President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has promised there will be no let up in Ukraine’s campaign to regain territory lost to Russia.
The pledge on Sunday came as the United Kingdom said Russian forces were stepping up raids on civilian infrastructure and a top United States general warned it was unclear how Moscow would react to its battlefield setbacks in Ukraine.
Zelenskyy said Ukrainian forces would keep up the pressure on Russia.
“Perhaps now it seems to some of you that after a series of victories we now have a lull of sorts,” he said in his nightly video address. “But this is not a lull. This is preparation for the next series … Because Ukraine must be free – all of it.”
The Ukrainian military said its forces had repelled attacks by Russian troops in the areas of the Kharkiv region in the east and Kherson in the south where Ukraine launched counteroffensives this month, as well as in parts of neighbouring Donetsk. It said Ukrainian troops had advanced to the eastern bank of the Oskil River in the Kharkiv region.
“From yesterday, Ukraine controls the east bank,” it said on Telegram.
Serhiy Haidai, the governor of the neighbouring Luhansk region, said this meant the “de-occupation” of his region was “not far away”.
As Russian shells hit towns and cities during the weekend, the British defence ministry warned that Moscow was likely to increase attacks on civilian targets as it suffers battlefield defeats.
“In the last seven days, Russia has increased its targeting of civilian infrastructure even where it probably perceives no immediate military effect,” the ministry said in an online briefing. “As it faces setbacks on the front lines, Russia has likely extended the locations it is prepared to strike in an attempt to directly undermine the morale of the Ukrainian people and government.”
US Army General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, meanwhile called for vigilance after visiting a base in Poland supporting Ukraine’s war effort. His remarks were a reminder of the risks of escalation as the US and its NATO allies aid Ukraine from a distance.
“The war is not going too well for Russia right now So it’s incumbent upon all of us to maintain high states of readiness, alert,” he said after his trip to the base, which reporters travelling with him were asked not to identify.
Putin, Biden warnings
Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, has brushed off Ukraine’s swift counteroffensive and said Moscow would respond more forcefully if its troops were put under further pressure.
Such repeated threats have raised concerns Putin could at some point turn to small nuclear weapons or chemical warfare.
US President Joe Biden asked what he would tell Putin if he was considering using such weapons, and replied in an interview with CBS’s “60 Minutes”: “Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II.
Some military analysts have said Russia might also stage a nuclear incident at Zaporizhzhia, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant which is held by Russia but run by Ukrainian staff. Moscow and Kyiv have accused each other of shelling around the plant that has damaged buildings and disrupted power lines needed to keep it cool and safe.
A top Vatican envoy reportedly came under fire in Zaporizhzhia city on Saturday as he was helping in the distribution of humanitarian supplies there. The incident forced Vatican Cardinal Konrad Krajewski and others to take cover, the Vatican news service said on Sunday. It reported no injuries.
“For the first time in my life, I didn’t know where to run. Because it is not enough to run, you have to know where to go,” said the Polish-born cardinal, whose office makes charitable contributions in the pope’s name.
Ukrainian officials, meanwhile, reported continued shelling across a wide stretch of the country.
Russian fire killed four medics attempting to evacuate a psychiatric hospital in the Kharkiv region on Saturday, said governor Oleh Synyehubov. Two patients were wounded in the attack in Strelecha, he said.
Overnight shelling also hit a hospital in Mykolaiv, a significant Black Sea port, regional governor Vitaliy Kim said. And five civilians were killed in Russian attacks in the eastern Donetsk region over the past day. In Nikopol, further west, several dozen residential buildings, gas pipelines and power lines were hit, according to regional governors.
Separately, the pro-Russian separatist forces that control much of Donetsk accused Ukraine of shelling a prisoner-of-war colony in Olenivka and said one prisoner was killed and four were wounded in the attacks.
Al Jazeera could not verify the battlefield reports independently.
In areas retaken from Russian forces, returning Ukrainians were searching for their dead relatives.
In Izyum, where Ukrainian officials said they had found 440 bodies at a forest grave site, Volodymyr Kolesnyk was trying to match numbers on wooden crosses with names on a neatly handwritten list to locate relatives who he said were killed in an air raid early in the war. Kolesnyk told the Reuters news agency that he got the list from a local funeral company that dug the graves.
“They buried the bodies in bags, without coffins, without anything. I was not allowed here at first. They [Russians] said it was mined and asked to wait,” he said.
Meanwhile, prosecutors in Kharkiv are accusing Russia of torturing civilians in one village that was recently freed. In an online statement, they said they found a basement where Russian forces allegedly tortured prisoners in Kozacha Lopan, near the border with Russia. In the images they released, they showed a Russian military TA-57 telephone with additional wires and alligator clips attached to it. Ukrainian officials have accused Russian forces of using Soviet-era radio telephones as a power source to shock prisoners during interrogation.
It was not immediately possible to verify the Ukrainians’ claims.
Elsewhere in the region, residents of towns recaptured after six months of Russian occupation were returning with a mixture of joy and trepidation.
“I’ve still kept this feeling, that any moment a shell could explode or an aeroplane could fly over,” said Nataliia Yelistratova, who travelled with her husband and daughter 80 kilometres (50 miles) on a train from Kharkiv to her hometown of Balakliya to find her apartment block intact, but scarred by shelling.
“I’m still scared to be here,” she said after discovering a piece of shrapnel in a wall.