Moscow abandoned its main stronghold in northeastern Ukraine, in the sudden collapse of one of the main front lines of the war after Ukrainian forces made a rapid advance.
The rapid fall of the city of Izyum in Kharkiv province on Saturday was Moscow’s worst defeat since its forces were forced back from the capital, Kyiv, in March.
This may be a pivotal moment in the six-month-old war, as thousands of Russian soldiers abandoned stockpiles of ammunition and equipment as they fled.
Russian forces used Izyum as a logistical base for one of their main campaigns – a months-long offensive from the north on the neighboring Donbass region that includes Donetsk and Luhansk.
The state-run news agency TASS quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying it had ordered troops to leave the area and boost operations elsewhere in neighboring Donetsk.
TASS reported that the head of the Russian administration in Kharkiv asked residents to evacuate the province and flee to Russia “to save lives”. Witnesses described traffic jams of cars as people left the territory controlled by Russia.
Zelensyy says 2000sq km has been restored
Ukrainian leaders heralded a Russian withdrawal.
“The Russian army these days is showing its best capabilities – to show its back,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said in a video address Saturday evening.
He said Ukraine’s armed forces have liberated about 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles) of territory since the start of the counter-offensive against Russia earlier this month.
Ukrainian officials stopped short of confirming that they had recaptured Izyum, but Andrei Yermak, Zelensky’s chief of staff, posted a photo of troops in its outskirts and tweeted a grape emoji. The name of the city means “raisin”.
“The Russian army claims the title of the fastest army in the world…Keep running!” Yermak wrote on Twitter later.
In a report from Kyiv, Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo said that Izyum had been “a major military strength point for the Russians for several months”.
“It took the Russians six weeks of fighting to take that city, and now it looks like the Ukrainians will take it back, in a time frame of about 12 to 24 hours,” Elizondo said.
“It gives you an idea of how the tide is definitely turning. The Ukrainians clearly have the momentum in this battle now in the northeast, as they continue to push the Russian forces back.”
The announcement of the Russian withdrawal came hours after Ukrainian forces entered the far north city of Kobyansk, the only railway hub that runs the entire Russian front line through northeastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials released photos early Saturday of their soldiers waving the country’s blue and yellow flag in front of the Kobyansk city council.
This left thousands of Russian troops abruptly cut off from supplies along a front that saw some of the fiercest battles of the war.
There were indications of problems for Russia elsewhere along its remaining positions on the Eastern Front, with pro-Russian officials acknowledging the difficulties elsewhere.
Zelensky said that the Ukrainian armed forces continue to advance in various areas along the front.
Earlier on Saturday, German Foreign Minister Annallina Barbock, who was visiting the Ukrainian capital, said Berlin would continue to support Ukraine in its war against Russian forces.
“I traveled to Kyiv today to show that they can continue to count on us. We will continue to stand by Ukraine as long as necessary with arms deliveries, with humanitarian and financial support,” she said.
Russian forces ‘regrouping’
Days earlier, Kyiv’s forces stormed the front line and have since regained control of dozens of towns and villages in a rapid mechanized attack, advancing tens of kilometers a day.
To achieve the stated goals of the special military operation to liberate Donbass, it was decided to regroup the Russian forces located in the Balaklia and . regions [Izyum] TASS quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying.
The Russian forces had already abandoned the town of Balaklia days ago.
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister, Hanna Maliar, launched a cautionary note, urging people not to prematurely report “taking” of towns just because Ukrainian troops entered, as in Balaklia.
A few days ago, it was reported that the troops had entered the town. Today, we have finally established our control over the city, done all necessary activities, and raised the flag.
In Harkov, one of a dozen villages recaptured in the Ukrainian advance, Reuters saw burnt-out wagons marked “Z” for the Russian invasion. Ammunition boxes were scattered with rubbish in positions that the Russians hastily left.
“Hello everyone, we are from Russia,” was spray painted on the wall. Three bodies lay in white bags in the yard.
The head of the regional police, Volodymyr Tymoshenko, said the Ukrainian police had taken action the day before, checking the identities of local residents who had lived under Russian occupation since the second day of the invasion.
“The first job is to provide the help they need. The next job is to document the crimes committed by the Russian invaders in the lands they temporarily occupied.
Ukrainian officials said Russian missiles hit the city of Kharkiv on Saturday night, killing at least one person and damaging several homes, as part of an escalation of shelling since the Kyiv counter-offensive.
Russia’s abrupt abandonment of the front line south of Kharkiv brought an abrupt end to a period in which the war was a relentless grind on a steady front, in favor of Moscow in raw firepower.