Ukraine facing ‘difficult’ situation in Kharkiv region, military chief says

<span>A woman looks at a building damaged by shelling in Vovchansk, Kharkiv. The town has been under sustained attack from Russian forces.</span><span>Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
A woman looks at a building damaged by shelling in Vovchansk, Kharkiv. The town has been under sustained attack from Russian forces.Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Ukraine’s top military commander admitted on Sunday that the situation in the north-eastern Kharkiv region was “difficult” as Russia continued an assault in the area and Moscow claimed to have captured several more villages.

Col Gen Oleksandr Syrskyi denied that the Russians had made a significant breakthrough, but said his forces were on the back foot. “[We] are fighting fierce defensive battles. The attempts of the Russian invaders to break through our defences have been stopped,” he wrote in a statement on Telegram.

Ukraine is suffering from chronic shortages of manpower and weapons and delays in western funding. Analysts have warned of an impending Russian offensive for some weeks and the first moves came on Friday with a push around Kharkiv.

“The situation is difficult, but the defence forces of Ukraine are doing everything to hold defensive lines and positions, and inflict damage on the enemy,” added Syrskyi, who was appointed as the army commander earlier this year.

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However, the Institute for the Study of War, a US thinktank, said on Saturday that previous Russian claims to have captured four villages appeared to be accurate and described the recent gains as “tactically significant”. On Sunday, Russia claimed to have taken control of another five villages.

The UK foreign secretary, David Cameron, told Sky News on Sunday that the Russian assault marked an “extremely dangerous” moment in the war.

The Russian offensive may require Ukraine to reposition troops to the northern front, just as Russian forces are also probing in the south and east of the country. Russian military bloggers said Moscow’s troops were looking to seize a window of opportunity, pressing Ukraine back amid a delay in western aid arriving.

On Sunday the town of Vovchansk, which before the war had a population of 17,000, was under sustained attack from Russian forces. Volodymyr Tymoshko, the head of the Kharkiv regional police, said Moscow’s troops were already on the outskirts of town and approaching it from three directions.

Tymoshko said Russia was combining aerial assaults with attacks by infantry units, similar tactics to those used in Bakhmut and Avdiivka in the Donetsk region, which eventually succeeded but destroyed much of the towns in the process.

Oleh Syniehubov, the governor of Kharkiv region, said Vovchansk was under “permanent” Russian fire on Sunday. He said about 4,000 people had been evacuated from areas newly under fire over the past two days but about 500 people remained in the town. “We call on residents to save their lives and leave the areas which are being shelled by the enemy,” he wrote on Telegram.

Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city, with a population of more than 1 million. In the early stages of the full-scale invasion in spring 2022, Russian forces reached its suburbs but were driven back to the surrounding region. Later in the year, a Ukrainian counteroffensive pushed them back to the border with Russia, and in recent months Ukraine has intensified shelling of areas across the border.

Most analysts believe Russia does not have the capacity to launch a renewed drive to seize the city, but may instead focus on intensifying strikes on it to make it unhabitable, as well as drawing Ukrainian forces away from other parts of the frontline. Moscow may also be trying to minimise Ukraine’s capacity to strike across the border. In March, units of Russians fighting for Ukraine made a cross-border raid into parts of Kursk and Belgorod regions near the border, while Ukraine in recent months has stepped up artillery and rocket attacks on targets inside Russia.

On Sunday, Russian authorities claimed that at least seven people had been killed and 17 injured when a section of an apartment block collapsed in the city of Belgorod, the nearest major Russian city to Kharkiv. Footage showed a slice taken out of the building, about 10 storeys high. During a rescue operation, part of the roof fell, causing panic among rescuers and bystanders.

Russian officials claimed the damage came when a Russian air defence system shot down a Ukrainian missile, which had been launched as part of a Ukrainian cross-border assault. The defence ministry called it a “terrorist attack on residential areas”. Ukrainian authorities are yet to comment on the incident.

The mood in Kyiv has remained bleak in recent months, as the country’s army struggles to overcome Russia’s superior troop numbers and a prolonged shortage of weapons continues. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said the No 1 priority was to halt Russia’s offensive in the Kharkiv region. He added: “Whether we succeed in that task depends on every soldier, every sergeant, every officer.”