SLOVIANSK, Ukraine — Russian pressure to give its president a resounding victory in Ukraine appeared to face another setback on Saturday, as Ukrainian defenders pushed invaders back toward the northeastern border and away from the city of Kharkiv, the Russians blowing up bridges behind them.
Less than 48 hours before Russian President Vladimir V. Putin is set to lead his country in Victory Day celebrations commemorating the Soviet triumph over Nazi Germany, the apparent Russian withdrawal from the region around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, contradicts the Russian narrative. and illustrated the complicated picture along the 300-mile front in eastern Ukraine.
The Russians have attempted to advance into eastern Ukraine in recent weeks and pushed particularly hard in the run-up to VE Day, but Ukrainian forces – armed with new US-supplied weapons and other Western countries – pushed back in a counter-offensive.
The destruction of three bridges by Russian forces, about 20 km northeast of Kharkiv, reported by the Ukrainian army, suggested that the Russians were not only trying to prevent the Ukrainians from pursuing them, but had no intend to return immediately.
A senior Ukrainian official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the fighting, said Russian forces were destroying bridges not to retreat but because “we are pushing them out”.
He said the fight for Kharkiv was not over and that although “for now we are dominating”, Russian forces were trying to regroup and go on the offensive.
Some military analysts said the Russian actions were similar to what the Russian military did last month during a retreat from the town of Chernihiv north of kyiv.
Frederick W. Kagan, a military historian and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington-based public policy research group, said Russia’s strategy near Kharkiv could be an indicator that “the order of retreat somewhere had been given and they were trying to set up a defensive line.
Ukrainian forces retook a constellation of towns and villages on the outskirts of Kharkiv last week, putting them in a position to overthrow Russian forces in the area and regain full control of the city “within days”, according to a report. recent analysis. by the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based research group.
The setback is now forcing the Russian military to choose whether or not to send reinforcements destined elsewhere in eastern Ukraine to help defend positions on the outskirts of Kharkiv, the institute said.
The round trips around Kharkiv are part of a more complex battlefield in eastern Ukraine that has left a growing number of towns trapped in a “grey zone”, wedged between Russian and Ukrainian forces, where they are subjected to frequent, sometimes indiscriminate, bombardments.
“Russian occupiers continue to destroy civilian infrastructure in the Kharkiv region,” regional governor Oleh Sinegubov said in a Telegram post on Saturday, adding that shelling and artillery attacks overnight had targeted several neighborhoods, destroying a national museum in the village. from Skovorodynivka.
For Russia, perhaps the best example of all that smacks of victory was the long-besieged southeastern port city of Mariupol. Although much of the city was destroyed by Russian shelling, there were growing indications on Saturday that Russian control of the city was almost complete.
Ukraine’s Defense Ministry intelligence directorate said in a statement on Saturday that Russian officers were being moved from their combat positions and sent to protect a planned Russian military parade in Mariupol.
Petro Andrushchenko, a councilor for the city council, posted a series of photos on Telegram on Friday that appeared to show how Russian forces were restoring “Soviet period landmarks” across the city.
One image appeared to show a Russian flag flying above an intensive care hospital. Another image, released on Thursday, showed city workers replacing Ukrainian road signs with signs in Russian script. Images could not be verified.
On Friday, 50 people were evacuated from the city’s Azovstal steel plant, the last stronghold of Ukrainian forces and a group of civilians in the city. Three Ukrainian soldiers were killed Friday during an attempt to evacuate civilians from the factory, said Mikhailo Vershinin, the chief of the city’s police patrol.
Mr Vershinin, who was at the factory, said via a messaging app on Saturday that a rocket and a grenade were to blame. “Six were injured, some seriously,” he said, and in the factory’s makeshift hospital, “there is no medicine, no anesthesia, no antibiotics and they can die”.
Ukrainian and Russian officials said on Saturday that all civilian evacuations from the Mariupol plant were complete.
There was no immediate confirmation from the Red Cross or the United Nations, which helped coordinate recent evacuations from the factory. A Red Cross spokeswoman said earlier on Saturday that efforts to evacuate the remaining civilians were “under way”.
