One of the key symbols of Ukrainian resistance has been the strategic port of Mariupol, where Ukraine says around 1,000 troops remain trapped

Kyiv (Ukraine) (AFP) - Pro-Kremlin authorities in Ukraine’s Kherson said Wednesday they will ask Russia to annex the region as Moscow seeks to shore up its gains in the increasingly drawn-out and bloody war.

Gas supplies to energy-starved Europe were also disrupted by a halt in Russian supplies flowing through Ukraine as the international shockwaves of the February 24 invasion continued.

The developments came as Ukraine said it was pushing Russian troops away from the country’s second city Kharkiv in the northeast but facing stiff resistance from the invading forces.

Russia has focused on eastern and southern Ukraine since it failed to take Kyiv in the first weeks after the February 24 invasion, and US intelligence has warned Putin is ready for a long war.

Kherson, the first major Ukrainian city to fall after the Russian invasion of its pro-Western neighbour, is north of Crimea, which itself was annexed by Moscow in 2014 after an internationally-condemned vote.

Kirill Stremousov, deputy head of Kherson’s Moscow-installed civilian and military administration, said there would be a “request to make Kherson region a full subject of the Russian Federation.”

Labour market impacts of the war in Ukraine

Stremousov suggested the authorities would appeal directly to Putin without putting the move to a vote.

But the Kremlin replied that it was up to the residents of Kherson to “determine their own fate”.

Ukrainian presidential aide Mykhaylo Podolyak said Kyiv’s forces would liberate Kherson and “the invaders may ask to join even Mars or Jupiter.”

Russia appears set on creating a land bridge to Crimea from its own territory, with US intelligence suggesting it then wants to go all the way across the southern coast to Moldova.

- ‘They come in waves’ -

On the battlefield, Ukraine’s forces were boosted by what Kyiv says is the recapture of four villages around Kharkiv.

President Volodymyr Zelensky said in his nightly address Tuesday that he had “good news” from Kharkiv and praised the “superhuman strength” of Ukrainian defenders.

Ukraine’s general staff of the armed forces said Wednesday that “occupiers continue to focus their efforts on preventing the further advance of our troops” from Kharkiv towards the Russian border.

A Ukrainian main battle tank sets in a position near Lysychansk, eastern Ukraine

But Ukraine is engaged in what appears to be an increasingly desperate effort to hold the Russian-speaking Donbas region in the east.

“They come in waves,” volunteer fighter Mykola said of the Russians’ repeated attempts to push south past a strategic river near a rural settlement called Bilogorivka.

Nearby, Ukrainian medics rushed a bleeding soldier from the eastern front, an AFP correspondent saw. A doctor reassured the wincing fighter that the tourniquet being squeezed above his knee did not mean he was about to lose a part of his leg.

US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on Tuesday said Putin was “preparing for prolonged conflict” and “still intends to achieve goals beyond the Donbas.”

UN chief Antonio Guterres, who recently met Putin, said on Wednesday it was important to maintain contacts with Russia even if there was currently “no chance” of a ceasefire right now.

The war in Ukraine has fuelled Europe’s growing energy crisis, with Kyiv pressing for an embargo on oil and gas imports from Russia.

Ukraine on Wednesday said Russia had halted gas supplies through a key transit hub in the east of the country, a day after the Ukrainian state energy company Naftogaz said it was no longer responsible for gas coming through Russian-occupied territory.

Germany said inflows of Russian gas had as a result fallen by a quarter compared to a day before.

Germany is highly dependent on Russia for its gas supplies and has rejected an immediate full embargo on Russian gas, although it backs a halt on Russian oil that the EU is seeking.

- ‘Ukrainian culture exists’ -

Russia’s invasion has also prompted Sweden and Finland to consider joining NATO, with both countries set to decide this week.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Swedish counterpart Magdalena Andersson on Wednesday announced a mutual defence agreement in case of an attack.

Ukraine has been pushing Western countries for more military and economic support, despite Russian warnings to the West.

Czech president Milos Zeman, a close Putin ally before the war, on Wednesday approved a request to allow 103 citizens to fight in Ukraine alongside the army.

As President Joe Biden warned that Ukraine would within days likely run out of funds to keep fighting, the US House of Representatives voted late Tuesday to send a $40 billion aid package to the country.

The bodies of two Russian soldiers found in the village of Vilkhivka, near the eastern city of Kharkiv

“With this aid package, America sends a resounding message to the world of our unwavering determination to stand with the courageous people of Ukraine until victory is won,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said.

The United States views it as increasingly likely that Putin will mobilise his entire country, including ordering martial law.

Sanctions on Russia are biting, with its foreign currency reserves declining and new car sales sinking over 78 percent in April.

As Russia cracks down internally, a member of the band Pussy Riot, Maria Alyokhina, said she had left Russia by disguising herself as a food delivery courier to escape police.

Music has become a rallying point too for Ukrainians, ahead of this Saturday’s final of the Eurovision song contest, the world’s biggest live music event.

Ukraine’s rap folk band Kalush Orchestra is the favourite to win the camp celebration after and they progressed through Tuesday night’s semi-final. Ukraine won in 2016 and Kyiv hosted Eurovision in 2017.

Russia has been banned from this year’s competition.

“We are here to show that Ukrainian music and Ukrainian culture exists,” frontman rapper Oleh Psiuk said.

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