SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces withdrew from a strategic Black Sea island Thursday, potentially easing the threat to the vital Ukrainian port city of Odesa, but kept up their push to encircle the last stronghold of resistance in the eastern province of Luhansk.
The Kremlin portrayed the pullout from Snake Island as a “goodwill gesture.” Ukraine’s military said the Russians fled in two small speedboats following a barrage of Ukrainian artillery and missile strikes. The exact number of troops was not disclosed.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the withdrawal was intended to demonstrate that Moscow isn’t hampering U.N. efforts to establish a humanitarian corridor for exporting agricultural products from Ukraine.
Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of blockading Ukrainian ports to prevent exports of grain, contributing to a global food crisis. Russia has denied the accusations and said that Ukraine needs to remove mines from the Black Sea to allow safe navigation.
Turkey has sought to broker a deal to unblock grain exports. But the talks have dragged on, with Kyiv expressing fear that Russia will exploit the removal of the mines to attack Odesa.
Snake Island sits along a busy shipping lane. Russia took control of it in the opening days of the war in the apparent hope of using it as a staging ground for an assault on Odesa.
It was unclear if the evacuation meant a change in Moscow’s designs on Odesa. Odesa is Ukraine’s biggest port, crucial for shipping grain to Africa, the Middle East and other parts of the world, and is also the headquarters of the country’s navy.
The island early on took on legendary significance for Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion, when Ukrainian troops there reportedly received a demand from a Russian warship to surrender or be bombed. The answer supposedly came back, “Go (expletive) yourself.”
Ukraine has celebrated the story with patriotic fervor, issuing a postage stamp in commemoration.
The island’s Ukrainian defenders were captured by the Russians but later freed as part of a prisoner exchange. After the island was taken, the Ukrainian military heavily bombarded the small Russian garrison there and its air defenses.
At a NATO summit in Madrid, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson billed the Russian pullout as a sign that Ukraine will prevail in the war launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “In the end it will prove impossible for Putin to hold down a country that will not accept” occupation, Johnson said.
Meanwhile, Moscow kept up its push to take control of the entire Donbas region in eastern Ukraine. It is focused on the city of Lysychansk, the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in Luhansk province.
Russian troops and their separatist allies control 95% of Luhansk and about half of Donetsk, the two provinces that make up the mostly Russian-speaking Donbas.
Ukraine said the Russians were shelling Lysychansk and clashing with Ukrainian defenders around an oil refinery on the edge of the city.
Luhansk Gov. Serhiy Haidai said Russian reconnaissance units tried to enter Lysychansk on Wednesday but were repelled. He said the Russians were trying to block a highway used to deliver supplies and fully encircle the city.
“The Russians have thrown practically all their forces to seize the city,” Haidai said.
In other developments:
— Indonesian President Joko Widodo, who held talks with Putin on Thursday a day after visiting Ukraine, said he handed the Russian leader a letter from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. He did not elaborate. The war has raised the specter of food shortages and political instability in countries reliant on Ukrainian wheat, including Indonesia, Egypt, Yemen and Lebanon.
—- U.S. President Joe Biden said his administration will send an additional $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine in what would be the 14th package of weapons and other equipment committed since the war began. He said the package will include rockets and advanced air defense systems.
— A senior Russian official warned that Moscow could consider Western sanctions as a cause for war. “Under 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 Russia’s Security Council, said in a speech at a legal forum.
— Speaking on a visit to Turkmenistan on Thursday, Putin said his goals in Ukraine haven’t changed since the start of the war. He said they were “the liberation of the Donbas, the protection of these people and the creation of conditions that would guarantee the security of Russia itself.” He made no mention of his original stated goals to “demilitarize” and “de-Nazify” Ukraine.
He denied Russia had adjusted its strategy after failing to take Kyiv in the early stage of the conflict. “As you can see, the troops are moving and reaching the marks that were set for them for a certain stage of this combat work. Everything is going according to plan,” Putin said.
— Funerals were scheduled Thursday for some of the 18 people confirmed killed in a Russian airstrike Monday on a busy shopping mall in the central city of Kremenchuk. Crews searched the rubble for 20 others still missing.
— Sweden announced plans to send more military aid to Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons and mine-clearing equipment. “It is important that the support to Ukraine from the democratic countries in Europe is continuous and long-term,” Defense Minister Peter Hultqvist said, according to the Swedish news agency TT.
Sweden was invited this week to join NATO, a process that could take months.
— Russia, shunned by the West, is intent on bolstering ties elsewhere. On Thursday, Iranian state media said Iran has proposed expanding financial exchanges with Russia and cooperating in the energy field. Both countries are under heavy Western sanctions.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and Putin met on the sidelines of a summit in Turkmenistan, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.