Ukraine's Zelenskyy says Russia's pullback from Kharkiv region 'a good decision'

Russia's Defence Ministry announced Saturday that it was pulling back troops from two areas in Ukraine's eastern Kharkiv region where a Ukrainian counteroffensive has made significant advances in the past week.

Ukraine claims gains in Kharkiv region as Russia says it will regroup troops elsewhere

Remnants of a destroyed tank are seen in Balakliya, Ukraine, on Saturday. Russia's Defence Ministry announced Saturday that it's pulling back troops from two areas in Ukraine's eastern Kharkiv region — Balakliya being one of them — where a Ukrainian counteroffensive has made significant advances in the past week. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia's Defence Ministry announced Saturday that it was pulling back troops from two areas in Ukraine's eastern Kharkiv region where a Ukrainian counteroffensive has made significant advances in the past week.

The news came after days of apparent Ukrainian advances south of Kharkiv, in what could become the biggest battlefield success for Ukrainian forces since they thwarted a Russian attempt to seize the capital of Kyiv months ago.

"The Russian army in these days is demonstrating the best that it can do — showing its back," Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video released Saturday night. "And, of course, it's a good decision for them to run."

Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said troops would be regrouped from the Balakliya and Izyum areas to Ukraine's eastern Donetsk region. Izyum was a major base for Russian forces in the Kharkiv region and earlier this week social media videos showed Balakliya residents joyfully cheering as Ukrainian troops moved in.

Konashenkov said the Russian move was being made "in order to achieve the stated goals of the special military operation to liberate Donbas,"' one of the eastern Ukraine regions that Russia has declared sovereign.

Similar justification cited in past

The claim of a withdrawal to concentrate on Donetsk is similar to the justification Russia gave for pulling back its forces from the Kyiv region earlier this year when they failed to take the Ukrainian capital.

Igor Girkin, a Russian who was an early leader of a Moscow-backed separatist uprising in Donetsk in 2014, sneered at the portrayal of the pullback being strategic. On Telegram, he called it "the brilliant (clearly within the framework of the plan and even ahead of schedule) operation to transfer the cities of Izyum, Balakliya and Kupiansk to respected Ukrainian partners."

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, right, speaks during a joint news conference with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Kyiv on Saturday. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine's foreign minister, said the ongoing counteroffensive shows Ukraine can beat Moscow's forces but Kyiv needs more weapons from its partners.

Kuleba, speaking at a news conference with visiting German counterpart Annalena Baerbock, said some allies had initially been hesitant to send weapons, citing the risk of antagonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Now, thank God, we are no longer hearing this argument ... we have demonstrated we are capable of defeating the Russian army. We are doing that with weapons given to us," he said.

"And so I reiterate: the more weapons we receive, the faster we will win, and the faster this war will end."

Ukraine claims major gains in Kharkiv region

Earlier Saturday, Ukrainian officials claimed major gains in the Kharkiv region, saying Ukrainian troops had cut off vital supplies to Izyum.

Ukrainian firefighters put out a fire in a residential house after a Russian military strike in Kharkiv on Saturday. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Oleh Nikolenko also suggested Ukrainian troops had retaken Kupiansk, a town along the main supply route to Izyum, long a focus on the Russian front line and the site of heavy artillery and other fighting.

Nikolenko tweeted a photo showing soldiers in front of what he said was a government building in Kupiansk, 73 kilometres north of Izyum.

The Ukrainian Security Service posted a message hours later saying troops were in Kupiansk, further suggesting it had been seized. The military didn't immediately confirm entering the town, a railway hub that Russia seized in February.

Videos on social media appeared to show Ukrainian forces on the outskirts of Izyum at a roadside checkpoint. A large statue bearing the city's name could be seen in the footage. Ukrainian forces did not acknowledge holding the city.

'Likely taken by surprise'

Britain's Defence Ministry said Saturday that it believed the Ukrainians had advanced as much as 50 kilometres south of Kharkiv, and described Russian forces around Izyum as "increasingly isolated."

"Russian forces were likely taken by surprise. The sector was only lightly held and Ukrainian units have captured or surrounded several towns," the British military said, adding that the loss of Kupiansk would greatly affect Russian supply lines.

A photo taken Friday shows destroyed vehicles in Hrakove, Ukraine. Western defence officials and analysts on Saturday said they believed Ukraine had punched through Russian front lines south of Kharkiv — the country's second-largest city. (Vyacheslav Madiyevskyy/Reuters)

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, likewise referenced sweeping Ukrainian gains on Saturday, estimating that Kyiv has seized around 2,500 square kilometres in its breakthrough.

The institute said it appeared that "disorganized Russian forces [were] caught in the rapid Ukrainian advance." They cited social media images of apparent Russian prisoners seized in the advance around Izyum and surrounding towns.

The same report said that Ukrainian forces "may collapse Russian positions around Izyum if they sever Russian ground lines of communication" north and south of the town.

Vladislav Sokolov, head of the Russian-appointed local administration, said on social media that authorities in Izyum have started evacuating residents to Russia.

The fighting in eastern Ukraine comes amid an ongoing offensive around Kherson in the south. Analysts suggest Russia may have taken soldiers from the east to reinforce around Kherson, offering the Ukrainians the opportunity to strike a weakened front line.

Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov told the television channel Ukraina that the Russians had no food or fuel for their troops in the area as Kyiv had cut off their supply lines.

A Ukrainian soldier stands on the top of a tank in Kharkiv on Friday. (Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images)

"It will be like an avalanche," he said, predicting a Russian fallback. "One line of defence will shake and it will fall."

The Ukrainian military was more circumspect about the reported gains, claiming in its regular update Saturday to have taken "more than 1,000 square kilometres" from pro-Kremlin forces this week. It said that "in some areas, units of the Defence Forces have penetrated the enemy's defences to a depth of 50 kilometres," matching the British assessment.

Ukrainian soldiers sit on top of an armoured military vehicle as they drive in Bucha on Thursday. (Emilio Morenatti/The Associated Press)

Elsewhere, Ukrainian emergency services reported that a 62-year-old woman died in a Russian missile strike in the Kharkiv region.

Kharkiv Gov. Oleh Syniehubov, accused Moscow of pummeling retaken settlements. He said via Telegram that five civilians were hospitalized in the Izyum district. Nine others in the region suffered injuries.

In the embattled Donbas region, the Ukrainian governor said two civilians were killed and two others wounded overnight by Russian shelling near the city of Bakhmut.

In the Russian-held city of Enerhodar, home to Europe's largest nuclear power plant, electricity and water were restored after a four-day outage due to an explosion, the city's Ukrainian mayor, Dmytro Orlov, said.

Orlov said workers from the plant assisted in restoring Enerhodar's power, but it wasn't clear if the electricity was coming from the plant or a nearby thermal generating station.

Damaged residential buildings in Mariupol, Ukraine, are seen in a photo taken on Thursday. (AFP/Getty Images)

With a report from Reuters