Even as Russia hammers eastern Ukraine with heavy artillery, it is cementing its grip on the south, saying it has restored roads, rails and a vital freshwater canal that could help it claim permanent dominance over the region.
Expanding Russian infrastructure in the occupied south could allow Moscow to fortify a “land bridge” between Russia and Crimea and continue its efforts to assert control through the introduction of Russian currency and the appointment of proxies.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei K. Shoigu said on Tuesday that the military, together with Russian Railways, had repaired about 750 miles of track in southeastern Ukraine and set conditions for that the traffic flows from Russia via the Ukrainian region of Donbass to the occupied territory in Kherson and Crimea.
Mr Shoigu also said water was flowing back to Crimea through the North Crimean Canal – an important source of fresh water that Ukraine cut off in 2014 after the Kremlin annexed the peninsula. Mr Shoigu said car traffic was now open between “mainland” Russia and Crimea.
Mr. Shoigu’s claims about the restored roads and railways could not immediately be verified.
Satellite images reviewed by The New York Times showed water flowing through parts of the channel in Crimea that were dry until March. Russian engineers blasted a blockage in the canal in late February, days after Russian forces invaded Ukraine. Ukrainian officials did not immediately comment on Wednesday.
The North Crimean Canal, a 250-mile-long engineering marvel built under the Soviet Union, had carried water from the Ukrainian Dnipro to the arid Crimean Peninsula until President Vladimir V. Putin s seized it in 2014.
After the annexation of Crimea, Ukraine threw bags of sand and clay into the canal to prevent the Russian occupiers from taking advantage of the precious fresh water.
Instead of flowing towards the Crimea, the canal was used to irrigate melon fields and peach orchards in Ukraine’s Kherson region to the north.
Ukrainian officials have said cutting off the water is one of the few levers at their disposal to inflict pain on Russia without resorting to military force.
For the Kremlin, the blockage represented a vexing and costly infrastructure challenge, with Crimean residents suffering from chronic water shortages and occasional cuts at the tap.
When Mr Putin massed troops on the Ukrainian border last year, some analysts speculated that the canal was one of the prizes the Kremlin wanted.
Even as Russia sought to tighten its control in the south this week, a clandestine battle erupted inside the occupied regions, involving Kremlin loyalists, Russian occupying forces, Ukrainian partisans and the Ukrainian military. .
On Tuesday, Ukrainian media released a video of what it said was an explosion at a cafe in the occupied city of Kherson that had been used as a gathering 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 targeting Russian supporters and proxies. It came amid reports – mostly impossible 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 there was a targeted guerrilla movement operating in the south. “Fans are fighting very actively,” he said on his YouTube channel.
In the east, where the two armies are fighting for control, Ukrainian officials were considering whether to withdraw their forces to the town of Sievierodonetsk, the last major pocket of Ukrainian resistance in the Luhansk region.
Sievierodonetsk has been ravaged by weeks of Russian bombardment, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Monday called the city and its neighbor Lysychansk “ghost towns”, physically destroyed and almost empty of civilians.
“The fighting is still raging and no one is going to abandon the city, even if our military has to retreat to stronger positions,” Serhiy Haidai, Ukraine’s military governor of the Luhansk region, told Ukrainian television, according to Reuters.
Moscow’s announcement of expanding ties with the occupied south seemed certain to be welcomed in Ukraine as further proof of Russia’s determination to break up Ukraine and plunder its natural resources.
“Russia is trying to build infrastructure for military supply,” said Mykhailo Samus, deputy director for international affairs at the Army Studies, Conversion and Disarmament Center, a research group in Kyiv, the capital. Ukrainian.
“Maybe they are trying to steal agriculture, food products from the occupied territories,” he added.
Russian authorities said the first train traveled from the occupied city of Melitopol to Crimea carrying grain – cargo that Ukrainian officials say was stolen from Ukrainian farmers forced to hand over their crops for a pittance or Nothing at all.
Russia has blockaded Ukraine’s Black Sea ports since the start of the war, trapping more than 20 million tons of grain for export and worsening a global food crisis. Darkening the long-term outlook, grain silos in Ukraine are still half full, the Ukrainian Grain Association said on Wednesday, raising the possibility that much of this year’s harvest could be left in the fields.
On Wednesday, Russian and Turkish foreign ministers held talks aimed at allowing Ukrainian grain to reach world markets via the Black Sea.
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov played down the problem, suggesting a global food disaster caused by a Russian blockade was a Western exaggeration.
“The current situation has nothing to do with the food crisis,” Lavrov told a press conference in Ankara, the Turkish capital. “The Russian Federation does not create any obstacles to the passage of ships and vessels.”
He blamed Ukraine, saying its naval mines and refusal to use the humanitarian corridors offered by Russia in the Black Sea shipping lanes were blocking exports.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu disagreed, saying it was a global problem but involved both Russian and Ukrainian products.
“The food crisis in the world is a real crisis,” Cavusoglu said, noting that Russia and Ukraine together provide around a third of the world’s grain products.
Cavusoglu said a mechanism was needed to move not only Ukrainian agricultural products through the Black Sea, but also Russian fertilizers, which are vital for global agriculture.
He suggested the answer lay in a United Nations proposal asking the international community to provide guarantees for shipments that addressed security concerns on both sides.
Ukraine was not invited to the Ankara talks, and its government and that of Russia blame each other for the lack of exports.
The two countries normally supply about 40 percent of Africa’s wheat needs, according to the United Nations.
Ukrainian officials are deeply skeptical of a promise by Mr Putin, which Mr Lavrov repeated, that if the ports were cleared, Russia would not exploit them to send an invasion fleet. Russian warships also patrol the Black Sea shipping lanes.
Oleksii Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine, said on Twitter Wednesday, “Our position on grain supply is clear: safety first. He accused Russia of “artificially creating obstacles to take over the market and blackmail Europe over food shortages”.
The United States cited satellite images of cargo ships to accuse Russia of looting stocks of Ukrainian wheat it exported, mostly to Africa, echoing Ukrainian government allegations that Russia stole up to 500 000 tons of wheat, worth $100 million, since it invaded Ukraine in February.
Wheat is not the only Ukrainian resource that worries. As Ukraine prepares for what promises to be a tough winter, Mr Zelensky said the country will not sell its gas or coal abroad. “All national production will be directed to the internal needs of our citizens,” he said.
The report was provided by Valerie Hopkins, Ivan Nechepurenko, Malachi Browne, Neil MacFarquhar, Safak Timour and Anouchka Patil.