KYIV, Ukraine — Russian troops are pulling out of Ukraine’s second-largest city after weeks of heavy shelling, the Ukrainian military announced on Saturday, as forces from Kyiv and Moscow fought a fierce battle for hearts industry in the east of the country.
Ukraine’s general staff said the Russians were withdrawing from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and focusing on protecting supply routes, while launching mortars, artillery and strikes aerial attacks in the eastern province of Donetsk in order “to exhaust the Ukrainian forces and destroy the fortifications”.
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new – long-term – phase of the war”.
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 nightly video address Friday night.
After Russian forces failed to capture kyiv following the Feb. 24 invasion, President Vladimir Putin focused on Donbass, an industrial region where Ukrainian troops have been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The Russian offensive aims to encircle the most experienced and well-equipped Ukrainian troops based in the east of the country and to seize the parts of Donbass that remain under Ukrainian control.
Getting a full picture of the direction of the fighting in the east has been difficult as airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for journalists to travel. But the battle appears to be a back-and-forth with no major breakthrough on either side.
Russia captured some villages and towns in Donbass, including Rubizhne, a pre-war town of about 55,000 people.
Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces had also advanced, retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages over the past day.
Ukraine also pushed back Russian forces around Kharkiv in the north. The largely Russian-speaking city was a key Russian military objective early in the war, when Moscow still hoped to capture and hold major Ukrainian cities, and endured weeks of intense bombardment.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukraine “appears to have won the battle for Kharkiv”. It read: “Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from the city.”
Regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov said in a message on the Telegram messaging app that there had been no shelling over Kharkiv over the past day.
He said Ukraine launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a town 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that has been under effective Russian control since at least early April.
Fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine launched counterattacks but failed to halt Russia’s advance, military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said. independent Ukrainian.
“The fate of a large part of the Ukrainian army is being decided – there are around 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers,” he said.
However, Russian forces suffered heavy casualties in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they were using to try to cross the same river – the largest in eastern Ukraine – in the town of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said, in another nod from Moscow. fight to save a war gone wrong.
Ukraine’s Airborne Command released photos and video of what it said was a damaged Russian pontoon bridge over the Siversky Donets River and at least 73 destroyed or damaged Russian military vehicles nearby.
The UK Ministry of Defense said Russia lost “significant armored maneuver elements” of at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of approximately 1,000 soldiers. He said the risky river crossing was a sign of “pressure on Russian commanders to advance their operations in eastern Ukraine”.
Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation that the Ukrainians were doing everything they could to drive out the Russians, but “no one today can predict how long this war will last.”
“It will unfortunately not only depend on our people, who are already giving their all,” he said. “It will depend on our partners, on European countries, on the whole of the free world.”
The Ukrainian leader warned that the war was causing a food crisis around the world, as a Russian blockade prevented Ukrainian grain from leaving the port.
The major Group of Seven economies echoed that warning, saying 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 around the world”.
Putin launched the war in Ukraine in an effort to thwart NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. But Ukraine’s invasion has other countries on Russia’s flank fearing they could be next.
This week, Finland’s president and prime minister said they favor their country’s NATO membership. Swedish officials are expected to announce a decision on Sunday on whether they will apply to join the Western military alliance.
Potential offers from the Nordic countries came into question on Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was “not in favor” of the idea.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is due to meet his NATO counterparts, including the Turkish Foreign Minister, this weekend in Germany.
Russia’s response to moves by Finland and Sweden has so far been muted, although Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said on Saturday their NATO membership would heighten security tensions in the EU. Arctic.
“Knowing how ready NATO is to militarize anything within its reach, we do not underestimate the threat of the militarization of the Arctic, turning it into an arena for military competition,” Grushko said during of a briefing.
In the crumbling southern port of Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters locked in a steel mill have faced continuous Russian attacks on the last stronghold of resistance in the city. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Ukrainian Azov regiment, said his troops will hold out “as long as they can” despite shortages of ammunition, food, water and medicine.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told the Suspilne newspaper on Saturday that Ukrainian authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously injured soldiers from the steel plant. She said Russia had not agreed to the evacuation of all the wounded fighters from the plant, which number in the hundreds.
An aide to the mayor of Mariupol said between 150,000 and 170,000 civilians remained in the city, which had a population of more than 400,000 before the war. In a Telegram post, Petro Andryushchenko said the residents were “hostages” to the Russian occupying forces.
Seizing Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, would strengthen Russian control over the Ukrainian coastline. Troops from Moscow have occupied most of the Kherson region in southern Ukraine bordering the Black Sea since the early days of the war.
Deputy Speaker of the Russian Parliament Anna Kuznetsova visited the region on Saturday and discussed “emergency humanitarian issues” with Russia’s new Kherson regional governor, Russian news agency RIA reported. Novosti.
Kherson borders Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, and a member of the Moscow-based administration has suggested that Russia should also try to annex Kherson.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense has said Russia may hold a local referendum, with the results likely manipulated to show majority support for the break with Ukraine.
Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa, Jill Lawless in London and other AP staff around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine
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