Ukrainian forces have launched a counteroffensive near the Russian-held town of Izium in eastern Ukraine, a regional governor said on Saturday, in what could prove a serious setback for Moscow’s plans to capture the entire Donbas region.
Russian forces have focused much of their firepower on the Donbas in a “second phase” of their invasion that was announced on April 19, after they failed to reach the capital Kyiv from the north in the early weeks of the war.
But Ukraine has been retaking territory in its northeast, driving the Russians away from the second-largest Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. Keeping up pressure on Izium and Russian supply lines will make it harder for Moscow to encircle battle-hardened Ukrainian troops on the eastern front in the Donbas.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the situation in Donbas remained very difficult, adding that Russian forces were still trying to salvage some kind of victory there.
“They are not stopping their efforts,” he said.
The president spoke as Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Senate, paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv with other Republican senators. The Republican delegation discussed further strengthening sanctions on Russia, Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy also said complex talks were underway to find a way to evacuate a large number of wounded soldiers from a besieged steel works in the port of Mariupol in return for the release of Russian prisoners of war.
Mariupol, which has suffered the heaviest fighting in nearly three months of war, is now in Russian hands but hundreds of Ukrainian fighters are still holding out at the Azovstal steel works despite weeks of heavy Russian bombardment.
Western military analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin and his generals failed to anticipate such fierce Ukrainian resistance when they launched the invasion on Feb. 24.
As well as losing large numbers of men and much military equipment, Russia has been hit by economic sanctions. The Group of Seven leading Western economies pledged in a statement on Saturday to “further increase economic and political pressure on Russia” and to supply more weapons to Ukraine.
Commenting on the latest developments in eastern Ukraine, regional governor Oleh Sinegubov said in comments aired on social media: “The hottest spot remains the Izium direction.”
“Our armed forces have switched to a counteroffensive there. The enemy is retreating on some fronts and this is the result of the character of our armed forces,” he said.
Moscow’s invasion, which it calls a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists, has jolted European security. Kyiv and its Western allies say the fascism assertion is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression.
The war has prompted Finland to abandon its military neutrality and seek membership of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization). Sweden is widely expected to follow suit.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told Putin by phone that his country, which shares a 1,300 km (800 mile) border with Russia, wanted to join NATO to bolster its own security.
Putin told Niinisto it would be a mistake for Helsinki to abandon its neutrality, the Kremlin said, adding that the move could harm bilateral relations.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday it was not possible for his country, a NATO member, to support enlarging the alliance because Finland and Sweden were “home to many terrorist organisations”.
The foreign ministers of Finland and Turkey were due to meet in Berlin later on Saturday to try to resolve their differences over NATO accession.