Zelensky visits besieged north as Russia launches sweeping assaults

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky traveled to the besieged Kharkiv region on Thursday, meeting with top commanders as their forces battled to slow a new offensive push in the northeast while facing fierce assaults elsewhere on the front lines.

Ukraine's military reported Wednesday that it had repelled four ground attacks in the northeastern Kharkiv region, where Russian forces crossed the border last week and quickly captured a dozen villages and about 50 square miles of territory. The Russian Defense Ministry has reported no new gains in the Kharkiv region in recent days.

“The situation in the Kharkiv region is generally under control,” President Volodymyr Zelensky wrote on social media on Thursday after meeting in Kharkiv with General Oleksandr Syrsky, head of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and other senior military commanders. He also visited wounded soldiers in a hospital in the city of Kharkiv.

But he acknowledged that the military challenge in the area “remains extremely difficult,” adding: “We are strengthening our units.”

Military analysts said the threat to Ukraine is now as acute, or more so, in other regions further south, as Russia seeks to take advantage of Ukrainian defenses that have been weakened because Kiev diverted troops to support Kharkiv .

“Our attention is constantly focused on the front line, on all combat zones,” Zelensky said Wednesday evening, acknowledging that the challenges extend up and down the 600 miles of the front. “We clearly see how the occupier is trying to distract our forces and make our combat work less concentrated.”

Jack Watling, a military expert at the Royal United Services Institute in London, wrote in an analysis published Tuesday that after attacking in the northeast, Russia will “put pressure on the other end of the line” in the south, and try to reverse the route. The gains Ukraine gained after last summer's largely failed counteroffensive.

That's exactly what appears to be happening now, with Russian troops launching assaults on the southern village of Robotyne, one of the few places Ukraine managed to recapture during the counteroffensive.

“Russia's goal is not to achieve a major breakthrough, but rather to convince Ukraine that it can continue an inexorable advance, kilometer after kilometer, along the front,” Watling wrote.

Ukrainian civilians evacuated from northern border villages on Thursday said Russian forces fought in small units that slipped through the forest and into villages. They appeared unexpectedly on the streets of the city of Vovchansk, a village about two dozen miles east of the city of Kharkiv that is now disputed between the two armies.

Oleksiy Kharkivskiy, a police officer who is evacuating civilians, said the northern parts of Vovchansk are now in the sights of Russian tanks, but are not fully controlled by the Russian army, the same situation as several days ago, suggesting that the fighting slowed down over time. and around the village, although artillery barrages are frequent.

However, other Russian assaults have been reported elsewhere, both east of the Kharkiv region and further south in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia regions.

In Robotyne, Ukrainian officials denied the Russian Defense Ministry's claim that its troops had taken full control of the city, and pro-Kremlin military bloggers also denied this, saying Russian forces controlled only parts of the village.

“Russian intelligence troops periodically organize such provocations,” said Dmytro Pletenchuk, spokesman for the Southern Defense Forces of Ukraine. “To do this, they organize shows in the combat zone with the installation of the Russian national flag. In the suburbs, for example, they usually die later.”

The battalion commander of the 65th brigade, which is attempting to hold positions in Robotyne, said the Russian army attempted to enter the village again. “Last night the Russians, using small groups, entered the village of Robotyne,” said the commander, who uses the call sign Katan. “They were destroyed by our UAVs inside the village.”

His claims could not be independently verified.

At the same time, Russia's push to seize more territory in the eastern Donetsk region, one of the two regions that make up the Donbas, has continued unabated. Fierce fighting is taking place around the town of Chasiv Yar, about six miles west of Bakhmut, and in the area northwest of the town of Avdiivka, which Russia captured in February.

“As I see it, Khasiv Yar is twice as tough as Kupiansk, and Kupiansk is twice as tough as the northern border,” said Pavlo, a soldier fighting in Donbas, who declined to reveal his surname according to the military protocol.

“The Kharkiv operation looks a lot like what happened previously with the village of Ocheretyne,” he said, referring to a village northwest of Avdiivka that Russia captured in late April. “They hit more points and where they find a crack in the defense they come in.”

Evacuations of residents in northeastern Ukraine continued throughout Wednesday, and people fleeing combat zones reported widespread destruction.

“We spent six days in a basement,” Daria Sorokoletova, 40, an evacuee from Vovchansk, said in a telephone interview. “Now there is no longer a single house in our street: all the houses have burned down, including those in the neighboring street.”

The attacks in the northern Kharkiv region are accompanied by speculation that something similar could happen in the Sumy region, further north-west and also close to the Russian border. There was bombing in the region overnight, with 183 explosions along the border area reported by the military administration of the Sumy region.

Many Ukrainian commentators said they believed the Russian offensive in the northeast was limited in scope and was intended to create panic and confuse Ukrainian troops in order to break through Kiev's defenses further south.

“The main purpose of Russian propaganda at the moment is the attempt to create panic in Kharkiv and Sumy, to convince people that these limited actions in the border area of ​​the Kharkiv region are the beginning of an offensive on Kharkiv,” he says Andriy Kovalenko of the Center for Lo told Ukrainian RBC television about the fight against disinformation.

Andrew E. Kramer AND Evelina Riabenko contributed reporting from Kharkiv, e Constant Méheut from Kiev.

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