The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has made an unannounced trip to Kyiv, promising a major $2bn package of military aid for Ukraine as well as neighbouring countries “most potentially at risk for future Russian aggression”.
The package would “bolster the security of Ukraine and 18 of its neighbours, including … many of our Nato allies as well as other regional security partners”, a state department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Blinken’s arrival, which was not publicly expected until he landed, came after the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, reported “good news” from the war’s frontlines. Ukraine has been waging a counteroffensive in the south and the east, where it has claimed to have recaptured several villages.
In a Wednesday evening address, Zelenskiy cited “the extremely successful hits in areas where the occupiers are concentrated”, and thanked Ukrainian artillery troops for what he said were successful strikes against Moscow’s forces in the south.
Zelenskiy declined to give details of which places had been retaken, saying “now is not the time to name” them.
However, on Wednesday, an official representing the Russian-controlled self-proclaimed republic in Donetsk confirmed that Ukraine had launched a surprise counterattack in the north-east Kharkiv region and “encircled” Balakliia, an eastern town of 27,000 people situated between Kharkiv and Russian-occupied Izium.
Unverified footage circulating on social media showed what looked like a Ukrainian soldier posing in front of an entrance sign for Balakliia.
The US Institute for the Study of War (ISW), which follows the fighting in detail, said the Ukraine counterattack in the east drove Russian forces back to the north side of the Siverskyi Donets and Serednya Balakliika rivers and that Kyiv had retaken 400 sq km of territory in the east of the Kharkiv region.
It appeared that Ukraine forces had also recaptured Verbivka and that Russian forces might have destroyed bridges to prevent Ukrainian fighters from pursuing them, ISW said.
“Russia’s deployment of forces from Kharkiv and eastern Ukraine to Ukraine’s south is likely enabling Ukrainian counterattacks of opportunity,” it said.
In its latest assessment of the situation on the ground, the group said that, on 7 September, Ukrainian forces “likely used tactical surprise to advance at least 20km into Russian-held territory”.
Ukrainian officials have yet to comment on the supposed new battle plan, but, according to analysts, Kupiansk, a key road hub for Russian supplies heading south from the border into eastern Ukraine, is expected to be the next focus of the fighting.
The long-awaited counteroffensive comes at a crucial moment in the conflict. After months in which the country’s fate already seemed sealed, with Moscow cornering Kyiv in the Donbas and threatening to advance towards Odesa, the reconquest of territory by the Ukrainian armed forces seems to have raised the morale of the people, who are resigned to a conflict that could last for years.
“Each success of our military in one direction or another changes the general situation along the entire frontline in favour of Ukraine,” Zelenskiy added. “The more difficult it is for the occupiers, the more losses they have, the better the positions of our defenders in Donbas will be.”
The Ukrainian counteroffensive in the east does not seem to have stopped the Russian bombing in the city of Kharkiv.
On Thursday, the regional governor of Kharkiv, Oleh Synehubov, said two people were killed and five were injured in Russian shelling in the city’s industrial district.
Ukraine’s commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Gen Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, gave a detailed assessment of the war to date in rare public comments published on Wednesday and warned of the threat of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine, which would create the risk of a “limited” nuclear conflict with other powers, according to an opinion piece attributed in his name in Ukraine’s state news agency Ukrinform.
Zaluzhnyi said the “direct threat” of Russia’s possible use of tactical nuclear weapons had had a major influence on the adoption of relevant decisions.
“Another factor is the direct threat of the use by Russia, under certain circumstances, of tactical nuclear weapons,” he said. “Battles on the territory of Ukraine have already demonstrated how much the Russian Federation neglects the issues of global nuclear security even in a conventional war.… It is hard to imagine that even nuclear strikes will allow Russia to break Ukraine’s will to resist. But the threat that will emerge for the whole of Europe cannot be ignored.”
Heavy fighting was raging on Thursday in areas near the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in Ukraine after Kyiv warned that it might have to shut down the plant to avoid disaster.
The general staff of Ukraine’s armed forces said in its daily update that some villages and communities near the plant were heavily shelled in the 24 hours to Thursday morning from “tanks, mortars, barrel and jet artillery”.
The occupation of the nuclear power plant has sparked fears of a nuclear disaster as both sides trade blame for shelling the site.
On Wednesday, the head of the IAEA, Rafael Grossi, who was in Rome for a meeting with the Italian prime minister, Mario Draghi, told La Repubblica newspaper that he was moved when he visited the plant.
When asked what he thought about Vladimir Putin and Zelenskiy, who accused him of not saying who was to blame for the strikes on the plant, Grossi replied: “Being a judge, the referee between two contenders, is not my mandate. Indeed, if it was, it would cancel my utility as guarantor of the safety of the nuclear power plant.”