Ukraine pressed its counteroffensive against Russian troops Wednesday, pushing them back from the northeastern city of Kharkiv in what observers say could bring a new phase to the conflict even as US intelligence officials warned that Moscow was preparing for a protracted war.
The Ukrainian military said it was able to claw back a constellation of settlements north of Kharkiv, driving back Russian troops to less than a dozen miles from the Russian border.
The move, said Kharkiv regional Gov. Oleh Sinegubov, reduces pressure on Kharkiv city, Ukraine’s second-largest and a primary target of the Russian invasion since the beginning of the war.
“The occupiers had even less opportunity to fire on the regional center,” Sinegubov said on his channel on the Telegram messaging app Wednesday.
In his nightly address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky lauded his troops’ advance, saying that they demonstrated “superhuman strength.” But he cautioned his compatriots not to “spread excessive emotions” or expect a quick victory.
“It is not necessary to create such an atmosphere of specific moral pressure, when certain victories are expected weekly and even daily,” he said.
Zelensky’s words appeared to dovetail with the US Defense Intelligence Agency director’s characterization of the conflict as deadlocked.
“The Russians aren’t winning, and the Ukrainians aren’t winning, and we’re at a bit of a stalemate 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 seemed eager Wednesday to secure its territorial gains in Ukraine, with a Moscow-installed administrator in Kherson — the first city to fall in the war — calling on Russian President Vladimir Putin to annex the area rather than leave it to become a Russia-aligned breakaway republic like those declared by separatists in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region.
“The city of Kherson is Russia,” Kirill Stremousov was quoted as saying in a report by the state RIA Novosti news agency. “There will be no Kherson People’s Republic 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 to include the region into a proper region of the Russian Federation.”
Later, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that “such a fateful decision must have an absolutely clear legal background, a legal justification [and] be absolutely legitimate, as was the case with Crimea.”
Russia annexed Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea with an ethnic-Russian majority and a vital Russian naval base, in 2014. The annexation has not been recognized by the West and sparked eight years of fighting between Ukrainian forces and Kremlin-backed separatists that killed 14,000 people before Russia invaded Feb. 24.
Ukrainian forces’ reported breakthrough near Kharkiv comes as fighting rages in other parts of the country. About 85 miles south of Kharkiv, Russian forces fired on the city of Lozova, injuring a civilian, mayor Sergey Zelensky said in a Facebook post. About 60 miles east of Lozova, Russians fired missiles at two areas of the city of Sloviansk, the main target of Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, according to mayor Vadym Liakh. There were no casualties.
Around Zmiinyi Island, also known as Snake Island, an outcrop in the Black Sea roughly 90 miles south of the coastal city of OdesaUkrainian forces struck Russian air defenses and resupply vessels, according to a British Defense Ministry intelligence update Wednesday.
The island gained outsize symbolic importance early in the war, when Ukrainian soldiers stationed in a garrison there rebuffed a Russian warship’s demand to surrender with a colorful rejoinder.
The British Defense Ministry said that if Moscow can consolidate its position on the island with enhanced defences, the outcrop could be used to “dominate the northwestern Black Sea.” But a redoubt there would also “offer Ukraine more opportunities to engage Russian troops” and destroy materiel.
In the beleaguered port city of Mariupol, Russian forces continued their attack on Ukrainian defenders bunkered in the sprawling Azovstal steelworks plant.
Those defenders issued an urgent plea Tuesday, publishing a series of photos on the Telegram channel of the Azov Regiment paramilitary group, calling on the United Nations and the Red Cross to help rescue hundreds of servicemen now living “without necessary medication and even food.”
“The servicemen you see in the photo and hundreds more at the Azovstal plant defended Ukraine and the entire civilized world with serious injuries at the cost of their own health,” the fighters’ statement said. “Are Ukraine and the world community now unable to protect and take care of them?”
Meanwhile, Ukraine announced that it would suspend gas shipments through a transit point that handles about one-third of the gas delivered from Russia to Europe.
In a statement Tuesday, Ukraine’s state-owned Naftogaz company declared “force majeure,” saying it would stop deliveries through Sokhranivka as of Wednesday because of interference by Russian and separatist troops now in control of the area.
