• Associated Press

Ukraine Stands Firm on Crimea, Wants Russia out of All Areas

AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba addresses the participans via video link at the first edition of the Black Sea Security Conference within the International Crimea Platform at the National Military Club in Bucharest, Romania, Thursday, April 13, 2023.

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine’s foreign minister said Thursday his country won’t budge from its demand that Russia withdraw its forces from Crimea, as well as from other parts of Ukraine that Moscow illegally annexed more recently, for the war to end.

Calling the conflict in Ukraine “a bleeding wound in the middle of Europe,” Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said all his country’s territory must be treated equally in dealing with the Kremlin after its full-scale invasion more than 13 months ago.

“We are united by U.N. charter principles and the shared conviction that Crimea is Ukraine and it will return under Ukraine’s control,” Kuleba said, speaking by video link to a gathering in the Romanian capital, Bucharest.

“Every time you hear anyone from any corner of the world saying that Crimea is somehow special and should not be returned to Ukraine, as any other part of our territory, you have to know one thing: Ukraine categorically disagrees with these statements,” he said at the Black Sea Security Conference.

Russia took over Crimea in 2014, and during the current war has expanded its presence there. Occasional acts of sabotage and other attacks against Russian military and other facilities on the peninsula have occurred since, with the Kremlin blaming Ukraine. The Kyiv government hasn’t claimed responsibility for the attacks but welcomes efforts to repel the Russian presence there.

The Kremlin wants Kyiv to acknowledge Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea and also recognize September’s annexation of the Ukrainian provinces of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk, and Zaporizhzhia.

Ukraine has rejected those demands and won’t hold talks with Russia until Moscow’s troops pull back from all occupied territories.

Though there is no sign of possible peace negotiations, the two countries have sporadically exchanged prisoners of war and have engaged in a wartime deal for the export of Ukrainian grain and Russian grain and fertilizers. The grain deal has helped ease concerns about the global food supply, especially to countries in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Asia where many are already struggling with hunger.

The agreement, which the U.N. and Turkey brokered last July, is delicate, however, and Moscow has repeatedly threatened to end it.

In the latest dispute, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said Thursday that no discussion about extending the Black Sea grain deal beyond May 18 would take place until progress was made towards resolving what it called “five systemic problems” that have resulted from sanctions on Russia over the war.

It said in a statement those issues were: reconnecting the state-owned Russian Agricultural Bank to the SWIFT international banking system; resuming supplies to Russia of agricultural machinery, spare parts and services; lifting restrictions on insurance and reinsurance and the ban on access to ports; restoring the operation of the Tolyatti-Odesa ammonia pipeline; and unblocking foreign assets and accounts of Russian companies related to the production and transportation of food and fertilizers.

Russia agreed last month to extend the grain deal for 60 days — instead of the 120 days set under a previous extension — to send a warning to the West.

On the battlefield, military analysts say, an anticipated Ukrainian counteroffensive in coming months could aim at the land corridor between Russia and Crimea, hoping to split Russia’s forces in two.

That would be a daunting military challenge. Satellite images show the Kremlin’s forces are digging extensive trench systems between mainland Ukraine and the Black Sea peninsula.

The fighting in recent months has become a war of attrition, with neither side able to gain momentum over the winter and often resorting to long-range bombardment.

At least four civilians were killed and 11 were wounded in the latest Russian barrages that continued to hit civilian infrastructure, Ukraine’s presidential office said Thursday.

The Ukrainian military said Russian forces over the previous 24 hours launched 32 airstrikes, two missile strikes and 40 attacks from multiple rocket launchers.

In other developments:

— Russia’s Prosecutor General’s Office has opened an investigation into a video appearing to show the beheading of a Ukrainian serviceman that appeared online this week, according to the government department’s press service. It said it intended “to assess the reliability of these materials.” Ukraine on Wednesday also launched an investigation into what it alleged was the latest atrocity blamed on Russia since it invaded in February 2022.

— A Russian mine exploded near a generator room at one of the reactors of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Ukraine’s state nuclear operator Energoatom said. “Russian occupiers continue to turn the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant into a military base, mining the perimeter,” Energoatom wrote on Telegram. The head of the U.N.’s atomic energy agency confirmed the landmine explosion and reported one had also occurred last Saturday. Rafael Grossi of the International Atomic Energy Agency said: “At a time of growing speculation about military offensives and counteroffensives in the region, it is more important than ever to agree that a nuclear power plant should never be attacked, nor used to launch attacks from. I will not rest until this has been achieved.”

Europe’s largest nuclear plant has six reactors, all of which have been shut down over the past year. The U.N.’s atomic energy agency has been trying for months to obtain agreement between Ukraine and Russia on securing the plant, whose reactors and other equipment still require an external electricity supply to operate safety systems.