Ukraine’s Zelenskyy defiant as Russia withdraws from Kharkiv

kyiv, Ukraine (AP) — Fresh off his country’s Eurovision victory, defiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed Sunday morning to host the song contest in the beleaguered city of Mariupol, which is almost entirely in Russian hands, apart from a stalwart 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 has become a popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war, and their victory was a morale boost.

“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 fighters still at the Azovstal steel plant in the port city, with Zelenskyy saying that “one day” the contest would be held “in a Ukrainian Mariupol.”

The president’s upbeat words come as Russian troops withdraw from Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, after weeks of shelling it, and Moscow’s forces remain locked in an uphill battle for the country’s eastern industrial heartland.

Ukraine’s military said Russian forces are now withdrawing from the northeastern city to focus on protecting supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and airstrikes into the eastern Donetsk region in an attempt to “exhaust Ukrainian forces and destroy the fortifications.

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new phase of the long-term 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 battled Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

In southern Donbas, the Azov seaport of Mariupol is now largely under Russian control, except 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 was reportedly able to reach the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday, while Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously wounded soldiers from the steel mill. .

After failing to capture kyiv following the February 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus east to the Donbas, with the aim of encircling Ukraine’s most experienced and well-equipped troops and seizing the territory. which is still under the control of Ukraine.

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. In his late-night speech on Saturday, he said that “the situation in Donbas is still very difficult” and that Russian troops “still trying to emerge 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 (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 military target early in 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 taking Kharkiv, and then pushed them out from around 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 in Russian hands 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.”

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

But the invasion has other countries along Russia’s flank worried they may be next, and last 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.”

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 was scheduled to meet with his NATO counterparts, 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 Odessa, Jill Lawless in London, and other AP employees 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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