Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky promised “victory” on Wednesday during a visit to the strategic city of Izyum, recently retaken from Russia by the Kyiv army in a lightning counter-offensive.
The visit came at a watershed moment in Russia’s six-month invasion, with Ukraine pushing Moscow’s forces from large swathes of the east and seriously challenging the Kremlin’s ambition to capture the entire Donbass region.
“Our blue-yellow flag is already flying in unoccupied Izyum. And it will be in every Ukrainian town and village,” Zelensky said in a statement on social media.
“We are moving in one direction – forward and towards victory.”
Photos distributed by his office showed the Ukrainian leader dressed in dark green and flanked by guards as he took selfies with soldiers and thanked the troops during a flag-raising ceremony.
Back in Kyiv, a motorist collided with a vehicle carrying Zelensky, although the president was not seriously injured in the crash, his spokesman said Thursday.
“Law enforcement will investigate all circumstances of the accident,” the spokesperson added.
In his nightly address, a video of which was released shortly after the accident, Zelensky said that “almost the whole region (of Kharkiv) is unoccupied”.
“It was an unprecedented move by our soldiers – the Ukrainians have once again managed to do what many thought was impossible.”
Ukraine recently claimed considerable success in the northeast Kharkiv region that borders Russia, and said it had reclaimed territory along a southern front near the Kherson region on the Black Sea.
Zelensky said on Wednesday that Russia’s occupation of Crimea – annexed by Moscow in 2014 – was a “tragedy” and promised his forces would eventually retake the peninsula.
Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv have since September 6 recaptured about 8,500 square kilometers (3,200 square miles) and areas housing some 150,000 people, Deputy Foreign Minister Ganna Maliar said.
“They killed my son”
In the village of Bogorodychne in eastern Ukraine, Mykola, 58, told AFP he had “barely survived” the Russian occupation in which his brother was killed.
“How can I describe it in words? It was difficult. I was scared,” he said.
Wiping tears from her eyes with a veil, Mykola’s mother, Nina, said, “I cry every day. They killed my son.”
Moscow said its forces were responding to areas recaptured from Kharkiv with “massive strikes” and also claimed to have captured dozens of Ukrainian servicemen in the southern regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
Ukraine’s presidency warned on Wednesday that flooding could hit the town of Kryvyi Rih – Zelensky’s hometown – after a Russian strike damaged infrastructure, causing the Inhulets River to flood.
The center and another area of the city of 600,000 people were at risk of flooding, said Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the president’s office.
Kryvyi Rih military administration chief Oleksandr Vilkul said in a statement: “In order to avoid unnecessary risks, I kindly ask residents of certain streets to evacuate.”
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, meanwhile, released the contents of a 90-minute phone conversation with Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, saying the Russian leader did not feel he made a mistake in invading Ukraine.
“There is no indication that new attitudes are emerging,” he said of Tuesday’s conversation.
The Kremlin said Putin himself discussed providing Ukrainian grain to those who need it most in a phone conversation with UN chief Antonio Guterres.
“Both sides stressed the importance of prioritizing the needs of those in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America who need food,” a statement from his office said on Wednesday.
The Kremlin, which has made little mention of setbacks in recent days, vowed to keep fighting, saying the perceived threat Kyiv posed to Russia remained.
‘Life and death’
The Ukrainian official in charge of the eastern region of Donetsk, partially controlled by pro-Moscow separatists since 2014, said Russian forces had attacked the entire frontline region in the past 24 hours.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of Donetsk, said one civilian had been killed and again urged all others to leave, describing the order as a “matter of life and death”.
Military observers attributed the success of Ukraine’s eastward retreat to Western-provided weapons, particularly long-range precision artillery, and the training of Ukrainian forces by Western allies.
The Ukrainian army announced on social media on Wednesday that some 5,000 Ukrainian servicemen had been trained under a joint program with the United Kingdom.
Western countries have also retaliated against Russia with waves of economic sanctions.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on Wednesday that the EU’s successive packages of measures against Russia for its invasion of Ukraine were “here to stay”, while calling on Europeans to maintain their determination.
She also told MPs that she would travel to Kyiv on Wednesday to meet with Zelensky.