KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia’s Defense Ministry announced Saturday that it is withdrawing troops from two areas in Ukraine’s eastern Kharkiv region where a Ukrainian counteroffensive has made significant advances over the past week.
The news comes days after apparent advances by Ukraine south of the country’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, in what could turn out to be the biggest battlefield victory for Ukrainian forces as they repulsed a Russian bid to seize the capital, Kiev. Almost seven months of war.
“These days the Russian army is proving the best it can do – showing its back,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video released by his office on Saturday night. “And, of course, it was a good decision for them to run.”
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said troops would be regrouped in the eastern Donetsk region from the Balaklia and Izium regions. Izyum was a key base for Russian forces in the Kharkiv region, and social media videos earlier this week showed residents of Balaklia cheering as Ukrainian troops entered.
Konashenkov said the Russian move was being made “to achieve the stated goals of the special military operation to liberate the Donbass,” the eastern part of two breakaway regions that Russia has declared sovereign.
The claim of withdrawal to focus on Donetsk is similar to the justification Russia gave for withdrawing its forces from the Kyiv region when it failed to capture the capital earlier this year.
Igor Kirkin, a Russian who was an early leader of the Moscow-backed separatist uprising in Donetsk in 2014, scoffed at what was portrayed as a retreat strategy. In the messaging app Telegram, he acidly called it “a smart (within the framework of the project and ahead of schedule) move to transfer the cities of Izyum, Balakliya and Kupiansk to respected Ukrainian partners.”
Earlier on Saturday, Ukrainian officials said they had made major gains in the Kharkiv region.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ole Nikolenko also suggested troops had recaptured the city of Kubiansk, a city on a key supply route to Izyum that had long been a focus of Russian front lines and the site of heavy artillery and other skirmishes. 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.
The Ukrainian Security Service released a message hours later that troops were in Kubiansk, and that it had been captured. The military did not immediately confirm entering the city, a railway hub captured by Russia in February.
Videos on social media showed Ukrainian forces at a roadside checkpoint in the suburb of Izyum. A large statue with the name of the city can be seen in the pictures. Ukrainian forces have not acknowledged holding the city.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Saturday it believed Ukrainian troops had advanced to 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Kharkiv, describing Russian forces around the ECM as “increasingly isolated”.
“The Russian forces may have been taken by surprise. The sector was only lightly held and Ukrainian units had captured or surrounded several towns,” the British Army said, adding that the loss of Kubiansk would greatly affect Russian supply lines.
The Institute for War Studies, a Washington-based think tank, similarly notes the Ukrainian gains, estimating that Kyiv has captured about 2,500 square kilometers (965 square miles) on its eastern flank. “Irregular Russian forces caught up in rapid Ukrainian advance,” the agency said and cited social media images of apparently Russian prisoners captured in Izyum and surrounding towns.
The same report said Ukrainian forces could break Russian positions around Iziyam if they cut off Russian land links 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.
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 the latter, giving the Ukrainians a chance to attack a weak front line.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told a Ukrainian television channel that the Russians had no food or fuel for their troops in the area because Kyiv had cut off their supply links.
“It will be like an avalanche,” he said, predicting a Russian fall. “A line of defense trembles, and it falls.”
The Ukrainian military was more circumspect, saying this week it had taken “more than 1,000 square kilometers” (386 square miles) from pro-Kremlin forces. “In some areas, units of the Defense Forces have penetrated enemy defenses to a depth of 50 kilometers,” it said, matching the British estimate, but did not give geographic details.
Officials in Kyiv have been tight-lipped about plans for a counterattack for weeks, urging residents to avoid sharing information on social media.
However, Zelenskyy said on Friday that troops have recaptured more than 30 settlements in the Kharkiv region since the counteroffensive began.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian emergency services said a 62-year-old woman was killed in a Russian missile attack in the Kharkiv region.
The Ukrainian governor of Kharkiv, Ole Tsinihubov, accused Moscow of blocking the recaptured settlements. He said by telegram that five civilians were hospitalized in Izyum district and nine others were injured elsewhere in the region.
A Ukrainian governor said civilians were killed and wounded overnight by Russian shelling near the city of Baghmut, the main target of the banned Russian offensive. Pavlo Kyrilenko said in a telegram that two people were killed and two were wounded in Bagmud and the neighboring village of Yahidne.
In the Russian-controlled city of Enerhodar, home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, electricity and water were restored after a four-day shutdown caused by the explosion, said the city’s Ukrainian mayor, Dmytro Orlov.
Enerhodar and its Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant have come under repeated shelling in recent weeks, with Russia and Ukraine blaming each other. The shelling has raised fears of a radiation leak at the plant, which has been cut off from external power sources; The system is forced to rely on power from its sole working reactor for cooling and other safety measures.
Orlov said workers from the plant helped restore power to Enerhodar, but it was unclear whether the power was coming from the plant or from a nearby thermal power plant.
On Saturday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Perbach made a surprise visit to Kyiv and said Europe would not tire of helping Ukraine, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to ratchet up pressure by cutting off energy supplies.
Baerbach said Germany would help Ukraine find and remove landmines and unexploded ordnance left behind by Russian troops in retreating areas.
Despite Ukraine’s gains, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and the head of NATO warned on Friday that the war could drag on for months. Blinken said the conflict was entering a critical period and urged Ukraine’s Western backers to continue their support through the difficult winter.
Kozlowska reported from London. Associated Press writer Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.
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