KYIV, Ukraine –

Russian troops are withdrawing from the outskirts of Ukraine’s second-largest city after shelling it for weeks, the Ukrainian military said on Saturday, as forces from kyiv and Moscow clashed in a tough battle for the industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine. country.

Ukraine’s general staff said Russian forces were withdrawing from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and concentrating on protecting supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern province of Donetsk to “exhaust Ukrainian forces and destroy the fortifications.

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new phase of long-term warfare.”

Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that the Ukrainians were doing their “maximum” to expel the invaders and that the outcome of the war would depend on the support of Europe and other allies.

“No one can predict today how long this war will last,” Zelenskyy said in his late-night video address Friday night.

In a show of support, a US Senate delegation led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell met with the Ukrainian president in kyiv on Saturday. A video posted on Zelenskyy’s Telegram account showed McConnell, who represents the state of Kentucky, and Republican Senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas greeting him.

His trip came after Kentucky’s other senator, Rand Paul, blocked Senate approval of an additional $40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies resist a three-month Russian invasion until next week.

After failing to capture kyiv following the February 24 invasion, President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus east to Donbas, an industrial region where Ukraine has battled Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

Russia’s offensive is aimed at encircling Ukraine’s most experienced and well-equipped troops, who are deployed in the east, and seizing parts of Donbas that remain under Ukraine’s control.

Airstrikes and artillery shelling make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move around the east, hampering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it appears to be a back-and-forth slog with no breakthroughs on either side.

Russia has captured some towns and cities in Donbas, including Rubizhne, which before the war had a population of around 55,000.

Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces have also made gains in the east, retaking six towns or villages in the last day.

Kharkiv, which is close to the Russian border and just 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has suffered weeks of heavy bombardment. The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million was a key Russian military target early in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.

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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 taking Kharkiv, and then pushed them out of the outskirts of the city, as they did with Russian forces trying to take kyiv.”

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

He added that Ukraine has launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a city 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that has been controlled by Russia since at least early April.

Fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine launched counter-attacks 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 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 same river in the town of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said.

Britain’s 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 was a sign of “the pressure Russian commanders are under to advance their operations in eastern Ukraine.”

In his video address, Zelenskyy warned that the war was causing a worldwide food crisis as Russia blocks Ukrainian grain from leaving the port.

The Group of Seven leading economies echoed that, saying on Saturday that “Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the most serious food and energy crises in recent history, now threatening the most vulnerable around the world. world”.

Putin launched the war in Ukraine with the aim of thwarting NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe.

But the invasion has other countries along Russia’s flank worried they may be next, and this week Finland’s president and prime minister said they favor seeking NATO membership. 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.”

The Kremlin said the two leaders had a “frank exchange of views.”

Niinisto said the discussion “was direct and unequivocal and carried out without exaggeration. It was considered important to avoid tensions.”

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Russia’s response to the Finnish and Swedish moves has so far been muted, although Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said on Saturday that joining NATO would increase security tensions in the Arctic, “turning it into a of military competition.

Russian energy group Inter RAO suspended electricity deliveries to Finland on Saturday, according to a statement from Finland’s national power grid operator. But only about 10% of Finland’s electricity comes from Russia, and authorities were not expecting a shortage.

Possible offers from the Nordic nations came 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 is scheduled to meet with his NATO counterparts, including Turkey’s foreign minister, this weekend in Germany.


In other developments:

— Ukrainian fighters holed up in a steel plant in the dilapidated southern port of Mariupol faced continued attacks against the last bastion of resistance in the city. Ukraine’s Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously wounded soldiers, but Russia had not agreed to the evacuation of all the fighters wounded at the steelworks, numbering in the hundreds.

— An aide to Mariupol Mayor Petro Andryushenko said via Telegram that a convoy of 500 to 1,000 cars carrying civilians from the city was allowed to enter Ukrainian-controlled territory and was headed to Zaporizhzhia, the first major city beyond the front lines.

— Russian parliament deputy speaker Anna Kuznetsova visited Kherson, a region bordering the Black Sea that has been in Russian hands since the beginning of the war. Russia installed a pro-Moscow regional administration, and Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia could organize a local referendum to join Russia with results likely manipulated to show majority support.

— Zelenskyy signed into law a measure allowing political parties that support or defend the invasion of Russia to be banned, the head of the legal policy committee of the national parliament said on Saturday.

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

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