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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ukrainian forces close in, recaptures hundreds of square miles of territory

By Andrew E. Kramer New York Times

BALAKLIYA, Ukraine – The Russian army left the town of Balakliya in northeastern Ukraine in a frantic, chaotic withdrawal as Ukrainian forces closed in during a fast-moving counteroffensive over the past few days, residents said.

The signs of desperation were everywhere Tuesday: abandoned military vehicles, cans of food and dishes left on tables, mail scattered on the floor of offices, clothes left hanging out to dry.

The surprise blitzkrieg enabled Ukraine’s military to recapture hundreds of square miles of territory, strategic towns and abandoned weapons. Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Malyar, said some 150,000 people had been freed from Russian control in recent days.

And Ukrainian officials said morale was suffering among the Russian forces that have been forced back by a rapid push. Ukraine’s military high command claimed Tuesday that Moscow had ceased sending new units into battle because many volunteers “categorically refuse the prospect of service in combat conditions.”

One resident of Balakliya, Oleksandr Kryvosheya, said he had overheard Russian soldiers yelling at their commanders into a radio of an armored personnel carrier parked in the courtyard of his apartment block. They shouted “You left us behind; you got out,’’ Kryvosheya said, recounting the exchange.

“If they came to fight, if they came to build this new Russia, why didn’t they stay and fight in Balakliya?” he said in an interview Tuesday.

As the Russian defenses around the town collapsed, residents said, soldiers ran for whatever transport vehicles they could, leaving behind ammunition and weapons along with personal items in apartments where they had quartered.

“Trucks drove through the city, honking, and they climbed on and left,” said Igor Levchenko, a retiree, describing the Russian army’s withdrawal after more than six months of occupation. “They didn’t have a fighting spirit. They were afraid.”

Russian morale is just one factor in Ukraine’s calculus about whether it can extend its gains to the east, where Russian troops will try to reestablish a defensive line, without overstretching its own forces. Russia still holds vast swathes of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine and still outguns the Ukrainians with artillery and tanks. And the particular woes of units in this area may reflect a Ukrainian strategy to strike first where the Russians were weakest.

Malyar, the deputy defense minister, said in an interview Tuesday in the newly recaptured village of Verbivka that the Ukrainian army is prepared to react “dynamically” to various situations, suggesting that its plans are not relying wholly on collapsing Russian morale. But the Ukrainians clearly have an edge in fighting spirit, she said.

“The Ukrainian army is more motivated because we are fighting a just war; we are fighting for our land,” she said.

Here are other developments:

- Russian shelling escalated sharply in Bakhmut, a key Ukrainian stronghold in the Donbas region, as Moscow’s forces seek to keep pressure on Ukraine in the east amid setbacks elsewhere.

- Armenia said that at least 49 service members had died in clashes with the Azerbaijani army, the worst escalation of hostilities between the countries since a 2020 war over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The fighting heightened fears that Russia, an ally of Armenia, could find itself entangled in a second war in addition to its invasion of Ukraine.

- The strategy behind Ukraine’s recent advances began to take shape months ago during a series of conversations between Ukrainian and American officials about the way forward in the war, U.S. officials said.

- The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office said it was investigating possible war crimes in a recently liberated northeastern village. Law enforcement officials said they had discovered the tortured bodies of four civilians in Zaliznychne, in the Kharkiv region.