Moscow abandoned its main stronghold in northeastern Ukraine on Saturday, 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 Izyum in the Kharkiv region was Moscow’s worst defeat since its forces were forced back from the capital, Kyiv, in March. This may well mark a crucial turning point 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 major campaigns – a months-long offensive from the north on the neighboring Donbass region of 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.
The TASS news agency reported that the head of the Russian administration in Kharkiv had asked residents to evacuate the territory and flee to Russia “to save lives”. Witnesses described traffic jams of cars as people left the territory controlled by Russia.
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 night.
He said Ukraine’s armed forces had liberated about 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles) of territory since the counter-offensive against Russia began 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.
The announcement of the Russian withdrawal came hours after Ukrainian forces took control of the northernmost city of Kobyansk, the only railway hub that runs the entire Russian frontline 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 the Ukrainian armed forces continue to advance in various areas along the front.
Days earlier, Kyiv’s forces stormed the front line and have since recaptured dozens of towns and villages in a rapid mechanized attack, advancing forward tens of kilometers (miles) a day.
“To achieve the stated goals of the special military operation to liberate Donbass, it was decided to regroup Russian forces located in the Balaklya and Izyum regions with the aim of increasing efforts in the direction of Donetsk,” TASS quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying. According to him.
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, there was news that the forces had entered the town. Today, we have finally imposed our control over the city, carried out all the necessary activities and raised the flag,” she said.
And in Hrakov, 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,” he said.
Russia is retreating
A witness in Valoiki, a town in Russia’s Belgorod region near the border with Ukraine, told Reuters she saw families from Kobyansk eating and sleeping in their cars along the roads.
“I was in the market today and saw a lot of people from Kobyansk. They say that the Ukrainian army has captured half of the city and that Russia is retreating … the fighting is approaching,” the witness said.
Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said officials were providing food and medical aid to people queuing at the crossing into Russia. Senator Andrey Turchak, of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, reported that there were more than 400 vehicles at the border.
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.
Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield accounts.
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.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by the NDTV crew and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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