Kiev forces have recaptured more than 40 towns and villages in southern Ukraine, President Zelensky said on Thursday, as Moscow indicated its army had begun to withdraw from the strategic city of Kherson.
The United States, meanwhile, has announced a new $400 million security assistance package for Kiev that will include defense systems and surface-to-air missiles as Ukraine is reeling from massive recent Russian airstrikes on key infrastructure.
“Today we have good news from the south,” Zelensky said in his daily address to the nation. “The number of Ukrainian flags returning to their rightful place as part of the ongoing defense operation is already dozens.”
Zelensky said 41 settlements have been “liberated” from Russian occupation.
Moscow said it had made the “difficult decision” to withdraw troops from Kherson, and Russia’s defense ministry said its units were maneuvering in the area on Thursday.
Ukrainian forces have taken villages for weeks on their way to the town of Kherson in the region of the same name, where Kremlin-installed leaders have been withdrawing civilians in what Kiev has called illegal deportations.
The withdrawal would be a major Russian setback in a region Vladimir Putin claimed to have annexed, but officials in Kiev remained wary, saying it was unlikely Russia would leave Kherson without a fight.
– Battlefield… and diplomacy? –
In his speech, Zelensky, who is under pressure from Western capitals to resume peace talks with Russia, hinted that negotiations are not out of the question if Ukraine reclaims all its territory.
“We have to go all the way on the battlefield and through diplomacy so that all over our country, along our entire internationally recognized border, our flags – Ukrainian flags – are installed,” Zelensky said.
He also thanked US President Joe Biden and the American people for the air defense systems.
“Together we are building an air shield to protect civilians,” Zelensky said on Twitter. “We bring the victory over the aggressor closer!”
US media has reported in recent days that the Biden administration has urged Zelensky to publicly declare his willingness to speak with Russia.
And on Wednesday, top US General Mark Milley said military victory in the war may not be possible.
“There is an opportunity here, an opportunity to negotiate,” he said.
– ‘Can you trust anything they say?’ –
On the battlefield, in the southern city of Mykolaiv, which Russian forces have been shelling with artillery and rockets for months, there was little confidence that the Russians would retreat.
“How can you trust something they say?” asked Volodymyr Vypritskiy, a 55-year-old driver. “How can you trust people who always told us they were our brothers? People who start killing their brothers — can you really believe them?’
Zelensky has suggested that Russia could feign strategically rather than experience a major setback.
Military officials in Kiev repeated that warning on Thursday.
“At this time, we cannot confirm or deny information about the withdrawal of Russian troops from Kherson,” said Oleksiy Gromov of the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
If Russia loses the Kherson region, Ukraine would gain significant access to the Sea of Azov and Putin would show little of a campaign that has made him a pariah in Western eyes.
The withdrawal will put pressure on Russian control of the rest of the Kherson region, which forms a land bridge from Russia to Crimea, the peninsula Moscow annexed in 2014.
– Mass casualties –
Kherson was one of four Ukrainian regions that Russia declared to have annexed in September, shortly after it was forced to withdraw from parts of territory in Kharkov’s northeastern region.
The United States estimates that more than 100,000 Russian soldiers have been killed or wounded in Ukraine this week.
According to General Milley, the Kiev troops probably suffered similar losses.
Russia is pushing to capture the eastern Donbas city of Bakhmut, with the battered city known for its wine and salt mines coming under intense fire for weeks.
“It has become more difficult over the past three days. The Russians are pushing more and more. But our boys are holding their positions,” soldier Vitaliy, 26, told AFP in Bakhmut.
About half of the 70,000 people living in the city have stayed in the city despite the fighting over the past four months, mostly in the east of the city.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)
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