Ukraine’s Zelenskyy challenges Russia’s withdrawal from Kharkiv

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Fresh from his country’s Eurovision victory, defiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy earlier on Sunday promised to host the music contest in the city of Mariupol, which is almost entirely in Russian hands, one day. in addition to a strong group of a few hundred Ukrainian fighters who continue to resist in a steel factory.

The Kalush Orchestra of Ukraine won the popular contest with their song “Stefania,” which became a popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war, and their victory was a morale booster.

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe,” Zelenskyy said on Facebook. “Next year Ukraine will host Eurovision!”

The band made an impassioned plea during the show to help the fighters still at the Azovstal steelworks in the port city, and Zelenskyy said that “one day” the contest would be held “in a Ukrainian Mariupol”.

The president’s optimistic words come as Russian troops are withdrawing from Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, after bombing it for weeks, and Moscow’s forces remain engaged in an uphill battle for the country’s eastern industrial heartland.

Ukraine’s military said Russian forces are now moving away from the northeastern city to focus on guarding supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and air strikes in eastern Donetsk in an attempt to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications”.

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine is “entering a new – long-term – phase of the war”.

Russian forces control a horseshoe-shaped swath of territory in the Ukrainian areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, which make up the eastern Donbas region, along the border of the industrial region where Ukraine has been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

South of Donbas, the port of Mariupol on the Sea of ​​Azov is now largely under Russian control, save for the few hundred soldiers left in the steel factory.

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 cars carrying civilians out of the city managed to reach the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday, while Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 soldiers seriously injured at the steel mill. .

After failing to capture Kiev following the February 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus eastward to Donbas, with the aim of encircling Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped troops and seizing further territory. under Ukrainian control.

Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move in the east, hampering efforts to get a complete picture of the fighting. But it seems to be a back-and-forth path without major advances on either side.

Russia captured some Donbas villages and towns, including Rubizhne, which had a pre-war population of around 55,000.

Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces had also made progress in the east, retaking six towns or villages in the last day. In his Saturday night speech, he said that “the situation in Donbas remains very difficult” and that Russian troops “are still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious”.

“Step by step,” Zelenskyy said, “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 suffered weeks of heavy bombing. The largely Russian-speaking city with a pre-war population of 1.4 million was a key military objective at the start of 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 city, as they did with Russian forces trying to capture Kiev.”

Regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov said via the messaging app Telegram that there had been no bombing attacks in Kharkiv the day before.

He added that Ukraine had launched a counter-offensive near Izyum, a town 125 kilometers south of Kharkiv that has been under Russian control since at least the beginning of April.

Fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine launched counterattacks but failed to stop 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 around 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers,” he said.

However, Russian forces suffered heavy losses in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a floating bridge they were using to try to cross the same river in the town of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said.

The British Defense Ministry said Russia lost “significant armored maneuver elements” from at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of about 1,000 soldiers.

The ministry said the risky river crossing is a sign of “the pressure Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine”.

Putin justified the war in Ukraine on the grounds that it was a response to NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe.

But the invasion has left other countries along Russia’s flank worried that they might be next, and last week Finland’s president and prime minister said they were in favor of joining NATO. 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.”

Potential offers from Nordic nations were called into question on Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country “does not have a favorable opinion”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to meet with his NATO colleagues, including Turkey’s foreign minister, this weekend in Germany.

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Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odesa, Jill Lawless in London and other AP staff around the world contributed to this report.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war in Ukraine: https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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