Russian forces retreat amid Ukrainian counter-offensive

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian troops on Sunday successfully launched their swift counter-offensive in the northeastern part of the country, even as a nuclear power plant in the Russian-occupied south shut down completely in a bid to prevent a radiation disaster. while the battle was going on nearby.

But Russia attacked Ukraine’s infrastructure Sunday night, causing a widespread blackout, with the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions among those without power, officials said.

Kyiv’s move to retake Russian-occupied areas in the Kharkiv region forced Moscow to withdraw its troops to prevent them from being encircled, leaving a large number of weapons and ammunition in a rapid retreat as the war marked its 200th day on Sunday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy mocked the Russians in a video address on Saturday night, saying “the Russian army these days is showing what it can do best – showing its back.”

He posted a video of Ukrainian soldiers raising the national flag in Chkalovske, another town reclaimed in the counteroffensive.

Yuriy Kochevenko, of the 95th brigade of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, tweeted a video from what appeared to be the city center of Izyum. The city is considered an important command and supply hub for Russia’s northern front.

“Everything around is destroyed, but we will restore everything. Izyum is, is, and will be Ukraine,” Kochevenko said in his video, showing the empty central square and destroyed buildings.

While much of the attention has focused on the counteroffensive, Ukraine’s nuclear energy operator said the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, had been reconnected to Ukraine’s power grid, allowing engineers to shut down its last operational reactor to preserve it in the midst of battle.

The plant, one of the 10 largest atomic power stations in the world, has been occupied by Russian forces since the beginning of the war. Ukraine and Russia have traded blame for the unraveling around it.

Since the September 5 fire caused by flaking knocked the plant out of transmission lines, the reactor has been operating critical safety equipment in so-called “island mode” – an unreliable regime that has made the plant increasingly vulnerable to a potential nuclear accident.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog that has two experts on site, welcomed the restoration of external power. But IAEA Director-General Rafael Grossi said he was “deeply concerned about the situation at the plant, which remains at risk as long as any shooting continues.”

He said talks have started on establishing a safety and security zone around it.

In a call on Sunday to Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron urged the withdrawal of Russian troops and weapons from the plant in accordance with IAEA recommendations.

In the fighting, the chief of the Ukrainian military, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyy, whose forces have retaken about 3,000 square kilometers (1,160 square miles) since the counteroffensive began in early September. He said Ukrainian troops were only 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) from the Russian border.

A battalion shared a video of Ukrainian forces in front of a municipal building in Hoptivka, a village just over a mile from the border and about 19 kilometers (12 miles) north of Kharkiv.

Kharkiv Gov. said. Oleh Syniehubov that Ukrainian troops have taken back control of more than 40 settlements in the region.

Widespread power outages were reported on Sunday night by Ukrainian media, with the Kharkiv and Donetsk regions completely blacked out, while Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia and Sumy were partially without power, Zelenskyy said.

“Russian terrorists remain terrorists and attack critical infrastructure. There are no military facilities, the only purpose is to leave people without light and heat,” he tweeted.

Ukrainian officials said Russia hit Kharkiv TEC-5, the country’s second largest heat and power plant.

Kharkiv Mayor Igor Terekhov called the power outage “revenge of the Russian aggressor for the victories of our army at the front, in particular, in the Kharkiv region.”

In the evening the electricity was restored. None of the outages are believed to be related to the shutdown of reactors at the Zaporizhzhia plant.

The Ukrainian General Staff said Russian forces had withdrawn from several settlements in the Kherson region as Ukrainian forces pressed a counteroffensive. It did not recognize them.

An official of the Russian-backed administration in the city of Kherson, Kirill Stremousov, said on social media that the city was safe and asked everyone to remain calm.

The Russian withdrawal marked the biggest battlefield victory for Ukrainian forces since they thwarted a Russian attempt to seize Kyiv near the start of the war. The Kharkiv campaign came as a surprise for Moscow, which moved many of its troops from the region to the south in anticipation of a counteroffensive there.

In an effort to save face, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that the withdrawal from Izyum and other areas was intended to bolster Moscow’s forces in the neighboring Donetsk region to the south. The explanation is similar to how Russia justified its withdrawal from Kyiv earlier this year.

Igor Strelkov, who commanded Russian-backed forces when the separatist conflict erupted in the Donbas in 2014, scoffed at the Russian Defense Ministry’s explanation for the withdrawal, suggesting that giving up Russian territory near the border was a “contribution to a Ukrainian settlement.”

The setback angered Russian military bloggers and nationalist commentators, who bemoaned it as a major defeat and urged the Kremlin to step up its war efforts. Many criticized Russian authorities for going ahead with fireworks and other lavish festivities in Moscow that marked a holiday in the city on Saturday despite the disaster in Ukraine.

Putin attended the opening of a large Ferris wheel in a Moscow park on Saturday, and inaugurated a new transport link and a sports arena. The action underscores the Kremlin’s narrative that the war it calls a “special military operation” is going according to plan without affecting the daily lives of Russians.

Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov criticized Moscow’s celebrations as a big mistake.

“Fireworks in Moscow on a tragic day of Russian military defeat will have very serious political consequences,” Markov wrote on his messaging app channel. “The authorities should not celebrate when the people are grieving.”

In a sign of a potential rift in Russia’s leadership, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, said the recession resulted from mistakes by Russian brass.

“They made mistakes and I think they will draw the necessary conclusions,” Kadyrov said. “If they do not make changes in the strategy of conducting special military operations in the next day or two, I will be forced to contact the leadership of the Defense Ministry and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground. .”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the head of NATO warned on Friday that the war is likely to continue for months, urging the West to continue supporting Ukraine through a difficult winter.

Ukraine’s battlefield victories will help as the Biden administration seeks continued financial support of the war effort from Congress and Western allies, said Daniel Fried, a former US ambassador to Poland and now a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

“The policy of the Biden administration is moving in a more rational direction,” Fried said. “More investment in Ukraine, more confidence in Ukrainian ability to prevail, a greater willingness to push the Russians — it looks like a good bet. I’m not saying Ukraine will win or the West will succeed. It’s still an open question .But investing in the possibility of strategic success is more and more justified.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called Ukraine’s move very strong, adding: “We and our allies must continue to stand with Ukraine. Putin needs to recognize that the only way is to end his failed war.

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Associated Press writer Ellen Knickmeyer in Washington contributed.

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