KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian troops are withdrawing from Ukraine’s second-largest city after weeks of heavy bombardment, the Ukrainian military said Saturday as Kyiv and Moscow’s forces engaged in a grinding battle for the country’s east.
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 region to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.”
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said the country was “entering a new — long-term — phase of the war.”
As the country’s top prosecutor put a Russian soldier on trial for war crimes, the first of dozens that could face charges, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky 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.
“No one today can predict how long this war will last,” Zelensky said in his nightly video address late Friday.
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.
Zelensky said Ukraine’s forces made progress, retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages in the past day. Western officials said Ukraine had driven Russian forces back around Kharkiv, which was a key target for Moscow’s troops.
“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.”
“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.
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.
“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.
Ukraine’s airborne command released photos and video of what it said was a damaged Russian pontoon bridge over the Siversky Donets River and at least 73 destroyed or damaged Russian military vehicles nearby.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said Russia lost “significant armored maneuver elements” of at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of about 1,000 troops. It said the risky river crossing was a sign of “the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine.”
In other developments, a move by Finland and, potentially, Sweden to join NATO was thrown into question when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country is “not of a favorable opinion” toward the idea. He accused Sweden and other Scandinavian countries of supporting Kurdish militants and others Turkey considers terrorists.
Russian President Vladimir Putin undertook the war aiming to thwart NATO’s eastward advance. The invasion of Ukraine has other countries along Russia’s flank worried they could be next.
Zelensky said in his nightly video address to the nation that Ukrainians were doing everything they could to drive out the Russians, but “no one today can predict how long this war will last.”
“This will depend, unfortunately, not only on our people, who are already giving their maximum,” he said. “This will depend on our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world.”
With Ukraine pleading for more arms to fend off the better-equipped Russians, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief announced plans to give Kyiv an additional 500 million euros ($520 million) to buy heavy weapons.
Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, welcomed the heavy weapons making their way to the front lines but also said no quick end to the war was in sight.
“Extremely difficult weeks await us. How many there will be? No one can say for sure,” he wrote in a Facebook post.
In the ruined southern port of Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters holed up in a steel plant faced continued Russian attacks on the last stronghold of resistance in the city. Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of Ukraine’s Azov Regiment, said his troops will hold out “as long as they can” despite shortages of ammunition, food, water and medicine.
And in Kyiv, Ukrainian soldiers dressed in white protective suits loaded bodies of Russian soldiers onto refrigerated train cars. The bodies were wrapped in white body bags and stacked several layers deep.
Col. Volodymyr Lyamzin, who supervised the operation, said several hundred bodies were being stored on the trains in the capital and in several other storage trains elsewhere. He said Ukraine was ready to hand the bodies over to Russia, but so far there was no agreement to do so.
Journalists packed a small courtroom in Kyiv on Friday for the trial of a captured Russian soldier accused of killing a Ukrainian civilian in the early days of the war — the first of dozens of war crimes cases that Ukraine’s top prosecutor said her office is pursuing.
Shyshimarin could get life in prison if convicted of shooting a 62-year-old Ukrainian man in the head through an open car window in a village in the northeastern Sumy region on February 28, four days into the invasion.
Shyshimarin, a member of a tank unit that was captured by Ukrainian forces, admitted that he shot the civilian in a video posted by the Security Service of Ukraine, saying he was ordered to do so. The trial, which resumes Wednesday, will be closely watched by international observers to ensure its fairness.
Ukrainian Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said she is readying war crimes cases against 41 Russian soldiers for offenses including bombing civilian infrastructure, killing civilians, rape and looting.