at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
The chancellor said that “a capture of all of Ukraine by Russia seems further away today than it did at the beginning of the war. More than ever, Ukraine is emphasizing its European future.”
In addition, Scholz said Thursday, the “brutality of the Russian war” has prompted two states to move closer to NATO.
“With Sweden and Finland, two close friends and partners want to join the North Atlantic alliance. They are most welcome!” the chancellor said.
Talk to Ukraine About Ports, Not Us, Says Russia Ahead of UN Talks in Moscow
A senior U.N. official is due to visit Moscow in the coming days to discuss reviving fertilizer exports, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said on Wednesday, stressing that the talks were not linked to a resumption of Ukrainian grain shipments.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, Ukrainian grain shipments from its Black Sea ports have stalled and more than 20 million tonnes of grain are stuck in silos, while Moscow says the chilling effect of Western sanctions imposed on Russia over the war have disrupted its fertilizer and grain exports.
The conflict is fuelling a global food crisis with prices for grains, cooking oils, fuel, and fertilizer soaring. Russia and Ukraine account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies, while Russia is also a key global fertilizer exporter and Ukraine is a major exporter of corn and sunflower oil.
Nebenzia said that “formally fertilizers and grain are not under sanctions, but there are logistical, transport, insurance, bank transfer problems” created by Western sanctions that “prevent us from exporting freely.”
“We are prepared to export fertilizers and grain from our ports to the world market,” he said, adding that when it came to Ukrainian grain exports—”I think that should be negotiated with the Ukrainians, not with Russians.”
However, Western officials say any deal on access to Ukrainian ports would need Russian agreement, citing what they say is a Russian blockade and a need for security guarantees.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who visited Moscow and Kyiv last month, is in “intense contact” with Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, the United States, and the European Union in a bid to broker what he calls a “package deal” to resume both Ukrainian food exports and Russian food and fertilizer exports.
Nebenzia said that top U.N. trade and development official Rebecca Grynspan was due to discuss Russian exports during a visit to Moscow in the coming days. She is coordinator of the U.N. Global Crisis Response Group on Food, Energy, and Finance which aims to combat global economic shocks from the Ukraine war.
The United States and others accuse Russia of blockading Ukraine’s ports. Nebenzia has said there is an 80 nautical mile (148 km) long and 3 nautical mile (5.5 km) wide “safe corridor” allowing access to the major Ukrainian Black Sea port of Odesa, but that Ukraine needs to remove mines from the waters.
“They mined the ports, not us,” Nebenzia said on Wednesday. “There is a corridor which exists, which they don’t use.”
Russian Forces Battle to Surround Ukrainians in East
Russia shelled more than 40 towns in Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region, destroying nearly a dozen high-rise buildings, authorities said on Thursday, as Moscow’s forces sought to surround their Ukrainian foes, outnumbering them in some places.
Russia has poured thousands of troops into the region, attacking from three sides in an attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces holding out in the city of Sievierodonetsk and its twin, Lysychansk. Their fall would leave the whole of Luhansk Province under Russian control, a main Kremlin war aim.
“Everything now is focused on the Donbass,” Ukrainian interior ministry adviser Vadym Denisenko told a briefing.
He said the situation was very tense as 25 Russian battalion tactical groups attempted to surround the Ukrainian forces.
The Joint Task Force of Ukraine’s armed forces said on Facebook, “As a result of this shelling five civilians died and 12 were wounded,” adding that 10 Russian attacks had been repelled, four of its tanks and four drones destroyed, and 62 “enemy soldiers” killed.
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s office said 11 high-rise buildings were destroyed in Sievierodonetsk and eight in Lysychansk.
Zelenskyy has said Russian troops heavily outnumber Ukrainian forces in some parts of the east and Kyiv has been trying unsuccessfully to arrange a prisoner swap with Moscow.
The number of Ukrainian prisoners of war held in the Russian-backed self-proclaimed Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics number is increasing daily, Luhansk official Rodion Miroshnik was quoted by Tass news agency as saying.
“There are a lot of prisoners,” Miroshnik said. “Now the total number is somewhere in the region of 8,000. That’s a lot, and literally hundreds are being added every day.”
Reuters was unable to independently confirm the battlefield reports of either side.
Ukraine Savages Idea of Concessions to End War, Evokes Appeasement of Nazis
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday savaged suggestions that Kyiv give up territory and make concessions to end the war with Russia, saying the idea smacked of attempts to appease Nazi Germany in 1938.
The angry comments by Zelenskyy and a senior aide come as Ukrainian troops are facing a renewed offensive in two eastern regions that Russian-speaking separatists seized part of in 2014.
The New York Times editorial board said on May 19 that a negotiated peace might require Kyiv to make some hard decisions, given that a decisive military victory was not realistic.
And former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger this week suggested at the World Economic Forum in Davos that Ukraine should let Russia keep Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.
