KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops were withdrawing from Ukraine’s second-largest city after shelling it for weeks, the Ukrainian military said Saturday, as forces from Kyiv and Moscow engaged in a fierce battle for the industrial heart of the east of the country.
Ukraine’s military says Russian forces are withdrawing from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and focusing on protecting supply routes, while launching mortars, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern province of Donetsk in order “to exhaust the Ukrainian forces and destroy the fortifications”.
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new – long-term – phase of the war”.
In a show of support, a US Senate delegation led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday in Kyiv. A video posted to Zelenskyy’s Telegram account showed McConnell, who represents the state of Kentucky, and fellow Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas saluting him.
Their trip came after fellow Kentucky senator Rand Paul blocked until next week Senate approval of an additional $40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies resist. to the Russian invasion of 3 months. In a report after leaving Ukraine, McConnell said the United States “stands firmly behind Ukraine and will continue our support until Ukraine wins this war.”
After failing to capture kyiv after the Feb. 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus east to Donbass, an industrial region where Ukraine has been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The offensive aims to encircle the most experienced and well-equipped Ukrainian troops, which are deployed in the east, and to seize the parts of Donbass that remain under Ukrainian control.
Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to travel in the east, hampering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it seems like a back and forth without major breakthroughs on either side.
Russia captured some villages and towns in Donbass, including Rubizhne, which had a population of around 55,000 before the war.
Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces had also advanced in the east, retaking six towns or villages over the past day. In his evening speech on Saturday, he said that “the situation in Donbass remains very difficult” and that Russian troops were “still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious”.
“Step by step,” President Zelenskyy said, “we are forcing the occupiers out of Ukrainian land.”
Kharkiv, which sits near the Russian border and just 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has suffered weeks of heavy shelling. The largely Russian-speaking city with a pre-war population of 1.4 million was a key military objective early in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.
Ukraine “appears to have won the battle for Kharkiv,” said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank. “Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, then driving them out of the city, as they did Russian forces trying to seize Kyiv. ”
Regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov said via the Telegram messaging app that there had been no bombing attacks on Kharkiv over the past day.
He added that Ukraine had launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a town 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that has been held by Russia since at least early April.
Fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine launched counterattacks but failed to halt Russia’s advance, military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said. independent Ukrainian.
“The fate of a large part of the Ukrainian army is being decided – there are around 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers,” he said.
However, Russian forces suffered heavy casualties in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they were using to try to cross the same river in the town of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said.
The UK Ministry of Defense said Russia lost “significant armored maneuver elements” of at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of approximately 1,000 soldiers.
The ministry said the risky river crossing was a sign of “pressure on Russian commanders to advance their operations in eastern Ukraine”.
Zelenskyy has warned of a global food crisis as Russia blocks Ukrainian grain from leaving port.
The main economies of the Group of Seven echoed this Saturday, saying that “Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the most serious food and energy crises in recent history, which now threatens the most vulnerable people around the world”.
Putin launched the war in Ukraine in an effort to thwart NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe.
But the invasion is raising fears in other countries on Russia’s flank that they could be next, and this week Finland’s president and prime minister said they were in favor of joining the NATO. Swedish officials are expected to announce a decision on Sunday on whether to apply to join the Western military alliance.
In a phone call on Saturday, Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that there is no threat to Finland’s security and that joining NATO would be a “mistake” and would “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 happened without exaggeration. Avoiding tension was considered important.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said NATO membership of Finland and Sweden would increase security tensions in the Arctic, “turning it into an arena of military competition”.
Russian energy group Inter RAO suspended its electricity deliveries to Finland on Saturday, according to a statement from the Finnish national electricity grid operator. But only about 10% of Finland’s electricity comes from Russia, and the authorities did not expect any shortages.
Potential offers from the Nordic countries have been questioned On Friday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was “not in favor”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to meet his NATO counterparts, including the Turkish Foreign Minister, this weekend in Germany.
In other developments:
— Ukrainian fighters locked in a steelworks in the ruined southern port of Mariupol have faced continuous attacks on the city’s last stronghold of resistance. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously injured soldiers, but Russia had not agreed to the evacuation of all wounded fighters at the steelworks, which number in the hundreds.
— During the final of the hugely popular Eurovision Song Contest, Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra made an impassioned plea for help for those inside the steelworks. The group then emerged victorious from the event early on Sunday. Zelenskyy reported that he was watching from Kyiv, saying in a statement: “This is not a war, but nevertheless, for us today, any victory is very important.”
– An adviser to the mayor of Mariupol, Petro Andryushenko, said via Telegram that a convoy of 500 to 1,000 cars carrying civilians from the city was allowed to enter Ukrainian-controlled territory and was heading towards Zaporizhzhia, the first major city beyond the front lines.
— The Deputy Speaker of the Russian Parliament, Anna Kuznetsova, visited Kherson, a region bordering the Black Sea that has been held by Russia since the start of the war. Russia has installed a pro-Moscow regional administration and the British Ministry of Defense has said Russia may hold a local referendum on Russian membership with results likely manipulated to show majority support.
– Zelenskyy has enacted a measure allowing for the banning of political parties that support or defend Russia’s 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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