Ukraine: Russians withdraw from Kharkiv and advance east

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 forces from kyiv and Moscow clashed in a fierce battle. . for the industrial heart of the east of the country.

Ukraine’s general staff said the Russians were withdrawing from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and concentrating on protecting supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and air strikes 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.”

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the Ukrainians they were doing their “maximum” to expel the invaders and that the outcome of the war would depend on the support of Europe and other allies.

“No one can predict today how long this war will last,” Zelenskyy said in his late-night video address Friday night.

In a show of support, a US Senate delegation led by Republican leader Mitch McConnell met with the Ukrainian president in kyiv. A video posted on Zelenskyy’s Telegram account showed McConnell, who represents the state of Kentucky, and Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas greeting him.

After Russian forces failed to capture kyiv following a Feb. 24 invasion, President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus east to Donbas, an industrial region where Ukrainian troops have fought Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

Russia’s offensive is aimed at encircling Ukraine’s most experienced and well-equipped troops, who are based in the east, and seizing parts of Donbas that remain under Ukraine’s control.

Getting a full picture of the direction the fighting is taking in the east has been difficult because airstrikes and artillery shelling have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move. But the battle appears to be a back-and-forth slog with no breakthroughs on either side.

Russia has captured some villages and towns in Donbas, including Rubizhne, a city with a pre-war population of around 55,000.

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Zelenskyy said that Ukrainian forces also made gains in the east and recaptured six Ukrainian towns or villages the day before.

Kharkiv, which is not far from the Russian border and just 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has been under heavy bombardment for weeks. The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million was a key Russian military target early in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major Ukrainian cities.

Ukraise “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 in a post on the Telegram messaging app that there had been no shelling attacks in Kharkiv in the past day.

He said Ukraine had launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a town 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that has been under effective Russian control 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, the largest in eastern Ukraine, in the town of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said. , in another sign of Moscow. fight to save a war gone wrong.

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 said in his late-night video address to the nation that the Ukrainians were doing their best to drive out the Russians, but “no one can predict today how long this war will last.”

“This will depend, unfortunately, not only on our people, who are already giving their best,” he said. “This will depend on our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world.”

The Ukrainian leader warned that the war is causing a food crisis around the world, as the Russian blockade prevents Ukrainian grain from leaving the port.

The Group of Seven leading economies echoed that warning, saying on Saturday that “Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the most serious food and energy crises in recent history, now threatening the most vulnerable around the world.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the war in Ukraine with the aim of thwarting NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. But the Ukraine invasion has other countries along Russia’s flank worried they may be next.

This week, Finland’s president and prime minister said they were in favor of their country seeking NATO membership. Officials in Sweden are expected to announce a decision on 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.

Niinistö said the discussion “was direct and unequivocal and carried out without exaggeration. It was considered important to avoid tensions.”

Russia’s response to the moves by Finland and Sweden has so far been muted, although Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said on Saturday that joining NATO would increase security tensions in the Arctic, “turning it into a of military competence.

The possible offers of the Nordic nations were questioned on Friday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country “does not have a favorable view” of the idea.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to meet with his NATO counterparts, including Turkey’s foreign minister, this weekend in Germany.

In other developments:

— Ukrainian fighters holed up in a steel plant in the dilapidated southern port of Mariupol faced continued Russian attacks on the last bastion of resistance in the city. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister said that the Ukrainian authorities are negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously wounded soldiers from the steelworks. Iryna Vereshchuk said Russia had not agreed to the evacuation of all the wounded fighters at the plant, numbering in the hundreds.

—The deputy speaker of the Russian parliament, Anna Kuznetsova, visited Kherson, a region bordering the Black Sea that Russia has occupied since the first days 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 the results likely manipulated to show majority support for breaking away from Ukraine.

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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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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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