Russian forces pressed ahead on Friday with an offensive into northeast Ukraine, but President Vladimir Putin said that there were no current plans to occupy the key city of Kharkiv.

On a trip to China, Putin said that the latest assault was direct retaliation for Ukraine’s shelling of Russia’s border regions and his country was trying to create a “security zone.”

Russia launched the surprise offensive into Ukraine’s northeast on May 10, sending thousands of troops across the border and unleashing artillery fire on several settlements.

Both countries said that Russian troops were still advancing, but Ukraine warned that heavy fighting lies ahead.

Russia’s Defense Ministry said that its army had “liberated 12 settlements in the Kharkiv region over the last week… and continues to advance deep into enemy defenses.”

Russian forces took 278 square kilometers (107 square miles) – their biggest gains in a year and a half – between May 9 and 15, as AFP calculated by using data from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW).

Most of it has been in the northeast, though its troops have also advanced in southern Ukraine.

Drone Wave

Putin’s comments about the need to protect Russian border zones came as Ukrainian drone and shelling attacks on border regions killed at least three people, including a child.

Kyiv launched one of its largest aerial attacks in weeks, firing drones at Russia and the annexed Crimea peninsula overnight.

The Russian military said that it intercepted or downed more than 100 Ukrainian drones over the south of the country, Crimea and the Black Sea. Officials in multiple Russian regions reported damage.

Shelling on another border village in Russia’s Bryansk region on Friday killed one person, the regional governor said.

In the coastal town of Tuapse in the southern Krasnodar region, Ukrainian drones hit an oil refinery for the second time this year, sparking a large fire that was put out, authorities said.

Several fires also erupted after a drone attack on Novorossiysk, a key port city also in the Krasnodar region, local governor Veniamin Kondratyev said.

A source in Ukraine’s defense sector confirmed that Kyiv had targeted oil facilities in both cities, and also hit an electrical substation in the Russian-controlled port of Sevastopol on the annexed Crimean peninsula.

With AFP