By Tom Balmforth
KYIV, Ukraine (Reuters) – A Ukrainian counteroffensive was underway near the Russian town of Izium, but its army reported on Sunday that Russian forces were advancing elsewhere in the Donbass region, which has become the main theater of the war over the past month. .
After resisting fiercely since Russia launched its invasion on February 24, the Ukrainian military has scored a series of successes, first forcing Russian commanders to abandon an advance on the capital kyiv, then making quick gains in the northeast last week to repel the enemy. away from the second largest city of Kharkiv.
Since mid-April, Russian forces have concentrated much of their firepower in the east for what has become known as the “Battle of Donbass”.
In an update on Sunday morning, the Ukrainian military said: “Despite the losses, Russian forces continue to advance in the areas of Lyman, Sievierodonetsk, Avdiivka and Kurakhiv in the wider Donbass region.”
The Ukrainian military reported destroying eight Russian tanks, five artillery systems, as well as other armored vehicles and drones in battles in Donbass the day before.
A regional governor said Ukrainian forces had mounted a counterattack near Izium, a strategic town straddling the Donets River, about 120 km (75 miles) southeast on the Kharkiv highway.
“The hottest point remains the management of Izium,” Governor Oleh Sinegubov said in comments posted on social media. “Our armed forces have gone on a counter-offensive there. The enemy is retreating on some fronts and this is the result of the character of our armed forces.
Reuters could not independently verify the Ukrainian information.
But British military intelligence on Sunday delivered a damning assessment of Russia’s Donbass campaign. He estimated that Russia had lost around a third of the ground combat force deployed in February, and that its offensive in the Donbass had fallen “significantly behind schedule” and was unlikely to make rapid progress in the coming months. next 30 days.
Maintaining pressure on Izium and Russian supply lines will make it harder for Moscow to encircle hardened Ukrainian troops on the eastern Donbass front.
The Russian Defense Ministry said its forces had killed at least 100 Ukrainian “nationalists” in a series of strikes on military sites, including in Donbass. Reuters could not independently verify this report.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the situation in Donbass remained very difficult, adding that Russian forces were still trying to salvage some sort of victory there.
“They don’t stop trying,” he said.
Separately, the Ukrainian military said there was no respite on Sunday in the Russian bombardment of steel mills in the southern port of Mariupol, where a few hundred Ukrainian fighters are resisting weeks after the town fell to of the Russians.
Zelenskiy said talks were underway to find a way to evacuate wounded soldiers from Mariupol in exchange for the release of Russian POWs.
A large convoy of cars and vans carrying refugees from the ruins of Mariupol arrived in the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia after dark on Saturday after waiting days for Russian troops to allow them to leave.
Russia, dismissing Ukraine’s claim to have hit and set fire to a modern navy logistics vessel in the Black Sea, showed photos of what it said was the Vsevolod Bobrov with no signs of damage.
EUROVISION MORALE BOOSTER
On Saturday night, Ukraine celebrated a morale-boosting triumph in the Eurovision Song Contest, which was seen as a sign of the strength of popular support for Ukraine across Europe.
“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe! Next year Ukraine will host the Eurovision Song Contest,” Zelenskiy said in an online post after Kalush Orchestra won with their entry “Stefania.”
Eurovision winners traditionally receive the host of the event the following year.
In another sign of international solidarity, US Republican senators paid an unannounced visit to Kyiv. The delegation discussed tightening sanctions against Russia, Zelenskiy said.
In addition to losing a large number of men and a lot of military equipment, Russia was hit by economic sanctions. The industrial powers of the Group of Seven pledged on Saturday to “further increase economic and political pressure on Russia” and supply more arms to Ukraine.
Moscow’s invasion, which it calls a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and protect it from fascists, has shaken European security. kyiv and its Western allies say the assertion of fascism is a baseless pretext for an unprovoked war of aggression.
One of the objectives of Russia’s action in Ukraine was to prevent the former Soviet republic from joining NATO.
But in a phone call, Finnish President Sauli Niinisto told Russian President Vladimir Putin that his country, which shares a 1,300 km border with Russia, wanted to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to strengthen his own safety.
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.
Turkey has not closed the door on Sweden and Finland joining NATO, but wants negotiations with them and a crackdown on what it sees as terrorist activities, the spokesperson said. speech of President Tayyip Erdogan, referring to the activities of Kurds living in the Nordic countries.
(Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Natalia Zinets, Gleb Garanich, Leonardo Benassatto, Tara Oakes, Tom Balmforth, Idrees Ali, David Ljunggren, Lidia Kelly and other Reuters offices; writing by Simon Cameron-Moore; editing by William Mallard)