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Russian troops have abandoned their positions on a captured Ukrainian island, a major setback to their invasion effort that weakens their blockade of Ukraine's ports, defence officials said on Thursday.

The news from the Black Sea came as NATO leaders wrapped up their summit in Madrid, intent on demonstrating their unity and determination to back up Kyiv with advanced weapons in the face of Moscow's assault.

Snake Island became a symbol of Ukrainian resistance in the first days of the war, when the rocky outcrop's defenders told a Russian warship that called on them to surrender to "go f*ck yourself," an incident that spurred a defiant meme.

It was also a strategic target, sitting aside shipping lanes near Ukraine's port of Odessa. Russia had attempted to install missile and air defence batteries while under fire from drones.

Now, however, Ukraine has begun to receive longer range missiles and military gear from its Western backers, and the Russian position on Snake Island seems to have become untenable.

"In the end, it will prove impossible for (President Vladimir) Putin to hold down a country that will not accept his rule," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, stressing that any eventual peace deal would be on Ukraine's terms.

"We've seen what Ukraine can do to drive the Russians back. We've seen what they did around Kyiv and Kharkiv, now on Snake Island."

'Strategically important' 

The Russian defence ministry statement described the retreat as "a gesture of goodwill" meant to demonstrate that Moscow will not interfere with UN efforts to organise protected grain exports from Ukraine.

But Kyiv claimed it as a win.

"They always downplay their defeats this way," Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said on Twitter.

"I thank the defenders of Odessa region who took maximum measures to liberate a strategically important part of our territory," Valeriy Zaluzhny, the Ukraine military's commander-in-chief, said on Telegram.

In peacetime, Ukraine is a major agricultural exporter, but Russia's invasion has damaged farmland and seen Ukraine's ports seized, razed or blockaded -- threatening grain importers in Africa with famine.

Western powers have accused Putin of using the trapped harvest as a weapon to increase pressure on the international community, and Russia has been accused of stealing grain.

On Thursday, a ship carrying 7,000 tonnes of grain sailed from Ukraine's occupied port of Berdyansk, said the regional leader appointed by the Russian occupation forces.

Evgeny Balitsky, the head of the pro-Moscow administration, said Russia's Black Sea ships "are ensuring the security" of the journey he said, adding that the port had been de-mined.

'Direct threat'

Separately, the Russian defence ministry said its forces are holding more than 6,000 Ukrainian prisoners of war who have been captured since the February 24 invasion.

The conflict in Ukraine has dominated the NATO summit in Madrid, where the leaders said Russia "is the most significant and direct threat to allies' security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area".

This came as NATO officially invited Sweden and Finland to join the alliance, and US President Joe Biden announced new deployments of US troops, ships and planes to Europe.

Biden said the US move was exactly what Russian President Putin "didn't want" -- and Moscow, facing fierce resistance from Ukrainian forces equipped with Western arms, reacted with predictable fury.

Putin accused the alliance of seeking to assert its "supremacy", telling journalists in the Turkmenistan capital of Ashgabat that Ukraine and its people are "a means" for NATO to "defend their own interests."

"The NATO countries' leaders wish to... assert their supremacy, their imperial ambitions," Putin added.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz dismissed Putin's comments as "ridiculous" and said the Russian leader "has made imperialism the goal of his politics".

NATO leaders have funnelled billions of dollars of arms to Ukraine and faced a renewed appeal from President Volodymyr Zelensky for more long-range artillery.

"Ukraine can count on us for as long as it takes," NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said at the summit, which ends Thursday, as he announced a new strategic overview that focuses on the Moscow threat.

'Clear-eyed'

The document, updated for the first time since 2010, warned the alliance "cannot discount the possibility" of an attack on its members.

Kuleba welcomed NATO's "clear-eyed stance on Russia".

Russian missiles continued to rain down across Ukraine.

In the southern city of Mykolaiv rescuers found the bodies of six slain civilians in the rubble of a destroyed building, emergency services said.

The city of Lysychansk in the eastern Donbas region -- the current focus of Russia's offensive -- is also facing sustained bombardment.

"The Russians are throwing almost all of their resources at capturing Lysychansk," Sergiy Gaiday, regional governor of Lugansk, which includes the city, said on Telegram.

"It's hard to find a safe spot in the city."

The United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Ukraine said on Thursday 16 million Ukrainians were in need of humanitarian aid.

Theatre strike 'war crime' 

Moscow's invasion triggered massive economic sanctions and a wave of support for Zelensky's government, including deliveries of advanced weapons, as well as the reinforcement of Europe's defences.

Washington has announced it will shift the headquarters of its 5th Army Corps to Poland.

An army brigade will head to Romania and two squadrons of F-35 fighters to Britain, air defence systems will be sent to Germany and Italy, and the fleet of US Navy destroyers in Spain will grow from four to six.

Britain also pledged another $1.2 billion in military aid for Ukraine on Wednesday, including air defence systems and drones.

 

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