Russia and Ukraine announced simultaneously on Sunday the return of nearly 100 soldiers from each side.

Russia’s Defence Ministry, in a posting on the Telegram messaging app, said 94 Russians in Ukrainian captivity had been released after negotiations and would be taken to a medical institution to be examined.

Andriy Yermak, the head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, said 95 Ukrainian service members had been returned, including some wounded. They included members of the national guard and border guards.

Yermak said those released had been in action near the city of Mariupol, under Russian siege for weeks last year; the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, briefly held last year by Russian forces; from Serpent Island in the Black Sea; and from Bakhmut, still a focal point of fighting in the east.

A group of dozens of men, some holding blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, in a field.
Nearly 100 Ukrainian prisoners of war (POWs) pose for a picture after their release, in exchange for dozens of Russian POWs held by Ukraine. (Coordination Headquarters for the Treatment of Prisoners of War/Handout/Reuters)

Ukraine claims first advance in counteroffensive

Kyiv’s troops said on Sunday they had recaptured a village from Russian forces in Ukraine’s southeast, the first liberated settlement they have claimed since launching a counterattack this week.

Soldiers hoisted the Ukrainian flag at a bombed-out building in an unverified video published by Ukraine’s 68th Jaeger Brigade, which identified the settlement as Blahodatne in Donetsk region.

“We’re seeing the first results of the counteroffensive actions, localized results,” Valeryi Shershen, spokesperson for Ukraine’s “Tavria” military sector, said on television.

He said the village lay on the edge of the Donetsk and Zaporizhzia regions a few kilometres south of the Kyiv-controlled village of Velyka Novosilka.

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Saturday gave his strongest signal yet that Kyiv has launched its long-awaited counterattack to seize back land in the east and south, confirming that “counteroffensive and defensive operations” were taking place.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Friday that a Ukrainian military push was well underway, but that it had failed so far to breach Russian defensive lines and taken heavy casualties.

People in camouflage uniforms stand in front of a damaged building with a blue and yellow flag hanging from a damaged window on the upper level.
Ukrainian soldiers stand in front of a building with a Ukrainian flag on it, during an operation that claims to liberate the first village amid a counteroffensive, in a location given as Blahodatne, Donetsk Region, Ukraine, in this screengrab taken from a handout video released on Sunday. (68th Separate Hunting Brigade ‘Oleksy Dovbusha’/Handout/Reuters)

Troops ‘kicking the enemy out’

Kyiv officials have imposed a strict period of operational silence and urged Ukrainians not to disclose any information that could compromise the operation.

With so little information out of Kyiv and scant independent reporting from the front lines, it has been almost impossible to assess the battlefield situation.

The video from Blahodatne showed Ukrainian troops inside a heavily damaged building as the sound of artillery rumbled in the distance.

“We’re kicking the enemy out from our native lands. It’s the warmest feeling there is. Ukraine is going to win, Ukraine above everything,” an unidentified soldier said in the video on Facebook.

Russia said at least twice this week that it had repelled Ukrainian attacks close by the nearby settlement of Velyka Novosilka.

The occupied southeast is seen as a likely priority for Kyiv’s forces that may aim to threaten Russia’s land bridge to the annexed peninsula of Crimea and split Russian forces in half.

Blahodatne is around 95 kilometres northwest of the city of Mariupol, which lies on the Sea of Azov on the southern rim of the land bridge. Russia captured the major city last year after besieging and bombarding it.

Russia has built vast fortifications across occupied territory to prepare for a Ukrainian counterattack using thousands of troops trained and equipped by the West.

Watch | Fighting ramps up ahead of expected Ukrainian counteroffensive:

Fighting across Ukraine ramps up as talk of counteroffensive grows

Fierce combat is escalating in the east and south as Ukrainian forces move into more offensive positions. Ukraine hasn’t confirmed if its expected counteroffensive against Russian forces has officially begun, but officials admit the country will need more Western military aid to win the war.

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