Ukrainian Zelenskyy defiant as Russia withdraws from Kharkiv

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) – Fresh off his country’s Eurovision victory, a defiant Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy vowed early Sunday to one day host the song contest in the embattled city of Mariupol, which is almost entirely Russian-owned apart from of a strong group of a few hundred Ukrainian fighters who continue to hold out in a steel factory.

The Ukrainian Kalush Orchestra won the popular competition with its song ‘Stefania’, which became a popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war, and the victory was a morale booster.

“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe,” Zelenskyy said on Facebook. “Next year Ukraine will host Eurovision!”

The band made a passionate plea during the show to help the fighters who are still at the Azovstal steel mill in the port city, and Zelenskyy said the competition would be held “one day” “in a Ukrainian Mariupol”.

The president’s optimistic words come as Russian troops pull out of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, after bombing it for weeks, and Moscow’s forces continue to be engaged in a long-running battle for eastern industrial heart of the country.

The Ukrainian army said Russian forces are now withdrawing from the northeastern city to focus on guarding supply routes while launching mortars, artillery and air strikes in the eastern region of Donetsk in an attempt to “exhaust Ukrainian forces.” and fortifications to be destroyed”.

Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine is “entering a new – long-term – phase of the war”.

Russian forces control a horseshoe-shaped area in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk territories, which are part of the eastern Donbas region, along the border of the industrial region where Ukraine has been fighting Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.

In the southern Donbas, the Azov Seaport of Mariupol is now largely under Russian control, with the exception of the few hundred men remaining in the steel plant.

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 cars carrying civilians out of the city was reportedly able to reach the Ukrainian-occupied city of Zaporizhzhya on Saturday, while Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 seriously injured troops at the steel factory. †

After failing to take Kiev after the February 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shifted his focus eastward to the Donbas, aiming to encircle Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped troops and capture territory still under Ukraine state.

Air strikes and artillery fire make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move east, hampering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it seems like a back and forth with no major breakthroughs on either side.

Russia has taken some Donbas villages and towns, including Rubizhne, which had a pre-war population of about 55,000.

Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces have also made progress in the east by retaking six towns or villages in the past day. In his late-night speech on Saturday, he said that “the situation in Donbas remains very difficult” and that Russian troops are “still trying to at least be somewhat victorious”.

“Step by step,” Zelenskyy said, “we are forcing the residents to leave the Ukrainian country.”

Kharkiv, near the Russian border and just 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has been subject to heavy shelling for weeks. The largely Russian-speaking city with a pre-war population of 1.4 million was a major military target earlier in the war, as Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.

Ukraine “seems to have won the battle of Kharkov,” said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank. “Ukrainian troops prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone taking Kharkiv, and then expelled them from all over the city, as they did with Russian troops attempting to take Kiev.”

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

He added that Ukraine launched a counter-offensive near Izyum, a city 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkov that has been in Russia’s hands since at least early April.

Fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine has counterattacked 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 troops suffered heavy casualties in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they used to cross the same river in the city of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said.

The British Ministry of Defense said Russia lost “significant armored maneuver elements” from at least one tactical battalion group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of about 1,000 troops.

The ministry said the risky river crossing was a sign of “pressure from Russian commanders to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine.”

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

But with the invasion, other countries along Russia’s flank fear they may be next, and last week Finland’s president and prime minister said they prefer to seek NATO membership. Officials in Sweden are expected to announce a decision on Sunday on whether or not 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 “adversely affect Russian-Finnish relations”.

The Scandinavian countries’ potential bids were called into question on Friday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country has “no favorable opinion”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to meet his NATO colleagues in Germany this weekend, including the Turkish Foreign Minister.

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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