Defiant Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has vowed to one day host the Eurovision Song Contest in the embattled city of Mariupol, which is almost entirely in Russian hands aside from a stalwart group of a few hundred Ukrainian fighters who continue to hold out in a steel factory.
Ukraine’s Kalush Orchestra won the contest with its song Stefania, which has become a popular anthem among Ukrainians during the war, and its victory was a morale booster.
“Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe,” Mr Zelensky said on Facebook. “Next year, Ukraine will host Eurovision.”
The band made an impassioned plea during the show to help the fighters still in the Azovstal steel plant in the port city, and Mr Zelensky said “one day” the contest will be held “in a Ukrainian Mariupol”.
Hours after their victory the band released a new music video of its winning hit featuring scenes of war-ravaged Ukraine and women in combat gear.
Band members must return to Ukraine on Monday after being given special permission to leave the country to attend the competition.
Mr Zelensky’s optimistic words come as Russian troops are retreating from Kharkiv, the country’s second largest city, after bombarding it for weeks, and Moscow’s forces continue to engage in a grinding battle for the country’s eastern industrial heartland.
Ukraine’s military said the Russian forces are now pulling back from the north-eastern city to focus on guarding supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and air strikes in the eastern region of Donetsk in an attempt to “deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications”.
Defence minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine is “entering a new – long-term – phase of the war”.
Russian forces control a horseshoe-shaped swath of territory in the Ukrainian areas of Donetsk and Luhansk, which make up the eastern Donbas region, along the border of the industrial region where Ukraine has battled Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
In the southern Donbas, the Azov Sea port of Mariupol is now largely in Russian control, except for the few hundred troops left in the factory.
A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 cars carrying civilians out of the city was reportedly able to reach the Ukrainian-held city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday, while Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities are negotiating the evacuation of 60 severely wounded troops at the steelworks.
After failing to capture Kyiv following the February 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shifted his focus eastward to the Donbas, aiming to encircle Ukraine’s most experienced and best-equipped troops, and to seize territory still under Ukraine’s control.
Air strikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move around in the east, hindering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it appears to be a back-and-forth slog without major breakthroughs on either side.
Russia has captured some Donbas villages and towns, including Rubizhne, which had a pre-war population of around 55,000.
Mr Zelensky said Ukraine’s forces have also made progress in the east, retaking six towns or villages in the past day.
In his nightly address on Saturday, he said “the situation in Donbas remains very difficult” and Russian troops are “still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious”.
But he said: “Step by step, we are forcing the occupants to leave the Ukrainian land.”
Kharkiv, which is near the Russian border and only 50 miles south-west of the Russian city of Belgorod, has undergone weeks of intense shelling. The largely Russian-speaking city with a pre-war population of 1.4 million was a key military objective earlier in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.
Ukraine “appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv”, said the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank.
“Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from around the city, as they did to Russian forces attempting to seize Kyiv.”
Mr Putin has justified the war in Ukraine by claiming it is a response to Nato’s expansion in eastern Europe.
But the invasion has other countries along Russia’s flank worried they could be next, and in the past week the president and prime minister of Finland said they favour seeking Nato membership.
Officials in Sweden are expected to announce a decision on Sunday on whether to apply to join the Western military alliance.
In a phone call on Saturday, Mr Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that there are no threats to Finland’s security and joining Nato would be an “error” and “negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations”.