Fighting rages in Ukraine’s east; Russia warns Lithuania over blocked transit of goods

Tensions rose Tuesday over Russia’s threats against Lithuania, a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, over the tiny Baltic state’s efforts to impose Western sanctions on Moscow. At the same time, Ukraine’s president said the Kremlin is “very nervous” as it gathers momentum for his country’s bid for eventual accession to the European Union.

The mounting diplomatic frictions are taking place against the backdrop of intense fighting over two strategically important cities in eastern Ukraine, a bloody war of attrition in which Russian forces are attempting to wear down Ukrainian troops with relentless artillery fire.

Western countries, including the United States, are sending more heavy weapons to Ukraine to try to counter Moscow’s military superiority in the fight for the country’s industrial heartland, but Ukraine has repeatedly asked for additional armaments.

In his last night’s address to compatriots, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy condemned the “brutal offensive” by Russian forces in the region known as Donbass. He conceded difficult fighting as Moscow pressed its advance towards the twin cities of Severodonetsk and Lysyhansk, separated by a river.

Ukrainian defenders of Severodonetsk are concentrated in a besieged industrial complex, where civilians are also taking shelter under heavy Russian shellfire.

Around Lysychansk there were signs that the Ukrainian defenses were collapsing. On Tuesday, a Ukrainian commander, who asked not to give his name so he could speak freely, described a Russian advance in Toshkivka, a village on the southern outskirts of the city. He said his battalion was forced to withdraw after losing too many fighters.

“Lysychansk is almost surrounded,” said the commander. “There are not enough armed forces or weapons. For every shot we shoot, the Russians answer twenty.”

The reverberations of the nearly 4-month-old Russian invasion of Ukraine, meanwhile, continued to be felt around the world in the form of looming food shortages caused by Ukraine’s inability to ship grain from war-torn Black Sea ports and a fuel shortage sparked by Europe Moscow’s cut in natural gas supplies. The Kremlin blames the West for both crises.

NATO has refrained from a direct confrontation with Russia while supporting Ukraine, but a potential flashpoint has emerged in the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, which borders Alliance member Lithuania.

Russia has threatened unspecified retaliation over Lithuania’s refusal to allow land transit of some goods into the tiny portion of Russian territory. The Vilnius government says the partial blockades are in line with European Union sanctions.

According to news reports, the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the European Union’s envoy to Russia on Tuesday to address the matter. The ministry had already summoned the top Lithuanian diplomat to demand the reversal of what it called the “openly hostile” moves.

Zelenskyi said Russia’s offensive against Severodonetsk and other eastern territories is intensifying in part because of Moscow’s fears that Ukraine is moving forward in its aspirations to join the EU. Though the process is likely to take years, EU meetings later this week are expected to provide formal support for creating a path for Ukraine’s membership in the bloc.

“Russia is very nervous about our activities,” said Zelenskyy.

In his late night address, the President also thanked Hollywood actor and director Ben Stiller, with whom he met Monday.

Stiller, who recently received critical acclaim for the streaming TV series Severance, is a goodwill ambassador for the UN refugee agency. As part of a visit to the region, he met with refugees and officials, including US Ambassador Bridget Brink, and visited a Kyiv suburb that was devastated during Russian occupation earlier in the war.

“I’m grateful to Ben for his constant attention to the needs of Ukrainians,” said Zelensky, who shares a background in comics acting with Stiller. Stiller, in turn, called the Ukrainian leader his “hero”.

Bulos reported from Dnipro and King from Washington. Fighting rages in Ukraine’s east; Russia warns Lithuania over blocked transit of goods

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