Russian troops are withdrawing from Ukraine’s second-largest city after shelling it for weeks, the Ukrainian military said as forces from kyiv and Moscow fought a fierce battle for the industrial heartland of the country. east of the country.
The Ukrainian General Staff said the Russians were withdrawing from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and concentrating on protecting supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and air 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 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,” Mr. Zelensky said in his nightly video address Friday.
In a show of support, a US Senate delegation led by Republican leader Mitch McConnell met with the Ukrainian president in Kyiv.
A video posted to Mr. Zelensky’s Telegram account showed Mr. McConnell, who represents the state of Kentucky, and Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas saluting him.
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.
Russia captured some villages and towns in Donbass, including Rubizhne, a town that had a population of around 55,000 before the war.
Mr Zelensky said Ukrainian forces had also advanced to the east, retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages over the past day.
Kharkiv, which is not far from the Russian border and just 80 km 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.
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 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.
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”.
Mr Zelensky said in his nightly video address to the nation that the Ukrainians were doing everything they could to drive out the Russians, but “nobody 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”.
Russian President Vladimir 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.
Mr Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that there was 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.
Mr. Niinisto said the discussion “was direct and unambiguous and took place 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 of military competition”.
Russian energy group Inter RAO also suspended its electricity deliveries to Finland on Saturday, according to a statement from the Finnish national electricity grid operator. But only around 10% of Finnish electricity is supplied by Russia, and the Finnish authorities did not expect any power shortages.
Potential offers from the Nordic nations were thrown into question on Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was “not in favour” 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.