Elsewhere, Russia launched six missile strikes on Saturday targeting Odessa, Ukraine’s Black Sea port, according to the city council. Four hit a furniture company and destroyed two high-rise buildings in the blast, and two missiles were fired at the city’s airport, which had already been rendered inoperable by a Russian missile that destroyed its runway last week last.
The goal of Russian forces – for now at least – seems to be to take over as much of the eastern Ukrainian region known as Donbass as possible, pushing out Ukrainian forces who have been fighting for years the Russian-backed separatists in the provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk. . Since the beginning of the Russian invasion on February 24, about 80% of these two provinces have fallen under the control of the Kremlin.
The regional governor of Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, Serhiy Haidai, said on Facebook on Saturday that a Russian bomb had hit a school in the village of Bilogorivka where around 90 people had taken refuge. About 30 people have been rescued so far, he said. The bodies of at least two people were found in the rubble, according to Ukraine’s state emergency service. Rescue operations were suspended on Saturday evening and were to resume on Sunday, officials said.
Russian forces are trying to break through Ukrainian lines and encircle troops defending the area around the eastern city of Sievierodonetsk, but have so far been held back, Haidai said on Saturday.
“It’s a war, so anything can happen, but for now the situation is difficult but under control,” Haidai said in a phone interview. “They broke through in some places and those areas are reinforced.”
The Russians seemed “unlikely to succeed in encircling the city”, according to the latest update from the Institute for the Study of Warfare.
The apparent objective of the Russian army is to capture Sievierodonetsk or cut it off from the bulk of the Ukrainian forces fighting in the east, and to press on further south to the great industrial city of Kramatorsk.
Haidai said the Russian military had deployed units that were better trained and more combat-experienced than the Russian soldiers initially thrown into the invasion.
“At first they sent newly mobilized soldiers from the occupied territory,” he said. “But they can’t fight. They are not wearing bulletproof vests. And so they died by the dozens or hundreds. But they miss it.
Mr Haidai said he had urged everyone who could to evacuate, but around 15,000 people remained in Sievierodonetsk. Some, he said, are older and “want to die where they were born”.
In contrast, in the capital, kyiv, and much of the west of the country, the atmosphere seemed a world away from the constant bombardment of war – despite the occasional and unpredictable Russian missile strikes. Cars have returned to the streets of Kyiv and the people living there have resumed some semblance of their normal routines.
In an apparent concern for complacency, President Volodymyr Zelensky reminded residents to observe local curfews and take air raid sirens seriously.
“Please, it’s your life, your children’s life,” he implored Ukrainians in an overnight speech.
Residents of towns and villages in the east of the country were often rocked by bomb attacks, usually between 4 and 5 a.m.
On Saturday morning, the small village of Malotaranivka became a target. A bomb hit around 4:15 a.m. destroying homes and a small bakery, leaving a crater at least 15 feet deep and a wide radius of destruction. While no one was killed, residents expressed their fury against the Russians.
“What kind of military target is this?” said Tatyana Ostakhova, 38, speaking through the gaping hole in her goddaughter’s apartment where she was helping clean up. “A store that bakes bread so people don’t starve?
Such strikes occurred more frequently in the run-up to VE Day in Russia, which Mr Putin was to use as a platform for some sort of announcement on what he called “the special military operation” in Ukraine.
“It’s like we’re in a dream,” said Svetlana Golochenko, 43, who was cleaning up the remains of her son’s house. “It’s hard to imagine that happening to us.”
Malotaranivka is a small village of single-family houses and timber frame buildings about 13 km from Kramatorsk. Residents said that apart from a few checkpoints, there was no military presence in the area, making the Russian shelling even more incomprehensible.
“Who knows what they have in their empty heads,” said Artur Serdyuk, 38, who was covered in dust and smoking a cigarette after spending the morning cleaning up what was left of his house.
Mr Serdyuk said he had just returned to bed after going out for a cigarette in the middle of the night when the blast happened. The blast blew off the roof of his house and incinerated his outhouse, leaving only a roll of toilet paper sitting in a pile of dust near the latrine hole.
Her neighbour’s house was opened up like a doll’s house, allowing a reporter to peer into the remains of the kitchen decorated with wallpaper depicting green peacocks.
Michael Schwirtz reported from Sloviansk, and Cora Engelbrecht and Megan Specia reported from London. Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting from Tbilisi, Georgia.