Ukraine: Russians withdraw from city of Kharkiv, batter east

Kyiv, Ukraine –

Russian troops are retreating from Ukraine’s second-largest city after weeks of heavy bombardment, the Ukrainian military said on Saturday as Kyiv and Moscow forces engaged in a fierce battle for the country’s eastern industrial heart.

Ukraine’s General Staff said the Russians withdrew from the northeastern city of Kharkiv, focusing on guarding supply routes, while launching grenade launchers, artillery and airstrikes in eastern Donetsk province to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.”

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

When the country’s top prosecutor put a Russian soldier on trial for war crimes, the first of dozens to be prosecuted, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the Ukrainians were doing their “maximum” to drive out the invaders and that the outcome of the war would depend on support from Europe and other allies. .

“No one today can predict how long this war will last,” Zelenskyy said in his late-night video late Friday.

Russia’s offensive in the Donbas, a mining and industrial region that Moscow-backed separatists have partially controlled since 2014, appeared to be turning into a backlash without any major breakthroughs on either side.

After failing to conquer Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, the Russian military decided to concentrate on the Donbas, but its troops have struggled to win and hold ground. Before the war, Ukraine had its highly trained soldiers in the region to ward off Russia-backed rebels.

Russia has conquered some villages and towns during its invasion. The Ukrainian military chief of Donbas Luhansk province said on Friday that Russian troops had almost full control of Rubizhne, a city with a population of about 55,000 before the war.

Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s forces had also made progress and recaptured six Ukrainian cities or villages in the past 24 hours.

Western officials said Ukraine had pushed back Russian forces around Kharkiv. The largely Russian-speaking city was a key Russian military target in the early stages of the war, when Moscow was still hoping to capture and retain large Ukrainian cities.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukraine “seems to have won the Battle of Kharkiv.” It said, “Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone taking Kharkiv, and then expelling them from the entire city.”

Regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov said in a post on the messaging app Telegram that there had been no shelling attacks on Kharkiv in the past 24 hours.

He said Ukraine had launched a counter-offensive near Izyum, a city 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that has been under effective Russian control 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 under decision – 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 – the largest in eastern Ukraine – in the city of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said in a different sign. of Moscow’s struggle to save a war that has gone awry.

Ukraine’s airborne command released photos and video of what they said was a damaged Russian pontoon bridge over the Siversky Donets River and at least 73 destroyed or damaged Russian military vehicles nearby.

The British Ministry of Defense said Russia lost “significant armored maneuvers” from at least one tactical battalion group in the attack. A Russian battalion’s tactical group consists of about 1,000 soldiers. It said the dangerous river crossing was a sign of “the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine.”

Zelenskyy said in his nightly video to the nation that Ukrainians did everything they could to drive out the Russians, but “no one today can predict how long this war will last.”

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

Russian President Vladimir Putin undertook the war in Ukraine with the aim of counteracting NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. But the invasion of Ukraine has made other countries along Russia’s flank worried that they may be next.

This week, the President of Finland and the Prime Minister announced that they want the Nordic nation to apply for membership in NATO. Officials in Sweden could follow within a few days. The Nordic nations’ potential applications to join the Western military alliance were questioned when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country “is not of a positive opinion” against the idea.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet his NATO counterparts, including the Turkish Foreign Minister, this weekend in Germany.

In the ruined southern port of Mariupol, Ukrainian warriors stood in a steel factory facing continued Russian attacks on the city’s last stronghold. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, said his troops would hold out “for as long as they could” despite a shortage of ammunition, food, water and medicine.

Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told the country’s Suspilne newspaper on Saturday that Ukrainian authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 severely injured troops from the steel plant. She said Russia had not agreed to the evacuation of all wounded warriors at the facility, which amounts to hundreds.

An aide to Mariupol’s mayor said between 150,000 and 170,000 civilians remain in the city, which had a population of over 400,000 before the war. In a post on Telegram, Petro Andryushchenko said that the inhabitants were “hostage” by the Russian occupying forces, “with almost no chance of escaping to Ukraine.”

In Kyiv, Ukrainian soldiers dressed in white protective suits loaded the bodies of Russian soldiers on refrigerated trains. The bodies were wrapped in white body bags and stacked several layers deep.

Colonel Volodymyr Lyamzin, who oversaw the operation, said several hundred bodies were stored on trains in the capital and in several other warehouse trains elsewhere. He said Ukraine was ready to hand over the bodies to Russia, but so far there has been no agreement to do so.

Journalists filled a small courtroom in Kyiv on Friday for the trial of a captured Russian soldier accused of killing a Ukrainian civilian in the early days of the war – the first of dozens of war crimes reported by Ukraine’s top prosecutor.

Shyshimarin could face life in prison if convicted of shooting a 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through an open car window in a village in the northeastern Sumy region on February 28, four days after the invasion.

Shyshimarin, a member of a tank unit captured by Ukrainian forces, admitted that he shot the civilian in a video posted by the Ukrainian security service and said he was ordered to do so.

The trial, which resumes on Wednesday, will be closely monitored by international observers to ensure justice.

Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said she was preparing war crimes against 41 Russian soldiers for crimes including bombing of civilian infrastructure, killing civilians, rape and looting.

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Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odesa, Jill Lawless in London and other AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

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