Kyiv, Ukraine (AP) – Russian troops are withdrawing 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 the Russians 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”.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said 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.
“Nobody can predict today how long this war will last,” Zelenskyy said late Friday in his late-night video address.
In a show of support, a US Senate delegation led by Republican leader Mitch McConnell met with the Ukrainian president 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 Russian forces failed to capture Kyiv after the February 24 invasion, President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus east to Donbass, an industrial region where Ukrainian troops have been battling Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
Russia’s offensive is aimed at encircling Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped troops stationed in the east and seizing parts of the Donbass that are still under Ukrainian control.
Airstrikes and artillery fire make it extremely dangerous for reporters to move east and hamper efforts to get a full picture of the direction the fighting is taking. But the fight appears to be a back and forth with no major breakthroughs on either side.
Russia has captured some villages and towns in the Donbas, including Rubishne, a town of around 55,000 before the war.
Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces had also made progress in the east, recapturing six Ukrainian towns or villages over the past day.
Kharkiv, not far from the Russian border and only 80 kilometers south-west of the Russian city of Belgorod, was heavily shelled for weeks. The mostly Russian-speaking city, with a pre-war population of 1.4 million, was a key Russian military target early in the war when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major Ukrainian 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 in a post on 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 – the largest in eastern Ukraine – in the town of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said. It was another sign of Moscow’s struggle to salvage a war gone awry.
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 said in his nightly video address that Ukrainians would do everything to drive out the Russians and urged the West to increase its support.
“Unfortunately, that will not only depend on our people, who are already giving their maximum,” he said. “That will depend on our partners, on the European countries, on the whole free world.”
The Ukrainian leader warned that the war is causing a global food crisis as a Russian blockade prevents Ukrainian grain from leaving the port.
The group of seven leading economies reiterated that warning, saying Saturday that “Russia’s war of aggression has unleashed one of the worst food and energy crises in recent history, which is now threatening the world’s most vulnerable.”
Putin launched the war in Ukraine with the aim of thwarting NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. But the invasion of Ukraine has other countries on Russia’s flank fearing they may be next.
This week the President and Prime Minister of Finland said they are in favor of their country seeking NATO membership. Officials in Sweden 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 are no threats to Finland’s security and that joining NATO would be a “mistake” that 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 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 on Saturday that their entry into NATO would exacerbate security tensions in the Arctic and “turn it into an arena of military competition”.
The Nordic nations’ potential bids have been questioned Friday, when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was “not positive” about the idea.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will meet his NATO counterparts, including Turkey’s foreign minister, in Germany this weekend.
For other developments:
– Ukrainian fighters holed up at a steelworks in the devastated southern port of Mariupol faced continued Russian attacks on the last resistance stronghold in the city. Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine said Ukrainian authorities are negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously wounded soldiers from the steel plant. Iryna Vereshchuk said Russia has not agreed to the evacuation of all the wounded fighters from the plant, who number in the hundreds.
— Deputy Speaker of the Russian Parliament Anna Kuznetsova visited Kherson, a region on the Black Sea border that has been 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, with the results likely to be rigged to show majority support for secession from Ukraine.
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