Ukrainian soldiers are being welcomed as heroes by gleeful residents who have lived under Russian occupation for months, as Kyiv continues to retake dozens of settlements from the clutches of Vladimir Putin’s forces.
Videos and pictures have emerged showing troops standing victoriously on top of Russian flags in the liberated city Balakliia, while others have been shown in footage discovering the burnt out wreckages of enemy tanks.
The images come as swiftly advancing Ukrainian troops were bearing down on the main railway supplying Moscow’s forces in the east on Friday, after the sudden collapse of a section of the Russian front-line – caused the most dramatic shift in the war’s momentum since its early weeks.
In a video address, President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian troops had ‘liberated dozens of settlements’ and reclaimed more than 385 square miles of territory in the east and south in the past week alone.
Zelensky posted a video in which Ukrainian soldiers said they had captured the eastern town of Balakliia, which lies along a stretch of front stretching south of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city.
In one clip from the city, a Ukrainian flag can be seen flying on a roof. At the foot of the flag pole, three Ukrainian soldiers – reportedly from the Kraken Special Branch – pose with their weapons, standing or crouching on top of a Russian flag that has been pulled down.
Another Ukrainian soldier was pictured posing on the steps of what appears to be a government building. The soldier, holding his weapon on the air, is beaming from ear-to-ear. At his feet, a Russian tri-colour and red Soviet Union flag both lie in tatters. Above him, the yellow and blue of a Ukrainian flag can be seen flying on the building.
Elsewhere, Kyiv’s military vehicles were filmed rolling through the liberated city. The Kraken Special Unit is a Ukrainian special forces unit of the Ukrainian Military Intelligence. Balakliia is a city in the Izium Raion, in Kharkiv Oblast, in eastern Ukraine.
Moscow’s forces continued to fire back on Friday. A Russian air strike hit a hospital in Ukraine’s northeastern region of Sumy this morning, destroying the building and wounding people, the region’s governor said.
‘Russian aviation, without crossing the Ukrainian border, fired at a hospital. The premises were destroyed, there are wounded people,’ the official, Dmytro Zhyvytskyi, said on Telegram. The hospital is located in the Velyka Pysarivka district, which borders Russia, he said. Russia claims it does not target civilians.
Scroll down for video
Left: Ukrainian soldiers – reportedly from the Kraken Special Branch – pose in with their weapons in front of a Ukrainian flag, standing or crouching on top of a Russian flag that has been pulled down. Right: A soldier poses on the steps of what appears to be a government building. Holding his weapon on the air, he is beaming from ear-to-ear. At his feet, a Russian tri-colour and red Soviet Union flag both lie in tatters while above him, the yellow and blue of a Ukrainian flag can be seen on the building
The Ukrainian military said it had advanced nearly 30 miles through that front after an assault that appeared to take the Russians by surprise. That would make it by far the fastest advance by either side in the war since Russia was forced to abandon its disastrous assault on the capital Kyiv in March.
The Russians have disputed the account, claiming Kyiv has invented phantom successes to boast to NATO leaders.
While Ukraine has yet to allow independent journalists into the area to confirm the extent its advances, local news websites have shown pictures of troops cheering from the top of armoured vehicles as they roar past street signs bearing the names of previously Russian-held towns, and Russian forces surrendering on the side of the road.
In one moving video, weeping women – speaking Russian – are seen in footage running to hug Ukrainian troops as they advance through a town. ‘How much we waited for you,’ said one. A soldier answers back: ‘It’s all right.’
A woman says to the Ukrainian liberator: ‘We’ve been so much praying for your return. Thank you for coming back.’
But the residents are asked to return to the basements as fighting continues. A soldier says: ‘Please would you stay in the basement for a bit longer? There might be more shelling. But we are here now, everything is all right now.’
In another clip, residents can be seen excitedly waving the Ukrainian flag as soldiers drive through a village, welcoming them back to the territory.
Since Russia seized vast swathes of eastern Ukraine earlier this year – after it shifted its focus to the region – thousands of Ukrainian citizens have lived under Russian occupation.
There have been suggestions that referendums on joining the Russian Federation could be held in the eastern Donbas and other Russia-controlled areas in Ukraine on November 4, when Russia marks National Unity Day. This could then lead to Russian annexing parts of the country, as it did with Crimea in 2014.
Russia has already recognized some parts of the Donbas as sovereign.
However, as Ukrainian forces continue to sweep eastward, such votes could be under serious threat.
