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Russia claws away at eastern Ukraine, Black Sea becomes new focus in war

Ukrainian defenses are being breached as fierce fighting destroys the Donbas region. Among Western leaders, plans are brewing to break Russia's blockade of Odesa, a key grain port on the Black Sea, in the name of alleviating a looming global food crisis.

(CN) — Russian forces this week are making advances in the eastern Donbas region as Ukrainian troops withdraw from towns and villages and desperately fight to hold onto key cities.

While the momentum on the battlefield in Donbas seems to be turning slowly in Russia's favor, Kyiv remains defiant and hopeful it can win the war through the valor of Ukrainian fighters, a mass mobilization to arm 1 million people and the arrival of powerful weapons from the West.

The worst of the fighting is taking place between infantries and artilleries fighting in the green plains and woods of Donbas, but the war is evolving into a potential naval confrontation in the Black Sea as the West talks about forcefully breaking Russia's blockade of Ukrainian grain shipments.

Ukraine and Russia are major exporters of grain and fertilizer but the war has interrupted shipments from Ukraine's Black Sea ports and fears of further global price spikes and spreading famine are growing. Commercial shipping from Ukraine has all but ceased due to the presence of mines in the sea, several past strikes on commercial vessels and the presence of Russian warships.

On Monday, the United Kingdom and Lithuania proposed sending warships to guard grain shipments leaving Ukraine's ports and sending in experts to demine the sea lanes.

“Time is very very short. We are closing in on a new harvest and there is no other practical way of exporting the grain except through the Black Sea port of Odesa,” Gabrielius Landsbergis, Lithuania's foreign minister, told the Guardian. “There is no way of storing this grain and no other adequate alternative route. It is imperative that we show vulnerable countries we are prepared to take the steps that are needed to feed the world.”

Landsbergis described the plan as “a non-military humanitarian mission” and not similar to enforcing a no-fly zone, which was a step too far for NATO. British Foreign Minister Liz Truss said she supported the plan.

“We would need a coalition of the willing – countries with significant naval power to protect the shipping lanes, and countries that are affected by this,” Landsbergis said. One country that might get involved, according to reports, is Egypt. It relies heavily on Ukrainian grain and largely supports the West.

Another component to ending the Russian blockade is arming Ukraine with anti-ship missiles so it can strike at Russian vessels. On Monday, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the United States will supply Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Kyiv via Denmark.

“If we receive even more military support, we’ll be able to throw them back … defeat the Black Sea fleet and unblock the passage for vessels,” said Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign minister.

Ukraine has already had some success in the Black Sea with the sinking of the Moskva, Russia's Black Sea Fleet flagship, in April. But Russia has destroyed most of Ukraine's navy and it has occupied the key Snake Island off the coast of Odesa following heavy fighting.

Andrius Tursa, an expert on Central and Eastern Europe at the London-based political risk firm Teneo, said in a briefing note that many in the West may be worried that Lithuania's plans to unblock Odesa could risk expanding the war.

“As with the earlier calls for a no-fly zone over parts of Ukraine, many Western countries might be hesitant to risk direct military confrontation with Russia, which could eventually escalate into a wider conflict,” Tursa said.

So far, Russia has not attempted an assault on Odesa, though the Kremlin is eager to seize it in a bid to cut Kyiv off from the Black Sea entirely and connect the pro-Russian breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova with other parts of southern Ukraine, such as Mariupol, that it has seized. Also, Odesa is home to many ethnic Russians and it has deep historical significance for Russia.

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China has said it is urgent to get grain shipped out of Ukraine too, as have the United Nations and the World Bank. Russia says it will dissolve its blockade if Western sanctions are lifted, but that's an unlikely scenario. Russia blames the West's sanctions for causing the global food crisis.

Turkey too is playing a major role because it controls access into the Black Sea through the Bosporus Strait. Complicating matters, Turkey is a NATO member – albeit a disruptive one, as seen with its recent statements about blocking Finland and Sweden from joining NATO because of their support for Kurdish rebels – with ties to both Ukraine and Russia.

Ukraine has about 22 million tons of food products backed up and this is limiting storage capacity for the upcoming harvest in a few months. Agricultural exports made up about 41% of Ukraine's exports before the war and its food exports are enough to feed an estimated 400 million people. For now, some of Ukraine's food stocks are being shipped out by railway and truck, but this is seen as insufficient.

Tursa said it will be difficult to persuade Russia to open maritime traffic in the Black Sea “because a naval blockade is an important element of Russia’s war designed to undermine Ukraine’s economy.”

“The Kremlin also hopes that high inflation and food shortages could cause greater political instability and divisions in the West over sanctions on Russia and continued support for Ukraine,” Tursa said. “Finally, reduced grain exports from Ukraine would only increase Russia’s leverage as the world’s largest grain exporter. The Kremlin has previously stated it will be more 'prudent' with the food exports this year, particularly to hostile countries.”

While efforts may be ramping up to hit Russia in the Black Sea, the situation in Donbas is worsening for Ukraine as its troops risk getting encircled in the cities of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, two small cities in the region of Luhansk. The Donbas region is at risk of coming under total occupation by Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian forces.

The nearby city of Lyman, which lies about 24 miles west of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk, has mostly fallen under Russian control. Ukrainian forces are slowly seeing their supply routes cut off too.

Around May 8, Russia's forces captured the town of Popasna, about 20 miles southwest of Sievierodonetsk, and last week they broke through Ukrainian defenses near Popasna. Since taking Popasna, Russian forces have advanced more quickly and fighting is now taking place on the outskirts of Sievierodonetsk and Lysychansk.

“The situation in Donbas is extremely difficult,” said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a video message on Tuesday night. “In fact, all the strength the Russian army still has was thrown there to attack …. the occupiers want to destroy everything there.”

Sergiy Haidai, the Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, said Sievierodonetsk is being slammed by air strikes, artillery and mortars.

“The Russian army has decided to completely destroy Sievierodonetsk. They are simply erasing Sievierodonetsk from the face of the earth,” he said. He said about 15,000 civilians remain trapped in the city.

The United Nations' human rights agency says it has recorded 3,942 civilian deaths since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the invasion on Feb. 24. Additionally, 4,591 civilians have been wounded, the agency says. The actual number of dead and wounded civilians is believed to be much higher.

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

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