Russian troops are withdrawing from Ukraine’s second-largest city Kharkiv after weeks of heavy bombardment in another battlefield setback for Moscow.
Ukraine’s military said on Saturday the Russians were pulling back from the major northeastern city and focusing on guarding supply routes.
“The enemy’s main efforts are focused on ensuring the withdrawal of its units from the city of Kharkiv,” said the spokesman for the Ukrainian General Staff.
Western officials also said Ukraine had driven Russian forces back from around Kharkiv, which was a key target for Moscow’s troops.
The US-based think tank Institute for the Study of War agreed with the assessment.
“Russian units have generally not attempted to hold ground against counterattacking Ukrainian forces over the past several days, with a few exceptions,” it said.
“Ukraine thus appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv. Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from around the city, as they did to Russian forces attempting to seize Kyiv.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy praised the development in his daily video address. “The gradual liberation of the Kharkiv region proves that we will not leave anyone to the enemy,” he said.
Intense battles are raging in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region where Russia has recently been concentrating its forces without making significant progress.
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, an independent Ukrainian military analyst.
“The fate of a large portion of the Ukrainian army is being decided – there are about 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers [there],” he said.
After Russian forces failed to capture the capital Kyiv following the February 24 invasion, President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus to the Donbas, an industrial region where Ukrainian troops have battled Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The war in Ukraine could reach a “breaking point” by August and end in defeat for Russia before the end of the year, Kyiv’s head of military intelligence told the UK’s Sky News on Saturday.
Major-General Kyrylo Budanov, 36, said 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.”
Budanov said Ukraine knows “everything about our enemy. We know about their plans almost as they’re being made.”
‘Drowned Russian occupiers’
Russian forces suffered heavy losses in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they were using to try to cross a river in the east, Ukrainian and British officials said, in another sign of Moscow’s struggle to salvage a war gone awry.
Ukraine’s airborne command released photos and video of what it said was a damaged Russian pontoon bridge over the Siversky Donets River in Bilohorivka and several destroyed or damaged Russian military vehicles nearby.
The Ukrainians said they destroyed at least 73 tanks and other military equipment during the two-day battle earlier this week. The command said its troops “drowned the Russian occupiers”.
Britain’s defence ministry said Russia lost “significant armored manoeuvre elements” of at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of about 1,000 troops.
“Conducting river crossings in a contested environment is a highly risky manoeuvre and speaks to the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine,” the ministry said in its daily intelligence update.
The battle for the Donbas, which has heated up since Russia’s bid to take Kyiv failed, has become a daily grind as towns and villages change hands.
Ukrainian defence minister Oleksii Reznikov welcomed heavy weapons from NATO nations making their way to the front lines, but admitted there is no quick end to the war in sight.
“We are entering a new, long-term phase of the war,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “Extremely difficult weeks await us. How many there will be? No one can say for sure.”
Justin Crump, a former British tank commander who is now a security consultant, said Moscow’s losses have forced it to downsize its objectives in Ukraine. He said the Russians have had to use hastily patched together units that have not trained together.
“This is not going to be quick. So we’re settled in for a summer of fighting at least. I think the Russian side is very clear that this is going to take a long time,” he said.
“Obviously they have suffered degradation, though they still have a lot of battalion and tactical groups in the area. They have taken attrition, they’re reduced in numbers … They’re increasingly less efficient and effective.”
The battle for the Donbas has turned into a village-by-village, back-and-forth slog with no major breakthroughs on either side and little ground gained.
Zelenskyy said no one can predict how long the war will last but his country’s forces have been making progress, including retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages in the past day.
Zelenskyy said Ukraine on Friday shot down the 200th Russian aircraft of the war and he noted Russia’s heavy losses in tanks, armoured vehicles, helicopters and drones.
Getting a full picture of the unfolding battle in Ukraine’s east has been difficult because air strikes and artillery barrages have made it extremely dangerous for reporters to move around.
Both Ukraine and the Moscow-backed rebels fighting in the east also have introduced tight restrictions on reporting from the combat zone.