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, while Kyiv and Moscow’s forces are locked in a fierce battle. In the heart of the country’s eastern industrial region.
Ukraine’s military says Russian forces are 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”.
In a show of support, a US Senate delegation led by minority leader Mitch McConnell met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky 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 comes 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 failing to capture Kyiv in the wake of the February 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shifted his focus east to Donbass, an industrial region where Ukraine has been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The offensive is aimed at encircling the most experienced and better equipped forces in Ukraine, deployed in the east, and capturing parts of Donbass still under Ukraine’s control.
Air strikes and artillery bombardment make it too dangerous for journalists to move in the east, hampering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it appears to have slashed back and forth without major breakthroughs on either side.
Russia captured some Donbass villages and towns, including Robyzhny, which had a pre-war population of about 55,000.
Zelensky said Ukrainian forces had also made progress in the east, retaking six towns or villages in the past day. In his evening speech on Saturday, he said that “the situation in Donbass is still very difficult” and that Russian forces “are still trying to come out victorious at least to some extent.”
President Zelensky said: “Step by step, we are forcing the population to leave Ukrainian territory.”
The city of Kharkiv, close to the Russian border and only 80 kilometers southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has witnessed intense bombardment for weeks. The largely Russian-speaking city with a pre-war population of 1.4 million was a major military target earlier in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and control the major 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.”
Regional Governor Oleh Senegubov said via messaging app Telegram that there had been no bombing attacks on Kharkiv in the past day.
He added that Ukraine launched a counterattack near Izyum, a city 125 kilometers (78 miles) 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 buoyant bridge they were using to try to cross the same river in the town of Belhorivka.
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”.
Zelensky has warned of a global food crisis as Russia prevents Ukrainian grain from leaving port.
Group of Seven Leading Economies He echoed that Saturday, saying 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 made other countries along Russia’s flank fear they might be next, and this week Finland’s president and prime minister said they would prefer to seek NATO membership. Officials in Sweden are expected to announce their decision Sunday on whether to apply to join the Western military alliance.
In a phone call on Saturday, Putin informed Finnish President Sauli Niinistö That there are no threats to Finland’s security and that joining NATO would be a “mistake” and “negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations”.
The Kremlin said the two leaders had a “frank exchange of views.”
Niinisto said the discussion “was direct and unambiguous and was held without exaggeration. Avoiding tensions was considered important.”
Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister, Alexander Grushko, said that Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO would increase security tensions in the Arctic, “turning it into an arena of military competition.”
Russian energy group Inter RAO halted electricity deliveries to Finland on Saturday, according to a statement from the Finnish national electric grid operator. But only about 10% of Finland’s electricity comes from Russia, and the authorities did not expect a shortage.
Possible bids for the Nordic countries were called into question On Friday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that his country “does not have a favorable opinion.”
US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was 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 mill in the devastated southern port of Mariupol have faced constant attacks on the city’s last bastion of resistance. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Verychuk said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously wounded soldiers, but Russia had not agreed to evacuate all hundreds of injured fighters in steel plants, numbering in the hundreds.
The Ukrainian Kalush Orchestra, which took part in the final of the hugely popular Eurovision Song Contest, made an impassioned plea for help to those inside the steel mill. The band later featured the event winner early Sunday. Zelensky noted that he was watching from Kyiv, saying in a statement, “This is not a war, but nonetheless, for us today, any victory is very important.”
– An adviser to Mariupol Mayor Petro Andryushenko said via Telegram that a convoy of 500 to 1,000 vehicles carrying civilians from the city was allowed to enter Ukraine-controlled territory and headed to Zaporizhia, the first major city outside the front lines.
– Deputy Speaker of the Russian Parliament, Anna Kuznetsova, visited Kherson, the region bordering the Black Sea, which Russia has controlled since the beginning of the war. Russia has set up 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.
– Zelensky has signed into law a measure allowing to ban political parties found to support or defend the Russian invasion, the head of the National Parliament’s Legal Policy Committee reported.
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.
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