KYIV — 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 made Russia 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 country’s armed forces have regained control of more than 3,000 square km (1,158 square miles) since the beginning 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 Moscow, Russia’s defense ministry said on Sunday that Russian forces were hitting Ukrainian army positions in the Kharkiv region with precision strikes delivered by airborne troops, missiles and artillery.
The retreat from the city of Izium marked Russian forces’ worst defeat since they were pushed back from the capital Kyiv in March, as thousands of Russian soldiers left behind ammunition and equipment as they fled.
The 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.
“I believe that this winter is a turning point, and it can lead to the rapid de-occupation of Ukraine,” Zelenskiy told a political forum. “We see how they (occupiers) are fleeing in some directions. If we were a little stronger with weapons, we would de-occupy faster,” he said in remarks published on his website late on Saturday.
Ukrainian officials stopped short of confirming they had recaptured Izium, but Zelenskiy’s chief of staff Andriy Yermak posted a photo of troops on its outskirts and tweeted an emoji of grapes. The city’s name means “raisin.”
Defense minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine needed to secure the retaken territory from 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.
Britain’s defense ministry said on Sunday Ukrainian forces continued making gains in the Kharkiv region over the past 24 hours. However, fighting continued around Izium and the city of Kupiansk, the sole rail hub supplying Russia’s front line across northeastern Ukraine, which has been recaptured by Ukrainian forces.
As the war entered its 200th day, Ukraine reported more Russian missile and air strikes overnight and regional officials reported heavy Russian shelling in the east and south.
NUCLEAR PLANT HALTS OPERATIONS
Eastern Donetsk province governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said on Telegram 10 civilians were killed overnight.
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.
Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield accounts.
While fighting raged, conditions at Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant continued to cause global concern. Russia and Ukraine accuse each other of shelling around the Zaporizhzhia plant and thereby risking a catastrophic release of radiation.
But on Sunday the International Atomic Energy Agency said a backup power line to the Russian-held plant had been restored, providing it with the external electricity it needs to cool its reactors and defend against the risk of a meltdown.
State agency Energoatom meanwhile said it halted operations at the plant as a safety step, as the restored line to the grid allowed the plant to be powered by Ukraine’s energy system.
Kyiv on Wednesday had urged residents of Russian-occupied areas around the plant to evacuate for their own safety.
Europe’s energy crisis threatens to erode the continent’s unity on Ukraine, and Kyiv badly needs battlefield successes to preserve it.
Zelenskiy told a conference attended by Germany’s foreign minister on Saturday that Russia was doing “everything” to break Ukrainian and European resolve this winter.
“Ahead are 90 days that will determine more than 30 years of Ukrainian independence. Ninety days that more than all other years will determine the existence of the EU,” he said. “The winter will determine our future.”
Russian forces used Izium as the logistics base for one of their main campaigns – a months-long assault from the north on the adjacent Donbas region, comprising Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia’s defense ministry ordered troops to leave the vicinity and reinforce operations elsewhere in Donetsk, state-run TASS news agency reported on Saturday.
The head of Russia’s administration in Kharkiv told residents to evacuate the province and flee to Russia to “save lives,” TASS reported. Witnesses described traffic jams of cars with people leaving Russian-held territory.
(Reporting by Reuters reporters; Writing by Tomasz Janowski; Editing by William MacLean and Andrew Heavens)