Russian forces have shown signs they are beginning to withdraw from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, dealing a significant blow to President Vladimir Putin’s attempts to encircle the country’s east.

The US think tank, the Institute for the Study of War, said Ukraine appears to have “won the battle for Kharkiv” in its fastest advance since Russian troops scrapped plans to take kyiv more than a month ago.

“The Russian army has likely decided to fully withdraw from its positions around the city of Kharkiv in the face of Ukrainian counter-offensives and limited availability of reinforcements,” he said in an update on Friday night.

The think tank added that Ukrainian forces “prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone taking Kharkiv, and then expelled them from the outskirts of the city as they did with Russian forces trying to take kyiv.”

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The Kremlin abandoned plans to take the Ukrainian capital by force last month after meeting significant resistance.

Ukrainian officials said this week that they are continuing to push toward the Russian border, liberating small towns on the outskirts of Kharkiv in northeastern Ukraine.

Troops were photographed placing static hedgehog anti-tank weaponry around villages on Friday to prevent Russian tanks from returning, as Kremlin forces continue to withdraw from Kharkiv.

The city, which is just 50 kilometers from the Russian border, has been under enemy shelling since the war began in February.

Russian forces have used it as a pivot point to funnel troops into the Donbas region in the east, where President Putin’s war efforts have been concentrated in recent weeks.

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But the Ukrainian advance in the region threatens the symbolic embarrassment of forcing Russian troops back to their own border, while cutting off supply lines to Ukraine.

The UK Ministry of Defense said earlier this week that the Russian withdrawal from Kharkiv showed “a tacit acknowledgment of Russia’s inability to capture key cities in Ukraine where they expected limited resistance from the population.”

Satellite images released on Friday appeared to show three bridges blown up in the Kharkiv region in an apparent effort by Russian units to protect their supply lines from further Ukrainian advances.

Static anti-tank hedgehogs are placed around the village of Vilkhivka, near the eastern city of Kharkiv, after it was recaptured by the Ukrainian army (Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/ AFP)
A Ukrainian policeman stands inside a school sports complex in the town of Vilkhivka, where residents say Russian soldiers were based while occupying the region. The village has now been retaken by the Ukrainian army (Photo: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP)

The War Institute said it appeared Moscow “is focused on carrying out an orderly withdrawal” from Kharkiv and “prioritizing getting the Russians home before allowing proxy forces into Russia.”

Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, said the withdrawal of Russian troops from the region marked a new chapter in the invasion.

“We are entering a new and long phase of the war,” he said in a Facebook post, adding that Ukraine will face “extremely tough weeks” in the face of an “enraged aggressor.”

Analysts believe that Russian attempts to gain territory in the Donbas will increasingly focus on Severodonetsk, the easternmost city held by Ukrainian forces.

Ukrainian officials said forces had destroyed several pontoon bridges over the Seversky Donets that Russian troops had been using to transport supplies and military equipment, as the region braces for increased attacks.

Moscow now controls about 80 percent of the territory in the Donbas region after making gains in both Donetsk and Luhansk.

Serhiy Haidai, Luhansk regional governor, said “the situation has significantly deteriorated” in recent days.

“The Russians are destroying everything in their path,” Haidai said in a post on Telegram earlier this week. “The vast majority of critical infrastructure will have to be rebuilt.”

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