Latest political developments
Finland said on Thursday it would apply to join NATO ‘without delay,’ and Sweden is expected to follow suit.
The Kremlin said Finland’s move to join NATO would ‘definitely’ be a threat to Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed support for the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic, separatist-held territory in Eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine said Russia has stolen an estimated $100M US worth of grain and is trying to sell it to other countries.
More than six million people have fled Ukraine’s borders because of the war.
Pressure is building for Europe to source its gas outside of Russia.
Updates from the ground on Day 78 of the war
Ukraine’s human rights chief has accused Russia of detaining and torturing civilians.
According to the Ukrainian military, Russian forces fired at Ukrainian troops in the direction of Zaporizhzhia, a refuge for civilians fleeing Mariupol.
The governor of Belgorod, a Russian border region, said at least one civilian has been killed and another six wounded in Ukrainian shelling.
Ukrainian officials say an airstrike killed at least three people and injured 12 others in the Chernihiv region.
In response to Finland’s announcement in favour of joining NATO on Thursday, the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry warned that “Russia will be forced to take retaliatory steps of military-technical and other characteristics in order to counter the emerging threats to its national security.”
The ministry said that Finland’s move violated past agreements with Russia.
Earlier Thursday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that the Finnish entry into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization would “definitely” be a threat to Russia.
Dmitry Medvedev, who is the deputy head of Russia’s Security Council, said NATO’s support for Ukraine has “increased the probability that an ongoing proxy war will turn into an open and direct conflict between NATO and Russia.”
He also said that “there is always a risk of such conflict turning into a full-scale nuclear war, a scenario that will be catastrophic for all.”
In a messaging app commentary, Medvedev urged the United States and its allies to think about the possible consequences of their actions and “not to choke on their own saliva in the paroxysms of Russophobia.”
Airstrike kills 3 in Chernihiv
Ukrainian military officials said at least three people died following a Russian airstrike on a city in Ukraine’s northern Chernihiv region, while 12 more were injured.
In the early hours of Thursday, Russian troops fired multiple rockets at a school and student accommodation complex in the city of Novhorod-Siversky, the Ukrainian Operational Command “North” said in a Facebook post.
It added that nearby buildings housing local administration offices, college dormitories and private houses also suffered varying degrees of damage.
The accuracy of these claims could not be immediately verified.
Russia said on Thursday its forces hit two ammunition depots in the Chernihiv region.
More than 6 million have fled
The UN refugee agency is reporting that more than six million people have now fled Ukraine in the wake of Russia’s invasion.
Geneva-based UNHCR also said Thursday that the number of refugees who have returned back to Ukraine, either partially or fully, has reached more than 1.6 million. It says that number reflects cross-border movements, and doesn’t necessarily indicate “sustainable” returns. The agency says it’s too early to draw conclusions about “definitive trends” on returns.
Matthew Saltmarsh, an agency spokesman, also said Thursday that a total of 2.4 million people who have left Ukraine have moved beyond Ukraine’s immediate border countries which have taken in the lion’s share of refugees from the country.
Poland alone has registered more than 3.2 million people who fled Ukraine. It and other European Union member countries have open borders, making tracking where people go a complex endeavour.
Lyudmyla Denysova, Ukraine’s human rights chief, claimed on social media Thursday that Kyiv is aware of at least two prisons where civilians are being detained in the eastern Donetsk region.
She said about 3,000 Mariupol civilians are being held there by pro-Russian separatists.
According to Denysova, authorities had received reports of people being “tortured, interrogated, threatened with execution and forced to co-operate,” and of others disappearing after interrogations.
She also alleged that detainees were being kept in “inhuman conditions,” with inadequate access to bathrooms and no space to lie down.
Denysova claimed that some captives had been released after 36 days after signing unspecified documents, but she did not provide more details. Ukrainian authorities are calling on the United Nations to intervene.
Plight of trapped fighters raised in Kyiv
Relatives and supporters of Ukrainian fighters in Mariupol’s Azovstal steel plant on Thursday called for fresh efforts to save them as Kyiv said new talks were underway with Moscow on a plan to rescue badly wounded servicemen.
Demonstrators, mostly women, marched through central Kyiv, holding banners and chanting: “Save defenders of Mariupol, save Azovstal,” “Glory to the heroes of Mariupol,” and “Save the military of Azovstal.”
Russian forces have been bombarding the steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, the last bastion of Ukrainian soldiers in a city almost completely controlled by Russia after more than two months of a siege.
Civilians had been trapped at the plant though Kyiv says they have all been freed. But there is no deal on allowing out hundreds of fighters, some of whom are wounded.
“We have started a new round of negotiations around a road map for an [evacuation] operation. And we will start with those who are badly wounded,” Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told 1+1 Television.
Vereshchuk said Ukrainian authorities were working with the Red Cross and the United Nations, which had both helped with earlier evacuations.
More reports of cluster munitions
Ukrainian officials have also accused Russia of using cluster bombs and phosphorus munitions in the southern region of Kryvyi Rih. The claim could not immediately be verified.
“The occupiers are firing, including with the use of prohibited phosphorus and cluster munitions,” regional military governor Oleksandr Vilkul said Thursday on Ukrainian TV channels. He didn’t provide details on where and when they allegedly were used.
He said one person was killed and one wounded over the past day.
A cluster munition is a container filled with small explosive bombs that scatter over a wide area and pose a risk to civilians. The bombs have been banned by the Convention on Cluster Munitions, but Russia has not signed the international treaty.
In March, the UN said it had credible reports that Russian armed forces had used cluster munitions in populated areas of Ukraine at least two dozen times since the start of the invasion on Feb. 24.
Ukraine recaptures villages in northeast
Since Russia has refocused the war in the eastern Donbas region, Ukraine has been able to recapture several towns and villages in the country’s northeast, according to British intelligence.
Britain’s military said Russia’s change in approach left its remaining troops around the city of Kharkiv “vulnerable to the mobile, and highly motivated, Ukrainian counter-attacking force.”
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed his determination to wrest separatist-held territory from Ukraine in a congratulatory message to the head of the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic in Eastern Ukraine.
In a statement released by the Kremlin, Putin said: “I am sure that through our joint efforts we will defend the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” of the Luhansk republic.
The head of the Luhansk self-proclaimed republic, Leonid Pasechnik, said it would never return to Ukrainian control and that most of its residents want it to become part of Russia.
Grain theft won’t go unpunished: minister
The European Commission on Thursday proposed helping Ukraine export its wheat and other grains by rail, road and river to get around a Russian blockade of its Black Sea ports, which is preventing those critical supplies — including wheat, barley and sunflower oil — from reaching parts of the world at risk of food insecurity.
In addition to the port blockade, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry has accused Russia of stealing grain and trying to sell some on global markets. It cited official estimates indicating that Russia already may have stolen 400,000 to 500,000 tonnes of grain worth over $100 million US.
Ukraine’s foreign minister said Thursday that everyone involved in the transportation and sales of grain seized by Russia in occupied areas of the country will face legal consequences.