KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Moscow pressed the West on Thursday to lift sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, seeking to shift the blame for a growing food crisis that has been worsened by Kyiv’s inability to ship millions of tons of grain and other agricultural products due to the conflict.
Britain immediately accused Russia of “trying to hold the world to ransom,” insisting there would be no sanctions relief, and a top U.S. diplomat blasted the “sheer barbarity, sadistic cruelty and lawlessness” of the invasion.
Ukraine is one of the world’s largest exporters of wheat, corn and sunflower oil, but the war, including a Russian blockade of its ports, has halted much of that flow, endangering world food supplies. Many of those ports are now also heavily mined.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tried to put the blame squarely on the sanctions.
“We accuse Western countries of taking a series of unlawful actions that has led to the blockade,” he said in a call with reporters.
Russia also is a significant grain exporter, and Peskov said the West “must cancel the unlawful decisions that hamper chartering ships and exporting grain.”
His comments appeared to be an effort to lump the blockade of Ukrainian exports with what Russia says are its difficulties in moving its own goods.
Western officials have dismissed those claims. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken noted last week that food, fertilizer and seeds are exempt from sanctions imposed by the U.S. and many others — and that Washington is working to ensure countries know the flow of those goods should not be affected.
With the war grinding into its fourth month, world leaders have ramped up calls for solutions.
“This food crisis is real, and we must find solutions,” World Trade Organization Director-General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala said Wednesday at the World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
She said about 25 million tons of Ukrainian grain is in storage and another 25 million tons could be harvested next month.
European countries have tried to ease the crisis by bringing grain out of the country by rail — but trains can carry only a small fraction of what Ukraine produces, and ships are needed for the bulk of the exports.
At the same time, the Russian Defense Ministry proposed a corridor to allow foreign ships to leave Black Sea ports and another to allow vessels to leave Mariupol on the Sea of Azov.
Mikhail Mizintsev, who heads Russia’s National Defense Control Center, said 70 foreign vessels from 16 countries are in six ports on the Black Sea, including Odesa, Kherson and Mykolaiv. He did not specify how many might be ready to carry food.
Ukraine expressed skepticism about the Russian proposal. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said his country was ready to agree on safe corridors in principle — but that it was not sure if it could trust Russia to abide by any agreement.
The issue, he said in Davos, was “how to make sure that at night or early in the morning, Russia will not violate the agreement on the safe passage and its military vessels will not sneak into the harbor and attack Odesa.”
British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said Russian President Vladimir Putin was “trying to hold the world to ransom” by demanding some sanctions be lifted before allowing Ukrainian grain shipments to resume.
“He’s essentially weaponized hunger and lack of food among the poorest people around the world,” Truss said on a visit to Sarajevo. ”What we cannot have is any lifting of sanctions, any appeasement, which will simply make Putin stronger in the longer term.”
Putin, for his part, insisted that Western attempts to isolate Russia would fail and be counterproductive, listing broken food supply chains among the economic problems the West is facing.
Speaking Thursday via video link to members of the Eurasian Economic Forum that includes several ex-Soviet nations, Putin said “it’s impossible, utterly unrealistic in the modern world” to isolate Russia, adding that “those who try to do it primarily hurt themselves.”
Michael Carpenter, the U.S. ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, urged its members to provide Ukraine with what it needs to defend itself against Putin’s “revanchist delusions.”
If Russia achieved “success” in Ukraine, “there would be more horrific reports from filtration camps, more forcibly displaced people, more summary executions, more torture, more rape, and more looting,” Carpenter said in Vienna.
On the battlefield, Russian forces continued to press their offensive in several parts of the eastern Donbas region, according to the General Staff of the Ukrainian military. That industrial heartland of coal mines and factories is now the focus of fighting after Russia suffered a series of setbacks and shifted to more limited goals.
Regional governors said at least four civilians were killed and seven others injured in shelling Thursday in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, while three were killed by attacks in and around the eastern city of Lysychansk, which is a key focus of fighting.
Military officials said Russian forces continued to try to gain a foothold in the area of Sievierodonetsk, which is the only part of the Luhansk region in the Donbas under Ukrainian government control.
In the ravaged port city of Mariupol, Russia began broadcasting state television news, even as a leader of the Russia-backed separatists suggested there might be more Ukrainian fighters hiding in its sprawling Azovstal steelworks that was the focus of weeks of bombardment.
The Russian military declared Azovstal and Mariupol on the whole “completely liberated” on May 20 and reported that 2,439 fighters who had been holed up at the plant had surrendered.
The leader, Denis Pushilin, said some of the fighters may have been hiding, lost or lagged behind those who came out, adding that “there are already those that have been found” and captured.