KYIV/BEZRUKY (AP) — Ukrainian forces have launched a counteroffensive near the Russian-controlled city of Izium in eastern Ukraine, a regional governor said Saturday, in what could prove a serious setback to plans to Moscow to capture the entire Donbas region.
Russian forces have focused much of their firepower on Donbas in a “second phase” of their invasion that was announced on April 19, after they failed to reach the capital kyiv from the north in the first few weeks. from the war.
But Ukraine has been taking back territory in the northeast, driving the Russians away from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. Keeping pressure on Izium and Russian supply lines will make it more difficult for Moscow to encircle battle-hardened Ukrainian troops on the eastern front in the Donbas.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the situation in Donbas remained very difficult, adding that Russian forces were still trying to salvage some kind of victory there.
“They are not stopping their efforts,” he said.
The president spoke as Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the US Senate, made an unannounced visit to kyiv with other Republican senators. The Republican delegation discussed further strengthening of sanctions against Russia, Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy also said complex talks were under way to find a way to evacuate a large number of wounded soldiers from a defeated steel mill in the port of Mariupol in exchange 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 fighters are still holding out at the Azovstal steel mill despite weeks of heavy Russian bombardment.
Western military analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals could not have anticipated such fierce Ukrainian resistance when they launched the invasion on February 24.
In addition to losing a large number of men and much military equipment, Russia has been affected by economic sanctions. The Group of Seven major Western economies pledged in a statement on Saturday to “further increase economic and political pressure on Russia” and supply more weapons to Ukraine.
Commenting on the latest developments in eastern Ukraine, regional governor Oleh Sinegubov said in comments broadcast on social media: “The hottest spot remains the direction of Izium.”
“Our armed forces have gone on a counteroffensive there. The enemy is backing down on some fronts and this is a result of the character of our military,” he said.
The invasion of Moscow, which it calls a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists, has shaken European security. kyiv and its Western allies say the assertion of fascism is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression.
The war has led Finland to abandon its military neutrality and seek membership in NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Sweden is expected to do the same.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told Putin by phone that his country, which shares a 1,300 km (800 mile) border with Russia, wanted to join NATO to bolster its own security.
Putin told Niinisto that it would be a mistake for Helsinki to abandon its neutrality, the Kremlin said, adding that the move could damage bilateral relations.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday that his NATO member country could not support expanding the alliance because Finland and Sweden were “home to many terrorist organizations.”
The foreign ministers of Finland and Turkey were due to meet in Berlin later on Saturday to try to resolve their differences over NATO membership.
Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said on Saturday that Turkey has not closed the door on the union of Sweden and Finland, but wants negotiations with both countries and clamps down on what it sees as terrorist activities in Europe.
Kalin said the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a designated terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, was fundraising and recruiting in Europe and that its presence was “strong and open” in Sweden in particular.
“What needs to be done is clear: They have to stop allowing PKK outlets, activities, organizations, people and other types of presence… to exist in those countries,” Kalin said.
G7 MINISTERS SUPPORT MORE AID
One of the goals of Russia’s action in Ukraine was to prevent the former Soviet republic from joining NATO.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who spoke to Putin by phone on Friday, said he did not detect any signs of change in the Russian leader’s thinking on the conflict.
In an interview for news website t-online published on Saturday, Scholz said Western sanctions on Russia would remain in place until it reached an agreement with Ukraine, adding: “Our goal is for this invasion to fail.”
Meeting in Germany, foreign ministers from the G7 group of wealthy nations backed giving Ukraine more aid and weapons.
In their statement, the G7 ministers, from the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada, also pledged to “accelerate our efforts to reduce and end dependence on Russian energy supplies.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Western sanctions amounted to an “all-out hybrid war” against Moscow, but Russia would weather the sanctions by forging deeper partnerships with China, India and others.
As Russian and Ukrainian forces engaged in artillery duels Saturday near their shared border north of Kharkiv, Vera Kosolapenko, 67, wept as she stood in the still-smoldering ruins of her small house, hit by a missile. Russian on Friday.
“I don’t know how I’m going to rebuild this house,” he said as explosions echoed through his tree-lined village of Bezruky.
“I loved this place.”
Ukraine’s Zelenskiy said complex negotiations were underway on the next phase of the mission to evacuate the Azovtal steelworks in Mariupol, with international brokers involved in the talks.
Erdogan’s spokesman said that Turkey had proposed carrying out a sea evacuation of wounded fighters from the plant two weeks ago. The proposal remains “on the table” although Moscow has not agreed to it, he said.
The dire situation in Mariupol received airtime at the popular Eurovision Song Contest in Turin, Italy, on Saturday. The Kalush Orchestra of Ukraine, one of the contestants, took a moment after the band’s song to highlight the city’s plight for millions of viewers around the world.
“Please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal right now,” singer Oleh Psiuk shouted from the stage.
Russia’s Defense Ministry said its forces attacked Ukrainian command posts, ammunition depots and other military equipment in several regions, including Donbas, killing at least 100 Ukrainian “nationalists.”
Reuters was unable to independently verify the report.
(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets, Tom Balmforth, Idrees Ali, David Ljunggren and the offices of Reuters; Writing by Gareth Jones and Timothy Heritage; Editing by William Mallard, David Clarke and Daniel Wallis)