Russian forces shelled the entire front line in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, officials in Kyiv said on Friday, as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin accused the West of using Ukrainians as “cannon fodder” in its quest for global dominance.
Putin also said, without elaborating, that Russia would probably have to do a deal over Ukraine someday while accusing France and Germany of betrayal over past efforts to bring peace to eastern Ukraine.
In a sign of Russia’s clampdown on public dissent since it invaded Ukraine on Feb 24, a Moscow court sentenced opposition politician Ilya Yashin to eight-and-a-half years in prison on charges of spreading “false information” about the army.
Yashin had discussed in a YouTube video evidence uncovered by Western journalists of Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Moscow denies committing war crimes. In a post on his Telegram channel, Yashin urged supporters to continue opposing the war.
In Ukraine, the fiercest fighting was near the eastern towns of Bakhmut and Avdiivka, Donetsk region’s governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said in a television interview. Five civilians were killed and two wounded in Ukrainian-controlled parts of Donetsk over the previous day, he said early on Friday.
“The entire front line is being shelled,” he said, adding that Russian troops were also trying to advance near Lyman, which was recaptured by Ukrainian forces in November, one of a number of battlefield setbacks suffered by Russia in the past few months.
In Bakhmut and other parts of the Donetsk region that neighbours Luhansk province, Ukrainian forces countered with barrages from rocket launchers, a Reuters witness said.
In an early Friday report, the Ukrainian general staff said its forces had attacked Russian positions and troop assembly points in at least half a dozen towns in the south of Ukraine.
Russian losses amounted to about 240 wounded, with three ammunition depots and about various military equipment destroyed, it added.
Reuters was not able to verify battlefield reports.
Putin repeated an accusation that the West was “exploiting” Ukraine and using its people as “cannon fodder” in a conflict with Russia, and said the West’s desire to maintain its global dominance was increasing the risks of conflict.
“They deliberately multiply chaos and aggravate the international situation,” Putin said in a video message to a summit of defence ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and a group of ex-Soviet states.
He later turned his fire specifically on France and Germany, which in 2014 and 2015 brokered ceasefire accords between Kyiv and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, saying they had betrayed Moscow by pumping Ukraine with weapons.
“The question of trust arises. And trust of course is almost at zero … But nevertheless, in the final analysis, we have to come to an agreement. I have already said many times that we are ready for these agreements,” Putin said.
Putin, who was speaking in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, also said Russia — the world’s biggest exporter of energy — might cut its oil production and would refuse to sell oil to any country that imposed the West’s “stupid” price cap on Russian oil.
The Group of Seven major powers, the European Union and Australia last week agreed on a $60 per barrel price cap on Russian seaborne crude oil.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Friday the United States was seeking to kill off Russia’s multibillion-dollar export revenues and push it into default, the RIA Novosti news agency reported.
Yet in a reminder that, despite the hostilities, Russia maintains lines of communication with the West, Moscow on Thursday freed US basketball player Brittney Griner in return for the release of Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout.
A plane carrying Griner landed in the United States early on Friday, nearly 10 months after she was detained in Russia on drug charges, while television images showed Bout being hugged by his mother and wife after landing in Moscow.
The Kremlin said the prisoner swap should not be seen as a step towards improving bilateral ties between Moscow and Washington, while the White House said it would not change its commitment to the people of Ukraine.
Separately, Russian and US diplomats met in Istanbul on Friday to discuss a number of technical issues in their vexed relationship, both sides confirmed, though the Ukraine war was not part of their talks.
Russia has targeted Ukraine’s energy infrastructure in recent weeks, leaving millions without heating and electricity. The head of Ukraine’s state energy company Ukrenergo, Volodymyr Kudrytskyi, said more than 1,000 missiles and drones had hit the country’s energy systems since October.
Ukraine’s atomic power agency on Friday accused Russian forces of abducting two senior Ukrainian staff at a Russian-occupied nuclear power station and detaining a third.
Energoatom said the two who were seized at the Zaporizhzhia plant in southeastern Ukraine were beaten before being driven off in an “unknown direction” on Thursday.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a video address late on Thursday accused Russian forces of leaving landmines, tripwire mines, mined buildings, cars and infrastructure in places they had abandoned under Ukrainian military pressure.
“This is perhaps even fiercer and more devious than missile terror,” he said.