Russia has conducted long-range missile strikes on a strategic bridge in southern Ukraine in a bid to stop grain exports to Romania, British intelligence suggests.
The Zatoka drawbridge in the Karolino-Buhaz in the Odesa oblast serves as a vital passage for goods between Ukraine and its neighbour, which has become an alternative route to market after the country's own Black Sea ports were blockaded or destroyed in the war.
The bridge located 60 kilometres south of the city of Odesa was previously targeted by a Russian strike in April.
The latest attack suggests President Vladimir Putin’s army is stepping up its efforts to cut Ukraine off from outside resources while its main focus remains on the eastern region of Ukraine.
“Beyond the Donbas, Russia continues to conduct long-range missile strikes against infrastructure across Ukraine,” the UK’s Ministry of Defence said in an intelligence update on Wednesday.
“The strategically important bridge links Ukraine with Romania and with Ukraine’s ports on the Danube, which have become critical to Ukrainian exports after the blockade of Ukrainian Black Sea ports by Russia.”
Before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24 the bridge was lifted five times a day for an hour to let ships pass through.
Western leaders have accused Mr Putin of holding the world to ransom by stemming the flow of grain from Ukraine. The former Soviet nation is the world’s fourth-largest exporter of grain.
Pope Francis on Wednesday called for a return of exports from Ukraine, saying wheat could not be used as a “weapon of war”.
Many millions of people, particularly in the world's poorest countries, depend on wheat from Ukraine, the pope told a general audience of thousands of people gathered in St Peter's Square in the Vatican.
The United Nations, which says a global food crisis is worsening, is trying to broker a deal to unblock Ukraine's grain exports.
"The blocking of exports of wheat from Ukraine is very worrying because the lives of millions of people depend on it, especially in poorer countries," the pontiff told worshippers.
"I make a heartfelt appeal so that every effort is made to resolve this problem, to guarantee the universal right to nutrition. Please! Do not use wheat, a basic foodstuff, as a weapon of war," he added, to applause from the crowd.
Meanwhile, the eastern Ukrainian city of Severodonetsk in the Luhansk region has seen some of the fiercest clashes between defending forces and the Russians in recent days. The MoD said more than half the city, which had a pre-war population of 106,000, is now probably occupied by President Putin’s troops.
“Russian ground operations remain tightly focused, with the weight of fire power concentrated within a small sector of Luhansk oblast,” the MoD said.
“Over 30-31 May, fighting intensified in the streets of Severodonetsk, with Russian forces pushing closer to the town centre. Over half of the town is likely now occupied by Russian forces, including Chechen fighters.”