Ukraine said on Wednesday it was pulling Russian troops away from Kharkiv, the country’s second city, but faced stiff resistance as Washington predicted Vladimir Putin was ready for a long war.
With President Joe Biden warning that Ukraine will likely run out of funds within days to keep fighting, the U.S. House of Representatives voted Tuesday night to send a $40 billion aid package to the country.
Russia focused on eastern Ukraine after failing to take kyiv. Ukrainian forces are struggling to hold out in the Donbas region, but have been bolstered by what kyiv says is the recapture of four villages around Kharkiv further north.
President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his late-night address on Tuesday that he had “good news” from Kharkiv.
“Occupants are gradually being pushed back,” he said. “I am grateful to all of our defenders who hold the line and show truly superhuman strength to drive out the invading army.”
The Ukrainian Armed Forces General Staff said on Facebook on Wednesday that “the occupiers continue to focus their efforts on preventing the further advance of our troops towards the state border of Ukraine” from Kharkiv.
Kharkiv regional state administration head Oleg Synegubov said four villages – Cherkasy Tyshky, Rusky Tyshky, Rubizhne and Bayrak – around the city had been liberated, but “fierce battles” were still raging.
Despite the apparent gains, Zelensky urged Ukrainians against “moral pressure, as some victories are expected every week and even every day”, a reflection of the bitter war now in its third month.
A stark example of this could be seen in the Kharkiv region itself, where Synegubov announced that 44 civilian bodies had been found under the rubble of a destroyed building in the eastern town of Izyum, now under Russian control.
“They come in waves”
Ukraine is engaged in what appears to be an increasingly desperate effort to keep the Donbass Russian-speaking.
“They are coming in waves,” volunteer fighter Mykola said of repeated Russian attempts to push south across a strategic river near a rural settlement called Bilogorivka.
Nearby, a cluster munition case stood upright as a fence post not far from a team of Ukrainian medics rushing a bloodied soldier from the eastern front.
One of the doctors reassured the grimacing fighter that the tight tourniquet just above his knee did not mean he was about to lose part of his leg.
“They tried over the weekend and we pushed them away. Now they’re trying again. It comes and goes. First they hit us, then we hit them,” Mykola said.
But on Tuesday, US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said Vladimir Putin’s focus on Donbass was “just a temporary change”.
“We believe that President Putin is preparing for a protracted conflict in Ukraine in which he still intends to achieve goals beyond Donbass,” Haines said.
US intelligence believes he is determined to build a land bridge to Russian-held territory in Moldova from Crimea, which Russia occupied in 2014.
One route to that goal is the strategic port of Mariupol, where Ukraine says around 1,000 troops remain trapped in increasingly dire circumstances at the Azovstal steelworks.
The sprawling factory is the last stronghold of resistance in the city, which has seen relentless destruction.
A sister plant to the Azovstal plant in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia shows how these Stalin-era sites ended up being tailor-made to defy Russian invasion.
“We can stay in the shelters for a long time,” said Ihor Buhlayev, 20, a Zaporizhstal employee, dressed in his silver hooded safety gear, as molten metal flowed and sparked behind him. “I think it will give us the chance to survive.”
‘To let off steam’
Despite the scale of Russia’s offensive, its current force may not be large or powerful enough to capture and hold the territory it aspires to, US intelligence chief Haines said.
The United States sees the growing likelihood that Putin will mobilize his entire country, including by ordering martial law, and counts on his perseverance to exhaust Western support for Ukraine.
As Russia cracks down internally, Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina says she left Russia disguised as a food delivery courier to evade the police.
Aliokhina joins thousands of Russians who have fled their country since Putin sent troops to Ukraine on February 24.
“I was happy to have succeeded, because it was an unpredictable and important ‘kiss’ for the Russian authorities,” she told The New York Times.
Ukraine has pushed Western countries for more support, with Washington being the latest to intervene.
The US Senate is expected to approve the House of Representatives’ decision by the end of this week or next, a show of rare bipartisan support that would bring total US aid to Ukraine to around $54 billion.
“With this aid package, America is sending a resounding message to the world of our unwavering resolve to stand with the brave people of Ukraine until victory is won,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.
kyiv meanwhile welcomed what it called a shift in Germany’s stance on arms supplies and a Russian oil embargo, following a visit by the Berlin foreign minister on Tuesday.
Ukraine’s capital itself is slowly coming back to life after Russian forces withdrew from the suburbs, with people now looking for ways to burn off weeks of pent-up stress.
In a kyiv boxing gym, the sound of hip-hop mixes with the thump of fists hitting heavy bags as a group of Ukrainian boxers unleash punch combinations.
“With the curfew in the city and restrictions on movement, we needed a place to let off steam and release emotional tension,” said Oleksandr, a 38-year-old International Red Cross worker.