NBC News, Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin’s spokesman, said that the two Americans, Alex Drueke, 39, and Andy Tai Ngoc Huynh, 27, were “soldiers of fortune” who had been engaged in shelling and firing on Russian forces and should be “held responsible for the crimes they have committed.”

The sanctions imposed on Russia also played a role on Monday in an escalating confrontation with Lithuania, a member of both the European Union and NATO.

The Russian authorities threatened Lithuania with retaliation if the Baltic country did not swiftly reverse its ban on the transportation of some goods to Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave between Lithuania and Poland. Citing instructions from the European Union, Lithuania’s railway on Friday said it was halting the movement of goods from Russia that have been sanctioned by the European bloc.

Mr. Peskov told reporters the situation was “more than serious.” He called the new restrictions “an element of a blockade” of the region and a “violation of everything.”

small town of Toshkivka in Luhansk Province, part of the eastern region known as Donbas. That is where Russian forces have concentrated much of their military power as part of a plan to seize the region after having failed to occupy other parts of the country, including Kyiv, the capital, and Kharkiv, the second-largest city, in northern Ukraine.

Reports over the weekend suggested that Russian forces had broken through the Ukrainian front line in Toshkivka, about 12 miles southeast of the metropolitan area of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk. Those are the last major cities in Luhansk not to have fallen into Russian hands. As of Monday, it remained unclear whether Russia had made any further advance there.

But Ukrainian officials said Russian forces had intensified shelling in and around Kharkiv, weeks after the Ukrainians had pushed them back, suggesting that Moscow still had territorial ambitions beyond Donbas.

“We de-occupied this region,” Mr. Zelensky said in an address to a conference of international policy experts in Italy. “And they want to do it again.”

Matthew Mpoke Bigg reported from London, Andrew Higgins from Warsaw, Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Druzhkivka, Ukraine, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Valerie Hopkins and Oleksandr Chubko from Kyiv; Dan Bilefsky from Montreal; Monika Pronczuk from Brussels; Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong; Stanley Reed from London; and Zach Montague from Rehoboth Beach, Del.

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Ukraine News: Zelensky Celebrates Support for Kyiv’s Path to E.U.

Credit…Alexey Furman/Getty Images

Speaking to the press after his meetings with European leaders on Thursday, President Volodymyr Zelensky praised the support they showed for Ukraine’s candidacy to join the European Union but said more immediate military aid would be needed to stand against Russia.

“The very course of European history has proved the correctness of the E.U.’s positive response to Ukraine’s aspirations,” he said. It will, he said, “strengthen freedom in Europe and become one of the key European decisions of the first third of the 21st century.”

At the same time, he appealed again for more heavy weapons, especially for the battlefields in eastern Ukraine.

“We expect new supplies, especially heavy weapons, modern rocket artillery and missile defense systems,” he said. “Each batch of supplies saves people’s lives. And every day of delays or postponed decisions is an opportunity for the Russian military to kill Ukrainians.”

Talks, he said, will not end the war. “We touched on the theme of diplomatic efforts of various countries to achieve peace,” he said. “Everybody sees the only obstacle to all these efforts is the unreadiness of the Russian Federation for real actions, for real negotiations.”

In his nightly address, Mr. Zelensky said that the meeting was a “big step,” and thanked the leaders of Italy, Romania, France and Germany for their defense aid. Mr. Zelensky also said that Romania, which shares a border with Ukraine, would assist Ukraine in the transit of its goods, including exporting grain.

Before the visit, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky said far more weaponry would be needed to turn the tide in battles in the east. Ukraine will need 1,000 howitzers, 500 tanks and 300 rocket artillery systems, the aide said.

During NATO minister meetings on Wednesday, the United States promised more than $1 billion in new military aid for Ukraine, including many long-range artillery and missile systems. So far, the United States has provided 108 towed howitzers, 200 armored personnel carriers, 800 Stinger antiaircraft missiles and 2,000 Javelin anti-tank missiles.

But European weapons transfers have lagged, comparatively. Mr. Macron on Thursday promised an additional six self-propelled Caesar howitzers, in addition to 12 already supplied. Germany has provided 14 armored personnel carriers and 2,500 antiaircraft missiles, including Stingers.

A sense of disappointment was palpable among Ukrainian commentators and even some officials in Mr. Zelensky’s government on Thursday over perceived attempts in Europe to push Ukraine toward negotiations with Russia at this stage.