Pictured: Weeping women run out of a building to greet Ukrainian soldiers who have liberated the local town in this moving video.
Pictured: A woman embraces a soldier as she cries in both joy and disbelief as Ukrainian soldiers reach her in Balakliia
Residents can be seen excitedly waving the Ukrainian flag as soldiers drive through a village, welcoming them back
If the Ukrainian gains are confirmed and held, they mean a significant defeat for Putin’s forces. Western intelligence services say Russia has suffered large casualties, with Kyiv’s estimates suggesting more than 50,000 Russian soldiers have been killed since the invasion began on February 24.
Should the Ukrainian advances be confirmed, this number could continue to rise rapidly.
The Institute for the Study of War think tank said the Ukrainians were now within just 15 km of Kupiansk, an essential junction for the main railway lines that Moscow has been using for months to supply its forces on the battlefields in the east.
But Putin’s permanent representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, said only ‘several peripheral villages’ had been taken. ‘As far as we can judge, even the top brass of the Ukrainian armed forces opposed this madness,’ he said. ‘However, the leader of Ukraine was obstinate following his conversation with his US and UK colleagues.
‘As a result, the bodies of thousands of Ukrainian soldiers, who were sent to their deaths and were prevented from turning back by anti-retreat forces, are scattered in fields near Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia and in the forests near Kharkiv,’ he claimed.
In addition to the footage of Ukrainian troops liberating towns, dramatic videos of combat also emerged.
Two separate clips showed Ukrainian soldiers driving Humvees against Russian-occupied positions. In one of the clip (pictured), filmed with a camera on the soldier’s helmet, he can be seen firing a heavy machine gun from the back of the military vehicle as it barrels towards a village at dusk
Tracer rounds can be seen shooting ahead of the vehicle (pictured), as smoke billows from the weapon. At one point, the soldier can be seen switching weapons to a rocket launcher – which he fires at the Russian position
Pictured: Soldiers come across destroyed T-72 tanks in the woods. One of the tanks is shown with its turret blown off, something that has become a common sight since Putin launched his doomed invasion
In this video, at least two tanks can be seen submerged under water – the Russian ‘Z’ symbol clearly marked on the side
Two separate clips showed Ukrainian soldiers driving Humvees against Russian-occupied positions. In one of the clip, filmed with a camera on the soldier’s helmet, he can be seen firing a heavy machine gun from the back of the military vehicle as it barrels towards a village at dusk.
Tracer rounds can be seen shooting ahead of the vehicle, as smoke billows from the weapon. At one point, the soldier can be seen switching weapons to a rocket launcher – which he fires at the Russian position.
Other clips from Ukraine east are beginning to show the scale of Russian losses. Dozens of Russian tanks have been found abandoned, destroyed or sunk into rivers. In one video, at least two tanks can be seen submerged under water – the Russian ‘Z’ symbol clearly marked on the side.
Another shows the moment soldiers came across destroyed T-72 tanks in the woods. One of the tanks is shown with its turret blown off, something that has become a common sight since Putin launched his doomed invasion.
To make matters worse for the Russian despot, several clips have shown captured Russian prisoners of war. One of the videos that emerged earlier this week appeared to show that a lieutenant-colonel had been taken prisoner.
Since Russia’s forces were defeated near Kyiv in March, Moscow has waged a relentless war of attrition, using its firepower advantage to press slow advances by bombarding towns and villages.
But that tactic depends on tonnes of ammunition a day reaching the front line by train from western Russia. Until now, Russia had successfully fended off all attempts by Ukraine to cut off the train line.
The Ukrainian general staff said early on Friday retreating Russian forces were trying to evacuate wounded personnel and damaged military equipment. ‘Thanks to skilful and coordinated actions, the Armed Forces of Ukraine, with the support of the local population, advanced almost 50 km in three days.’
Pictured: An apartment building and business hub, hit recently by Russian strikes in Kharkiv, is seen on Friday
Pictured: Firefighters work amongst the rubble of a destroyed building in downtown Kharkiv on Friday
Pictured: Emergency responders stand by near a building destroyed in a Russian air strike on Friday
Pictured: A child’s cuddly toy is seen half-way out of a window of an apartment building in Kharkiv on Thursday
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (not seen) Kyiv, Ukraine on Thursday
The surprise Ukrainian breakthrough in the east came a week after Kyiv announced the start of a long-awaited counter-offensive hundreds of km away at the opposite end of the front in Kherson province in the south.
