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Russia withdraws from key areas in Ukraine's east after surprise offensive

Russia’s defense ministry said in a Telegram post Saturday that “a decision was made to regroup.”

Ukrainian forces kept up their surge in the country's east Saturday after punching through Russian defenses in a surprise counteroffensive that could prove a decisive turning point in the war.

Kyiv said its military had recaptured swaths of territory in a fast-moving thrust centered on the region around Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, that threatened to turn into a much broader rout. After days of silence on the subject, Russia's defense ministry said it was withdrawing troops from two key areas.

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

In recent days Kyiv officials have shared a flood of images and videos from the country's northeast. Some verified by NBC News show soldiers raising Ukrainian flags over once-occupied cities and villages, or posing victoriously next to road signs.

Others appeared to show troops being met by residents who offered soldiers everything from heartfelt thanks to pancakes.

The Institute for the Study of War, a U.S.-based military think tank, said in its latest update Saturday that Ukrainian forces had “captured an estimated 2,500 square kilometers (about 1,000 square miles)” in the area by Friday night. Britain’s Defense Ministry said that “lead elements have advanced up to 50km (31 miles) into previously Russian-held territory on a narrow front.”

Image: TOPSHOT-UKRAINE-RUSSIA-CONFLICT-WAR
Destroyed armored vehicles litter the road in Balakliya, in the Kharkiv region of Ukraine on Sept. 10, 2022.Juan Barretto / AFP - Getty Images

Russia’s Defense Ministry said in a Telegram post Saturday that “a decision was made to regroup” some of its troops from the Balakliya and Izyum areas — Izyum had been a major base for Moscow's troops — and transfer them to Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.

The move was made “in order to achieve the stated goals of the special military operation to liberate Donbas,’” the ministry said, referring to the industrial heartland in Ukraine's east that became the focal point of the Kremlin's war after it was forced to give up on its assault on the capital, Kyiv.

The ministry had earlier shared video showing military vehicles that it said were rushing to the aid of its forces in the east.

Image:
Russian military vehicles in Ukraine drive in the direction of Kharkiv in video released by the Russian Defense Ministry Friday.Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Separately, 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.

Russian President Vladimir 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 bleak picture for the Kremlin, however.

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 farther 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.

Such sweeping advances on either side largely unheard of in a grinding, attritional conflict.

Ukrainian soldiers on an armored vehicle in Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Sept. 9, 2022.
Ukrainian soldiers on an armored vehicle in Kharkiv, on Sept. 9, 2022. Juan Barreto / AFP - Getty Images

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.

A Reuters journalist inside a vast area recaptured by the advancing Ukrainian forces in recent days saw burned-out vehicles bearing the “Z” symbol of Moscow’s invasion, and boxes of ammunition lying in heaps at positions abandoned by fleeing Russian soldiers.

The United States had 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 also said that Russia represented “a formidable adversary” and that there was “a long fight ahead.”

A senior U.S. military official said in an interview it was clear Ukrainian forces were “making progress,” adding: “They’ve advanced significantly in the last few days.”

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 U.S.-supplied HIMARS rocket systems.

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.”