Zelenskiy Says Russia Attempts a New Offensive Near Kharkiv

(Bloomberg) -- Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said Russia started a new offensive around his country’s second-biggest city as Kremlin forces moved to breach the border in the northeast.

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Artillery has so far been able to repel the assault in the Kharkiv region, Zelenskiy said during a meeting with Slovak President Zuzana Caputova in Kyiv on Friday. Russia may pull more reserves to support the offensive and Ukraine’s armed forces are ready to resist them, he said.

The latest assault comes almost two months after Vladimir Putin announced a plan to create a buffer zone to shield Russian border regions from intensifying Kyiv’s attacks that had wreaked havoc with fuel, gas and power facilities inside his country.

The Kremlin has also been stepping up attacks over the past weeks to probe for weakness in Ukraine’s defenses before bulk of the US military aid starts to arrive at the frontline. In addition, Ukraine expects to receive the first US-made F-16 fighter jets in June to July, a senior military official said, declining to be identified. Kharkiv, less than an hour’s drive from the Russian border, became a target of escalated bombardment in what Ukrainian and Western officials said was an attempt to force the evacuation of civilians.

“Russia has begun a new wave of counteroffensive actions in this direction,” Interfax-Ukraine reported Zelenskiy as saying in remarks confirmed by his press service.

Putin’s troops, supported by armored vehicles, attempted an assault from Russia near the town of Vovchansk in the early hours of Friday, the Defense Ministry in Kyiv said on Facebook. The attack, successfully repelled by Ukrainian forces, followed a night of heavy artillery shelling and bombing, the ministry said, adding that reinforcements were being sent to the area.

The Russian Defense Ministry so far hasn’t publicly commented on the new offensive. The pro-Moscow military blogger Rybar, who has almost 1.2 million subscribers on Telegram, described the events as “combat reconnaissance” rather than a large-scale offensive.

At least one civilian was killed and several wounded, regional Governor Oleh Synehubov said on Telegram. Ukrainian troops are holding their ground and the Russian land force assault doesn’t pose an immediate threat to Kharkiv, he said.

Local authorities have begun evacuating residents from Vovchansk and nearby villages, Tamaz Gambarashvili, the head of the town’s military administration, told Hromadske Radio.

The attack near Vovchansk, situated about five kilometers (three miles) from the frontier with Russia, aims to cut into territory which Ukraine liberated in the first year of the war.

While the area has suffered regular bombardment, the ground assault may signal that Russia is seeking to take back the territory which it temporarily occupied in the early phase of the invasion.

--With assistance from Olesia Safronova and Reinie Booysen.

(Updates to add details on F-16s in fourth paragraph)

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