Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that Russia looks “insane” for still trying to snatch victory in the Donbas region.
Mr Zelenskyy said he was “grateful to each and everyone” still defending the Donbas and other eastern and southern regions, adding Ukraine was forcing Russian occupants to leave Ukrainian land “step by step”.
On Saturday, the Ukrainian military said Russian troops were withdrawing from around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, after bombarding it for weeks.
It followed an assessment by the Washington-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War which said Ukraine “appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv”.
The largely Russian-speaking city with a pre-war population of 1.4 million was a key military objective earlier in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.
After failing to make an early capture of the capital Kyiv following the invasion of 24 February, and now with a backtrack in Kharkiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shifted his focus eastward to the Donbas, an industrial region where Ukraine has battled Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The offensive aims to encircle Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped troops, who are deployed in the east, and to seize parts of the Donbas that remain in Ukraine’s control.
Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move around in the east, hindering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting.
But it appears to be a relentless back-and-forth battle without major breakthroughs on either side.
Other key developments:
• Ukrainian forces press towards Russian-held Izium in east
• Ukraine wins the Eurovision Song Contest in a huge show of support from the rest of the continent
• Finland expected to submit its NATO application on Wednesday
• G7 nations vow more military and economic aid for Ukraine
Russia has captured some Donbas villages and towns, including Rubizhne, which had a pre-war population of around 55,000.
However, Mr Zelenskyy said his force had also made progress in the east, retaking six towns or villages in the past day.
In his nightly address on Saturday, he said “the situation in Donbas remains very difficult” and Russian troops were “still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious.”
“Step by step,” he added, “we are forcing the occupants to leave the Ukrainian land.”
Talks earlier in the day on getting wounded defenders out of the Azovstal plant in Mariupol had been described as “very complex” but reports later surfaced which claimed a large convoy of cars has been allowed to leave Mariupol.
Reports on a Telegram post from an account linked to authorities in the besieged city, said between 500 and 1,000 cars was allowed to travel to the city of Zaporizhzhia.
Meanwhile, Finland looks set to submit its NATO application on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto told Swedish daily newspaper Aftonbladet.
Finland, a historically neutral country, which fought the Soviets in WWII and lost, have decided they must seek membership of the defensive pact.
On the diplomatic front, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated their support for the Ukrainian people and deplored “President Putin’s ruinous war”.
They also discussed the importance of NATO maintaining strong deterrence and defence.