Ukrainian officials say Russia moved thousands of troops south to respond to the Kherson advance, leaving other parts of the frontline exposed and weakly defended. ‘We found a weak spot where the enemy wasn’t ready,’ presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych said in a video posted on YouTube.
Less information so far has emerged about the campaign in the south, with Ukraine keeping journalists away and releasing few details to keep its full plans secret.
Ukraine has been using new Western-supplied artillery and rockets there to hit Russian rear positions, with the aim of trapping thousands of Russian troops on the west bank of the wide Dnipro River and cutting them off from supplies.
Arestovych acknowledged progress in the south had not yet been as swift as the sudden breakthrough in the east.
Russia’s state news agency RIA quoted Russian-appointed Kherson authorities as saying some Ukrainian troops were captured during the counterattack and an undisclosed number of Polish tanks they were using had been destroyed. Reuters could not verify those reports.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Kyiv on Thursday and announced a package of $2.2 billion in military financing for countries at risk of Russian aggression, nearly half of it for Ukraine.
Washington also announced a separate $675 million of new weapons for Ukraine.
Pictured: Russian soldiers are reportedly shown in the Kherson region of Ukraine, in a pictured released by Russia today
Pictured: Russian soldiers are seen sitting on top of an armoured vehicle in the Kherson region of Ukraine, in a pictured released by Russia today
Pictured: A Russian soldier stands next to an artillery cannon in the Kherson region of Ukraine, in a pictured released by Russia today
Pictured: A Russian soldier aims a missile launcher in the Kherson region of Ukraine, in a pictured released by Russia today
North of the battlefield, Russia has continued firing at Kharkiv. Missiles struck multiple areas there on Thursday, causing widespread damage and casualties, according to the regional prosecutor’s office.
‘We are scared … You can’t get used to it, never,’ resident Olena Rudenko told Reuters news agency.
Russia denied targeting civilians. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, millions have been driven from their homes and cities have been flattened since Moscow launched what it calls a ‘special military operation’ in February to ‘disarm’ Ukraine.
On the road to victory? How clever Ukrainian counter-attacks have pinned down Russia’s troops in the south and punched through their frontline in the north – leaving Putin’s invasion at risk of collapse
By Chris Pleasance for MailOnline
It is an outcome that few dared to hope for. But 10 days after Ukraine‘s generals announced the start of their first major counter-attack against Russian troops, the road to victory is starting to become clearer.
Clever tactics saw Ukraine’s commanders draw Russian troops into the south of the country before pinning them down with a counter-attack around the city of Kherson.
Some of Putin‘s best men are now all-but trapped in the city, bullied by Ukrainian artillery and with no easy way to retreat back across the Dnipro River after HIMARS strikes destroyed the main bridges.
That gave Ukraine the chance to spring a second – surprise – counter-attack to the east of the city of Kharkiv, with a ‘fist’ of tanks and infantry punching through thinned-out defences there yesterday.
Those troops are now rapidly advancing, threatening key supply lines into Donbas. As Dr Mike Martin, an ex-British army officer now at King’s College, put it on Twitter yesterday: ‘If [Ukraine] pulls that off, it’s serious rout time.’
Putin is once again staring an embarrassing defeat in the face. If his troops are forced to pull back from Kherson and abandon their assault in Donbas, it will be hard even for him to play off the invasion as a success.
Meanwhile Ukraine is hailing its successes. According to one commander who spoke out Thursday, troops have now recaptured a total of 270 square miles of territory across both fronts – a long way from victory, but no small feat. Here, MailOnline examines how Ukraine brought the war to this pivotal point…
Ukraine is conducting two major attacks – the first in the south of the country, near Kherson, where some 30,000 Russian soldiers are thought to be pinned down. The second attack was launched east from Kharkiv yesterday, and smashed through the lightly-defended Russian frontline
Onward to victory? A Ukrainian soldier jumps for joy and waves on his comrades as they ride on top of armoured vehicles heading towards the frontlines in Kherson
Ukraine made no secret of its plans to take back this southern city.
The only regional capital captured by Russian troops since February, Kherson spans the Dnipro River – providing Putin’s men with their only access to the west bank and keeping his hopes of an assault on the port of Odesa alive.
For weeks, officials told anyone who would listen that they were coming to re-take it and followed up their threats with missile and bomb attacks on nearby bridges, railways, ammo dumps, airfields and command posts.
