The head of the CIA has said Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine can already be judged as a failure, as Ukrainian troops continue a counteroffensive against Russian occupying forces in the north-east of the country.
William Burns said Putin had underestimated Ukrainian resolve when he decided to invade in February and was now making the same mistake when it came to international support for Kyiv.
“Putin’s bet right now is that he is going to be tougher than the Ukrainians, the Europeans, the Americans … I believe, and my colleagues at CIA believe, that Putin is as wrong about that bet as he was profoundly wrong in his assumptions going back to last February about Ukrainian will to resist,” Burns said at a conference in Washington, in comments reported by the New York Times.
“Not only has the weakness of the Russian military been exposed … but there is going to be long-term damage done to the Russian economy and to generations of Russians,” he said.
Ukrainian forces have made significant progress in their first major counterattack since the spring, pushing back Russian forces from a number of settlements in the Kharkiv region.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address on Thursday that Ukrainian forces had recaptured more than 1,000 sq km of territory from the Russians since the beginning of September.
“Our heroes have already liberated dozens of settlements. And today this movement continued, there are new results,” the president said.
Ukrainian authorities have enforced a “regime of silence” along the whole of the frontline, banning journalists from travelling to the front and citing the importance of surprise in its counterattack on Russian forces.
Instead of the long-awaited counterattack in the Kherson region to the south, the main focus has been Kharkiv in the north-east, leading to the retaking of Balakliia, a town of 27,000 residents.
The next major Ukrainian target is likely to be the city of Kupiansk, which has been occupied by Russia since the first days of the war. On Thursday, Russian occupation authorities said they planned to evacuate women and children from Kupiansk, citing Ukrainian artillery strikes on the town.
The Institute for the Study of War, a US-based thinktank, said Ukrainian forces could retake the city in the next three days. Taking the city would sever some communication links between occupied areas and “hinder Russian efforts to support offensive and defence operations,” the institute said.
Numerous videos shared by Ukrainian soldiers showed Kyiv’s forces entering Balakliia, where they were given an emotional welcome by residents. However, Ukrainian authorities will have the difficult task of calibrating how to deal with people suspected of collaborating with Russian authorities.
Some Russian military commentators criticised their army for not giving ample warning to residents of Balakliia that they would withdraw, leaving their local accomplices to face the wrath of Ukrainian authorities.
Iryna Vereshchuk, Ukraine’s minister for the temporarily occupied territories, announced on Friday that Kyiv would create an agency for the de-occupied territories to coordinate different branches of the state and government in the regions.
“[The agency] will mean that de-occupation and then reintegration will be done as effectively and quickly as possible,” Verechshuk said on Ukrainian television.
She said there had been an increase of calls to a government hotline for people in the occupied territories who want to leave, but there were currently no official humanitarian corridors agreed with Russia.
“We have written to Russia to open humanitarian corridors but received a refusal, so we are asking the IAEA, the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to force Russia to open humanitarian corridors,” Vereshchuk said.
At present, there are only about three crossing points along the frontlines for the millions of civilians living in the occupied areas. People wait for days in queues, often surrounded by shelling.
In the first months of the war, Russia agreed to open official corridors to allow for mass evacuations from occupied areas such as the Kyiv region and Mariupol, but only after weeks of pressure from international leaders and the UN.