Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Russian troops retreated from the area surrounding Ukraine’s second-largest city after weeks of bombing it, Ukraine’s military said on Saturday, as Kyiv and Moscow forces engaged in a bitter battle for the eastern industrial heartland of the country.
Ukraine’s General Staff said Russian forces were withdrawing from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and concentrating on guarding supply routes while in the eastern province of Donetsk they launched mortar, artillery and airstrikes to “decimate Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.” “.
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new – long-term – phase of the war”.
In a show of support, a US Senate delegation led by minority leader Mitch McConnell met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv on Saturday. A video posted to Zelenskyy’s Telegram account showed McConnell representing the state of Kentucky and Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas greeting him.
Her trip comes after fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul blocked until next week Senate approval for an additional $40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies withstand Russia’s three-month-old invasion.
After Russia’s President Vladimir Putin failed to capture Kyiv after the February 24 invasion, he has shifted his focus east to Donbass, an industrial region where Ukraine has been battling Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The offensive aims to encircle Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped troops stationed in the east and capture parts of the Donbass that are still under Ukrainian control.
Airstrikes and artillery fire make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move around the east and hamper efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it seems to be a back and forth with no major breakthroughs on either side.
Russia has captured some villages and towns in Donbass, including Rubizhne, which had a population of about 55,000 before the war.
Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces had also made progress in the east, recapturing six towns or villages in the past day. In his late-night address on Saturday, he said “the situation in Donbass remains very difficult” and Russian troops “are still trying to emerge at least somewhat victorious.”
“Step by step,” said President Zelenskyy, “we are forcing the occupiers to leave the Ukrainian land.”
Kharkiv, which is close to the Russian border and just 80 kilometers southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has been under intense shelling for weeks. The mostly Russian-speaking city, with a pre-war population of 1.4 million, was a key military target early in the war when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.
Ukraine “appears 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 capturing, Kharkiv, and then drove them out of the entire city, just as they did Russian forces attempting to capture Kyiv.”
Regional governor Oleh Sinegubov said via the messaging app Telegram that there had been no shelling attacks on Kharkiv over the past day.
He added that Ukraine has launched a counter-offensive near Izyum, a town 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that has been held by Russia since at least early April.
Fighting has been fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine has launched counterattacks but has not stopped 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.
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 in the town of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said.
Britain’s MoD said Russia lost “significant tank maneuvering elements” from at least one tactical group in the battalion in the attack. A tactical group of the Russian battalion consists of about 1,000 soldiers.
The ministry said the risky river crossing was a sign of “the pressure Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine.”
Zelenskyy has warned of a global food crisis as Russia blocks Ukrainian grain from leaving port.
The group of seven leading economies reiterated this Saturday, saying that “Russia’s war of aggression has unleashed one of the worst food and energy crises in recent history, which now threatens the most vulnerable around the world.”
Putin launched the war in Ukraine with the aim of thwarting NATO expansion in Eastern Europe.
But the invasion has other countries along Russia’s flank fearing they may be next, and this week the President and Prime Minister of Finland said they support 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 phone call on Saturday, Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that there are no threats to Finland’s security and that joining NATO would be a “mistake” and would “negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations”.
The Kremlin said the two leaders had a “frank exchange of views.”
Niinisto said the discussion was “direct and clear and without exaggeration. Avoiding tension was considered important.”
Russia’s response to Finland and Sweden’s moves has been muted so far, although Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said their entry into NATO would exacerbate security tensions in the Arctic and “turn it into an arena of military competition.”
Russian energy group Inter RAO suspended electricity supplies to Finland on Saturday, according to a statement from Finland’s national electricity grid operator. But only about 10% of Finland’s electricity comes from Russia, and the authorities didn’t anticipate shortages.
The Nordic nations’ potential bids have been questioned Friday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was “not a positive opinion”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to meet his NATO counterparts, including Turkey’s foreign minister, in Germany this weekend.
For other developments:
— Ukrainian fighters holed up at a steelworks in Mariupol’s devastated southern port faced sustained attacks on the city’s last stronghold of resistance. Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine Iryna Vereshchuk said the authorities are negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously wounded soldiers, but Russia has not agreed to the evacuation of all the wounded fighters from the steel plant, who number in the hundreds.
– An adviser to Mariupol Mayor Petro Andryushenko said by telegram that a convoy of 500 to 1,000 cars carrying civilians from the city was allowed to enter the Ukrainian-controlled area and headed for Zaporizhia, the first major city beyond the front lines.
— Deputy Speaker of the Russian Parliament Anna Kuznetsova visited Kherson, a Black Sea region held by Russia since the beginning of the war. Russia has installed a pro-Moscow regional administration and the UK MoD said Russia could hold a local referendum on joining Russia, the results of which would likely be rigged to show majority support.
– Zelenskyy signed a law allowing the banning of political parties supporting or defending the Russian invasion, reported the chairman of the legal policy committee of the national parliament.
Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odessa, Jill Lawless in London, and other AP staffers around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine