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Zelensky visits a city just a few miles from the front, asserting Ukraine’s interests

IZIUM, Ukraine – Standing in a cold drizzle amid the rubble left by Russia’s chaotic retreat, President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday looked up into the sky at the Ukrainian flag flying over the main square of a city reclaimed just a few days ago in a stunning counterattack.

“Today, when we looked up, we were looking for only one thing – the flag of Ukraine,” Zelensky told soldiers in front of the city’s bombed-out municipal building. “Our blue and yellow flag was flown over occupied Izium. And it will be so in every city and village of Ukraine.”

The president’s unannounced appearance in Izium, about nine miles northeast of the front in Ukraine, is a tangible sign of Ukraine’s rising morale and growing boldness – a demonstration Evidence shows that the military can guarantee Zelensky’s safety even near the front lines and that it will resolutely defend what it has claimed.

Russian soldiers fled the city in a humiliating retreat last week, leaving tanks, trucks and ammunition boxes in the streets, and Mr. Zelensky’s visit underscored that humiliation.

After addressing the soldiers, Mr. Zelensky stood for a moment in silence in memory of those killed in the fighting. He then posed for pictures with the soldiers and left, fearing the Russian military would launch missiles into the square while he and government ministers were within easy range, aides said.

After months of telegraphing an intention to counterattack in the south, the Ukrainian Army this month staged a flash offensive in the northeastern region of Kharkiv, capturing thousands of square miles of territory, dozens of towns and villages. desert and important centers such as Izium, a railway hub in the east. Ukraine.

After the defeat of the Russian army in the battle for the Ukrainian capital Kyiv, at the beginning of the war the Kharkiv counterattack was Ukraine’s most successful military operation. Ukrainian officials are now looking to capitalize on two main benefits: reduced morale in the Russian Army and a greater willingness by Western governments to assist Ukraine with weapons supplies.

Arms shipments from the European Union have slowed, but its leaders have sided with Ukraine despite the pains of the growing energy crisis caused by the war. The EU’s top executive official, Ursula von der Leyen, has proposed measures to ease escalating prices and said in a speech on Wednesday that sanctions on Russia would remain in place. is applied.

“This is a war for our energy, a war for our economy, a battle for our values ​​and a battle for our future,” she told EU lawmakers in London. Strasbourg, France.

According to Ukrainian officials, Ukrainian forces gained the advantage on Wednesday, fighting on the outskirts of Lyman. The city, near the Russian-occupied Luhansk province, could serve as a starting point for attacks to the east.

However, military analysts say the rapid Ukrainian advance comes with the risk that the borders stretch too thin, which could leave towns already cleared of attacks. Russia. Despite the human and organizational problems, Russia still has a significant advantage over Ukraine in terms of supplies and ammunition. And as Russian forces establish new defensive positions, the front line could fall into a bloody stalemate that depletes Ukraine’s power over the winter.

Russia also demonstrated a willingness to strike civilian targets far ahead. Hours after Zelensky’s visit, a barrage of cruise missiles hit the city of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine, the president’s hometown, where residents said a dam was damaged.

In Izium, where soldiers patrolled the eerily deserted streets and explosions rang out for hours as Ukrainian soldiers cleared landmines, the city seemed only in the early stages of returning to normal. often.

Russian graffiti remains sprawled on a sign leading into the town proclaimed “New Moscow” next to an abandoned Russian tank and green cartridges. Of the town’s pre-war population, about 40,000, about a quarter remained during occupation.

Officials during a high-level visit with the president did not waste an opportunity to pick their noses at the gentle departure of the Russian Army.

“The Russians were defeated here and they fled shamefully,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maylar said in an interview. However, she added, intense fighting continued in other areas. “Most of the Kharkiv region has been liberated, but the Russians still have plans to conquer Ukraine.”

