The Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, made a surprise visit to the front line of the war on Wednesday when he toured the north-eastern city of Izium, which Ukrainian forces recaptured last week as part of their stunning counteroffensive.
Zelenskiy said he was “very shocked” but not surprised by the scale of the damage to the city. He thanked the paratroopers who took part in Izium’s liberation and watched as the Ukrainian flag was raised in front of its gutted administration building.
“Our blue-and-yellow flag is already flying in de-occupied Izium. And it will be so in every Ukrainian city and village. We are moving in only one direction: forward towards victory,” he declared.
Zelenskiy held a minute’s silence for Ukrainian soldiers who died in recent fighting. He said the scene of “destroyed buildings” and “killed people” was reminiscent of Bucha, a Kyiv suburb where the Russian army executed hundreds of civilians in February and March.
Tank carcasses with Russia’s signature “Z” symbol dotted streets covered with craters. There were dozens of bombed apartment buildings in the debris-strewn city centre. The Russians turned the inside of a church into an improvised hospital and blew up bridges as they left.
Zelenskiy’s secret trip underscored the dramatic success of Ukraine’s advance since the beginning of the month. His armed forces have reclaimed nearly 4,000 sq km (1,500 sq miles) of territory in the Kharkiv region, including 300 settlements, some of them directly on the border with Russia.
The Kremlin’s most prestigious battalions fled in the wake of an overwhelming Ukrainian assault. Since taking Izium in April, Russia had transformed the city into a major garrison and giant arms depot. At least 1,000 inhabitants were killed during this period, Ukrainian officials say.
There is now little prospect that Vladimir Putin will be able to fulfil his strategic military goal, announced in the spring, of “liberating” the entire Donbas region. Around half of Donetsk province remains in Ukrainian hands.
The Russians have retreated to the east bank of the Oskil River, about 10 miles from Izium. A pro-Russian separatist commander, quoted by the Moscow news agency Itar-Tass, claimed Ukrainian troops were now approaching the border of the so-called Luhansk People’s Republic.
The Russian army currently occupies the entire Luhansk region. But with Moscow’s servicemen demoralised, and with some units wiped out entirely, Ukraine seems likely to continue pushing its counter-offensive.
After six months of war, Moscow appears to be running out of heavy weapons and technology. In its latest intelligence briefing the UK’s Ministry of Defence said Iranian “kamikaze” drones bought by Moscow had been used for the first time in the battle for Kupiansk, a railrway and supply hub north of Izium.
The Ukrainians shot down a Shahed-136 drone, it said. “Russia is almost certainly increasingly sourcing weaponry from other heavily sanctioned states like Iran and North Korea as its own stocks dwindle,” the ministry suggested. The German newspaper Bild confirmed the report, citing experts in Berlin.
Wednesday’s visit to Izium is not Zelenskiy’s first trip to the war-zone. He previously visited the cities of Lysychansk and Soledar, handing out medals to soldiers, when fierce fighting took place in May and June. Russia eventually seized Lysychansk and nearby Sievierodonetsk as part of its slow and grinding offensive.
The president’s aides contrasted Zelenskiy’s down-to-earth attitude with Putin’s alleged cowardice and aloofness. Russia’s president has not visited captured Ukrainian territory since launching his invasion in February.
“This is bravery and camaraderie. This is support and motivation for our defenders who see their supreme commander-in-chief is with them,” Anton Gerashchenko, a former adviser to Ukraine’s interior ministry wrote of Zelenskiy. He added: “That’s very different from sitting in a bunker.”
Mykhailo Podolyak, Zelenskiy’s senior aide, called on western nations to step up their supply of arms to Kyiv during what appears to be a pivotal moment in the war. They were needed to expel the Russians and to end the fighting speedily, he wrote on Twitter, adding: “Time for the final strike against the Evil Empire.”
Podolyak said Ukraine wanted more multiple launcher rocket systems to destroy Russian logistics centres in the rear, as well as tanks and armoured personnel carriers and air defences to protect critical infrastructure. More drones were also needed to better target enemy objects, he said.
Ukraine was continuing to make progress in its ongoing attempt to recapture the southern city of Kherson, which is located on the right bank of the Dnieper River. Natalia Humeniuk, spokesperson for Kyiv’s southern command, said three Russian ammunition dumps had been destroyed over the past 24 hours.
“The morale of Russian units is very low. They have seen the success of our armed forces in the east of Ukraine. They understand that if we are successful there we will also be successful where they are,” she said. She stressed: “The only option is to give up.”