Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the newly recaptured city of Izyum on Wednesday, an appearance that underlined the stunning success of a counteroffensive against Russian forces in the country’s northeast.
The unannounced visit appeared to belie claims from Moscow that parts of Izyum, which had been a critical staging post for Russian weapons and troops fighting in the eastern Donbas region, remained under Russian control. Zelenskyy took part in a ceremony to raise the Ukrainian flag, according to a statement on his website.
“Perhaps one can temporarily seize the territories of our state,” Zelenskyy said during the event. “But one definitely cannot occupy our people, the Ukrainian people.”
Zelenskyy said this week that Ukraine’s military has reclaimed more than 6,000 square kilometers (2317 square miles) of territory this month, mostly in the Kharkiv region, which borders Russia to the north.
The counteroffensive, now more than a week old, broke through thinly manned Russian front lines, quickly cutting off supply and escape routes and forcing a chaotic retreat, including from Izyum.
The loss of Izyum, whose pre-war population exceeded 45,000, as well as half of Kupyansk, a critical logistics hub on the way to the Russian border, may create a serious challenge for President Vladimir Putin.
It makes his stated goal of seizing all of the Luhansk and Donetsk provinces that make up Ukraine’s Donbas region unattainable for the foreseeable future, according to the Institute for the Study of War, a US think tank that monitors the war closely.
The scale of the reversal has also, for the first time, forced Russian officials to acknowledge a defeat and triggered rare debate beyond a nationalist fringe as to the conduct of the war, according to the ISW.
But it has also raised concerns among some military analysts inside and outside Ukraine about the need to consolidate gains, rather than risk over-stretching and drawing a counterattack against poorly defended and exhausted troops.
The ISW, in its latest daily report on Tuesday evening, said fighting continued with Ukrainian forces attempting to cross the Oskil River that runs through Kupyansk — and appears to have become a new front line. Ukrainian offensives also continued toward the towns of Lyman and on to Lysychansk, more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) southeast of Izyum, both of which were seized by Russian forces at considerable cost to both sides during the summer’s Donbas campaign.
Wednesday’s visit is likely to add to Zelenskyy’s image as an effective communicator and war time leader, after months of war in which he has made daily video addresses to the nation — often from a bunker — and addressed dozens of legislatures around the world to promote the Ukrainian cause.
“The last few months have been extremely difficult for you,” Zelenskyy told servicemen in Izyum, according to the presidential statement. “Therefore, I am asking you: take care of yourself, you are the most precious we have.”