Frontline Russian troops fled their positions in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine as Ukrainian soldiers launched a blitzkrieg war on Saturday to liberate occupied territories.
Over the past few days, Ukrainian troops have made quick and unexpected gains in a counter-offensive east of the city of Kharkiv, attacking key strategic towns such as Balakliia, Kupyansk and Izyum, which are vital to the supply and logistics for Russian forces based in the eastern region of Donbass. After several weeks in which the conflict appeared to be heading for a stalemate over the winter, the NATO-armed Ukrainians are now looking to seize the momentum, with a two-pronged attack on Kharkiv in the east and Kherson in the south.
The Russian Defense Ministry sought to put a brave face on Ukraine’s successes in Kharkiv and suggested the Russian retreat was in line with the goals of President Vladimir Putin’s famous “special military operation”.
According to Major General Igor Konashenkov, Russian soldiers “located in the regions” of Izyum and Balakliia, liberated on Friday by Ukrainian troops, “were grouped together and transferred” to the neighboring region of Donetsk in order to “intensify efforts towards Donetsk”.
“In order to avoid damaging the Russian troops, strong fire was inflicted on the enemy using aircraft, missiles and artillery,” he added.
Putin himself has maintained a blatant silence on military setbacks, even as news of the retreats is beginning to filter through state media. Somewhat surreal, Putin took part in the inauguration of a giant Ferris wheel on Saturday to celebrate the anniversary of the city of Moscow.
He made only a passing reference to the Ukrainian conflict in his speech, noting that the events had been watched by “military people fighting for a peaceful life in Donbass, […] families, of our comrades in arms, who died, gave their lives for Russia.
Usually, loyal Russian military experts – and even an official – have begun to question the competence of those waging war in Ukraine. Daniil Bezsonov, deputy information minister of the Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic, said the withdrawal from Izyum and other settlements around Kharkiv was “of course…the result of mistakes made by the high command”.
Moscow was forced to withdraw its forces in order to avoid the encirclement of its large military group based in Izyum and the surrounding area.
The current counteroffensive is the fastest change on the frontline in Ukraine since Russian troops abandoned their siege of Kyiv and were forced to withdraw from the capital and northern Ukraine in early March.
On Friday afternoon, the first images apparently recorded by Ukrainian soldiers emerged from the outskirts of Izyum. A short video showed a Ukrainian flag raised above a checkpoint, next to a road sign bearing the name of the city.
Hours earlier, Ukrainian sources reported the recapture of the Russian-occupied town of Kupiansk, an important rail hub near the border with Russia.
Specifically, Ukraine’s main security service, the SBU, released photos of a group of soldiers from a special military unit in the city.
Oleg Nikolenko, spokesperson for the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry, tweeted a photo apparently taken in the main square of Kupyansk with a group of soldiers holding a Ukrainian flag. “Ukrainian troops are advancing in eastern Ukraine, liberating more towns and villages. Their courage, coupled with Western military support, is bringing amazing results,” he said. “It is crucial to continue sending arms to Ukraine.”
However, some Russian military social media channels report that Russian troops have only been withdrawn from the part of Kupyansk perched on the western bank of the Oskil River, which divides the city into two parts.
Igor Girkin, one of the leaders of the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014-2015, said the Russian military was facing “an acute operational crisis in a large sector of the front, which is has already turned into a major defeat”.
“Now all that’s left for us [Russia] is to consider how to prevent further setbacks and the escalation of an operational defeat into a strategic defeat,” he said. He added that Ukraine had already won “the battle for the initiative”.
While much attention is focused on Ukraine’s meteoric advances eastward, the armed forces are also reclaiming land south towards the Black Sea port of Kherson.
Natalia Humeniuk, spokeswoman for Ukrainian forces in the south, was quoted by local media as saying troops had advanced between “two to several tens of kilometres” on the southern front.