The figures still amaze people in Ukraine — since September 6, the Ukrainian army has liberated more than 6,000 square kilometers (2,378 square miles) and more than 300 towns with a total population of about 150,000 people in the Kharkiv region, according to Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar.
Reportedly, most of the territory in the north and east of Kharkiv Oblast has been recaptured, an area Russia had quickly occupied and held at the start of the invasion on February 24, 2022.
For Ukraine, this offensive is the second major success since late March, when the Russian offensive on Kyivfailed and Moscow withdrew its troops north of the capital.
Moscow initially remained silent for days, before describing the hasty retreat as a "regrouping." However, the retreat doesn't yet mean relief for Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city. Close to the border with Russia, the city is shelled almost daily. But for the areas further east, the end of the occupation is strategically important.
Izyum, gateway to Donbas
Home to around 50,000 people before the Russian invasion, Izyum lies in the southeast of the Kharkiv region on the strategically important M-03 (E-40) highway. It is considered the most important city that Ukrainehas been able to recapture. The road connects Kharkiv with the city of Sloviansk in the neighboring Donetsk region. Izyum to Sloviansk is only 50 kilometers (32 miles), making it the gateway to the Donbas coalfield.
Since the outbreak of war in the Donbas in 2014, this road has become one of Ukraine's central transport arteries. Troops in the Ukrainian-controlled part of Donbas are supplied from Kharkiv along this route. Russia is trying to encircle Ukrainian troops near Sloviansk, but so far without success. All summer long, fighting in the area has been heavy. Retaking Izyum relieves Ukraine's troops in Donbas and the offensive further east can continue.
Izyum is more than an important transport hub though. It is home to an arms factory owned by the Ukroboronprom state corporation, the only manufacturer of glass optics in Ukraine. Most of the night vision equipment for the Ukrainian military is produced there, including for battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. The Izyum weapons factory also produces parts of the laser control system for Ukrainian Stuhna and Corsar anti-tank missiles, both used in the war.
Kupiansk, railway hub on the border with Russia
The city of Kupiansk is the second most important railroad hub in the Kharkiv region. The city is located in the north, a mere 40 kilometers from the border with Russia. Russia, which has a new army base near the town of Valuyki close to the Ukrainian border, used Kupiansk to transport supplies to the front near Izyum.
Kupiansk is on the Oskol River. Russian troops retreated to its eastern bank in response to the Ukrainian offensive. Before the invasion, about 60,000 people lived in the city. During the occupation, it was run by a civil-military administration controlled by Moscow, which the Ukrainian offensive forced to move first to Vovchansk near the border and then to Belgorod in Russia. The "administration" apparently planned a "referendum" for annexation to Russia in the coming months, similar to those in other occupied territories — plans now disrupted.
Balakliia, weapons depot and gas field
Balakliia was among the first towns liberated in the Kharkiv region. With about 27,000 inhabitants before the war, it is smaller than Izyum and Kupiansk. However, it is located near the strategically important M-03 highway on the route from Kharkiv to Izyum.
In 2017, an ammunition depot for artillery shells in Balakliia exploded, making headlines in Ukraine and abroad. Authorities inKyiv suspected sabotage. According to some accounts, the town once housed Ukraine's largest ammunition depot, a Soviet legacy.
Shebelinka, Ukraine's largest gas field, is also located in the area. It is important for Ukraine's gas supply but its proximity to the front line has put gas production at risk. Almost half of Ukraine's gas is produced in the Kharkiv area.
Can Ukraine hold the retaken areas?
Ukraine is trying to push further east and liberate other territories, but the pace has slowed considerably. The key question in the coming weeks is whether Ukraine can hold the territories it has already liberated. Observers don't rule out the possibility that Russia will regroup and attack again in the north. Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, whose troops are considered notorious in the Ukraine war, announced that lost territory would be recouped under Moscow's control.
Ukraine is currently trying to advance in the southern Kherson region, where several small towns have been retaken. Russia apparently considers Kherson to be much more important than Kharkiv because of its proximity to the annexed Crimea — and has repeatedly sent reinforcements.
This article was originally written in German.