KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian forces broke into the main Russian military stronghold of Izium on Saturday, continuing their rapid advance across the northeast, unleashing a dramatic new phase in the more than six-month-long war.
“Izium was liberated today,” the city’s mayor, Valeriy Marchenko, said in an interview. Although he was not yet in the city himself, he said he was in contact with the police and that emergency services were working to clear the city of possible dangers before residents could return.
Russia’s defense ministry — which had said a day earlier that it wanted to bolster its defensive positions in the region — confirmed on Saturday that it had withdrawn its troops from Izium, six months after its forces laid siege to and then captured the city. . In a statement, it presented the retreat as a pre-planned move, intended to bolster its efforts in the east, where its army has been trapped for weeks.
Maintaining control of cities has at times proved weak over the course of the war, and it was not immediately clear how secure Ukraine’s control of Izium was or what efforts Russia might make to try to reclaim it.
But the loss of Izium — a strategically important railway hub that Russian forces captured in the spring after a bloody weeks-long battle — could mark a turning point in the war, overshadowed only by Russia’s humiliating defeat around Ukraine’s capital Kiev in the spring.
The first signs that Russian troops would withdraw rather than fight came to light late on Friday.
“Last night, Russians placed a white flag at the train station,” Yevhen, a Ukrainian officer who took part in the liberation of Izium, said in a telephone interview. “There were street fights all night long.” He asked to be identified by his first name only out of concern for his safety.
Much about the Ukrainian offensive in the Kharkiv region, where Izium is located, was shrouded in uncertainty from a lack of official confirmation, and military analysts warned it was a rapidly evolving situation that could change by the hour.
But the lightning strike in the northeast of the country has reshaped what had become a lingering war of attrition. Within days, Russia’s front lines have shrunk, Moscow’s troops have fled, and village after village has once again come under the yellow and blue flag of Ukraine – such as the town of Kupiansk just north of Izium, which sits on key supply routes to the eastern front line.
The Ukrainian Security Service posted a photo on Telegram with members of the special forces in Kupiansk.
“We go further!” read the message, according to the news agency Ukrinform.
As Ukrainian officials celebrated the turn of events, however cautiously, some prominent pro-Kremlin military bloggers expressed anger and frustration at the rapid developments.
A Russian military blogger named Rusich has 278,000 followers on Telegram and claimed to be in town on Friday, writing that Izium’s surrender was a “minor setback” and urging his followers not to “despair” .
Now that the Russians had left the towns and cities they had beaten to capture, the costs of their months-long occupation were just beginning to show. Ukrainian officials said they had sent investigators to newly liberated cities to begin collecting evidence of Russian war crimes.
In his overnight address, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky said the military had recaptured more than 30 settlements in the Kharkov region.
“Actions to control and secure the area continue,” he said. “We are gradually taking control of new settlements.”
The eastern offensive, which began earlier this week, has cleared more than 2,500 square kilometers of land in the Kharkiv region, according to an estimate by Russian forces on Friday. the Institute for the Study of Wara Washington-based think tank.
“There’s still a lot we don’t know about the offensive, but it’s clear that it was well planned and executed by Ukrainian forces,” said Rob Lee, a military analyst at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “It looks like a very effective combined weapons operation with tanks, mechanized infantry, special operations forces, air defense, artillery and other systems.”
Ukrainian and Western officials warned that offensive operations were still in their infancy, the situation was fluid and any gains were far from certain. Some military analysts warned that the Ukrainians’ rapid advance would make them stretched and vulnerable to a counterattack.
In addition to the counter-offensive in the northeast, Ukraine in the south has made an attempt to retake territory in the Kherson region.
Mr Marchenko, the mayor of Izium, said about 12,000 residents were left in the city and in urgent need of humanitarian aid.
He said he hoped the residents who had fled could return in three or four days, but devastation awaited them.
“There is not a single residential building that has not been damaged,” the mayor said.
“Heating is the biggest problem,” he added. “I doubt if we can restore the heating system for the winter.”
Ukraine’s defense minister Oleksii Reznikoff did not comment on specific gains, but at a conference in Kiev on Saturday, he said Russian troops were on the run.
“Russian troops will run, and they will, believe me, because today we are destroying their logistics chains, warehouses and so on,” he said. “And then the question arises: ‘And where should they go?’ It will be like an avalanche.”
A line of defense will shake and he will fall, he said, and then another and another.
Ivan Nechepurenko and Thomas Gibbons-Neff reporting contributed.