Pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin mounted both on the battlefield and in the halls of global power as Ukrainian troops pushed their counteroffensive Saturday to advance farther into the country’s partly recaptured northeast.
At a high-level summit in Uzbekistan, Putin vowed to press his attack on Ukraine despite recent military setbacks but also faced concerns voiced by India and China over the drawn-out conflict.
“I know that today’s era is not of war,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the Russian leader in televised comments as the two met Friday in Uzbekistan. “We discussed this with you on the phone several times, that democracy and dialogue touch the entire world.”
At the same summit a day earlier, Putin acknowledged China’s unspecified “questions and concerns” about the war in Ukraine while also thanking Chinese President Xi Jinping for his government’s “balanced position” on the conflict.
The hurried retreat of his troops this month from parts of a northeast region they occupied early in the war, together with the rare public reservations expressed by key allies, underscored the challenges Putin faces on all fronts. Both China and India maintain strong ties with Russia and had sought to remain neutral on Ukraine.
Xi, in a statement released by his government, expressed support for Russia’s “core interests” but also interest in working together to “inject stability” into world affairs. Modi said he wanted to discuss “how we can move forward on the path of peace.”
“We must find some way out and you too must contribute to that,” Modi stressed in a rare public rebuke.
The comments cast a shadow over a summit that Putin had hoped would burnish his diplomatic status and show he was not so internationally isolated.
New defence line emerging: analysts
On the battlefield, Western defence officials and analysts on Saturday said Russian forces were apparently setting up a new defensive line in Ukraine’s northeast after Kyiv’s troops broke through the previous one.
The British defence ministry said the new front line likely is between the Oskil River and Svatove, some 150 kilometres southeast of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city.
The new line emerged after the Ukrainian counteroffensive punched a hole through the war’s previous front line, allowing Kyiv’s soldiers to recapture large swaths of land in the northeastern Kharkiv region that borders Russia.
After the Russian troops retreated from the city of Izium, Ukrainian authorities discovered a mass grave site, one of the largest found so far. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Friday that more than 440 graves have been found at the site but that the number of victims is not yet known.
Zelenskyy said the graves contained the bodies of hundreds of civilian adults and children, as well as soldiers, and some had been tortured, shot or killed by artillery shelling. He cited evidence of atrocities, such as a body with a rope around its neck and broken arms.
Ukrainian forces, in the meantime, are crossing the Oskil River in the Kharkiv region and have placed artillery there, the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Saturday.
The river, which flows south from Russia into Ukraine, had been a natural break in the newly emerged front lines since Ukraine launched its push about a week ago.
“Russian forces are likely too weak to prevent further Ukrainian advances along the entire Oskil River,” the institute said.
Signs of advancement in east
Videos circulating online on Saturday indicated that Ukrainian forces are also continuing to retake land from Russian forces in the country’s embattled east, although their veracity could not be independently verified.
One video showed a Ukrainian soldier walking past a damaged building, then pointing up over his shoulder at a colleague hanging the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag over a mobile phone tower. The soldier in the video identified the seized village as Dibrova, just northeast of the city of Sloviansk in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.
Another video showed two Ukrainian soldiers in what appeared to be a bell tower, with one saying they had retaken the village of Shchurove, just northeast of Sloviansk.
The Ukrainian military and the Russians did not immediately comment on the two villages.
Elsewhere in Ukraine, Russian forces kept pounding cities and villages with missile strikes and shelling.
A Russian missile attack early Saturday started a fire in Kharkiv’s industrial area, said Oleh Syniehubov, the regional governor. Firefighters extinguished the blaze.
Syniehubov said remnants of the missiles suggest the Russians fired S-300 surface-to-air missiles at the city. The S-300 is designed for striking missiles or aircraft in the sky, not targets on the ground. Analysts say Russia’s use of the missiles suggest they may be running out of some precision munitions.
Shelling of the nearby city of Chuhuiv later on Saturday killed an 11-year-old girl, Syniehubov reported.
In the southern Zaporizhzhia region, a large part of which is occupied by the Russians, one person was wounded after the Russian forces shelled the city of Orikhiv, Zaporizhzhia’s Ukrainian governor Oleksandr Starukh reported on Telegram. Starukh said the Russian troops also shelled two villages in the region, destroying several civilian facilities.
Explosions were also reported Saturday in Russian-occupied parts of Zaporizhzhia. Russian-installed official Vladimir Rogov said on Telegram that at least five blasts were heard in the city of Melitopol, which was occupied early on in the war.
The city’s Ukrainian mayor, Ivan Fedorov, said the explosions took place in a village south of the city, where the Russian troops had relocated some military equipment.
Ukraine’s central Dnipropetrovsk region also came under Russian fire overnight, according to its governor, Valentyn Reznichenko. “The enemy attacked six times and launched more than 90 deadly projectiles on peaceful cities and villages,” Reznichenko said.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s atomic energy operator, Energoatom, said a convoy of 25 trucks has brought diesel fuel and other critical supplies to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant — Europe’s largest, which was shut down a week ago amid fears that fighting in the area could result in a radiation disaster.
The trucks were allowed through Russian checkpoints on Friday to deliver spare parts for repairs of damaged power lines, chemicals for the operation of the plant and additional fuel for backup diesel generators, Energoatom said.