A phalanx of military experts sweeping across Russian TV are admitting the Kremlin’s defeat in Kharkiv region as Ukrainian forces on Wednesday pressed a counteroffensive that has driven occupying troops out of about 300 northeastern cities and towns.
“The Kremlin acknowledged its defeat in Kharkiv Oblast, the first time Moscow has openly recognized a defeat,” the Institute for the Study of War said in its latest assessment of a war that began with Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.
Kremlin officials and state media propagandists on TV are extensively discussing the reasons for the Russian defeat in Kharkiv. Bogdan Bezpalko, a member of Russia’s Council for Interethnic Relations, lamented the lack of military reconnaissance ahead of the counteroffensive, the Daily Beast reported.
“Of course, this is a tactical defeat,” Bezpalko said. “I hope it will be very sobering.”
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►Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelenskyy are each courting major allies Thursday, seeking to prop up their war efforts. Putin was hoping to further cement his ties with Chinese President Xi Jinping in an alliance seen as a potent counterweight to the West. The two were due to meet and discuss Ukraine in Uzbekistan, a Russian official said. Zelenskyy will meet with European Union chief Ursula von der Leyen.
►The southcentral city of Kryvyi Rih, Zelenskyy’s hometown, was experiencing flooding after a series of Russian cruise missiles damaged a dam on the Inhulets River.
►German Chancellor Olaf Scholz spoke by phone with Putin but said, “Unfortunately, I cannot tell you that the realization has grown over there by now that this was a mistake to start this war.”
►The Biden administration is expected to nominate Lynne Tracy, the current US ambassador to Armenia and a veteran foreign service officer with years of experience in Russian affairs, as its next ambassador to Russia. Under the rules of diplomatic protocol, the Kremlin would have to approve the nomination.
►Concerns about Ukraine’s recent successes in the war have prompted Russian authorities and security personnel in occupied Crimea to try to get their families back to Russia, the Institute for the Study of War said, citing Ukrainian intelligence reports.
►Oleksandr Shapoval, a standout ballet dancer and teacher who had volunteered to fight against the Russian invasion, was killed Monday on the battlefield, the National Opera of Ukraine said. He was 47.
Blame deflected from Putin
Previously, the Kremlin framed the retreat from Kyiv as a decision to prioritize the “liberation” of Donbas. The withdrawal from Snake Island was a “gesture of goodwill.”
Now, the Institute for the Study of War said the admission in Kharkiv is part of an effort to deflect criticism for such a devastating failure away from Russian President Vladimir Putin and onto defense officials.
“The Russian Ministry of Defense originally offered a similar explanation for the Russian failure in Kharkiv, claiming that Russian forces were withdrawing troops from Kharkiv Oblast to regroup,” the institute’s assessment says. “This false narrative faced quick and loud criticism online.”
Zelenskyy visits shattered city of Izium
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Izium on Wednesday, just days after Russian forces exited the city in the Kharkiv region. He toured apartment buildings blackened by fire and pockmarked by artillery strikes. The entire center of one residential building had collapsed.
Zelenskyy took part in the ceremony of raising the Ukraine flag in the city’s central square, in front of the destroyed municipal building.
“It is possible to temporarily occupy the territories of our state,” Zelenskyy said. “But it is definitely impossible to occupy our people, the Ukrainian people.”
As in previous cities and towns occupied and then abandoned by Russian troops, Ukrainian authorities said they have found signs of atrocities, including six bodies with traces of torture in recently retaken Kharkiv region villages.
“We have a terrible picture of what the occupiers did. … Such cities as Balakliia, Izium are standing in the same row as Bucha, Borodyanka, Irpin,” said Ukrainian Prosecutor General Andriy Kostin, naming locations where Russian forces allegedly committed atrocities.
Mixed results for Ukrainians in battles to liberate Luhansk
Not content with driving the Russians out of the northeastern Kharkiv region, the Ukrainians are zeroing in on neighboring Luhansk, one of the two provinces in the industrial Donbas area that are at least partially occupied by Moscow’s forces.
Regional governor Serhiy Haidai told The Associated Press that Ukrainian guerrilla forces were flying Ukrainian flags in the Luhansk cities of Svatove and Starobilsk. That’s part of the campaign to liberate Luhansk province, which has been under Russian control since July.
It promises to be a tough, bloody pursuit. Andrei Marochko, a military leader for a local separatist group, confirmed the Ukrainian advance in Luhansk, calling the situation “really difficult.”
But Haidai said the expelled Russians had returned Wednesday to Kreminna — a city of 18,000 in the western part of Luhansk where Ukrainians had raised their flag — and “tore down the flags and are demonstrably showing that they’re there.”
Haidai added that Russian forces continued to heavily shell their counterparts in the region, knocking down internet service.
EU Commission chief heads to Kyiv, lauds ‘bravery of Ukrainians’
As European consumers grapple with electricity prices that have skyrocketed up to fivefold the cost of a year ago mostly because of the Russian invasion, Ukraine’s stunningly successful counteroffensive in the northeast may help validate the sacrifice.
In her State of the European Union address Wednesday, European Union Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen said she would visit Kyiv later in the day as a sign of support for the Ukrainians, adding that the bloc is committed to the cause and will open its markets more to the country’s products.
“We have seen in the last days the bravery of Ukrainians paying off,” said von der Leyen, who was dressed in the colors of the Ukrainian flag and characterized the war as “autocracy against democracy.”
She also called for reshaping the way the EU sets electricity prices because the current system is “not doing justice to consumers anymore.”
Contributing: The Associated Press