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Zelensky Visits a City Just Miles From the Front, Underscoring Ukraine’s Gains

IZIUM, Ukraine — Standing in a cold drizzle among the wreckage left by Russia’s chaotic retreat, President Volodymyr Zelensky looked up at the sky on Wednesday at the flag of Ukraine fluttering over the main square of a city that was destroyed a few days ago. was recovered in a stunning counter-attack.

“When we look up today, we are looking for only one thing: the flag of Ukraine,” said Mr. Zelensky to the soldiers in front of the bombed city council building. “Our blue-and-yellow flag is already flying in the unoccupied Izium. And it will be in every Ukrainian city and village.”

The president’s unannounced appearance in Izium, about nine miles from the front in northeastern Ukraine, was a tangible sign of Ukraine’s rising morale and growing audacity — a demonstration that the military was even compromising the security of Mr Zelensky. front and that it would steadfastly defend what it had reclaimed.

Russian soldiers fled the city in a humiliating retreat last week, leaving tanks, trucks and boxes of ammunition on the street, and Mr Zelensky’s visit underscored that humiliation.

After addressing the soldiers, Mr. Zelensky held a moment of silence to remember the victims of the fighting. He then posed for photos with soldiers and left, to prevent the Russian army from launching a missile into the square while he and the ministers were within reach, aides said.

After months of telegraphing a plan for a counterattack in the south, the Ukrainian army launched a lightning offensive this month in the northeastern region of Kharkov, destroying thousands of square miles of territory, dozens of towns and villages, and key centers such as Izium, a rail hub for eastern Ukraine. .

After the defeat of Russian forces in the battle for the Ukrainian capital Kiev early in the war, Kharkov’s counter-offensive was Ukraine’s most successful military operation. Ukrainian officials are now trying to take advantage of two key benefits: demoralization in the Russian military and the greater willingness of Western governments to help Ukraine with arms supplies.

Deliveries of arms from the European Union have been delayed, but leaders have assisted Ukraine despite the pain of a growing energy crisis caused by the war. The EU’s top executive official, Ursula von der Leyen, proposed measures to ease rising prices, saying in a speech on Wednesday that sanctions against Russia remain in place.

“This is a war against our energy, a war against our economy, a war against our values ​​and a war against our future,” she told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg, France.

Ukrainian troops pushed into Lyman’s suburbs with an advantage on Wednesday, according to Ukrainian officials. The city, near the Russian-occupied Luhansk province, could serve as a launching point for an eastward advance.

But military analysts say the Ukrainians’ rapid advance carries the risk of lines becoming too thin, exposing reclaimed cities to Russian attacks. Despite the manpower and organization problems, Russia still has a significant advantage over Ukraine in terms of supplies and ammunition. And if Russian forces take up new defensive positions, the front lines could become bogged down in a bloody stalemate that saps Ukraine’s strength through the winter.

Russia has also shown a willingness to attack civilian targets far from the front. Hours after Mr. Zelensky fired a salvo of cruise missiles into the central Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih, the president’s hometown, where residents say a dam was damaged.

In Izium, where soldiers patrolled eerily deserted streets and hourly explosions resounded as Ukrainian soldiers cleared landmines, the city seemed to return to normal only in the early stages.

Russian graffiti was still sprawled on a sign leading into the city shouting “New Moscow” next to an abandoned Russian tank and green boxes of ammunition. Of the pre-war population of the city, about 40,000, about a quarter remained during the occupation.

Officials at the high-level visit with the president did not miss an opportunity to blow their noses at the sad departure of the Russian military.

“The Russians have been defeated here and have fled in a shameful way,” Hanna Maylar, a deputy defense minister, said in an interview. But, she added, there is still intense fighting in other areas. “Most of the Kharkiv region has been liberated, but the Russians still have a plan to conquer Ukraine.”

The Kharkiv offensive, and in particular the move to Izium, was a major setback to the Russian war effort. By threatening a flank of Russian forces in the eastern Donbas region, the offensive has virtually ruled out a secure Russian takeover of the Donbas, military analysts say.

The region became central to Russia’s military objectives after the failed attack on Kiev, and Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin cited it as one of his justifications for the February invasion. He claimed that Russian troops had been deployed to protect Russian speakers in the Donbas from the Ukrainian government, which the Kremlin falsely claimed is full of “Nazis”.

But Anton Gerashchenko, a Ukrainian deputy interior minister, said the collapse of Russian morale may have been a greater counterattack feat than regaining territory.

“Russia has already lost,” he said. “They destroyed the myth itself. For twenty years they built stories that “our army is the strongest.” And then it turns out not to be.”

Pro-Russian bloggers, who used to applaud their military and recently criticized the leadership for setbacks, were distraught by Mr Zelensky’s visit to Izium.

“The Commander-in-Chief Zelya is there,” wrote one, Aleksandr Zhuchkovsky. “Posing in Izium with the brave ‘defenders’.” He added that the Russian saying “once the Russian flag is hoisted, it must not be lowered” should be stopped “to avoid embarrassment.”

He vaguely called for a review of the Russian leadership. “This pain should not be treated with vodka, but with urgent decisions, cardinal reforms of the system.”

But despite growing calls from Russian nationalists for a full draft, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said on Tuesday that mobilization “is not discussed at this time.”

To the inhabitants of Izium, where damp autumn leaves lay on the asphalt, the rapid departure of the Russians was as much a surprise to them as it was to the Russians who had occupied the city for nearly seven months. All in all, as Russia has retreated from the northeast, Ukrainian forces have taken back an area home to about 150,000 people in 300 cities and towns.

Yevhen Yenin, a deputy interior minister in Ukraine, said police had found ten bodies in and around the nearby town of Balakliya, suggesting that the Russian military has committed human rights violations. So far, nowhere have soldiers been more macabre than on the streets of Bucha, a suburb of Kiev, where the bodies of about 450 civilians were left behind by retreating Russian troops.

“Work is just beginning” in the northeast, Mr Yenin said, adding that it was “too early to say the extent of the abuses”. The regional police in Kharkiv said in a statement on Wednesday that they had confirmed the death by torture of one person in a police station used by Russian troops to detain civilians in Balakliya. An ex-con told reporters on Tuesday that he had received electric shocks.

The Russian government has rejected witness statements, photos, videos and other evidence of atrocities committed by its soldiers in Bucha and has denied charges against its troops.

Residents of newly reclaimed communities have said Ukrainian authorities were questioning some people and looking for collaborators, and civilians had been killed in the Ukrainian counter-attack on their communities. But the mood was generally one of deep gratitude.

“I was standing on the bridge and watching our boys come in, and I wanted to hug them all,” said Oleksandr Sabodishin, a retiree, who was riding his bicycle on Wednesday to run errands.

“From morning to night I baked cakes and brought them to our soldiers,” said another pensioner, Lyubov Shamrai. “I made cherry dumplings, strawberry dumplings. I wanted to give them something homemade.”

During the ceremony in the square of Izium, Mr. Zelensky watched the flag hoisted over the ruins – all four buildings around the square had been burned, partially collapsed or had no roofs. It was unclear whether they were damaged in the Russian attack on the city in March or the Ukrainian counter-attack this month.

“There are no surprises,” Mr Zelensky said of the destruction. “This is shocking, but no shock to me. We saw this in Bucha, the same destroyed buildings, people murdered. It is now part of our history and part of the modern Russian nation. They did it.”

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Izium, Ukraine, and Marc Santora from Kiev, Ukraine. Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Cora Engelbrecht contributed reporting from London, Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels, and Jeffrey Gettleman from Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine.