Ukraine: Russians withdraw from around Kharkiv, batter east

Ukraine: Russians withdraw from around Kharkiv, batter east (from @AP).

Ukraine, Russians, batter

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops are 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 general staff 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 province in order to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.”

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

In a show of support, a U.S. Senate delegation led by Republican leader Mitch McConnell met with the Ukrainian president Saturday in Kyiv. A video posted on Zelenskyy’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 the Senate’s approval of an additional $40 billion to help Ukraine and its allies withstand Russia’s three-month old invasion.

After Russian forces failed to capture Kyiv following the Feb. 24 invasion, President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus eastward to the Donbas, an industrial region where Ukrainian troops have battled Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

Russia’s offensive aims to encircle Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped troops, who are based in the east, and to seize parts of the Donbas that remain in Ukraine’s control.

Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around in the east, hindering efforts to get a full picture of the direction the fighting is taking. But the battle appears to be a back-and-forth slog with no major breakthroughs on either side.

Kharkiv, which is not far from the Russian border and only 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has undergone weeks of intense shelling. The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million was a key Russian military objective earlier in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major Ukrainian cities.

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.”

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