That convinced Russia the threat was real, and prompted a huge shift of men and materiel into the area. Around a dozen battalions are through to have been shifted from the eastern Donbas to Kherson since May.
By the time Ukraine launched its attack on August 29 – with southern command spokesman Nataliya Gumenyuk saying the first line of defence had been broken – an estimated 30,000 troops were stationed there.
Ukraine launched its much-hyped attack in Kherson on August 29, claiming to have broken the Russian frontline. Since then, it has advanced along three axis – one from Davydiv Brid which has gained the most ground, another moving south along the Dnipro River that has made modest gains, and a third to the south which has met with mixed success
Kyiv’s men are making slow but steady advances in Kherson, pinning an estimated 30,000 Russian troops in he region – many of them all-but trapped west of the Dnipro River after the main bridge crossings were destroyed
Since late August Ukrainian troops have been advancing along three broad fronts, according to analysis by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).
The most-successful push has been south from the city of Davydiv Brid towards Beryslav, a key river crossing, with Ukrainian troops forcing the poorly-armed 109th regiment of the Donetsk People’s Republic to fall back.
Kyiv’s men have now advanced around eight miles south of their original position, with heavy fighting ongoing.
Another slow but steady advance has also been taking place to the south of Kryvyi Rih, with Ukraine recapturing a handful of small towns and villages while squeezing Russia back towards the Dnipro River.
The third front is between the Ukrainian-held city of Mykolaiv and Kherson itself, where Kyiv’s men have met with mixed success.
Analysts at ISW believe they have made some advances along the shore of the Dniprovs’ka Gulf towards the village of Oleksandrivka, but have actually been forced back along the key M-14 highway which connects the two cities.
Unlike the loud build-up to the attack, which seemed designed to put Russia on the alert, Ukraine has said little about the operation now it is underway – and has appealed for people not to post footage of it online.
Both sides claim the other is suffering heavy losses in the fighting without giving any indication of their own.
For months, Kharkiv has been a forgotten frontline. Not since Ukrainian troops reached – and were subsequently pushed back from – Russia’s border in mid-May has much attention been paid to fighting here.
But all that changed yesterday when Ukraine launched a surprise attack to the east of the city, punching through Russian lines weakened by the withdrawal of troops to Kherson and storming more than 12 miles in a single day.
ISW estimates they captured some 155 square miles in one fell swoop, with videos showing dozens of dead or captured Russian troops – including one lieutenant-colonel – and overrun positions.
Balakliya, a city that previously housed important Russian bases and ammo dumps, was abandoned late yesterday, sources linked to the Russian military said.
Despondent Russian war bloggers suggested that the city of Izyum, the staging post for Putin’s wider assault on the Donbas, would likely be the next target. Dr Martin, of King’s College, argued a key railway junction in the city of Kup’yans’k was the real aim of the operation.
Ukraine launched a surprise counter-attack east out of Kharkiv on September 7, pushing more than 12 miles in a single day of fighting after using a ‘fist’ of tanks and infantry to punch through poorly-defended Russian frontlines
Russian soldiers come under heavy Ukrainian attack somewhere in Kharkiv, after Ukrainian forces broke through the frontlines and began rapidly capturing territory
Capturing the junction would sever the main rail link between the Russian city of Belgorod and Izyum, depriving Putin’s forces in the Donbas of supplies – particularly the thousands of artillery shells they need each day to keep their attacks moving forwards.
Dr Martin, of King’s College, wrote: ‘Ukraine are taking advantage of the thinned out Russian front lines to try and capture that railway junction which will cut the supplies to Izyum, which will cause most of that front to collapse.’
Should that happen, it would mean Putin having to abandon even his most-modest war aim of capturing the whole of the Donbas. It could also mean troops having to retreat from territory they have already captured to avoid being surrounded and captured.
In his nightly video address on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky also reported success in the Kharkiv region.
‘This week we have good news from the Kharkiv region. You have probably already seen reports about the activity of Ukrainian defenders, and I think every citizen feels proud of our warriors,’ Zelensky said.
Zelensky’s presidential adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, also spoke of Ukrainian gains near Kharkiv late Wednesday, saying they would help disrupt supplies to Russian forces in the area and potentially lead to their encirclement.
Videos showed dozens of dead or captured Russian soldiers, including one bloodied man (left) who was wearing epaulettes marking him out as a lieutenant-colonel