Russian forces are withdrawing from the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Ukrainian officials have claimed, as the wives of soldiers trapped in the besieged port of Mariupol have called on Chinese leader Xi Jinping to rescue them .
Ukraine’s army general staff said on Saturday that after a bloody battle the Russians appeared to be leaving their positions around Ukraine’s second-largest city, 50 km from the Russian border.
The merciless shelling suffered by the region’s civilian population also reportedly ceased on Saturday, according to regional governor Oleh Sinegubov, as Ukrainian forces launched a counter-offensive near the town of Izium, 128 km south of Kharkiv.
Ukraine’s military intelligence chief, Major General Kyrylo Budanov, told Sky News he believed Russian advances would come to a complete halt over the summer.
He said: “The breaking point will be in the second half of August. Most active combat actions will be completed by the end of this year. Accordingly, we will renew Ukrainian power over all our territories that we have lost, including Donbass and Crimea.
Ukraine’s success in the northeast contrasts with the plight of the remaining soldiers trapped in the Azovstal steelworks in the southeast city of Mariupol, whose relatives have appealed to China for persuade Vladimir Putin to allow them a safe exit through Turkey.
Speaking at a press conference in Kyiv on Saturday, Natalia Zarytska, the wife of Bogdan Sements, who is among those trapped in the sprawling steel mills, said: “Strong leaders cannot stand aside when there is evil.
“After all these negotiations, there is one person in the world that it would be difficult for Vladimir Putin to refuse. We hope that a strong and good China can make tough decisions for good.
“We call on esteemed Chinese Premier Xi Jinping to express his love and concern for global values and Eastern wisdom and join in the process of rescuing Mariupol defenders.”
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy says talks with Moscow over extracting a “large number” of injured defenders and some doctors from the Mariupol plant in return for the release of Russian prisoners of war were “very complex “, adding that kyiv used influential intermediaries.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told local television on Saturday that efforts were now focused on evacuating around 60 people.
Sviatoslav Palamar, the deputy commander of the Azov regiment, which makes up the bulk of the remaining forces at the plant, said on a YouTube video that his soldiers were holding their ground.
He said: “Our enemy, supported by planes and artillery, continues to attack. They continue their assault on our positions but we continue to push them back.
The developments came as a joint statement by foreign ministers was released by the world’s seven largest economies, known as the G7, which said they would not recognize the borders Russia is trying to redraw.
After three days of talks in northern Germany, ministers from the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US have warned they will extend sanctions against Russia, which would cripple its economy.
They said: “We will never recognize the borders that Russia has attempted to alter through military aggression, and we will maintain our commitment to support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea, and all the states.
“We reaffirm our determination to further increase economic and political pressure on Russia, continuing to act in unity.”
They warned that the war in Ukraine was fueling a global food crisis and called on Moscow to unlock key ports and allow Ukrainian grain exports.
They said: “Up to 50 million people, especially in African and Middle Eastern countries, will die in the coming months… Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the crises most serious food and energy needs in recent history, threatening the most vulnerable people around the world.
The G7 also called on China not to help Vladimir Putin and to “refrain from engaging in manipulation of information, disinformation and other means to legitimize Russia’s war of aggression against the ‘Ukraine”.
Three weeks before Putin launched his war in Ukraine, the Russian president signed a pact with his Chinese counterpart stipulating that there would be “no limits” to cooperation between the two countries.