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The Ukrainian army says Russian troops are “focused on withdrawing” from Ukraine’s second-largest city. Meanwhile, Germany’s chancellor condemned the war’s impact on global food supplies. Follow DW for the latest.
Kharkiv has been the scene of heavy fighting for weeks
This article was last updated at 15:47 UTC/GMT
A delegation of US senators has traveled to Ukraine in a show of support amid Russia’s invasion.
The group, led by Republican leader Mitch McConnell, met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
In a message on Instagram, Zelenskyy said the visit was a powerful sign of bipartisan support from the US Congress and the American people. “Thank you for your leadership in helping us in our fight not only for our country, but also for democratic values and freedoms,” he said. “We really appreciate it.”
The senators met with Zelenskyy in the Ukrainian capital
The delegation included Republican senators Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas.
Their trip came after Kentucky Senator Rand Paul blocked the Senate’s approval of an additional $40 billion (€38.4 billion) in US aid for Ukraine. The bipartisan measure is now expected to be approved next week.
New Hungarian President Katalin Novak used her inauguration ceremony on Saturday to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Novak, a former Fidesz party lawmaker and ally of Prime Minister Viktor Orban, was elected to the largely ceremonial post in March.
“We condemn Putin’s aggression, the armed invasion of a sovereign state. We say eternally no to every effort aiming at the restoration of the Soviet Union,” she said.
She said her first trip abroad would be to Warsaw, in an apparent gesture to improve bilateral ties with Poland.
During her inauguration ceremony speech, Novak also called for war crimes in Ukraine to be investigated and punished
While Budapest and Warsaw are long-time allies in the EU, Hungary’s decision not to send weapons shipments to neighboring Ukraine has caused relations to sour. Budapest also opposes a planned EU embargo on Russian oil.
Finland’s ruling Social Democrats have come out in support of joining the NATO alliance following a joint call to join “without delay” by the Finnish president and prime minister.
With a majority of parliamentary support for the move, an official bid is expected soon. NATO officials have previously stated that the membership bid could be completed smoothly and rapidly.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Saturday that it was hard to know how long the West’s “total hybrid war” against Russia would last, adding that the consequences would be felt by everyone.
He claimed that Russia had done everything possible to avoid a direct confrontation, but that it would accept the challenge from the West.
His comments came as Finland looked to be preparing to seek membership in NATO after decades of military neutrality.
They also follow comments from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that it is not possible to predict when the war will end.
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto’s office said he spoke with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin about the Nordic country’s plans to join NATO.
“The conversation was direct and straight-forward and it was conducted without aggravations. Avoiding tensions was considered important,” Niinisto said, according to a statement by his office, adding that Finland had initiated the call.
Niinisto had announced his endorsement to join the alliance, and Finland’s ruling party is expected to announce its support this weekend.
The Kremlin said Putin told Niinisto that it would be a mistake for Finland to abandon its neutral status and join NATO.
The Russian president said Helsinki faced no security threats, and a change in its foreign policy could negatively affect its bilateral relations with Moscow, according to the Kremlin’s statement.
Moscow had earlier said Finland becoming a NATO member would pose a threat to Russia, warning that it would take “adequate precautionary measures” in response.
Russian Su-27 fighter jets took part in military exercises simulating repelling an airstrike on Russia’s Kaliningrad exclave, according to the Interfax news agency.
Interfax quoted the Russian Baltic Sea fleet’s press service as saying that the jets “destroyed” the planes of the simulated adversary during the drills.
The report came two days after Finland’s leadership announced intentions to join NATO, with Sweden also looking likely to follow suit.
Russia has sought to prevent an eastern expansion of NATO and claims to have launched its military operation in Ukraine to stop it from joining the Western alliance.
Foreign ministers of the Group of Seven (G7) leading economies called on Russia to end a blockade of Ukrainian grain exports, warning of a global food and energy crisis threatening developing countries.
“Russia’s war of aggression has generated one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history which now threatens those most vulnerable across the globe,” a G7 statement said after a three-day meeting in Germany.
