Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday warned that Russia was building up its troops to take “revenge” on the West nearly a year into Moscow’s invasion.
He levelled the warning in Kyiv alongside EU chief Ursula von der Leyen, who said the 27-member bloc was looking to finalise another package of sanctions against Russia by February 24, exactly one year since Russia invaded.
“Now Russia is concentrating its forces. We all know that. It is preparing to try to take revenge, not only against Ukraine, but against a free Europe and the free world,” Zelensky told a joint press conference with von der Leyen.
In Russia, President Vladimir Putin arrived in the southern city of Volgograd for commemorations to mark the 80th anniversary of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in Stalingrad.
Putin has insisted that Russia is weathering the barrage of sanctions imposed by Ukraine’s Western allies and will continue its military campaign in Ukraine.
But von der Leyen said existing sanctions were already “eroding” Russia’s economy, “throwing it back by a generation” and estimated that an existing oil price cap alone is costing Moscow around 160 million euros every day.
“We will introduce with our G7 partners an additional price cap on Russian petroleum products and by the 24th of February -- exactly one year since the invasion started -- we aim to have the 10th package of sanctions in place,” she said.
Zelensky called on Europe to implement sanctions more quickly and said the West should take steps to clamp down on sanctions circumvention.
- Sanctions ‘eroding’ Russia -
“The terrorist state is increasing the pace of adaptation to sanctions instead. It should be resolved,” Zelensky said.
Von der Leyen arrived in Kyiv on Thursday with a team of commissioners and the EU’s most senior diplomat Josep Borrell ahead of a Ukraine-EU summit on Friday in the war-torn country that is seeking EU membership.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed the EU and specifically von de Leyen had called for Russia to be defeated so its economy would be devastated for decades.
“Is this not racism, not Nazism -- not an attempt to solve ‘the Russian question’” Lavrov said, evoking Russia’s victory against Nazi Germany in World War II.
Last week, the French foreign ministry denied that France or its allies were fighting a war against Russia, following a Western decision to send heavy tanks to Ukraine.
Lavrov’s comments echoed Putin who has frequently drawn parallels between what he calls Moscow’s “special military operation” in Ukraine and the Soviet war against Nazi Germany.
Putin launched his invasion last year, saying that Russia needed to “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
Von der Leyen’s trip comes one day after Kyiv raided homes of an oligarch and public officials as part of efforts to appease Western concerns about graft in the wake of public embezzlement probes.
“I’m comforted to see that your anti-corruption bodies are on alert and effective in detecting corruption cases,” von der Leyen said.
- ‘How can I leave?’ -
Kyiv this week launched coordinated searches of residences linked to divisive oligarch Igor Kolomoisky and a former interior minister as well as tax offices in the capital.
On the front line, Russian forces are pressing Ukrainian troops in the eastern Donetsk region, now the epicentre of fighting.
Moscow has been trying to seize control of Bakhmut in the industrial region for months in what has become the longest and bloodiest battle of the invasion.
Residents who remain in the war-scarred town told AFP they will not budge if the Russians arrive.
“How could I leave?” said 75-year-old Natalia Shevchenko.
She said she spends so much time sheltering from bombardments in her basement that she feels “like a mole” as she steps out into the light and her eyes adjust.
“Don’t worry,” she told AFP as shells whistled in the background. “They’re far away. I’ve now learnt where they’re going.”
Russian forces have also been shelling the southern region of Kherson, after withdrawing its forces from the region’s main city last year.
A 44-year-old woman was killed by Russian shelling of a residential building in a village in the Black Sea region on Thursday, local officials said.
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