Russia quits Snake Island, in blow to blockade of Ukraine ports

“STRATEGICALLY IMPORTANT”

The Russian defence ministry statement described the retreat as “a gesture of goodwill” meant to demonstrate that Moscow will not interfere with UN efforts to organise protected grain exports from Ukraine.

But Kyiv claimed it as a win.

“They always downplay their defeats this way,” Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter.

“I thank the defenders of Odessa region who took maximum measures to liberate a strategically important part of our territory,” Valeriy Zaluzhny, the Ukraine military’s commander-in-chief, said on Telegram.

In peacetime, Ukraine is a major agricultural exporter, but Russia’s invasion has damaged farmland and seen Ukraine’s ports seized, razed or blockaded – threatening grain importers in Africa with famine.

Western powers have accused Putin of using the trapped harvest as a weapon to increase pressure on the international community, and Russia has been accused of stealing grain.

On Thursday, a ship carrying 7,000 tonnes of grain sailed from Ukraine’s occupied port of Berdyansk, said the regional leader appointed by the Russian occupation forces.

Evgeny Balitsky, the head of the pro-Moscow administration, said Russia’s Black Sea ships “are ensuring the security” of the journey he said, adding that the port had been de-mined.

“DIRECT THREAT”

Separately, the Russian defence ministry said its forces are holding more than 6,000 Ukrainian prisoners of war who have been captured since the Feb 24 invasion.

The conflict in Ukraine has dominated the NATO summit in Madrid, where the leaders said Russia “is the most significant and direct threat to allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area”.

This came as NATO officially invited Sweden and Finland to join the alliance, and US President Joe Biden announced new deployments of US troops, ships and planes to Europe.

Biden said the US move was exactly what Russian President Putin “didn’t want” – and Moscow, facing fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces equipped with Western arms, reacted with predictable fury.

Putin accused the alliance of seeking to assert its “supremacy”, telling journalists in the Turkmenistan capital of Ashgabat that Ukraine and its people are “a means” for NATO to “defend their own interests.”

“The NATO countries’ leaders wish to … assert their supremacy, their imperial ambitions,” Putin added.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz dismissed Putin’s comments as “ridiculous” and said the Russian leader “has made imperialism the goal of his politics”.

NATO leaders have funnelled billions of dollars of arms to Ukraine and faced a renewed appeal from President Volodymyr Zelensky for more long-range artillery.

“Ukraine can count on us for as long as it takes,” NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said at the summit, which ends Thursday, as he announced a new strategic overview that focuses on the Moscow threat.