“We are determined to accelerate a coordinated multilateral response to preserve global food security and stand by our most vulnerable partners in this respect,” it added.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, who hosted the meeting Weissenhaus, said the war had become a “global crisis.”
Russia is deliberately trying to expand the “grain” war around the world, especially in Africa, Baerbock said.
The top German diplomat said the G7 is examining alternatives to the transport of Ukrainian grain by ship to break the Russian blockade.
The G7 also urged Beijing, a key Moscow ally, “not to assist Russia in its war of aggression,” whether by undermining Western sanctions or justifying Russia’s actions in Ukraine.
Russian news agencies quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko as saying that the Kremlin will take precautionary measures if NATO deploys nuclear forces near Russian borders.
“It will be necessary to respond … by taking adequate precautionary measures that would ensure the viability of deterrence,” the Interfax agency quoted Grushko as saying.
His comments came as Finland and Sweden looked increasingly likely to join NATO.
Grushko said Moscow has no hostile intentions toward Finland and Sweden and does not see “real” reasons for them to join NATO.
Sweden and Finland joining NATO would mark a turning point for the two countries after being militarily neutral for decades.
The Ukrainian military said Russian troops were withdrawing from Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, after weeks of heavy fighting.
A spokesman for the Ukrainian General Staff said Russia’s main efforts “are focused on ensuring the withdrawal of its units from the city of Kharkiv.”
The northern city had been a priority target for Russian forces, but after Ukraine’s counteroffensive, Kyiv says Moscow was withdrawing from around Kharkiv and focusing on striking the eastern Donetsk region to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.”
The US-based Institute for the Study of War said late Friday that Russia seemed to have decided to withdraw from Kharkiv and focus on the eastern and western parts of Ukraine instead.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin likely intends to annex occupied southern and eastern Ukraine directly… in the coming months,” the think-tank said.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu spoke for the first time since the war in Ukraine started, US officials said.
The hour-long phone call was the highest-level of US contact with Moscow since Russia invaded Ukraine. A US defense official said it was necessary but did not resolve any “acute issues.”
The Pentagon said Austin “urged an immediate cease-fire in Ukraine and emphasized the importance of maintaining lines of communication.”
Ukraine’s military intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov told Sky News that he predicts the war will reach a turning point by mid-August and likely end by the end of the year.
“Most of the active combat actions will have finished by the end of this year,” he told the broadcaster.
“As a result, we will renew Ukrainian power in all our territories that we have lost, including Donbas and the Crimea,” he said, adding that Russia was already suffering huge losses.
Budanov also claimed that a coup to remove President Vladimir Putin was underway in Russia. He alleged Putin is seriously ill with cancer.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said he did not see any change of heart on the part of Russian President Vladimir Putin over his invasion of Ukraine.
Scholz’s remarks, part of an interview with news outlet t-online, came after the German leader spoke with Putin on the phone on Friday for more than an hour.
He said it was obvious that Russia had not achieved its stated war goals, including preventing NATO’s expansion to the east.
“NATO has not withdrawn, but has actually strengthened its forces on the alliance’s eastern flank. And the alliance will become even stronger when Finland and Sweden join NATO,” Scholz told t-online.
Scholz also vowed to continue to sanction Russia and support weapons deliveries for Ukraine.
“For Putin’s insane idea of wanting to expand the Russian empire, Russia and the whole world are paying a very high price right now,” Scholz said, noting the effect of the war on global food supplies that is especially hitting developing countries.
“That’s where real hunger is at stake — not just whether there’s enough sunflower oil on the supermarket shelves, as is the case here,” he added.
The British Defense Ministry said Russia was “highly likely” to use rigged referendums to impose its rule on Ukrainian regions after separatists announced seeking to join Russia.
Earlier this week, the pro-Moscow leaders of the Russian-occupied region of Kherson in southeastern Ukraine said they plan to ask for the area to become a part of Russia.
“If Russia carries out an accession referendum in Kherson, it will almost certainly manipulate the results to show a clear majority in favor of leaving Ukraine,” a British defense intelligence update said.
“Citizens in the Kherson region are likely to continue to demonstrate their opposition to Russian occupation,” it added.
