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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken stands near a damaged residential building during his visit the city of Irpin, Ukraine, on Sept. 8.Genya Savilov/The Associated Press

Ukraine on Thursday hailed a lightning counteroffensive it said had recaptured swathes of its territory in the east and south, as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the country to pledge further aid at what he called a “pivotal moment”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told Blinken at their meeting in Kyiv that the United States was helping Ukraine “return our territory and lands” occupied by Russian forces and Blinken pledged U.S. support for “as long as it takes”.

Earlier on Thursday Ukrainian Brigadier General Oleksiy Gromov said the country had recaptured more than 700 sq km (270 sq miles) of its territory in the east and south, offering the first official assessment of the operation. Ukrainian forces had advanced up to 50 kilometres (30 miles) behind Russian lines and recaptured more than 20 villages in the Kharkiv region, he said.

Blinken told reporters before leaving Kyiv: “We did get a comprehensive update on the counteroffensive and, again, it’s very early but we’re seeing clear and real progress on the ground, particularly around Kherson, but also some interesting developments in the Donbas in the east.”

If the gains are confirmed and held, it would be a serious blow for Russia, which Western intelligence services say has suffered huge casualties. It would also represent a big boost for Kyiv, which is keen to show its Western backers that it can change the facts on the ground by force and deserves continued support.

This week’s surprise counteroffensive in the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine saw Kyiv’s forces make a sudden and deep thrust behind Russian lines.

A Russian official said Moscow’s forces had put up stiff resistance and prevented Kyiv’s forces from taking at least one key town in the Kharkiv region.

Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield accounts.

Ukraine has for weeks been talking about a big counteroffensive in the south around Kherson. Western military analysts believe Russia may have left itself exposed in other areas as it rushed to reinforce the south.

Blinken announced $2.2 billion in new foreign military financing to Ukraine and 18 other countries at risk of future Russian aggression. Approximately $1 billion will go to Kyiv. The United States also announced a separate $675 million in weapons to Ukraine.

‘We are scared’

Zelensky had spoken of “good news” on the battlefields of eastern Ukraine the night before and had thanked three brigades for what he called their bravery.

In a late night address to the nation, Zelensky had said: “All of you have most likely seen reports about the recent activities of Ukrainian defenders. And I think every citizen feels proud of our warriors.”

Kharkiv region borders Russia and its main city, Kharkiv, has for months been struck by Russian missiles after Moscow failed to take it in the early stages of its Feb. 24 invasion.

Missiles hit multiple areas of Kharkiv again on Thursday, causing widespread damage with casualties, according to the Kharkiv region prosecutor’s office.

“We are scared … You can’t get used to it, never,” local resident Olena Rudenko told Reuters.

Russia has repeatedly denied targeting civilian areas.

Kyiv is under pressure to demonstrate progress on the ground before winter sets in, amid threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt all energy shipments to Europe if Brussels goes ahead with a proposal to cap the price of Russian gas.

Russia has confirmed fighting in the Kharkiv region area but has not confirmed any territorial losses, though unverified social media accounts run by Russian military experts have suggested Moscow did suffer setbacks and would need to urgently reinforce.

Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych, in a video posted on YouTube, said Ukrainian troops had surprised Russian defenders at the town of Balakleiia.

“The Russians are saying that Balakleiia is encircled when in fact (our troops) have gone much further,” he said.

Vitaly Ganchev, a local pro-Russian official, told Russian state TV that Russian forces had fought off a Ukrainian attempt to encircle and capture Balakleiia, which he said remained in Russian hands.

Energy battle

Ukraine has for weeks been talking about a big counteroffensive in the south, which is also under way though details about it have been sparse. Western military analysts believe Russia may have left itself exposed in other areas as it rushed to reinforce the south.

Heavy fighting was also reported on Thursday in areas near the Russian-held Zaporizhzhia nuclear power station in southern Ukraine after Kyiv warned it might have to shut down the plant to avoid disaster.

Putin said on Wednesday that Russia would not lose what he calls its “special military operation” in Ukraine, an exercise he has described as an attempt to preemptively protect his country’s security against an expanding NATO.

Asked about the war’s progress, Putin said: “We have not lost anything and will not lose anything.”

He also threatened to halt all energy supplies to Europe if Brussels adopted a proposed price cap on Russian gas, the latest Western step to deprive the Kremlin of funds to finance the war.

Europe usually imports about 40% of its gas and 30% of its oil from Russia.

The United States and France says Moscow is already using energy as a “weapon” to weaken Europe’s opposition to its invasion, with the main conduit for Russian gas into Europe, the Nord Stream 1 pipeline, shut for maintenance.

Putin denied using energy as a weapon.

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