Ukraine: Russians withdraw from Kharkov, battle to the east

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Russian troops are withdrawing from Ukraine’s second-largest city after weeks of bombing, Ukraine’s military said on Saturday, as forces from Kiev and Moscow engaged in a long battle for the eastern industrial heart of the country.

Ukraine’s General Staff said the Russians withdrew from the northeastern city of Kharkov and concentrated on guarding supply routes, while launching mortars, artillery and air strikes into the eastern Donetsk province to “exhaust Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.” “.

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine is “entering a new – long-term – phase of the war”.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukrainians did their “maximum” to drive out 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 overnight video speech late Friday.

A US Senate delegation led by Republican leader Mitch McConnell met with the Ukrainian president in Kiev on Saturday in support. A video on Zelensky’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 greeting him.

Their journey came after Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul, blocked Senate approval for an additional $40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies resist Russia’s three-month-old invasion until next week.

After Russian forces failed to capture Kiev after the February 24 invasion, President Vladimir Putin turned his attention east to the Donbas, an industrial region where Ukrainian forces have been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

The Russian offensive aims to encircle Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped troops stationed in the east and take parts of the Donbas that are still under Ukrainian control.

Air strikes and artillery shelling make it extremely dangerous for reporters to move eastward, hampering attempts to get a full picture of the direction of the fighting. But the battle seems like a back and forth with no major breakthroughs on either side.

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

Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces have also made progress in the east, retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages in the past day.

Kharkiv, not far from the Russian border and just 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has been subject to heavy shelling 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, as Moscow hoped to capture and hold major Ukrainian cities.

Ukraine “appears to have won the battle of Kharkov,” according to 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 expelled them from all over the city, as they did with Russian troops attempting to take Kiev.”

Regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov said in a message on the Telegram messaging app that there had been no shelling on Kharkiv in the past day.

He added that Ukraine had launched a counter-offensive near Izyum, a city 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkov that has been in Russia’s hands since at least early April.

Fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine has counterattacked 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 troops suffered heavy casualties in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they used to cross the same river — the largest in eastern Ukraine — in the city of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said. It was another sign of Moscow’s struggle to save a failed war.

The British Ministry of Defense said Russia lost “significant armored maneuver elements” from at least one tactical battalion group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of about 1,000 troops.

The ministry said the risky river crossing was a sign of “pressure from Russian commanders to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine.”

Zelenskyy said in his overnight video address that Ukrainians were doing everything they could to expel the Russians and urged the West to increase its support.

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

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

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

Putin launched the war in Ukraine with the aim of thwarting NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. But Ukraine’s invasion has scared other countries along Russia’s flank that they could be next.

This week, Finland’s president and prime minister said they preferred their country seeking NATO membership. Officials in Sweden are expected to announce a decision on Sunday on whether or not to join the Western military alliance.

Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that there are no threats to Finland’s security and joining NATO would be a “mistake” that “would negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations”.

The Kremlin said the two leaders had a “candid exchange of views” on Saturday.

Niinistö said the discussion was “direct, unambiguous and 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 joining NATO would heighten security tensions in the Arctic, “putting it in an arena of military competition.” would change”.

The Scandinavian countries’ potential bids were questioned Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country is “not positive” about the idea.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with his NATO colleagues, including Turkey’s Foreign Minister, in Germany this weekend.

In other developments:

Ukrainian fighters holed up in a steel factory in the ruined southern port of Mariupol faced ongoing Russian attacks on the last resistance stronghold in the city. The Ukrainian deputy prime minister said Ukrainian authorities are negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously injured troops from the steel plant. Iryna Vereshchuk said Russia had not agreed to evacuate all wounded fighters at the factory, hundreds of them.

—The deputy speaker of the Russian parliament, Anna Kuznetsova, visited Kherson, a region on the Black Sea that has been in the hands of Russia since the early days of the war. Russia has installed a pro-Moscow regional government, and the British Ministry of Defense said Russia could hold a local referendum on joining Russia, likely manipulating the results to show majority support for a 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 employees around the world contributed to this report.

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