Russian forces are withdrawing from the north-eastern city of Kharkiv, Ukrainian officials have claimed, as the wives of soldiers trapped in the besieged port of Mariupol called on the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, to save them.
The general staff of Ukraine’s army said on Saturday that after a bloody battle the Russians appeared to be departing their positions around Ukraine’s second biggest city, 31 miles (50km) from the Russian border.
The remorseless shelling endured by the civilian population in the region was also said to have paused on Saturday, according to the regional governor, Oleh Sinegubov, while Ukrainian forces were launching a counteroffensive near the city of Izium, 78 miles south of Kharkiv.
Ukraine’s head of military intelligence, Maj Gen Kyrylo Budanov, told Sky News he believed Russian advances would stall completely over the summer.
He said: “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. As a result, we will renew Ukrainian power in all our territories that we have lost including Donbas and the Crimea.”
Ukraine’s success in the north-east contrasted with the situation for the remaining soldiers trapped in the Azovstal steelworks in the south-eastern city of Mariupol, whose relatives have appealed to China to persuade Vladimir Putin to allow them safe passage out via Turkey.
Speaking on Saturday at a press conference in Kyiv, Natalia Zarytska, the wife of Bogdan Sements, who is among those trapped in the sprawling steelworks, said: “Strong leaders cannot stand aside when there is evil.
“After all these negotiations, there is one person worldwide who it would be difficult for Vladimir Putin to refuse. We hope that strong and good China can make difficult decisions for the good.
“We ask the esteemed premier of China, Xi Jinping, to express love and care for global values and eastern wisdom and to join the process of rescuing the defenders of Mariupol.”
The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, has said talks with Moscow on extracting a “large number” of wounded defenders and some medics out of the plant in Mariupol in return for the release of Russian prisoners of war were “very complex”, adding that Kyiv was using influential intermediaries.
Ukraine’s deputy prime minister Iryna Vereshchuk told local TV on Saturday that efforts were now focused on evacuating about 60 people.
Sviatoslav Palamar, the deputy commander of the Azov regiment, which makes up most of the remaining forces at the plant, said in a YouTube video that his soldiers were holding on.
He said: “Our enemy, supported by planes and artillery, continues to attack. They continue their assault on our positions but we continue to repel them.”
The developments came as foreign ministers from the G7 – the world’s seven biggest economies – issued a joint statement saying they would not recognise the borders Russia is trying to redraw.
After three days of talks in northern Germany, the ministers from the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US warned they would expand sanctions on Russia that would cripple its economy.
They said: “We will never recognise borders Russia has attempted to change by military aggression, and will uphold our engagement in the support of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea, and all states.
“We reaffirm our determination to further increase economic and political pressure on Russia, continuing to act in unity.”
They warned that the war in Ukraine was stoking a global food crisis and called for Moscow to unlock key ports and allow Ukrainian grain exports.
They said: “Up to 50 million people, particularly in the countries of Africa and the Middle East, will die in the next few months … Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history, which now threatens those most vulnerable across the globe.”
The G7 also called on China not to aid Putin and “to desist from engaging in information manipulation, disinformation and other means to legitimise Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine”.
Three weeks before Putin launched his war in Ukraine, the Russian president signed a pact with his Chinese counterpart that said there would be “no limits” to the two countries’ cooperation.