Russia captures 5 villages in Ukraine’s northeast, forces 1,700 to flee

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Moscow’s forces have captured five villages as part of a renewed ground assault in Ukraine’s northeast, the Russian Defense Ministry said Saturday.

Ukrainian journalists reported Friday that Russian troops took the villages of Borysivka, Ohirtseve, Pylna and Strilecha, all of which lie in a militarily contested “gray zone” on the border of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region and Russia.

Russian officials said they had also captured another village, Pletenivka, in a renewed attack on the region that Ukrainian authorities said forced more than 1,700 civilians to flee.

Russia continued to pummel the nearby city of Vovchansk with airstrikes and grad rockets on Saturday as police and volunteers raced to evacuate residents.

Associated Press journalists who accompanied an evacuation team described empty streets with multiple buildings destroyed and others on fire. The road was littered with newly made craters and the city was covered in dust and shrapnel with the smell of gunpowder heavy in the air.

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Mushroom clouds of smoke rose across the skyline as Russian jets conducted multiple airstrikes. During the short time the team were on the ground, they witnessed nine air attacks.

Authorities helped a group of around 20 people onto a bus to take them to a nearby village to safety. Police said they evacuated 900 people from the city on Friday.

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Artillery, mortar, and aerial bombardments hit more than 30 different towns and villages on Saturday, killing at least three people and injuring five others, said Kharkiv Gov. Oleh Syniehubov.

Ukrainian authorities have not commented on Moscow’s claims that several villages in the Kharkiv region are under Russian control. On Telegram, Syniehubov said that heavy fighting continued in the areas around Borysivka, Ohirtseve, Pylna and Oliinykove, but that the situation was under control and there was no threat of a ground assault on Kharkiv city.

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Ukraine rushed reinforcements to the Kharkiv region on Friday to hold off the Russian attempt to breach local defenses, authorities said.

Ukrainian forces also launched a barrage of drones and missiles on Saturday night, Russia’s Ministry of Defense said, with air defense systems downing 21 rockets and 16 drones over Russia’s Belgorod, Kursk and Volgograd regions. One person died in a drone strike in the Belgorod region, and another in the Kursk region, local officials said.

Another strike set ablaze an oil depot in Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Luhansk region, killing four people and injuring eight more, Leonid Pasechnik, the region’s Moscow-installed leader, said on the messaging app Telegram on Saturday.

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There was also shelling in the Russian-occupied Donetsk region Saturday, where three people died when an explosion hit a local restaurant, said Denis Pushilin, the area’s Kremlin-appointed leader. Eight more people were injured, including a child.

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Russian forces stepped up their bombardment of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, in late March. Friday’s attack signaled a tactical switch in the war by Moscow that Ukrainian officials had been expecting for weeks.

Russian military bloggers said the assault could mark the start of a Russian attempt to carve out a “buffer zone” that President Vladimir Putin vowed to create earlier this year to halt frequent Ukrainian attacks on Belgorod and other Russian border regions.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy confirmed Friday evening that Russian forces were expanding their operations. He also called on the country’s Western allies to ensure that promised deliveries of military aid would swiftly reach the front lines.

“It is critical that partners support our warriors and Ukrainian resilience with timely deliveries. Truly timely ones,” he said in a video statement on X. “A package that truly helps is the actual delivery of weapons to Ukraine, rather than just the announcement of a package.”

The Kremlin’s forces have repeatedly sought to exploit Ukraine’s shortages of ammunition and personnel as the flow of Western military aid to Kyiv has tapered off in recent months, with promised new support still yet to arrive.

Ukraine previously said it was aware that Russia was assembling thousands of troops along the northeastern border, close to the Kharkiv and Sumy regions. Intelligence officials also said they had expected an attack there though Russia’s most recent ground offensive had been focused on parts of eastern Ukraine farther south.

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While Russia’s gains in the region have so far been limited, analysts at the U.S. think tank Institute of the Study of War described them Friday as “tactically significant.”

They said Russia had only “committed relatively limited manpower to their initial assaults” but that the offensive in Kharkiv “is meant to … (draw) Ukrainian manpower and materiel from other critical sectors of the front in eastern Ukraine.”

The Russian military could also try to cut key supply routes and try to blockade Kharkiv, home to roughly 1.1 million people and only about 30 kilometers (about 20 miles) south of the border.

In the war’s early days, Russia made a botched attempt to quickly storm Kharkiv but retreated from its outskirts after about a month. In the fall of 2022, seven months later, Ukraine’s army pushed them out of Kharkiv. The bold counterattack helped persuade Western countries that Ukraine could defeat Russia on the battlefield and merited military support.

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