LVIV, Ukraine —
As Russian forces appeared to retreat from parts of northern Ukraine, the Ukrainian military reclaimed territory there and — in one of its boldest moves since the war began five weeks ago — entered Russia for the first time and bombed a fuel depot.
With another round of peace talks underway, aid workers said an attempt to spirit a large convoy of civilians out of the shattered southern city of Mariupol had failed. The Ukrainian chapter of the International Committee of the Red Cross said it received permission from both sides of the conflict to enter Mariupol to evacuate people desperate to leave, but that it was forced to call off the rescue mission because it was too dangerous.
Ukraine’s rapid recovery of large chunks of its northern territory in recent days has sparked cautious optimism, although officials have warned citizens and soldiers to remain on guard.
The armed forces said Friday that Ukrainian troops had retaken control of about 30 settlements in the north of the country near Chernihiv and the capital, Kyiv. In a video message, Viacheslav Chaus, the governor of the Chernihiv region, said Russian forces had begun to vacate the area, in some cases leaving behind mines that local authorities were trying to remove.
Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Kyiv, said that while Russian troops had pulled back from some areas around the capital, fighting has continued in many parts. He told Sky News on Friday he could hear the sounds of explosions “nonstop during the day and night.”
The Russian military said this week that it would “drastically” reduce its operations in the north in order to boost peace talks and concentrate on its campaign in the east, where pro-Moscow separatists have declared independence from Ukraine. But both Western and Ukrainian officials have cast doubt on that statement, suggesting that in reality the Kremlin wants to resupply and reposition its forces in the northern areas.
In a potentially significant development, the Ukrainian military said that it had taken the fight briefly into Russian territory.
The governor of the Russian city of Belgorod, about 20 miles north of the border with Ukraine, said a pair of Ukrainian helicopter gunships had fired missiles at an oil depot, sparking a large blaze Friday morning, and that shells had been launched from a nearby Ukrainian village. Military officials in Ukraine — whose own energy facilities have been the frequent target of Russian strikes — later confirmed the attack.
The cross-border attack called into question Moscow’s boast to have fully disabled Kyiv’s aerial capabilities. Ukrainian forces have had some success with drones, but President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly — without success — appealed to the U.S. and allied countries to supply his country with fighter jets.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the purported airstrike did not create “comfortable conditions” for the continuation of Russia-Ukraine talks, the latest round beginning by video Friday.
Five previous negotiation sessions, including one in person in Istanbul this week, proved inconclusive, with mixed messages emerging on whether they achieved any progress. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on a trip to India, said the talks showed some promise and should continue, but Peskov earlier denied there had been any breakthroughs, and Western officials warn that the negotiations could be merely for show — a delaying tactic by Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Global divisions over the war in Ukraine continued to flare as leaders from China and the European Union met for a virtual summit, where China blamed the conflict in part on U.S. efforts to expand the NATO military alliance closer to Russia’s borders. China also renewed its criticism of sweeping Western sanctions against Russia. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said after the talks that she expected China to not interfere with Western sanctions, and expressed hope that China would use its influence to help convince Russia to end its invasion.
Diplomatic peace-building efforts have produced little relief for the hardest-hit parts of Ukraine, including Mariupol, where weeks of relentless Russian bombardment has laid waste to large sections of the city and left residents with little access to food, water, power and medicine. Several agreements between Kyiv and Moscow to establish safe corridors for the evacuation of residents and delivery of aid have fallen apart.
“We are running out of adjectives to describe the horrors that residents in Mariupol have suffered,” Ewan Watson, a spokesman for the Red Cross, said in Geneva. “The situation is horrendous and deteriorating, and it’s now a humanitarian imperative that people be allowed to leave and aid supplies be allowed in.”
Russia and Ukraine had agreed the day before to a temporary truce in the area to allow evacuations, but Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of reneging on the deal and blocking dozens of buses from ferrying residents to safety, as well as seizing 14 tons of food and medical supplies being sent in. Petro Andryushchenko, an aide to Mariupol’s mayor, said trying to leave remained “very dangerous.”
“We do not see a real desire on the part of the Russians and their satellites to provide an opportunity for Mariupol residents to evacuate to territory controlled by Ukraine,” Andryushchenko wrote on Telegram, adding that Russian forces were “categorically not allowing any humanitarian cargo, even in small amounts, into the city.”
Although the strategic port city remains nominally under Ukrainian control, Russian troops have been reported throughout Mariupol. Destruction has been widespread, with Russian attacks causing at least $10 billion in damage to infrastructure, according to officials. Seizure of the city would be key to blocking Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov and establishing a staging post for a westward push along the coast to the Crimean peninsula, which Moscow illegally annexed in 2014, and Odesa on the Black Sea.
Mykolaiv, a shipbuilding hub about 80 miles east of Odesa, has already come under increasing fire. Ukrainian media said Friday that the death toll from a Russian strike that hit an administrative building there earlier in the week had risen to 28. The number could not be independently verified.
Ukrainian authorities also said Russian troops had mostly withdrawn from Chernobyl, outside of Kyiv, the site of the world’s worst nuclear disaster in 1986. Russia had wrested control of the area early in the war, but has now apparently returned the decommissioned nuclear plant to Ukrainian management. Although the ruined facility no longer generates power, workers still conduct safety procedures to prevent radiation leaks.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, whose chief intends to visit Chernobyl “as soon as possible,” has requested more information from Ukrainian authorities who say that some Russian troops were exposed to significant amounts of radiation at the site.
Zelensky, Ukraine’s leader, cautioned against any complacency over news that invading troops were being pulled back from some areas.
“We know their intentions,” he said late Thursday in his nightly video address to the nation. “We know that they are moving away from those areas where we hit them in order to focus on other, very important ones where it may be difficult for us. … There will be battles ahead.”
Although Western officials and observers have spoken of disarray, disorganization and disillusionment within Russian military ranks, Zelensky made a rare disclosure of dissension or problems within Ukraine’s forces. He said two generals had been stripped of their rank for violating “their military oath of allegiance to the Ukrainian people.”
One of them was in charge of internal security at Ukraine’s principal intelligence agency and the other headed intelligence around the southern city of Kherson, the first officially to fall to Russian forces.
“Something prevented them from determining where their homeland was,” Zelensky said, without elaborating.
McDonnell reported from Lviv, Chu from London and Linthicum from Mexico City.