Ukrainian forces “appear to have won the battle of Kharkiv”, according to a US defence thinktank, in what appears to be their fastest advance since Russian troops pulled away from Kyiv and the north-east over a month ago.
In another apparent setback to Vladimir Putin’s war aims, analysts said on Saturday that Russian units had not attempted to hold their lines against counterattacking Ukrainian troops around the city.
Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and only 31 miles (50km) from the Russian border, has been under enemy bombardment since the war began in February.
But the US-based Institute for the Study of War said in its latest assessment of the conflict that the Russians appeared to be dropping back and aimed to replace their own troops with proxy forces or mercenaries.
“Ukraine thus appears to have won the battle of Kharkiv,” the institute said. “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.”
Russian units had “generally not attempted to hold ground against counterattacking Ukrainian forces over the past several days, with a few exceptions”.
“Reports from western officials and a video from an officer of the Donetsk People’s Republic (DNR) indicate that Moscow is focused on conducting an orderly withdrawal and prioritizing getting Russians back home before allowing proxy forces to enter Russia rather than trying to hold its positions near the city.”
Ukraine now controls territory stretching to the Siverskyi Donets river, around 25 miles (40km) to the east of the city.
“We are entering a new, long phase of the war,” the Ukrainian defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said in a Facebook post on Friday night, predicting “extremely tough weeks” ahead during which he said Ukraine would largely be alone against an “enraged aggressor”.
However, Moscow is still bombarding villages north of Kharkiv. Some six miles north of the city, firefighters doused smouldering wreckage in Dergachi after what local officials said was an overnight Russian missile attack on the House of Culture, used to distribute aid. Volunteers inside were trying to salvage packages of baby diapers and formula.
“I can’t call it anything but a terrorist act,” the mayor, Vyacheslav Zadorenko, told Reuters. “They wanted to hit the base where we store provisions and create a humanitarian catastrophe.”
Earlier on Friday, British defence intelligence said Russia had lost “significant armoured manoeuvre elements” from a battalion tactical group – usually around 800 strong – in a failed attempt to cross a strategically important river in the Donbas, to the south-east of Kharkiv.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the Luhansk region, said Russian forces had been repulsed three times as they tried to cross the Siverskyi Donets River, losing armour and bridging equipment.
“We have eliminated Russian speedboats and helicopters, which they used to cover their attempts,” the governor added, while aerial photography showed destroyed pontoon bridges and armour by the riverbanks.
Ukraine’s defence ministry tweeted pictures of a smashed pontoon bridge and destroyed armoured vehicles in Bilohorivka on Wednesday, describing them as showing victims of “artillerymen of the 17th tank brigade”.
Analysts believe Russian attempts to gain territory in the Donbas are increasingly focused on Severodonetsk, the easternmost town held by Ukrainian forces – and the Russian forces were trying to cross the river in an attempt to cut off the town.
However, the Institute of War said the Russians had “made no progress” with an attempted ground offensive from Izium, and that the Kremlin might not have enough troops to complete an encirclement of Severodonetsk.
“The Russians may not have enough additional fresh combat power to offset those losses and continue the offensive on a large enough scale to complete the encirclement, although they will likely continue to try to do so,” the institute said.
Other key developments in the war were:
“Very difficult negotiations” are under way on the next stage of evacuations from Mariupol and the Azovstal steel plant, where the city’s last remaining Ukrainian defenders are holed up, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has said in his latest nightly address. “We do not stop trying to save all our people from Mariupol and Azovstal. Currently, very difficult negotiations are under way on the next stage of the evacuation mission – the rescue of the seriously wounded, medics.”
Zelenskiy also warned that the war and Russia’s blockade of Ukraine’s ports were “provoking a large-scale food crisis”, adding that “Russian officials are also openly threatening the world that there will be famine in dozens of countries”.
Russia will suspend electricity supplies to Finland from 1am on Saturday the supplier, RAO Nordic, said, amid rising tensions over Helsinki’s bid to join Nato. The US president, Joe Biden, expressed his support for the right of Finland and Sweden “to decide their own future, foreign policy and security arrangements” in a call with his Finnish counterpart, Sauli Niinistö, and Sweden’s prime minister, Magdalena Andersson.
In their first conversation since the invasion, the US defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, spoke by telephone on Friday with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, seeking an immediate ceasefire and stressing the importance of open lines of communication.
Foreign ministers from the G7 group of rich nations backed giving Ukraine more aid and arms, and the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, announced a further €500m ($520m) worth of military support that should be approved next week by EU members. He voiced confidence the bloc will agree an embargo on Russian oil. Ukraine’s foreign minister told the meeting in Germany he hoped EU holdout Hungary would agree to the oil embargo. The Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orban, wants hundreds of millions of dollars in compensation before agreeing to a ban.