KHARKIV, Ukraine — Ukrainian troops extended their territorial gains on Monday, pushing to the country’s northeastern border in places, and claimed to have captured a record number of Russian troops in the meteoric advance that forced Moscow to make a hasty retreat.
A Ukrainian military intelligence spokesman said Russian troops were turning in en masse because “they understand the hopelessness of their situation.” A Ukrainian presidential adviser said there were so many prisoners of war that the country lacked space to accommodate them.
Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags flew above newly liberated towns across a wide swath of reclaimed land. The Ukrainian army said it liberated more than 20 settlements in 24 hours. In recent days, Kyiv forces have captured territory at least twice the size of Greater London, according to the British Ministry of Defence.
After months of little discernible movement on the battlefield, the momentum has boosted Ukrainian morale and prompted rare public criticism of the war from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“In some areas of the front, our defenders have reached the border with the Russian Federation,” said Oleh Syniehubov, governor of the northeastern region of Kharkiv.
The counteroffensive has left the Kremlin struggling for an answer to its biggest military defeat in Ukraine since Russian forces withdrew from areas near Kyiv after a failed attempt to capture the capital at the start of the invasion.
The Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged the setback on a map that showed its troops pushed back along a narrow strip of land on the border with Russia – a tacit admission of big Ukrainian gains.
Reports of chaos abounded as Russian troops retreated.
“The Russians were here in the morning. Then at noon they suddenly started screaming wildly and started running away, charging into tanks and armored vehicles,” Dmytro Hrushchenko, a resident of Zaliznychne, a small town recently liberated near the city, told Sky News. eastern front line.
Video taken by the Ukrainian military showed soldiers raising the Ukrainian flag above battle-damaged buildings. In one scene, a fighter wiped his boots on a Russian flag on the ground. Other videos showed Ukrainians inspecting the wreckage of Russian military vehicles, including tanks.
In his evening address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his forces had liberated more than 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 square miles) in the east and south since early September.
Now Ukrainian teams are disarming landmines and other unexploded weapons in recaptured areas and searching for any remaining Russian troops, officials said.
It was not yet clear whether the Ukrainian blitz could mark a turning point in the war. Momentum has swung back and forth before, but rarely with such a big and sudden swing.
Ukrainian presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovich did not specify the number of Russian prisoners but said the POWs would be exchanged for Ukrainian servicemen held by Moscow. Military intelligence spokesman Andrey Yusov said captured troops included a “significant” number of Russian officers.
Ukraine’s deputy interior minister has accused fleeing Russian forces of burning official documents and hiding bodies in a bid to cover up rights abuses in areas they controlled until last week.
The mood was jubilant across the country.
In Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and the region’s capital where the gains were made, authorities hailed the restoration of electricity and water to around 80% of the region’s population at the aftermath of Russian attacks on infrastructure that knocked out electricity in many places. across Ukraine.
“You are heroes!!!” Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov wrote on Telegram, referring to teams that restored public services in Ukraine’s second-largest city. “Thank you to everyone who did everything possible on this most difficult night to get Kharkiv to normalize life in the city as soon as possible.”
Meanwhile, in Russia, signs of dismay emerged as Russian military bloggers and other commentators chastised the Kremlin for not mobilizing more forces and taking stronger action against Ukraine.
Russia has repeatedly called its invasion a war, instead describing it as a “special military operation” and relying on a limited contingent of volunteers instead of mass mobilization that could spark discontent and civil protest. .
Ramzan Kadyrov, the leader of Russia’s Moscow-backed region of Chechnya, has publicly criticized the Russian Defense Ministry for what he called “mistakes” that made the Ukrainian blitz possible.
More remarkably, these critics have seeped into Russian state-controlled television.
“Those who convinced President Putin that the operation would be quick and efficient…those people really trapped us all,” Boris Nadezhdin, a former MP, told a talk show on NTV television. “We are now at the point where we have to understand that it is absolutely impossible to defeat Ukraine using these resources and these methods of colonial warfare.”
Some in Russia blamed Western weapons and fighters for the losses.
“It was not Ukraine that attacked Izium, but NATO,” read a headline in the state-backed Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, referring to one of the areas where Russia said withdraw his troops.
Elsewhere, residents of a Russian village just across the border with Ukraine were evacuated after shelling by Ukrainian troops killed one person, according to Russian news agency Tass.
The report quoted the head of the local administration of Logachevka as saying that Ukrainian troops opened fire at a border checkpoint.
Pro-Kremlin separatists reported Ukrainian troops approaching the town of Lyman, a rail hub captured by Russia in late May that provides access to bridges over the nearby Siversky Donets River.
Denis Pushilin, leader of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, acknowledged that the situation was “difficult”.
Even amid Ukraine’s turmoil, the losses kept mounting. Ukraine’s presidential office said on Monday that at least four civilians had been killed and 11 others injured in a series of Russian attacks in nine regions of the country. The UN Human Rights Office said last week that 5,767 civilians had been killed so far.
Among Monday’s attacks were strikes on residential areas of Kharkiv that killed at least one civilian and caused several fires, local officials said.
As a reminder of the toll of the war, an Izium council member blamed enemy forces for killing civilians and committing other atrocities. Maksym Strelnikov told reporters in an online briefing on Monday that hundreds of people had died during the fighting and after Russia seized the city in March.
Many died from the shelling and could not be buried properly, he said. His claims could not be immediately verified, but similar scenes unfolded in other locations captured by Russian forces.
The Ukrainian army also claimed to have found more evidence of human rights abuses by the Russian occupiers. He did not specify.
Izium was a major base for Russian forces in the Kharkiv region. The first Ukrainian flag was raised over the city on Saturday, according to Strelnikov. Residents, some wrapped in the country’s flag, saluted the Ukrainian forces and offered them food.
Ukraine said the Russians were continuing to shell Nikopol across the Dnieper from the Zaporizhzhia power station, damaging several buildings and leaving Europe’s largest nuclear facility in a precarious position. The last operational reactor at this plant was shut down in an effort to prevent a radioactive disaster as fighting raged nearby.
The Washington-based Institute for the Study of War said Monday that Kyiv “will likely increasingly dictate the location and nature of major fighting.”
The British Ministry of Defense said the retreat would likely further deteriorate the trust Russian forces have in their commanders and put troops in Moscow on their backs.
Arhirova reported from Kyiv.
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