The news came after days of apparent advance through Ukraine south of Kharkov, the country’s second-largest city, in what could become the biggest battlefield success for Ukrainian troops since they overthrew a Russian attempt to capture the capital, Kiev. , thwarted at the start of the nearly seven-month war.
“The Russian military is showing what it can do these days: showing its back,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video released by his office on Saturday night. “And of course it’s a good decision for them to flee.”
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said troops will be regrouped from the Balakliya and Izyum areas to the eastern Donetsk region. Izyum has been an important base for Russian troops in the Kharkiv region, and earlier this week social media videos showed residents of Balakliya cheering as Ukrainian troops moved in.
Konashenkov said the Russian step was taken “to achieve the stated goals of the special military operation to liberate Donbas”, an eastern area with two separatist regions that Russia has declared sovereign.
The claim of a withdrawal to focus on Donetsk is similar to the justification given by Russia for withdrawing its troops from the Kiev region earlier this year when they failed to take the capital.
Igor Girkin, a Russian who was an early leader of a Moscow-backed separatist uprising in Donetsk in 2014, scoffed at portraying the withdrawal as strategic. On messaging app Telegram, he called the acid “the brilliant (obviously within the scope of the plan and even ahead of schedule) operation to transfer the cities of Izyum, Balakliya and Kupiansk to respected Ukrainian partners.”
Earlier Saturday, Ukrainian officials claimed big gains in the Kharkiv region, saying their forces had cut off vital supplies to Izyum.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko also suggested that troops had recaptured Kupiansk, a town along the main supply route to Izyum, which had long been centered on the Russian frontline and the site of heavy artillery and other fighting. Nikolenko tweeted a photo of soldiers in front of what he believes was a government building in Kupiansk, 73 kilometers (45 miles) north of Izyum.
The Ukrainian security service posted a message hours later saying that troops were in Kupiansk, further suggesting that it had been seized. The military did not immediately confirm access to the city, a railway junction that Russia seized in February.
Videos on social media appeared to show Ukrainian troops on the outskirts of Izyum at a roadside checkpoint. The images showed a large statue with the name of the city. Ukrainian troops have not acknowledged their control of the city.
Britain’s Defense Ministry said on Saturday it believed Ukrainian forces had moved as far as 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Kharkov, and described Russian forces around Izyum as “increasingly isolated”.
“Russian forces were probably taken by surprise. The sector was only lightly occupied and Ukrainian units captured or surrounded several cities,” the British army said, adding that the loss of Kupiansk would have major consequences for Russian supply lines.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, also referred to overwhelming Ukrainian gains, estimating that Kiev took up about 2,500 square kilometers in its eastern breakthrough. The institute said it appeared that “disorganized Russian troops (were) caught in the rapid Ukrainian advance”, citing social media images of apparent Russian prisoners being seized around Izyum and surrounding towns.
The same report states that Ukrainian forces “could collapse Russian positions around Izyum if they sever Russian 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 begun evacuating residents to Russia.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine is taking place amid an ongoing offensive around Kherson in the south. Analysts suggest Russia may have brought soldiers from the east to fortify the latter area, giving the Ukrainians a chance to attack a weakened front line.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Ukraina television channel that the Russians had no food or fuel for their troops in the area because Kiev had cut off their supply lines.
“It will be like an avalanche,” he said, predicting a Russian relapse. “One line of defense will shake and he will fall.”
The Ukrainian military was more cautious, claiming to have taken “more than 1,000 square kilometers” (386 square miles) of pro-Kremlin forces this week. It said that “in some areas, units of the armed forces have penetrated the enemy’s defenses to a depth of 50 kilometers”, which is in line with the British assessment, but did not disclose geographic details.
Officials in Kiev have silenced plans for a counteroffensive for weeks and are urging residents not to share information on social media.
However, Zelenskyy said on Friday that troops have reclaimed more than 30 settlements in the Kharkov region since the counteroffensive began.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian emergency services reported that a 62-year-old woman was killed in a Russian rocket attack in the Kharkiv region when her house was razed overnight.
Kharkov’s Ukrainian governor, Oleh Syniehubov, accused Moscow of beating recaptured settlements. He said via Telegram that five civilians in the Izyum district had been hospitalized while nine others were injured elsewhere in the region.
In controversial Donbas, the Ukrainian governor said civilians were killed and injured overnight by Russian shelling near the town of Bakhmut, a prime target of the stalled Russian offensive. Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram that two people were killed and two injured in Bakhmut and the neighboring village of Yahidne.
In the Russian-occupied city of Enerhodar, home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, electricity and water have been restored after a four-day outage caused by an explosion, the city’s Ukrainian mayor, Dmytro Orlov, said.
Enerhodar and its nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhya have been shelled repeatedly in recent weeks, with Russia and Ukraine accusing each other. The shelling has raised fears of a radiation leak at the factory, which has been cut off from external power sources; the facility has been forced to rely on power from the only working reactor for system cooling and other safety measures.
Orlov said workers at the plant helped restore power to Enerhodar, but it was not clear whether the electricity came from the plant or from a nearby thermal generating station.
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Also on Saturday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock paid an unannounced visit to Kiev and said Europe would not tire of helping Ukraine, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to increase pressure by lagging behind energy supplies. to keep.
Baerbock said Germany will help Ukraine find and remove mines and other unexploded ordnance left by Russian forces in areas where they have been driven back.
Despite Ukraine’s gains, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the head of NATO warned Friday that the war would likely drag on for months. Blinken said the conflict was entering a critical period and urged Ukraine’s Western supporters to hold on to their support during what could be a difficult winter.
Kozlowska reported from London. Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.