KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops are pulling out of Ukraine’s second-largest city after weeks of heavy shelling, the Ukrainian military said on Saturday, as forces from Kyiv and Moscow fought 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 aerial attacks 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”.
As the country’s top prosecutor tried a Russian soldier for war crimes, the first of a dozen charges that could be indicted, President Volodymyr Zelensky 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 Friday night.
The Russian offensive in Donbass, a mining and industrial region that Moscow-backed separatists have partially controlled since 2014, appears to be turning into a back-and-forth without major breakthroughs on either side.
After failing to capture kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, the Russian army has decided to concentrate on Donbass, but its troops are struggling to gain and hold ground. Prior to the war, Ukraine had its best-trained soldiers in the region to fend off Russian-backed rebels.
Russia captured villages and towns during its invasion. Ukraine’s military chief of Luhansk province in Donbass said on Friday that Russian troops had almost complete control of Rubizhne, a city that had a population of about 55,000 before the war.
Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces had also advanced, retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages over the past day.
Western officials said Ukraine pushed back Russian forces around Kharkiv. The largely Russian-speaking city was a key Russian military objective early in the war, when Moscow still hoped to capture and hold major Ukrainian cities.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukraine “appears to have won the battle for Kharkiv”. It read: “Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from the city.”
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 125 kilometers (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, in another nod from Moscow. fight to save a war gone wrong.
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.
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. He 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 to the nation that the Ukrainians were doing everything they could to drive out the Russians, but “no one 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.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin started 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 announced they want the Nordic nation to apply for NATO membership. Officials in Sweden could follow within days. Potential offers from the Nordic countries to join the Western military alliance came into question when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country was “not of a favorable view” 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 the crumbling southern port of Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters locked in a steel mill have faced continuous Russian attacks on the last stronghold of resistance in the city. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Ukrainian Azov regiment, said his troops will hold out “as long as they can” despite shortages of ammunition, food, water and medicine.
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told the Suspilne newspaper on Saturday that Ukrainian authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously injured soldiers from the steel plant. She said Russia had not agreed to the evacuation of all the wounded fighters from the plant, which number in the hundreds.
An aide to the mayor of Mariupol said between 150,000 and 170,000 civilians remained in the city, which had a population of more than 400,000 before the war. In a Telegram post, Petro Andryushchenko said the residents were “hostages” to the Russian occupation forces, “with almost no chance of escaping to Ukraine”.
In kyiv, Ukrainian soldiers dressed in white protective suits loaded the bodies of Russian soldiers into refrigerated wagons. The bodies were wrapped in white body bags and stacked several layers deep.
Colonel Volodymyr Lyamzin, who oversaw the operation, said several hundred bodies were stored on trains in the capital and several other storage trains elsewhere. He said Ukraine was ready to hand over the bodies to Russia, but so far there was no agreement to do so.
Journalists packed a small courtroom in kyiv on Friday for the trial of a captured Russian soldier accused of killing a Ukrainian civilian early in the war – the first of a dozen war crimes cases which Ukraine’s chief prosecutor said his office was prosecuting.
Shyshimarin could be sentenced to life in prison if convicted of shooting a 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through an open car window in a village in the northeast region of Sumy on February 28 , four days after the start of the invasion.
Shyshimarin, a member of a tank unit that was captured by Ukrainian forces, admitted shooting the civilian in a video released by Ukraine’s Security Service, saying he was ordered to do so.
The trial, which resumes on Wednesday, will be closely monitored by international observers to ensure its fairness.
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said she was preparing war crimes cases against 41 Russian soldiers for offenses including bombing civilian infrastructure, killing civilians, raping and looting.
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.