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Russian forces in full retreat from Kharkiv as Ukraine seeks to turn tide of war

Russia’s front line troops have fled their positions in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region as Ukrainian soldiers on Saturday forged ahead with a blitzkrieg to liberate occupied territories.

Over the past days, Ukrainian troops have made unexpectedly rapid gains in a counteroffensive to the east of the city of Kharkiv, attacking key strategic towns such as Balakliia, Kupiansk and Izyum, which are vital to supply and logistics for Russian forces based in the the eastern Donbas region. After several weeks in which the conflict appeared to be heading for a stalemate over winter, the NATO-armed Ukrainians are now seeking to seize the momentum, with a two-pronged attack in Kharkiv to the east and Kherson to the south.

Russia’s defense ministry sought to put a brave face on the Ukrainian successes in Kharkiv and suggested the Russian retreat conformed with the goals of President Vladimir Putin’s notorious “special military operation.”

According to Major General Igor Konashenkov, Russian soldiers “located in the areas” of Izyum and Balakliia, liberated by Ukrainian troops on Friday, “have been regrouped and transferred” to the neighbouring Donetsk region in order to “increase efforts in the Donetsk direction.”

“In order to prevent damage to Russian troops, powerful fire was inflicted on the enemy using aviation, missiles and artillery,” he added.

Putin himself has maintained a conspicuous silence on the military setbacks, even though news of the retreats are starting to filter onto state media. Somewhat surreally, 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 passing reference to the Ukraine conflict in his speech, noting that the events were attended by “servicemen fighting for a peaceful life in the Donbas, […] families, of those our comrades-in-arms, who died, gave their lives for Russia.”

Usually loyal Russian military pundits — and even one official — have started querying the competence of those leading the Ukraine war. Daniil Bezsonov, deputy information minister for the Moscow-backed Donetsk People’s Republic, said that the retreat 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 vicinity.

The current counteroffensive is the most rapid change in the front line in Ukraine since Russian troops abandoned their siege of Kyiv and were forced to withdraw from around the capital and northern Ukraine in early March.

On Friday afternoon, the first footage apparently recorded by Ukrainian soldiers appeared from the outskirts of Izyum. A short video featured a Ukrainian flag being raised over a check point, next to a street sign with the city’s name.

A couple of hours prior to that, Ukrainian sources reported on the recapture of the Russia-occupied town of Kupiansk, a major railway junction near the border with Russia.

Specifically, Ukraine’s main security service SBU published photos of a group of soldiers from a special military unit in the town.

Oleg Nikolenko, a spokesman for Ukraine’s foreign ministry, tweeted a photo apparently taken on Kupiansk’s main square with a group of soldiers holding a Ukrainian flag. “Ukrainian troops are advancing in eastern Ukraine, liberating more cities and villages. Their courage, coupled with Western military support, brings astonishing results,” he said. “It’s crucial to keep sending arms to Ukraine.”

However, some Russian military social media channels are reporting that Russian troops have only been withdrawn from the part of Kupiansk perched on the west bank of the Oskil river, which divides the town into two parts.

Igor Girkin, one of the leaders of the pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014-2015, said that the Russian army faces “an acute operational crisis in a wide sector of the front, which has already escalated into a major defeat.”

“Now, all that is left for our side [Russia] is to consider how to prevent further setbacks and the escalation of an operational defeat into a strategic one,” he said. He added that Ukraine had already won “the battle for initiative.”

While attention is largely focused on Ukraine’s lightning advances to the east, the armed forces are also clawing back land in the south toward the Black Sea port of Kherson.

Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for the Ukrainian forces in the south, was quoted by local media saying said that troops had advanced between “two to several dozen kilometers” on the southern front.



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