Negotiations with Ukraine Resume, Europe Faces Russia Gas Deadline

  • Talks resume, humanitarian corridor for Mariupol opens
  • Moscow demands that European gas buyers pay in rubles
  • Europe says it will not be ‘blackmailed’
  • Zelenskiy points to ‘battles ahead’ in Donbass

TROSTYANETS/LVIV, Ukraine, April 1 (Reuters) – European buyers of Russian gas faced a deadline on Friday to start paying in rubles, while negotiations aimed at ending the five-week war were set to resume even as Ukraine he was preparing for new attacks in the south and east.

Moscow’s invasion of its neighbor has killed thousands, sent millions fleeing, and galvanized the United States and its allies around the world to mete out punishments on Russian government entities, businesses, and oligarchs.

Russia will respond to European Union sanctions, the RIA news agency quoted a senior Foreign Ministry official as saying on Friday.

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“The EU’s actions will not go unanswered… Brussels’ irresponsible sanctions are already negatively affecting the daily lives of ordinary Europeans,” Nikolai Kobrinets told the news agency.

Russian President Vladimir Putin played one of his biggest cards on Thursday, demanding that European energy buyers start paying in rubles from Friday or suspend existing contracts.

European governments rejected Putin’s ultimatum, with the continent’s largest recipient of Russian gas, Germany, calling it “blackmail.”

The energy standoff has huge ramifications for Europe, as US officials crisscross the globe to keep up pressure on Putin to stop an invasion that has uprooted a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people.

The International Energy Agency will hold an emergency meeting on Friday to discuss a further release of strategic oil reserves along with a US Ukraine war plan.

The war also threatens to disrupt global food supplies, with a US government official sharing images of what he said was damage to grain storage facilities in Ukraine, a major grain exporter.

‘BATTLES AHEAD’

Putin sent troops on February 24 for what he calls a “special military operation” to demilitarize Ukraine. Western countries say Putin’s real goal was to overthrow Ukraine’s government.

In talks this week, Moscow said it would scale back offensives near the capital kyiv and in the north as a goodwill gesture and focus on “liberating” the southeastern Donbas region.

kyiv and its allies say Russia is trying to regroup after suffering losses in a Ukrainian counteroffensive that recaptured the capital’s suburbs and strategic areas in the northeast and southwest.

Ukraine’s general staff said Russian troops began a partial withdrawal from the kyiv region into Belarus, taking looted vehicles with them.

Video footage from Irpin, on the western fringe of kyiv, showed destroyed Russian tanks amid shelled buildings and Ukrainian authorities pulling out victims in body bags.

“We knew that (the Russians) were being expelled, but when our army arrived I fully understood that we had been liberated. It was happiness beyond imagination,” said Irpin resident Lilia Ristich.

In a new development, a fuel depot in the Russian city of Belgorod, near the Ukrainian border, caught fire and the regional governor said it had been attacked by two Ukrainian military helicopters. If confirmed, it would be the first Ukrainian airstrike on Russian soil.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has warned of “battles to come” in Donbas and the besieged southern port city of Mariupol.

“We still have to go through a very difficult path to get everything we want,” Zelenskiy said.

Peace talks will resume via videoconference on Friday. Seeking to bolster its position, Moscow is redeploying forces from Russia-backed breakaway regions in Georgia to Ukraine, Britain’s Defense Ministry wrote on Twitter.

The reinforcements indicated that Russia had suffered unexpected losses, he said.

US and European officials say the generals misled Putin about his army’s dismal performance.

HUMANITARIAN HOPES

Ukrainian authorities had hoped to evacuate more Mariupol residents after Russia agreed to open a humanitarian corridor on Friday, but several previous deals collapsed amid mutual recriminations.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 45 buses sent to evacuate people from Mariupol were stopped Thursday by Russian forces outside Berdyansk, some 75 kilometers to the west.

“Tomorrow we will continue trying to open a humanitarian corridor to Mariupol so as not to leave our people alone,” he said in an online post.

In a Facebook post, the general staff said Ukrainian forces were still in Mariupol, a gateway to the Black Sea that links a strategic corridor between Donbass and the Russian-annexed Crimean peninsula.

The mayor’s office estimates that 5,000 people have died.

Tens of thousands have been stuck for weeks with shortages of food, water and other supplies in the city that was once home to 400,000 people but has been pulverized by shelling.

Elsewhere, there was evidence of Ukraine’s successful counterattack in Trostyanets, an eastern city. Burnt-out Russian tanks and abandoned ammunition littered muddy roads.

“We spent 30 days in the basement with small children. The children are shaking, even still,” said a woman named Larisa.

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Reuters bureau reports; Written by Lincoln Feast; Edited by Michael Perry

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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