Ukraine’s lightning counteroffensive in the northeast of the country has inflicted an extraordinary defeat on Moscow, prompting the Russian military to withdraw thousands of troops after suffering a series of battlefield defeats.
In a day of significant developments, Ukrainian forces confirmed the liberation of the crucial railway hub of Kupiansk and soon after seized Izium, the main base of Moscow forces in the Kharkiv region.
Hours after the fall of Izium, the Russian Defense Ministry admitted it was withdrawing its forces from the area.
In unpredictable developments just days ago, Russian officials said troops would be moved from the Balakliia and Izium regions to aid its operation in Donbass, reflecting the Kremlin’s justification for withdrawing its forces from the Kyiv region shortly after the start of the seven-month war.
In a video address on Saturday, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Ukrainian forces had liberated about 2,000 km2 (700 square miles) of territory since the counteroffensive against Russia began earlier this month.
“The Russian army these days demonstrates its best ability – to show its back,” he said.
Vitaly Ganchev, the head of the Russian-backed administration in the Kharkiv region, told state television that several villages had come under the control of the Ukrainian armed formation and said his administration was trying to ” evacuate” civilians from towns like Izium, the main Russian city. logistics base in the province, where British officials described Russian forces as “increasingly isolated”.
A resident of Izium, who preferred to remain anonymous, told the Guardian that Ukrainian troops entered the town. Prior to this, “Russian occupation forces were rapidly withdrawing, leaving ammunition and equipment behind.”
Recapturing Izium is perhaps Ukraine’s most significant success in repelling the Russians since the invasion began.
Izium was for centuries considered the gateway to the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine and from there to the Black Sea. The Russians called the area around it the Izium Pass.
Its strategic position made Izium a fierce battleground during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as Moscow used it as a staging point for its assault on Ukrainian forces in Donbass. It fell entirely to Russian forces on April 1, trapping thousands of civilians in a city where up to 80% of its residential buildings were destroyed.
“We managed to cut the supply lines of the Russian formations that control the Izium region,” said Serhiy Kuzan, a military expert at the Ukrainian Center for Security and Cooperation who has first-hand knowledge of events in Kharkiv.
Kuzan said the Russian formations in charge of the area southeast of Kharkiv, referred to as the Izium area by military experts, were professional Russian soldiers, not mercenaries or conscripts from Russian-occupied Donbass.
“Ukrainian troops are advancing in eastern Ukraine, liberating more towns and villages. Their courage, coupled with Western military support, is bringing amazing results,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko said on social media.
On Saturday, Ukrainian officials shared photos showing troops raising the national flag over Kupyansk, where rail lines connect Russia to eastern Ukraine. converge and which in recent months has supplied Russian forces in northeastern Ukraine.
“Kupiansk is Ukraine. Glory to the Armed Forces of Ukraine,” said Natalia Popova, adviser to the head of the Kharkiv regional council.
The capture of Kupyansk potentially leaves thousands of Russian soldiers trapped on the front line and without supplies.
“The reason why Kupiansk is so important is that it is the main rail hub that feeds the Izium formations,” Kuzan said. “We saw Russian troops fleeing en masse yesterday. They are now trying to reinforce their positions by airdropping reserves, but this is very impractical because the reserves are unprepared,” Kuzan said.
The British Ministry of Defense said Ukraine’s counter-offensive took Russian forces by surprise, adding that forces from Kyiv had advanced 50 km (31 miles) along a narrow front line and recaptured or surrounded several towns.
“As Ukrainian operations also continue in Kherson, the Russian defensive front is under pressure on both its northern and southern flanks,” the statement read.
“We’re actually surprised how badly the Russians have backed off,” Kuzan said. “Retreat is part of the art of war. When we retreated we made sure they took casualties as they advanced and we did this to make sure they only advanced 1, 2, 3 km.
“They were so confident that they didn’t prepare their defenses,” Kuzan said. “It showed that the only advantage they have is the number of artillery pieces and heavy equipment. So all we need is the same amount.
On Saturday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said Moscow was withdrawing its forces from Balakliia and Izium, and they would regroup in the Donetsk region.
According to the Ukrainian army, Russia is also sending 1,300 Chechens fighters in the southern region of Kherson.
It comes like western intelligence suggests that Russian forces in Kherson under sustained pressure from Ukrainian attacks.
For weeks, Ukrainian officials had telegraphed plans for a planned counterattack in the southern Kherson region, but instead the primary target for this week’s counterattack was Kharkiv in the north- is, taking everyone, apparently including the Russians, by surprise.
Moscow responded by firing rockets into the center of the city, according to local officials, who said at least 10 people, including three children, were injured in an attack the chief of staff of Zelenskiy condemned it as revenge for Ukrainian success on the battlefield.
Despite the gains made by Ukraine’s armed forces, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the war was entering a critical period and he urged Ukraine’s Western backers to maintain their support during what could be a tough winter.
Russian rocket fire hit the city of Kharkiv on Saturday night, killing at least one person and damaging several homes, in an upsurge in shelling since kyiv’s counteroffensive, Ukrainian officials said.
Agency France-Presse, Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report