The Kharkiv offensive, and especially the entry into Izium, was a significant setback to the Russian war effort. By threatening a flank of Russian forces in the eastern Donbas region, the attack eliminated the possibility of a secure Russian takeover of the Donbas, military analysts said.

The region has become central to Russia’s military goals after the failed attack on Kyiv, and Russian President Vladimir Putin cited the region among his reasons for the invasion last month. Two. He asserted that Russian troops had been deployed to defend Russian-speaking people in the Donbas against the Ukrainian government, which the Kremlin falsely claimed was full of “Nazis”.

But Anton Gerashchenko, Ukraine’s deputy interior minister, says the morale breakdown of the Russians is probably a greater fruit of the counter-offensive than recapturing the territory.

“Russia lost,” he said. “It was they who destroyed the legend. For 20 years they have built stories that ‘our army is the strongest.’ And then it turned out that wasn’t the case.”

Pro-Russian bloggers, who previously cheered their military and recently criticized the leadership for its failures, were nervous ahead of Mr. Zelensky’s visit to Izium.

“Commander-in-Chief Zelya is right there,” wrote one, Aleksandr Zhuchkovsky. “Pose in Izium with the brave ‘guards’.” He added that the Russian saying “Where once the Russian flag is raised it should not be lowered” should be retracted “to avoid embarrassment.”

He vaguely called for an overhaul of the Russian leadership. “This pain should not be cured with vodka, but with urgent decisions, major reforms of the system.”

But despite growing calls from Russian nationalists for a full-scale draft, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri S. Peskov said on Tuesday that the mobilization was “Not discussed at this time.”

For the residents of Izium, where wet fallen leaves litter the asphalt, the rapid departure of the Russians was as surprising as the Russians who had occupied the city for nearly seven months. Above all, as Russia withdrew from the northeast, Ukrainian forces recaptured an area inhabited by some 150,000 people in 300 cities, towns and villages.

Yevhen Yenin, Ukraine’s deputy interior minister, said police had found 10 bodies in and around the nearby town of Balakliya, showing that the Russian military had violated human rights. So far, soldiers have not encountered a scene as macabre as on the streets of Bucha, a suburb of Kyiv, where the bodies of some 450 civilians were left behind after Russian troops withdrew.

“Work has just begun” in the northeast, Mr Yenin said, adding that it was “too early to tell” the extent of the abuse. Regional police in Kharkiv said in a statement on Wednesday that they had confirmed the death from torturing a person in a police station used by Russian forces to detain civilians in Balakliya. A former inmate told reporters on Tuesday he was electrocuted.

The Russian government has denied eyewitness accounts, photos, videos and other evidence of atrocities committed by soldiers in Bucha, and has denied the allegations against its forces.

Residents of the newly reclaimed communities say that Ukrainian authorities are interrogating some people and looking for collaborators, and that civilians have died in Ukraine’s counterattack on their communities. But the general mood is profound gratitude.

“I stood on the bridge and watched our boys come in, and I wanted to hug them all,” said Oleksandr Sabodishin, a retiree who was cycling to run errands Wednesday.

Lyubov Shamrai, another retiree, said: “From morning to night, I bake cakes and bring them to our soldiers. “I made cherry dumplings, strawberry dumplings. I want to give them something homemade. “

During the ceremony in Izium square, Mr Zelensky watched as the flag was hoisted above the rubble – all four buildings surrounding the square were burned, partially collapsed or without a roof. It is not clear if they were damaged during the Russian attack on the city in March or the Ukrainian counterattack this month.

“No surprise,” Mr. Zelensky said of the demolition. “It was a shock, but not a shock to me. We saw this in Bucha, with destroyed buildings, murders. It is part of our history now and part of modern Russia. They did it.”

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Izium, Ukraine and Marc Santora from Kyiv, Ukraine. Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Cora Engelbrecht contribution reports from London, Matina Stevis-Gridneff and Monika Proncczuk from Brussels, and Jeffrey Gettleman from Kryvyi Rih, Ukraine.

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