‘Main blow still to come’ as counteroffensive makes some gains, says Ukrainian defense official.

KYIV (Reuters) | Ukraine’s armed forces have halted a Russian offensive towards the cities of Kupiansk and Lyman in the east of the country, and are advancing in the south, a senior Ukrainian defense official said on Friday.

“We had very fierce battles in the Kupiansk and Lyman directions, but our soldiers stopped the enemy there,” Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar told Ukrainian television.

Ukraine is in the early stages of its most ambitious counterattack since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022 and says it has retaken eight villages, its first substantial gains on the battlefield for seven months.

But Russia still holds swathes of territory in eastern and southern Ukraine, and Ukrainian forces have yet to push to the main defensive lines that Russia has had months to prepare.

“Indeed, we still have the main events ahead of us. And the main blow is still to come,” Maliar said.

She said Russian forces still aimed to gain control of the whole of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine’s military operation in the south was going according to plan and its forces were advancing, even if minefields were slowing them down, she said.

“It is not necessary to expect the offensive to be something very fast,” Maliar said.

Reuters was unable to verify the situation on the battlefield. Each side says the other has suffered heavy losses since Ukraine began its counteroffensive, and Moscow has not acknowledged Ukraine’s recent military gains.

(Reporting by Anna Pruchnicka and Kyiv Newsroom.)

Ukraine Progresses on Reforms to Unlock Membership Talks, EU Says

BRUSSELS (Reuters) | Senior EU officials said on Thursday that Ukraine is making progress on political reforms to open the way for European Union membership talks but still needs to progress in five important areas.

The assessment by the European Commission offered Kyiv hope that it could achieve its aim of getting the green light for membership talks in December even it fights to repel Russia’s invasion.

But it also made clear that Ukraine has a way to go just to complete the seven steps that the EU outlined last year when it granted Kyiv the status of a candidate for membership.

“They are on track, they are working hard. After all, the country is under attack,” said Oliver Varhelyi, the European Commissioner for relations with the EU’s neighbors. “Compared to that, I think that they are delivering.”

In an update for the EU’s member countries, Varhelyi said Kyiv had completed two of the seven steps: reform of two judicial bodies and the adoption of media legislation in line with EU standards.

He said Ukraine had made progress but had more work to do on constitutional court reform, on measures to fight corruption, money laundering, and curbing the influence of oligarchs, and on the treatment of minorities.

He also stressed that the European Commission would look at a broader range of factors in a full report in October on Ukraine’s suitability for membership talks.

“We are just in the middle of the work so it’s too early to tell you where they are going to be,” he told reporters after presenting his assessment to European affairs ministers from the bloc’s 27 member countries in Stockholm.

Jessika Roswall, Sweden’s European affairs minister, said Ukraine’s reform efforts had been “impressive” in the face of “extraordinary circumstances.”

“Ukraine has taken substantial steps forward,” she said.

Olha Stefanishyna, Ukraine’s deputy prime minister for European integration, said the assessment held no surprises.

She told Ukrainian TV the government would now focus on the steps necessary to get a positive verdict in October and it was cautiously optimistic that it would achieve one.

A decision on whether and when to start accession talks rests with the EU’s member governments.

Ukraine’s neighbors on the EU’s eastern flank, Poland and the Baltic states, generally support a fast track for Kyiv, while western, older member states including France, Germany, and the Netherlands are cooler on the idea.

(Reporting by Andrew Gray in Brussels and Olena Harmash in Kyiv.)