“As of now, the armed forces liberated and took control of more than 30 settlements in the Kharkiv region,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address Friday.
NBC News has not verified the claims.
But the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based military think tank, said in its latest update Saturday that Ukrainian forces “have captured an estimated 2,500 square kilometers (about 1,000 square miles) in Kharkiv Oblast in the Kharkiv area counteroffensive as of September 9.”
Russia’s defense ministry shared a video Friday showing military vehicles that it said were rushing to the aid of its forces in the east, while a Moscow-installed official in the region conceded that Ukrainian troops had made gains.
“The very fact of the breakthrough is a significant victory for them,” Vitaly Ganchev, who leads the Kremlin-controlled government in the occupied territory in Kharkiv province, said Friday in an appearance on Russian state TV. He said battles were ongoing for some strategic areas.
Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman for Vladimir Putin, refused to comment on Ukraine’s advances but said that the Russian president would hold a closed security council meeting.
Putin promised earlier this week to push on with Moscow’s military efforts in Ukraine, saying that his country was gaining rather than losing from the conflict.
Events on the battlefield appeared to paint a bleaker picture for the Kremlin, however.
The United States expressed cautious optimism about Ukraine’s counteroffensive, with the Pentagon saying Kyiv’s forces were putting Western-supplied weapons to good use.
“We see success in Kherson now, we see some success in Kharkiv and so that is very, very encouraging,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a news conference Friday during a visit to Prague.
Sasha Baker, deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters in Washington it was “probably too soon to have a definitive assessment,” but added that “I think we’ve seen some encouraging signs.
But she added that Russia represented “a formidable adversary” and that there was “a long fight ahead.”
A senior US military official told NBC News it was clear Ukrainian forces were “making progress,” adding: “They’ve advanced significantly in the last few days.”
Ukraine initially launched a counteroffensive in the country’s south late last month after weeks of public buildup and preparation, as it aimed to push toward the crucial coastal city of Kherson.
Then this week, after Russia redeployed large numbers of its own forces to the south to combat that effort, reports began to emerge of Kyiv’s forces launching another counteroffensive further north — a move that appeared to catch both the broader world and Moscow’s military off guard.
“Either the Russians were too incompetent to see it, or they were so incompetent they saw it and couldn’t do anything,” Phillips O’Brien, chairman of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said earlier this week “And neither of those are comforting for them.”
Some Western military analysts said the advance appeared aimed at shutting off supply and communication lines Russia has relied on to sustain its forces in eastern Ukraine, and could potentially leave thousands of Russian troops encircled around the city of Izyum.
The industrial Donbas region has long been the focal point of Putin’s war effort, with such sweeping advances on either side largely unheard of in a grinding, attritional conflict.
Glen Grant, a retired British officer who worked as a defense reform expert in Ukraine before the war, said there remained some questions about the success of the counteroffensive. For instance, had Ukraine beaten back Russian forces or were they “driving into fresh air?”
“In other words, there’s nobody there,” he said, adding that he wanted to know if Ukraine was laying down strong supply lines and artillery support as it moved forward.
Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday that Ukraine was taking advantage of the Western-made weapons now in its arsenal, including US-supplied HIMARS rocket systems.
“Russian strategic objectives have been defeated,” he told reporters at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. . “The war is not over. But so far, the Russian strategic objectives have been defeated.”
President Joe Biden this week approved an additional $675 million in military aid for Ukraine, including more artillery ammunition, armored vehicles and anti-tank systems.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Brussels after Blinken’s trip to Kyiv, said the war was “entering a critical phase,” requiring the West to remain clear eyed about what’s at stake.
“If Russia stops fighting, there will be peace,” he said. “If Ukraine stops fighting, it will cease to exist as an independent nation. So we must stay the course, for Ukraine’s sake and for ours.”