Since being repelled from Kyiv, Moscow is focusing its offensive on the eastern Donbas

Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - Moscow on Tuesday warned Lithuania of “serious” consequences over its restriction of rail traffic to Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, as Kremlin forces made gains in Ukraine’s strategic Donbas region.

The row over Lithuania, the arrival of sophisticated German weaponry in Ukraine’s arsenal, and an imminent decision on Ukraine’s candidacy to join the EU threaten to further ratchet up tensions between the West and Moscow.

Kremlin troops were meanwhile gaining ground in the Donbas, causing “catastrophic destruction” in Lysychansk, an industrial city at the forefront of recent clashes, the region’s governor said. Ukraine confirmed Russia had taken the frontline village of Toshkivka.

Governor Sergiy Gaiday said “every town and village” in Ukrainian hands in Lugansk region was “under almost non-stop fire”.

Since being repelled from Kyiv and other parts of Ukraine following its invasion in February, Moscow is focusing its offensive on the strategic Donbas region.

Photographs of the war in Ukraine displayed in Vilnius where trains between mainland Russia and Kaliningrad stop over

In the eastern town of Sloviansk, which could become a flash point as Russian troops advance from the north, local people were preparing to withstand attacks and the authorities said the community would defend itself.

“We believe they’ll beat the Russian scum,” resident Valentina, 63, said of local Ukrainian forces.

The stakes are high. The town was seized by Russia-backed separatists in 2014 and then retaken by Ukrainian forces after a lengthy siege.

- ‘Serious’ consequences -

Russia’s war of words with EU member Lithuania escalated on Tuesday, with Moscow vowing “serious” consequences over Vilnius’ restrictions on rail traffic to the exclave of Kaliningrad.

Lithuania says it is simply adhering to EU-wide sanctions on Moscow but Russia countered, accusing Brussels of “escalation”.

Moscow summoned the EU’s ambassador to Russia. Its foreign ministry said Lithuania’s actions “violate the relevant legal and political obligations of the European Union”.

“Russia will certainly respond to such hostile actions,” security council chief Nikolai Patrushev said at a regional security meeting in Kaliningrad, a Russian region bordering Lithuania and Poland.

Ukraine’s Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov tweeted that powerful German-made Panzerhaubitze 2000 howizter artillery pieces had joined his country’s forces.

On the ground, the police chief of the Kyiv region said victims of the Russian attempt to seize the capital city continued to be found. So far, the bodies of 1,333 civilians have been discovered and 300 people remain missing.

On the maritime front, Russia’s navy is blockading ports, which Ukraine says is preventing millions of tonnes of grain from being shipped to world markets, contributing to soaring food prices.

Russia said Tuesday it had repelled a Ukrainian attempt to re-take the symbolic Snake Island, a small territory in the Black Sea captured by Russian forces on the first day of the invasion.

Kyiv has warned that attacks are escalating

Prior to the war, Ukraine was a major exporter of wheat, corn and sunflower oil.

With European officials due to gather this week at a summit expected to approve Ukraine’s candidacy to join the EU, Brussels foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called the Russians’ port blockade “a real war crime”.

He said it was happening “while in the rest of the world people are suffering hunger”.

Moscow denies responsibility for the disruption to deliveries and, following Borrell’s comments, blamed the West’s “destructive” position for surging grain prices.

Growing concerns about a food crisis are “the fault of Western regimes, which act as provokers and destroyers”, said foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Kyiv was engaged in “complex negotiations” to unblock grain exports, although he cautioned that there was no progress as yet.

In an address to the African Union, Zelensky said the continent was a “hostage” of the conflict, and rising food prices had “already brought (the war) to the homes of millions of African families”.

The EU has pledged an additional 600 million euros ($635 million) to help vulnerable nations weather the food security crisis.

- ‘Significant losses’ -

In addition to Toshkivka, Ukraine said it had lost control of the eastern village of Metyolkine, a settlement adjacent to Severodonetsk, which has been a focus of fighting for weeks and is now largely under Russian control.

A chemical plant in Severodonetsk where hundreds of civilians are said to be sheltering was being shelled constantly, Ukraine warned.

Russian invasion of Ukraine

But defence ministry spokesman Oleksandr Motuzyanyk told Ukrainian television that Russian forces had suffered “significant losses in the area of Severodonetsk”.

“They are fighting under the old statutes of the Soviet era. This is a war for territory,” he said.

Three people were injured and seven more missing after Ukrainian forces attacked oil drilling platforms in the Black Sea off the coast of Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014, Crimea’s Moscow-backed leader Sergey Aksyonov said.

It was the first reported strike against offshore energy infrastructure in Crimea since Russia launched its invasion and Russian lawmaker Olga Kovitidi said the complex was still ablaze.

- $100 million medal -

In New York, Dmitry Muratov, the Russian editor-in-chief of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, auctioned off his Nobel Peace Prize gold medal for $103.5 million to benefit children displaced by the war.

Russia's Dmitry Muratov auctioned his gold Nobel medal for $103.5 million to help children displaced by the war

It was sold to an as yet unidentified phone bidder.

Muratov won the prize in 2021 alongside journalist Maria Ressa of the Philippines.

With US-Russia tensions soaring, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told NBC News that two Americans captured in Ukraine while fighting with Kyiv’s military were “endangering” Russian soldiers and should be “held accountable for those crimes”.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland visited Ukraine on Tuesday to discuss prosecution of individuals involved in war crimes.

Spain said one of its citizens fighting for Ukraine had been killed in the country without giving further detail.

Denmark and Sweden meanwhile became the latest European countries to warn of potential gas supply problems. Their energy agencies issued early warnings, due to uncertainty over hydrocarbon imports from Russia.

Ukraine has called the reasons given for Russia’s reduction of gas supply to European customers “far-fetched” and “illegal”.

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