KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops withdrew from Ukraine’s second-largest city after bombing it for weeks, the Ukrainian army said on Saturday, as forces from Kiev and Moscow engaged in a long-running battle for it. eastern industrial heart of the country.
The Ukrainian army said Russian forces withdrew from the northeastern city of Kharkov and concentrated on guarding supply routes while launching mortars, artillery and air strikes in 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”.
A US Senate delegation led by minority leader Mitch McConnell met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kiev on Saturday. 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 next week’s Senate approval for an additional $40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies resist Russia’s three-month-old invasion. In a statement after he left Ukraine, McConnell said the United States “stands squarely behind Ukraine and will maintain our support until Ukraine wins this war”.
After failing to take Kiev after the February 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has turned his attention east to the Donbas, an industrial region where Ukraine has been fighting separatists since 2014 through Moscow.
The offensive is aimed at encircling Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped troops, deployed in the east, and capturing parts of the Donbas that are still under Ukrainian control.
Air strikes and artillery fire make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move east, hampering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it seems like a back and forth with no major breakthroughs on either side.
Russia has taken some Donbas villages and towns, including Rubizhne, which had a pre-war population of about 55,000.
Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces have also made progress in the east by retaking six towns or villages in the past day. In his late-night speech on Saturday, he said that “the situation in Donbas remains very difficult” and that Russian troops are “still trying to at least be somewhat victorious”.
“Step by step,” said President Zelenskyy, “we are forcing the residents to leave the Ukrainian country.”
Kharkiv, near 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 military target earlier in the war, as Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.
Ukraine “seems to have won the battle of Kharkov,” said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank. “Ukrainian troops 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 via the Telegram messaging app that there had been no shelling on Kharkiv in the past day.
He added that Ukraine 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 in the city of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said.
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 has warned of a global food crisis as Russia blocks Ukrainian grain from leaving port.
The group of seven leading economies echoed that Saturday, saying that “Russia’s war of aggression has sparked one of the worst 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 the invasion has scared other countries along Russia’s flank that they could be next, and this week Finland’s president and prime minister said they prefer to seek NATO membership. Officials in Sweden are expected to announce a decision on Sunday on whether or not 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 “adversely affect Russian-Finnish relations”.
The Kremlin said the two leaders had a “candid exchange of views”.
Niinisto said the discussion was “direct, unambiguous and held without exaggeration. Avoiding tensions was considered important.”
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said Finland and Sweden joining NATO would increase security tensions in the Arctic, “turning it into an arena of military competition”.
Russian energy group Inter RAO suspended supplies of electricity to Finland on Saturday, according to a statement from the Finnish national electricity grid operator. But only about 10% of Finland’s electricity comes from Russia and authorities did not expect any shortages.
The Scandinavian countries’ potential bids were called into question on Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country has “no favorable opinion”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to meet his NATO colleagues in Germany this weekend, including the Turkish Foreign Minister.
In other developments:
— Ukrainian fighters holed up in a steel factory in the ruined southern port of Mariupol faced ongoing attacks on the city’s last resistance stronghold. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously injured troops, but Russia had not approved the evacuation of all wounded fighters at the steel plant, numbering in the hundreds.
— Performing in the final of the hugely popular Eurovision Song Contest, the Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra made a passionate plea for help for those in the steel mill. The band emerged as the winner of the event later on early Sunday. Zelenskyy indicated that he was watching from Kiev and said in a statement: “This is not a war, but nevertheless, for us today every 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 citizens from the city was allowed to enter the Ukraine-controlled area and was headed for Zaporizhzhya, the first major city beyond the front lines. .
— 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 beginning 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.
— Zelenskyy has signed a law making it possible to ban political parties that support or defend the invasion of Russia, the head of the national parliament’s legal policy committee reported.
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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