Battles rage in Ukraine; Russian forces claim they've captured five villages

Employees leave a restaurant building hit by recent shelling that local Russian-installed authorities called a Ukrainian military strike in Donetsk, Russian-controlled Ukraine, May 11, 2024. [Reuters]

Fierce battles continue for a second day in northeastern Ukraine, where the Russian Defense Ministry said its troops captured five villages — a claim Kyiv contested.

The ministry said Moscow's forces had taken the villages of Pletenivka, Ohirtseve, Borysivka, Pylna and Strilecha in the Kharkiv region across the border from Russia's Belgorod region.

Ukrainian officials didn't confirm the Russian gains, but the Institute for the Study of War on Friday said that geolocated footage confirmed at least one of the villages was seized. The Washington-based policy institute described recent Russian gains as "tactically significant."

Kharkiv's governor Oleh Syniehubov said there was fighting around all five of the villages, which are within 3 to 5 kilometers of the border.

"We clearly understand what forces the enemy is using in the north of our territory. Certainly, the escalation can grow, the pressure can increase, it can strengthen its military units, its military presence," Syniehubov said, according to Reuters.

He noted that for now the regional capital of Kharkiv is not under imminent threat and there is no need to begin evacuating its roughly 1.3 million people, who continue to live there despite regular missile and drone strikes.

"As of now the enemy keeps pressing in the north of our region. Our forces have repelled nine attacks," he said at a news conference on Saturday.

Zelenskyy calls situation tense

In his nightly video address on Saturday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said fighting was going on around seven border villages in the Kharkiv region and he called the situation in the southern Donetsk region especially tense.

Russian troops supported by armored units have moved into 1 kilometer into Kharkiv to try to establish a buffer zone that would prevent Ukrainian attacks into Russia's border regions, according to a high-ranking Ukrainian military source who did not want to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The Russian advances on the region have forced more than 1,700 civilians to flee the area, according to Ukrainian authorities.

More than two years after its invasion, Russia has gained the advantage on the battlefield, opening a new front as Ukraine faces shortages of manpower, along with stocks of artillery shells and air defenses.

In a statement earlier Saturday, Zelenskyy urged Kyiv's Western allies to expedite the supply of weapons they had pledged.

"It is important that partners support our soldiers and Ukrainian stability with timely supplies. Really timely. The package that really helps is the weapons brought to Ukraine, not just the ones announced," he said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in March he was considering creating a "sanitary zone" in Ukrainian territory adjoining Belgorod, a Russian region often hit by Ukrainian shelling.

The White House said Russian forces may be preparing to mount a large-scale counteroffensive against the Ukrainian northeastern city Kharkiv after making incremental incursions into the area and opening a new front near Ukraine's second-largest largest city.

"You're not going to do that if you're not also thinking about some other larger assault directly on the city," White House national security spokesperson John Kirby said Friday during a press briefing.

US announces military aid

The U.S announced a fresh $400 million military aid package of weapons and equipment for Ukraine as Ukrainian forces try to repel an intensified Russian armored ground offensive near the northeastern city of Kharkiv, Kirby said.

The State Department said in a statement the emergency military package contains urgently needed capabilities, such as additional air defense munitions for Patriot and National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems; Stinger anti-aircraft missiles; equipment to integrate Western launchers, missiles, and radars with Ukraine's systems; additional High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and ammunition; 155mm and 105mm artillery rounds; TOW and Javelin missiles and AT-4 anti-armor systems; Precision aerial munitions; High-speed Anti-radiation missiles; Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicles; M113 Armored Personnel Carriers; Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles; coastal and riverine patrol boats; small arms ammunition and grenades; demolitions munitions; and spare parts.

The package by the Presidential Drawdown Authority allows the U.S. president to transfer munitions and services from the Pentagon's U.S. stockpile without the U.S. administration needing to receive U.S. congressional approval.

This is the third tranche of emergency military aid for Ukraine since the U.S. Congress passed a $95 billion aid bill, with $60.8 billion of that amount going to Ukraine.