Ukraine has ‘won the Battle of Kharkiv’ as war reaches ‘tipping point’

·5-min read
A Ukrainian soldier walks past a burning gas terminal on the northern outskirts of Kharkiv - John Moore/Getty Images Europe
A Ukrainian soldier walks past a burning gas terminal on the northern outskirts of Kharkiv - John Moore/Getty Images Europe

Ukraine appears to have won the battle for Kharkiv, a US report has said, as Russian forces retreated from around the eastern city due to an apparent lack of troop reinforcements.

It came as Ukrainian forces launched a counter-offensive to seize back the nearby Russian-controlled strategic town of Izyum in the east, threatening Moscow’s attempts to control the Donbas region by encircling it.

If confirmed, the failure to capture Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-biggest city, would be Russia’s second major defeat of the war after losing the battle for Kyiv.

It would be a stunning turnaround for Ukraine’s so-called “fortress city”. Kharkiv was almost surrounded and looked certain to fall in the first week of the war as Russian troops poured over the border, which lies just a few dozen kilometres to the north.

Russian forces were close to encircling Kharkiv in March, gaining ground around the city and pummelling it with artillery fire from the suburbs.

Constant shelling forced hundreds of thousand residents to flee or seek shelter in the city metro or underground shelter while airstrikes turned part of the centre, including the City Hall, to rubble.

But apart from once briefly entering a small part of the city, Russian troops have failed to make any inroads amid stiff resistance. That has left them with no choice other than to retreat, according to researchers at the US-based think-tank Institute for the Study of War.

“The Russian military has likely decided to withdraw fully from its positions around Kharkiv in the face of the Ukrainian counter-offensives and the limited availability of reinforcements,” it said. “Ukraine thus appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv.”

The mayor has said Ukrainian troops have successfully repelled Russia’s attempts to take the city.

“They [the Russians] were very close to the city,” Igor Terekhov, mayor of Kharkiv, told the BBC on Saturday. “Thanks to the efforts of Kharkiv territorial defence and the Ukrainian army, the Russians have moved back far from the city towards the Russian border.”

“Kharkiv is quiet now, and people are slowly returning to the city.”

The apparent withdrawal has led some experts to suggest this might be the beginning of a “tipping point”.

Russian forces have “moved from the offensive to the defensive (conversely, the Ukrainians have moved from the defensive to the offensive),” said Dr Mike Martin, a former British Army officer and visiting fellow for war studies at King’s College London. “We’re reaching a bit of a tipping point in the Ukraine War.”

Yet, claiming an all-out victory in Kharkiv remains premature.

Shelling from retreating Russian forces

Shelling could still be heard from central Kharkiv and in neighbouring villages on Saturday, including incoming rounds fired by retreating Russian troops.

Some shells fell close to Tsykurny, a village just north-east of the city that was recaptured by Ukrainian forces a week ago.

Rounds also landed near the village of Sorokivka, east of Kharkiv and south of the current Russian front-line, locals and soldiers stationed there said.

A Ukrainian serviceman patrols during a reconnaissance mission in a recently retaken village on the outskirts of Kharkiv
A Ukrainian serviceman patrols during a reconnaissance mission in a recently retaken village on the outskirts of Kharkiv

Late on Saturday afternoon, smoke could be seen rising from Russian-controlled territory in the same area following a volley of Ukrainian fire.

Russian forces are now believed to be focusing on seizing all of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east, as well as guarding supply routes to those regions, Ukraine’s General Staff said on Saturday.

Hoping to build on their gains, Ukraine said it had launched a counter-offensive on Saturday near the Russia-held town of Izyum. Russia seized control of the city on April 1 and has occupied it ever since.

“The direction of Izyum remains the hottest spot – this is where our armed forces have launched a counter-offensive. The enemy is retreating on some fronts,” Oleg Sinehubov, the governor of the Kharkiv region, said in a statement.

The successes of Ukrainian forces in recent weeks has prompted Kyiv’s chief of military intelligence to say he was optimistic that the war may be largely over by December.

“The breaking point will be in the second part of August,” Maj Gen Kyrylo Budanov told Sky News. “Most of the active combat actions will have finished by the end of this year.”

But just as around Kyiv, the receding tide of battle around Kharkiv has left villages badly damaged, with many homes and power lines destroyed.

A Vilkhivka resident inspects his house following the withdrawal of Russian forces - Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images
A Vilkhivka resident inspects his house following the withdrawal of Russian forces - Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP via Getty Images

Burnt-out tanks, heavy guns and other hardware lie next to roads that are themselves cratered by shellfire.

In Vilkhivka, a town liberated a few weeks ago, residents are still living in basements without electricity, water or gas. Most houses have lost their windows and the school has been completely burnt out.

A group of workers from a Kharkiv restaurant chain delivered food and other assistance there on Saturday afternoon.

“We saw the Russians once, when they arrived at the beginning. Then we stayed in our basements for two months,” Tatyana Andreyeva, a local resident, told The Telegraph.

“About two weeks ago, the fighting quietened down, and when we came out they were gone. We had no idea what was going on. The basement shook and we hid underground, like rabbits.”

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