Ukraine’s Zelenskyy Defiant as Russia Retreats From Kharkiv

By OLEKSANDR STASHEVSKYI and DAVID KEYTON, Associated Press

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Recently after his country’s Eurovision win, a defiant Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy promised early Sunday to one day host the singing competition in the disputed city of Mariupol, which is almost entirely in Russian hands except for a loyal group of a few hundred Ukrainian warriors who continue to persevere in a steel mill.

Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra won the popular competition with its song “Stefania”, which has become a popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war, and its victory was a strengthening morale.

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe,” Zelenskyy said on Facebook. “Next year, Ukraine will host Eurovision!”

The band appealed to a passionate appeal during the show to help the warriors still present in Azovstal’s steelworks in the port city, and Zelenskyy said that “one day” the competition would be held “in a Ukrainian Mariupol.”

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The president’s optimistic words come as Russian troops withdraw from Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city, after bombing it for weeks, and Moscow’s forces continue to engage in a fierce battle for the country’s eastern industrial heart.

The Ukrainian military said Russian forces were now withdrawing from the northeastern city to focus on guarding supply routes, while launching grenade launchers, artillery and air strikes in the eastern Donetsk region in an attempt to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.”

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

Russian forces control a horseshoe-shaped string of territory in the Ukrainian areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, which form the eastern Donbas region, along the border with the industrial region where Ukraine has been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

In southern Donbas, the port of Mariupol in the Azov Sea is now largely under Russian control, in addition to the few hundred troops left in the steel plant.

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 cars carrying civilians out of the city was reportedly able to reach the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday, while Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 severely injured troops at the steel plant. .

After failing to capture Kyiv following the February 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shifted his focus east to the Donbas, in order to surround Ukraine’s most experienced and well-equipped troops, and to take territory still 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 somewhat victorious.”

“Step by step,” said Zelenskyy, “we are forcing the occupiers to leave the Ukrainian land.”

Kharkiv, located near the Russian border and only 80 kilometers (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 kilometers (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 dangerous river crossing was a sign of “the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine.”

Putin has justified the war in Ukraine by claiming that it was a response to NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe.

But the invasion has worried other countries along Russia’s flank that they may be next, and in the past week Finland’s president and prime minister have said they prefer 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 relations between Russia and Finland.”

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.

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.

Follow the AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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