Russian troops withdrew from around Ukraine’s second largest city after bombing it for several weeks, the Ukrainian military said on Saturday as Kyiv and Moscow forces engaged in a fierce battle for the country’s eastern industrial heart.
The Ukrainian military said Russian forces had withdrawn from the northeastern city of Kharkiv, focusing on guarding supply routes, while launching grenade launchers, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern province of Donetsk to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.” Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new – long-term 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 on Saturday in Kyiv. A video posted on Zelensky’s Telegram account showed McConnell, representing the state of Kentucky, and other Republican senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas greeting him.
Their trip came after Kentucky’s second senator, Rand Paul, next week blocked the Senate’s approval of another $ 40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies resist Russia’s three-month-old invasion. In a statement after leaving Ukraine, McConnell said that the United States “stands completely behind Ukraine and will maintain our support until Ukraine wins this war”.
After failing to capture Kyiv following the February 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shifted his focus east to the Donbas, an industrial region where Ukraine has been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014. The offensive aims to surround Ukraine’s most experienced and well-equipped troops, stationed in the east, and to seize parts of the Donbas remaining under Ukrainian control.
Air strikes and artillery bombardments make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move east, hindering efforts to get a complete picture of the fighting. But it seems to be a back and forth battle without major breakthroughs on either side. Russia has conquered some villages and towns in the Donbas, including Rubizhne, which had a population of about 55,000 before the war.
Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s forces have also made progress in the east, taking back six cities or villages in the past 24 hours. In his evening speech on Saturday, he said that “the situation in the Donbas is still very difficult” and that Russian troops “were still trying to come out at least a little victorious”.
“Step by step,” said President Zelenskyy, “we are forcing the occupiers to leave the Ukrainian land.” Kharkiv, located near the Russian border and only 80 km (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has undergone weeks of intense shelling. The largely Russian-speaking city with a population of 1.4 million before the war was an important military target earlier in the war, when Moscow hoped to conquer and retain major cities.
Ukraine “seems 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 expelled them from the entire city, as they did against Russian forces trying to take Kyiv.” Regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov said via the messaging app Telegram that there had been no shelling attacks on Kharkiv in the past 24 hours.
He added that Ukraine launched a counter-offensive near Izyum, a city 125 km (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that has been held by Russia since at least early April.
The fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the town of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine has launched counterattacks but failed to halt 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.
Russian forces, however, suffered heavy losses in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they used to try to cross the same river in the city of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said. Britain’s defense minister said Russia had lost “significant armored maneuvers” from at least one tactical battalion in the attack. A Russian battalion’s tactical group consists of about 1,000 soldiers.
The ministry said the risky river crossing was a sign of “the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine”. Zelenskyy has warned of a global food crisis as Russia blocks Ukrainian grain from leaving the port.
The group of seven leading economies reiterated on Saturday that “Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the most serious food and energy crises in recent history, which now threatens the most vulnerable worldwide.” Putin started the war in Ukraine with the aim of counteracting NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe.
But the invasion has made other countries along Russia’s flank worried that they may be next, and this week Finland’s president and prime minister said they preferred to seek NATO membership. Officials in Sweden are expected to announce a decision on Sunday on whether to apply to join the Western military alliance.
In a telephone conversation on Saturday, Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that there were no threats to Finland’s security and that joining NATO would be a “mistake” and “negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations”. The Kremlin said the two leaders had a “sincere exchange of views”.
Niinisto said the discussion “was uncomplicated and unambiguous and held without exaggeration. Avoiding tensions was considered important”. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said that Finland’s and Sweden’s accession to NATO would increase security tensions in the Arctic, .
The Russian energy group Inter RAO suspended deliveries 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 the authorities did not expect any shortcomings.
The potential bid of the Nordic nations was questioned on Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country “is not of a positive opinion”. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet with NATO counterparts, including Turkish Foreign Minister, this weekend in Germany.
In other developments:
– Ukrainian warriors held up in a steel factory in the ruined port of Mariupol in the southern part of the country faced continued attacks on the city’s last stronghold. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 severely wounded troops, but Russia had not agreed to the evacuation of all wounded fighter jets at the steel plant, which amounts to hundreds.
– The Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra performed in the final of the hugely popular Eurovision Song Contest and passionately appealed for help for those who were inside the steelworks. The band was later named the event’s winner early on Sunday. Zelenskyy signaled that he was looking from Kyiv and said in a statement, “This is not a war, but still every victory is very important to us today.” An adviser to Mariupol’s mayor Petro Andryushenko said via Telegram that a convoy of between 500 and 1,000 cars carrying civilians from the city was allowed to enter Ukrainian – controlled territory and was on its way to Zaporizhzhia, the first major city beyond the front lines.
The Vice-President of the Russian Parliament, Anna Kuznetsova, visited Kherson, a region bordering the Black Sea that has been held by Russia since the beginning of the war. Russia has installed a pro-Moscow regional administration, and Britain’s defense minister said Russia could hold a local referendum on joining Russia with the results likely manipulated to show majority support.
Zelenskyy signed into law a measure allowing the banning of political parties found to support or defend Russia’s invasion, the head of the National Parliament’s Judicial Policy Committee reported.