European buyers of Russian gas faced a deadline to start paying in rubles on Friday as Moscow pledged to respond to EU sanctions and limit supplies of agriculture products to unfriendly countries.
Moscow’s military action in Ukraine has prompted the United States and allies to impose punishing penalties on Russian government entities, businesses and oligarchs.
A senior foreign ministry official said Friday Russia will respond to European Union sanctions.
“The actions of the EU will not remain unanswered. The irresponsible sanctions by Brussels are already negatively affecting the daily lives of ordinary Europeans,” Nikolai Kobrinets said.
He also said Moscow will not ask the European Union to end sanctions as it has a sufficient “margin of safety”.
“The European Union is not the center of the universe,” Kobrinets added.
One of President Vladimir Putin’s allies warned that Russia, a major global wheat exporter, could limit supplies of agriculture products to unfriendly countries.
“We will only be supplying food and agriculture products to our friends,” Dmitry Medvedev, who served as president from 2008 to 2012, said.
“Fortunately we have plenty of them, and they are not in Europe or North America at all,” said Medvedev who is now deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council.
The priority in the food supply is Russia’s domestic market and price control within it, he said, adding that agriculture supplies to “friends” will be both in rubles and their national currency in an agreed proportion.
Russia already supplies wheat mainly to Africa and the Middle East. The European Union and Ukraine are their main competitors in the wheat trade.
Minister: Ukraine could lose half its harvest
Half of Ukraine’s harvest this year, crucial to global food supplies, could be lost because of Russia’s war, the country’s agriculture minister warned.
Last year Ukraine, known as the breadbasket of Europe, harvested a record 106 million tonnes of grain but this year, the figure could drop 25 or even 50 percent, Mykola Solsky was quoted as saying.
“And it’s still an optimistic forecast,” Solsky said.
Famous for its fertile black soil, Ukraine was the world’s fourth-largest exporter of corn and is on track to become the third-largest exporter of wheat.
Several regions, especially the fertile Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, and Odessa in the south, are either seeing intense fighting or are inaccessible for farming.
Solsky said while Ukrainian farmers will sow everywhere where it’s possible, they can only access 50-75 percent of Ukraine’s cropland this season, which could lead to food shortages around the world.
“Because of this war, there can be hunger in a number of countries,” Solsky said.
Russia bans EU leadership
Meanwhile, Russia said Thursday it plans to expand the list of the top leadership of the European Union banned from entering the country.
The EU delegation in Moscow had been informed, it said, adding that “any hostile sanctions” from the EU and its members would elicit a “harsh response”.
The announcement came as the US administration hit a series of Russian tech firms with sanctions, including the country’s largest chip maker.
The US Treasury said the bans targeted networks and technology companies that were “instrumental” to Russia’s military operation in Ukraine.
Mikron, the largest Russian manufacturer, and exporter of microelectronics was among 21 entities and 13 individuals listed for penalties, including the blocking of any property in the United States.
EU pressure on China
EU and Chinese leaders met for their first summit in two years on Friday, with Brussels pressing Beijing for assurances that it will neither supply Russia with arms nor help Moscow circumvent Western sanctions.
EU officials said any help given to Russia would damage China’s international reputation and jeopardize relations with its biggest trade partners — Europe and the United States.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated China’s call for peace talks this week, adding that the legitimate concerns of all sides should be accommodated.
China has concerns that European countries are taking hardline foreign policy cues from the United States and has called for the EU to “exclude external interference” from its relations with China.
FM Lavrov lobbies India
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov held a meeting with his Indian counterpart in New Delhi after seeing his Chinese counterpart earlier in the week.
“We appreciate that India is taking this situation in the entirety of facts and not just in a one-sided way,” Lavrov said during a meeting with Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.
Lavrov’s mission to shore up support from a country Moscow has long regarded as a friend comes a day after senior US and British officials held talks in New Delhi to persuade the Indian government to avoid undermining sanctions imposed on Russia.
India and China are the only major countries to have not condemned Russia’s military actions in Ukraine.
The US warned India against warming up to Russia ahead of Lavrov’s visit.
