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Russian forces are giving up on Ukraine's second city of Kharkiv and retreating after weeks of bombardment and a failed effort to encircle it. 

Ukraine's general staff said the Russians were pulling back from the northeastern city and focusing on guarding supply routes, as Kyiv and Moscow's forces engaged in a grinding battle for the country's eastern industrial heartland.

Russian forces will instead focus on launching mortar, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern Donetsk province in order to 'deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.'

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukraine 'appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv.' It said, 'Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from around the city.'

It means Ukrainian artillery can now threaten the town of Vovchansk, which contains a key highway and rail line supplying Russian forces in Donbas. 

Pictured: A Ukrainian Army soldier walks past a burning natural gas terminal on May 13, 2022 on the northern outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine. Russian forces are giving up on Ukraine's second city of Kharkiv and retreating after spending weeks bombarding it

Pictured: Ukrainian units patrol the surroundings of Kharkiv in the wake of the Russian retreat. Ukraine's general staff said the Russians were pulling back from the northeastern city and focusing on guarding supply routes, as Kyiv and Moscow's forces engaged in a grinding battle for the country's eastern industrial heartland

Pictured: A destroyed Russian armored vehicle pictured on May 13, 2022 on the northern outskirts of Kharkiv, Ukraine. Russian forces will instead focus on launching mortar, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern Donetsk province in order to 'deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications'

Pictured: A damaged Russian tank turret blown clean off the chassis near the village of Mala Rohan, Kharkiv, Ukraine, 13 May 2022

A rocket is launched from a truck-mounted multiple rocket launcher near Svyatohirsk, eastern Ukraine, on May 14

Ukrainian artillery can now threaten the town of Vovchansk, which contains a key highway and rail line supplying Russian forces in Donbas

Ukraine has launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a city 78 miles south of Kharkiv that has been under effective Russian control since at least the beginning of April

The mayor of Kharkiv, Ihor Terekhov, told the BBC that Russian troops had only ever managed to enter a small part of the key north-eastern city once, and were not there for a long time.

'The Russians were constantly shelling Kharkiv because they were staying very close to the city.'

But now that they had retreated, 'people are gradually coming back to the city. We provide water, gas and electricity supply to all the citizens. 

'However, unfortunately, many residential buildings are destroyed or damaged. So, in the future we will have to do huge reconstruction.'

Regional governor Oleh Sinegubov said in a post on the Telegram messaging app that there had been no shelling attacks on Kharkiv in the past day.

He added that Russian troops had heavily minded the region and smaller towns and settlements were still under threat. 

'This indicates that it is too early to relax,' he said. 'I urge everyone to respond adequately to alarms and not to be on the streets unnecessarily.' 

He said Ukraine had launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a city 78 miles south of Kharkiv that has been under effective Russian control since at least the beginning of April.

Britain's Defence Ministry said Russia lost 'significant armoured manoeuvre elements' of at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. 

A Russian battalion tactical group consists of about 1,000 troops. The MoD said the risky river crossing was a sign of 'the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine.'

Ukrainian commanders said late Wednesday that Russia's offensive has now halted around Izyum, Kherson and Melitopol as Putin's men are forced onto the defensive after running out of momentum.

If confirmed, it means the only active section of the frontline is in the southern portion of the Donbas - between Severodonetsk and Avdiivka, where limited Russian attacks are taking place - and in Mariupol where Ukrainian troops are still holding out inside the Azovstal steel works.

Though the fight is far from over, a stalled Russian advance and Ukrainian counter-attacks are what preceded Russia's retreat from Kyiv earlier in the war. A similar retreat from Donbas would spell disaster for Putin.

Ukrainian president Volodymy Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation that Ukrainians were doing everything they could to drive out the Russians, but 'no one today can predict how long this war will last.'

'This will depend, unfortunately, not only on our people, who are already giving their maximum,' he said. 'This will depend on our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world.'

This week, the president and prime minister of Finland announced they want the Nordic nation to seek NATO membership. 

Officials in Sweden could follow within days. The Nordic nations' potential bids to join the Western military alliance were thrown into question when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country is 'not of a favorable opinion' toward the idea.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to meet his NATO counterparts, including the Turkish foreign minister, this weekend in Germany.

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Ukraine cuts Russia gas at hub that feeds Europe; Kremlin signals plan to annex southern region

ZAPORIZHZHIA, Ukraine -- Ukraine stopped the flow of Russian natural gas through one hub that feeds European homes and industry on Wednesday, while a pro-Kremlin official in a southern region seized by Russian troops said it would ask Moscow to annex it.

The remarks could be another sign of Russia's broader plan for Ukraine as it tries to salvage an invasion that has so far gone awry - amid concerns that the country may remain a source of continental and global instability for months, or even years, to come.

After his forces failed to quickly overrun the capital, President Vladimir Putin shifted his focus to the country's eastern heartland of the Donbas. But one of his commanders has suggested that Moscow's plans are broader, saying it also hopes to take control of the country's south and cut it off from the coast.

"The city of Kherson is Russia," Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of the regional administration installed by Moscow, told Russia's RIA Novosti news agency. He said regional officials wanted to make Kherson a "proper region" of Russia.

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Russian forces pounded away at the vital port of Odesa on Tuesday.

Russian-installed authorities don't always speak for Moscow, but last month, Stremousov ruled out returning control of the Kherson region to Ukrainian authorities.

