Ukrainian troops pull out of some areas and Zelensky postpones foreign trips

Ukrainian forces have withdrawn from some areas of the country’s east and battled Russian troops in others on Wednesday, as President Volodymyr Zelensky postponed all his upcoming foreign trips.

Against the grim backdrop, US secretary of state Antony Blinken sought to reassure the ally of continuing American support, announcing a two billion dollars arms deal — most of the money coming from a package approved last month.

The top diplomat is in Ukraine as Russian troops press a fresh offensive in northeast Ukraine’s Kharkiv region.

It began last week, marking the most significant border incursion since the full-scale invasion began and forcing almost 8,000 local people to flee their homes.

Together with Moscow’s weeks-long effort to build on its recent gains in the eastern Donetsk region, the more than two-year war has entered a critical stage for Ukraine’s depleted army.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Vovchansk — just three miles from the Russian border and 30 miles from the city of Kharkiv — has been the focus of much of the recent fighting, and Ukrainian and Russian troops battled in its streets on Wednesday.

Oleksii Kharkivskyi, head of the city’s patrol police, said Russian troops were taking up positions in the city, while the Ukrainian general staff said its forces were trying to flush them out.

Russia is opening new fronts in order to stretch Ukraine’s army, which is short of ammunition and manpower, along the 620-mile front line, hoping defences will crumble. Russian artillery and sabotage raids have also been menacing Ukraine’s northern Chernihiv and Sumy regions.

Mr Zelensky said in his nightly video address on Tuesday that the army has sent reinforcements to the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions.

“It is too early to draw conclusions, but the situation is under control,” he said.

The pace of Russia’s advance in the Kharkiv border region, where it launched an offensive late last week and has made significant progress, has slowed, the Institute for the Study of War said late on Tuesday.

The Washington-based think tank said Moscow’s main aim there is to create a “buffer zone” that will prevent Ukrainian cross-border strikes on Russia’s Belgorod region.

Police officers inspect part of a Russian missile that fell close to an apartment building in Kharkiv, Ukraine
Police officers inspect part of a Russian missile that fell close to an apartment building in Kharkiv, Ukraine (AP Photo/Andrii Marienko)

Mr Zelensky had been expected to visit Spain, and perhaps Portugal, later this week. No reason was given for his decision — but the difficulties on the front line hung over it.

With thousands of Ukrainian troops locked in fierce battles in towns and villages, Mr Blinken on Tuesday pledged unceasing US support for the country, during and beyond the war.

He also tried to lift spirits in Kyiv, performing on guitar with a band at a city bar and eating pizza at a veteran-run restaurant.

At his final event Wednesday of the two-day visit, Mr Blinken said the Biden administration had approved a two billion dollars, medium and long-term foreign military financing package for Ukraine.

The packages generally send US taxpayer money to American defence firms to manufacture and ship weaponry and other military supplies to the recipient country.

Most of the money, about 1.6 billion dollars, comes from the 60 billion dollars allotted to Ukraine in the supplemental foreign assistance legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden, officials said.

The remainder will be reprogrammed from different accounts.

Russia Ukraine War US Blinken
US secretary of state Antony Blinken holds a 3D-printed eagle during his visit to the Brave1 facility in Kyiv (Courtney McBride, Pool Photo via AP)

“Ukraine has had to adapt and adjust to this and it’s done so remarkably,” Mr Blinken said of grain exports now being taken by rail after traditional shipping routes were interrupted by Russia’s full-scale invasion, which began on February 24, 2022.

Meanwhile, Russian air defences shot down several Ukrainian missiles over the Black Sea and near the Belbek air base, Sevastopol governor Mikhail Razvozhayev said. Sevastopol is where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is headquartered.

The fragments of downed missiles fell into residential areas but caused no casualties, Mr Razvozhayev said.

Russian air defences also shot down nine Ukrainian drones, two Vilha rockets, two anti-radar Harm missiles and two Hammer guided bombs over the Belgorod region early on Wednesday, the Defence Ministry said.

Two people were injured in the village of Dubovoye when a Ukranian rocket set their house ablaze, according to Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov.

The military said five other Ukrainian drones were downed over the Kursk region and three drones were shot down over the Bryansk region.

The Defence Ministry also said that another Ukrainian drone was downed over the Tatarstan region. Tatarstan is located more than 600 miles east of the border with Ukraine.

Vasily Golubev, the governor of the Rostov region, said two drones attacked a fuel depot. He said there were no casualties or fire.

Ukraine has launched a steady series of drone attacks on oil refineries and fuel depots across Russia over the past months, causing significant damage.

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