KYIV, Ukraine (Dispatches) — 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.”
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was “entering a new - long-term - phase of the war.”
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.
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 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 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.
Russia has captured some Donbas villages and towns, including Rubizhne, a city with a prewar population of around 55,000.
Zelensky said Ukraine’s forces have also made progress in the east, retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages in the past day.
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.”
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 same river — the largest in eastern Ukraine — in the town of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said.
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.
The Group of Seven leading economies said Saturday that “Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history, which now threatens those most vulnerable across the globe.”
Putin launched the war in Ukraine aiming to thwart NATO’s expansion in Eastern Europe.
This week, the president and prime minister of Finland said they favored their country seeking NATO membership. Officials in Sweden are expected to announce a decision Sunday on whether to apply to join the Western military alliance.
Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that there are no threats to Finland’s security and joining NATO would be an “error” that would “negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations.”
The Kremlin said the two leaders had a “frank exchange of views” in a phone call on Saturday.
Niinistö said the discussion “was straightforward and unambiguous and was held without exaggeration. Avoiding tensions was considered important.”
Russia’s response to the moves by Finland and Sweden has so far