More than three months after Moscow invaded its pro-Western neighbor, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz called for “direct and serious negotiations” between Russian leader Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.

The two European leaders also “insisted on an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of Russian troops” in an 80-minute phone call with the Russian leader on Saturday, the German chancellor’s office said.

‘Very difficult’

Since failing to capture the capital Kyiv in the early stages of the war, Russia has shifted its focus to the eastern Donbas region as it tries to consolidate areas under its control.

“The situation is very difficult, especially in those areas in the Donbas and Kharkiv regions, where the Russian military is trying to get at least some result,” Zelensky said in his daily address to the nation on Saturday night.

Earlier, the Russian Defense Ministry had said that “the city of Krasny Liman (named after Lyman in Moscow) has been completely liberated from Ukrainian nationalists.”

Lyman is located on the road to Kramatorsk and Severodonetsk, which “is now surrounded”, according to a police officer from Luhansk province quoted by Russian state media.

But Governor Gaiday insisted that “Severodonetsk has not been isolated.

“There is still the possibility of delivering humanitarian aid,” he told Ukrainian television.

‘constant bombing’

In Severodonetsk, where an estimated 15,000 civilians remain, a local official said “constant shelling” made it increasingly difficult to get in or out.

“The evacuation is very unsafe, they are isolated cases when we manage to get people out. Now the priority is the wounded and people who need serious medical assistance,” said Oleksandr Stryuk, head of the city’s military and civil administration.

The water supply was also becoming increasingly unstable, as a lack of electricity meant the town’s well pumps were no longer working, he said.

Residents had spent more than two weeks without a mobile phone connection, it added.

Governor Gaiday said the only road link to the outside world was expected to be the focus of continued Russian attacks.

“The next week will be very difficult, as Russia puts all its resources into seizing Severodonetsk, or cutting off the (area) of communication with Ukraine,” he said.

Putin ‘ready’ to export grain

In their call with Putin, Scholz and Macron pointed to a looming global food security crisis.

In addition to capturing key ports like Mariupol, Russia has used its warships to isolate other cities still held by Ukraine, blocking the transport of grain supplies.

Russia and Ukraine supply about 30% of the wheat traded on world markets.

Russia has restricted its own exports and Ukraine has large quantities in storage, driving up prices and reducing availability around the world.

Putin has repeatedly denied any responsibility and instead blamed Western sanctions.

But on Saturday, he told Macron and Scholz that Russia was “ready” to look at ways to allow more wheat into the global market.

“Russia is ready to help find options for unimpeded grain export, including the export of Ukrainian grain from Black Sea ports,” the Kremlin was quoted as saying by him.

He also called for the lifting of sanctions to allow “an increase in the supply of Russian fertilizers and agricultural products” to the world market.

Zelensky will talk to the EU

Zelensky’s urgent calls for more advanced weaponry from Ukraine’s Western allies appear to be bearing fruit, with Washington agreeing to send advanced long-range rocket systems, according to US media reports.

Pentagon spokesman John Kirby did not confirm plans to deliver the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System, a highly mobile piece of equipment capable of firing up to 300 kilometers (186 miles) that Kyiv has said it urgently needs.

But he said Washington was “still committed to helping them succeed on the battlefield.”

Putin warned Macron and Scholz that increasing arms supplies to Ukraine would be “dangerous” and risk “further destabilization.”

On Sunday, the Russian Defense Ministry said it had destroyed a Ukrainian armed forces arsenal in the southeastern city of Kryvyi Rih with “high-precision, long-range missiles.”

Russian forces also attacked a Ukrainian anti-aircraft defense system near Mykolaivka in the Donetsk region, as well as a radar station near Kharkiv and five ammunition depots, one of which was near Severodonetsk.

As Zelensky seeks to increase international pressure on Moscow, he will speak to EU leaders at an emergency summit on Monday about an embargo on Russian oil.

The deal is being held up by Hungary, whose prime minister, Viktor Orban, has close relations with Putin.

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