The Russian army left Snake Island and continued to attack eastward

SLOVIANSK, Ukraine (AP) — Russia on Thursday withdrew its troops from a strategically located Black Sea island where they faced a relentless attack from Ukraine, but continued to push ahead to encircle Ukraine in its eastern province The last bastion of Luhansk resistance.

The Russian Defense Ministry said it had withdrawn troops from the island of Zmiyinyy (Snake) near Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa in a “goodwill gesture”. The Ukrainian military said the Russians fled the island in two speedboats after Ukrainian artillery and missile strikes.

Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Lt. Gen. Igor Konashenkov insisted that the withdrawal was to show that “the Russian Federation is not hindering United Nations efforts to create humanitarian corridors for the removal of agricultural products from Ukrainian territory”.

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fueling a global food crisis by blocking Ukrainian ports to stop food exports. Russia has denied the allegations and accused Ukraine of needing to clear mines from the Black Sea to ensure safe navigation.

Turkey has tried to broker a deal to lift a blockade on Ukrainian grain exports, but talks have dragged on without any sign of rapid progress, and Kyiv has expressed concern that Russia could use the deal to launch an attack on Odessa.

Russia controlled the island on a busy shipping lane at the start of the war and apparently wanted to use it to gain control of the area and use it as a staging ground for attacks on Odessa.

The island became the epitome of Ukraine’s resistance to Russian aggression, when Ukrainian troops there received requests from Russian warships to surrender or face bombardment. “Russian warship,” the answer came back, “you go (expletive).”

The Ukrainian defenders of the island were captured by the Russians, but were later released as part of a captive exchange.

Since the island was occupied, the Ukrainian military has ruthlessly bombed a small number of Russian garrisons and air defense assets stationed there.

In eastern Ukraine on Thursday, Moscow continued its efforts to gain control of the entire Donbass region. It focuses on the city of Lysychansk, the last remaining Ukrainian stronghold in the Luhansk province. Russian troops and their separatist allies control 95 percent of Luhansk and about half of Donetsk, the two provinces that make up the largely Russian-speaking Donbass.

The Ukrainian General Staff said Russian troops were shelling Lysichansk and clashing with Ukrainian defenders around an oil refinery on the city’s edge.

Russian reconnaissance forces attempted to enter Lyschansk on Wednesday but were repelled by Ukrainian forces, Luhansk Governor Khaidai said. He said the Russians were trying to block a highway used to transport supplies and completely surround the city.

“The Russians have invested almost all of their power in capturing the city,” Haidai said.

During a visit to Turkmenistan earlier on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his goals in Ukraine had not changed since the war began. He said they were “liberating the Donbass, protecting these people, and creating conditions for the security of Russia itself.” He made no reference to his initially stated goal of “demilitarizing” and “denazifying” Ukraine.

He denied that Russia adjusted its strategy after failing to capture Kyiv early in the conflict. “As you can see, the troops are moving and reaching the mark set for them at a certain stage of the combat work. Everything is going according to plan,” Putin told a news conference in Turkmenistan.

In central Ukraine, funerals will be held on Thursday for some of the 18 people identified in a Russian missile attack on a busy shopping mall in Kremenchuk. Crews continued to search the rubble for another 20 people who were still missing.

In addition to the 18 bodies, investigators found fragments of eight other bodies, Svetlana Rybarko, a press officer for Ukraine’s National Emergency Service, told The Associated Press. It’s unclear if that means more victims. Many survivors had their limbs amputated.

After the mall attack, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Russia of being a “terrorist” state. On Wednesday, he accused NATO of not more fully embracing or equipping his troubled country.

He demanded more modern artillery systems and other weapons, and warned NATO leaders that they would either have to provide Ukraine with the help needed to defeat Russia, or “face a delayed war between Russia and yourself.”

In southern Ukraine, the death toll from a Russian missile attack on an apartment building in Mykolaiv on Wednesday rose to six, according to Governor Vitaliy Kim. Six others were injured. Nikolayev is a major port, and capturing it — and Odessa further west — will be key to Russia’s goal of cutting Ukraine off its Black Sea coast.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.

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