The Russian military has suffered heavy losses in the eastern city of Kharkiv, with troops forced to pull back in the face of attacks from “highly motivated” Ukrainian soldiers, according to British intelligence.
Russia’s focus on operations in the Donbas region has opened a window of opportunity for the Ukrainians, who have regained control of several towns and villages near Kharkiv, the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) said.
Moscow had expected its troops to encounter “limited resistance” in the city, which is 40 kilometres from the Russian border, the MoD said. But following fierce clashes some of the invading troops in the region were forced to retreat to replenish and reorganise.
“Russia’s prioritisation of operations in the Donbas has left elements deployed in the Kharkiv Oblast vulnerable to the mobile, and highly motivated, Ukrainian counter-attacking force,” the MoD said on Twitter.
“Despite Russia’s success in encircling Kharkiv in the initial stages of the conflict, it has reportedly withdrawn units from the region to reorganise and replenish its forces following heavy losses.
“Once reconstituted, these forces will likely deploy to the eastern bank of the Siverskyi Donets River, forming a blocking force to protect the western flank of Russia’s main force concentration and main supply routes for operations in the vicinity of Izium.
“The withdrawal of Russian forces from the Kharkiv Oblast is a tacit recognition of Russia’s inability to capture key Ukrainian cities where they expected limited resistance from the population.”
Kyiv has offered to release Russian prisoners of war in exchange for the safe evacuation of badly injured fighters trapped in the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol.
While fighting raged in Ukraine’s east and south, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said on Wednesday that negotiations were under way to release the injured fighters who are holed up in the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol. She said there were different options, but “none of them is ideal”.
Those negotiations are taking place as Kyiv prepares for its first war crimes trial of a captured Russian soldier. Ukraine’s top prosecutor said her office charged Vadin Shyshimarin, 21, for the killing of an unarmed 62-year-old civilian who was gunned down while riding a bicycle in February, four days into the war.
Meanwhile, Finland’s leadership on Thursday supported joining Nato, paving the way for the nation bordering Russia to begin the membership process.
The dramatic move by Helsinki was announced by President Sauli Niinisto and Prime Minister Sanna Marin in a joint statement, meaning Finland is virtually certain to seek membership of the trans-Atlantic alliance.
“Now that the moment of decision-making is near, we state our equal views, also for information to the parliamentary groups and parties,” Mr Niinisto and Ms Marin said in a joint statement.
“Nato membership would strengthen Finland’s security.”
Neighbouring Sweden is expected to decide to join Nato in the coming days.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Finland and Sweden have been discussing whether to abandon their historic, decades-old neutrality and join Nato.
If Finland joins, it would mean the biggest change in the country’s defence and security policy since the Second World War.