By Tom Balmforth and Jonathan Landay
KYIV/BEZRUKY, Ukraine () -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 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.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr 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 seen the heaviest fighting in nearly three months of war, is now in Russian hands but hundreds of Ukrainian defenders are still holding out at the Azovstal steelworks 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 is reeling from 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 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. Ukraine and its Western allies say the fascism claim is a false pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression.
The war has prompted Finland and most likely Sweden to abandon their long-cherished military neutrality and seek membership of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization).
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told Putin in a phone call that his country, which shares a 1,300 km (800 mile) border with Russia, wanted to join NATO to bolster its own security. Niinisto’s office described the conversation as “direct and straightforward”.
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.
One of the aims of Russia’s action in Ukraine was to prevent the former Soviet republic ever joining the NATO alliance.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who spoke to Putin by phone on Friday, said he detected no sign of any change in the Russian leader’s thinking on the conflict.
In an interview for the t-online news website published on Saturday, Scholz also said Western sanctions on Russia would remain in place until it reached an agreement with Ukraine, adding: “Our aim is for this invasion to fail.”
Meeting in Germany, foreign ministers from the G7 group of rich nations backed giving Ukraine more aid and arms.
In their statement, the G7 ministers – from the United States, Japan, Germany, Britain, France, Italy and Canada – also pledged to “expedite our efforts to reduce and end reliance on Russian energy supplies”.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday the West’s sanctions amounted to a “total hybrid war” against Moscow and that it was hard to predict how long it might last.
‘I LOVED THIS PLACE’
As Russian and Ukrainian forces fought artillery duels on Saturday close to their shared border north of Kharkiv, Vera Kosolapenko, 67, wept as she stood in the still-smouldering ruins of her small home, struck by a Russian missile on Friday.
“I don’t know how I will rebuild this house,” she said as explosions echoed over her leafy village of Bezruky.
“I loved this place.”
In a late-night address, Ukraine’s Zelenskiy addressed the plight of people trapped at the Azovstal site.
“At the moment very complex negotiations are under way on the next phase of the evacuation mission – the removal of the badly wounded, medics,” he said, adding that influential international intermediaries were involved in the talks.
Russia, which initially insisted the defenders in the sprawling Soviet-era bunkers beneath the steel works give themselves up, has said little publicly about the talks.
In its latest bulletin, Russia’s defence ministry said its forces had hit Ukrainian command posts, ammunition depots and other military equipment in several regions, including the Donbas, killing at least 100 Ukrainian “nationalists”.
could not independently verify the report.
Moscow has imposed a military-civilian administration in Ukraine’s southern Kherson region and plans to hold a referendum there on whether it wishes to join the Russian Federation, mirroring similar votes held in the adjacent Crimea peninsula in 2014 and in two Donbas regions.
Russia would almost certainly manipulate the results of such a vote, Britain’s defence ministry said.
In a grim illustration of the war’s toll on Russia’s own forces, footage on Friday showed the bodies of Russian soldiers being brought to a rail yard outside Kyiv and stacked with hundreds of others in a refrigerated train, waiting for the time when they can be sent back to their families.
“Most of them were brought from the Kyiv region, there are some from Chernihiv region and from some other regions too,” Volodymyr Lyamzin, the chief civil-military liaison officer, told as stretcher-bearers in white protective suits lifted body bags into the box cars.