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Top things to know about Ukraine today: Food crisis warnings mount as Russia closes in on key cities

“Supply shortfalls will further increase the price of many staple products,” the U.K. Defense Ministry said.

Moscow’s blockade of Ukrainian ports will “further increase the price of many staple food products,” the U.K.'s Defense Ministry said Wednesday, as Russian forces changed tactics in their bid to encircle two key cities in Ukraine’s east.

Here’s what to know about Ukraine, as Russia is accused of using hunger to wield power and the battle for the Donbas goes on.      

1) Russia accused of ‘using hunger and grain to wield power’

The Russian blockade of Ukrainian ports will further increase the price of many staple food products, Britain’s Defense Ministry said in an intelligence briefing Wednesday.

“Ukraine’s overland export mechanisms are highly unlikely to substitute for the shortfall in shipping capacity caused by the Russian blockade,” it said in its daily update on Twitter. 

“As a result, significant supplies of Ukrainian grain remain in storage unable to be exported,” it said, adding that “the resulting supply shortfalls will further increase the price of many staple products.”

Corn lies scattered in a grain warehouse damaged by Russian tanks on May 14, 2022, in Cherkska Lozova, Ukraine.
Corn lies scattered in a grain warehouse damaged by Russian tanks in Cherkaska Lozova, Ukraine, earlier this month.John Moore / Getty Images file

The briefing came less than 24 hours after European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen accused Moscow of holding back its food supplies “to increase global prices, or trading wheat in exchange for political support.”

“We are witnessing how Russia is weaponizing its energy supplies. And indeed, this is having global repercussions,” she told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, we are seeing the same pattern emerging in food security.”

Calling Russia’s actions “shameful,” she said the Kremlin was “hoarding its own food exports as a form of blackmail — holding back supplies to increase global prices, or trading wheat in exchange for political support.” 

This, she said, was “using hunger and grain to wield power.”

A landowner counts bags of wheat on a farm in the Nile Delta province of al-Sharqia, Egypt, on May 11, 2022.
A landowner counts bags of wheat in the Egyptian province of al-Sharqia earlier this month. Egypt is trying to increase its domestic wheat production as the war in Ukraine has strained international grain supplies.Amr Nabil / AP file

Russia has denied it is blocking the ports and has accused Ukraine of mining them.

Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko said Wednesday that his country was ready for dialogue on resolving the situation around blocked grain ships in Ukraine, the Interfax news agency reported. But he said it would require the removal of sanctions imposed on Russian exports and financial transactions. 

2) Russian forces close to encircling two key cities

There was fierce fighting as Russian forces pushed ahead with their bid to seize the strategic cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk in Ukraine’s industrial east. 

Rather than trying to encircle all of the Ukrainian forces in the region, the Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based military think tank, said in its daily update that Russia was attempting to simultaneously encircle smaller pockets of fighters in Donetsk and Luhansk, collectively known as the Donbas region.  

This was “enabling them to make incremental measured gains,” the update said. 

Smoke and dirt ascends after a strike at a factory in the city of Soledar at the eastern Ukranian region of Donbas on May 24, 2022.
Smoke ascends after a strike on a factory in the city of Soledar in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region Tuesday.Aris Messinis / AFP - Getty Images

Serhiy Haidai, the regional governor of Luhansk, told Ukrainian television Wednesday that Severodonetsk was being pounded by Russian airstrikes, rockets and artillery. He added that fighting had reached the outskirts of the city.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also described the situation in the Donbas as “extremely difficult” in his nightly address. He added that Russia was using all of its remaining strength in the region.

3) Zelenskyy ‘deeply saddened’ by Texas school shooting

After news broke about the shooting that claimed the lives of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on Tuesday, Zelenskyy tweeted that he was “deeply saddened.”

“The people of Ukraine share the pain of the relatives and friends of the victims and all Americans,” he wrote. He later expressed his condolences in a separate video message.

Ukraine said Monday more than 200 children and thousands of civilians have died in the three months of fighting.

4) Delegations from Finland and Sweden arrive in Turkey for NATO talks

Delegations from Sweden and Finland met with senior officials in Ankara, Turkey, on Wednesday to discuss their countries’ historic bids to join NATO, after Turkey voiced early objections.

After the Nordic nations submitted their applications last week to join the alliance, Turkey said it opposed their bids, citing the countries’ support for organizations that it deems to be a threat to its security.

Its opposition threw a wrench into what was meant to be a quick accession for the two countries, as there needs to be a consensus between all 30 NATO states for new countries to join.

5) Russia eases citizenship rules for residents of southern Ukraine, Kremlin says

A simplified procedure to apply for Russian citizenship will be put in place for residents in Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions, according to an amended decree made public by Moscow on Wednesday. 

Russia is in control of the entire Kherson region and parts of the Zaporizhia region, both in Ukraine’s southeast. Some observers have raised fears it may want to annex these areas or declare them as separatist republics.

Similar procedures were put in place in parts of the Donbas controlled by pro-Russian separatists several years ago, Tass reported.

Ukraine has rung the alarm about what it says are Moscow’s efforts to introduce the ruble as the only currency in its Russian-occupied southern regions amid calls from the new, Russian-installed officials for Moscow to exert more control over Ukraine’s south.