'Fierce battle' under way in Ukraine after Russians launch surprise attack on Kharkiv

Hundreds of civilians have been forced to flee an area taken back by Ukraine after Russia's invasion

The aftermath of a Russian missile strike in Kharkiv. Photo: Reuters
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Ukrainian forces were engaged in a “fierce battle” with Russian troops who launched a surprise attack in the Kharkiv region, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Saturday.

About 2,000 civilians were evacuated from the area after Moscow’s forces had advanced by a kilometre, in what Ukraine's military officials think is an attempt to try to create “a buffer zone” to prevent attacks on Russian territory.

The Russian assault began hours after the US announced a new $400 million military aid package for Kyiv.

The Kharkiv region has been under Ukrainian control since September 2022 when they pushed out Russian forces who had occupied the area during the initial invasion.

Ukraine's army rushed in reinforcements to defend the region after Russia launched the attack early on Friday, breaking through Ukrainian lines with the support of armoured vehicles and artillery.

“Russia launched a new wave of counter-offensive actions in this area,” said Mr Zelenskyy.

“Ukraine met them there with our troops, brigades and artillery. Now there is a fierce battle under way.”

A local official said there was “massive shelling” in Vovchansk, a town of about 3,000 people, five kilometres from the Russian border.

Russian shelling killed three people in the Kharkiv region and two others in the eastern region of Donetsk, another hotspot, local officials said.

Russia claimed to have captured at least two villages in the region this week.

President Vladimir Putin said in March he was considering creating a “sanitary zone” in Ukrainian territory adjoining Belgorod, a Russian region that is frequently the target of Ukrainian shelling.

The US-based Institute for the Study of War said on Friday that Russia had made “tactically significant gains”.

But the main aim of the operation was “drawing Ukrainian manpower and materiel from other critical sectors of the front in eastern Ukraine,” it said.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said the US was “confident” in the Ukrainians and “working around the clock to get them the equipment, the tools, the weapons that they need to defend against these attacks”.

“It is possible that Russia will make further advances in the coming weeks, but we do not anticipate any major breakthroughs, and over time, the influx of US assistance will enable Ukraine to withstand these attacks over the course of 2024,” he said.

“Russia will likely increase the intensity of fire and commit additional troops in an attempt to establish a shallow buffer zone along the Ukrainian border.”

Updated: May 11, 2024, 12:58 PM