Viktor Andrusiv, an adviser to the interior minister, posted on social media that “Macron, Scholz and Draghi are bringing us candidacy for the E.U. and a request to return to the negotiating process with Putin.”

The European Commission is expected to unveil its official recommendation on Ukraine’s application to become a member of the European Union on Friday and, officials say, it is likely to recommend that the nation be granted candidate status.

Still, though overshadowed now by war, the expected acceptance of Ukraine’s application to join the bloc was widely celebrated as a breakthrough for Ukraine, even though the process of joining the bloc is arduous and can take as long as a decade.

To join, a country must also make its political system, judiciary and economy compatible with the bloc by adopting the E.U.’s system of common law, as well as more than 80,000 pages of rules and regulations.

Nevertheless, the desire to link Ukraine more closely to Europe was the issue that animated street protesters who toppled a pro-Russian president eight years ago.

And the prospect of eventually joining would help rally Ukrainians today by signaling a postwar future within the European Union and an end to perceptions of Ukraine as a security buffer zone with Russia, Oleksiy Honcharenko, a member of Parliament, said in an interview.

“It’s a psychological weapon to demonstrate that Ukraine has a future,” he said.

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European leaders visit Ukraine, dangling hope of EU membership

  • Zelenskiy thanks EU leaders for solidarity visit
  • Leaders tour ruined town of Irpin
  • Fighting rages in Sievierodonetsk and southern Ukraine

KYIV/IRPIN, Ukraine, June 16 (Reuters) – The leaders of Germany, France and Italy, all criticised in the past by Kyiv for support viewed as too cautious, visited Ukraine on Thursday and offered the hope of EU membership to a country pleading for weapons to fend off Russia’s invasion.

Air raid sirens blared in Kyiv as the visit by French President Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Olaf Scholz and Italy’s Mario Draghi began, with the leaders touring a nearby town wrecked early in the war. read more

After holding talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the leaders signalled that Ukraine should be granted European Union candidate status, a symbolic gesture that would draw Kyiv closer to the economic bloc.

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Scholz said Germany had taken in 800,000 Ukrainian refugees who had fled the conflict and would continue to support Ukraine as long as it needs.

“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” he said.

On the battlefield, Ukrainian officials said their troops were still holding out against massive Russian bombardment in the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk, and described new progress in a counteroffensive in the south.

But they said battles on both main fronts depended on receiving more aid from the West, especially artillery to counter Russia’s big advantage in firepower.

“We appreciate the support already provided by partners, we expect new deliveries, primarily heavy weapons, modern rocket artillery, anti-missile defence systems,” Zelenskiy said after the talks with his European counterparts.

“There is a direct correlation: the more powerful weapons we get, the faster we can liberate our people, our land,” he said.

Macron said France would step up arms deliveries to Kyiv, while NATO defence ministers meeting in Brussels pledged more weapons for Ukraine while making plans to bolster the U.S.-led military alliance’s eastern flank.

“This will mean more NATO forward deployed combat formations… More air, sea and cyber defences, as well as pre-positioned equipment and weapon stockpiles,” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement.

‘MAKE EUROPE, NOT WAR’

The visit to Ukraine by the three most powerful EU leaders had taken weeks to organise while they fended off criticism over positions described as too deferential to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The leaders, who were joined by Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, toured Irpin, devastated soon after the invasion began on Feb. 24.

Noting graffiti on a wall that read “Make Europe, not war”, Macron said: “It’s very moving to see that. This is the right message.”

Scholz, Macron and Draghi all say they are strong supporters of Ukraine who have taken practical steps to reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian energy and find weapons to help Kyiv.

But Ukraine has long criticised Scholz over what it regards as Germany’s slow delivery of weapons and reluctance to sever economic ties with Moscow, and was furious this month at Macron for saying in an interview that Russia must not be “humiliated”.

Italy has also proposed a peace plan which Ukrainians fear could lead to pressure on them to give up territory. After the talks in Kyiv, Macron said some sort of communication channel was still needed with Putin.

While Europe’s leaders attempted a show of solidarity for Ukraine, the continent’s dependency on Russia for much of its energy supplies was laid bare, with gas deliveries through a major pipeline falling in recent days. read more

A lack of grain shipments from Ukraine, meanwhile, has created an emerging global food crisis.

Russia blames sanctions for both, while Italy’s Draghi said Moscow was making “political use” of the situation.

