Zelensky postpones foreign trips amid Russian offensive


Ukrainian forces withdrew from some areas of the country's east and battled Russian troops in others on Wednesday, as President Volodymyr Zelensky postponed all his upcoming foreign trips, underscoring the seriousness of the threat his soldiers are facing.

Against that grim backdrop, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought to reassure the ally of continuing American support, visiting a drone manufacturing facility in Kyiv on the second day of his trip.

The top diplomat is in Ukraine as Russian troops press a fresh offensive in northeast Ukraine's Kharkiv region. It began last week, marking the most significant border incursion since the full-scale invasion began and forcing almost 8,000 local people to flee their homes. Together with Moscow's weekslong effort to build on its recent gains in the eastern Donetsk region, the more than two-year war has entered a critical stage for Ukraine's depleted army.

Ukraine's General Staff reported late Tuesday that troops fell back from areas in Lukyantsi and Vovchansk "in order to save the lives of our servicemen and avoid losses."

Vovchansk — just 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the Russian border and 50 kilometers (30 miles from the city of Kharkiv — has been the focus of much of the recent fighting, and Ukrainian and Russian troops battled in its streets on Wednesday. Oleksii Kharkivskyi, head of the city's patrol police, said Russian troops were taking up positions in the city, while the Ukrainian General Staff said its forces were trying to flush them out.

Gunfire could be heard in the background of a video Kharkivsky posted on his Instagram page.

Russia is opening new fronts in order to stretch Ukraine's army, which is short of ammunition and manpower, along the about 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line, hoping defenses will crumble. Russian artillery and sabotage raids have also been menacing Ukraine's northern Chernihiv and Sumy regions.

Zelensky said in his nightly video address Tuesday that the army has sent reinforcements to the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions.

"It is too early to draw conclusions, but the situation is under control," he said.

The pace of Russia's advance in the Kharkiv border region, where it launched an offensive late last week and has made significant progress, has slowed, the Institute for the Study of War said late Tuesday. The Washington-based think tank said Moscow's main aim there is to create a "buffer zone" that will prevent Ukrainian cross-border strikes on Russia's Belgorod region.

Even so, Zelensky's office announced Wednesday he canceled all his upcoming foreign visits and would try to reschedule them.

Zelensky had been expected to visit Spain, and perhaps Portugal, later this week. No reason was given for his decision — but the difficulties on the front line hung over it.

With thousands of Ukrainian troops locked in fierce battles in towns and villages, Blinken on Tuesday pledged unceasing U.S. support for the country, during and beyond the war. He also tried to lift spirits in Kyiv, performing on guitar with a band at a city bar and eating pizza at a veteran-run restaurant.

On Wednesday, Blinken viewed the production of drones, which have become a key feature of the two-year war, and toured a grain shipment facility and a bionics factory, praising Ukrainian innovation and ingenuity in the face of wartime difficulties.

"Ukraine has had to adapt and adjust to this and it's done so remarkably," Blinken said of grain exports now being taken by rail after traditional shipping routes were interrupted by Russia's full-scale invasion, which began on Feb. 24, 2022.

Meanwhile, Russian air defenses shot down several Ukrainian missiles over the Black Sea and near the Belbek air base, Sevastopol Gov. Mikhail Razvozhayev said. Sevastopol is where the Russian Black Sea Fleet is headquartered.

The fragments of downed missiles fell into residential areas but caused no casualties, Razvozhayev said.

Russian air defenses also shot down nine Ukrainian drones, two Vilha rockets, two anti-radar HARM missiles and two Hammer guided bombs over the Belgorod region early Wednesday, the Defense Ministry said.

Two people were injured in the village of Dubovoye when a Ukrainian rocket set their house ablaze, according to Belgorod Gov. Vyacheslav Gladkov.

The military said five other Ukrainian drones were downed over the Kursk region and three drones were shot down over the Bryansk region.

The Defense Ministry also said that another Ukrainian drone was downed over the Tatarstan region. Tatarstan is located more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) east of the border with Ukraine.

Vasily Golubev, the governor of the Rostov region, said two drones attacked a fuel depot. He said there were no casualties or fire.

Ukraine has launched a steady series of drone attacks on oil refineries and fuel depots across Russia over the past months, causing significant damage.

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