kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops are withdrawing from the outskirts of Ukraine’s second-largest city after weeks of shelling it, the Ukrainian military said Saturday, as kyiv and Moscow forces clashed in a fierce battle for the industrial heart of the country’s east.
Ukraine’s general staff said Russian forces were withdrawing from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and concentrating on protecting supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern province of Donetsk to “exhaust Ukrainian forces and destroy the fortifications.
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new phase of the long-term war.”
In a show of support, a US Senate delegation led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in kyiv on Saturday. A video posted on Zelenskyy’s Telegram account showed McConnell, who represents the state of Kentucky, and Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas greeting him.
His trip came after Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul, blocked Senate approval of an additional $40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies resist a three-month Russian invasion until next week.
After failing to capture kyiv following the February 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus east to Donbas, an industrial region where Ukraine has battled Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The offensive is aimed at encircling Ukraine’s most experienced and well-equipped troops, who are deployed in the east, and seizing parts of Donbas that remain under Ukraine’s control.
Airstrikes and artillery shelling make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move around the east, hampering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it appears to be a back-and-forth slog with no breakthroughs on either side.
Russia has captured some towns and cities in Donbas, including Rubizhne, which before the war had a population of around 55,000.
Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces have also made gains in the east, retaking six towns or villages in the last day. In his late-night speech on Saturday, he said that “the situation in Donbas is still very difficult” and that Russian troops “still trying to emerge at least somewhat victorious.”
“Step by step,” President Zelenskyy said, “we are forcing the occupiers to leave the Ukrainian land.”
Kharkiv, which is close to the Russian border and just 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has suffered weeks of heavy bombardment. The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million was a key military target early in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.
Ukraine “appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv,” said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank. “Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone taking Kharkiv, and then pushed them out from around the city, as they did with Russian forces trying to take kyiv.”
Regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov said via the Telegram messaging app that there had been no shelling attacks in Kharkiv the day before.
He added that Ukraine has launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a city 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that has been in Russian hands since at least early April.
Fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine launched counter-attacks but failed to stop Russia’s advance, said Oleh Zhdanov, an independent Ukrainian military analyst.
“The fate of a large part of the Ukrainian army is being decided: there are about 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers,” he said.
However, Russian forces suffered heavy losses 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.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia lost “significant armored maneuver elements” from at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of about 1,000 soldiers.
The ministry said the risky river crossing was a sign of “the pressure Russian commanders are under to advance their operations in eastern Ukraine.”
Zelenskyy warned of a global food crisis as Russia blocks Ukrainian grain from leaving the port.
The Group of Seven leading economies echoed that 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 around the world. ”.
Putin launched the war in Ukraine with the aim of thwarting NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe.
But the invasion has other countries along Russia’s flank worried they may be next, and this week Finland’s president and prime minister said they favor seeking NATO membership. Officials in Sweden 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 are no threats 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 unequivocal and carried out without exaggeration. It was considered important to avoid tensions.”
Russia’s response to the Finnish and Swedish moves has so far been muted, although Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said its NATO membership would increase security tensions in the Arctic, “turning it into a competitive arena.” military”.
Russian energy group Inter RAO suspended electricity deliveries to Finland on Saturday, according to a statement from Finland’s national power grid operator. But only about 10% of Finland’s electricity comes from Russia, and authorities were not expecting a shortage.
Possible offers from the Nordic nations came into question on Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country “does not have a favorable opinion.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to meet with his NATO counterparts, including Turkey’s foreign minister, this weekend in Germany.
In other developments:
— Ukrainian fighters holed up at a steel plant in the dilapidated southern port of Mariupol faced continued attacks on the city’s last bastion of resistance. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously wounded soldiers, but Russia had not agreed to the evacuation of all the fighters wounded at the steelworks, numbering in the hundreds.
— An aide to Mariupol Mayor 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 headed to Zaporizhzhia, the first city important beyond the front lines.
— Russian parliament deputy speaker Anna Kuznetsova visited Kherson, a region bordering the Black Sea that Russia has occupied since the beginning of the war. Russia installed a pro-Moscow regional administration, and Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia could organize a local referendum to join Russia with results likely manipulated to show majority support.
— Zelenskyy signed into law a measure that allows to ban political parties that support or defend the invasion of Russia, reported the head of the legal policy committee of the national parliament.
Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa, Jill Lawless in London, and other AP employees around the world contributed to this report.
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