Naftogaz said that “occupying authorities” had disrupted communications and interfered in the operation of the pipeline and that it was “no longer able to carry out uninterrupted and effective operational and technological control” over its facilities. The company said it asked Gazprom, Russia’s state-owned gas companyto transfer the relevant volumes to another connection located in Ukrainian-controlled area.
Gazprom declined, with company executives saying that they had not received any confirmation regarding the circumstances of the force majeure and that in any case it was technically impossible to switch the distribution pathway, a report by Russian state news operator Tass said.
With Russia’s disruption of the Black Sea trade route contributing to rising global food prices and shortages of corn and wheat, Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday urged Russia to end its blockade of Ukraine’s ports.
“Ukraine is a critical source of agricultural products and a key link in the global food supply chain,” he said in a statement. “Russia’s blockade is preventing these goods from leaving and threatening millions of people around the world with malnutrition and famine. The blockade must end.”
While the US and European nations have broadly come together in recent months to penalize Russia with sanctions, some fear that unity could wane as the war grinds on and takes an economic toll. On Wednesday, European Union talks over a proposed embargo on Russian oil stalled after Hungary, which is heavily relying on Russian oil and gas, refused to agree to an embargo.
As the war finishes its 11th week, Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Iryna Venediktova, announced Wednesday that a Russian soldier in Ukrainian custody will be the first to stand trial for an alleged war crime. Vadim Shysimarin, a 21-year-old commander of Russia’s Kantemirovskaya tank division, is charged with shooting an unarmed 62-year-old civilian in the head in late February in a village in the Sumy region of northeastern Ukraine.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Wednesday that there are no “immediate chances of a peace agreement” or “immediate chances of a local cease-fire,” but that diplomacy is still essential in the conflict to “save lives and improve the humanitarian situation.”
Guterres also defended his visit to Putin in late April.
“It makes full sense to talk to the leader of the Russian Federation; it makes full sense to talk to any other relevant actors in the present crisis,” he said. “I think the lives that were rescued of civilians that were in the bunkers of Mariupol deserve that I meet anybody in any part of the world without having any doubt that that is the right thing to do.”
In Lviv, the western city that is a crossroads for those fleeing the war and those trying to return to homes they previously abandoned, the central train station was its usual hubbub of activity Wednesday. An entire refugee ecosystem has sprung up in and around the landmark Art Nouveau station: A World Food Kitchen tent was serving borscht, and a free cafe slowly filled with new arrivals.
Those needing a respite after hours or days of travel were steered to resting rooms and a nursery. A few who stepped off trains with little but the clothes on their backs were ushered toward stacks of donated supplies: boxes of diapers, bottles of shampoo, piles of sweatshirts.
Volunteers braced for the arrival of an afternoon train from Pokrovsk, a heavily bombarded town in the province of Donetsk, in the eastern battle zone. “We know these people are going to be in bad shape — hungry and tired and scared,” said volunteer Valentin Andrushko.
After another train pulled in from Zaporizhzhia, a southeastern city that has been a way station for people fleeing Mariupol and its surroundings, a young volunteer spoke quietly with an elderly woman who was leaning on a cane and sobbing. She would briefly collect herself, nodding and wiping her eyes, and then break down again.
Some travelers were making a reverse journey, back to homes they had left weeks or months ago. Iryna Dragunova, a Lviv teacher, was seeing off her brother and sister-in-law, who were heading east to Kyiv, which they fled in the early weeks of the war. Neighbors in the capital told the couple that, other than some windows that shattered during a bombardment nearby, their apartment was intact.
“Even if it still doesn’t feel so safe, and even if I beg them to stay here with me, they just want to go home,” said Dragunova.
Together with her mother, 21-year-old Liz Ivanchenko was headed for the central city of Dnipro. When they fled nearly two months ago, they were unable to persuade her 83-year-old grandfather to come along. But now, alone and ailing, he had agreed to accompany them back to Poland.
“We want him to be safe with us,” Ivanchenko said. “He wouldn’t go at first, but now he understands this war could go on for a very long time.”
King reported from Lviv and Bulos from Amman, Jordan. Times staff writer Jenny Jarvie in Atlanta contributed to this report.