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Fighting grinds on in Ukraine, diplomatic efforts pick up

With the war in Ukraine raging for a 110th day and the tide slowly turning against Kyiv, a new push for diplomacy may be picking up steam. Meanwhile, casualties among soldiers and civilians continue to mount.

(CN) — Ukrainian forces were struggling to hold the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk on Monday and Russia’s military continued to press forward on the front lines in an effort to break through Ukraine’s defenses and seize the eastern regions of Donbas. 

In recent days, the tone from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his government has remained defiant, but there are signs of unease both in Kyiv and in Western capitals about the state of the war. 

In a rare display of discord, U.S. President Joe Biden upset Zelenskyy over the weekend when he said at a fundraiser on Friday that the Ukrainian leader “didn’t want to hear” American warnings about the pending Russian invasion. Kyiv shot back and dismissed Biden’s claims. 

“I know a lot of people thought I was maybe exaggerating,” Biden said at the fundraiser in Los Angeles. “But I knew we had data to sustain [Putin] was going to go in, off the border. There was no doubt … and Zelenskyy didn’t want to hear it.”  

On Saturday, Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, rejected Biden’s comment and said Ukraine was preparing for an escalation in a war it had been waging for eight years in Donbas against pro-Russian separatists. He said ammunition depots were moved in advance of the invasion and military exercises were stepped up.   

“If Ukraine ‘wasn’t prepared’ for the war, why did the first Russian strikes hit mock-ups [of ammunition depots]; ammunition was scattered; why were trainings held in January and February?” he said, according to Ukrinform, a Ukrainian state news agency. “Ukraine’s been preparing since the last year: we’ve known about the invasion not only from Western [intelligence], but also by our intelligence.”

Inside Ukraine, Zelenskyy has faced criticism for not doing more to put his country on a war footing during the weeks of incessant warnings from the United States about Russian President Vladimir Putin amassing troops on Ukraine’s borders in advance of an invasion. 

There are other signs of tension. Ukrainian leaders are expressing deep frustration over what they see as the slow pace in weapons shipments from the West. Ukraine says it has, for example, received 150 howitzers and that it needs 10 times as many, according to a report by Strana, a Ukrainian news outlet.   

In an interview with the Economist magazine, Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, reproached the West for not speeding up the delivery of weapons.  

“Either the world doesn’t quite understand what is happening,” he said, “or it does understand, is tired, and is content with a few Ukrainians dying.” 

He added that fractures are appearing in support for Ukraine and he questioned how committed the West is in upholding the values it says it wants to defend – democracy and human rights.  

“The West’s bureaucracy and pragmatism turned out to be much stronger than its values,” he told the magazine.  

Inside the European Union, debates are raging over how both to help Ukraine win the war, or at least stop Russia’s advances, and bring about a ceasefire and peace deal. 

Media reported that French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi are preparing to visit Kyiv this week. The trip, though, remained unconfirmed by officials in France and Germany. Such a visit could mark a major diplomatic development. 

In particular, it would be highly significant for Scholz because he’s come under heavy criticism for waffling over support for Ukraine. Also, tensions have been simmering between Kyiv and Berlin because of Germany’s past warm dealings with the Kremlin. Germany is accused of building up its wealth by opening its arms to Russian natural gas and oil and ignoring the anti-democratic direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin.   

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A spat arose in April after Kyiv said it did not want Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, to visit because of his past close relations with Moscow. Many German politicians – in particular those affiliated with the center-left Social Democrats, the party of Steinmeier and Scholz – advocated building up Russian democracy through trade.   

Since the invasion started on Feb. 24, Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, has issued scathing remarks about Germany’s response to the war.  

On Monday, he said more Ukrainian refugees are leaving Germany than arriving because “many Ukrainians do not feel comfortable in Germany, so they strive to return to Ukraine, despite the war,” according to Bild, a German tabloid.   

Meanwhile, the EU is considering formally offering to make Ukraine a member of the bloc. Such an offer would not mean Ukraine becomes a member quickly – indeed, it could take years to be inducted into the EU club. The European Commission reportedly is in favor of offering Ukraine candidate status, but the EU’s 27 member states would have to approve it too.  

“While this would be a politically important and symbolic decision incentivizing Ukraine’s European perspective, the accession process would be protracted and take years,” Teneo, a London-based political risk firm, said in a briefing note. “Also, the decision could trigger a negative response from Russia, which has recently reversed its position on the topic and now opposes Ukraine’s EU membership bid.”  

The war in Ukraine continues to show no sign of letting up any time soon. Monday saw reports of Russia renewing strikes against Ukrainian areas far from the front lines and Ukrainian forces were accused of killing civilians after striking a market in Donetsk, a city under Russian control. 

The worst fighting is taking place in Sievierodonetsk, where hundreds of civilians are trapped in the crossfire inside bunkers under the Azot chemical plant. Ukrainian forces have taken up defensive positions in the plant. Bridges out of the city across the strategic Seversky Donets River have been blown up.  

Over the weekend, fires were reported at the chemical plant after it was struck by rockets. The horrific fighting over the Azot plant mirrors what happened at the Azovstal steelworks plant in Mariupol, a port city on the Sea of Azov that fell to Russian forces in May after intense street fighting left much of the city in ruins and thousands of people dead. 

On Monday, Ukraine’s National Police said that more than 12,000 civilian deaths are under investigation and that 1,200 bodies, including many found in mass graves, have not yet been identified, according to a report by Interfax-Ukraine, a news service.  

Ihor Klimenko, the head of the National Police, told Interfax-Ukraine that 1,500 civilians were killed in the Kyiv region. At the start of the invasion, Russian forces swept toward Kyiv but became bogged down in towns and cities outside the capital. Before retreating at the end of March, Russian forces allegedly committed numerous war crimes, including rape and shooting civilians, in these areas.   

“In Bucha, Irpen, Gostomel, Borodyanka there were a lot of killed people lying right on the streets – snipers shot them from tanks, from armored personnel carriers, despite the white armbands that the Russian military forced people to wear,” Klimenko said.  

He said large numbers of people were killed in their homes and apartments too by shelling.  

He said about 75% of the dead are men, about 2% children and the rest women.   

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. 

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