Moscow on Wednesday turned off the natural-gas spigot to the front-line Eastern European states of Poland and Bulgaria, signaling its willingness to take sharp economic aim at those who aid Ukraine, where Russian forces rained shells in the east as they pressed ahead with their devastating 2-month-old invasion.
Along a 300-mile battlefront in Ukraine’s Donbas region, Russian forces managed to capture a small town, Zarichne, the Ukrainian military said in an early morning operational report. The giant Azovstal steelworks in the battered southern port city of Mariupol, which has become a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, also came under new bombardment, the military said.
Russia has been trying since the start of the war to capture Mariupol, and the city’s last-ditch defenders and some civilians are holed up inside the sprawling Soviet-era steel complex laced with tunnels and bunkers. Even though fighting continues, Russian President Vladimir Putin has already claimed victory in the siege of the city, which Ukraine refuses to acknowledge.
Amid fears of a widening war, officials in a pro-Russian breakaway region of Moldova — Ukraine’s small, impoverished western neighbor — accused Ukraine on Wednesday of attacking it. Russia last week telegraphed its aim of seizing Ukraine’s southern seacoast in order to link up with that breakaway region, Transnistria, as well as with the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow seized illegally from Ukraine in 2014.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in an overnight address, said developments show that the Kremlin’s ultimate goal is “not just to seize the territory of Ukraine, but to dismember the entire center and east of Europe and deal a global blow to democracy.”
Because of that, he said, “the free world has the right to self-defense. And that is why it will help Ukraine even more.”
Wednesday’s announcement by Russia’s state-run fuel company, Gazprom, of the cutoff of Poland and Bulgaria came a day after Western allies, at U.S. urging, vowed to redouble shipments of weaponry to help Ukraine fight off Russian forces for what could prove to be a protracted confrontation.
Germany, in a policy shift, said it would ship armored anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, speaking at Tuesday’s gathering of NATO and other allies at a U.S. air base in western Germany, called on those who want to help Ukraine to “move at the speed of war” to rush in more heavy armaments.
As Russia readies more troops and armor for its expanded offensive in eastern Ukraine, its defense ministry said 59 Ukrainian military targets were destroyed overnight in airstrikes. It said targets included hangars containing foreign-supplied weapons and ammunition, but did not provide specifics. The claims could not be independently verified.
The suspension of gas exports to Poland and Bulgaria came after both countries, along with most other European Union nations, rejected Russia’s demand that energy shipments be paid for in rubles, which would help prop up the Russian currency. Existing contracts almost uniformly specify dollar payments.
The EU promised Wednesday it would forge a unified response to the cutoff, which Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, called a Russian attempt to “blackmail” Europe.
“This is unjustified and unacceptable,” Von der Leyen said in a statement. “And it shows once again the unreliability of Russia as a gas supplier.”
Poland has drawn particular Russian ire because it has not only supplied Ukraine with weapons, but has been a key conduit for arms from other NATO countries. The Polish government said it was prepared for the Russian step, which the onset of spring and warmer temperatures makes less alarming than if it had occurred just a few weeks ago. Warsaw said it had planned for its dependence on Russian gas exports to be phased out over a matter of months.
The claim of Ukrainian aggression in Transnistria came from the interior ministry of the self-declared separatist region, which said Ukraine launched drones and fired shots aimed at its territory. Local officials said this week that two radio towers were damaged in strikes, with explosions also reported in the pro-Moscow enclave’s capital, Tiraspol.
The Ukrainian government in Kyiv has denied any hostile actions directed at Transnistria, where a Russian garrison is stationed.
In Mariupol, prospects of relieving the dire humanitarian situation for civilians — tens of thousands of whom remained trapped in the city, in addition to the few thousand sheltering at the steel plant — continued to remain distant.
Ukrainian officials said no agreements had been reached for setting up a humanitarian corridor Wednesday to try to get civilians out. A trickle of people has managed to flee the city, but Ukraine says Russia has repeatedly reneged on promises of safe passage for noncombatants.
Municipal authorities have estimated that the siege has left some 20,000 dead in bombardment and from starvation, and satellite imagery testifies to the presence of several mass graves on Mariupol’s outskirts.
Bulos reported from Kharkiv and King from Krakow, Poland.