Russian forces leave Snake Island and continue the assault eastward


SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces withdrew from a strategic Black Sea island on Thursday after relentless Ukrainian attacks, but continued their effort to encircle the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the eastern province of Luhansk.

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces withdrew from a strategic Black Sea island on Thursday after relentless Ukrainian attacks, but continued their effort to encircle the last stronghold of Ukrainian resistance in the eastern province of Luhansk.

Russia described the removal of Snake Island off the port city of Odessa as a “goodwill gesture”. The Ukrainian military said the Russians fled the island in two speedboats following a barrage of Ukrainian artillery and missiles.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the withdrawal was intended to demonstrate that Russia is not obstructing UN efforts to establish a humanitarian corridor for the export of goods agriculture from Ukraine.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of blocking Ukrainian ports to prevent grain exports, contributing to the global food crisis. Russia has denied the charges and said Ukraine must remove mines from the Black Sea to allow safe navigation.

Turkey has sought to broker a deal on unblocking grain exports. But talks are dragging on as Kyiv fears Russia will exploit the removal of mines to attack Odessa.

Snake Island sits along a busy shipping lane. Russia took control of it in the early days of the war in the apparent hope of using it as staging ground for an assault on Odessa.

The island took on legendary significance early on in Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion, when Ukrainian troops there reportedly received a request from a Russian warship to surrender or be bombarded. The answer supposedly came back, “Go (expletive) yourself.”

Ukraine celebrated the story with patriotic fervor, issuing a postage stamp in commemoration.

The Ukrainian defenders of the island were captured by the Russians but later freed in a prisoner exchange. After taking the island, the Ukrainian army heavily shelled the small Russian garrison and its air defenses.

At a NATO summit in Madrid, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson presented the Russian withdrawal as a sign that Ukraine would prevail in the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Ultimately, it will be impossible for Putin to maintain a country that will not accept” the occupation, Johnson said.

Meanwhile, Moscow maintained its efforts to take control of the entire Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. It focuses on the city of Lysychansk, the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in Lugansk province.

Russian troops and their separatist allies control 95% of Lugansk and about half of Donetsk, the two provinces that make up the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbass.

Ukraine said the Russians were shelling Lysychansk and clashing with Ukrainian defenders around an oil refinery on the outskirts of the city.

Luhansk Governor Serhiy Haidai said Russian reconnaissance units tried to enter Lysychansk on Wednesday but were rebuffed. He said the Russians were trying to block a highway used to deliver supplies and completely encircle the town.

“The Russians threw almost all their forces to take over the city,” Haidai said.

In other developments:

— A senior Russian official has warned that Moscow may interpret Western sanctions as a cause of war. “In certain circumstances, such hostile measures could be perceived as an act of international aggression, or even as a casus belli,” Dmitry Medvedev, deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, said in a speech to a legal forum.

— Speaking during a visit to Turkmenistan on Thursday, Putin said his goals in Ukraine had not changed since the start of the war. He said they were “the liberation of Donbass, the protection of this people and the creation of conditions that would guarantee the security of Russia itself”. He made no mention of his stated initial goals of “demilitarizing” and “denazifying” Ukraine.

He denied that Russia had adjusted its strategy after failing to take Kyiv early in the conflict. “As you can see, the troops are moving and reaching the marks that have been set for them for a certain stage of this combat work. Everything is going according to plan,” Putin said.

– Funerals were scheduled for Thursday for some of the 18 people confirmed killed in a Russian airstrike on Monday on a busy shopping center in the central city of Kremenchuk. Crews searched the rubble for another 20 people still missing.

— Sweden announced its intention to send more military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons and demining equipment. “It is important that support for Ukraine from democratic countries in Europe is continuous and long-term,” Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said, according to Swedish news agency TT.

Sweden was this week invited to join NATO, a process that could take months.

— Russia, shunned by the West, intends to strengthen its ties elsewhere. On Thursday, Iranian state media said Iran had offered to expand financial exchanges with Russia and cooperate in energy. Both countries are subject to heavy Western sanctions.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Putin met on the sidelines of a summit in Turkmenistan, the official IRNA news agency reported.


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Francesca Ebel, Associated Press


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