Russian forces have shown signs that they are beginning to retreat from Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, marking a significant blow to President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to encircle the east of the country.
US think tank the Institute for the Study of War said Ukraine appears to have “won the battle for Kharkiv” in their fastest advance since Russian troops scrapped plans to take Kyiv more than a month ago.
“The Russian military has likely decided to withdraw fully from its positions around Kharkiv City in the face of Ukrainian counter offensives and the limited availability of reinforcements,” it said in an update on Friday night.
The think tank added that Ukrainian forces “prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from around the city as they did to Russian forces attempting to seize Kyiv”.
The Kremlin abandoned plans to take the Ukrainian capital by force last month after meeting significant resistance.
Ukrainian officials said this week that they continue to push towards the Russian border, liberating tiny villages on the outskirts of Kharkiv in the northeast of Ukraine.
Troops were photographed placing static anti-tank hedgehog weaponry around the villages on Friday to prevent Russian tanks from returning, as the Kremlin’s forces continue to retreat from Kharkiv.
The city, which is only 31 miles from the Russian border, has been under enemy bombardment since the war began in February.
Russian forces have used it as a pivot point to channel troops towards the Donbas region in the east, where President Putin’s war efforts have been concentrated in recent weeks.
But the Ukrainian advance in the region threatens the symbolic embarrassment of forcing Russian troops back to their own border, while also cutting off supply lines into Ukraine.
The UK’s Ministry of Defence said earlier this week that the Russian pullback from Kharkiv showed “a tacit recognition of Russia’s inability to capture key Ukrainian cities where they expected limited resistance from the population”.
Satellite images released on Friday appeared to show three blown-up bridges in the Kharkiv region in an apparent effort by Russian units to protect their supply lines from further Ukrainian advances.
The Institute of War said it appeared Moscow “is focused on conducting an orderly withdrawal” from Kharkiv and “prioritising getting Russians back home before allowing proxy forces to enter Russia.”
Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defence minister, said that the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region signalled a new chapter in the invasion.
“We are entering a new, long phase of the war,” he said in a Facebook post, adding that Ukraine will face “extremely tough weeks” ahead in the face of an “enraged aggressor”.
Analysts believe Russian attempts to gain territory in the Donbas will become increasingly focused on Severodonetsk, the easternmost town held by Ukrainian forces.
Ukrainian officials said forces had destroyed several pontoon bridges over the Seversky Donets that Russian troops had been using to transport supplies and military equipment, as the region prepares for increased attacks.
Moscow now controls around 80 per cent of territory in the Donbas region after making gains in both Donetsk and Luhansk.
Serhiy Haidai, the regional governor of Luhansk, said “the situation has deteriorated significantly” in recent days.
“The Russians are destroying everything in their path,” Mr Haidai said in a post on Telegram earlier this week. “The vast majority of critical infrastructure will have to be rebuilt.”
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