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Ukraine hits fuel depot in Russia, retakes areas near Kyiv

Ukraine reportedly sent helicopters into Russia to bomb a fuel depot and its troops are retaking towns and villages near the capital. On the 37th day of Russia’s invasion, Ukraine may be turning the tide of the war in its favor.

(CN) — Hopes for a Ukrainian victory are growing as the war entered its sixth week on Friday and some Russian troops around Kyiv withdrew under attack from Ukrainian soldiers.

In a move that signals Ukraine is emboldened, two low-flying Ukrainian helicopters apparently sped under the cover of darkness to the Russian city of Belgorod and bombed a fuel depot. The helicopters reportedly had to fly close to the ground to avoid detection by anti-aircraft systems.

Kyiv would not confirm or deny the attack, but Moscow said it was carried out by Ukraine and that the strike inside Russia hurt ceasefire efforts. There have been several reports of Ukrainian shelling inside Russian border areas in recent days. But the raid seemingly was the first attack by a manned aircraft on Russia since the Korean War.

Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces have retaken several towns and villages in the outskirts of Kyiv and reportedly harassed Russian forces as they withdrew from around the capital. Still, Russia is holding onto several key positions around Kyiv and fighting was reportedly intense on Friday.

Ukrainian forces based in and around Mykolaiv also have been mounting counterattacks in Kherson, a city and region in southern Ukraine that fell to Russia early in the invasion. Ukraine has resisted attempts by Russia to seize Mykolaiv, a city between Kherson and the key Black Sea port city of Odessa. Russia struck Mykolaiv’s administrative building on Tuesday and the death toll there has risen to 28, according to Ukraine's Interfax news agency.

After 37 days of war, some Western military experts believe that Russia’s military invasion has been a failure and that Ukraine’s unexpected chances of repelling the invaders are growing. Still, it remains far from clear who has the upper hand and how the war will end. Russia maintains a far larger and better equipped military, though Ukraine’s army has grown in recent years into Europe’s second largest after Russia and it has been armed and trained by the United States and NATO.

“Ukraine has not only held Kyiv and Mykolaiv, but has counterattacked from both directions,” commented Rob Lee, a Russian military expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.

Ceasefire talks resumed on Friday with diplomats speaking by video. Kyiv said it is waiting for Moscow to submit a formal reply to proposals it made this week in talks in Istanbul. Kyiv said it would consider asking Ukrainians in a referendum whether the country should become neutral and not join NATO.

A man carries debris from buildings destroyed during fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces outside Kyiv, Ukraine, on Friday, April 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

The prospects for a ceasefire and peace deal any time soon remain remote as both sides seek victory on the battlefield.

Russia portrayed its movement of troops from around Kyiv, Chernihiv, which lies north of the capital, and Sumy, a northern city east of Kyiv, as part of a recalibration to focus its firepower on eastern Ukraine, where intense fighting is taking place. Moscow claimed that it had achieved an initial goal of knocking out Ukraine’s military infrastructure and that it was time to focus on seizing the Donbas region, which makes up the eastern parts of Ukraine.

In its latest assessment, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington military think tank, said it doubted Russia’s move to shift troops toward the battle in Donbas would be effective.

The think tank said such efforts “to redeploy damaged units from the Kyiv and Sumy axes to eastern Ukraine are unlikely to enable Russian forces to conduct major gains.”

The institute said these Russian units are being resupplied and repaired but that they are “likely heavily damaged and demoralized.”

“Russia invaded Ukraine with 75% of its BTGs [battalion tactical groups] as well as Rosgvardia [national guard] and conscripts,” Lee commented on Twitter. “The Russian military stretched itself to mass this force, which meant it didn’t have much of a reserve if things went poorly.”

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Meanwhile, the economic conflict between Russia and the West intensified on Friday after Russia began demanding that its natural gas exports be paid in rubles. European leaders have refused to do that and energy prices are soaring, causing unrest in Europe and in other parts of the world. Inflation in the EU rose by a whopping 7.5% in March.

In Brussels, European Union leaders put pressure on China to not give Russia assistance over Ukraine and warned Beijing against undermining Western sanctions on Russia. EU leaders spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping by video on Friday, their first virtual summit in two years.

China, like much of the developing world, has refused to condemn Russia for its invasion and blamed NATO's expansion onto Russia's borders as the root cause of the war.

There are concerns that the West’s economic assault on Russia will lead Russian President Vladimir Putin into cementing even further ties with Beijing. A strong Russia-China alliance would be a major challenge for the United States and its Western allies.

Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, said at a news conference that the hour-long conversation with Xi revealed “opposing views” on the Ukraine war.

“We expect China, if not supporting the sanctions, at least to do everything not to interfere in any kind,” von der Leyen said.

She said China's reputation in Europe would be seriously damaged if Beijing helped Russia and that it could ill afford to damage the $2 billion in trade that occurs between China and the EU every day.

Xi struck back by telling the EU leaders to develop an “autonomous” policy on China, a suggestion that the EU is not independent from U.S. decision-making.

He also put the blame on NATO expansion.

“The Ukraine crisis originates from the long-standing security conflicts in Europe,” he told the two EU leaders, according to Chinese state media. “The fundamental solution is to take care of the reasonable security concerns of all sides. Today's era does not call for the Cold War mentality to construct the global and regional security framework.”

Xi reportedly called the Ukraine war a European problem that must not affect the rest of the world.

“The Ukraine crisis has to be handled properly ... and cannot bind the whole world onto the issue, let alone making citizens of all countries pay a heavy price because of it,” Xi said. “If the situation worsens, it might take years, a decade, or decades to resume [to normality] afterward.”

Michael Cox, an international relations scholar at the London School of Economics, said in a piece for Chatham House, a London-based think tank, that the Ukraine war has made China and Russia allies in opposing a U.S.-dominated world order.

“At the heart of the current crisis,” he wrote, is a profound “clash between two visions of world order.”

“The one promoted in the West describes nations which would play by western rules within an international system still dominated by the U.S.,” he said. “The other is articulated by China and Russia over many years in various forums from the BRICs – a group of emerging economies made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which looked forward to a non-western, non-liberal order in which the U.S. would no longer be the only serious player in the international system.”

Cox added that there are risks for China if it makes Russia its foremost ally.

“Over the longer term [China] may also reap its own rewards in terms of a Russia more dependent on China,” he said. “Whether this is a prize worth waiting for however is by no means clear. A strong and united Russia with stable economic relations with Europe might be a friend worth cultivating. Having a pariah state isolated from the West as your closest friend would be a different proposition altogether.”

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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