Britain, allies to send more lethal aid to Ukraine
Britain and its allies have agreed to send more lethal military aid to Ukraine, British Defense Minister Ben Wallace said.
“There’ll be more lethal aid going into Ukraine as a result of today. A number of countries have come forward either with new ideas or indeed more pledges of money,” he told reporters.
The aid will include the provision of air and coastal defense systems, longer-range artillery and counter-battery capabilities, armored vehicles as well as wider training and logistical support.
Ukraine’s ambassador to Japan, Sergiy Korsunsky, said his country will soon be able to better protect its skies and cities from Russian attacks because it expects “super modern” military equipment from the United States and Britain.
“They still have superiority in the air force, in airplanes and missiles, and we expect to begin to receive super-modern equipment from the United States and Britain to protect our skies and our cities,” Korsunsky told a news conference.
“When they fire cruise missiles from long distance, we cannot get to the launch place. We have to intercept them. That’s why we need this modern equipment,” he said.
German Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht said on a visit to New York that Berlin has delivered more than 80 million euros worth of weapons to Ukraine so far.
“We have supplied arms for more than 80 million (euros), and more are to follow,” she told reporters, responding to criticism Berlin was not delivering enough military aid to Kiev.
US: Longer conflict could be in store
A senior US defense official said Russia’s refocusing of its military efforts on the Donbas could herald a “longer, more prolonged conflict”.
US President Joe Biden claimed that Putin may have placed some of his advisors under “house arrest” after becoming “isolated” while trying to run the operation in Ukraine.
Biden also said he was “skeptical” about Moscow’s claim to be scaling back its onslaught in parts of the country.
“He seems to be self-isolated and there’s some indication that he has fired or put under house arrest some of his advisers,” Biden told reporters.
Biden later tempered his remarks, saying “there’s a lot of speculation” and he did not want to “put too much stock in that”.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russia was consolidating and preparing “powerful strikes” in the country’s east and south, including besieged Mariupol
A new attempt was to be made Friday to evacuate civilians from the devastated city.
In peace talks this week, Russia said it would scale back attacks on the capital Kiev and the city of Chernihiv, but Ukrainian and Western officials have dismissed the pledge, saying Moscow’s troops were merely regrouping.
“This is part of their tactics,” said Zelensky in a late-night address. “We know that they are moving away from the areas where we are beating them to focus on others that are very important… where it can be difficult for us.”
In particular, he warned, the situation in the country’s south and east was “very difficult”.
“In Donbas and Mariupol, in the Kharkiv direction, the Russian army is accumulating the potential for attacks, powerful attacks,” he said.
On Friday, peace negotiations were set to resume by video conference. Seeking to bolster its position, Moscow was redeploying forces from Russian-backed breakaway regions in Georgia to Ukraine, Britain’s defense ministry claimed on Twitter.
Ukraine airstrike on fuel depot in Russia
Ukrainian helicopters bombed a fuel storage depot in western Russia sparking a huge fire, the regional governor said Friday.
The attack on the Russian town of Belgorod marked the first time Russia has reported a Ukrainian airstrike on its territory since the conflict began.
“There was a fire at the petrol depot because of an airstrike carried out by two Ukrainian army helicopters, which entered Russian territory at a low altitude,” Belgorod region governor Vyacheslav Gladkov wrote on messaging app Telegram.
Two employees at the storage facility were injured in the fire, he said in another post.
Russian troops still in Chernobyl exclusion zone
Some Russian troops were still in the “exclusion zone” around the defunct Chernobyl nuclear power station on Friday morning, the head of the Ukrainian agency in charge of the zone said.
Yevhen Kramarenko confirmed on national television that the Russian forces that occupied the power station on February 24 had left the plant itself.
However, some troops had been seen in the exclusion zone outside the territory of the decommissioned power station, he added.
The exclusion zone was established around the plant soon after a reactor there exploded in the world’s worst nuclear accident in 1986.
On Thursday, Ukraine’s defense ministry said Russian forces have killed 148 children during shelling and airstrikes, fired 1,370 missiles, and destroyed 15 Ukrainian airports since the start of the offensive.
More than 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes, it said in a statement.