Ukraine aspires to free all Russian-occupied land after days of military success

·4-min read

By Tom Balmforth

BALAKLIIA, Ukraine (Reuters) -Ukraine has set its sights on freeing all territory occupied by invading Russian forces after driving them back in a speedy counter-offensive in the northeast and there are indications of more U.S. military aid on the way to back Ukraine's mission.

In an evening address, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said around 8,000 square km (3,100 square miles) have been liberated so far, apparently all in the northeastern region of Kharkiv.

"Stabilisation measures" had been completed in about half of that territory, Zelenskiy said, "and across a liberated area of about the same size, stabilisation measures are still ongoing."

Reuters was not able to immediately verify the full scope of battlefield successes claimed by Ukraine. The total area cited by Zelenskiy is roughly the size of the Greek island of Crete.

Since Moscow abandoned its main bastion in the northeast on Saturday, marking its worst defeat since the early days of the war, Ukrainian troops have recaptured dozens of towns in a stunning shift in battleground momentum.

In Washington, the White House said the United States is likely to announce a new military aid package for Ukraine in "coming days". Russian forces have left defensive positions, particularly in and around Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine, a U.S. spokesperson said.

Russian forces still control about a fifth of Ukraine in the south and east, but Kyiv is now on the offensive in both areas.

Speaking in the central square of Balakliia, a crucial military supply hub taken by Ukrainian forces late last week, Ukraine's Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Malyar said 150,000 people had been liberated from Russian rule in the area.

Ukrainian flags had been raised and a large crowd gathered to receive bundles of humanitarian aid. A shopping centre had been destroyed but many buildings remained intact, with shops closed and boarded up.

"The aim is to liberate the Kharkiv region and beyond - all the territories occupied by the Russian Federation," Malyar said on the road to Balakliia, which lies 74 km (46 miles) southeast of Kharkiv.

Meanwhile, repair crews have restored the two main power lines supplying Kharkiv city and its surrounds, power firm Ukrenergo said after Russian shelling caused blackouts.

The Kyiv government fears Russia will step up attacks on its energy networks as winter approaches and is pleading for anti-aircraft technology from the West to protect the infrastructure.

With Russian forces under pressure, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz had a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Scholz called on Putin to find a diplomatic solution as soon as possible, based on a ceasefire, complete withdrawal of Russian troops, and respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, a German government spokesperson said.

TEARS

In Verbivka, a village northwest of Balakliia, Nadia Khvostok, 76, described the traumatic occupation and the arrival of Ukrainian troops, saying residents greeted them "with tears in our eyes".

"We could not have been happier. My grandchildren spent two and a half months in the cellar. When the corner of the house was torn off, the children began to shudder and stutter," she said, adding that they and her daughter had left - she did not know where.

The village school, where the Russians were based, was destroyed and trees on the road to the village and a cement factory showed battle scars. Elsewhere were abandoned Russian vehicles, including a military truck with a smashed windscreen.

Kharkiv regional governor Oleh Syehubov, who came to Verbivka, said the authorities were trying to record crimes committed by Russians during their occupation of the area, and recover the bodies of victims.

"We're asking everyone around about all the places of burial which can be found," he said.

Moscow denies its forces have committed atrocities in areas they have controlled since Putin ordered the invasion on Feb. 24.

Ukraine's military on Tuesday accused retreating Russian soldiers of stealing at least 300 private cars loaded with looted property as they fled. The Russian defence ministry did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

During the day, Ukrainian forces repelled enemy attacks in six towns and settlements to the north of Donetsk, the general staff said, but made no mention of captured territory.

The Ukrainian advance could soon spread into Luhansk and Donetsk provinces, where Russia has concentrated its forces for months to expand territory held by separatists since 2014.

The Ukrainian governor of Luhansk, Serhiy Gaidai, said troops had already retaken the city of Lyman in Donetsk. He identified Svatove in Luhansk further east as the likely next battle front. Reuters could not verify the reports.

A video from Ukraine's border guard service showed what it said were Ukrainian troops liberating the town of Vovchansk near the Russian border, burning down flags and tearing down a poster saying "We are one with Russia".

(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Olzhas Auyezov, Aleksandar Vasovic, Miranda Murray and other Reuters reporters; Writing by Philippa Fletcher, Peter Graff, and William Maclean; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Grant McCool and Rosalba O'Brien)