Russian troops are withdrawing from the vicinity of Ukraine’s second-largest city after weeks of bombings, the Ukrainian military said Saturday, adding that Kyiv and Moscow forces were engaged in a humiliating battle for the country’s eastern industrial hub.
The Ukrainian military says Russian forces are retreating from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and are concentrating on guarding supply routes as the eastern province of Donetsk launches “mortar, artillery and air raids” to destroy Ukrainian forces. Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new – long-term – war phase”.
In a show of support, a US Senate delegation led by minority leader Mitch McConnell met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev on Saturday. A video posted on Zelensky’s telegram account shows McConnell, who represents the state of Kentucky, greeting fellow Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine, John Barasso of Wyoming and John Cornin of Texas.
Their visit comes after another Kentucky senator, Rand Paul, blocked an additional $ 40 billion Senate approval next week to help Ukraine and its allies deal with Russia’s three-month-old aggression. In a statement after leaving Ukraine, McConnell said the United States “stands by Ukraine and will continue to support us until Ukraine wins the war.”
After failing to occupy Kyiv after the February 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus east to Donbass, an industrial zone where Ukraine has been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014. The aim of the attack was to surround the most experienced and best equipped in Ukraine. Troops, who have previously been deployed and to occupy parts of the Donbass under Ukrainian control.
Air strikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move east, hampering efforts to get a full picture of the war. But it seems to be a front and back slog without much success on either side. Russia has occupied some Donbass villages and towns, including Ruby, where the pre-war population was about 55,000.
Zelensky said Ukrainian forces had also advanced eastward, recapturing six towns or villages in the past day. In his speech on Saturday night, he said “the situation in Donbass is very difficult” and that the Russian military was “trying to be at least somewhat victorious”.
“Step by step,” said President Zelensky, “we are forcing the occupiers to leave the land of Ukraine.” Kharkiv, near the Russian border and just 80 km (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has been the scene of intense shelling for weeks. The larger Russian-speaking city, with a pre-war population of 1.4 million, was an important military objective at the beginning of the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and retain large cities.
Washington-based think tank, Institute for the Study of War, Ukraine “seems to have won the Kharkiv war.” “Ukrainian forces prevented the siege of Russian troops, abandoned the occupation of Kharkiv, and then expelled them from the city, as they did to the Russian forces trying to occupy Kyiv.” Regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov said via the telegram messaging app that there had been no shelling in Kharkiv in the past day.
He added that Ukraine had launched a counter-attack near the town of Izim, 125 km (78 miles) south of Kharkiv, which had been under Russian occupation since at least the beginning of April.
Oleh Zhadanov, an independent military analyst in Ukraine, said fighting on the Sivarsky Donets River near the town of Severodonetsk was deadly, with Ukraine launching a counter-attack but failing to stop Russia’s advance. “The fate of a large part of the Ukrainian army is being determined – there are about 40,000 Ukrainian troops,” he said.
However, Russian forces inflicted heavy casualties in the Ukrainian attack, which destroyed a pontoon bridge trying to cross the same river in the town of Belohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said. Britain’s defense ministry said Russia had lost “significant armored tactical material” to at least one battalion strategic group in the attack. A Russian battalion strategic team consisting of about 1,000 troops.
The ministry said the risky river crossing was a sign of “pressure from Russian commanders to advance their operations in eastern Ukraine”. Zelensky has warned of a global food crisis because Russia has blocked it from leaving Ukraine’s grain ports.
The Group of Seven leading economies echoed that Saturday, saying “Russia’s war on aggression has created the most severe food and energy crisis in recent history, which now threatens the weakest in the world.” Putin launched a war in Ukraine aimed at thwarting NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe.
But other countries bordering Russia are worried about the aggression, and this week the president and prime minister of Finland said they were in favor of NATO membership. 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 Ninistিস্ত that there was no threat to Finland’s security and that joining NATO would be an “error” and “negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations.” The Kremlin says there has been a “frank exchange” between the two leaders.
Ninisto said the talks were “simple and unequivocal and without exaggeration. It was important to avoid tensions.” .
Russian power group Inter RAO suspended power supply to Finland on Saturday, according to a statement from the Finnish national electrical grid operator. But about 10% of Finland’s electricity comes from Russia, and authorities did not expect a shortage.
Potential bids from the Nordic countries came into question on Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was “not a favorable opinion”. US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was scheduled to meet in Germany this weekend with his NATO counterpart, including Turkey’s foreign minister.
– Ukrainian fighters continue to attack the last stronghold of the city’s resistance, trapped in a steel factory in the devastated southern port of Mariupol. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Irina Vereshchuk says authorities are discussing the evacuation of 60 seriously wounded soldiers, but Russia has not agreed to remove all wounded steelworkers, numbering in the hundreds.
– Performing in the finals of the hugely popular Eurovision Song Contest, the Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra has made an emotional appeal for help for those inside the steel plant. The band later emerged the winner of the event early on Sunday. Zelensky indicated that he was watching from Kyiv, saying in a statement, “This is not a war, but still, for us today, any victory is very important.” – An adviser to Mariupol Mayor Petro Andreushenko said in a telegram that a convoy of 500 to 1,000 vehicles carrying civilians from the city was allowed to enter Ukraine-controlled territory and leave for the first major city, Zaporizhiya, off the front line.
– Anna Kuznetsova, Deputy Speaker of the Russian Parliament, visited Kherson, a region on the Black Sea border that has been occupied by Russia since the beginning of the war. Russia has set up a pro-Moscow regional administration, and Britain’s defense ministry says Russia could hold a local referendum on joining Russia, the results of which will likely be rigged to show majority support.
– Zelensky has signed into law a law banning political parties from supporting or defending Russia’s aggression, according to the head of the National Assembly’s legal policy committee.