Russian troops are withdrawing from around Ukraine’s second-largest city after bombarding it for weeks, the Ukrainian military said on 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.”
Defence 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,” Mr. Zelensky said in his nightly video address late on Friday.
After Russian forces failed to capture Kyiv following the February 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.
Getting a full picture of the direction the fighting in the east is taking has been difficult because airstrikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around. But the battle appears to be a back-and-forth slog with no major breakthroughs on either side.
Russia has captured some Donbas villages and towns, including Rubizhne, a city with a prewar population of around 55,000.
Mr. Zelensky said Ukraine’s forces had 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 km 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 the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major Ukrainian cities.
Kyiv’s head of military intelligence told the U.K.’s Sky News on Saturday that the war in Ukraine could reach a “breaking point” by August and end in defeat for Russia before the end of the year.
Major General Kyrylo Budanov, 36, said that he was “optimistic” about the current trajectory of the conflict.
“The breaking point will be in the second part of August,” he said.
“Most of the active combat actions will have finished by the end of this year. As a result, we will renew Ukrainian power in all our territories that we have lost including Donbas and the Crimea,” he said.
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, a 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.
(With AFP inputs)