Commanders said late Tuesday they had recaptured four small towns to the north of Ukraine’s second-largest city, with reports overnight suggesting they had pushed to within three miles of the Russian border.
If confirmed, it would put the city of Vovchans’k – a key supply hub linking Russia’s Belgorod to its frontlines in Donbas – within artillery range, threatening to cut supply lines and hamper Putin’s efforts to take the region.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s gas pipe operator announced that it will cut off a supply hub in a Russian-controlled part of Donbas which transports up to a third of its gas into Europe, starting today.
It marks the first time that pipelines carrying gas – the lifeblood of Russia’s economy and vital source of funding for its military – have been affected by the war, which has now been grinding on for more than two months.
Gazprom, Russia’s energy supplier, confirmed that the rate of gas flowing into Europe had fallen by around a quarter after supplies through the pipeline that Ukraine had threatened to cut fell to zero.
Ukrainian counter-attacks to the north of Kharkiv have forced Russian troops back to the border (pictured, a Ukrainian soldier fires a mortar in the area)
Russian forces appear to be retreating from Kharkiv, which has been under attack since the first day of the war (pictured, medics cover a dead Russian soldier with a sheet)
Ukraine’s counter-attack north of Kharkiv threatens Russian supply lines into Donbas, where heavy fighting is currently underway. Kyiv’s men continue to hold out in Mariupol despite heavy shelling, while Russia is suffering losses trying to hold Snake Island
The move has the potential to push already-high energy prices in Europe up even further, though they remained stable in early trading.
Ukraine blamed the decision to close the pipeline on Russian ‘occupation forces’ interfering with the pipe, including by siphoning off gas.
Sergei Kupriyanov, a spokesman for Gazprom, questioned that reasoning and said it would be ‘technically impossible’ to re-route supplies to another pipe.
The news emerged as Ukraine’s military continues to inflict humiliating losses on Russia – all-but pushing them away from the northern outskirts of Kharkiv.
The city, which sits just 20 miles from the Russian border, has been under attack since the first day of the war and has been among the most-heavily bombed including the first known use of cluster munitions.
But it now appears that Russia’s troops are beating a retreat back across their own border to the north, and across the Donets river to the east after a series of successful Ukrainian counter-attacks.
Ukraine’s commanders confirmed the capture of Cherkas’ki Tyshky, Rus’ki Tyshky, Bairak and Rubizhne in an update late Tuesday.
Reports overnight then suggested they had pushed further and captured Ternova – just two miles from the border – and Lyptsi. around six miles from the frontier.
It puts Ukrainian forces around 10 miles from Vovchans’k, a Ukrainian city that contains a key highway and rail line that is being used to supply forces in Donbas.
The dead bodies of two Russian soldiers lie alongside a road to the north of Kharkiv in a village that was recently re-taken by Ukrainian forces
A Ukrainian soldier is pictured in woodland north of Kharkiv, where counter-attacks have pushed Russian forces back to the border
A Ukrainian mortar crew adjusts their fire as they rain shells down on Russian positions north of Kharkiv, during counter-attacks
Artillery can now almost certainly range that city, meaning Ukraine can at least disrupt and perhaps sever supply lines to the crucial frontline – slowing or perhaps stalling the Russian advance.
Retired US General Jack Keane, now working for the Institute for the Study of War think-tank, said Tuesday that he believes Russia is now having to divert forces from Donbas back to Kharkiv to secure the rear areas.
‘It just underscores the challenges they [the Russians] have,’ he said.
Similar Ukrainian counter-attacks were seen in the areas around Kyiv shortly before the Russian offensive ground to a halt and then turned into a retreat.
But President Volodymyr Zelensky sought to lower expectations in his overnight address, saying that while Ukraine’s armed forces are showing ‘superhuman strength’ to fight off Russia, victory is far from assured.
‘The Armed Forces of our state provided us with good news from the Kharkiv region. The occupiers are gradually being pushed away from Kharkiv,’ he said.
‘But I also want to urge all our people, and especially those in the rear, not to spread excessive emotions. We shouldn’t create an atmosphere of specific moral pressure, where certain victories are expected weekly or daily.’
