KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian troops successfully launched their swift counteroffensive in the country’s northeast on Sunday, even as a nuclear power plant in the Russian-occupied south was completely shut down in a bid to prevent a radioactive disaster as fighting raged nearby.
Kyiv’s action to reclaim Russian-occupied areas in the Kharkiv region forced Moscow to withdraw its troops to prevent them from being surrounded, leaving behind significant numbers of weapons and ammunition in a hasty retreat then that the war celebrated its 200th day on sunday.
A jubilant Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, mocked Russians in a video address on Saturday evening, saying that “the Russian army these days is doing what it can do best – showing its back”.
He posted a video of Ukrainian soldiers raising the national flag over Chkalovske, another town recaptured during the counteroffensive.
Yuriy Kochevenko of the Ukrainian Armed Forces 95th Brigade tweeted a video from what appeared to be downtown Izyum. The city was considered an important command and supply center for Russia’s northern front.
“Everything around is destroyed, but we will restore everything. Izyum was, is and will be Ukraine,” Kochevenko said in his video, showing the empty central square and destroyed buildings.
While most of the attention was focused on the counter-offensive, the Ukrainian nuclear power operator said that the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, the largest in Europe, had been reconnected to the Ukrainian electricity grid, allowing engineers to shut down its last operational reactor to protect the factory in the midst of the fighting.
The plant, one of the 10 largest nuclear power plants in the world, has been occupied by Russian forces since the early days of the war. Ukraine and Russia traded blame for bombing around her.
Since a September 5 fire caused by bombing knocked the plant off transmission lines, the reactor had been powering crucial safety equipment in so-called “islanded” mode – an unreliable regime that made the plant increasingly vulnerable. to a potential nuclear accident.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog which has two experts at the plant, welcomed the restoration of external power. But the agency’s chief executive, Rafael Grossi, said he remained “seriously concerned about the situation at the factory, which remains in danger as long as the shelling continues”.
He said talks had started on establishing a safety and security zone around the plant.
In a call Sunday with Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron called for the withdrawal of Russian troops and weapons from the plant in accordance with IAEA recommendations.
During the fighting, Ukraine’s military leader, General Valerii Zaluzhnyy, said his forces had recaptured about 3,000 square kilometers (1,160 square miles) since the counteroffensive began in early September. He said Ukrainian troops are only 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) from the border with Russia.
Kharkiv Governor Oleh Syniehubov said Ukrainian troops had regained control of more than 40 settlements in the region, noting he could not give a specific figure as the operation is still ongoing.
Defense Minister Anna Malyar said Ukrainian forces were firing shells containing propaganda at areas where they sought to advance.
“One of the ways of information work with the enemy in areas where there is no internet is to launch propaganda shells,” she wrote on Facebook. “Before advancing, our defenders salute the Russian invaders and give them the last chance to surrender. Otherwise, only death awaits them on Ukrainian soil.
The Ukrainian General Staff said Russian forces also left several settlements in the Kherson region as Ukrainian forces continued the counteroffensive. He did not identify the cities.
An official in the Russian-backed administration in the city of Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, said on social media that the city was safe and asked everyone to remain calm.
The Russian withdrawal marked the biggest battlefield success for Ukrainian forces since they thwarted a Russian attempt to seize the capital, Kyiv, at the start of the war. The Kharkiv campaign came as a surprise to Moscow, which had moved many of its troops from the region south in expectation of a counteroffensive there.
In a clumsy attempt to save face, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that the withdrawal of troops from Izyum and other areas was aimed at bolstering Moscow’s forces in the neighboring Donetsk region to the south. The explanation resembled how Russia justified its withdrawal from Kyiv earlier this year.
Igor Strelkov, who led the Russian-backed forces when the separatist conflict in the Donbass erupted in 2014, scoffed at the Russian Defense Ministry’s explanation for the retreat, suggesting that handing over the army’s own territory Russia near the border was a “contribution to a Ukrainian settlement”.
The retreat angered Russian military bloggers and nationalist commentators, who lamented it as a major defeat and urged the Kremlin to step up its war efforts. Many have criticized Russian authorities for continuing the fireworks and other lavish festivities in Moscow that marked a public holiday on Saturday despite the debacle in Ukraine.
Putin attended the opening of a Ferris wheel in a Moscow park on Saturday and inaugurated a new transport link and sports arena. The action underscored the Kremlin’s narrative that the war it calls a “special military operation” was proceeding as planned without affecting the daily lives of Russians.
Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov criticized the Moscow festivities as a big mistake.
“The fireworks in Moscow on a tragic day of Russia’s military defeat will have extremely serious political consequences,” Markov wrote on his messaging app channel. “Authorities should not celebrate when people are in mourning.”
In a sign of a potential rift in the Russian leadership, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, said the retreat was the result of mistakes made by Russia’s top brass.
“They made mistakes and I think they will draw the necessary conclusions,” Kadyrov said. “If they do not change the strategy for conducting the special military operation in a day or two, I will be forced to contact the leadership of the Ministry of Defense and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground. . ”
Despite Ukraine’s gains, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the NATO chief warned on Friday that the war would likely last for months, urging the West to continue supporting Ukraine during what could be a difficult winter.
Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat of Virginia and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Ukraine’s progress very encouraging.
“I am proud that the United States and our allies have locked arms in support of the people of Ukraine in this fight,” Kaine said in a statement to The Associated Press. “We and our allies must continue to support Ukraine. Putin must recognize that the only way out is to end his failed war.
Associated Press writer Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed.
Follow the AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine