Italy urges talks, Ukraine curbs gas flow

Ukraine has shut gas flows on a route through Russian-held territory, raising the spectre of an energy crisis in Europe, while Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi says the US needs to work with Russia and Ukraine to end their conflict and forge a peace deal.

Following days of advances north and east of the second largest city Kharkiv, Ukrainian forces were within just several kilometres of the Russian border on Wednesday morning, one Ukrainian military source said on condition on anonymity.

Before the advance, Russian forces had been on the outskirts of Kharkiv, a city 40km from the frontier.

The advance appears to be the fastest that Ukraine has mounted since it drove Russian troops away from Kyiv and out of the country’s north at the beginning of April.

If sustained, it could let Ukrainian forces threaten supply lines for Russia’s main attack force, and even put rear logistics targets within Russia itself within striking range of Ukrainian artillery.

On Wednesday evening, Ukraine’s general staff said its forces had captured Pytomnyk, a village on the main highway north of Kharkiv, about halfway to the Russian border.

The governor of the Russian region on the other side, Belgorod, said a village had been shelled from Ukraine, wounding one person.

Further east, Ukrainian forces seemed to be in control of the village of Rubizhne, on the banks of the Donets river.

“It is burned out, just like all Russian tanks,” a Ukrainian soldier told Reuters near Rubizhne next to the ruins of one Russian tank.

“The weapons are helping a lot, the anti-tank ones.”

Ukraine has so far confirmed few details about its advance through the Kharkiv region.

“We are having successes in the Kharkiv direction, where we are steadily pushing back the enemy and liberating population centres,” Brigadier General Oleksiy Hromov, Deputy Chief of the Main Operations Directorate of Ukraine’s General Staff, told a briefing, providing no specifics.

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said successes were putting Ukraine’s second largest city – under constant bombardment since the war’s early days – beyond the range of Russian artillery.

Draghi, speaking a day after meeting US President Joe Biden, said Russia had shown it was not invincible and that it was vital to seek ways of ending the 11-week war.

“We agreed that we must continue to support Ukraine and put pressure on Moscow but also begin to ask how to build peace,” Draghi told reporters, adding that it was essential for the US to talk directly with Russia.

However, he stressed that no one should try to impose a peace deal on Ukraine.

“This would be a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Russian forces have suffered repeated setbacks on the battlefield, defying many analysts who predicted a swift victory for Russia.

“In the beginning, it was a war in which one thought there was a Goliath and a David … (Now) there is certainly no longer a Goliath,” Draghi said.

“What had seemed like an invincible power in the field… has proved to be a non-invincible power,” he said of Russia.

Wednesday’s separate move by Ukraine to cut off Russian gas supplies through territory held by Russian-backed separatists marked the first time the conflict has directly disrupted shipments to Europe.

Shipments from Russia’s export monopoly Gazprom to Europe via Ukraine fell by a quarter after Ukraine said it was forced to halt all flows from one route, through the Sokhranovka transit point in southern Russia.

Ukraine accused Russian-backed separatists of siphoning supplies.

Should the supply cut persist, it would be the most direct impact so far on European energy markets of what the Kremlin calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise a neighbour threatening its security.

Ukraine says it poses no threat and that the deaths of thousands of civilians and destruction of towns and cities show that Russia is waging a war of conquest.

Russian forces have also continued to bombard the Azovstal steelworks in the southern port of Mariupol, last bastion of Ukrainian defenders in a city now almost completely controlled by Russia after more than two months of siege.

Ukraine’s Azov Regiment – a militia set up by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists in 2014 and later incorporated as a regiment in Ukraine’s national guard – holed up inside it said Russia was bombing from the air and trying to storm it.

“Azovstal is on fire again after the bombing. If there is hell on earth, it is there,” wrote Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to Mariupol’s Mayor Vadym Boichenko, who has left the city.

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