Millions of people will starve to death unless Russia allows the export of Ukrainian grain from blockaded ports, foreign ministers from the G7 have said.
As Germany’s chancellor, Olaf Scholz, warned that Vladimir Putin was intransigent during their bilateral call on Friday, the ministers from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK and US condemned Moscow for stoking a food crisis.
The G7 governments said the Russian president was pushing 43 million people towards famine by refusing to allow cereals to leave Ukraine via Black Sea ports.
“Russia’s unprovoked and premeditated war of aggression has exacerbated the global economic outlook with sharply rising food, fuel and energy prices,” they said in a joint statement. “Combined with Russia blocking the exit routes for Ukraine’s grain, the world is now facing a worsening state of food insecurity and malnutrition … This is at a time when 43 million people were already one step away from famine.”
Canada’s foreign minister, Mélanie Joly, told reporters: “We need to make sure that these cereals are sent to the world. If not, millions of people will be facing famine.”
The call came as Ukrainian officials claimed some major military successes, with the mayor of Kharkiv saying on Saturday that the Russians had withdrawn “far out” from Ukraine’s second-largest city.
The general staff of Ukraine’s army echoed the comments, saying the Russians had left their positions around the north-eastern city, which is 31 miles (50km) from the Russian border.
The remorseless shelling endured by the civilian population in the region had also paused, according to the regional governor, Oleh Sinegubov, while Ukrainian forces were launching a counteroffensive near the city of Izium, 78 miles south of Kharkiv.
However, Putin’s forces have also captured territory in the Donbas region, including Rubizhne, a city with a prewar population of about 55,000, and the situation appeared increasingly grave for the remaining soldiers trapped in the Azovstal steelworks in the south-eastern city of Mariupol.
Speaking on Saturday at a press conference in Kyiv, Natalia Zarytska, the wife of Bogdan Sements, who is among those trapped in the sprawling steelworks, called on China to intervene and help liberate the remaining.
She said: “Strong leaders cannot stand aside when there is evil … After all these negotiations, there is one person worldwide who it would be difficult for Vladimir Putin to refuse. We hope that strong and good China can make difficult decisions for the good.
“We ask the esteemed premier of China, Xi Jinping, to express love and care for global values and eastern wisdom and to join the process of rescuing the defenders of Mariupol.”
Hanna Ivleieva, the wife of a soldier in Mariupol, said only those who had lost their arms or legs were not fighting among the Ukrainian forces left in the city.
She said: “I am a soldier with the marines. My husband, my commanding officers, and close friends are now in Azovstal.
“They were the first to engage in the battle in this war. We are proud of all Azovstal defenders, as they are stronger than the steel [that] used to be produced here.
“But we do not want them to be killed there. We need our heroes alive. We ask the president of China as Putin’s economic partner to undertake all the necessary procedures and rescue our guys”.
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, said on Friday that talks with Moscow on extracting a “large number” of wounded defenders and some medics from the plant in Mariupol in return for the release of Russian prisoners of war were “very complex”, adding that Kyiv was using influential intermediaries.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk told local TV on Saturday that efforts were now focused on evacuating about 60 people.
Sviatoslav Palamar, the deputy commander of the Azov regiment, which makes up most of the remaining forces at the plant, said in a YouTube video that his soldiers were holding on.
He said: “Our enemy, supported by planes and artillery, continues to attack. They continue their assault on our positions but we continue to repel them.”
The G7 countries said they would expand sanctions on Russia and that they would not accept the new borders Russia is seeking to draw.
They said: “We will never recognise borders Russia has attempted to change by military aggression, and will uphold our engagement in the support of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea, and all states.
“We reaffirm our determination to further increase economic and political pressure on Russia, continuing to act in unity.”
They called on China not to aid Putin and “to desist from engaging in information manipulation, disinformation and other means to legitimise Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine”.
Three weeks before Putin launched his war in Ukraine, the Russian president signed a pact with his Chinese counterpart that said there would be “no limits” to the two countries’ cooperation.