Russia’s Defence Ministry announced Saturday that it’s 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 south of Kharkiv, Ukraine’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 Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Saturday that troops would be regrouped from the Balakliya and Izyum areas to Ukraine’s tern Donetsk region. Izyum was a major base for Russian forces in the Kharkiv region and earlier this week social media videos showed residents of Balakliya joyfully cheering as Ukrainian troops moved in.
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.
Similar justification cited in past
The claim of pullback to concentrate on Donetsk is simlliar to the justification Russia gave for pulling back its forces from the Kyiv region earlier this year when they failed to take the Ukrainian capital.
Ukrainian officials earlier Saturday claimed major gains in a counteroffensive against Russian forces in the Kharkiv region, saying Ukrainian troops had cut off vital supplies to Izyum.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleh Nikolenko also suggested the Ukrainian troops had retaken Kupiansk, a town along the main supply route to Izyum, long a focus on the Russian front line and the site of heavy artillery and other fighting.
Nikolenko tweeted a photo showing soldiers of the 92nd Separate Mechanized Battalion of Ukraine in front of what he said was a government building in Kupiansk, 73 kilometres north of Izyum.
The Security Service of Ukraine, known as the SBU, hours later posted a message which it said showed its forces in Kupiansk, further suggesting it had been seized by Ukrainian troops. The Ukrainian military didn’t immediately confirm entering the town, a railway hub that Russia seized in February.
Videos on social media appeared to show Ukrainian forces on the rural outskirts of Izyum at a roadside checkpoint. A large statue bearing the city’s name could be seen in the footage. Ukrainian forces did not acknowledge holding the city.
‘Likely taken by surprise’
Earlier Saturday, the British Defence Ministry told reporters it believed the Ukrainians had advanced as much as 50 kilometres 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.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, likewise referenced sweeping Ukrainian gains on Saturday, estimating that Kyiv has seized around 2,500 square kilometres in its breakthrough.
The institute said that 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 that Ukrainian forces “may collapse Russian positions around Izyum if they sever Russian ground lines of communication” north and south of the town.
Vladislav Sokolov, head of the Russian-appointed local administration, said on social media that authorities in Izyum have started evacuating residents to Russia.
The fighting in eastern Ukraine comes amid an ongoing offensive around Kherson in the south. Analysts suggest Russia may have taken soldiers from the east to reinforce around Kherson, offering the Ukrainians the opportunity to strike a weakened front line.
Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the television channel Ukraina that the Russians had no food or fuel for their troops in the area as Kyiv had cut off their supply lines.
“It will be like an avalanche,” he said, predicting a Russian fallback. “One line of defence will shake and it will fall.”
The Ukrainian military was more circumspect about the reported gains, claiming in its regular update Saturday to have taken “more than 1,000 square kilometres” from pro-Kremlin forces this week. It said that “in some areas, units of the Defence Forces have penetrated the enemy’s defences to a depth of 50 kilometres,” matching the British assessment, but did not disclose any geographical details.
Zelenskyy points to reclaimed settlements
Officials in Kyiv have for weeks been tight-lipped about their plans for a counter-offensive to retake territory overrun by Russia early in the war, calling on local residents to refrain from sharing information on social media for fear of compromising the ongoing operation.
However, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a Friday night video address that Ukrainian troops had reclaimed more than 30 settlements in the Kharkiv region since the start of the counteroffensive.
He spoke after the Ukrainian governor of Kharkiv reported that the national flag had been raised over Balakliia, a town recaptured by Ukrainian troops on Thursday following 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.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian emergency services reported that a 62-year-old woman was killed in a Russian missile strike in the Kharkiv region when her home was flattened overnight.
Syniehubov, the regional governor, also accused Moscow of pummeling settlements retaken by Kyiv. He said in a Telegram post that five civilians were hospitalized in the Izyum district, while nine others suffered injuries elsewhere in the region.
In the embattled Donbas region south of Kharkiv, the Ukrainian governor said that civilians were killed and wounded overnight by Russian shelling near the city of Bakhmut, a key target of the stalled Russian offensive there. Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram that two people died and two more suffered injuries in Bakhmut and the neighbouring village of Yahidne.