Ukrainian forces kept pushing north in the Kharkiv region and advancing to its south and east, Ukraine’s army chief said on Sunday, a day after their rapid gains forced Russia to abandon its main bastion in the area.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy hailed Ukraine’s offensive in the northeast Kharkiv province as a potential breakthrough in the six-month-old war, saying this winter could bring more rapid gains of territory if Kyiv can get more powerful weapons.
Ukraine’s chief commander, General Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, said the armed forces had regained control of more than 3,000 square km (1,158 square miles) since the start of this month.
“In the Kharkiv direction, we began to advance not only to the south and east, but also to the north. There are 50 km to go to the state border (with Russia),” he said on Telegram.
In the worst defeat for Moscow’s forces since they were repelled from the outskirts of the capital Kyiv in March, thousands of Russian soldiers left behind ammunition and equipment as they fled the city of Izium, which they had used as a logistics hub.
Moscow’s almost total silence on the defeat – or any explanation for what had taken place in northeastern Ukraine – provoked significant anger among some pro-war commentators and Russian nationalists on social media. Some called on Sunday for President Vladimir Putin to make immediate changes to ensure ultimate victory in the war. read more
Ukraine’s gains are important politically for Zelenskiy as he seeks to keep Europe united behind Ukraine – supplying weapons and money – even as an energy crisis looms this winter following cuts in Russian gas supplies to European customers.
Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces would continue to advance.
“We will not be standing still,” he said in a CNN interview recorded on Friday in Kyiv. “We will be slowly, gradually moving forward.”
Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine needed to secure retaken territory against a possible Russian counterattack on stretched Ukrainian supply lines. He told the Financial Times that Ukrainian forces could be encircled by fresh Russian troops if they advanced too far.
But he said the offensive had gone far better than expected, describing it as a “snowball rolling down a hill”.
“It’s a sign that Russia can be defeated,” he said.
Kyiv-based military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said the gains could bring a further push into Luhansk region, whose capture Russia claimed at the beginning of July.
“If you look at the map, it is logical to assume that the offensive will develop in the direction of Svatove – Starobelsk, and Sievierodonetsk – Lysychansk,” he said.
The head of Russia’s administration in Kharkiv told residents to evacuate the province and flee to Russia, TASS reported on Saturday. Witnesses described traffic jams with people leaving Russian-held territory.
Washington appeared to take a cautious public posture, with the Pentagon referring Reuters to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s remarks on Thursday about Kyiv’s “encouraging” battlefield successes.
Britain’s defence ministry said on Sunday that fighting continued around Izium and the city of Kupiansk, the sole rail hub supplying Russia’s front line across northeastern Ukraine, which has been retaken by Ukraine’s forces.
Power blackouts and cuts in water supply hit several areas of the Kharkiv region on Sunday, regional governor Olegh Synehubov wrote on Telegram. He accused Russian forces of attacking civilian infrastructure sites. read more
Moscow denies its forces deliberately target civilians.
The governor of the central region of Dnipropetrovsk, Valentyn Reznichenko, said Russian attacks had also knocked out power to several towns. “They are unable to reconcile themselves to defeats on the battlefield,” he wrote on Telegram.
As the war entered its 200th day, Ukraine on Sunday shut down the last operating reactor at Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant to guard against a catastrophe as fighting rages nearby.
Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of shelling around the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia plant, risking a release of radiation.
The International Atomic Energy Agency said a backup power line to the plant had been restored, providing the external electricity it needed to carry out the shutdown while defending against the risk of a meltdown.
French President Emmanuel Macron told Putin in a phone call on Sunday that the plant’s occupation by Russian troops is the reason why its security is compromised, the French presidency said. Putin blamed Ukrainian forces, according to a Kremlin statement.
Ukraine reported more Russian missile and air strikes overnight and regional officials reported heavy Russian shelling in the east and south.
Ukraine’s southern command said the military situation in the south was “developing dynamically” as territories were retaken there, while the mayor of the southern city of Mykolaiv said nine people had been injured in shelling.
