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Ukraine’s military has said that Russian troops are withdrawing from areas near Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in what appears to be the latest setback for Moscow’s military offensive in the country’s east.

The General Staff of the Ukrainian armed forces announced the development early on May 14, saying that Russian troops appeared to be focusing on guarding supply routes and trying to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications” in Ukraine’s Donetsk region.

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Kharkiv has been under heavy bombardment by Russian forces since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, but never fell. The U.S. based Institute for the Study of War, said in its latest assessment of the war on May 13 that Ukraine appears to have won the battle of Kharkiv,” noting that Ukrainian forces had prevented Russian troops from encircling, “let alone seizing,” the city.

Speaking during his nightly nationwide address on May 13, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said that his country’s forces are making progress in their efforts to counter the Russian offensive, and had retaken six towns and villages over the previous day.

However, neither side appears to be making major breakthroughs, and while Zelenskiy said that his military is doing everything it can to drive Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, “no one today can predict how long this war will last.”

Zelenskiy said the outcome will depend not only on the Ukrainian people, but on “our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world.”

Ukraine’s top military intelligence official, Major General Kyrlyo Budanov, gave a more optimistic assessment. Budanov told Sky News on May 14 that the “breaking point will be in the second part of August” and that “most of the active combat actions will have finished by the end of this year.”

“As a result, we will renew Ukrainian power in all our territories that we have lost, including Donbas and Crimea,” he said.

Russian forces have suffered high casualties since their invasion of Ukraine in late February, and their ongoing offensive in the east of the country has made minimal territorial gains and is widely seen to be behind schedule.

But while Russia failed both in its attempts to quickly take all of Ukraine and then to encircle Ukrainian troops in besieged areas, Kyiv now sees the war entering a “third phase” in which Russian forces will seek to defend the territory it has captured.

“This shows that they plan to make it a long war,” Ukrainian Interior Ministry adviser Viktor Andrusiv said in televised remarks on May 13. “Moscow appears to think that by dragging out the war in this way they can force the West to the negotiating table and get Ukraine to give in.”

Zelenskiy said that “very difficult negotiations” with Moscow continue in an effort to evacuate Ukrainian forces from the southeastern port city of Mariupol, which has been devastated by Russia’s military as it tries open a land corridor to the seized territory of Crimea.

Dozens of seriously wounded Ukrainian personnel remain trapped inside the city’s Azovstal metals plant, the last Ukrainian holdout in the city that has been the target of a seven-week siege by Russian forces.

On May 14, the British Defense Ministry said that the civilian administration placed in charge of Ukraine’s southern Kherson region by the Russian military will ask Moscow to include it into the Russian Federation.

In the event the occupied region does carry out a referendum, the British Defense Ministry said on Twitter, the vote would almost certainly be manipulated to show a clear majority of the region’s population wants to leave Ukraine.

On May 11, the Zaporizhzhya Regional Military Administration in southeastern Ukraine said that Russia was not changing its war plans, which it said entail occupying Ukrainian territories and creating pseudo-republics in the southern regions.

Based on reporting by AP, Reuters, and dpa

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