April 1 (Reuters) – Russia accused Ukraine of carrying out an air strike against a fuel depot in the Russian city of Belgorod on Friday, an incident the Kremlin said set an unfavourable tone for peace talks with Kyiv.
Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, said he could not confirm or deny reports of Ukrainian involvement in the strike as he did not have military information. The Ukrainian Defence Ministry and the general staff did not respond to requests for comment.
Video footage of the purported attack — the first accusation of a Ukrainian air strike on Russian soil since Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 — showed what looked like several missiles being fired from low altitude, followed by an explosion. Reuters could not immediately verify the footage.
Regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said on messaging app Telegram that two Ukrainian helicopters struck the facility in Belgorod, some 35 kilometres (22 miles) from the border with Ukraine, after entering Russia at low altitude.
The resulting blaze injured two workers, Gladkov added, while some areas of the city were being evacuated.
However, Russian oil firm Rosneft ROSN.MM, which owns the fuel depot, said in a separate statement that no one was hurt in the fire. The company gave no information on the cause of the fire.
A witness told Reuters that another blast was heard in the city at around 1020 GMT. The cause of the blast was not immediately clear.
Speaking to reporters on a conference call, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said President Vladimir Putin had been briefed about the incident. Peskov said the strike could jeopardise Moscow’s peace negotiations with Kyiv.
“Of course this cannot be perceived as creating comfortable conditions for continuing the talks,” Peskov said, adding that everything was being done to prevent disruptions in fuel supplies in the city.
In separate comments, Energy Minister Nikolai Shulginov said the incident would not affect the region’s fuel supplies or prices for consumers.
The governor of the neighbouring Kursk region, Roman Starovoit, said its own fuel supplies were sufficient to last several weeks and called on the population not to stockpile fuel.
An ammunition depot near Belgorod caught fire on Wednesday, causing a series of blasts. At the time, Gladkov said authorities were waiting for the Russian defence ministry to establish its cause.
Moscow calls its intervention in Ukraine “a special military operation”.
European buyers of Russian gas faced a deadline to start paying in roubles on Friday, while negotiations aimed at ending the five-week war were set to resume even as Ukraine braced for further attacks in the south and east.
Moscow’s invasion of its neighbour has killed thousands, sent millions fleeing and galvanised the United States and allies around the world to impose punishing penalties on Russian government entities, businesses and oligarchs.
Russia will respond to European Union sanctions, the RIA news agency quoted a senior foreign ministry official on Friday.
“The actions of the EU will not remain unanswered … the irresponsible sanctions by Brussels are already negatively affecting the daily lives of ordinary Europeans,” Nikolai Kobrinets told the news agency.
Russian President Vladimir Putin played one of his biggest cards on Thursday, demanding European energy buyers start paying in roubles from Friday or have existing contracts halted.
European governments rejected Putin’s energy ultimatum, with the continent’s biggest recipient of Russian gas, Germany, calling it “blackmail”.
The energy showdown has huge ramifications for Europe as U.S. officials circle the globe to keep pressure on Putin to stop an invasion that has uprooted a quarter of Ukraine’s 44 million people.
Putin sent troops on Feb. 24 for what he calls a “special military operation” to demilitarise Ukraine. Western countries say Putin’s real aim was to topple Ukraine’s government.
At talks this week, Moscow said it would reduce offensives near the capital Kyiv and in the north as a goodwill gesture and focus on “liberating” the southeastern Donbas region.
Kyiv and its allies say Russia is instead trying to regroup after taking losses from a Ukrainian counter-offensive that has recaptured suburbs of the capital plus strategic areas in the northeast and southwest.
In a late night address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned of “battles ahead” in Donbas and the besieged southern port city of Mariupol.
“We still need to go down a very difficult path to get everything we want,” Zelenskiy said.
Peace negotiations are set to resume by video conference on Friday. Seeking to bolster its position, Moscow is redeploying forces from Russian-backed breakaway regions in Georgia to Ukraine, Britain’s defence ministry wrote on Twitter.
The reinforcements indicated Russia had sustained unexpected losses, it said.
U.S. and European officials say Putin has been misled by generals about his military’s dire performance.
Ukrainian authorities were hoping to evacuate more residents from Mariupol after Russia agreed to open a humanitarian corridor on Friday, but several previous deals have collapsed amid mutual recriminations.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said 45 buses sent to evacuate people from Mariupol had been stopped on Thursday by Russian forces outside Berdyansk, about 75 km to the west.
“Tomorrow we will continue trying to push through a humanitarian corridor to Mariupol so as not to leave our people on their own,” she said in an online post.
In a Facebook post, the general staff said Ukrainian forces were still holding Mariupol, a gateway to the Black Sea which links a strategic corridor between Donbas and the Russian-annexed Crimea peninsula.
The mayor’s office estimates 5,000 people have died.
Tens of thousands have been trapped for weeks with scant food, water and other supplies in the city that was once home to 400,000 people but has been pulverised by bombardment.
Elsewhere, there was evidence of Ukraine’s successful counter-attack in Trostyanets, an eastern town. Burned-out Russian tanks and abandoned ammunition littered muddy roads.
With the war exacerbating global fuel prices, President Joe Biden on Thursday launched the largest release ever from the U.S. oil reserve and challenged oil giants to drill more.
“This is a moment of consequence and peril for the world,” Biden said as he announced a release of 180 million barrels starting in May. But that amount fails to cover a U.S. loss of Russian oil, which Biden banned this month.
“We spent 30 days in the basement with small children. The children are shaking, even still,” said a woman named Larisa.
The war also threatens to disrupt global food supplies, with a U.S. government official sharing images of what they said was damage to grain storage facilities in Ukraine, the world’s fourth largest gain exporter last season.
(Reporting by Reuters bureaux; Writing by Lincoln Feast; Editing by Michael Perry)