Meanwhile, Russian nationalists called angrily on Sunday for President Vladimir Putin to make immediate changes to ensure ultimate victory in the Ukraine war, a day after Moscow was forced to abandon its main bastion in northeastern Ukraine.
The swift fall of Izium in Kharkiv province was Russia’s worst military defeat since its troops were forced back from the Ukrainian capital Kyiv in March.
As Russian forces abandoned town after town on Saturday, Putin was opening Europe’s largest ferris wheel in a Moscow park, while fireworks lit up the sky over Red Square to celebrate the city’s founding in 1147.
In an 11-minute-long voice message posted to the Telegram messaging app, Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, a Putin ally whose troops have been at the forefront of the campaign in Ukraine, dismissed the loss of Izium, a critical supply hub.
But he conceded the campaign was not going to plan.
“If today or tomorrow changes are not made in the conduct of the special military operation, I will be forced to go to the country’s leadership to explain to them the situation on the ground,” said Kadyrov.
Moscow’s almost total silence on the defeat – or any explanation for what had taken place in northeastern Ukraine – provoked significant anger among some pro-war commentators and Russian nationalists on social media.
As the defeats unfolded, the Russian defence ministry on Friday posted video footage of what it said were troops being sent to the Kharkiv region.
On Sunday the defence ministry said Russian forces had struck Ukrainian positions in the region with airborne troops, missiles and artillery.
MOSCOW IS SILENT
Neither Putin, who is Russia’s supreme commander-in-chief of the armed forces, nor Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu had publicly commented on the defeat as of midday on Sunday.
“We take pride in Moscow, and love this city with its majestic antiquity and its modern and dynamic pace of life, the charm of its cosy parks, lanes and streets and abundance of business and cultural events,” Putin told Muscovites, according to a Kremlin transcript of his congratulatory message.
Putin, who has described his shock on being told as a KGB spy in East Germany that “Moscow is silent” as the Berlin Wall crumbled, said those who had fallen in the Ukraine operation had given their lives for Russia.
The defence ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
“They’re taking the piss,” wrote one prominent, pro-war military blogger on Telegram, who posts under the name of Rybar.
“Now is not the time to shut up and say nothing … this seriously hurts the cause.”
On Saturday the ministry announced a “regrouping” that would move troops away from Kharkiv to focus on the Donetsk region further in Ukraine’s east – a statement that drew further anger from many Russian military bloggers.
Some of the pro-Kremlin war correspondents and former and current servicemen who have amassed large followings on Telegram accused the ministry of minimising the defeat.
Igor Girkin, a nationalist militant and former FSB officer who helped launch a 2014 war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, compared the collapse of one of the conflict’s principal front lines to the 1905 Battle of Mukden – a catastrophic defeat in the Russo-Japanese war which triggered Russia’s 1905 Revolution.
Ukraine has hailed its rapid advance, which saw thousands of Russian soldiers flee, leaving behind ammunition stockpiles and equipment, as a turning point in the 6-month-old war.
Girkin, who has been unsparing in his criticisms of the country’s top brass, dubbing defence minister Shoigu “the cardboard marshal”, has said repeatedly that Russia will be defeated in Ukraine if it doesn’t declare a nationwide mobilisation.
Nationalist anger at military failure is potentially a far greater problem for the Kremlin than pro-Western liberal criticism of Putin: opinion polls continue to show broad support for what Moscow calls the “special military operation”.
As the capital celebrated Moscow Day with street parties and concerts on Saturday, rumblings of disquiet even spread to Russia’s ordinarily subservient parliament.
Sergei Mironov, leader of the nominally opposition but Putin-loyal Just Russia party, said on Twitter that a firework display in honour of the holiday should be cancelled, in view of the military situation.
One message reposted on Telegram by the prominent war correspondent Semyon Pegov referred to the celebrations in Moscow as “blasphemous” and the refusal of Russian authorities to embark on full-scale war as “schizophrenic”.
“Either Russia will become itself through the birth of a new political elite … or it will cease to exist,” it read.