In an interview with Reuters, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Viktoria Abramchenko said Moscow was facilitating the export of grain and oilseeds through Russian-held transit points on the Azov Sea, without explaining who was providing the foodstuffs for export. read more

‘GHOST VILLAGES’

Ukraine is taking hundreds of casualties a day as the war has entered a brutal attritional phase in the east.

The main battle in recent weeks has been over the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk, where Ukrainian forces are holed up in a chemical factory with hundreds of civilians.

“Every day it becomes more and more difficult because the Russians are pulling more and more weapons into the city,” Sievierodonetsk mayor Oleksandr Stryuk said on Thursday.

An airstrike on Thursday hit a building sheltering civilians in Lysychansk across the river, killing at least four and wounding seven, regional governor Serhiy Gaidai said.

In the south, Ukraine says its forces have been making inroads into Kherson province, which Russia occupied early in its invasion. There has been little independent reporting to confirm battlefield positions in the area.

Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, wrote in a tweet that he had visited an area some 3 to 4 kilometres (around 2 miles) from Russian positions, where dozens of “ghost villages” were depopulated by the combat.

“Our guys on the ground – the mood is fighting. Even with limited resources, we are pushing back the enemy. One thing is missing – long-range weapons. In any case, we will throw them out of the south,” he wrote.

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Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff, Toby Chopra and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Alex Richardson and Rosalba O’Brien

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Europe steps up support for Ukraine as Russia presses offensive

  • Ukraine EU candidacy signals major shift in European geopolitics
  • ‘Europe can create a new history of freedom’ Zelenskiy says
  • Battle for Sievierodonetsk grinds on
  • Ukraine claims strike on Russian tugboat

BRUSSELS/KYIV, Ukraine, June 17 (Reuters) – The European Union gave its blessing on Friday for Ukraine and its neighbour Moldova to become candidates to join, in the most dramatic geopolitical shift to result from Russia’s invasion.

Ukraine applied to join the EU just four days after Russian troops poured across its border in February. Four days later, so did Moldova and Georgia – smaller ex-Soviet states also contending with separatist regions occupied by Russian troops.

“Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the country’s aspiration and the country’s determination to live up to European values and standards,” the EU’s executive Commission head Ursula von der Leyen said in Brussels. She made the announcement wearing Ukrainian colours, a yellow blazer over a blue shirt.

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President Voloymyr Zelenskiy thanked von der Leyen and EU member states on Twitter for a decision he called “the first step on the EU membership path that’ll certainly bring our victory closer”.

Moldova’s President Maia Sandu hailed a “strong signal of support for Moldova & our citizens!” and said she counted on the support of EU member states.

“We’re committed to working hard,” she said on Twitter.

While recommending candidate status for Ukraine and Moldova, the Commission held off for Georgia, which it said must meet more conditions first.

Von der Leyen said Georgia has a strong application but had to come together politically. A senior diplomat close to the process cited setbacks in reforms there.

Leaders of EU countries are expected to endorse the decision at a summit next week. The leaders of the three biggest – Germany, France and Italy – had signalled their solidarity on Thursday by visiting Kyiv, along with the president of Romania.

“Ukraine belongs to the European family,” Germany’s Olaf Scholz said after meeting President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Ukraine and Moldova will still face a lengthy process to achieve the standards required for membership, and there are other candidates in the waiting room. Nor is membership guaranteed – talks have been stalled for years with Turkey, officially a candidate since 1999.

But launching the candidacy process, a move that would have seemed unthinkable just months ago, amounts to a shift on par with the decision in the 1990s to welcome the ex-Communist countries of Eastern Europe.

“Precisely because of the bravery of the Ukrainians, Europe can create a new history of freedom, and finally remove the grey zone in Eastern Europe between the EU and Russia,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address.

If admitted, Ukraine would be the EU’s largest country by area and its fifth most populous. All three hopefuls are far poorer than any existing EU members, with per capita output around half that of the poorest, Bulgaria.

All have recent histories of volatile politics, domestic unrest, entrenched organised crime, and unresolved conflicts with Russian-backed separatists proclaiming sovereignty over territory protected by Moscow’s troops.

PORT BLOCKADE

President Vladimir Putin ordered his “special military operation” officially to disarm and “denazify” Ukraine. One of his main objectives was to halt the expansion of Western institutions which he called a threat to Russia.

But the war, which has killed thousands of people, destroyed whole cities and set millions to flight, has had the opposite effect. Finland and Sweden have applied to join the NATO military alliance, and the EU has opened its arms to the east.

Within Ukraine, Russian forces were defeated in an attempt to storm the capital in March, but have since refocused on seizing more territory in the east.

