Russia presses offensive into Ukraine

KYIV, UKRAINE   -   Russian forces pressed ahead Friday with an offen­sive into northeast Ukraine but President Vladimir Pu­tin said there were no cur­rent plans to occupy the key city of Kharkiv. On a trip to China, Putin said the latest assault was direct retalia­tion for Ukraine’s shelling of Russia’s border regions and his country was trying to create a “security zone”.

“This is their fault be­cause they have shelled and continue to shell residential neighbourhoods in border areas,” Putin told reporters. He added there was no in­tention at this stage to take Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, about 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the border. More than one million peo­ple still live there.

Russia launched the surprise offensive into Ukraine’s northeast on May 10, sending thousands of troops across the border and unleashing artillery fire on several settlements.

Both countries said Russian troops were still advancing, but Ukraine warned heavy fighting lay ahead. Russia’s defence ministry said its army had “liberated 12 settlements in the Kharkiv region over the last week... and continues to advance deep into enemy defences.”

Russian forces took 278 square kilometres (107 square miles) -- their big­gest gains in a year-and-a-half -- between May 9 and 15, AFP has calculated us­ing data from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

Most has been in the northeast, though its troops have also advanced in southern Ukraine.

The Ukrainian governor of the Kharkiv region, Oleg Synegubov, said Russian forces were trying to sur­round Vovchansk, an al­most deserted town which had a pre-war population of around 18,000. “The en­emy has actually started to destroy the town. It is not just dangerous to be there, but impossible,” Synegubov told a briefing. He said Ukrainian troops were re­sisting, but warned Russia was gaining ground near Lukyantsi, a village around 20 kilometres (12 miles) northeast of Kharkiv city. Kyiv pulled its troops back from that area this week amid heavy fire and has rushed in reinforcements.

Ukraine army chief Olek­sandr Syrsky said Russia was trying to force Ukraine to pull up even more troops from its reserves. “We re­alise that there will be heavy fighting ahead and the enemy is preparing for it,” he said. Russia has a manpower and ammunition advantage across the front lines, and military analysts say the fresh offensive could aim to further stretch Ukrai­nian troops and resources.

Ukraine has evacuated al­most 9,000 people from the area since Russia launched the offensive. The city of Kharkiv has been targeted with intense Russian aerial bombardments, includ­ing the weeks ahead of the ground assault.

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