Moscow is sending columns of military reinforcements to Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, according to reports in Russian media, after the first major Ukrainian counterattack since spring made big territorial gains this week.
Ukrainian troops have pushed Russian forces out of a number of settlements in the region that Moscow occupied since the first days of its invasion, and on Friday Ukraine’s army appeared to be continuing its speedy advance.
A Russian-installed official in the occupied part of Kharkiv region admitted Moscow’s troops were on the back foot. “The very fact of a breach of our defenses is already a substantial victory for the Ukrainian armed forces,” Vitaly Ganchev told state television.
Ganchev said “fierce battles” were under way near the town of Balaklia, retaken by Ukraine on Thursday. “We do not control Balaklia. Attempts are being made to dislodge the Ukrainian forces, but there are fierce battles and our troops are being held back on the approaches.”
For weeks, Ukrainian officials had telegraphed plans for a planned counterattack in the southern Kherson region, but instead the main focus of this week’s counterattack has been Kharkiv in the north-east, taking everyone, including apparently the Russians, by surprise.
Moscow responded on Friday by firing rockets into the center of the city, according to local officials, who said that at least 10 people, including three children, were wounded in an attack that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s chief of staff condemned as revenge for Ukrainian success on the battlefield.
“For every success of Ukraine’s armed forces, for every victory, Russians … answer with strikes on innocent people,” Andriy Yermak wrote on Telegram, confirming that children were among the wounded. The rockets hit a children’s arts center and a school, as well as private homes, Kharkiv’s mayor, Ihor Terekhov, said.
The next major Ukrainian target is likely to be the city of Kupiansk. On Thursday, Russian occupation authorities said they planned to evacuate women and children from Kupiansk, citing Ukrainian artillery strikes on the town.
A photograph shared on social media on Friday appeared to show Ukrainian forces at one of the entrances to the city, posing with a Ukrainian flag. The photograph could not be immediately verified.
The Institute for the Study of War, a US-based thinktank, said Ukrainian forces could retake the city over the next three days. Taking the city would sever communication links between occupied areas and “hinder Russian efforts to support offensive and defense operations”, the institute said.
Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on Thursday that Ukrainian forces had recaptured more than 1,000 sq km of territory from the Russians since the beginning of September.
“Our heroes have already liberated dozens of settlements. And today this movement continued, there are new results,” the president said.
Zelenskiy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said the successful counteroffensive showed Ukraine had “proved the capability of de-occupying its territories” and was able to use the weapons supplied to Kyiv by western countries.
“There will be no freezing of the conflict,” Podolyak tweeted.
Top US officials expressed approval of the Ukrainian advance. “We see Ukraine making real, demonstrable progress in a deliberate way,” said the secretary of state, Antony Blinken, speaking at Nato headquarters in Brussels on Friday, the day after he made a surprise visit to Kyiv.
Blinken cautioned against over-optimism, however, and warned that the fighting was likely to drag on for some time. “There are a huge number of Russian forces that are in Ukraine, and unfortunately, tragically, horrifically, President Putin has demonstrated that he will throw a lot of people into this at huge cost to Russia,” he said.
William Burns, the head of the CIA, said Vladimir Putin had underestimated both the Ukrainian resolve and that of the international community.
“Putin’s bet right now is that he is going to be tougher than the Ukrainians, the Europeans, the Americans… I believe, and my colleagues at CIA believe, that Putin is as wrong about that bet as he was profoundly wrong in his assumptions going back to last February about Ukrainian will to resist,” Burns said at a conference in Washington, in comments reported by the New York Times.
“Not only has the weakness of the Russian military been exposed… but there is going to be long-term damage done to the Russian economy and to generations of Russians,” he said.
Putin, speaking this week, claimed Russia had “lost nothing” over the six months of war in Ukraine, but there has been alarm among Russian nationalists over Ukraine’s military successes this week.
Some Russian military commentators criticized their army for not giving ample warning to residents of Balakliia that they would withdraw, leaving their local accomplices to face the wrath of Ukrainian authorities.
Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s minister for the temporarily occupied territories, announced on Friday that Kyiv would create an agency for the de-occupied territories to coordinate different branches of the state and government in the regions.
“[The agency] will mean that de-occupation and then reintegration will be done as effectively and quickly as possible,” Verechshuk said on Ukrainian television.
She said there had been an increase of calls to a government hotline for people in the occupied territories who want to leave, but there were no official humanitarian corridors agreed with Russia.
“We have written to Russia to open humanitarian corridors but received a refusal, so we are asking the IAEA, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to force Russia to open humanitarian corridors,” Vereshchuk said.
At present, there are only about three crossing points along the frontlines for the millions of civilians living in the occupied areas. People wait for days in queues, often surrounded by shelling.
In the first months of the war, Russia agreed to open official corridors to allow for mass evacuations from occupied areas such as the Kyiv region and Mariupol, but only after weeks of pressure from international leaders and the UN.