Updates from Day 97 of the invasion
Biden agrees to provide Ukraine with longer-range missiles.
Efforts to investigate war crimes in Ukraine ramp up.
Thousands of civilians in Severodonetsk said to be in ‘dire need of aid.’
EU leaders reach deal to phase out Russian oil imports brought in by sea.
Brent crude rises to about $120 US a barrel; Eurozone inflation hits new record.
Effort to bring grain out of Ukraine now the focus of EU summit.
Three more countries on Tuesday joined an international investigation team probing war crimes in Ukraine, and the International Criminal Court prosecutor said he plans to open an office in Kyiv amid ongoing calls for those responsible for atrocities committed since Russia’s invasion to be brought to justice.
Estonia, Latvia and Slovakia signed an agreement during a two-day co-ordination meeting in The Hague to join Lithuania, Poland and Ukraine on the Joint Investigation Team that will help co-ordinate the sharing of evidence through the European Union judicial co-operation agency Eurojust.
ICC prosecutor Karim Khan said the teamwork underscores the international community’s commitment to the rule of law.
“I think it shows that there is this common front of legality that is absolutely essential, not just for Ukraine … but for the continuation of peace and security all over the world,” he said.
Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 has been widely condemned as an illegal act of aggression. Russian forces have been accused of killing civilians in the Kyiv suburb of Bucha and of repeated attacks on civilian infrastructure, including hospitals and a theatre in the besieged city of Mariupol that was being used as a shelter by hundreds of civilians.
The team that met Monday and Tuesday at Eurojust’s headquarters in The Hague was established in late March, a few weeks after the ICC opened an investigation in Ukraine, after dozens of the court’s member states threw their weight behind an inquiry.
Khan has visited Ukraine, including Bucha, and has a team of investigators in the country gathering evidence. The ICC says it is the largest team of prosecutors ever deployed by the international court.
Khan now plans to work toward opening an office in Ukraine “in the next few weeks.”
Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, said her office has already opened some 15,000 criminal investigations related to the war and identified more than 500 alleged perpetrators, including Russian ministers and military commanders. She said her office was ready to proceed against about 80 of them.
Severodonetsk caught ‘under the hail of grenades’
Meanwhile, Russian forces have taken around half of the city of Severodonetsk in Eastern Ukraine amid an intense series of artillery strikes and street battles, the mayor said on Tuesday.
Oleksandr Striuk said heavy fighting is ongoing and the artillery bombardments threaten the lives of the thousands of civilians still sheltering in the ruined city.
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“Half of the city has been captured by the Russians and fierce street fighting is under way,” Striuk said. “The situation is very serious and the city is essentially being destroyed ruthlessly block by block….
“The Ukrainian military continues to resist this frenzied push and aggression by Russian forces.”
The Kremlin’s military campaign in Severodonetsk and Lysychansk on either side of the strategically important Siverskyi Donets River has become the latest focal point in Russia’s war as it seeks to capture the Donbas before more Western arms arrive to bolster Ukraine’s defence. Moscow-backed separatists already held territory in the region and have been fighting Ukrainian troops for eight years.
Military analysts described the fight for Severodonetsk as part of a race against time for the Kremlin. The city, which is 145 kilometres south of the Russian border, is in an area that is the last pocket of Ukrainian government control in the Luhansk region.
Striuk estimated that about 13,000 people remained in the city out of a pre-war population of around 100,000, but said it was impossible to keep track of civilian casualties amid round-the-clock shelling.
The Norwegian Refugee Council on Tuesday said thousands of civilians caught in Severodonetsk are “in dire need of aid.” It is calling for humanitarian organizations to be allowed to access the city “with life-saving assistance and to enable safe evacuations of civilians who wish to leave.”
“We fear that up to 12,000 civilians remain caught in crossfire in the city, without sufficient access to water, food, medicine or electricity,” the council’s secretary general, Jan Egeland, said Tuesday.
He said the organization “cannot save lives under the hail of grenades.”
At least three people were killed and six more wounded overnight in a Russian missile strike on the city of Sloviansk, west of Severodonetsk, Donetsk regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said in a Facebook post on Tuesday morning. A school was among several buildings damaged.
Video showed residential buildings with blown-out windows and destroyed balconies. Some of the local residents were seen clearing rubble inside their apartments.
In neighbouring Luhansk, two people were killed and four were wounded by shelling, Luhansk governor Serhiy Haidai said on Telegram on Tuesday. Haidai didn’t specify when or where the attack occurred.
More weapons from U.S.
U.S. President Joe Biden has agreed to provide Ukraine with advanced rocket systems that can strike with precision at long-range Russian targets as part of a $700-million US weapons package expected to be unveiled on Wednesday.
The move to send high mobility artillery rocket systems that can accurately hit targets as far away as 80 kilometres comes after Ukraine gave “assurances” it will not use the missiles to strike inside Russia, senior administration officials said.
In a New York Times op-ed published on Tuesday, Biden said Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will end through diplomacy but that the United States must provide significant weapons and ammunition to give Ukraine the highest leverage at the negotiating table.
“That’s why I’ve decided that we will provide the Ukrainians with more advanced rocket systems and munitions that will enable them to more precisely strike key targets on the battlefield in Ukraine,” Biden wrote.
Phased-in approach to oil embargo
European Union leaders came to terms late Monday on an agreement that will see most Russian oil banned from the EU.
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, in a tweet, praised the “landmark decision to cripple [Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s war machine.”
The sanctions against seaborne imports of Russian oil will be imposed with a phase-in period of six months for crude oil and eight months for refined products, a European Commission spokesperson said on Tuesday.
That timeline would kick in once the sanctions are formally adopted, with EU country ambassadors aiming to adopt them this week, after EU leaders agreed in principle to the sanctions at their summit in Brussels.
EU talks on Tuesday were set to focus on ways to end the trading bloc’s dependence on Russian energy, by diversifying supplies and speeding up the transition to renewable sources.
EU turns focus from oil to grain
The EU leaders will also focus on how to help Ukraine export millions of tonnes of grain blocked by the war.
The leaders will call on Russia to halt its attacks on transport infrastructure in Ukraine and lift its blockade of Black Sea ports so that food can be shipped out, notably from Odesa.
Ukraine says Russia has prevented the export of 22 million tons (19.9 million tonnes) of its grain through a blockade of Black Sea ports and is fuelling a global food crisis. The United Nations says African countries imported 44 per cent of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine between 2018 and 2020.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said the EU’s sanctions are making things worse. Putin says he’s willing to help ease concerns if the restrictive measures are lifted.
The EU leaders are likely to call for a speedier effort to set up “solidarity lanes” and to help Ukraine get its grain out through European land routes and sea ports.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov will visit Turkey on June 8 for talks that will address, among other things, opening a Black Sea corridor for Ukrainian grain exports, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said late Monday that he has stressed the need to set up a corridor for Ukrainian agricultural products in a phone call with Ukraine’s president.
Russian tech workers relocating to Serbia, Montenegro
Meanwhile, some Russians who are against the war or want to escape its impact have settled in Montenegro and Serbia.
“The first who fled were software experts,” Russian gallery owner and op-ed columnist Marat Gelman told Reuters. He said there are about 2,000 Russian newly arrived programmers in Montenegro, where he has lived since 2014.
Russian software engineer Mikhail Lukyanchenko, who now lives in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, said companies are booking charter flights to relocate workers.
“Entire offices, (groups of) 200 and 300 people are flying in…. We have been given residence permits for a year.”