(Kyiv) The Russian noose is loosening on Kharkiv, the second city of Ukraine located in the east and which had been shelled since the end of February, said the Ukrainian authorities on the night of Tuesday to Wednesday, when the conflict could extend southwest according to Washington.
“Our armed forces gave us all good news from the Kharkiv region. The occupiers are gradually being pushed back from Kharkiv,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video. “I am grateful to all of our fighters who hold their ground and show superhuman strength to drive out the invading army.”
“The localities of Cherkasy Tychky, Rusky Tychky, Rubizhne and Bayrak have been liberated” in the region of this large city, the Ukrainian general staff said on Facebook. “Thus, the enemy was pushed even further from Kharkiv, and the occupiers had even fewer opportunities to hit the regional center.”
But “the intensity of shelling in the Kharkiv district has increased”, he also noted. Moreover, according to Oleg Snegubov, head of the Kharkiv regional administration speaking on Telegram, “by withdrawing, the Russian occupiers leave behind them deadly traps”, mines.
The northern and northeastern districts of Kharkiv, which had around 1.5 million inhabitants before the war, have for weeks been hit by Russian rockets, causing the death of civilians. At the end of February, the Russians wanted to take the city, in vain: the Ukrainian forces resisted and pushed them back a few kilometers away, at the cost of bitter fighting.
The American Institute for War Studies (ISW) noted late last week that in this eastern part of the country, the Ukrainian military is “making significant progress and will likely advance to the Russian border within days.” or weeks to come”.
It also seems to confirm the trend that emerged on the eastern front during this third month of the Russian invasion: on the one hand, Ukrainian units are counterattacking and advancing east of Kharkiv, on the other, the Russians gradually nibble away at some 150 km southeast of the Ukrainian advance, towards the part of Donbass not yet under Russian or pro-Russian separatist control.
The “second phase” of the “special military operation” announced by Moscow aims for a total grip on the Donbass, and the fighting is particularly intense in the Luhansk region.
But the focus is now also on the southwest of the country. Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to “extend” the conflict to Transdniestria, a region of Moldova that seceded in 1990, US intelligence chief Avril Haines said on Tuesday.
On April 22, a Russian general, Rustam Minnekayev, had also argued that “control of southern Ukraine is also a corridor to Transdniestria, where there are also cases of oppression of the population Russian-speaking”. However, the defense of Russian speakers is one of Moscow’s justifications for the current war.
In addition to the Crimea annexed in 2014, Russian troops occupy much of southern Ukraine, including the regional capital of Kherson.
According to the Ukrainian command for the south, Russian troops are “mercilessly” striking the Mykolaiv region, which represents the last lock before Odessa, in the west. “Private homes, agricultural facilities were damaged and the electricity supply to one of the localities was interrupted,” he said overnight from Tuesday to Wednesday.
Odessa, a major cultural center for both Ukrainians and Russians, has been hit sporadically by Russian missiles since the start of the conflict. This Russian-speaking port city received a surprise visit from the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, on Monday.
In the vicinity of Odessa, “the psychological pressure continues on the neighboring population of Transdniestria” with “the possible blockage of the region due to the decommissioning of the Dniester bridge, which was again attacked by missiles “, also advanced the Ukrainian command for the south.
In late April and early May, explosions shook Transdniestria, where Russian troops have been stationed for around 30 years.
Russia immediately said it was “alarmed” by these “terrorist acts”, indicating that it was monitoring the situation closely. For its part, the European Union announced on May 4 that it would “significantly increase” its military aid to Moldova. This small country, not a member of NATO, also received support at the end of April from Paris and Berlin.
In the southeast, Russian forces again pounded the Azovstal steelworks in Mariupol, where dozens of Ukrainians, soldiers and civilians, are still hiding. “Dozens of strikes”, “every hour”, wrote on Telegram Petro Andryushchenko, deputy mayor of this port city taken by the Russians and almost completely destroyed.
The US intelligence chief also said that Mr. Putin is counting on a loss of Western support for Ukraine and preparing for “a protracted conflict”, for which he will “probably” impose martial law in Russia. Which could lead to a “more unpredictable and potentially escalating trajectory” in the coming months, according to Haines.
In Kyiv, emptied of the majority of its residents at the start of the Russian invasion, nearly two-thirds of the capital’s 3.5 million inhabitants have returned, Mayor Vitali Klitschko said on Tuesday.
In the evening, he announced the death at the age of 88 of the first president of independent Ukraine, Leonid Kravchuk (1990-1994). This former apparatchik returned to the political scene in 2020 by becoming, at the request of President Zelensky, one of the Ukrainian negotiators in the talks with Russia on the Donbass conflict.
On the side of American aid to Ukraine, the House of Representatives adopted a staggering envelope of nearly 40 billion dollars on Tuesday evening, following Joe Biden in his unwavering support for Kyiv. The text voted by elected officials from both camps includes an economic and humanitarian component, but also arms and ammunition. It must now be voted on in the Senate, at the end of the week or at the beginning of next week, before being promulgated by the American president.
Regarding sanctions against Russia, negotiations continue on the proposed EU embargo on Russian oil, currently blocked by Hungary. An agreement is possible “within the week”, assured Tuesday the French Secretary of State for European Affairs, Clément Beaune.
Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi, whose country is very dependent on Russian gas but delivers weapons to Ukraine, met Joe Biden at the White House on Tuesday. The first called for “a strong European Union […] in the interest of the United States”, the American president praising “a good friend and a great ally”.