Latest political developments
Updates from the ground on Day 80 of the war
- Zelensky says Ukraine is in “complex talks” on evacuating wounded fighters from Mariupol steel mill.
Russian troops are withdrawing from 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 east.
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 region in order to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.”
Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new, long-term phase of the war.”
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,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address late Friday.
Russia’s offensive in the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, appeared to be turning into a village-by-village, back-and-forth slog with no major breakthroughs on either side. After failing to capture Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, the Russian military decided to concentrate on the Donbas, but its troops have struggled to gain ground.
Zelensky said Ukraine’s forces made progress, retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages in the past day. Western officials said Ukraine had driven Russian forces back around Kharkiv, which was a key target for Moscow’s troops.
“The Russians really haven’t made much in the way of tactical gains recently,” one Western official said, describing the war’s front line as “oscillating.”
‘Long attritional battle’ expected
“The Ukrainians continue to launch counterattacks, particularly around Kherson and Kharkiv. We expect this to settle into a long attritional battle,” the official said on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence.
The Ukrainian military chief for the Luhansk region of the Donbas said Friday that troops had nearly full control of Rubizhne, a city with a prewar population of around 55,000.
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 river in 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 Defence Ministry said Russia lost “significant armoured manoeuvre elements” of at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of about 1,000 troops. 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.”
Russia facing continued economic pressure
In other developments, foreign ministers from the G7 group of nations vowed on Saturday to reinforce Russia’s economic and political isolation, continue supplying weapons and work to ease global food shortages stemming from the war in Ukraine, a joint statement said.
Foreign ministers from Britain, Canada, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, the United States and the European Union pledged to continue their military and defence assistance for “as long as necessary.”
In a statement after their meeting in Weissenhaus, Germany, the ministers also warned the war in Ukraine is stoking a global food and energy crisis that threatens poor countries, and urgent measures are needed to unblock stores of grain that Russia is preventing from leaving Ukraine.
The G7 asked China to support the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, and “not to assist Russia in its war of aggression.”
‘Complex talks’ on evacuating wounded fighters
Ukraine’s president said in a late-night address on Friday that very difficult talks were underway on evacuating “a large number” of wounded soldiers from a besieged steelworks in the strategic southeastern port of Mariupol in return for the release of Russian prisoners of war.
Mariupol, which has seen the heaviest fighting in nearly three months of war, is now in Russian hands but hundreds of Ukrainian defenders are still holding out at the Azovstal steelworks despite weeks of heavy Russian bombardment.
Fierce Ukrainian resistance, which military analysts say President Vladimir Putin and his generals failed to anticipate when they launched the invasion on Feb. 24, has also slowed and in some places reversed Russian advances around Ukraine.
“At the moment very complex negotiations are under way on the next phase of the evacuation mission, “the removal of the badly wounded, medics,” President Zelensky said.
He said “influential” international intermediaries were involved in the talks, without elaborating. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk told local TV on Saturday that efforts were now focused on evacuating about 60 people, comprising the most seriously wounded as well as medical personnel.