Ukraine pushes back Russian forces in eastern counter-offensive

Kyiv, Moscow both claim gains around Sievierodonetsk • Macron says it's important not to humiliate Russia • Kyiv rejects Macron's offer to mediate

 Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Luhansk region (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Luhansk region
(photo credit: REUTERS)

Battle of Sievierodonetsk

Ukraine said on Saturday it had recaptured a swathe of the battlefield city of Sievierodonetsk, in a rare counter-offensive against Russia's main assault force that had been steadily advancing in the east.

The Ukrainian claim could not be independently verified, and Moscow said its own forces were making gains there. But it was the first time Kyiv has claimed to have launched a big counter-attack in Sievierodonetsk after days of yielding ground there.

Russia has concentrated its forces on Sievierodonetsk in recent weeks for one of the biggest ground battles of the war, with Moscow appearing to bet its campaign on capturing one of two eastern provinces it claims on behalf of separatist proxies.

"The terrible consequences of this war can be stopped at any moment ... if one person in Moscow simply gives the order."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

"The situation remains very difficult in Sievierodonetsk, where street fighting is ongoing," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an evening address Saturday.

Both sides have claimed to have inflicted huge casualties in the fighting for the small industrial city, a battle that military experts say could determine which side has the momentum for a prolonged war of attrition in coming months.

Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov on Saturday said that while it was impossible to predict when the war would end, "my optimistic prognosis is that it is realistic to achieve this as early as this year," the defense ministry said.

A statement on the ministry's website said Reznikov told the GLOBSEC 2022 Bratislava Forum that "next will come Poland, the Baltic countries, Slovakia and others. That is why we must stop Russia and restrain it in the future."

In the diplomatic sphere, Kyiv rebuked French President Emmanuel Macron for saying it was important not to "humiliate" Moscow.

"We must not humiliate Russia so that the day when the fighting stops we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means," Macron said in an interview with regional newspapers published on Saturday, adding he was "convinced that it is France's role to be a mediating power."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted in response: "Calls to avoid humiliation of Russia can only humiliate France and every other country that would call for it.

"Because it is Russia that humiliates itself. We all better focus on how to put Russia in its place. This will bring peace and save lives."

"The terrible consequences of this war can be stopped at any moment ... if one person in Moscow simply gives the order," Zelensky said, in an apparent reference to Russian President Vladimir Putin. "And the fact that there is still no such order is obviously a humiliation for the whole world."

Ukraine now says its aim is to push Russian forces back as far as possible on the battlefield, counting on advanced missile systems pledged in recent days by the United States and Britain to swing the war in its favor.

Asked about Macron's mediation offer on national television, Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said: "Until we receive weapons in their full amount, until we strengthen our positions, until we push them [Russia's forces] back as far as possible to the borders of Ukraine, there is no point in holding negotiations."

Moscow says the Western weapons will pour "fuel on the fire," but will not change the course of what it calls a "special military operation" to disarm Ukraine and rid it of dangerous nationalists.

Russia's RIA news agency quoted President Vladimir Putin as saying Moscow was easily coping with US weapons systems sent to Ukraine and had destroyed dozens of them.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday said Western sanctions would have no effect on the country's oil exports and predicted a big jump in profits from energy shipments this year, Tass news agency reported.

Intense fighting

Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk province, said Russian forces had suffered severe defeats and were blowing up bridges across the Siverskyi Donets river to prevent Ukraine from bringing in military reinforcements and delivering aid to civilians in Sievierodonetsk.

"Right now, our soldiers have pushed them back, they [the Russians] are suffering huge casualties," Gaidai said in a live TV broadcast on Saturday.

"The Russian army, as we understand, is throwing all its efforts, all its reserves in that [Sievierodonetsk] direction. Russians are blowing up bridges, so we could not bring in reinforcements to our boys in Sievierodonetsk."

Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Luhansk province

The governor said Ukrainian forces had recaptured around 20% of the territory they had lost in the city.

Both sides have suffered punishing losses in street-by-street battles for the Soviet-era factory city, where roads have been riddled with craters and destroyed vehicles.

If Sievierodonetsk falls, neighboring Lysychansk would be the last city that Russia needs to capture to have full control of Luhansk province, which along with Donetsk province makes up the Donbas.

The area has become the focus of Russia's invasion as President Vladimir Putin seeks to rebuild momentum after a failed attempt to take the capital Kyiv.

Ukraine's military said on Saturday Russia had used artillery to conduct "assault operations" in Sievierodonetsk, but Russian forces retreated and Ukrainian troops are holding positions inside the city.

