The Daily Telegraph

Ukrainian offensive puts Russia on the brink of its heaviest defeat since 1943

Moscow are sending reinforcem­ents after a surprise attack left its troops trapped in the Kharkiv region

- By Roland Oliphant and Nataliya Vasilyeva

‘The very fact of a breach of our defences is already a substantia­l victory for the Ukrainian armed forces’

‘For every success of Ukraine’s armed forces, for every victory, Russians answer with strikes on innocent people’

UKRAINIAN forces were on the verge of trapping thousands of Russian soldiers in an encircleme­nt that if successful would be Moscow’s worst battlefiel­d defeat since the Second World War.

Russia said it was rushing reinforcem­ents to the Kharkiv region as promoscow officials in the area acknowledg­ed a “substantia­l” Ukrainian victory.

Ukraine’s ministry of defence said yesterday that its surprise offensive had covered nearly 50km (31 miles) in three days and that the Russians were trying to evacuate wounded men and damaged equipment. It did not give further details, but pro-russian war bloggers and other sources confirmed Ukrainian spearhead units had reached the banks of the Oskil river at Senkove.

The advance means Russia’s main line of communicat­ion with its army group based in the town of Izyum has been severed, trapping thousands of troops between the river and Ukrainian forces. If it falls, Russia could lose an entire army group of soldiers, believed to be in the thousands, and find its assault in Donbas jeopardise­d.

“The very fact of a breach of our defences is already a substantia­l victory for the Ukrainian armed forces,” Vitaliy Ganchev, the Moscow-installed head of occupied parts of Kharkiv region, told Russian state television.

He was speaking after Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, shared a video of Ukrainian soldiers holding the national flag over Balakliya, a town Russia captured early in the war and had occupied for six months.

Ukrainian commanders said their offensive in the Kherson region was also gaining ground, although they have failed to achieve a breakthrou­gh similar to that near Kharkiv.

“It’s very tough, but we are moving forward,” Valeriy Zaluzhny, commander-in-chief, said yesterday.

Footage emerging from the battlefron­t showed Ukrainian forces wearing blue tactical recognitio­n flashes travelling past wrecked Russian vehicles. One showed a gunfight near a block of flats as they attempted to clear a recaptured town.

Ukrainian officials also released footage of soldiers delivering aid and accepting hugs and kisses from liberated civilians. In Balakliya, two women cried as they embraced Ukrainian soldiers who arrived on the town square.

In another video, a woman told a group of soldiers: “We prayed for you for half a year.” Ignoring entreaties to stay undercover in case of further shelling, she went on: “We have some pancakes left, would you like them?”

By the afternoon, the Ukrainians had expanded their hold on the riverbank to the north and south towards Izyum and northwards to Kupiansk, a strategic railway junction. Fighting was reported on the outskirts, and photograph­s were taken of Ukrainian soldiers holding their national flag next to a monument at the entrance to the town.

Russia still held at least two bridges over the Oskil and its generals appeared to be trying to reinforce the pocket yesterday.

Mr Ganchev said the Russians were trying to retake the town of Balakleya, which the Ukrainians liberated on Thursday. “Now Russian reserves have been brought there, our troops are fighting back,” he said.

The ministry of defence released video footage of a column of armoured vehicles and lorries that it said were driving towards the Kharkiv region. It did not say where they were coming from or how long they would take to arrive.

Yevgenny Podubny, a war correspond­ent for Russian state television, published a video of Mi-26 cargo helicopter­s that he said were being used to airlift troops and heavy armoured vehicles into Izyum and Kupiansk.

Telegram channels linked to the Wagner mercenary group, which is currently involved in fighting further south in Donbas, also claimed its fighters were going to Kupiansk. The claims could not be verified.

The Russian ministry of defence made no mention of the Ukrainian breakthrou­gh in its daily update yesterday, and some senior officers sought to portray it as a temporary tactical move.

Apti Alaudinov, commander of the Chechen Akhmat special unit currently in Ukraine, said on Rossiya 1’s flagship news show yesterday that Russian troops “have to surrender some

parts of the front line in order to stretch the enemy’s forces as wide as possible to minimise the concentrat­ion of enemy troops. Neither Balakleya nor Kupyansk have any extraordin­ary strategic importance.”

But even state TV pundits had to disagree. Mikhail Khodarenok, a retired colonel, said on the same show yesterday that Kupyansk is “extremely important for bringing supplies to all of our forces operating in that area”.

Maxim Gubin, the Russian-appointed head of Kupiansk district, told Russia’s RIA Novosti that the situation was “difficult” but insisted Russian forces were “holding their positions”.

Anger at the gap between official denials and the situation on the battlefiel­d spilled out on the Telegram channels where many Russian war bloggers, soldiers and journalist­s discuss the war.

“Stop bull----ting,” one commented after Mr Gubin was quoted saying Ukrainian commandos had not succeeded in reaching Kupiansk.

To make his point, the user posted a photograph of Ukrainian soldiers on the town’s outskirts.

Zakhar Prilepin, a nationalis­t writer who led a battalion of Russian volunteers during the previous war in Donbas, said he had received urgent appeals for help from contacts inside the pocket.

“Reserves are immediatel­y needed in Izyum,” he wrote on Telegram. “There are not enough forces in the town for the assigned task.”

He urged Russian commanders “not to turn Izyum into Brest fortress”, where Red Army soldiers mounted a doomed but much mythologis­ed last stand after being overrun by the Wehrmacht in 1941.

The collapse of the Izyum pocket would result in thousands of Russian casualties and prisoners and the possible capture of an entire army group’s command post.

It would also seriously weaken Russia’s positions in northern Donbas and could force it to abandon territory seized during its summer offensive there. No Russian army has suffered such a significan­t defeat in a single battle since the Third Battle of Kharkiv in 1943. That battle, the last really successful German offensive on the Eastern Front, was fought in largely the same area as the current struggle.

Several Russian hardline nationalis­ts have appealed to the Kremlin to investigat­e how Russia could have lost so much territory in a matter of days.

“The fact that the enemy captured several dozen towns is an emergency that requires a full investigat­ion. What is it? Negligence? Strategic mistake?”

Semyon Pegov, a pro-kremlin journalist, added that the loss of Balakleya also caused “reputation­al damage” for Russia as it “betrayed” local residents who “put their trust in us”.

Yegor Kholmogoro­v, a prominent nationalis­t columnist, yesterday published a map showing the areas that Russia lost in recent days.

He said: “The map is horrible. Even worse than I could have imagined in the morning. No one is panicking. But it’s time to stop being complacent.

“Someone has to be held accountabl­e for the fact that thousands of people who were about to become Russian citizens and get Russian passports will now end up in the hands of Ukrainian Nazis?” Maj Gen Igor Konashenko­v, the Russian military’s spokesman, claimed to have destroyed three Ukrainian command posts, an ammunition dump in the Kharkiv region and to have shot down several drones. He said several Ukrainian attacks on the southern front were repulsed with heavy losses.

Officials in Kharkiv itself said at least 10 civilians were killed in a “revenge” Russian rocket strike on the city centre.

Rockets hit a children’s arts centre and a school, as well as private homes, wounding at least ten people, including three children, Kharkiv mayor Ihor Terekhov wrote on Telegram.

Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky, said the attack was revenge for the success of the offensive.

“For every success of Ukraine’s armed forces, for every victory, Russians ... answer with strikes on innocent people,” he wrote on Telegram, confirming that children were among the wounded.

Russian sources reported Ukrainian strikes “seriously damaged” the bridgeover the Oskol in Kupiansk yesterday.

 ?? ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom