After announcing an attack on the Russian-occupied town of Balakliya earlier this week, videos circulated on social media showing Ukrainian soldiers raising the blue and yellow flag and emotional civilians saluting them.
Seizing control of Balakliya could provide the Ukrainians with a strategic opportunity to push further towards the occupied city of Izyum, which Russian forces are using as a staging base for their attacks across the eastern Donbass region.
On Friday, Russian state television made a rare acknowledgment of Ukrainian advances when Vitaly Ganchev, the head of Russia’s administration in occupied parts of Kharkiv, describes them as occurring at a “very brisk and fast” pace. Footage also showed what appeared to be Russian tanks heading towards Kharkiv in a bid to reinforce the area.
On Friday, pro-Kremlin military analysts also shared a map of Ukraine’s advances into the occupied territories, showing significant gains after Kyiv forces raised their flag again in Balakliya, a critical moment in the Kyiv region. Kharkov.
The surprise advance in Kharkiv comes alongside a Ukrainian offensive near the southern city of Kherson, where Ukrainian forces recently launched an aggressive push to reclaim the strategic port city. The larger Kherson region helps form Russian President Vladimir Putin’s coveted land bridge to Crimea, the peninsula invaded and annexed by Russia in 2014.
Recent advances offer renewed optimism to Ukrainians, who hope the operations will put Moscow on its feet and force them out of many occupied areas before winter. Zelensky has repeatedly expressed hope for such gains, and during a visit to Kyiv on Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged continued support for Ukraine.
Yet Russia continues to control significant territory inside Ukraine and continues to show its ability to launch strikes across the country.
Despite some Ukrainian successes in the region, Russian forces still struck Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, on Friday, blasting one side of the Misto Hotel and Spa with a salvo of rockets. The strike also hit a nearby school and residential buildings, injuring a total of 14, including three children.
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The city, which has suffered repeated attacks since February, is now torn between a sense of normalcy and war. Rose beds are still neatly maintained in the middle of some streets near the city center, not far from where the buildings were badly damaged.
Traffic was light but moving freely through the city on Friday. Many storefronts were boarded up or covered with sandbags, but some stores were open and electric streetcars ran along many major boulevards. Several camouflaged tanks were positioned on the road leading to the town.
Residents of Kharkiv know that the eastward offensive could lead to further attacks. Yura Miroshnikov, for example, came to see what was left of the building where he worked for 20 years before it closed at the start of the invasion.
“Don’t come any closer,” a man shouted from a gaping window on a high floor, where he had already begun the desperate task of knocking down shards.
“It’s getting bigger,” Miroshnikov said of the fighting around town. “My apartment is on the 14th floor, I can see it all around.”
Still, he is excited by what he hears about Ukrainian progress in the region. “I think we should fight all the way to Belgorod,” he said, citing a Russian town 80 km to the north.
At a press briefing in Prague on Friday, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin describes recent successes in Kherson and Kharkiv as “very, very encouraging”.
Blinken traveled to Kyiv on Thursday as part of a show of support for Ukraine as the White House announced the shipment of an additional $675 million in military supplies to Kyiv.
Weapons in this set include high-velocity anti-radiation missiles, remote-controlled anti-tank mines, 105mm howitzer guns, and shells for rocket artillery systems. The United States also provides about $2 billion in security assistance to Ukraine and 18 of its neighbors.
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Blinken’s visit was largely focused on Ukraine’s recent counteroffensive operations, which he described as “ongoing and proving effective.”
Ukraine’s counteroffensive has also forced Russian officials to postpone holding a referendum in the Kherson region, a precursor to annexing occupied territory with a veneer of procedural legitimacy. Occupation officials had hoped to hold the “vote” in September.
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But this week the leader of Russia’s ruling United Russia party said it would be “fair to hold a unification referendum” with Russia on November 4. Crimean regional leader Sergei Aksyonov suggested on Telegram that Russia should simply take Ukrainian territory without any votes, as such an annexation vote “will not be recognized by the West anyway”.
“We continue to say that this is primarily a matter that has to do with the will of those who live in these territories,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday.
O’Grady reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Ilyushina from Riga, Latvia. Natalie Abbakumova contributed reporting.