Ukrainian troops on Tuesday accelerated their military advances on two fronts, pushing Russian forces into retreat in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions to the east and in the Kherson region to the south.
The gains showed Kyiv continuing to recapture occupied territory on the same day that President Vladimir Putin and his rubber-stamp parliament sought to formalize their increasingly far-fetched “annexation” of four Ukrainian regions.
“The Ukrainian armed forces commanders in the south and east are throwing problems at the Russian chain of command faster than the Russians can effectively respond,” said a Western official who briefed reporters about sensitive security information on the condition of anonymity. “And this is compounding the existing dysfunction within the Russian invasion force.”
Ukraine has been pushing to take back as much of its occupied territory as it can before Russia potentially sends hundreds of thousands of reinforcements to the battlefield, following a recent mobilization effort.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive, which had moved far more slowly in the south compared to the lightning push through the northeastern Kharkiv region in September, has suddenly picked up speed, with Russian units retreating in recent days from a large swath of territory along the west bank of the Dnieper River.
Ukrainian forces pushed ahead dozens of miles into the southern Kherson region, liberating towns and villages and re-creating scenes from mid-September when they swept into Kharkiv and were greeted by joyful residents who had spent many months under Russian occupation.
On Monday, the spokesperson for the Russian Defense Ministry acknowledged that “superior tank units” of Ukraine had “wedged in the depth of our defense line” near the villages of Zolota Balka and Oleksandrivka in the Kherson region.
Overnight, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukraine’s 129th Brigade from his native city of Kryvyi Rih had liberated the settlements of Arkhanhelske and Myrolyubivka.
A video shared on social media by soldiers from the 35th Marine Infantry Brigade of Ukraine’s navy showed the capture of Davydiv Brid, which delivered a major blow to Russian supply lines in the Kherson region.
Regaining control of Kherson, a rich agricultural region whose capital is an important port where the Dnieper flows into the Black Sea, is critical for Ukraine. The capital was the first significant city captured by Russia at the start of its invasion in late February, and its loss would be a severe setback for Russia - strategically crippling for the military and politically humiliating for Putin.
Kherson, the only position the Russians hold west of the Dnieper, is a potential strategic springboard for Russia to launch any future offensive down the Black Sea coast toward the storied port city of Odessa.
Ukrainian officials had touted an operation to liberate Kherson for months, potentially drawing Russian troops away from Kharkiv. But until now, Ukrainian forces had struggled in the south, suffering heavy casualties but making few territorial advances.
The Ukrainian gains in Kherson follow the recapture over the weekend of the strategic transit hub of Lyman, in eastern Donetsk. The Ukrainians then pushed through Lyman, apparently intent on extending their gains into Luhansk, the region where Russia has maintained its strongest grip.
The collapse of the Russian position in Lyman was notable because it occurred just as Putin was claiming that the city and all of Donetsk region, along with Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia, were annexed and restored to Russia as part of its historical lands. But unlike in Kharkiv, where Moscow ordered a retreat, Russian forces had apparently been told to defend Lyman.
“All Russian forces withdrew in poor order, suffering high casualties from artillery fire as they attempted to leave the town to the East,” the Western official said of Lyman, comparing it to Kharkiv. “Then, as you recall, troops received an order to cede the territory,” the official said. “But in Lyman, we think that the Russian troops retreated despite orders to defend and remain.”
“Relinquishing this area is exactly what the Kremlin did not want to happen,” the official said.
As a result, Russian control over the Luhansk region, which was mostly uncontested since June, is now also in jeopardy.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW), a Washington-based think tank, said that geolocated footage corroborates statements from Russian military figures that Ukrainian troops are continuing their advance east of Lyman, apparently gearing up for a fight over the town of Kreminna.
The new round of Russian setbacks revived quibbling over Kremlin strategy among pro-Russian military bloggers, who for months have provided a more detailed and less censored look into the Russian war campaign compared to official military reports.
“I am now being reproached for driving people into depression with my news,” Alexander Kots, a military correspondent for Komsomlskaya Pravda newspaper, wrote Tuesday on his Telegram blog, which has more than 600,000 subscribers. “Well, there will be no good news in the near future neither from the Kherson front, nor from now Luhansk.”
“In many sectors the fatigue has set in after a long offensive period, during which large territories have been liberated,” Kots added. “But there is no longer any strength left to hold them.”
Videos posted by Russian independent outlet Astra show pro-Russian fighters from the self-proclaimed Luhansk People’s Republic camping out in an open field and complaining that Russian commanders abandoned them while withdrawing.
In the videos, a man in worn-out fatigues said the Russians’ losses in the area were huge, with only 193 survivors and a few pieces of heavy equipment left from their initial convoy. The Washington Post could not independently verify the video clips.
Another popular Russian war blogger, known as Rybar, posted maps showing how the Russian hold on the Kherson region shrank dramatically in the span of just a few hours. Losing the west bank of the Dnieper River to Ukrainian control would be “an immediate danger” for remaining Russian units in the area, Rybar wrote to his nearly 1 million followers.
As Russia was retreating on the battlefield, Zelensky on Tuesday signed a decree formally refusing any negotiations with Putin - a largely symbolic move to show Kyiv’s confidence in how developments are unfolding on the battlefield.
Meanwhile, the political theater continued in Moscow, where the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, rubber-stamped Putin’s annexation of the four Ukrainian regions
Putin and other officials have warned that Russia would feel entitled to defend its newly seized territories by all possible means - including, potentially, the use of nuclear weapons.
The annexation legislation now passes back to the Kremlin for Putin’s final signature, which from Russia’s perspective would complete the process of seizing more than 15 percent of all Ukrainian sovereign territory. Officials said Putin was likely to sign on Tuesday.
Putin’s brazen land-grab attempt was met with overwhelming international condemnation. Even countries that traditionally maintain closer ties to Moscow, such as Turkey and Serbia, joined Western nations in refusing to recognize the annexation.
North Korea, however, said it would recognize Russia’s new borders.
Putin is now apparently betting on the unpopular mobilization drive that aims to call up hundreds of thousands of men to help hold ground in the annexed regions.
On Tuesday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu announced that more than 200,000 men have been sent to the Russian armed forces in the two weeks since Putin announced the mobilization on Sept. 21.
At the same time, the interior minister in neighboring Kazakhstan, Marat Akhmetzhanov, said that an equivalent number of Russians - about 200,000 - had crossed that country’s border since Sept. 21, most of them apparently fleeing the mobilization or leaving out of fear that Putin would soon impose martial law and bar international travel. Tens of thousands more Russians have fled to other neighboring countries, including Georgia and Finland.
The botched mobilization has led to severe recriminations in Russia, with some governors expressing fury that men who are too old or otherwise unqualified are being wrongly called to duty.
Shoigu, the defense minister, tried to answer a torrent of recent reports on Russian social media from mobilized men and their family members complaining about the lack of appropriate equipment in military units, which forced some newly minted soldiers to seek protective gear themselves.
“Officials have been instructed to provide the mobilized with the necessary sets of clothing and other equipment,” Shoigu said, adding that 80 training grounds across Russia are now accepting newly mobilized soldiers.
But there were signs that Russia was not able to properly equip its recruits.
Prices of bulletproof vests have dramatically increased in Russia over the past two weeks, with some stores hiking the prices more than tenfold, local media reported. In total, a soldier looking to purchase a full uniform appropriate for fighting in Ukraine would have to spend roughly $3,000 out of pocket, the Baza news outlet reported.
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