President Volodymyr Zelenskiy promised he would lead Ukraine to victory in its war against Russia as he visited recaptured towns on Wednesday, while pro-Russian officials claimed to have halted Kyiv’s forces for now.
Russian forces suffered a stunning reversal this month after Ukrainian troops made a rapid armoured thrust in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, forcing a rushed and chaotic Russian withdrawal.
Zelenskiy on Wednesday made a surprise visit to Izium – until four days ago Russia’s main bastion and logistics hub in the region – where he watched as the Ukrainian flag was raised in front of the charred city council building.
In a social media post, Zelenskiy said: “Our blue-yellow flag is already flying in de-occupied Izium. And it will be so in every Ukrainian city and village.”
On the main thoroughfare, no buildings were left unscathed: A derelict bath house had a hole blasted in its side; meat shops, pharmacies, a shoe shop and a beauty salon had been sprayed with shrapnel.
“The view is shocking, but it is not shocking for me,” Zelenskiy told reporters, comparing the scenes of devastation to those in cities near Kyiv recaptured from Russian forces early in the war: “The same destroyed buildings, killed people.”
Earlier on Wednesday, an emotional-looking Zelenskiy handed out medals to soldiers who freed the Balakliia area, another town retaken in recent days. Citizens and local police told reporters civilians were killed during months of Russian occupation. Russia denies deliberately targeting civilians, and Reuters could not immediately verify the claims.
The Ukrainian president says his army has 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. Russia announced its withdrawal from key towns but it was not possible to confirm those figures.
WESTERN COUNTRIES STILL CAUTIOUS
Ukraine’s sudden advances over the past week have cheered its supporters in the West, although leaders say it is too soon to know whether Kyiv can keep up the pace.
“It’s clear the Ukrainians have made significant progress. But I think it’s going to be a long haul,” U.S. President Joe Biden said.
A day after speaking by phone for 90 minutes to Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said the Russian president “unfortunately” still did not think his invasion was a mistake.
German Defence Minister Christine Lambrecht told Reuters it was too early to tell whether Ukraine’s “remarkable success” marks a turning point because Moscow has yet to react.
Russian forces still control about a fifth of Ukraine in the south and east, but 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”.
On the road into 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 roadside.
With a pink hood wrapped around her face for warmth, Liubov Sinna, 74, said residents were still fearful.
“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.
Ukraine has accused Russia of attacking civil infrastructure in recent days in retaliation for its battlefield losses.
Kirill Timoshenko, deputy head of the president’s office, said Russia had fired eight cruise missiles on Wednesday at the southern city of Kryvyi Rih aiming to knock out water supplies. An official later said levels of the local Inhulets River were rising, threatening the city.
In a move that suggests Putin had wider war aims when he ordered troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24, three people close to the Russian leadership told Reuters that Putin had rejected a provisional deal with Kyiv around the time the war began.
They said the deal would have satisfied Russia’s demand that Ukraine stay out of NATO. The Kremlin said the Reuters report had “absolutely no relation to reality”. It also said Ukraine’s 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 with deadly fighting between Azerbaijan and Armenia and border guard clashes between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
The situation in the former Soviet states will be the backdrop at a summit in Uzbekistan this week where Putin will meet Chinese leader Xi Jinping and discuss the war in Ukraine.
U.N. chief Antonio Guterres said after speaking with Putin on Wednesday that he was hopeful a U.N.-brokered deal on Ukrainian Black Sea grain exports would be expanded to include Russian ammonia, a key ingredient in nitrate fertilizer. Fertilizer shortages are exacerbating a global food crisis.
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