German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser told the Rheinische Post newspaper’s Saturday edition that fewer Ukrainian refugees were arriving in Germany per day compared to two months ago.
“At the moment only around 2,000 people fleeing Ukraine are arriving in Germany per day. In mid-March we were seeing around 15,000 people a day,” she said.
Faeser noted that some 20,000 refugees, including some who had been in Germany, were returning to Ukraine via the Polish border, adding that she assumes the majority of arrivals will go back to Ukraine.
“Some will stay if people see the chance to find their feet in the German labor market with their qualifications,” she said.
The Interior Ministry has has so far recorded 700,000 people fleeing from Ukraine to Germany, according to data cited by the Welt am Sonntag newspaper.
Foreign ministers from the NATO alliance are meeting this weekend in Berlin to discuss their long-term strategy toward Russia amid the war in Ukraine.
They are expected to set out a clarification on further reinforcement of NATO’s presence in eastern Europe.
The NATO diplomats will also be joined by Swedish Foreign Minister Ann Linde and her Finnish counterpart Pekka Haavisto.
It comes as Finland said it intended to apply for NATO membership, and a similar decision by Sweden is widely expected to be announced on Sunday.
Ukrainian Interior Ministry advisor Viktor Andrusiv said on Ukrainian television that Russia’s invasion is entering its “third phase” which shows that Moscow is planning for a “long war.”
The first phase consisted of trying to take Ukraine “in a few days,” according to Andrusiv. The second phase saw the Russian military attempt to encircle Ukrainian forces in the east of the country.
In the third phase of the invasion, Moscow is preparing a defense of territories in the east and south of the country that are under its control.
“This shows that they’re going to turn this war into a long war,” Andrusiv said.
Andrusiv argued that the Kremlin intends to use a drawn-out war to bring Western countries to the negotiating table, who would then push Kyiv to give concessions.
Ukrainian prosecutor general Iryna Venediktova has said that her office is preparing war crimes cases against 41 suspects.
“We have 41 suspects in cases with which we will be ready to go to court. All of them concern Article 438 of the [Ukrainian] criminal code on war crimes, but different types of war crimes. There is the bombing of civilian infrastructure, the killing of civilians, rape and looting,” Venediktova said on Ukrainian television.
The first war crime trial since the start of the invasion began on Friday in Kyiv. The suspect is a 21-year-old Russian soldier accused of killing a Ukrainian civilian in the northeastern village of Chupakhivka.
Ukraine’s security service posted a video of the suspect describing how he shot the civilian. Ukraine has been criticized by rights groups for publishing footage and images of prisoners of war, which the say contravenes the Geneva Conventions.
Venediktova said that two more suspects are likely to face preliminary hearings next week.
Previously, Venediktova had said that her office was looking into more than 10,700 potential war crimes involving more than 600 suspects.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a nightly video address that “no-one today can predict how long this war will last.”
“This will depend, unfortunately, not only on our people, who are already giving their maximum,” Zelenskyy said. “This will depend on our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world.”
Zelenskyy said he was thankful to countries who have imposed sanctions on Russia and given military and financial support to Kyiv.
“This is the only recipe for protecting freedom in the face of the Russian invasion. And for Western countries, this is not simply an expense. This is not about accounting, it’s about the future,” Zelenskyy said.
The president of the Georgian breakaway region of South Ossetia, Anatoly Bibilov, announced the territory would hold a referendum on July 17 on whether to become part of Russia.
US President Joe Biden discussed NATO accession with Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of Sweden and President Sauli Niinisto of Finland.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu to move immediately to implement a ceasefire in Ukraine.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone to discuss stalled Ukraine peace talks.
German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir, meeting with his G7 and Ukrainian colleagues, said grain theft by Russian forces in eastern Ukraine was “repugnant.”
The European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, announced that the bloc was set to increase military aid to Ukraine with a further €500 million ($520 million).
DW correspondent in Kyiv Fanny Facsar said Ukraine’s counteroffensive in the east of the country “seems to be working.”
ab, fb, sdi/wmr (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)