Kyiv, Ukraine — The Russian Defense Ministry announced on Saturday that it was withdrawing troops from two areas of Ukrainein the eastern region of Kharkiv, where a Ukrainian counteroffensive made significant progress last week.
The news came after days of apparent advances by Ukraine south of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, in what could become the biggest battlefield success for Ukrainian forces since they took over. thwarted a Russian attempt to seize the capital of Kyiv at the start of the nearly seven-month war.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Saturday that troops would be regrouped from Balakliya and Izyum regions to Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Izyum was a major base for Russian forces in the Kharkiv region and earlier this week videos on social media showed residents of Balakliya cheering happily as Ukrainian troops arrived.
Konashenkov said the Russian decision is taken “in order to achieve the stated goals of the special military operation to liberate Donbass”, one of the regions in eastern Ukraine that Russia has declared sovereign.
The assertion of a withdrawal to focus on Donetsk is similar to the justification Russia gave for withdrawing its forces from the Kyiv region earlier this year when they failed to take the Ukrainian capital.
Earlier on Saturday, Ukrainian officials claimed major gains in a counteroffensive against Russian forces in the Kharkiv region, saying Ukrainian troops had cut off vital supplies in Izyum.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko also suggested that Ukrainian troops had recaptured Kupyansk, a town along the main supply route to Izyum, long concentrated on the Russian front line and the site of heavy artillery and other combat. Nikolenko tweeted a photo showing soldiers in front of what he said was a government building in Kupiansk, 73 kilometers (45 miles) north of Izyum.
Hours later, Ukraine’s Ukrainian Security Service released a message it said showed its forces in Kupiansk, further suggesting it had been seized by Ukrainian troops. The Ukrainian army did not immediately confirm its entry into the city, a rail hub which Russia seized in February.
Videos on social media appeared to show Ukrainian forces on the outskirts of Izyum at a road checkpoint. A large statue with the city’s name could be seen in the footage. Ukrainian forces have not acknowledged holding the town.
Earlier on Saturday, Britain’s Ministry of Defense told reporters it believed the Ukrainians had advanced up to 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Kharkiv, and described Russian forces around Izyum as “of more and more isolated.
“The Russian forces were probably taken by surprise. The sector was only lightly held and Ukrainian units captured or surrounded several towns,” the British army said, adding that the loss of Kupyansk would significantly affect Russian supply lines.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, also referred to sizable Ukrainian gains, estimating that Kyiv grabbed around 2,500 square kilometers (965 square miles) in its breakthrough in ballast. The institute said it appeared “disorganized Russian forces (were) caught up in Ukraine’s rapid advance”. They cited social media images of apparent Russian prisoners seized during the advance around Izyum and surrounding towns.
The same report states that Ukrainian forces “could collapse Russian positions around Izyum if they cut Russian land lines of communication” north and south of the city.
Vladislav Sokolov, head of the Russian-appointed local administration, said on social media that authorities in Izyum had started evacuating residents to Russia.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine comes amid an ongoing offensive around Kherson in the south. Analysts suggest that Russia may have taken soldiers from the east to reinforce around Kherson, giving the Ukrainians an opportunity to strike at a weakened front line.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the Ukraina TV channel that the Russians had no food or fuel for their troops in the region because Kyiv had cut off their supply lines.
“It will be like an avalanche,” he said, predicting a Russian retreat. “A line of defense will shake and fall.”
Ukraine’s military was more circumspect about reported gains, saying on Saturday it had taken “more than 1,000 square kilometers” (386 square miles) from pro-Kremlin forces this week. He said “in some areas units of the Defense Forces penetrated enemy defenses to a depth of 50 kilometres”, matching the British assessment, but did not divulge geographical details.
Kyiv officials have been tight-lipped for weeks over plans for a counteroffensive to retake territory invaded by Russia at the start of the war, urging residents to refrain from sharing information on social media.
However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Friday that Ukrainian troops had taken over more than 30 settlements in the Kharkiv region since the start of the counteroffensive.
“We are gradually taking control of more settlements, returning the Ukrainian flag and protecting our people,” Zelenskyy said.
He spoke after the Ukrainian governor of Kharkiv announced that the national flag had been raised over Balakliia, a town recaptured by Ukrainian troops on Thursday after six months of Russian occupation.
“Balaklia is Ukraine! Today, together with the army, led by Commander of the Ground Forces Oleksandr Syrskyy, we raised the Ukrainian flag,” Governor Oleh Syniehubov wrote on Telegram.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian emergency services reported that a 62-year-old woman was killed in a Russian missile strike in the Kharkiv region when her house was flattened overnight.
Syniehubov also accused Moscow of shelling settlements taken over by Kyiv. He said in a Telegram post that five civilians were hospitalized in Izyum district, while nine others were injured elsewhere in the region.
In the besieged Donbass region south of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s governor says civilians were killed and injured overnight by Russian shelling near the town of Bakhmut, a key target of the blocked Russian offensive in that area . Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram that two people died and two others were injured in Bakhmut and the nearby village of Yahidne.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived in Kyiv for an unannounced visit on Saturday, saying Europe would not tire of helping Ukraine despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to ratchet up the pressure. by withholding energy supplies from the countries of the European Union.
Baerbock said Germany would help Ukraine find and remove mines and other unexploded ordnance left by Russian troops in areas where they were pushed back by Ukrainian forces.
Despite gains made by Ukraine’s armed forces, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the NATO chief warned on Friday that Ukraine’s fight against Russia looks set to drag on for months. Blinken said the war was entering a critical period and urged Ukraine’s Western backers to maintain support through what could be a tough winter.
Kozlowska reported from London. Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.
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