Kyiv, Ukraine (AFP) – Russian forces are withdrawing from the vicinity of Ukraine’s second-largest city after weeks of bombardment, the Ukrainian military said on Saturday, as Kyiv and Moscow’s forces fought a fierce battle. In the heart of the country’s eastern industrial region.
Ukraine’s General Staff said the Russians were withdrawing from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and focusing on guarding supply routes, while firing mortars, artillery and air strikes in eastern Donetsk province in order to “drain Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications”.
Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new – protracted – phase of the war”.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said They were doing their best to drive out the invaders and that the outcome of the war would depend on support from Europe and other allies.
“No one today can predict how long this war will last,” Zelensky said in his video night speech late Friday.
In a show of support, a US Senate delegation led by Republican leader Mitch McConnell met the Ukrainian president on Saturday in Kyiv. A video posted to Zelenskyy’s Telegram account showed McConnell, who represents Kentucky, and fellow Republican senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas.
Their trip came after another Kentucky senator, Rand Paul, blocked until next week Senate approval of an additional $40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies withstand the three-month-old Russian invasion.
After Russian forces failed to take Kyiv following the invasion on February 24, President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus east to Donbass, an industrial region where Ukrainian forces have been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The Russian offensive aims to encircle the more experienced and better-equipped Ukrainian forces, stationed in the east, and capture the parts of Donbass still under Ukrainian control.
Air strikes and artillery bombardment make it too dangerous for journalists to move east, hampering efforts to get a complete picture of the direction the fighting is going. But the battle seemed to be an uphill back and forth with no major breakthroughs from either side.
Russia captured some Donbass villages and towns, including Robyzhny, a city whose pre-war population was about 55,000.
Ukrainian forces also made progress in the east, Zelensky said, retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages in the past day.
Kharkiv, not far from the Russian border and 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has been under intense bombardment for weeks. The largely Russian-speaking city with a pre-war population of 1.4 million was a major Russian military target earlier in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and control major Ukrainian cities.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukraine “appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv”. “Ukrainian forces prevented Russian forces from encircling Kharkiv, let alone capturing it, and then drove them out from all parts of the city, as they did with Russian forces trying to capture Kyiv.”
In a post on the Telegram messaging app, the region’s governor, Oleh Senegubov, said that there were no shelling attacks on Kharkiv in the past day.
He added that Ukraine launched a counter-attack near the city of Izyum, 125 km south of Kharkiv, which Russia has controlled since at least the beginning of April.
Fighting was fierce on the Seversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said, as Ukraine launched counterattacks but failed to stop Russia’s advance.
“The fate of a large part of the Ukrainian army is decided – there are about 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers,” he said.
But Ukrainian and British officials said Russian forces suffered heavy losses in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they were using to try to cross the same river – the largest in eastern Ukraine – in the town of Belhorivka. It was another sign of Moscow’s struggle to save a derailed war.
Britain’s MoD said Russia had lost “significant maneuverable armored elements” from at least one tactical battalion in the offensive. A Russian tactical battalion consists of about 1,000 soldiers.
The ministry said the perilous crossing of the river was a sign of “the pressure on Russian leaders to advance their operations in eastern Ukraine”.
In his video night speech, Zelensky said that the Ukrainians were doing their best to expel the Russians and pushed the West to increase its support.
“This will depend, unfortunately, not only on our people, who are already doing their best,” he said. “This will depend on our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world.”
The Ukrainian leader has warned that the war is causing a food crisis around the world as a Russian blockade prevents Ukrainian grain from leaving the port.
Group of Seven Leading Economies He echoed that warning, saying on Saturday that “Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the most severe food and energy crises in modern history, which now threatens the most vulnerable throughout the world.”
Putin launched the war in Ukraine with the aim of thwarting NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. But the invasion of Ukraine has other countries along Russia’s flank worried that they might be next.
This week, Finland’s president and prime minister said they would prefer their country to seek NATO membership. Officials in Sweden are expected to announce their decision Sunday on whether to apply to join the Western military alliance.
Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinistö That there are no threats to Finland’s security and that joining NATO would be a “mistake” that would “negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations.”
The Kremlin said the two leaders had a “frank exchange of views” in a phone call on Saturday.
Niinisto said the discussion “was direct and unambiguous and was held without exaggeration. Avoiding tensions was considered important.”
Russia’s response to Finland and Sweden’s moves has so far been muted, although Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said on Saturday that their accession to NATO would heighten security tensions in the Arctic, “turning it into an arena of military competition”.
Possible bids for the Nordic countries were called into question On Friday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country “does not have a positive opinion” of the idea.
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken is scheduled to meet his NATO counterparts, including Turkey’s foreign minister, this weekend in Germany.
In other developments:
Ukrainian fighters holed up in a steel factory in the devastated southern port of Mariupol have faced constant Russian attacks on the city’s last bastion of resistance. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister said the Ukrainian authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously wounded soldiers from steel plants. Irina Vereshuk said that Russia did not agree to evacuate all the wounded fighters at the plant, numbering in the hundreds.
– Deputy Speaker of the Russian Parliament, Anna Kuznetsova, visited Kherson, a region bordering the Black Sea and controlled by Russia since the early days of the war. Russia has appointed a pro-Moscow regional administration, and Britain’s Ministry of Defense has said Russia may hold a domestic referendum on joining Russia, with the results potentially being tampered with to show majority support for secession from Ukraine.
Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa, Jill Lawless in London and other AP staff around the world contributed to this report.
Follow the Associated Press’ coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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