© Reuters. Ukrainian soldiers rest on the road as they head to a front line, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kharkiv region, Ukraine September 13, 2022. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
By Tom Balmforth
IZIUM, Ukraine (Reuters) – Ukraine said it was trying to extend a counter offensive in the east as President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a surprise visit to a devastated and recently recaptured town on Wednesday, but pro-Russian officials said they had halted Kyiv’s forces for now.
Russian forces suffered a stunning reversal this month after Ukrainian troops made a rapid armoured thrust with special forces in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, forcing a sometimes rushed and chaotic Russian withdrawal.
Zelenskiy said in a late night address on Tuesday that his army had liberated around 8,000 square km (3,100 square miles) of territory so far this month, a swath of land nearly equivalent to the island of Cyprus.
Reuters was not able to immediately verify the full scope of battlefield successes claimed by Ukraine.
Zelenskiy, who visited the town of Izium, an important logistics hub around 15 km (9.3 miles) from the current frontline in the east, said fully securing and rooting out any pro-Russian elements had been completed in about half of liberated territory.
Ukrainian troops were now assaulting the Russian-held town of Lyman in Ukraine’s Donetsk region, Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskiy said, and were eyeing territorial gains in the neighbouring Luhansk region which is under Russian control.
“There is now an assault on Lyman,” Arestovych said in a video posted on YouTube, predicting a fight too for the town of Svatovo, where he said the Russians have storage depots.
“And that is what they fear most – that we take Lyman and then advance on Lysychansk and Sievierodonetsk,” he said, referring to twin cities in the Luhansk region taken by Russia after fierce fighting in June and July.
Denis Pushilin, head of the Russia-backed self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, said troops loyal to Moscow had successfully pushed back Ukrainian forces trying to make inroads into Lyman and that the situation had stabilised for now.
“Nothing worked out for the enemy,” said Pushilin, adding that Ukrainian attacks to the north and south of Lyman had also been repelled.
Asked whether Ukraine’s lightning counter offensive in the east was a turning point in the six-month war, U.S. President Joe Biden said it was hard to tell.
“It’s clear the Ukrainians have made significant progress. But I think it’s going to be a long haul,” said Biden.
Russian forces still control about a fifth of Ukraine in the south and east, even though Kyiv is now on the offensive in both areas.
The White House, which has provided billions of dollars of weapons and support to Ukraine, has said the United States is likely to announce a new military aid package in the “coming days”.
In Izium, recaptured by Ukrainian forces in their lightning counter offensive, Zelenskiy watched as the Ukrainian flag was raised in front of a charred local administration building that had sandbags at its entrance.
No buildings were left unscathed on the main thoroughfare: a derelict bath house had a hole blasted in its side; meat shops, pharmacies, a shoe shop and a beauty salon were sprayed with shrapnel.
Stray dogs – perhaps abandoned by fleeing owners – scampered around in the destruction, while the golden dome of an Orthodox Church stood badly damaged.
“I know this region very well,” Zelenskiy told reporters.
“The view is shocking, but it is not shocking for me because we… saw the same pictures from Bucha, from the first de-occupied territories. The same destroyed buildings, people killed.”
After a Russian retreat earlier in the war, dead civilians were found in the town of Bucha, near Kyiv.
In Izium, bus stops were daubed with “Z” markings, the symbol Russian forces use to identify themselves, and the charred remains of tanks and armoured personnel carriers lay by the road into town.
With a pink hood wrapped around her face for warmth, Lyubov Sinna, 74, said residents were shell-shocked and that it was too early to feel safe.
“We waited a long time for our guys. Of course we feel positive. Joy. But there is also fear – fear that the Russians could return here,” she said.
“Because we lived through this whole six months. We sat it out in cellars. We went through everything it is possible to go through. We absolutely cannot say that we feel safe.”
There was no gas, electricity, or water supply in the town, she added, saying she was unsure how people would get through winter.
‘PUTIN REJECTED DEAL’
In a move that suggests Russian President Vladimir Putin had much wider war aims when he ordered tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, three people close to the Russian leadership told Reuters that Putin had rejected a provisional deal with Kyiv as the war began.
They said the deal would have satisfied Russia’s demand that Ukraine stay out of NATO and had been brokered by Putin’s then top envoy on Ukraine. The Kremlin said the Reuters report had “absolutely no relation to reality.” It also said Ukraine’s ongoing ambitions to join the Western NATO military alliance still presented a threat to Russia.
On top of its reversals in Ukraine, Russian authorities are also facing challenges in other former Soviet republics.
About 100 people have been killed this week in the deadliest fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia since a 2020 war, prompting Putin to appeal for calm.
And on Wednesday, shooting broke out between guards patrolling the border between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, Russian news agencies said, citing the Kyrgyz border service.