Kyiv, Ukraine (AFP) – The Russian Defense Ministry announced on Saturday that it will withdraw its forces from two districts in the Kharkiv region of eastern Ukraine where the Ukrainian counter-offensive made significant progress in the past week.
The news came days after Ukraine made apparent advances 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 Kyiv at the start of the war. Almost seven months of war.
“The Russian army these days is showing what it can do best – showing its back,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video released by his office on Saturday evening. “And of course, running is a good decision for them.”
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the forces would be regrouped from the Balaklya and Izyum regions to the eastern Donetsk region. Izyum has been a major base for Russian forces in the Kharkiv region, and earlier this week videos on social media showed Balaklia residents cheering with glee as Ukrainian forces advanced.
Konashenkov said the Russian move is being taken “in order to achieve the stated goals of the special military operation to liberate Donbass,” an eastern region that includes two breakaway regions declared by Russia its sovereignty.
The claim to withdraw to focus on Donetsk is similar to the justification given by Russia for withdrawing its forces from the Kyiv region earlier this year when it failed to capture 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. In the Telegram messaging app, he enthusiastically described it as “the remarkable process (clearly within the plan and even ahead of schedule) to transfer the cities of Izyum, Balaklia and Kobyansk to respected Ukrainian partners.”
Earlier on Saturday, Ukrainian officials announced significant gains in the Kharkiv region, saying their forces had cut off vital supplies to Izyum.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Ole Nikolenko also noted that the troops have retaken Kobyansk, a town along the main supply route to Izyum, which has long been the focus of the Russian front line and the site of heavy artillery and other battles. Nikolenko tweeted a photo showing soldiers in front of what he said was a government building in Kobyansk, 73 kilometers (45 miles) north of Izyum.
The Ukrainian Security Service published a message hours later saying that the troops were in Kobyansk, indicating that they had been captured. The military did not immediately confirm it had entered the city, a railway hub that Russia captured in February.
Videos surfaced on social media showing Ukrainian forces on the outskirts of Izyum at a roadside checkpoint. A large statue with the name of the city can be seen in the photos. Ukrainian forces did not recognize control of the city.
Britain’s Ministry of Defense said on Saturday it believed Ukrainian forces had advanced up to 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Kharkiv, describing Russian forces around Izyum as “increasingly isolated”.
It is possible that the Russian forces were taken by surprise. “The sector was limited in control, and Ukrainian units captured or besieged several towns,” the British military said, adding that the loss of Kobyansk would greatly affect Russian supply lines.
Similarly the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, noted the sweeping Ukrainian gains, estimating that Kyiv captured about 2,500 square kilometers (965 sq mi) in its eastern penetration. The institute said it appeared that “disorganized Russian forces (have been caught) in the midst of the rapid Ukrainian advance,” and cited social media photos of apparently captured Russian prisoners around Izyum and surrounding towns.
The same report said that Ukrainian forces “could collapse Russian positions around Izyum if Russian land lines of communication were cut” north and south of the city.
Vladislav Sokolov, head of the Russia-appointed local administration, said on social media that authorities in Izyum had begun evacuating residents to Russia.
The 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 bolster the latter, providing the Ukrainians with an opportunity to strike a weak front line.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov told Ukraine TV channel that the Russians had no food or fuel for their forces in the region because Kyiv had cut their supply lines.
“It will be like an avalanche,” he said, predicting Russia’s retreat. “One line of defense will shake and it will fall.”
The Ukrainian military has been more cautious, claiming to have captured “more than 1,000 square kilometers” (386 square miles) from forces loyal to the Kremlin this week. It said that “in some areas units of the defense forces penetrated the enemy’s defenses to a depth of 50 km”, consistent with the British estimate, but did not disclose geographical details.
Officials in Kyiv have been holding out for weeks about plans to launch a counterattack, urging residents to refrain from sharing information on social media.
However, on Friday, Zelensky said that troops have retaken more than 30 settlements in the Kharkiv region since the counter-offensive began.
Elsewhere, Ukraine’s emergency services reported that a 62-year-old woman was killed in a Russian missile attack in the Kharkiv region when her house was flattened overnight.
The Ukrainian governor of Kharkiv, Oleh Sinihopov, accused Moscow of striking at the settlements it had retaken. He said via Telegram that five civilians were taken to hospital in Izium district, while nine others were injured elsewhere in the district.
In the besieged Donbass region, the Ukrainian governor said civilians were killed and wounded overnight by Russian shelling near the city of Bakhmut, the main target of the faltering Russian offensive. Pavlo Kirilenko said on Telegram that two people were killed and two wounded in Bakhmut and the nearby village of Yehdana.
Electricity and water have been restored after a four-day outage due to an explosion, the mayor of the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar, home to Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, said Dmitro Orlov.
Innerhodar and the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant have been repeatedly bombed in recent weeks, with Russia and Ukraine accusing each other of perpetrating. The bombing raised fears of a radioactive leak at the station, which was cut off from external energy sources. The facility was forced to rely on power from its single working reactor for cooling systems and other safety measures.
Orloff said plant workers helped restore Enerhodar’s power, but it was not clear if the electricity was coming from the plant or a nearby thermal power plant.
Also on Saturday, German Foreign Minister Annallina Barbock made an unannounced visit to Kyiv and said Europe would not get tired of helping Ukraine, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to increase pressure by withholding energy supplies.
Barbock said Germany would help Ukraine find and clear mines and other unexploded ordnance left by Russian forces in areas removed from them.
Despite Ukraine’s gains, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and NATO chief warned on Friday that the war could drag on for months. Blinken said the conflict was entering a critical phase and urged Ukraine’s western backers to continue their support through the difficult winter.
Kozlowska reported from London. Associated Press writer Frank Jordan in Berlin contributed to this report.
Follow all AP articles on the war in Ukraine at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine.
“Lifelong food lover. Avid beeraholic. Zombie fanatic. Passionate travel practitioner.”