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Ukraine goes on the counteroffensive as Russians fall back

By John Psaropoulos
Ukrainian service members walk among debris of damaged buildings after a Russian attack in Kharkiv, Ukraine [File: Felipe Dana/AP]

Ukraine moved on the counteroffensive during week 11 of Russia’s war, taking back towns to the north and east of the second-largest city Kharkiv.

According to some news reports, Russian forces retreated to regroup around defensive positions less than 10km (6 miles) from the Russian border, with Ukrainian units in hot pursuit.

“This Ukrainian operation is developing into a successful, broader counteroffensive – as opposed to the more localised counterattacks that Ukrainian forces have conducted throughout the war to secure key terrain and disrupt Russian offensive operations,” said the Institute for the Study of War.

“Ukrainian forces are notably retaking territory along a broad arc around Kharkiv rather than focusing on a narrow thrust, indicating an ability to launch larger-scale offensive operations than we have observed so far in the war.”

Reflecting increased confidence, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy for the first time outlined strict conditions on May 6 to enter peace talks with Russia, including a withdrawal of Russian forces to pre-February 24 borders, the return of nearly six million refugees, membership in the European Union, and accountability for those Russians who committed war crimes.

These remarks were a far cry from those Zelenskyy made on April 10. “No one wants to negotiate with a person or people who tortured this nation,” Zelenskyy said. But “we don’t want to lose opportunities, if we have them, for a diplomatic solution”.

Elsewhere, the war seemed to have reached an impasse; nowhere did Russia score a significant advance.

In Zaporizhzhia, in the country’s south, locals reported a Russian unit shot up 20 of its vehicles to avoid combat duty.

‘Escalatory trajectory’

The unexpected difficulty of seizing Ukraine has raised questions about how long Russia will commit lives and money. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin’s only military ally, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, has said, “I feel like this operation has dragged on.”

United States Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told a Congressional committee that Putin “is preparing for a prolonged conflict … moving along a more unpredictable and potentially escalatory trajectory”.

CIA Director William Burns said Putin “doesn’t believe he can afford to lose” in Ukraine. “I think he’s convinced right now that doubling down still will enable him to make progress.”

But there are limits to Putin’s stamina, said Emmanuel Karagiannis, a reader in international security at King’s College London.

“Since 1991, almost all inter-state wars have lasted weeks or months. Given the intensity of Western sanctions and the number of Russian casualties, Moscow cannot afford to continue the war for years,” Karagiannis told Al Jazeera.

The European Commission unveiled a sixth round of sanctions on May 4, including “a complete import ban on all Russian oil, seaborne and pipeline, crude and refined” by the end of the year, in President Ursula Von der Leyen’s words to European Parliament.

The US House of Representatives is preparing to approve a new $40bn package of military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

“Western military support for Ukraine has been a game-changing factor, which Moscow apparently did not anticipate in its strategy. The Russian army was ill-prepared for such a long campaign and now suffers massive losses,” Karagiannis said.

‘We will continue to fight’

The only good news for Russia during the week was that its forces finally began to storm the tunnels under the Azovstal metallurgical plant in Mariupol, where at least 1,000 Ukrainian fighters refuse to surrender. Russia has bombed the plant from the air and ground artillery, but had not risked the potentially high casualties of close-quarters combat.

On May 5, Captain Sviatoslav Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov regiment, told the Hromadske news service, “The Azovstal plant has been actively stormed for three days now … fighting is underway.” He sent a message via Telegram saying, “Give the opportunity to pick up the bodies of soldiers so that Ukrainians can say goodbye to their heroes.”

The head of the Mariupol patrol police, Mykhailo Vershinin, said the defenders’ perimeter was shrinking and the wounded were piling up.

On May 8, Palamar implied defeat may come soon. “We will continue to fight as long as we are alive to repel the Russian occupiers,” he told an online conference. “We don’t have much time; we are coming under intense shelling.”

The battle for Mariupol has become emblematic of Ukraine’s spirit. Removing the last pocket of resistance would be a symbolic victory for Putin, as well as enabling him to claim the entire littoral of the Sea of Azov.

‘We will leave when we want to’

If Mariupol falls, Odesa will be Ukraine’s last major port on the Black Sea. Russian missiles have disabled its airport runway and severed road connections north to the capital Kyiv and east to Transnistria. But during the 11th week of the war, the predominantly Russian-speaking city came under missile fire.

On May 8, Spyros Boubouras was having lunch at a restaurant with his brother and parents when a missile destroyed a house 150 metres (490 feet) away. The family dove into a basement for shelter. “There was no military target there,” said Boubouras. “They were holiday homes.”

Then on Monday night, Boubouras heard the twin explosions of missiles destroying a shopping centre across town. “It’s 10km [6 miles] from our house, but we heard it quite loudly. A friend of mine lives 500 metres [1,640 feet] from the shopping centre. All of his windows were blown out. It was a huge shopping centre and it was completely demolished,” he told Al Jazeera.

Ukrainian forces are fighting fierce battles in Mykolaiv, 180km (111 miles) east of Odesa, sparing the port city daily contact with the war until now, but “when people hear sirens now, they immediately try to find a basement”, said Boubouras, a Greek whose family has run a construction business there for the past 25 years.

Asked why the family has not repatriated to Greece, Boubouras said: “That is what Russia wants – to empty the cities. We will leave when we want to, not when Russia wants us to.”

Despite the attack, Odesa remains an oasis of tolerance, said Boubouras.

“I’ve never come across Ukrainians having antipathy towards the Russians … even during these eight years that there’s war in the Donbas and the Crimea is occupied. At work there was never discrimination,” he said.

Asked what Odesa’s Russian speakers think of Putin’s invasion, he added, “They are 100 percent against this war.”

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Dive Deeper:
Ukraine wages counteroffensive against Russian forces in east
Ukrainian forces have launched a counteroffensive near the Russian-held town of Izium in eastern Ukraine, a regional governor said on…
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Ukraine ‘pushing Russian troops back’
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Timeline: Week 11 of Russia’s war in Ukraine
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One subscription that gives you access to news from hundreds of sites
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