KYIV, Ukraine — The European Union has criticized bans by Poland and Hungary on imports of Ukrainian grain and other foods over the weekend, saying the unilateral moves were “unacceptable.”
The bloc, of which Poland and Hungary are member states, lifted tariffs on Ukrainian grain last year to help transport it to the rest of the world amid Russia’s invasion, but the exports have led to a glut of produce in Europe. As a result, farmers in Poland, Hungary and other nations have seen their incomes plummet.
Hungary’s agriculture minister said on Saturday that “in the absence of meaningful E.U. measures,” his country would follow Poland in restricting Ukrainian grain imports until the end of June, according to Hungarian news reports. The announcement came after Warsaw reached a deal with Kyiv on Friday to strictly limit and, for a time, halt Ukrainian grain deliveries to Poland.
That deal was expected to affect Ukrainian grain, wheat, corn and some other produce, but on Saturday, Poland expanded it to include dozens of other types of food. Poland’s economic development and technology minister, Waldemar Buda, said in a tweet on Sunday that the measure would also prevent the transit of Ukrainian products through Poland.
A spokesperson for the European Commission, the European Union’s executive arm, said in an email on Sunday that such a trade policy was a matter of “E.U. exclusive competence,” meaning that only the bloc could adopt legally binding decisions. “Unilateral actions are not acceptable,” the statement said.
The announcements from Hungary and Poland come as Russia has expressed doubts about extending the Black Sea grain deal, which the United Nations and Turkey brokered last year and was scheduled to expire in the next few weeks. The agreement, which allows wartime grain shipments to leave Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, has been crucial for alleviating global food shortages and limiting price increases.
The Black Sea deal was renewed in March, but the United Nations did not say how long it would last. Russia, which at the time said the agreement was valid through May 18, has expressed dissatisfaction with the deal for months because of Western sanctions that have hindered its own food and fertilizer exports. The agreement would become even more vital if Ukraine could not ship grain and foodstuffs over land routes in Eastern Europe, through Poland and Hungary.
There had been signs in recent weeks that Ukraine’s food exports were becoming a sore point in relations with Poland, one of its staunchest allies amid the war. Last month, the prime ministers of Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia called on the European Union to take steps to curb the influx of Ukrainian produce that had been pushing down prices and said Europe should consider reinstating tariffs.
Facing a general election later this year and worried that discontent among farmers could erode support among its predominantly conservative, rural base, Poland’s governing Law and Justice party has made solving the grain issue a priority.
Poland’s new agriculture minister, Robert Telus, whose predecessor resigned this month, during a state visit to Poland by President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, said at a party convention on Saturday that halting grain deliveries would act as a “shield” for Polish farmers.
Ukraine’s agriculture minister, Mykola Solskyi, said on Saturday that Kyiv understood that its agricultural exports represented “tough competition” for other countries, but added, “The Ukrainian farmer is in the most difficult situation.” Mr. Solskyi was expected to travel to Poland on Monday to continue talks on the issue.
As Ukraine faced pushback on its grain exports, on the battlefield over the weekend, the Russian assault remained focused on the eastern front near the towns of Lyman and Bakhmut, according to a statement from the Ukrainian Army’s general staff on Sunday.
“The battles for the city of Bakhmut do not stop,” the statement said.
The fight for the devastated city has been grinding on for months, claiming many lives on both sides, though the toll so far has most likely been much higher for Russia’s forces.
Early on Saturday, Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed that the Wagner mercenary force had taken control of two areas on the northern and southern outskirts of Bakhmut. The remaining Ukrainian forces in the city, the Russian ministry said on the Telegram messaging app, were “retreating and deliberately destroying the city’s infrastructure and residential buildings to slow down the advance of Russian troops.”
Those claims could not be immediately verified.
As of late last week, Ukrainian soldiers were defending a shrinking half-circle of destroyed buildings in a western neighborhood of Bakhmut, about 20 blocks wide in the 16-square-mile city.
Ukraine’s army is determined to hold out, even as allies have quietly questioned the rationale for sustaining significant casualties in a city that has been reduced to rubble. For both sides, Bakhmut has taken on a symbolic significance, military analysts say.
Attention is also increasingly turning to the war’s southern front, where Russian forces hold a belt of land along the Sea of Azov in the Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Donetsk regions. In recent weeks, Russia has been building up its troop numbers, planting land mines and erecting defensive barriers along a front line east of the Dnipro River in the expectation that Ukraine could launch a counteroffensive there.
The Russian authorities have started to evacuate children from the city of Enerhodar in the Zaporizhzhia region to Crimea, according to a statement posted by Ukraine’s state nuclear company, Energoatom, on Telegram Sunday. The claim, which could not be independently confirmed, echoed other recent statements by Ukrainian officials about evacuations from other parts of the Russian-occupied south. Enerhodar lies next to the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant, which is in Russian hands.
Russian officials have deported thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia or to Russian-held territory under the guise of evacuating them from the threat of fighting, Ukrainian officials say. The International Criminal Court last month issued an arrest warrant for President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for war crimes, saying he bore criminal responsibility for the abduction and deportation of Ukrainian children.
Russia, meanwhile, has continued shelling towns and cities behind the front line. On Friday, a Russian missile strike on a residential area in the city of Sloviansk in eastern Ukraine killed 11 people and injured 22 others. The Ukrainian authorities said on Sunday that four more people remained under the rubble.
Earlier on Sunday, two teenagers were killed when a missile hit a building in the community of Snihurivka, in the Mykolaiv region, the head of the military administration there, Vitaliy Kim, said on Telegram.
Two others were killed and two more were injured in a strike on Sunday on the part of the Kherson region under Ukraine’s control, Oleksandr Prokudin, the head of the region’s military administration, said on Telegram.
Russian attacks over the past few days have been met with particular outrage in Ukraine, given that it is Holy Week for Orthodox Christians. In addition, 130 Ukrainian prisoners of war were returned to the country in an Easter swap with Russia, Andriy Yermak, the head of Mr. Zelensky’s office, said on Telegram. He did not say how many prisoners had been returned to Russia.
Mr. Zelensky referred to Easter in an impassioned speech released overnight, in which he held out hope that the country could reclaim all of the territory it lost.
“The sun will shine in the south, the sun will shine in the east and the sun will shine in Crimea,” he said.
Matthew Mpoke Bigg reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, Vivek Shankar from Seoul and Enjoli Liston from London.