Ukraine pushed its counteroffensive against Russian troops on Wednesday, pushing them back from the northeastern city of Kharkiv, which observers said could bring a new phase to the conflict even as officials US intelligence officials warned that Moscow was preparing for a protracted war.
The Ukrainian military said it was able to recover a constellation of settlements north of Kharkiv, pushing Russian troops back to less than a dozen kilometers from the Russian border.
The move, Kharkiv Regional Governor Oleh Sinegubov said, reduces pressure on the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and the main target of Russian invasion since the start of the war.
“The occupiers had even fewer opportunities to fire on the regional center,” Sinegubov said on his channel on the Telegram messaging app on Wednesday.
In his overnight address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hailed the advance of his troops, saying they showed “superhuman strength”. But he warned his compatriots not to “spread excessive emotions” or expect a quick victory.
“There is no need to create such an atmosphere of specific moral pressure, when certain victories are expected every week and even every day,” he said.
Zelensky’s words seemed to fit with the US Defense Intelligence Agency director’s characterization of the conflict as stalemated.
“The Russians aren’t winning, and the Ukrainians aren’t winning, and we’re kind of at an impasse here,” Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday shortly before the House. resoundingly approved $40 billion in additional weapons and other aid for Kyiv.
Despite that assessment, Russia appeared keen on Wednesday to secure its territorial gains in Ukraine, with a Moscow-based administrator in Kherson – the first city to fall to war – calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to annex the area rather than leave it. become a separatist republic aligned with Russia like those declared by the separatists in the eastern region of Donbass in Ukraine.
“The city of Kherson is Russia,” Kirill Stremousov reportedly said in a report by state news agency RIA Novosti. “There will be no People’s Republic of Kherson on the territory of the Kherson region, there will be no referendums. It will be a decree based on an appeal from the Kherson regional leadership to the Russian President, and there will be a request for inclusion of the region in an appropriate region of the Russian Federation.
Later, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that “such a fatal decision must have an absolutely clear legal background, a legal justification [and] be absolutely legitimate, as was the case with the Crimea”.
Russia annexed Crimea, an ethnically Russian-majority Black Sea peninsula and a vital Russian naval base, in 2014. The annexation went unrecognized by the West and sparked eight years of fighting between forces Ukrainian and Kremlin-backed separatists who killed 14,000 people before the February 24 invasion of Russia.
The breakthrough reported by Ukrainian forces near Kharkiv comes as fighting rages in other parts of the country, including around Zmiinyi Island, also known as Snake Island, an outcrop in the Black Sea at about 90 miles south of the coastal city of Odessa. Ukrainian forces struck Russian air defenses and supply ships, according to an intelligence update from the British Ministry of Defense on Wednesday.
The island acquired outsized symbolic importance at the start of the war, when Ukrainian soldiers stationed in a garrison there rebuffed a request from a Russian warship to surrender with a colorful replica.
The UK Ministry of Defense said that if Moscow could shore up its position on the island with reinforced defences, the outcrop could be used to “dominate the northwest of the Black Sea”. But a redoubt there would also “give Ukraine more opportunities to engage Russian troops” and destroy equipment.
In the beleaguered port city of Mariupol, Russian forces continued their attack on Ukrainian defenders housed in the vast Azovstal steelworks.
These defenders made an urgent appeal on Tuesday, posting a series of photos on the Azov Regiment paramilitary group’s Telegram channel, calling on the United Nations and the Red Cross to help rescue hundreds of servicemen who are now living “without medicine or even food “.
“The servicemen you see in the photo and hundreds of others at the Azovstal plant defended Ukraine and the entire civilized world with serious injuries at the cost of their own health,” the statement said. fighters. “Is Ukraine and the global community now unable to protect and care for them?”
Meanwhile, Ukraine announced it would suspend gas shipments through a transit point that handles around a third of the gas delivered from Russia to Europe.
In a statement on Tuesday, Ukraine’s state-owned Naftogaz declared a ‘force majeure’, saying it would stop deliveries through Sokhranivka from Wednesday due to interference from Russian and separatist troops who now control the area. .
Naftogaz said the “occupation authorities” had disrupted communications and interfered with the operation of the pipeline and that it was “no longer able to exercise uninterrupted and effective operational and technological control” over its facilities. The company said it asked Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas company, to transfer the affected volumes to another connection in the Ukrainian-controlled area.
Gazprom refused, with company executives saying they had not received any confirmation regarding the circumstances of the force majeure and that in any case it was technically impossible to change the distribution channel, according to a report of the Russian press operator Tass.
As the war ends its 11th week, United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday there was no “immediate chance of a peace deal” or “immediate chance of a ceasefire.” -local fire”, but that diplomacy is always essential in the conflict. to “save lives and improve the humanitarian situation”.
Guterres also defended his visit to Putin in late April.
“It makes perfect sense to talk to the leader of the Russian Federation; it makes perfect sense to talk to any other actors affected by the current crisis,” he said. “I think the lives that were saved of the civilians who were in the Mariupol bunkers deserve me to meet anyone in any part of the world without any doubt that it is the right thing to do. “
In Lviv, the western city that is a crossroads for those fleeing war and those trying to return to homes they had previously abandoned, the central train station was its usual hubbub of activity on Wednesday. A whole ecosystem of refugees sprung up in and around the famous Art Nouveau station: a World Food Kitchen tent served borscht and a free café slowly filled with new arrivals.
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Those who needed respite after hours or days of travel were directed to rest rooms and a crèche. A few who got off the trains with few clothes on their backs were led to piles of donated supplies: boxes of diapers, bottles of shampoo, stacks of sweatshirts.
The volunteers prepared for the arrival of a train in the afternoon from Pokrovsk, a heavily bombed city in Donetsk province, in the eastern combat zone. “We know these people are going to be in bad shape – hungry, tired and scared,” said volunteer Valentin Andrushko.
After another train arrived from Zaporizhzhia, a southeastern town that has been a staging post for people fleeing Mariupol and surrounding areas, a young volunteer spoke quietly with an elderly woman who was leaning on a cane and sobbing . She composed herself briefly, nodded and wiped her eyes, then collapsed again.
Some travelers were making a reverse journey, returning to homes they left weeks or months ago. Iryna Dragunova, a teacher from Lviv, accompanied her brother and sister-in-law, who were heading east from kyiv, which they fled in the first weeks of the war. Neighbors in the capital told the couple that apart from a few windows that were shattered in a nearby shelling, their flat was intact.
“Even though it still doesn’t seem so safe, and even though I beg them to stay here with me, they just want to go home,” Dragunova said.
Together with her mother, 21-year-old Liz Ivanchenko was heading to the central city of Dnipro. When they fled nearly two months ago, they failed to convince her 83-year-old grandfather to accompany them. But now, alone and suffering, he had agreed to accompany them back to Poland.
“We want him to be safe with us,” Ivanchenko said. “He wasn’t going at first, but now he understands that this war could go on for a very long time.”
King reported from Lviv and Bulos from Amman, Jordan.