As Ukrainian troops race forward in what appears to be an unexpectedly successful counteroffensive in the northeastern Kharkiv region, locals are coming out to greet their liberators with hugs and promises of pancakes, according to videos published on social media.
Ukrainian soldiers have punched through the Russian frontlines in a lightning maneuver and seem to be establishing a noose around Russian forces in the highly strategic town of Izyum, which is of crucial logistical importance for Moscow’s operations in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Seeming caught off-guard, Russia insists that it is sending reinforcements and is “evacuating” civilians in the face of the Ukrainian advance.
As they push deeper into the Russian-occupied territory, the Ukrainian soldiers are posting videos of their reception in towns and villages along the route of their breakthrough. In footage recorded in the town of Balakliia, which had a pre-war population of around 28,000, a group of women cheer the incoming Ukrainian soldiers on the main square of the town. A Ukrainian soldier also appears in the background, wiping his feet on what looks like the flag of one of the pro-Russian separatist groups.
In another video, a group of women embrace several Ukrainian soldiers at the entrance to an apartment building in Balakliia, shedding tears of joy and repeating “Thanks, boys!” One of the women even offers pancakes to her liberators.
Balakliya was under Russian occupation for 6 months. It’s how the real liberation looks like. I listen to local people on the video and think how many unknown war crimes from this all period we will find there. pic.twitter.com/83dOd4P57W
— Oleksandra Matviichuk (@avalaina) September 8, 2022
“It’s hard for us, but we are pushing forward,” Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, commander-in-chief of the armed forces, said in a terse comment on these videos.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region is Kyiv’s biggest advance since Russian troops were forced to withdraw from around Kyiv and northern Ukraine in early March. Since then, Russia has concentrated its military assault on Ukraine’s industrial Donbas region.
The move to impose a stranglehold around Izyum, a town with a pre-war population of 46,000, has rekindled memories of a major encounter fought in almost exactly the same territory in World War II. It was here that the Germans delivered a major blow with Operation Federicus against Joseph Stalin’s Red Army, which overreached and suffered some quarter of a million dead and wounded.
Commenting on the capture of Balakliia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy wrote on Thursday night that “everything is in its right place. The Ukrainian flag is in a free Ukrainian city under a free Ukrainian sky.”
One image that circulated on social media on Friday showed that Ukrainian troops had already reached the outskirts of the town of Kupiansk, a major railway junction. As the crow flies, Kupiansk is only around 40 kilometers from the Russian border.
If Ukraine regains control over the town, this could potentially lead to the collapse of the Russian army group around Kharkiv.
Mykhailo Podoliak, an adviser to Zelenskyy’soffice, said in a televised interview aired on Thursday night that Kupiansk is “a key strategic site through which the entire Kharkiv grouping of Russian troops receives replenishment and reserves.”
“This is a key transport junction, which we need to win back, and then we will look at where to go from there — to the north or to the south,” Podoliak explained.
Meanwhile, it’s not clear what resistance Ukraine could face. On Friday afternoon, Russia’s defense ministry published a short video that purportedly showed a “transfer of Russian troops in the Kharkiv direction.” However, it was not clear from the footage how many troops and with what kinds of equipment Russia could move in its defense of the region.
Vitaly Ganchev, the Russia-appointed head of the Kharkiv government, said in a televised interview that pro-Russian authorities had started to “evacuate civilians” from Izyum and Kupiansk.
While Kyiv’s lightning advance may bring some relief to pro-Ukrainian local residents, those who agreed to collaborate with the occupation authorities in the Kherson region to the south could now face repercussions.
Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the office of Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, posted on Friday a photo showing a captured, blindfolded man with his hands bound behind his back, who was introduced as the former head of the Russian-installed government of Ivanivka, a village in the Kherson region.