Republicans meet Zelensky; Ukraine appears to make Kharkiv gains

Russian troops appeared to be drawing back from the outskirts of Ukraine’s second-largest city Saturday even as fighting continued to rage in other parts of the embattled nation and senior Ukrainian officials predicted a “new, long-term phase” of conflict to last through much of the summer.

Local authorities and military officials said Russian forces were retreating from north of Kharkiv, a city that has faced relentless bombardment since the war began 80 days ago, and were heading towards the Russian border. An analysis released by the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, supported those claims, saying Ukraine has “likely 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,” the institute said.

The Ukrainian gains came amid rising geopolitical tensions, as Finish and Swedish officials risked Russia’s wrath by joining a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization on Saturday.

The foreign ministers of Sweden and Finland were scheduled to meet with NATO representatives in Germany after leaders of both nations expressed strong interest in joining the defense alliance. Finnish President Sauli Niinisto said that he told Russian President Vladimir Putin on a phone call Saturday that the invasion of Ukraine has fundamentally changed “the security environment of Finland,” which shares a more than 800-mile-long border with Russia, and said his country will seek NATO membership “in the next few days.”

The news has been welcomed by the US and several NATO member states, but has enraged Russia, which views the expansion of NATO territory as a threat to its security.

The Kremlin said Saturday that Putin had warned Niinisto that relations between neighbors could be “negatively affected” if Finland applies to join NATO.

And in a sign of the economic power that Russia wields over much of Europe, on Saturday the Finnish power company Fingrid said that Russia cut off electricity supplies to the nation. A representative for the company said that Finland “can cope” and that the power grid would not be interrupted.

As Congress considers additional aid for Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Saturday that he had met with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) In an unannounced visit of the GOP leader to Kyiv, the latest in a string of high-profile US officials, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), to have toured the Ukrainian capital in recent weeks.

The meeting was “a strong signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine from the United States Congress and the American people,” Zelensky said on Instagram.

Photos and video also showed Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), John Barrasso (R-Wy.) And John Cornyn (R-Texas) in the delegation

Immediate action on a bipartisan bill to give Ukraine an additional $ 40 billion in emergency humanitarian and military aid has been blocked by Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul, who said he wanted to have an inspector general scrutinize the spending.

At the same time fighting continued across Ukraine, where the first war crimes trial of a Russian soldier opened in Kyiv on Friday and Russian blamed Ukrainian shelling for the death of a civilian in a Russian village near the Ukrainian border.

Hotspots continued to include the southern city of Mariupol, Zelensky said in an overnight address. Hundreds of Ukrainian civilians have been evacuated from the bunkers and tunnels of a sprawling Azovstal steel plant that is Kyiv’s last holdout in the shattered southern port city on the Sea of ​​Azov.

“We do not stop trying to save all our people from Mariupol and Azovstal. Currently, very difficult negotiations are underway on the next stage of the evacuation mission, ”Zelensky said. The president said “a large” number of individuals remained trapped in the complex, though he did not give a specific count.

In an interview on Sky News on Saturday, Ukrainian military intelligence leader Kyrylo Budanov said he expected battles across the nation to last through the summer and predicted, perhaps prematurely, a Ukrainian win.

“The breaking point will be in the second part of August. Most of the active combat actions will have finished by the end of this year, ”he said.

Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov offered a more cautious assessment in a post on Facebook. “We are entering a new, long-term phase of the war,” he said. While he welcomed a growing supply of Western arms flowing into his nation, he said he expected “extremely difficult weeks” ahead, adding, “How many there will be? No one can say for sure. ”

The United Nations this week estimated that more than 14 million people have been displaced by the war in Ukraine. The number represents about a third of the nation’s population. The UN also reported more than 3,500 civilian deaths, though it said the real number is likely much higher.

McDonnell reported from Lviv, Ukraine, Kaleem from London and Linthicum from Mexico City.

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