Kyiv: Russian troops were withdrawing from the outskirts of Ukraine’s second-largest city after shelling it for weeks, the Ukrainian military said on Saturday, as forces from Kyiv and Moscow clashed in a battle for the industrial heartland of the East of the country.
The Ukrainian military said Russian forces were withdrawing from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and focusing on guarding supply routes while launching mortar, artillery, and airstrikes in the eastern province of Donetsk in order to “exhaust Ukrainian forces.” and destroy the fortifications.”
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov declared that Ukraine was “entering a new – long-lasting – 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 in Kyiv on Saturday.
A video posted on 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 greeting him.
His trip came after Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul, blocked until next week the Senate’s approval of an additional $40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies resist the Russian invasion three months ago. In a statement after leaving Ukraine, McConnell said the United States “strongly supports Ukraine and will continue to support it until Ukraine wins this war.”
After failing to take Kyiv following a Feb. 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has 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 the parts of Donbas that remain under Ukraine’s 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 that it is a back and forth fight without great advances on the part of either side.
Russia has captured some towns and cities in Donbas, such as Rubizhne, which had a population of about 55,000 before the war.
Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces have also made progress in the east, retaking six towns or villages in the last day. In his late-night speech on Saturday, he said “the situation in Donbas remains very difficult” and Russian troops “keep 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 km (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has suffered weeks of heavy shelling. The mostly 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, and even more so from taking Kharkiv, and then expelled them from the outskirts of the city, as they did with Russian forces trying to take Kyiv.”
The governor of the region, Oleh Sinegubov, declared through the Telegram messaging application that there had been no projectile attacks against Kharkiv in the last day.
He added that Ukraine had launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a city 125 km 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 has launched counter-attacks but failed to stop the Russian 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 has warned of a global food crisis if Russia blocks Ukrainian grain from leaving the port.
The Group of Seven major economies echoed this on Saturday, stating that “Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the most serious foods and energy crises in recent history, now threatening the most vulnerable around the world. world”.
Putin launched the war in Ukraine with the aim of thwarting NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe.
But the invasion has other countries on Russia’s flank worried they might be next, and this week Finland’s president and the prime minister said they favor seeking NATO membership. Swedish authorities are expected to announce on Sunday their decision 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 proceeded without exaggeration. It was considered important to avoid tensions.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko claimed Finland and Sweden’s accession to NATO would increase security tensions in the Arctic, “turning it into a theater of military competition”.
Russian energy group Inter RAO on Saturday suspended electricity supplies to Finland, according to a statement from the Finnish national power grid operator. But only around 10% of Finland’s electricity comes from Russia, and authorities did not expect any shortages.
Possible offers from the Nordic countries were called 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 events:
– Ukrainian fighters sheltering in a steel plant in the dilapidated port of Mariupol, in the south of the country, face continuous attacks against the last pocket of resistance in the city. 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 in the steelworks, numbering in the hundreds.
– The Ukrainian group Kalush Orchestra, which participated in the final of the popular Eurovision contest, made an impassioned request for help for the people who were in the steel plant. The band became the winner of the contest early on Sunday. Zelenskyy noted 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 between 500 and 1,000 cars carrying civilians from the city had been able to enter the Ukrainian-controlled territory and was heading to 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 in Russian hands since the beginning of the war. Russia has installed a pro-Moscow regional administration, and Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia could organize a local referendum on joining Russia with results likely manipulated to show majority support.
– Zelenskyy promulgated a law that allows to ban of political parties that support or defend the Russian invasion and informed the head of the legal policy commission of the national parliament.