Ukrainian forces scored more gains in their counteroffensive across at least two fronts on Monday, advancing in the very areas that Russia is trying to absorb.
In their latest breakthrough, Ukrainian forces penetrated Moscow’s defences in the strategic southern Kherson region, one of the four areas in Ukraine that Russia is in the process of annexing.
Kyiv’s troops also consolidated gains in the east and other major battlefields, re-establishing Ukrainian control just as Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to overcome problems with manpower, weapons, troop morale and logistics, along with intensifying domestic and international criticism.
Mr Putin faces disarray and anger domestically about his partial troop mobilisation and confusion about the establishment of new Russian borders.
Ukraine’s advances have become so apparent that even Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov, who usually focuses on his own military’s successes and the enemy’s losses, was forced to acknowledge it.
“With numerically superior tank units in the direction of Zolota Balka and Oleksandrivka, the enemy managed to forge deep into our defences,” Mr Konashenkov said on Monday, referring to two towns in the Kherson region. He coupled that with claims that Russian forces inflicted heavy losses on Ukraine’s military.
Ukrainian forces have struggled to retake the Kherson region due to its open terrain, in contrast to their successful breakout offensive in the north-east around the country’s second-largest city of Kharkiv that began last month.
Ukraine has pressed its counteroffensive in the Kherson region since the summer, relentlessly pummelling Russian supply lines and making inroads into Russian-held areas west of the Dnieper River.
The Ukrainian military has used US-supplied Himars multiple rocket launchers to repeatedly hit the main bridge across the Dnieper and a dam that served as a second main crossing. It also has struck pontoon bridges that Russia has used to supply its troops.
As the front lines shifted, the political theatre in Moscow continued, with Russia’s lower house of parliament rubber-stamping annexation treaties for Ukraine’s Kherson, Zaporizhzhia, Donetsk and Luhansk regions to join Russia.
The upper house will follow suit on Tuesday. This follows annexation “referendums” that the Kremlin orchestrated last week that the UN chief and Western nations have said were illegal and fraudulent.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Donetsk and Luhansk are joining Russia with the administrative borders that existed before a conflict erupted there in 2014 between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces. But he added that the borders Zaporizhzhia and Kherson are still undecided.
“We will continue to discuss that with residents of those regions,” Mr Peskov said, without elaborating.
A senior Russian politician offered a different view. Pavel Krasheninnikov said Zaporizhzhia will be absorbed within its “administrative borders”, meaning Moscow plans to incorporate parts of the region still under Kyiv’s control.
He said similar logic will apply to Kherson, but that Russia will include two districts of the neighbouring Mykolaiv region that are now occupied by Russia.
In addition to the Kherson region areas that Russia’s Defence Ministry cited, other sources showed Ukrainian flags, soldiers deployed or other signs that Kyiv’s forces had retaken the villages of Arkhanhelske, Myroliubivka, Khreshchenivka, Mykhalivka and Novovorontsovka. There was no immediate confirmation from Kyiv on the gains.
The situation in the regional capital, also called Kherson, was so precarious that Russian authorities are restricting people from leaving, Ukraine’s presidential office said.
A Russian-installed official in the Kherson region, Kirill Stremousov, acknowledged that the Ukrainian forces “have broken through a little deeper” but insisted that “everything is under control” and that Russia’s “defence system is working”.
Still, Russia claimed some success at pushing back. The Moscow-appointed chief of the Kherson region, Vladimir Saldo, said Ukrainian troops tried to advance toward Dudchany along the Dnieper’s western bank, seeking to reach a key dam at Nova Kakhovka, but that Russian warplanes destroyed two Ukrainian battalions and halted the offensive.
Mr Saldo also said Russian forces fended off Ukraine’s attempted inroads into the Kherson region from Mykolaiv and Kryvyi Rih.
Neither Mr Saldo’s nor Mr Stremousov’s claims could be independently verified.
Ukraine reported advances in other areas Russia is annexing. The Ukrainian governor of the Luhansk region, Serhiy Haidai, said Kyiv’s forces retook the village of Torske, 12 miles from the city of Kreminna.
Ukrainian military analyst Oleh Zhdanov said the area is “key for controlling the entire Luhansk region, because further beyond (the city) the Russians don’t have any more lines of defences”.
“Retaking this city opens up operational space for Ukrainians to rapidly advance to the very state border with Russia,” Mr Zhdanov told The Associated Press.
He said Russian troops had retreated from the Kharkiv region. Ukraine’s army reportedly liberated most of Borova in the Kharkiv region across the Oskil River 31 miles north of the city of Lyman. Officials posted a video while driving along recaptured streets, waving the Ukrainian flag.
“Finally, you are home. Finally, it’s Ukraine. Glory to Ukraine!” an onlooker yelled.
Elsewhere in the Kharkiv region, a doctor was killed and nurse wounded in a Russian missile attack on a hospital in Kupiansk that also caused major damage, Governor Oleh Syniehubov reported. Last week, at least 24 civilians were killed in an attack on a convoy trying to flee Kupiansk.
Ukraine also has retaken Lyman, a strategic eastern city that the Russians had used as a key logistics and transport hub. Lyman is in the Donetsk region near the border with Luhansk.
The International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, said on Monday that the director-general of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant – Europe’s largest – had been released from Russian custody. Russian forces had blindfolded and detained Ihor Murashov on Friday for questioning.