Kherson borders Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and its capture was one of Russia's most important successes in the war.

In 11 weeks, the war has played out on battlefields in Ukrainian towns and cities but also in energy and financial markets, as Ukraine's allies in the West have sought to deprive Russia of money needed to fund the war with sanctions and energy embargoes.

The immediate practical impact of Wednesday's gas cutoff was likely to be limited since much of the gas can be directed through another pipeline, gas analyst Zongqiang Luo at Rystad Energy said.

Preliminary flow data suggested that was already happening, though Russia's state-owned giant Gazprom indicated some drop in supply. It said it was sending gas supplies to Europe through Ukraine in the amount of 72 million cubic meters, apparently down 25% from the day before.

The move highlights the broader risk to gas supplies in the war and holds symbolic significance as the first time Ukraine has disrupted the flow westward.

"Yesterday's decision is a small preview of what might happen if gas installations are hit by live fire and face the risk of extended downtimes," Luo said.

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He added that the interruption would also make it harder for European countries to refill underground storage for next winter and would "hasten Europe's plans to move away from imports of Russian gas."

The European Union has sought to reduce its dependence on Russian energy, phasing out its use of coal and considering doing the same for oil. Gas presents a more complicated problem, given both how much Europe uses and the technical difficulties in sourcing it elsewhere.

It was not clear if Russia would take any immediate hit, since it has long-term contracts and other ways of transporting gas.

On the battlefield, Ukrainian officials said a Russian rocket attack targeted an area around Zaporizhzhia, destroying unspecified infrastructure. There were no immediate reports of casualties. The southeastern city has been a refuge for many civilians who have fled a Russian siege in the devastated port city of Mariupol.

Russian troops also continued to pound the last redoubt of Ukrainian resistance in that city, its defenders said.

The Azov Regiment said on social media Wednesday that Russian forces carried out 38 airstrikes in the last 24 hours "on the territory" of the Azovstal steelworks.

The vast steel mill, with its network of underground tunnels and bunkers, has sheltered hundreds of Ukrainian troops and civilians during a monthslong siege. Scores of civilians were evacuated in recent days, but Ukrainian officials said Tuesday that some 100 civilians could still be trapped there.

The wives of two Ukrainian soldiers defending the mill met with Pope Francis on Wednesday and asked him to intervene to help arrange for the troops' evacuation. One, Yuliia Fedusiuk, said the troops were running out of water and have no food. She said she understood some civilians, who are relatives of the soldiers, remained in the mill.

Meanwhile, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested in his nightly address that the military was gradually pushing Russian troops away from Kharkiv - the country's second largest city, and a key to Russia's offensive in the Donbas.

He said his troops had driven Russian forces out of four villages near the city.

As his forces appear to gather steam in a nascent counteroffensive, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba voiced what appeared to be increasing confidence - and expanded goals - on Tuesday. He suggested to the Financial Times newspaper that Ukraine could go beyond just forcing Russia back to areas it held before the invasion began 11 weeks ago.

Kuleba's statement seemed to reflect political ambitions more than battlefield realities: Russian forces have made advances in the Donbas and control more of it than they did before the war began. But it highlights how Ukraine has stymied a larger, better-armed Russian military, surprising many who had anticipated a much quicker end to the conflict.

Meanwhile, the British Defense Ministry said Ukraine was targeting Russian forces on Snake Island in the northwestern Black Sea, in an effort to disrupt Moscow's attempts to expand its influence.

Russia has sought to reinforce its garrison on Snake Island, while "Ukraine has successfully struck Russian air defenses and resupply vessels with Bayraktar drones," the ministry said on Twitter. It said Russian resupply vessels had minimum protection after the Russian Navy retreated to Crimea after losing the flagship of its Black Sea fleet.

Satellite photos analyzed by The Associated Press show fighting there.

But the statement warned: "If Russia consolidates its position on (Snake) Island with strategic air defense and coastal defense cruise missiles, they could dominate the northwestern Black Sea."

Ukraine's natural gas pipeline operator said it would stop Russian shipments through a hub in a part of eastern Ukraine controlled by Moscow-backed separatists because of interference from "occupying forces," including the apparent siphoning of gas. It also complained about interference along the route last month.

Benchmark European gas futures seesawed Tuesday and Wednesday on the news, meaning consumers may face higher energy bills - at a time of already rising prices.

Higher prices would benefit Russia, though it has massive foreign reserves now thanks to the rapid rise in crude oil prices in recent months as global travel and business resumed in the wake of mass coronavirus pandemic lockdowns.

The hub in question handles about a third of Russian gas passing through Ukraine to Western Europe. Russia's state-owned natural gas giant Gazprom put the figure at about a quarter.

The move came as Western powers have been looking to ratchet up economic pressure on Moscow and bolster Ukraine's defenders. The U.S. House of Representatives approved a $40 billion Ukraine aid package Tuesday.

U.S. officials and NATO have expressed concerns that Russia may be digging in for a protracted conflict as the war grinds into its third month with little sign of a decisive military victory for either side and no resolution in sight.

The Atlantic alliance is also waiting to see whether Sweden and Finland, two key Baltic Sea neighbors of Russia, would announce plans to join NATO - in what could be a serious blow to Russia.


Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, David Keyton in Kyiv, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Lolita C. Baldor in Washington, Kelvin Chan in London and AP's worldwide staff contributed.

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