Ukraine touts ground gains as Russia states intent to hold elections in occupied areas


Russia announced plans Thursday to stage elections in occupied parts of Ukraine in just three months, Moscow’s latest bid to signal that it is in control, even as a Ukrainian counteroffensive has pushed its forces back in some areas.

The Ukrainian assault is in its early stages, and military experts say the decisive battles still lie ahead. But corpses of Russian soldiers and burnt-out armoured vehicles lining roads in villages newly recaptured by Ukrainian troops attested to Kyiv’s biggest advances since last year.

“Our heroic people, our troops on … the front line are facing very tough resistance,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told NBC News in Kyiv.

“Because for Russia to lose this campaign to Ukraine, I would say, actually means losing the war.”

Also Thursday, Zelenskyy urged the Swiss parliament in a video address to allow other states to re-export Swiss-made weapons to Ukraine.

1st glimpse of advance

Reuters reached the villages of Neskuchne and Storozheve over the past two days, providing the first independent confirmation of the Ukrainian advance several kilometres south along the Mokry Yali river.

Several bodies of Russian soldiers lay in the streets of ruined and depopulated villages. Ukrainian troops in Storozheve told Reuters they killed around 50 Russians and captured four there.

A Ukrainian howitzer is seen firing toward Russian positions near Bakhmut, Ukraine.
Ukrainian forces fire toward Russian positions near Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Thursday. (Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images)

The Ukrainian military, which had maintained strict silence about the campaign, came forward to tout the gains on Thursday.

Troops captured at least seven settlements and 100 square kilometres of territory in two major pushes in the south so far, Brigadier-General Oleksii Hromov said.

“We are ready to continue fighting to liberate our territory even with our bare hands,” he said.

The army on the southern front had advanced in the area along the Mokry Yali, as well as on another axis further west near the village of Mala Tokmachka, officials said.

They described advances in the east around the ruined city of Bakhmut, which Moscow seized last month.

Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted this week that Moscow’s goals in Ukraine remain unchanged. He claimed that Russian forces were inflicting 10 times more casualties on Ukrainians than they were enduring.

African leaders head to Kyiv

African leaders whose countries have been hit hard by the fallout from the war are set to attempt to mediate in the conflict.

Senegal’s President Macky Sall and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa are heading a delegation travelling to Kyiv and then St. Petersburg.

A person rides past a recruitment poster for the Ukrainian army in Hrushivka, Ukraine.
A Ukrainian army recruitment poster is seen in Hrushivka, Ukraine, on Wednesday. (Alina Smutko/Reuters)

They could propose a series of “confidence building measures” during their initial efforts, according to a draft framework document.

Russia’s announcement of a plan for elections in occupied territories was the latest effort by Moscow to convey that the situation was stable.

Russia’s TASS state news agency quoted election chief Ella Pamfilova as saying that both the Defence Ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB) had concluded that it would be possible to hold the votes in September.

Russia proclaimed its annexation of four Ukrainian provinces last year, although it does not fully control any of them.

Kyiv says any elections staged by Russians on Ukrainian territory would be invalid and illegal.

The big test of Ukraine’s offensive still lies ahead. Russia has had months to prepare its defences. Ukrainian troops have yet to reach the heaviest Russian defensive fortifications set back from the front line.

Kyiv is believed to have prepared an attack force of around 12 brigades of thousands of soldiers each, most using newly arrived Western armoured vehicles. Only a fraction of them have been engaged so far.

Russia, for its part, has released images of Western tanks and vehicles it says it has destroyed or captured.