Ukraine says Russia has withdrawn from Kharkiv, but continues offensive in the east

Russian troops were withdrawing from around Ukraine's second-largest city after bombarding it for weeks, the Ukrainian military said Saturday, as Kyiv and Moscow's forces engaged in a grinding battle for the country's eastern industrial heartland.

'Complex' talks underway to evacuate wounded, medics from Mariupol steel mill

Members of the Ukrainian National Guard patrol during a reconnaissance mission in a recently retaken village on the outskirts of Kharkiv on Saturday. (Bernat Armangue/The Associated Press)

Latest political developments

  • U.S. Senate delegation meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv.

  • Putin warns Finnish president not to join NATO.

  • Group of Seven foreign ministers vow to continue economic pressure on Russia.
  • G7 asks China to support Ukraine's sovereignty and "not to assist Russia in its war of aggression."

Updates from the ground on Day 80 of the war

  • No shelling attacks on Kharkiv for the past day, the area's regional governor says.

  • Ukraine forces have retaken six towns or villages in the past day, Zelensky says.

  • Russian offensive in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region has created village-by-village battles.
  • Zelensky says Ukraine is in "complex talks" on evacuating wounded fighters from Mariupol steel mill.​​​

Russian troops were withdrawing from around Ukraine's second-largest city after bombarding it for weeks, the Ukrainian military said Saturday, as Kyiv and Moscow's forces engaged in a grinding battle for the country's eastern industrial heartland.

Ukraine's military 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."

WATCH | Ukraine claims victory in battle for its second-largest city:

Ukrainian officials claim victory in Kharkiv

3 days ago
Duration 2:07
The Ukrainian military says the Russian forces are now withdrawing from the country's second largest city and focusing on the eastern Donetsk region.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine's forces have also made progress in the east, retaking six towns or villages in the past day. In his nightly address Saturday, he said "the situation in Donbas remains very difficult" and Russian troops were "still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious."

"Step by step, we are forcing the occupants to leave the Ukrainian land," he said. 

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.

"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.

Ukraine "appears to have won the battle of Kharkiv," the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said. "Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from around the city, as they did to Russian forces attempting to seize Kyiv." 

Regional Gov. Oleh Sinegubov said via the Telegram messaging app that there had been no shelling attacks on Kharkiv in the past day.  He added that Ukraine launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a city 125 kilometres south of Kharkiv that has been held by Russia since at least the beginning of April. 

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.

People gather on Friday after a Russian bombing hit the House of Culture in Derhachi, which was used to distribute aid, just northwest of Kharkiv, Ukraine. (Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

"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.

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."

Meanwhile, a U.S. Senate delegation led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell met with Zelensky on Saturday in Kyiv. A video posted on Zelensky's Telegram account showed McConnell, who represents the state of Kentucky, and fellow Republican senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas greeting him.

Their trip came after Kentucky's other senator, Rand Paul, blocked until next week Senate approval of an additional $40 billion US to help Ukraine and its allies withstand Russia's three-month-old invasion. In a statement after leaving Ukraine, McConnell said the United States "stands squarely behind Ukraine and will sustain our support until Ukraine wins this war."

New tensions over Finland's push to join NATO

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the war in Ukraine aiming to thwart NATO's expansion in Eastern Europe. But the invasion has other countries along Russia's flank worried they could be next, and this week the president and prime minister of Finland said they favour seeking NATO membership. Officials in Sweden are expected to announce a decision Sunday on whether to apply to join the Western military alliance. 

In a phone call Saturday, Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that there are no threats to Finland's security and joining NATO would be an "error" and "negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations." 

Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko also said Saturday that countries' accession to NATO would heighten security tensions in the Arctic, "turning it into an arena of military competition." 

'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.

WATCH | Finland to submit application to join NATO: 

Finland to submit application to join NATO

5 days ago
Duration 2:06
Finland's leaders have signaled plans to apply to join the NATO alliance as a result of the war in Ukraine. It's a move that would upend almost 80 years of non-alignment.

Fierce Ukrainian resistance, which military analysts say 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 underway on the next phase of the evacuation mission, the removal of the badly wounded, medics," 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.

An adviser to Mariupol Mayor Petro Andryushenko said via Telegram that a convoy of between 500 and 1,000 cars carrying civilians from the city has been allowed to enter Ukraine-controlled territory. 

NATO member Turkey has proposed carrying out a sea evacuation of the wounded fighters holed up in Mariupol's steel mill, President Tayyip Erdogan's spokesperson said on Saturday.

Ibrahim Kalin told Reuters in an interview that he had personally discussed the proposal with the Ukrainian president in Kyiv two weeks ago and that it remains "on the table," although Moscow has not agreed to it.