KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops are pulling out of Ukraine’s second-largest city after shelling it for weeks, the Ukrainian military said Saturday, as forces from Kyiv and Moscow engaged in a fierce battle for the industrial heart of 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 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 Zelensky said that Ukrainians were doing their “maximum” to drive out the invaders and that the outcome of the war would depend on the support of Europe and other allies.
“No one today can predict how long this war will last,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address Friday night.
In a show of support, a US Senate delegation led by Republican leader Mitch McConnell met with the Ukrainian president on Saturday in Kyiv. A video posted to Zelenskyy’s Telegram account showed McConnell, who represents the state of Kentucky, and fellow Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas saluting him.
Their trip came after fellow Kentucky senator Rand Paul blocked until next week Senate approval of an additional $40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies resist. to the three-month Russian invasion.
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 and to seize the parts of Donbass that remain under Ukrainian control.
Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to travel in the east, hampering efforts to get a full picture of the direction of the fighting. 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 in the east, retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages over the past day.
Kharkiv, which is not far from the Russian border and just 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has suffered weeks of heavy shelling. The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million was a key Russian military objective early in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major Ukrainian cities.
Ukraine “appears to have won the battle for Kharkiv,” said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank. “Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, then driving them out of the city, as they did Russian forces trying to seize Kyiv. “
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 added that Ukraine had launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a town 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that had been held by Russia 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. It was another sign of Moscow’s struggle to save a war gone wrong.
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.
The ministry 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 that the Ukrainians were doing all they could to drive out the Russians and pressured the West to increase support.
“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 has warned that the war is causing a food crisis around the world as a Russian blockade prevents Ukrainian grain from leaving port.
The main economies of the Group of Seven 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 people 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 to apply to join the Western military alliance.
Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that there is no threat to Finland’s security and that joining NATO would be a “mistake” which “would negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations”.
The Kremlin said the two leaders had a “frank exchange of views” in a phone call on Saturday.
Niinistö said the discussion “was direct and unambiguous and proceeded without exaggeration. Avoiding tension was considered important.
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, “turning it into an arena for military competition”.
Potential offers from the Nordic countries have been questioned 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.
In other developments:
— Ukrainian fighters locked in a steelworks in the ruined southern port of Mariupol have faced continuous Russian attacks on the last bastion of resistance in the city. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister said Ukrainian authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously injured soldiers from the steel plant. Iryna Vereshchuk said that Russia did not agree to the evacuation of all wounded fighters from the plant, which number in the hundreds.
— Deputy Speaker of the Russian Parliament Anna Kuznetsova visited Kherson, a region bordering the Black Sea that has been held by Russia since the early days of the war. Russia has installed a pro-Moscow regional administration and the British Ministry of Defense has said Russia may hold a local referendum on Russian membership, with the results likely manipulated to show majority support for the breakup 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