Russia presses offensive into Ukraine but holds off key city

Russia has made its biggest advances in 18 months (Roman PILIPEY)
Russia has made its biggest advances in 18 months (Roman PILIPEY)

Russian forces pressed ahead Friday with an offensive into northeast Ukraine but President Vladimir Putin said there were no current plans to occupy the key city of Kharkiv.

On a trip to China, Putin said the latest assault was direct retaliation for Ukraine's shelling of Russia's border regions and his country was trying to create a "security zone".

Over two years into Russia's invasion, he added there was no intention, at this stage, to take Kharkiv, Ukraine's second city, about 30 kilometres (18 miles) from the border. More than one million people still live there.

Russia launched the surprise offensive into Ukraine's northeast on May 10, sending thousands of troops across the border and unleashing artillery fire on several settlements.

Both countries said Russian troops were still advancing, but Ukraine warned heavy fighting lay ahead.

Russia's defence ministry said its army had "liberated 12 settlements in the Kharkiv region over the last week... and continues to advance deep into enemy defences."

Russian forces took 278 square kilometres (107 square miles) -- their biggest gains in a year-and-a-half -- between May 9 and 15, AFP has calculated using data from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

- 'Heavy fighting' -

The Ukrainian governor of the Kharkiv region, Oleg Synegubov, said Russian forces were trying to surround Vovchansk, an almost deserted town near the border which had a pre-war population of around 18,000.

"The enemy has actually started to destroy the town. It is not just dangerous to be there, but impossible," Synegubov told a briefing.

He said Ukrainian troops were resisting, but warned Russia was gaining ground near Lukyantsi, a village around 20 kilometres (12 miles) northeast of Kharkiv city.

Kyiv pulled its troops back from that area this week amid heavy fire and has rushed in reinforcements.

Ukraine army chief Oleksandr Syrsky said Russia was trying to force Ukraine to pull up even more troops from its reserves.

"We realise that there will be heavy fighting ahead and the enemy is preparing for it," he said.

Russia hit Kharkiv with more strikes on Friday that killed at least three people and injured 28, the city's Mayor Igor Terekhov said.

Russian strikes in Vovchansk killed a man of 35 and injured another aged 60, regional prosecutors said.

In the southern port city of Odesa, local governor Oleg Kiper said one person was killed and five hospitalised in a bombardment.

Russia has a manpower and ammunition advantage across the front lines, and military analysts say the northeastern offensive could aim to further stretch Ukrainian troops and resources.

Ukraine has evacuated almost 9,000 people from the area since Russia launched the offensive.

- Drone wave -

Ukrainian drone and shelling attacks on Russian border regions meanwhile killed at least three people, including a child, officials said.

Kyiv launched one of its largest aerial attacks in weeks, firing drones at Russia and the annexed Crimea peninsula overnight.

The Russian military said it intercepted or downed more than 100 Ukrainian drones over the south of the country, Crimea and the Black Sea.

Officials in multiple Russian regions reported damage.

One drone struck a family driving near the border in the Belgorod region, killing a mother and her four-year-old son, the region's governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said.

"The child was in a critical condition. Doctors did everything possible to save him. (But) to much grief, the four-year-old died in hospital," he said.

Shelling on another border village in Russia's Bryansk region on Friday killed one person, the regional governor said.

In the coastal town of Tuapse in the southern Krasnodar region, Ukrainian drones hit an oil refinery for the second time this year, sparking a large fire that was put out, authorities said.

Several fires also erupted after a drone attack on Novorossiysk, a key port city also in the Krasnodar region, local governor Veniamin Kondratyev said.

A source in Ukraine's defence sector confirmed Kyiv had targeted oil facilities in both cities, and also hit an electrical substation in the Russian-controlled port of Sevastopol on the annexed Crimean peninsula.

The city's Russian-installed governor Mikhail Razvozhayev said there had been a "partial blackout" after debris from downed drones damaged a substation.