Moscow pressed the West on Thursday to lift sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, seeking to shift the blame for a growing food crisis that has been worsened by Kyiv's inability to ship millions of tonnes of grain and other agricultural products due to the conflict.
Britain immediately accused Russia of "trying to hold the world to ransom", insisting there would be no sanctions relief, and a top US diplomat blasted the "sheer barbarity, sadistic cruelty and lawlessness" of the invasion.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi that Moscow "is ready to make a significant contribution to overcoming the food crisis through the export of grain and fertiliser on the condition that politically motivated restrictions imposed by the West are lifted", according to a Kremlin readout of the call.
Ukraine is one of the world's largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but the war and a Russian blockade of its ports has halted much of that flow, endangering world food supplies. Many of those ports are now also heavily mined.
Russia also is a significant grain exporter, and Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov said the West "must cancel the unlawful decisions that hamper chartering ships and exporting grain". His comments appeared to be an effort to lump the blockade of Ukrainian exports with what Russia says are its difficulties in moving its own goods.
Western officials have dismissed those claims. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted last week that food, fertiliser and seeds are exempt from sanctions imposed by the US and many others — and that Washington is working to ensure countries know the flow of those goods should not be affected.
With the war grinding into its fourth month, world leaders have ramped up calls for solutions. World Trade Organisation Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said about 25 million tonnes of Ukrainian grain is in storage and another 25 million tonnes could be harvested next month.
Anatolii Chovpin shows the damaged building where he lives ruined by attacks in Irpin. Photo / AP
European countries have tried to ease the crisis by moving grain out of the country by rail — but trains can carry only a small fraction of what Ukraine produces, and ships are needed for the bulk of the exports.
At the same time, the Russian Defense Ministry proposed a corridor to allow foreign ships to leave Black Sea ports and another to allow vessels to leave Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.
Mikhail Mizintsev, who heads Russia's National Defense Control Center, said 70 foreign vessels from 16 countries are in six ports on the Black Sea, including Odesa, Kherson and Mykolaiv. He did not specify how many might be ready to carry food.
Ukraine expressed skepticism. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country was ready to agree on safe corridors in principle — but that it was not sure if it could trust Russia.
Russian soldiers Alexander Alexeevich Ivanov and Alexander Vladimirovich Bobykin, left, attend their trial hearing in Kotelva, northeastern Ukraine, Thursday. Photo / AP
He said the issue was how to ensure that "Russia will not violate the agreement on the safe passage and its military vessels will not sneak into the harbour and attack Odesa".
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Putin was "trying to hold the world to ransom" by demanding some sanctions be lifted before allowing Ukrainian grain shipments to resume.
"He's essentially weaponised hunger and lack of food among the poorest people around the world," Truss said on a visit to Sarajevo. "What we cannot have is any lifting of sanctions, any appeasement, which will simply make Putin stronger in the longer term."
Putin said "it's impossible, utterly unrealistic in the modern world" to isolate Russia. Speaking via video to members of the Eurasian Economic Forum, which includes several ex-Soviet nations, he said those who try would "primarily hurt themselves", citing broken food supply chains among the economic problems the West is facing.
A woman rides a bike past a building damaged during fighting in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic. Photo / AP
Michael Carpenter, the US ambassador to the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, urged its members to provide Ukraine with what it needs to defend itself against Putin's "revanchist delusions".
If Russia achieved "success" in Ukraine, "there would be more horrific reports from filtration camps, more forcibly displaced people, more summary executions, more torture, more rape, and more looting", Carpenter said in Vienna.
On the battlefield, Russian forces continued to press their offensive in several parts of the eastern Donbas region, according to the General Staff of the Ukrainian military. That industrial heartland of coal mines and factories is now the focus of fighting after Russia suffered a series of setbacks and shifted to more limited goals.
Damaged buildings ruined by attacks are seen in Irpin, on the outskirts of Kyiv. Photo / AP
"The enemy is storming the position of our troops simultaneously in several directions," said Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar, "We have an extremely difficult and long stage of fighting ahead of us."
Ukrainian authorities said at least eight people were killed — including a 5-month-old child — and 17 were injured in shelling in Ukraine's second-largest city of Kharkiv, while three were killed by attacks in and around the eastern city of Lysychansk, which is a key focus of fighting.
Military officials said Russian forces continued to try to gain a foothold in the area of Sievierodonetsk, the only part of the Luhansk region in the Donbas under Ukrainian government control.
Children walk among buildings destroyed during fighting in Mariupol, in territory under the government of the Donetsk People's Republic. Photo / AP
A senior US defense official said Russia is making incremental progress in the Donbas, with fighting centered on towns and villages as Russian and Ukrainian forces trade control over scraps of land. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the U.S. military assessment, said those smaller artillery duels could be prolonged.
A woman is carried from her home in an evacuation by volunteers of Vostok SOS charitable organisation in Kramatorsk, eastern Ukraine. Photo / AP
Meanwhile, in the ravaged port city of Mariupol, Russia began broadcasting state television news, even as a leader of the Russia-backed separatists suggested there might be more Ukrainian fighters hiding in its sprawling Azovstal steelworks that was the focus of weeks of bombardment.
The Russian military declared Azovstal and Mariupol on the whole "completely liberated" on May 20 and reported that 2439 fighters who had been holed up at the plant had surrendered.
The leader, Denis Pushilin, said some of the fighters may have been hiding, lost or lagged behind, adding that "there are already those that have been found" and captured.
Alexander Lukashenko, the leader of Russian ally Belarus, said he was sending troops to the border with Ukraine. Authorities in Kyiv have expressed concern that Belarus, which has not yet taken part in ground military operations but allowed Russian troops to invade Ukraine from its soil, may agree to a wider participation in the war.