Ukraine announced major advancements in a strategic military counteroffensive against Russian forces, retaking a vital city and causing thousands of Russian soldiers to retreat from territory in northeastern Ukraine that they had held since the start of the war in late February.
Ukrainian forces reported Saturday that they had gained control of Izyum and pushed Russian soldiers across the Oskil River. Russia’s Defense Ministry confirmed it had pulled its forces out of Izyum, claiming the move was planned.
Reports of the claims could not be independently verified. Western military analysts say if the advances are confirmed, it would put the Ukrainians in control of a main railway that Moscow uses to supply thousands of troops in eastern Ukraine.
In other developments, a pro-Russia separatist leader was quoted as saying there also was fierce fighting between Russian and Ukrainian forces in the Donetsk region.
Denis Pushilin said the situation in the town of Lyman was “very difficult” and there was fighting in “a number of other localities,” particularly in the northern part of the region.
Military analysts say Russia is believed to be sending reinforcements to the area, where it plans to launch new attacks against Ukrainian controlled sections of Donetsk.
Meanwhile, Moscow announced it was regrouping its forces in the eastern Kharkiv region of Ukraine.
“To achieve the goals of the special military operation to liberate Donbas, a decision was made to regroup Russian troops stationed in the Balakliya and Izyum regions, to bolster efforts along the Donetsk front,” Russia’s defense ministry said in a statement.
The regrouping of Russian soldiers comes as residents in parts of the Kharkiv region had been advised to evacuate to Russia, according to the state-run news agency Tass. The area’s Russian-installed administrator, Vitaly Ganchev, reportedly said doing so would “save lives.”
The Ukrainian breakthrough near Kharkiv was the fastest advance reported by either side for months, and it is one of the biggest gains in the war since Russian forces abandoned a disastrous assault on the capital, Kyiv, in March.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said the country’s armed forces have liberated about 2,000 square kilometers of territory since a counter-offensive against Russia started earlier this month.
On the diplomatic front, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Saturday pledging Berlin’s unwavering support for Ukraine.
“I have traveled to Kyiv to show that they can continue to rely on us. That we will continue to stand by Ukraine for as long as necessary with deliveries of weapons, and with humanitarian and financial support,” Baerbock said in a statement.
Over the last weeks, Germany has sent howitzers, rocket launchers and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. Heavier weapons like anti-aircraft systems, rocket launchers mounted on pickup trucks and anti-drone equipment are also expected in a further military aid package worth more than $500 million.
Meanwhile, shelling destroyed the power infrastructure at the Ukrainian city of Enerhodar where staff operating the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant live, posing a growing threat to the plant, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said Friday.
The plant’s off-site power supplies, vital lines of defense against a potential nuclear meltdown, have been cut. And the shelling at Enerhodar has caused a lasting blackout there.
That has prompted Ukraine to say it may have to shut down the last operating reactor supplying power to Zaporizhzhia, including the cooling systems for the plant’s nuclear fuel.
Zaporizhzhia’s operator is not confident off-site power can be restored and that is prompting it to consider shutting down the last operating reactor, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi said in a statement.
“The entire power plant would then be fully reliant on emergency diesel generators for ensuring vital nuclear safety and security functions. And as a consequence, the operator would not be able to restart the reactors unless off-site power was reliably reestablished,” he noted.
Grossi this week called for the creation of a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around Zaporizhzhia, repeating his call Friday.
The United States said Thursday it plans to send $2.2 billion in long-term military aid to Ukraine and 18 other European countries threatened by Russian aggression, and another $675 million directly to the Kyiv government in a new munitions package to fight Moscow’s invasion.
European Union finance ministers Friday backed a $5 billion loan for Ukraine to help it keep schools, hospitals and other state operations running as it fights against Russia’s invasion, the Czech Finance Ministry said.
The loan, to be backed by guarantees of EU member states, is part of an overall $9 billion package announced in May. The first $1 billion was sent in early August.
Some information in this report came from Reuters, Agence France-Presse and The Associated Press.