Russia ‘taken by surprise’ as Ukraine advances in the east

Ukrainian officials have claimed major gains in a counter-offensive against Russian forces in the country’s north-east, saying vital supplies to the invaders had been cut off from the front-line hotspot.

he reports followed several days of apparent advances by Ukraine south of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city, in what could become the biggest battlefield success for Ukrainian forces since they thwarted a Russian attempt to seize the capital of Kyiv at the start of the war nearly seven months ago.

Ukrainian foreign ministry spokesman Oleh Nikolenko suggested the Ukrainian troops had retaken Kupiansk, a town along the main supply route to Izyum, long a focus on the Russian front line and the site of heavy artillery and other fighting.

Mr Nikolenko tweeted a photo showing soldiers of the 92nd Separate Mechanised Battalion of Ukraine in front of what he said was a government building in Kupiansk, 45 miles north of Izyum.

Hours later, the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) posted a message which it said showed its forces in Kupiansk, further suggesting this territory has been seized by Ukrainian troops.

The Ukrainian military did not immediately confirm entering the town, a railway hub which Russia seized in February, when its mayor surrendered to avoid civilian casualties.

Later on Saturday, videos on social media began to circulate also appearing to show Ukrainian forces on the rural outskirts of Izyum at a roadside checkpoint. A large statue bearing the city’s name could be seen in the footage. Ukrainian forces did not acknowledge holding the city.

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A firefighter works to extinguish a fire after a Russian attack that heavily damaged a residential building in Sloviansk (AP)

Earlier on Saturday, the UK Ministry of Defence told reporters it believed the Ukrainians had advanced as much as 30 miles south of Kharkiv, and described Russian forces around Izyum as “increasingly isolated”.

The MoD added: “Russian forces were likely taken by surprise. The sector was only lightly held and Ukrainian units have captured or surrounded several towns.” It added that the loss of Kupiansk would greatly affect Russian supply lines in the area.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, likewise referenced sweeping Ukrainian gains, estimating that Kyiv has seized around 965 square miles in its north-eastern breakthrough.

The institute said it appeared that “disorganised Russian forces (were) caught in the rapid Ukrainian advance”.

They cited social media images of apparent Russian prisoners seized in the advance around Izyum and surrounding towns.

The same report said Ukrainian forces “may collapse Russian positions around Izyum if they sever Russian ground lines of communication” north and south of the town.

Moscow did not immediately acknowledge or comment on the claims by Ukraine and its Western allies.

Vladislav Sokolov, the head of the Russian-appointed local administration, said on social media that authorities in Izyum have started evacuating residents to Russia.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine comes amid an ongoing offensive around Kherson in the south. Analysts suggest Russia may have taken soldiers from the east to reinforce around Kherson, offering the Ukrainians the opportunity to strike a weakened front line.

Ukrainian defence minister Oleksii Reznikov told the television channel Ukraina that the Russians had no food or fuel for their troops in the area as Kyiv had cut off their supply lines.

“It will be like an avalanche,” he said, predicting a Russian fallback. “One line of defence will shake and it will fall.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a nightly video address on Friday that Ukrainian troops had reclaimed more than 30 settlements in the Kharkiv region since the start of the counter-offensive.

“We are gradually taking control over more settlements, returning the Ukrainian flag and protection for our people,” Mr Zelensky said.

He spoke after the Ukrainian governor of Kharkiv reported that the national flag had been raised over Balakliia, a town recaptured by Ukrainian troops on Thursday following six months of Russian occupation.

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A woman paints flowers on anti-tank crosses used for a checkpoint in Kyiv (AP)

German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock arrived in Kyiv on an unannounced visit on Saturday, saying that Europe would not tire of helping Ukraine despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to raise the pressure by withholding energy supplies from European Union nations.

Ms Baerbock said Germany will assist Ukraine in finding and removing mines and other unexploded ordnance left by Russian troops in areas where they have been pushed back by Ukrainian forces.

Despite the gains made by Ukraine’s armed forces, US secretary of state Antony Blinken and the head of Nato warned on Friday that Ukraine’s fight against Russia appears set to drag on for months.

Mr Blinken said the war was entering a critical period and he urged Ukraine’s Western backers to keep up their support through what could be a difficult winter.

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