‘The Armed Forces are doing everything to liberate our land and our people. To liberate all our cities – Herson, Melitopol, Berdyansk, Mariupol and all others.’
Despite his calls for patience, foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba gave an interview in which he said that victory in Donbas would mean Ukraine pushing to re-take all of its territory from Russia – including areas occupied before the latest war.
Speaking to the Financial Times, he said that Ukraine initially believed victory would be the withdrawal of Russian troops to positions they occupied before the invasion.
But ‘now if we are strong enough on the military front, and we win the battle for Donbas, which will be crucial for the following dynamics of the war, of course the victory for us in this war will be the liberation of the rest of our territories.’
Burnt cars are pictured through the glass of a damaged car in Saltivka neighbourhood, Kharkiv, as Russian forces are pushed away from the city
Neighbours in a shelled village near Kharkiv inspect the damage after Ukrainian counter-attacks forced Russian troops away from the city
Destroyed cars are pictured amongst the ruins of a building in Saltivka neighbourhood, Kharkiv, after Russian forces were pushed out of the region
Russia – while far from defeated in Donbas – has yet to make any significant gains despite announcing the start of its offensive there almost a month ago.
Heavy fighting continues around Izyum – where the bulk of Russia’s forces are concentrated – as they attempt to push south towards the city of Kramatorsk.
Battles are also raging in woodland on the outskirts of Severodonetsk, around 60 miles to the west, as Putin’s men try to surround and capture the city.
Hundreds of miles to the south, in Mariupol, the last Ukrainian defenders of the city are still holed up inside the Azovstal steel works making an heroic last stand as Russian forces close in from the north and east.
The Ukrainian-held cities of Mykolaiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhzhia and Odesa continue to be bombarded from Russian forces occupying Kherson and Melitopol, in the south.
However, these are thought to be ‘fixing’ operations to pin Ukrainian troops in place and stop them reinforcing elsewhere rather than a precursor to an attack.
Fighting also continues around Snake Island, a strategically important spit of land 80 miles south of Odesa, which has been attacked by Ukraine in recent days.
British intelligence says Russia has ‘repeatedly’ tried to reinforce its garrison there, despite a series of drone and jet strikes by Kyiv – one of which destroyed a helicopter as it was unloading troops.
The island became vulnerable to attack after Ukraine sank the Moskva battleship which was providing it with air defence, the UK’s Ministry of Defence said, and is now having to expend men and equipment trying to re-take it.
‘If Russia consolidates its position on Snake Island with strategic air defence and coastal defence cruise missiles, they could dominate the north-western Black Sea,’ the MoD added.
Ukrainian troops calculate their next move as they carry out counter-attacks against Russian positions to the north of Kharkiv
Russia is now more than two months into what was supposed to be a days-long war that was originally intended to topple the government and install a Moscow-friendly puppet regime.
But an attack on Kyiv from Belarus stuttered, stalled, and then turned into a humiliating retreat – forcing Russia to concentrate on taking Donbas instead.
Moscow confirmed its offensive in the region got underway on April 19 with a huge artillery barrage along a frontline stretching for hundreds of miles, followed by ground attacks that have inched forward into Ukrainian territory.
But there has been no major breakthrough of Ukrainian lines in the weeks since then, and Russia has gained no significant territory or seized any major cities.
Instead it has been dragged into brutal town-by-town fighting, with Kyiv saying it has suffered colossal losses.
The outcome of the Donbas fight is seen as key to the outcome of the war.
If either Russia or Ukraine can achieve decisive victory over the other, then it will embolden them to push on to other objectives.
For Ukraine, it would mean pushing Russia out of all its territories – spelling disaster for Putin an the possible end of his regime.
For Russia, it would mean trying to capture Mykolaiv and Odesa to choke Ukraine off from its lucrative Black Sea coast – before perhaps returning to Kharkiv and Kyiv.
If neither side can inflict a killing blow, then the Donbas could devolve into a trench-warfare stalemate, as it did back in 2014.