Russian forces leave Snake Island and continue the assault eastward

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces withdrew Thursday from a strategic Black Sea island, potentially mitigating the threat to the vital Ukrainian port city of Odessa, but continued their effort to encircle the last bastion of resistance in the east

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces withdrew from a strategic Black Sea island on Thursday, potentially mitigating the threat to the vital Ukrainian port city of Odessa, but continued their effort to encircle the last bastion of resistance in the eastern province of Luhansk.

The Kremlin described the removal from Snake Island as a “goodwill gesture”. But the Ukrainian army claimed to have forced the Russians to flee in two small speedboats following a barrage of Ukrainian artillery and missile strikes. The exact number of soldiers was not disclosed.

“Unable to withstand the impact of our artillery, missile and aviation units, the Russian occupiers left Snake Island. The Odessa region is completely liberated,” the Ukrainian military said in its update. regular day on social media Thursday night.

A senior Ukrainian military official, Oleksiy Gromov, said earlier that Kyiv planned to deploy troops to Snake Island, but did not specify a timetable.

“At the moment we control (the island) with our weapons: long-range artillery, rocket units and aviation,” Gromov said.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the withdrawal was intended to demonstrate that Moscow is not obstructing UN efforts to establish a humanitarian corridor for the export of agricultural products from Ukraine.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of blockading Ukrainian ports to prevent grain exports, contributing to a global food crisis. Russia has denied this and said Ukraine must remove mines from the Black Sea to allow safe navigation.

Turkey has sought to broker a deal to unblock grain exports. But talks are dragging on as Kyiv fears Russia will exploit the removal of mines to attack Odessa.

Snake Island sits along a busy shipping lane. Russia took control of it in the early days of the war in the apparent hope of using it as staging ground for an assault on Odessa.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that while the withdrawal would not guarantee the security of the Black Sea region, it would “significantly limit” Russian activities there.

“Step by step we will drive (Russia) out of our sea, our land, our sky,” he said in his evening speech.

It was unclear whether the evacuation of Snake Island meant a change in Moscow’s designs on Ukraine’s biggest port, which is crucial for shipping grain to Africa, the Middle East and other countries. other parts of the world. It is also the headquarters of the country’s navy.

The island – shrouded in myth since ancient times – took on legendary significance for Ukraine’s resistance to Russian invasion early on, when Ukrainian troops reportedly received a request from a Russian warship to surrender or be bombarded. The answer supposedly came back, “Go (expletive) yourself.”

Ukraine celebrated the story with patriotic fervor, issuing a postage stamp in commemoration.

The Ukrainian defenders of the island were captured by the Russians but later freed in a prisoner exchange. After taking the island, the Ukrainian army heavily shelled the small Russian garrison and its air defenses.

At a NATO summit in Madrid, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson presented the Russian withdrawal as a sign that Ukraine would prevail in the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Ultimately, it will be impossible for Putin to maintain a country that will not accept” the occupation, Johnson said.

Meanwhile, Moscow has maintained its efforts to take control of the entire Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. It focuses on the city of Lysychansk, the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in Lugansk province.

Russian troops and their separatist allies control 95% of Lugansk and about half of Donetsk, the two provinces that make up the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass.

Ukraine said the Russians were shelling Lysychansk and clashing with Ukrainian defenders around an oil refinery on its edges.

Ukraine’s military said late Thursday that Russia had “partial success” that day around the plant, some 17 kilometers southwest of the city. They made no reference to claims that the attacking forces could have crossed the strategic Siverskiy Donets river and entered the city from the north.

Zelenskyy said in his evening speech that the situation in Donbass remained “the most difficult and extremely difficult”.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said Russian reconnaissance units trying to enter Lysychansk on Wednesday had been pushed back. He said the Russians were trying to block a highway used to deliver supplies and completely encircle the town.

“The Russians threw almost all their forces to seize the city,” Haidai said, but denied that Lysychansk had been surrounded.

Nevertheless, Haidai noted that as of Thursday evening, evacuations from the city were impossible due to heavy shelling and mined access roads. Earlier, the Ukrainian army had declared that it did not plan a retreat from Lysychansk.

A representative of the Russian-backed separatists in Luhansk claimed pro-Russian forces entered Lysychansk on Thursday, after a perilous river crossing – which, if true, would be a significant development.

Military analysts previously told the AP that Russian forces were unlikely to cross the river without major casualties due to the high positions of the defenders.

It was impossible to immediately verify the accuracy of the statements made by Andrey Marochko, who heads the armed forces of the self-proclaimed and unrecognized separatist territory, to the Russian agency Interfax. There has been no official confirmation from Moscow or Kyiv.

In other developments:

Ukraine’s president on Thursday welcomed the launch of Ukrainian electricity exports to EU member state Romania, which Zelenskyy called “only the first step” in a process that could see “an important part” Russian gas consumed by Europeans replaced by Ukrainian energy.

— US President Joe Biden has said his administration will send an additional $800 million in security aid to Ukraine, including rockets and advanced air defense systems. In his late-night address, Zelenskyy thanked Biden for the move, saying the gear “soon will go to the front lines to work for Ukraine, to defend freedom.”

– Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who spoke with Putin on Thursday after his visit to Ukraine, said he handed the Russian leader a letter from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He did not specify.

— A senior Russian official has warned that Moscow may view Western sanctions as a cause for war. “In certain circumstances, such hostile measures could be perceived… even as a casus belli,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, said in a speech to a legal forum.

— Speaking during a visit to Turkmenistan on Thursday, Putin said his goals in Ukraine had not changed since the start of the war. He said they were “the liberation of Donbass, the protection of this people and the creation of conditions that would guarantee the security of Russia itself”. He made no mention of his stated initial goals of “demilitarizing” and “denazifying” Ukraine. “As you can see, the troops are moving and reaching the marks that have been set for them for a certain stage of this combat work. Everything is going according to plan,” Putin said.

– Funerals were scheduled for Thursday for some of the 18 people confirmed killed in a Russian airstrike on Monday on a busy shopping center in the central city of Kremenchuk. Crews searched the rubble for 20 people still missing.

— Sweden announced its intention to send more military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons and demining equipment. Sweden was this week invited to join NATO, a process that could take months.

– Iranian state media said on Thursday that Iran had offered to expand financial exchanges with Russia and cooperate on energy. Both countries are subject to heavy Western sanctions. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Putin met on the sidelines of a summit in Turkmenistan.


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Francesca Ebel, Associated Press

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