Russia’s Defense Ministry says it is withdrawing troops from key areas in Ukraine’s Kharkiv region.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian officials have claimed big gains in a counteroffensive against Russian forces in the north-east of the country, saying vital supplies to the invaders have been cut off from the frontline hotspot.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said troops would be redeployed from the Balakliya and Izyum oblasts to the Donetsk region. Izyum was an important base of the Russian armed forces in the Kharkiv region.
Konashenkov said the move was being taken “to achieve the stated objectives of the military special operation to liberate Donbass,” one of the eastern Ukrainian regions that Russia has declared sovereign.
The withdrawal’s claim to be centered on Donetsk is similar to the rationale given by Russia for withdrawing its forces from the Kyiv region earlier this year.
The reports followed several days of apparent Ukraine advances near Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, in what could become the biggest battlefield success for Ukrainian forces since they nearly thwarted a Russian attempt to capture Kiev’s capital earlier in the war had seven months ago.
Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko suggested that Ukrainian troops had recaptured Kupiansk, a town along the main supply route to Izyum that had long been a Russian frontline focus and the site of heavy artillery and other fighting.
Mr Nikolenko tweeted a photo showing soldiers from Ukraine’s 92nd Separate Mechanized Battalion in front of a government building in Kupiansk, 45 miles north of Izyum.
Hours later, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) released a message showing its forces in Kupiansk, further suggesting that this area was seized by Ukrainian troops.
Ukraine’s military did not immediately confirm entry into the city, a railroad junction that Russia captured in February when its mayor surrendered to avoid civilian casualties.
Later today, videos began circulating on social media that also appeared to show Ukrainian forces in the rural outskirts of Izyum at a road checkpoint. The footage featured a large statue with the city’s name on it. The Ukrainian armed forces did not admit to holding the city.
Britain’s Defense Ministry today told reporters it believes the Ukrainians have advanced as much as 30 miles south of Kharkiv and described Russian forces around Izyum as “increasingly isolated”.
The Defense Ministry added: “Russian forces were probably taken by surprise. The sector was only lightly held, and Ukrainian units captured or surrounded several towns.” It added that the loss of Kupiansk would severely disrupt Russian supply lines in the region.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, also pointed to widespread Ukrainian gains, estimating that Kyiv captured some 965 square miles in its northeastern breakthrough.
The institute said it appeared that “disorganized Russian forces got caught up in the rapid Ukrainian advance.”
They cited social media images of apparent Russian prisoners captured in the advance around Izyum and surrounding towns.
The same report states that Ukrainian forces north and south of the city “could collapse Russian positions around Izyum if they cut Russian ground communications lines.”
Vladislav Sokolov, the head of the Russian-appointed local administration, said on social media that authorities in Izyum had started evacuating residents to Russia.
Fighting in eastern Ukraine is taking place amid an ongoing offensive around Kherson in the south.
Analysts suspect that Russia may have brought troops from the east into reinforcements around Kherson, giving Ukrainians an opportunity to attack a weakened front line.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov told Ukraina TV that the Russians had no food or fuel for their troops in the region because Kyiv cut off their supply lines.
“It’s going to be like an avalanche,” he said, predicting a Russian backslide. “A line of defense will wobble and it will fall.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a nightly video address on Friday that Ukrainian troops have recaptured more than 30 settlements in the Kharkiv region since the counteroffensive began.
“We are gradually taking control of other settlements, returning the Ukrainian flag and protection for our people,” Zelenskyy said.
He spoke after Ukraine’s Kharkiv governor reported that the national flag had been raised over Balakliia, a town recaptured by Ukrainian troops on Thursday after six months of Russian occupation.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock arrived in Kyiv on Saturday for an unannounced visit and said Europe never tires of helping Ukraine despite efforts by Russian President Vladimir Putin to up the pressure by telling European Union countries Withhold energy supplies.
Ms Baerbock said Germany will assist Ukraine in finding and clearing mines and other duds left by Russian troops in areas where they have been pushed back by Ukrainian forces.
Despite the advances made by Ukraine’s armed forces, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the NATO chief warned on Friday that Ukraine’s fight against Russia is likely to drag on for months.
Mr Blinken said the war is entering a critical phase and he urged Western supporters of Ukraine to keep up their support through what could be a difficult winter.
https://www.independent.ie/world-news/europe/russia-pulls-back-ukraine-recording-major-gains-in-counter-offensive-near-kharkiv-41978699.html Russia retreats: Ukraine records big gains in Kharkiv counteroffensive