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Ukraine Situation Report | 20 May 2022

20 May 2022

The UN warned this week that the Russian invasion of Ukraine could lead to a global food crisis that could last for years due to worsening food insecurity triggered by rising prices. As one of Europe’s biggest global exporters of food and agricultural goods, Russia’s strategy of cutting off Ukraine’s access to southern Black Sea ports has led to reduced global supply, causing prices to soar. The UN claims that the crisis could still be averted through talks. The warning comes as Western allies continue to rally together in solidarity against Russia’s ‘military operation’ in Ukraine, with Washington reopening its embassy in Kyiv. Meanwhile, the southern Ukrainian port city of Mariupol has fallen to Russian forces after Kyiv declared an end to the Azovstal steelworks evacuation. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has vowed to retake captured areas in the south, including the occupied cities of Kherson, Melitopol, Berdiansk, Enerhodar and Mariupol.


Reports of fatal mine explosions in northern areas previously occupied by the Russian forces have resulted in renewed accusations that Moscow ordered troops to mine areas where Russian soldiers withdrew from in early April, with the apparent intention of targeting Ukrainian forces as they retook captured land – or worse, targeting civilians as they returned to their homes. Ever since retaking the occupied territory, Kyiv has warned civilians that it is still unsafe for residents to return.

Meanwhile, air raids have been carried out in the Chernihiv region, resulting in civilian casualties. The raids were carried out by Russian forces and targeted the populated village of Desna, where two buildings were struck and damaged. At least eight deaths have been recorded. Elsewhere in the north, Russian missile strikes have also hit Okhtyrka in Sumy, where ‘civilian targets’ were struck, including residential properties, a church, a school, and several warehouses. Intense shelling from the Russian forces has also continued to target border areas throughout Sumy.


In the north-east, Ukrainian troops defending the Kharkiv region have had some success in repelling Russian attacks, forcing advancing troops back towards the border, and recapturing territory. Officials in Kyiv have described the counter-offensive as a successful 'liberation' of Ukrainian territory. Ukrainian military authorities also claim to have shot down a Russian Su-25 aircraft near Velyka Komyshuvakha in Kharkiv, where Moscow is also alleged to have targeted command posts and weapons depots using high-precision missiles. Similar targets based in the neighbouring Luhansk and Donetsk regions have also been struck in Russian missile attacks within the past week.

In Luhansk, the Ukrainian forces have also reported operations to destroy two key railway bridges located between Rubizhne and Severodonetsk in a bid to halt Russian advances. Both towns have come under increasingly intense bombardment amid relentless Russian attacks over the past weeks, as Russian troops continue efforts to capture more ground.


The fall of Mariupol has come amid last-ditch efforts to safely extract and evacuate all remaining Ukrainian troops from the besieged Azovstal steelworks. Ukrainian officials in Kyiv have announced the end of evacuation operations and are now in the process of negotiating a prisoner exchange with Russia. Large numbers of those evacuated were reportedly taken via a humanitarian corridor to territory held by either the Russian forces or the Russian-backed separatist forces in Donetsk. The initial intention was for Ukrainian forces to only be based in these areas temporarily, with dozens of wounded Ukrainian troops taken to a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk, while hundreds of others were taken to the town of Olenivka in an area controlled by separatists. However, the sensitive operation has come under strain following calls from the Kremlin for Azovstal fighters to be put on trial for alleged war crimes, or worse, executed. The Azov regiment which was stationed at Azovstal had been a frequent target for Russian claims that it’s fighting neo-Nazis in Ukraine – a claim for which no evidence has yet been produced. The calls for trials and executions come amid recent developments in a case in Kyiv, where a captured Russian soldier recently pleaded guilty to war crimes earlier this week. Kyiv has dismissed Moscow’s tit-for-tat threat as domestic propaganda aimed at the Russian audience and has reiterated calls for a prisoner swap to be arranged.

Recent reports indicate that Russian forces in Mariupol aim to destroy the steelworks and turn the city into a ‘resort’. Separatist leaders have also admitted that an estimated 60 percent of the city’s structures have been destroyed beyond the point of repair. Further west along the southern coast, civilian casualties have been reported near the south-western port city of Odesa, after Russian strikes landed near the Dniester River estuary, damaging a bridge. The strikes were reportedly targeting nearby tourist facilities. Meanwhile, the southern city of Mykolaiv is said to be on edge following Russia’s progress in Mariupol, sparking fears of a new Russian assault as Moscow’s forces are expected to widen their offensive to target more of southern Ukraine.


Several parts of western Ukraine have seen an increase in Russian strikes over the past week, with Moscow alleging to have destroyed arms shipments from Ukraine’s Western allies in the Lviv region. The claim came shortly after Lviv’s regional governor, Maxim Kozitsky, indicated on Tuesday that Russian forces had struck a major military facility in the region, just hours after Ukrainian air defence allegedly shot down three cruise missiles over the city of Lviv. The three missiles were apparently fired by Russian forces in the south-east at around midnight. The strikes, although intercepted, appeared to target key infrastructure in the western region. Several days earlier, similar reports of missiles targeting military infrastructure in the region were also confirmed by Kozitsky, who stated that four missiles were launched by Russian forces in the Black Sea on Sunday morning.


Moscow claims more than 1,700 Azovstal fighters have surrendered to the Russian forces and that wounded Ukrainian soldiers are being treated in Donetsk hospitals; however, the statement fails to address growing concerns surrounding reports of Ukrainian personnel recently evacuated from the steelworks being sent to prison camps. Calls from high-ranking officials within the Kremlin to put Azovstal fighters on trial for war crimes were echoed by Russian state media labelling the Ukrainian soldiers as “Nazi criminals”. Unconfirmed reports suggest many of Mariupol’s last defenders were transported directly to a Russian prison colony where they could face trial. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has registered hundreds of Ukrainian prisoners of war (POW) within a single 48-hour period and is seeking to arrange private interviews with each, as per the Geneva Conventions. “The ICRC must have immediate access to all POWs in all places where they are held,” said the ICRC in a statement, before calling for all POWs to be treated humanely and with dignity.

As the UN warns of an impending worldwide food crisis, some countries are facing the imminent risk of long-term famines, unless Ukraine’s exports are restored to pre-war levels soon. The feared crisis is the combined result of the conflict in Ukraine, as well as the effects of climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has stated that the only effective solution to the crisis is reintegrating Ukraine's food production back into the global market, alongside fertiliser produced by both Russia and Belarus. Meanwhile, Russia is pushing for sanctions to be reviewed to enable the prospect of grain exports resuming from Russian-occupied port cities in Ukraine. The increasingly complex geopolitical, security and economic implications of the ongoing conflict are reaching a stage where some goodwill may be required on all sides for a viable solution to be reached.