As fighting continued in Ukraine on Saturday, with kyiv making progress on an offensive in the northeast and Russia mounting a push amid fierce defenses in villages in the eastern Donbas region, senior Ukrainian officials predicted a “new long-term phase”. “of struggle to last much of the summer.
Now in its 80th day, the war reached new critical points with the opening of the first war crimes trial of a Russian soldier in kyiv and a Russian allegation that Ukrainian bombing killed a civilian in a Russian town near the Ukrainian border.
“We are entering a new phase of the long-term war,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov posted on Facebook. While he welcomed a growing supply of Western weapons flowing into his nation, he said he expected “extremely difficult weeks” ahead, adding: “How many will there be? No one can say for sure.”
In an interview on Sky News on Saturday, Ukrainian military intelligence leader Kyrylo Budanov said he expected the battles to last all summer and predicted, perhaps prematurely, a Ukrainian victory.
“The breaking point will be in the second half of August. Most active combat action will be over by the end of this year,” he said.
The comments came as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced he had met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on an unannounced visit by the Republican leader to kyiv, the latest in a series of high-profile US officials. including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco)have gone to the Ukrainian capital.
The meeting was “a strong signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine from the United States Congress and the American people,” Zelensky said on Instagram.
Photos and video also showed Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), John Barrasso (R-Wy.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas) joining the delegation to kyiv.
“Thank you for your leadership in helping us in our fight not only for our country, but also for democratic values and freedoms,” Zelensky said.
It was not clear what day the delegation met with Zelensky.
Western analysts and intelligence groups said Ukraine’s escalating response to Russian attacks was showing signs of success in Kharkivthe northeastern city that had been under almost constant bombardment since February; and in Donbas, Ukraine’s industrial heartland where Moscow has fomented unrest through its support for pro-Russian separatists.
In its daily intelligence update, the British Defense Ministry said Moscow’s attempts to hold a pro-Russia referendum in Kherson, a southeastern district that was the first to fall, “highlights the failure of Russia’s invasion to advance Russia.” towards their political goals in Ukraine.”
“It is highly likely that a central part of Russia’s original invasion plan will use rigged referendums to place most regions of Ukraine under long-term pro-Russian authority,” the ministry said. “The fact that Russia has only succeeded in imposing a local pro-Russian leadership in Kherson highlights the failure of Russia’s invasion to advance its political goals in Ukraine.”
Russian state media reported on Saturday that a senior Russian lawmaker, Anna Kuznetsova, recently visited Kherson, where she promised to “provide all kinds of assistance” to the locals. It is not clear when Kuznetsova was in the region. The area has also seen anti-Russia protests in recent weeks.
In another analysis published on Friday, the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, said Ukraine “probably won the Battle of Kharkiv.
“Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone taking Kharkiv, and then expelled them from the outskirts of the city, as they did with Russian forces trying to seize kyiv” several weeks ago, the institute said.
Despite Ukraine’s gains, fighting has continued across the country, including in the southern city of Mariupol, Zelensky said in a late-night speech. Hundreds of Ukrainian civilians have been evacuated from the bunkers and tunnels of a sprawling steel plant complex, Azovstal, which is kyiv’s last holdout in the shattered southern port city on the Sea of Azov.
“We do not stop trying to save all our people from Mariupol and Azovstal. Very difficult negotiations are currently taking place on the next stage of the evacuation mission,” Zelensky said. The president said that “a large” number of people remained trapped in the complex, although he did not give a figure.
Zelensky’s speech came amid new diplomatic responses in Europe to the war Russia launched on February 24.
On Saturday, the foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland were scheduled to meet with representatives of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Germany after the leaders of both nations expressed strong interest in joining the defense alliance.
Finland said on Thursday it would apply for membership, a move the United States and several NATO member states have welcomed.
On Saturday, the Finnish power company Fingerrid said that Russia had cut off electricity supplies to the nation. A company representative said Finland “can cope” and that the power grid would not be interrupted.
Also on Saturday, a statement released by Finnish President Sauli Niinisto’s office said he spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin, telling him that the invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally changed “Finland’s security environment” and that his country will seek membership in NATO “in the next few days.”
Sweden is expected to follow up with its own NATO announcement. At least one member state, Turkey, has expressed doubt about the movements.
Speaking to Russian state media, Moscow’s Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said on Saturday that he saw no “real” reason for the Scandinavian nations to join the alliance. He said Russia would respond to his admission “by taking appropriate precautionary measures.” Finland’s border with Russia is over 800 miles long.
The United Nations estimated this week that more than 14 million people have been displaced by the war in Ukraine. The number represents about a third of the country’s population. The UN also reported more than 3,500 civilian deaths, although it said the true figure is likely to be much higher.
McDonnell reported from Lviv, Ukraine, and Kaleem from London.