US Agriculture Secretary Adds Voice To Growing Concerns About Blockade Of Ukrainian Grain Exports

All four European leaders who visited Ukraine on June 16 support “immediate” EU candidate status for Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron said after a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Macron, speaking at a joint news conference in Kyiv alongside the leaders of Germany, Italy, and Romania, added that France would step up arms deliveries to Ukraine to help its forces fend off the Russian invasion.

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The delivery will include six more powerful truck-mounted artillery guns, Macron said, adding that the leaders “are doing everything so that Ukraine alone can decide its fate.”

Macron made the trip to Ukraine with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, and Romanian President Klaus Iohannis.

“My colleagues and I have come here to Kyiv today with a clear message: Ukraine belongs to the European family,” Scholz said. He added that he supported granting EU candidate status for Moldova as well as Ukraine.

It was Scholz’s first trip to Kyiv since the start of the war. He has been under pressure to make the trip to express solidarity with Ukraine.

Macron has also come under pressure for suggesting that Russia should not be humiliated during diplomatic attempts to end the conflict. He defended the comments, noting that the treatment of Germany after World War I sowed the seeds for World War II.

“We are side by side today with Chancellor Scholz. One hundred years ago, we were at war and allies helped France win,” Macron said. But after the war he said France committed a historic mistake.

“It lost the peace because it wanted to humiliate Germany. The question of humiliation I always placed in a context to come, not the current context,” he said.

Draghi expressed concern about grain that Ukraine has been unable to ship because Russia has blockaded Black Sea ports, saying it could bring “worldwide catastrophe.”

“We want the atrocities to stop and we want peace,” Draghi said. “But Ukraine must defend itself, and it will be Ukraine that chooses the peace it wants.”

Both Macron and Scholz also said Ukraine alone should determine the terms of any peace deal with Russia.

The visit carried heavy symbolism for the EU’s backing of Zelenskiy, who has called on the European Union to offer his country membership through a shortened procedure, saying it would be a “powerful response” to Russia’s unprovoked invasion.

The European leaders’ visit comes a day before the European Commission is slated to release its assessment of Ukraine’s application for EU membership. The bloc’s leaders are set to discuss the matter in Brussels on June 23-24.

Speaking at the news conference, Zelenskiy said Russia’s invasion amounted to aggression against all of Europe and that the more weapons Ukraine receives from the West, the faster it will be able to liberate its occupied land.

The Ukrainian leader said he had discussed further sanctions against Russia and postwar reconstruction at the talks.

Ukraine has criticized France, Germany and, to a lesser extent, Italy, for alleged hesitations in their support for Kyiv, accusing them of being slow to deliver weapons.

WATCH: Former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Ilya Bogdanov first came to Ukraine in 2014 “not to fight for Ukraine but to fight against Putin’s regime.” After becoming a Ukrainian citizen and recovering from a serious injury in recent fighting, he now says he doesn’t “want war for the sake of war. I want peace in Ukraine.”

The European leaders’ visit comes a day before the European Commission is slated to release its assessment of Ukraine’s application for European Union membership.

The four leaders, who traveled to Kyiv by train, earlier walked through the ruins of the Kyiv suburb of Irpin, the scene of heavy fighting at the start of the invasion.

Russian troops have been accused of committing war crimes in Irpin.

“Irpin, like Bucha, has become a symbol of the unimaginable cruelty of the Russian war, of senseless violence,” Scholz said on Twitter, “The brutal destruction of this city is a warning: this war must end.”

Draghi, surrounded by the wreckage, said: “They destroyed kindergartens, they destroyed playgrounds. Everything will be rebuilt,” he promised. “We will rebuild everything.”

In reaction to the EU leaders’ visit, Kremlin and Dmitry Peskov warned against new Western weapons supplies to Ukraine.

“I would like to hope that the leaders of these three states and the president of Romania will not only focus on supporting Ukraine by further pumping Ukraine with weapons,” Peskov told reporters.

On the battlefield, the head of Ukraine’s military said Russia had concentrated its main strike forces in the north of the Luhansk region and that they were trying to attack simultaneously in nine directions.

“The fierce struggle for Luhansk region continues,” Valeriy Zaluzhniy, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, said in an online message. The Russians were using aircraft, rocket-propelled grenades, and artillery, Zaluzhniy added.

Fighting for Syevyerodonetsk has raged for weeks as Russia advances in the Donbas region. Capturing Syevyerodonetsk — the largest city in Luhansk still under Ukrainian control — would allow Moscow’s forces to advance on Slovyansk and Kramatorsk further west.

The British Defense Ministry said in its daily intelligence bulletin early on June 16 that, while the situation continues to be extremely difficult for the defenders of Syevyerodonetsk, Ukraine has probably managed to withdraw a large proportion of its combat troops who were originally holding the town.

British intelligence also pointed to the likely difficulties Russia has in replenishing its troops fallen on the battleground.

“As claimed by the Ukrainian authorities, some Russian battalion tactical groups (BTGs) — typically established at around 600 to 800 personnel — have been able to muster as few as 30 soldiers,” the bulletin said.

It added that Moscow’s advantage in numbers of tanks and artillery becomes less relevant in the urban-warfare environment, slowing the Russian forces’ advance.

US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on June 15 that despite Russian forces outnumbering and outgunning the Ukrainian forces in the Donbas region, Russian consolidation of their control in eastern Ukraine was “not a done deal.”

Milley, quoted by CNN, said “the numbers clearly favor the Russians.” But he added, “There are no inevitabilities in war. War takes many, many turns. So I wouldn’t say it’s an inevitability.”

The United Nations has warned that some 12,000 civilians remain trapped in Syevyerodonetsk with essential supplies running out, and many of them are sheltering in bunkers beneath the city’s Azot chemical plant.

“The lack of water and sanitation is a big worry. It’s a huge concern for us because people cannot survive for long without water,” UN Humanitarian Affairs office Saviano Abreu told the BBC, adding that food and medical supplies were also running out in the city.

Russia had told Ukrainian defenders holed up in the Azot chemical plant in the city to give up their “senseless resistance and lay down arms” early on June 15, promising a humanitarian corridor for the civilians sheltering in the plant together with the fighters.

Kyiv has ignored the ultimatum.

With reporting by Reuters, AP, BBC, CNN, and AFP

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