In 1938, Britain, France, Italy, and Germany signed a pact in Munich that gave Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler land in then-Czechoslovakia as part of a failed attempt to persuade him to abandon further territorial expansion.
“Those who advise Ukraine to give something to Russia, these ‘great geopolitical figures,’ never see ordinary people, ordinary Ukrainians, millions living on the territory they are proposing to exchange for an illusory peace,” Zelenskyy said in a late-night video address.
Earlier, in an expletive-filled tirade, Zelenskyy adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said some European nations clearly wanted Ukraine to make concessions to Putin.
Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman earlier said an Italian peace plan for Ukraine was a “fantasy.”
“You can’t supply Ukraine with weapons with one hand and come up with plans for a peaceful resolution of the situation with the other,” Maria Zakharova said at her weekly briefing, referring to the Italian initiative.
Italian Foreign Minister Luigi Di Maio gave the broad outlines of the plan last week. The Kremlin said on Tuesday it had not seen the initiative but hoped to receive it through diplomatic channels.
Ukraine’s Zelenskyy Orders End to Visa-Free Travel for Russians
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday ordered an end to visa-free travel for Russian citizens, citing the need to improve border security in the wake of Moscow’s invasion.
Russian citizens are currently allowed to visit neighboring Ukraine without visas. In an order posted on the presidential website, Zelenskyy said he backed a petition submitted by a citizen asking for this practice to end.
“Against the backdrop of full-scale Russian aggression, the issue raised is important and vital. I support the need to strengthen controls on the entry of Russian citizens,” he said.
Zelenskyy said he had sent a letter to Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal asking him to work on the matter. He did not give further details.
Russian President Vladimir Putin early last month signed a decree introducing visa restrictions for citizens of countries that Moscow deems “unfriendly,” including Ukraine.
Russia Ready to Set up Corridor for Ships Leaving Ukraine With Food, With Conditions
Russia is ready to provide a humanitarian corridor for vessels carrying food to leave Ukraine, in return for the lifting of some sanctions, the Interfax news agency cited Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko as saying on Wednesday.
Ukraine’s Black Sea ports have been blocked since Russia sent thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 and more than 20 million tons of grain are stuck in silos in the country.
Russia and Ukraine account for nearly a third of global wheat supplies and the lack of significant grain exports from Ukraine ports is contributing to a growing global food crisis.
Ukraine is also a major exporter of corn and sunflower oil.
Western powers have been discussing the idea of setting up “safe corridors” for grain exports from Ukraine’s ports, adding that any such corridor would need Russian consent.
“We have repeatedly stated on this point that a solution to the food problem requires a comprehensive approach, including the lifting of sanctions that have been imposed on Russian exports and financial transactions,” Rudenko was quoted as saying.
“And it also requires the demining by the Ukrainian side of all ports where ships are anchored. Russia is ready to provide the necessary humanitarian passage, which it does every day.”
Russia Inches Toward Default as Washington Ends Bond Payment Exemption
Following Washington’s decision to end a key sanctions exemption, Russia’s chances of defaulting on its debts have increased.
Back in February, the U.S. Treasury had stated that it would allow Russia to make sovereign bond payments to American investors despite strong financial sanctions imposed on Moscow for its aggressive incursion into Ukraine. But on Tuesday, the department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced that it will not be renewing this exemption.
Putin Hikes Russian Pensions, Plays Down Ukraine Impact on Economy
President Vladimir Putin ordered 10 percent rises on Wednesday in pensions and the minimum wage to cushion Russians from inflation, but denied the country’s economic problems were all linked to the war in Ukraine.
With annual inflation near 18 percent last month, the Kremlin leader acknowledged that 2022 would be a “difficult” year for the Russian economy.
“When I say ‘difficult,’ it doesn’t mean all these difficulties are connected to the special military operation,” Putin told a televised meeting of the State Council in Moscow.
“Because in countries that aren’t conducting any operations—say, overseas, in North America, in Europe—inflation is comparable and, if you look at the structure of their economies, even more than ours.”
The pension increase comes into effect from June 1, while the minimum wage hike kicks in on July 1. Analysts said the steps would not prevent a sharp fall in real incomes.
Putin—whose approval rating has jumped more than 10 points since the start of the Ukraine campaign to 82 percent, according to the independent Levada Center’s April poll—pledged in March to reduce poverty and inequality this year despite Western sanctions and high inflation.
The Research and Expert Review Institute of the bank VEB said the increase in social payments would slow but not prevent a decline in Russians’ real incomes, wages, and pensions—after inflation is taken into account.
The increase in wages and pensions may add to the inflation pressures that the central bank tried to cap with an emergency rate hike to 20 percent in late February, as the ruble’s foreign exchange value plunged. It has cut its rate twice since then as the ruble has recovered.
Finance Minister Anton Siluanov said the measures would cost the federal budget around 600 billion roubles ($10.5 billion) this year and about 1 trillion roubles in 2023.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.