Reuters reached Sievierodonetsk on Thursday and was able to verify that Ukrainians still held part of the city.

Russian soldiers attempted to advance towards Lysychansk, across the Siverskyi Donetsk River from Sievierodonetsk but were stopped, Ukraine's military general staff said.

Ukrainian officials are counting on advanced missile systems that the United States and Britain recently pledged to swing the war in their favor, and Ukrainian troops have already begun training on them.

Ukraine wants to strengthen its positions on the ground with the help of new weapons deliveries from the West before it resumes peace talks with Russia, Ukrainian negotiator David Arakhamia said.

"Our armed forces are ready to use (the new weapons)...and then I think we can initiate a new round of talks from a strengthened position," he told Ukrainian national television on Friday.

No point in negotiations

Ukraine said on Saturday there was no point in negotiating with Russia until Moscow's forces are pushed back as far as possible towards Ukraine's borders.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak made the comment when asked about an offer from French President Emmanuel Macron to mediate talks between Kyiv and Moscow to end the war in Ukraine that passed the 100 day mark on Friday.

."..Until we receive weapons in their full amount, until we strengthen our positions, until we push them (Russia's forces) back as far as possible to the borders of Ukraine, there is no point in holding negotiations," Podolyak said on television.

Ukraine, which says that Russia has already occupied about 20% of its territory, is now receiving more powerful weapons from the West.

Among other things, the United States will give Ukraine precision HIMARS rocket systems allowing it to hit Russian positions from a longer-range.

"Our armed forces are ready to use (the new weapons)… and then I think we can initiate a new round of talks from a strengthened position," David Arakhamia, Ukrainian lawmaker and a member of the negotiation team, said on Friday.

Ukrainian plane shot down

Russia's defense ministry claimed on Saturday to have shot down a Ukrainian military plane carrying weapons to the Black Sea port of Odesa. 

They additionally claimed to have launched missiles and successfully hit an artillery training center in Ukraine's Sumy region, TASS reported. The training center allegedly housed foreign instructors. 

Another strike destroyed a "foreign mercenaries'" outpost in the Odesa region, it said.

None of these claims could be verified by western media so far.

101 days in: The impact of the Ukraine-Russia war

Thousands have died, millions have been uprooted from their homes and the global economy has been greatly disrupted since Moscow’s forces were driven back from Kyiv in the first months of the conflict, 101 days ago.

Russia still controls around a fifth of the country, about half seized in 2014 and half captured since launching its invasion on February 24.

For both sides, the massive Russian assault in the east in recent weeks has been one of the deadliest phases of the war, with Ukraine saying it is losing 60-100 soldiers every day.

Ukrainian intel in touch with captured fighters

Ukraine's intelligence services are in communication with the captured Azovstal steelworks fighters and Kyiv is doing all it can to ensure their release, Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy said late on Friday.

Uncertainty has surrounded the fate of hundreds of fighters taken into Russian custody in mid-May after being ordered to stand down. 

"It is through them (intelligence services) that we are learning about the conditions of the detention, nutrition and the possibility of their release."

Ukrainian Interior Minister Denys Monastyrskiy to Ukrainian television

"We all know that they will all be here, in Kyiv, and we are doing everything possible to do so."

Russia seized full control of Mariupol earlier this month when more than 2,400 Ukrainian fighters were taken into custody.

Earlier this week, a ship left Mariupol for Russia with a cargo of metal. Ukraine said the shipment from the port, whose capture gave Moscow an overland bridge linking mainland Russia and pro-Russian separatist territory to annexed Crimea, amounted to looting.

A ship sent to load metal and ship it to Russia has entered the Ukrainian port of Mariupol, state-owned TASS news agency reported on Saturday, the second vessel to arrive in the southeastern city since Russia completed its capture last month.

 Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Rossiya-1 TV channel in Sochi (credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/ VIA REUTERS) Russian President Vladimir Putin gives an interview to Rossiya-1 TV channel in Sochi (credit: SPUTNIK/MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/ VIA REUTERS)

Putin shifts blame for global food prices

Russian President Vladimir Putin denied on Friday that Moscow was preventing Ukrainian ports from exporting grains, instead blaming rising global food prices on the West.

He said the best solution would be for Western sanctions on Russia's ally Belarus to be lifted and for Ukraine to export grain through that country.

The war has had a devastating impact on the global economy, especially for poor food-importing countries. Ukraine is one of the world's leading sources of grain and cooking oil, but those supplies were cut off by the closure of its Black Sea ports, with more than 20 million tonnes of grain stuck in silos.