Blue and yellow flag, Russian dead attest to Ukrainian advance in south
PHOTO CAPTION: A Ukrainian national flag is seen near the front line in the recaptured village Neskuchne in Donetsk region, Ukraine, June 13, 2023. REUTERS/Oleksandr Ratushniak
By Vitalii Hnidyi
NESKUCHNE, Ukraine (Reuters) -Ukraine's blue and yellow flag flew over a ruined grocery store and Russian soldiers lay dead in the street of the village of Neskuchne, reached by Reuters journalists on Tuesday in the first independent confirmation of Ukraine's biggest advances for seven months against Russia's invasion.
Russia has not acknowledged any Ukrainian gains, and President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that for now he saw no need for a new mobilisation of fighting men to confront the Ukrainian counteroffensive launched last week.
"There is no such need today," Putin told a televised meeting of Russian war correspondents and military bloggers when asked about another mobilisation. But he added that it all depended on what Russia wanted to achieve in what it describes as a "special military operation" in Ukraine.
More than 15 months since Putin sent troops into Ukraine, Russian and Ukrainian forces are still battling along a 1,000-km (600-mile) front line, though far from the capital Kyiv.
Russian forces tried, and failed, to capture Kyiv in the hours and days after the invasion began on Feb. 24 last year.
In comments shown on the Russian state TV broadcast, Putin said he faced a question only he could answer - should Russia try to take Kyiv again?
Once again on Tuesday Putin threatened to withdraw Russia from the Black Sea grain deal, designed to ease a global food crisis worsened by the invasion, saying the West had cheated Moscow. Russia and Ukraine are both major agricultural exporters.
"We are thinking about getting out of this grain deal now," Putin told the meeting. "Unfortunately, we were once again cheated - nothing was done in terms of liberalising the supply of our grain to foreign markets."
The deal brokered by the United Nations and Turkey will expire on July 17 unless Russia agrees to extend it.
UKRAINIAN TROOPS RIDE THROUGH RECAPTURED VILLAGE
Not a single resident could be found in Neskuchne, one of a cluster of settlements on the Mokry Yali river that Ukraine says its troops have captured since their counteroffensive began in a steady advance southwards into Russian-held territory.
Ukrainian troops rode through the muddy streets on the back of a tank and in a pick-up truck. A warplane flew overhead, firing flares.
"Three days ago the Russian forces were still here. We chased them out of Neskuchne. Glory to Ukraine," said Artem, a member of a Ukrainian territorial defence unit, who gave no surname.
The mainly one- and two-storey buildings in the village, which had a population of several hundred before the invasion, had nearly all been damaged. The scene was silent, apart for the crump of artillery fire in the distance.
Reuters saw at least three dead Russian soldiers lying in the street, including one whose fly-blown body lay by an abandoned Russian military vehicle. Artem said the advancing Ukrainian troops had watched from a drone as comrades initially tried to evacuate him, only to dump him and flee.
It was the first independent confirmation of Ukraine's advance in the area, roughly 90 km southwest of the city of Donetsk, one of several axes where it is trying to break through Russian lines.
In Washington, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said as he met U.S. President Joe Biden that the military alliance's support to Ukraine was making a difference on the battlefield.
"It's still early days, but what we do know is that the more land Ukrainians are able to liberate, the stronger hand they will have at the negotiating table," Stoltenberg said.
EARLY DAYS OF ASSAULT
Ukraine had stuck to a defensive posture through seven months of a Russian winter and spring campaign that yielded scant gains. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Tuesday night gave an updated casualty count for a Russian missile strike on an apartment building and warehouses in his birthplace of Kryvyi Rih in central Ukraine - 11 killed and more than 30 injured.
Russia, for its part, has had months to prepare several layers of defensive lines, meaning Ukraine's advance so far does not necessarily amount to a breach through the front.
After a week of giving little information, Ukraine said on Monday it had retaken seven settlements so far. Troops have advanced up to 6.5 km (4 miles) and seized 90 square km (35 square miles) of ground along a 100-km-long (60-mile-long) stretch of the southern front line, Deputy Defence Minister Hanna Maliar said.
Putin told the televised meeting with war correspondents that Ukraine's counteroffensive had not been successful in any areas, and claimed that Ukrainian casualties had been 10 times higher than Russia's.
Leaked U.S. intelligence documents have estimated Russia has suffered losses several times greater than Ukraine's, with the worst casualties coming in recent months. Ukraine does not usually comment on its losses.
Putin declined to say whether Moscow would launch a new offensive of its own, saying that Russia's future plans would be decided once the Ukrainian counteroffensive was over.
The Russian defence ministry said on Tuesday its forces had fended off Ukrainian attacks near the villages of Makarivka, Rivnopil and Prechystivka. Makarivka is located further south along the river from Neskuchne.
Moscow also released video footage of what it said were German-made Leopard tanks and U.S.-made Bradley Fighting Vehicles captured in battle. Reuters could not immediately verify the location or time of the footage.
(Additional reporting by Max Hunder in Kryvyi Rih, Guy Faulconbridge and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow and Reuters Bureaux; Writing by Peter Graff, Alex Richardson and Grant McCool; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Mark Heinrich)