Russia responds by striking critical civilian infrastructure, while Zelenskyy involved in car accident in Kyiv
KYIV – Ukraine’s military continued to shatter Russian forces this week in what has been the biggest rout since Kremlin autocrat Vladimir Putin ordered a full-scale invasion to take Kyiv on February 24. The lightening blitzkrieg has been widely viewed, both internationally and even among some groups in Russia, as a massive humiliation of Putin’s military on the world stage.
After combined Ukrainian brigades and special forces pushed ahead earlier this month on three fronts, only about 6 percent of the northeastern region of Kharkiv remained under Russian occupation, said President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after a flag-raising ceremony in the eponymous oblast town of Izium on September 14.
The defense of the Kyiv region and counteroffensive in Kharkiv Oblast was marshalled by Lt. Gen. Oleksandr Sirsky who stood adjacent to the president during the flag raising ceremony.
Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malyar said that, since the beginning of the month, approximately 8,500 square kilometers (roughly 3,281 square miles) of territory had been liberated, mostly in the northeastern part of the country. At least 500 square kilometers was in the southern Kherson region of the country.
The stunning advances of the Ukrainian army marked the third phase of the renewed Russian invasion.
By April 1, Ukraine forced Russia to abandon its plans to take Kyiv, as well as part of the northeastern cities and regions of Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Sumy, forcing the Russian military to retreat. However, after regrouping by the end of July, Russia had conquered the remaining territory of the easternmost Luhansk Oblast that it hadn’t occupied since first invading in 2014 after illegally annexing the Crimean Peninsula the same year.
Ms. Malyar said that 388 settlements had been liberated since September 6 and that 150,000 people are now free from Russian occupation after six months.
Regarding the Kharkiv offensive, the Washington-based Center for European Policy (CEPA) said that if before Ukraine was not losing the war, then it is now winning it.
“The Ukrainians did what Russia couldn’t, quickly piercing the first line of defense and pressing their advantage to reach critical ‘nodes,’” wrote Michael Horowitz, a geopolitical analyst for CEPA. “This includes the city of Kupyansk more than 50 km (31 miles) from the frontline. Before the offensive, Kupyansk laid deep inside Russian defensive lines, controlling roads and train lines to other key areas in the East, and acting as a critical supply point.”
The ratio of losses of Ukrainian troops “to those of the Russian Federation during the counteroffensive of the Armed Forces of Ukraine is 1 to 9, or even 1 to 10,” said Oleksiy Danilov, secretary of the National Security and Defense Council. Neither Moscow nor Kyiv have officially disclosed their total casualty numbers.
The remarkable counterstrike has already revealed potential Russian war crimes in the areas they held. Those revelations are akin to the atrocities that were found in other liberated areas.
A torture chamber was discovered in Balakliya, the largest Kharkiv regional city Russia had occupied for six months. The city had a pre-war population of 27,000 people.
Evidence shared by some 100 journalists taken on a press tour there showed a police station where some 40 Ukrainians were tortured and held. One image from the basement of the facility showed the prayer “Our Father” inscribed in the Russian language.
Those tortured were people who either had fought against the Russians since 2014 or family members of veterans of the Russian-instigated war, as well as suspected partisans, said Serhiy Bolvinov, the deputy head of the national police in the region.
Bodies of shot and tortured civilians were already being exhumed in the liberated Kharkiv Oblast areas.
The Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group (KHRPG) said this week that an untold number of victims were being discovered. After the hasty Russian retreat, “four bodies have been exhumed after they were shot by the Russians” in the village of Zaliznychne, the group said.
In the south toward the Russian-occupied parts of the Kherson and Zaporizhia regions, Ukraine’s progress has been much slower due to previously fortified Russian lines of defense.
Still, Ukraine has managed incremental gains since the beginning of September, following a series of what military analysts call “shaping” operations that are meant to soften up defensive positions by targeting high-value targets, such as command-and-control centers, army bases, supply warehouses and oil depots.
In the southern Kherson region, Ukraine has established “fire control,” said Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for the Southern Operational Command. Officials confirmed that Kyselivka near the regional capital along the critical M-14 highway was liberated on September 14. These gains place Ukrainian forces within 10 kilometers of the Kherson airfield.
Officials said that more than 500 square kilometers had been liberated in the southern regions, while on September 15 three Russian Sukhoi-25 ground attack aircraft and a Sukhoi-24 fighter bomber were shot down.
Russia has lost at least 101 tanks in the counterstrike in the past seven days as of September 14, according to Oryx, an open-source outfit that uses geo-located visual evidence to confirm its findings.
Luhansk and Donetsk regions
Meanwhile, Ukrainian forces remain bogged down defending against Russian thrusts in central Donetsk Oblast toward Bakhmut.
The regional governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko, said that five civilians were killed and 16 were wounded over the past 24 hours on September 15 amid intense fighting in the area around the district capital, as well as Torestsk and Avdiyivka.
He added that, since February 24, 844 civilians have been killed in the Donetsk region without counting victims in Mariupol and Volnovakha in the southern part of the oblast.
Using its momentum in the Kharkiv offensive, Ukraine has also made forays into the Luhansk region, which Russia had fully taken over by the end of July. Several villages have been liberated as Kyiv focuses on the heavily defended cities of Svatove and Severodonetsk.
But after taking over Kupyansk, Balakliya and Izium in the Kharkiv region, all located along Russia’s key supply lines from Belgorod, Ukraine has “established … de facto control of the northern Donetsk region … and wiped out the risk of our troops in Donbas getting encircled,” said Serhiy Kuzan, an adviser at the Defense Ministry.
In response to its losses, Moscow has the first time since February 24 resorted to targeting critical civilian infrastructure.
Partial blackouts were caused in at least five northeastern and eastern regions after Russia targeted electrical power plants on September 12.
“Russian terrorists remain terrorists and attack critical infrastructure. No military facilities, only the goal of leaving people without light and heat,” Mr. Zelesnkyy tweeted.
In a nightly address to the nation, he remained defiant, saying: “Do you still think you can intimidate, break us, force us to make concessions? … Cold, hunger, darkness and thirst for us are not as scary and deadly as your ‘friendship and brotherhood.’ But history will put everything in place. And we will be with gas, lights, water and food … and WITHOUT you!”
Then on September 14, the president’s hometown of Kryvyi Rih in the Dnipro-petrovsk region was shelled. Hydraulic systems were damaged at the dam of the Inhulets River, causing flooding in the city in an apparent attempt to halt Kyiv’s counterattack in the south.
Upon returning from his trip to Izium, the president again said on his Telegram channel that Russia as a “terrorist state continues to wage a war against civilians.”
Eight multi-million-dollar cruise missiles hit the water dam area, said Kryvyi Rih military administration head Oleksandr Vilkul on his Telegram channel.
“Residents of six streets of the Inhulets district and 16 streets of the Central City District of Kryvyi Rih are being evacuated,” Ukrinform news agency reported.
The following day, the same hydraulic systems were struck twice again, Mr. Vilkul said.
“As a result of the damage caused, the water level in the Inhulets River – a tributary of the Dnipro River – rose by 1-2 meters,” Ukrinform reported.
Zelensky car accident
Also, upon returning to Kyiv, a passenger vehicle collided with the president’s motorcade, but Mr. Zelenskyy “suffered no serious injuries” after being “examined by doctors,” said his spokesperson, Serhiy Nykyforov, via Facebook early on Septem-ber 15.
The incident occurred around midnight, well after Ukraine’s curfew, and “law enforcement officers will [examine]all of the circumstances of the accident,” he added.