Russian troops are withdrawing from around Ukraine’s second-largest city after weeks of heavy bombardment, the Ukrainian military said Saturday, as Kyiv and Moscow’s forces engaged in a grinding battle for the country’s eastern industrial heartland.
Ukraine’s general staff said the Russians were pulling back from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and focusing on guarding supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern Donetsk province in order to “deplete 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 support from Europe and other allies.
“No one today can predict how long this war will last,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address late Friday.
After Russian forces failed to capture Kyiv following the Feb. 24 invasion, President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus to the Donbas, an industrial region where Ukrainian troops have battled Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
Russia’s offensive aims to encircle Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped troops, who are based in the country’s east, and to seize parts of the Donbas that remain in Ukraine’s control.
Getting a full picture of the direction the fighting in the east is taking has been difficult because airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around. But the battle appears to be a back-and-forth slog with no major breakthroughs on either side.
Russia has captured some Donbas villages and towns, including Rubizhne, a city with a prewar population of around 55,000.
Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s forces had also made progress, retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages in the past day.
Ukraine also has driven Russian forces back around Kharkiv in the north. The largely Russian-speaking city was a key Russian military objective in the early phase of the war, when Moscow was still hoping to capture and hold major Ukrainian cities, and endured weeks of intense shelling.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukraine “appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv.” It said, “Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from around the city.”
Regional governor Oleh Sinegubov said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that there had been no shelling attacks on Kharkiv in the past day.
He said Ukraine had launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a city 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that has been under effective Russian control since at least the beginning of April.
Fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine has launched counterattacks but failed to halt Russia’s advance, said Oleh Zhdanov, an independent Ukrainian military analyst.
“The fate of a large portion of the Ukrainian army is being decided — there are about 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers,” he said.
However, Russian forces suffered heavy losses 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 sign of Moscow’s struggle to salvage a war gone awry.
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.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia lost “significant armored maneuver elements” of at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of about 1,000 troops. The It said the risky river crossing was a sign of “the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine.”
Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation that Ukrainians were doing everything they could to drive out the Russians, but “no one today can predict how long this war will last.”
“This will depend, unfortunately, not only on our people, who are already giving their maximum,” he said. “This will depend on our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world.”
The Ukrainian leader warned that the war causing a food crisis around the world as a Russian blockade stops Ukrainian grain from leaving port.
The Group of Seven leading economies echoed that warning, saying Saturday that “Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history, which now threatens those most vulnerable across the globe.”
Putin launched the war in Ukraine aiming to thwart NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe. But the invasion of Ukraine has other countries along Russia’s flank worried they could be next.
This week, the president and prime minister of Finland said they favored their country seeking NATO membership. Officials in Sweden are expected to announce a decision Sunday on whether to apply to join the Western military alliance.
The Nordic nations’ potential bids were thrown into question Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country is “not of a favorable opinion” toward the idea.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to meet his NATO counterparts, including the Turkish foreign minister, this weekend in Germany.
Russia’s response to the moves by Finland and Sweden has so far been muted, though Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said Saturday that their accession to NATO would heighten security tensions in the Arctic.
“Knowing how ready NATO is to militarize everything within reach, we do not underestimate the threat of the militarization of the Arctic, turning it into an arena of military competition,” Grushko said at a briefing.
In the ruined southern port of Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters holed up in a steel plant faced continued Russian attacks on the last stronghold of resistance in the city. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, said his troops will hold out “as long as they can” despite shortages of ammunition, food, water and medicine.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, told the country’s Suspilne news outlet Saturday that Ukrainian authorities are negotiating the evacuation of 60 severely wounded troops from the steelworks. She said Russia had not agreed to the evacuation of all wounded fighters at the plant, who number in the hundreds.
An aide to Mariupol’s mayor said between 150,000 and 170,000 civilians remain in the city, which had a prewar population of more than 400,000. In a Telegram post, Petro Andryushchenko said the residents were “hostages” of the occupying Russian forces.
Seizing Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov, would tighten Russia’s control of Ukraine’s coastline. Moscow’s troops have occupied most of Ukraine’s southern Kherson region, bordering the Black Sea, since the early days of the war.
The deputy speaker of the Russian parliament, Anna Kuznetsova, visited the region Saturday and discussed “emergency humanitarian issues” with Kherson’s new Russia-installed regional governor, Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported.
Kherson borders Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in 2014, and a member of the Moscow-installed administration there has suggested that Russia should try to annex Kherson as well.
Britain’s defense ministry said Russia could stage a local referendum, with the results likely manipulated to show majority support for breaking away from Ukraine.