The nearly four-month-old war has entered a punishing attritional phase, with Russian forces relying on their massive advantage in artillery firepower to blast their way into Ukrainian cities.

Ukrainian officials said their troops were still holding out in Sievierodonetsk, site of the worst fighting of recent weeks, on the east bank of the Siverskyi Donets river. It was impossible to evacuate more than 500 civilians who are trapped inside a chemical plant, the regional governor said.

In the surrounding Donbas region, which Moscow claims on behalf of its separatist proxies, Ukrainian forces are mainly defending the river’s opposite bank.

Near the frontline in the ruins of the small city of Marinka, Ukrainian police made their way into a cellar searching for anyone who wanted help to evacuate. A group of mainly elderly residents huddled on mattresses in candlelight.

“There’s space down here, you could join us,” joked one man as the officers came in. A woman named Nina sighed in the darkness: “There is nowhere. Nowhere. Nowhere to go. All the houses have been burnt out. Where can we go?”

In the south, Ukraine has mounted a counter-offensive, claiming to have made inroads into the biggest swath still held by Russia of the territory it seized in the invasion. There have been few reports from the frontline to confirm the situation in that area.

Ukraine claimed its forces had struck a Russian tugboat bringing soldiers, weapons and ammunition to Russian-occupied Snake Island, a strategic Black Sea outpost.

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Additional reporting by Abdelaziz Boumzar in Marinka and Reuters bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff, Editing by Angus MacSwan

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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On Russia, Europe Weighs Competing Goals: Peace and Punishment

BRUSSELS — Losing ground to Russia’s brutal advance in the east, Ukraine on Monday demanded an arsenal of sophisticated Western weapons many times greater than what has been promised, or even discussed, underscoring the rising pressure on Western leaders to reconsider their approach to the war.

The tactics that served the Ukrainians well early in the war have not been nearly as effective as the fighting has shifted to the open ground of the Donbas region in the east, where Russians are relying on their immense advantage in long-range artillery. Russian forces are poised to take the blasted city of Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost Ukrainian outpost, and are closing in on the neighboring city of Lysychansk.

With the leaders of France, Germany and Italy planning their first visit to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, since the war began, they and other Western leaders have to decide whether to double down on arming Ukraine or press harder for negotiations with Moscow to end the war.

running out of ammunition for their Soviet-era artillery, and Ukrainian officials contend that Russian artillery in the east is out-firing their own, 10 to 1.

Mykhailo Podolyak, the Zelensky adviser, said Ukraine needs 300 mobile multiple rocket-launch systems, 1,000 howitzers, 500 tanks, 2,000 armored vehicles and 1,000 drones to achieve parity with Russia in the Donbas region where fighting is concentrated — numbers many times beyond anything that has been publicly discussed in the West. The United States has promised four of the mobile rocket launchers and Britain a few more; Washington has sent a little more than 100 howitzers, and other nations a few dozen more.

faster than Ukrainians can be trained to use them — but Mr. Podolyak, Mr. Zelensky and others clearly mean to keep up the pressure on the West, complaining daily that the current arms flow is woefully inadequate.

mposed tough economic sanctions on Russia, supplied significant financial and military aid to Ukraine, and insisted publicly that it is up to Ukraine’s own, democratically elected leaders to decide how and when to negotiate with Russia.

But they also worry that a long war will bring in NATO countries and even cause President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to escalate what has been a brutal but conventional campaign. President Emmanuel Macron of France, in particular, has twice said it was important not to “humiliate Russia.”

European officials also worry about the damage being done to their own economies by inflation and high energy prices, and about the likely domestic political backlash. And many in Europe are eager to find a way, even if it’s a temporary cease-fire, to resume Ukrainian grain exports as global food prices soar and parts of the world face a threat of famine.

Such talk raises hackles in Kyiv and in the capitals of Central and Eastern Europe where Russia is most feared, and officials questioned how committed their friends to the west are to beating back Mr. Putin’s aggression. Leaders of several countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc believe this war is about more than Ukraine, and that the Kremlin’s ambitions to re-establish that sphere of influence and overthrow the European security order must be met with defeat, not a cease-fire.

matériel, but fear it could soon be surrounded, trapping a large number of Ukrainian troops.

Mr. Michta wrote for Politico.

“For the first time in the modern era,” he wrote, “it would force Moscow to come to terms with what it takes, economically and politically, to become a ‘normal’ nation-state.”

Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer and Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Lysychansk, Ukraine.

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