Ukraine claimed to have regained territory in its eastern regions in the most successful counterattacks since troops repelled an assault on Kyiv and the northeast by Russian forces in the early months of the war.
The territorial gains were made as Moscow focuses on countering the Ukrainian counteroffensive around Kherson and could weaken Russia’s grip on the Donbass region, analysts said.
“This week we have good news from the Kharkiv region. . . you have all seen reports of the activity of Ukrainian defenders before,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his daily video address. The comments follow reports including videos on social media showing Ukrainian soldiers liberating the town of Balakliia and nearby villages in eastern Kharkiv province.
The area is near the town of Izyum, the base of one of the largest concentrations of Russian forces. This advance bolsters the hopes of Ukrainian forces to cut the supply lines of these troops, who are focused on fully capturing the eastern region of Donbass.
Zelenskyy did not name the towns or villages taken over, saying “now is not the time to name the settlements to which the Ukrainian flag belongs”.
“The total area of the territory returned to Ukraine in the Kharkiv and [Kherson] exceeds 700 square kilometres,” said Brigadier General Oleksiy Gromov, deputy head of the operational unit of the Ukrainian General Staff, indicating that the attacks were the first stage of a counter-offensive aimed at pushing the Russians back. east of the Dnipro River before winter.
Russian officials did not acknowledge casualties in the east, but local leaders installed by Russia to govern occupied areas reported bloody battles in the region.
Vitaly Ganchev, head of the “military-civilian administration” of the Russian-occupied areas in the Kharkiv region, said on Thursday that Ukrainian forces had tried to surround and seize Balakliia, but claimed that they had been pushed back. “The city is under our control,” he told Russian state television.
However, bloggers and commentators embedded with Russian forces have reported recent defeats by President Vladimir Putin’s troops in the east.
The attacks came as Kyiv launched its southern offensive, following weeks of long-range rocket attacks and artillery strikes. The equipment, supplied by Western allies, proved crucial in destroying arms depots, logistics and command posts deep within occupied territories.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid a surprise visit to Kyiv on Thursday to meet with Zelensky. The Biden administration has announced plans to distribute military aid worth $2.2 billion to Ukraine and 18 other European countries threatened by Russia. Washington has provided Kyiv with more than $14.5 billion in military assistance since Moscow launched its invasion in February.
Separately, Washington has approved $675 million in military support for Kyiv, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday during a meeting of Western and Ukrainian defense chiefs at Ramstein Air Base, in Germany.
“Ukrainian Armed Forces have inspired the world with their determination to defend their democracy [against] Russia’s reckless and ruthless war of choice,” Austin said. “Russian forces continue to cruelly bombard Ukrainian towns and civilians with missiles and artillery fire, but Ukrainian forces have started their counteroffensive.”
Taras Berezovets, a communications officer in a Ukrainian special forces brigade, released a video on Thursday of him visiting abandoned Russian positions and vehicles near the liberated village of Bairak, on the outskirts of Balakliia.
“They threw away their uniforms and all their stuff” before fleeing, a Ukrainian soldier told him at an abandoned Russian fortification nearby. Both claimed that enemy troops had fled in civilian clothes in an attempt to avoid capture by Ukrainian forces. The footage also showed Ukrainian soldiers rounding up stockpiles of weapons left behind by Russian forces and pulling down a Soviet flag.
The US Institute for the Study of War suggested on Thursday that Ukraine took advantage of Russia’s recent move of forces south to repel the southern offensive.
« Ukraine’s operations in Kherson [region] forced Russian forces to concentrate in the south, allowing Ukrainian forces to launch localized but highly effective counterattacks in the Izyum area,” he added.
Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington