As Russia pounded eastern Ukraine with heavy artillery, it was consolidating its hold in the south, claiming to have restored roads, rails and a vital freshwater canal that could help it permanently dominate the region.
The expansion of Russian infrastructure into the occupied south could allow Moscow to fortify a “land bridge” between Russia and Crimea and build on efforts to claim control by adopting the Russian currency and appointing proxies.
Russia’s Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu said on Tuesday the military, in cooperation with Russian Railways, has repaired about 750 miles of rails in southeastern Ukraine and set the stage for traffic to flow from Russia through Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region to the occupied region Territory could flow Kherson and Crimea.
Mr Shoigu also said that water was again flowing into Crimea through the North Crimean Canal — a key freshwater source that Ukraine cut off in 2014 following the Kremlin’s annexation of the peninsula. Mr Shoigu claimed that car traffic between “continental” Russia and Crimea is now open.
Mr. Shoigu’s claims about restored roads and rails could not be verified immediately.
Satellite imagery verified by the New York Times showed water flowing through parts of the canal in Crimea that were dry through March. Russian engineers blew up a blockade in the canal in late February, days after Russian troops invaded Ukraine. Ukrainian officials did not immediately comment on Wednesday.
The North Crimean Canal, a 250-mile engineering marvel built under the Soviet Union, had channeled water from Ukraine’s Dnipro River to the arid Crimea Peninsula until President Vladimir V Putin seized it in 2014.
After annexing Crimea, Ukraine threw sacks of sand and clay into the canal to prevent Russian occupiers from taking advantage of the precious freshwater.
Instead of flowing to Crimea, the canal was used to irrigate the melon fields and peach orchards in Ukraine’s northern Kherson region.
Ukrainian officials said cutting off the water is one of the few levers they have to inflict pain on Russia without using military force.
For the Kremlin, the blockade posed an annoying and costly infrastructure challenge as Crimeans suffered from chronic water shortages and occasional faucet shut-offs.
When Mr Putin rallied troops on Ukraine’s border last year, some analysts speculated the canal was one of the prizes the Kremlin wanted.
As Russia tried to tighten its control in the south this week, a secret battle has erupted in the occupied territories, involving Kremlin loyalists, Russian occupation forces, Ukrainian partisans and the Ukrainian military.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian media released video of an explosion at a cafe in the occupied city of Kherson that had served as a meeting place for people collaborating with Russian forces. Russian state media described it as an act of “terror”.
It was the latest in a series of attacks on Russian supporters and proxies. It came amid reports – which are difficult to independently verify – of Ukrainian guerrillas blowing up bridges, targeting railway lines used by Russian forces and killing Russian soldiers on patrol.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to the Ukrainian president, said a concentrated guerrilla movement was operating in the south. “Partisans fight very actively,” he said on his YouTube channel.
In the east, where both armies are fighting for supremacy, Ukrainian officials considered withdrawing their troops from the city of Sieverodonetsk, the last major Ukrainian pocket of resistance in the Luhansk region.
Sievierodonetsk was blown up by weeks of Russian shelling, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday described the city and its neighbor Lysychansk as “dead cities”, physically destroyed and almost deserted.
“Fighting is still raging and no one will give up the city even if our military has to step down to stronger positions,” Serhiy Haidai, Ukraine’s military governor of the Luhansk region, told Reuters on Ukrainian television.
Moscow’s announcement of expanding its ties with the occupied South certainly seemed to have been welcomed in Ukraine as further evidence of Russia’s determination to break up Ukraine and plunder its natural resources.
“Russia is trying to build military supply infrastructure,” said Mykhailo Samus, deputy director for international affairs at the Center for Army Studies, Conversion and Disarmament, a research group in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
“Maybe they are trying to steal agriculture and food from the occupied territories,” he added.
Russian authorities said the first train ran from the occupied town of Melitopol to Crimea, transporting grain – cargo that Ukrainian officials say was stolen from Ukrainian farmers who were forced to sell their crops for starvation wages or even less nothing to give.
Russia has blocked Ukraine’s Black Sea ports since the war began, trapping more than 20 million tons of grain for export and deepening a global food crisis. Grain elevators in Ukraine were still about half full, the Ukraine Grain Association said on Wednesday, dampening the long-term outlook and raising the possibility that much of this year’s harvest could remain in the fields.
On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of Russia and Turkey held talks on allowing Ukrainian grain to reach world markets via the Black Sea.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov downplayed the issue by implying that a global food disaster caused by a Russian blockade is a Western exaggeration.
“The current situation has nothing to do with the food crisis,” Lavrov said at a press conference in the Turkish capital, Ankara. “The Russian Federation does not create obstacles to the passage of ships and ships.”
Blaming Ukraine, he said its naval mines and refusal to use Russian-offered humanitarian corridors in Black Sea shipping lanes blocked exports.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu disagreed, saying there was a global problem but it affected both Russian and Ukrainian products.
“The world food crisis is a real crisis,” said Mr. Cavusoglu, noting that Russia and Ukraine together supply about a third of the world’s grain products.
Mr Cavusoglu said a mechanism was needed to move not only agricultural products from Ukraine through the Black Sea, but also Russian manure, which is vital to global agriculture.
He suggested that the answer lay in a United Nations proposal that the international community provide guarantees on the supplies, easing security concerns on both sides.
Ukraine was not invited to the Ankara talks, and its government and Russia blame each other for the lack of exports.
According to the United Nations, the two countries typically meet about 40 percent of Africa’s wheat needs.
Ukrainian officials are deeply skeptical of a promise by Mr Putin, reiterated by Mr Lavrov, that Russia would not exploit them to send an invasion fleet if ports were demined. Russian warships also patrol the Black Sea shipping lanes.
Oleksii Danilov, Secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, said on Twitter on Wednesday: “Our position on grain supplies is clear: safety first.” He accused Russia of “artificially creating obstacles to conquer the market and blackmail Europe over food shortages.”
The United States has cited satellite imagery of cargo ships to accuse Russia of looting Ukrainian wheat stores, which it exports mostly to Africa, and echoing Ukrainian government claims that Russia stole up to 500,000 tons of wheat worth $100 million , since it invaded Ukraine February.
Wheat isn’t the only Ukrainian resource causing alarm. As Ukraine prepares for what is likely to be a difficult winter, Zelenskyy said the country will not sell its gas and coal abroad. “All domestic production will be geared towards the internal needs of our citizens,” he said.
Reporting was contributed by Valerie Hopkins, Ivan Nekhepurenko, Malachy Browne, Neil MacFarquhar, Safak Timur and Anushka Patil.