KYIV, Ukraine — Russia’s Defense Ministry announced Saturday that it is pulling back troops from two areas in Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region where a Ukrainian counteroffensive has made significant advances in the past 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 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 Saturday that troops would be regrouped from the Balakliya and Izyum areas to Ukraine’s tern Donetsk region. Izyum, a key base of Russian forces in Kharkiv Region was seen earlier in this week in social media video. Residents in Balakliya cheered as Ukrainian troops entered.
Konashenkov said the Russian move is being made “in order to achieve the stated goals of the special military operation to liberate Donbas,’” one of the eastern Ukraine regions that Russia has declared sovereign.
This claim that Donetsk was being pulled back is similar to Russia’s justification for withdrawing its troops from Kyiv earlier in the year, when it failed to seize the Ukrainian capital.
Ukrainian officials announced major victories in Saturday’s counteroffensive against Russian forces based in Kharkiv. They claimed that Ukrainian troops had shut off Izyum of vital supplies.
Oleh Nikolenko, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, also said that the Ukrainian troops had taken Kupiansk. This town is located along the main route to Izyum. It was long an important focus for the Russian frontline and site of heavy artillery, as well as other fighting. Nikolenko shared a tweet showing soldiers at the front of a Kupiansk building, which he claimed was government. It is located about 73km (45miles) north Izyum.
A message from the Ukrainian Security Service of Ukraine, which claimed it had shown its forces at Kupiansk hours later, suggested that they were seized it by Ukrainian troops. The Ukrainian military didn’t immediately confirm entering the town, a railway hub that Russia seized in February.
Social media videos showed Ukrainian troops at an intersection checkpoint. A large statue with the city’s name could be seen in the footage. Ukrainian forces didn’t acknowledge the holding of the city.
Earlier Saturday, the British Defense Ministry told reporters it believed the Ukrainians had advanced as much as 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Kharkiv, and described Russian forces around Izyum as “increasingly isolated.”
“Russian forces were likely taken by surprise. The sector was only lightly held and Ukrainian units have captured or surrounded several towns,” the British military said, adding that the loss of Kupiansk would greatly affect Russian supply lines.
Washington-based think tank the Institute for the Study of War also mentioned the huge gains made by Ukraine. It estimated that Kyiv had seized approximately 2,500 km (965 miles) during its eastward breakthrough. The institute said it appeared that “disorganized Russian forces (were) caught in the rapid Ukrainian advance.” They cited social media images of apparent Russian prisoners seized in the advance around Izyum and surrounding towns.
The same report said Ukrainian forces “may collapse Russian positions around Izyum if they sever Russian ground lines of communication” north and south of the town.
Vladislav Sokolov is the head of the Russian-appointed local government and stated on social media that Izyum authorities have begun evacuating residents.
The ongoing battle for Kherson, in the south of Ukraine, is what is causing fighting in eastern Ukraine. Russian soldiers may have been sent to Kherson to provide reinforcement, allowing the Ukrainians an opportunity to weaken their frontline.
Oleksii Reznikov, the Ukrainian Defense Minister, stated to Ukraina television that Russia had run out of fuel and food for its troops due to Kyiv cutting off all their supplies.
“It will be like an avalanche,” he said, predicting a Russian fallback. “One line of defense will shake and it will fall.”
The Ukrainian military was more circumspect about the reported gains, claiming Saturday to have taken “more than 1,000 square kilometers” (386 square miles) from pro-Kremlin forces this week. It said “in some areas, units of the Defense Forces have penetrated the enemy’s defenses to a depth of 50 kilometers,” matching the British assessment, but did not disclose geographical details.
Kyiv officials have been quiet for several weeks about their plans to counterattack Russia’s early wartime invasion. They urged residents not to share information through social media.
According to Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, more than 30 settlements were reclaimed by Ukrainian troops in Kharkiv since the anti-offensive began.
“We are gradually taking control over more settlements, returning the Ukrainian flag and protection for our people,” Zelenskyy said.
He was speaking after the Ukrainian governor in Kharkiv informed him that the Ukrainian flag had been hoisted over Balakliia by Ukrainian troops, which were retaking the town on Thursday after six months of Russian occupation.
“Balakliia is Ukraine! Today, together with the military, led by the commander of the Ground Forces Oleksandr Syrskyy, we raised the Ukrainian flag,” governor Oleh Syniehubov wrote on Telegram.
A Ukrainian emergency service reported another death of a woman aged 62 who was hit by a Russian missile in Kharkiv after her house was destroyed overnight.
Syniehubov also said that Moscow was responsible for destroying settlements in Kyiv. In a Telegram posting, he stated that five civilians had been hospitalized in Izyum while nine other people sustained injuries in another part of the region.
According to the governor of Ukraine, civilians were wounded and killed in Russian shelling that occurred overnight near Bakhmut. Bakhmut was a crucial target for the Russian military offensive. Pavlo Cyrylenko, a Telegram host said that two persons died in Bakhmut while two others sustained injuries.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived in Kyiv on an unannounced visit Saturday, saying that Europe would not tire of helping Ukraine despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to raise the pressure by withholding energy supplies from European Union nations.
Baerbock stated that Germany would assist Ukraine to find and remove mines and unexploded ordnance from Russian troops located in territories occupied by Ukrainian forces.
Despite the gains made by Ukraine’s armed forces, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the head of NATO warned Friday that Ukraine’s fight against Russia appears set to drag on for months. Blinken said the war was entering a critical period and urged Ukraine’s Western backers to keep up their support through what could be a difficult winter.
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