Ukraine makes major new breakthrough on southern front, days after supposed annexation

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Ukrainian forces achieved their biggest breakthrough in the south of the country since the war began in February, bursting through the front and advancing rapidly along the Dnipro River on Monday, threatening supply lines for thousands of Russian troops.

Kyiv gave no official confirmation of the gains, but Russian sources acknowledged that a Ukrainian tank offensive had advanced dozens of kilometres along the river’s west bank, recapturing a number of villages along the way.

The breakthrough mirrors recent Ukrainian successes in the east that have turned the tide in the war against Russia, even as Moscow has tried to raise the stakes by annexing territory, ordering mobilization and threatening nuclear retaliation.

“The information is tense, let’s put it that way, because, yes, there were indeed breakthroughs,” Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed leader in occupied parts of Ukraine’s Kherson province, told Russian state television.

“There’s a settlement called Dudchany, right along the Dnipro River, and right there, in that region, there was a breakthrough. There are settlements that are occupied by Ukrainian forces.”

One of the fastest advances of the war

Dudchany is about 30 kilometres south of where the front stood before the breakthrough, indicating one of the fastest advances of the war and by far the most rapid in the south, where Russian forces had been dug into heavily reinforced positions along a mainly static front line since the early weeks of the Feb. 24 invasion.

While Kyiv maintained almost complete silence, as it has in the past during major offensives, some officials did describe what they referred to as unconfirmed reports of gains.

Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s Interior Ministry, posted a photo of Ukrainian soldiers posing with their flag draping a golden statue of an angel. He said it was in the village of Mykhailivka, about 20 kilometres beyond the previous front.

Margaryta Tkachenko, 29, feeds her nine-month-old daughter, Sophia, in the recently retaken town of Izium, Ukraine, on Sunday. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

“In the last days, we have seen the first photo of Osokorivka,” Serhiy Khlan, a Kherson regional council member, told Reuters, naming villages in the area.

“We have seen our troops near the entrance to Mykhailivka, we have seen our troops in Khreshchenivka, next to the monument. This means that Zolota Balka also is under the control of our armed forces, and it means that our armed forces are moving powerfully along the banks of the Dnipro nearer to Beryslav.

“Officially, there is no such information yet, but the [Russian] social media pages which are panicking … absolutely confirm these photos.”

Similar tactics in the east

The advance in the south mirrors the tactics that have brought Kyiv major gains since the start of September in Eastern Ukraine, where its forces swiftly seized territory to gain control of Russian supply lines, cutting off larger Russian forces and forcing them to retreat.

Just hours after a concert in Moscow’s Red Square on Friday, where Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed the provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to be Russian territory forever, Ukraine recaptured Lyman, the main Russian bastion in the north of Donetsk province.

That has opened the way for it to advance deep into Luhansk province, threatening the main supply routes to territory Moscow captured in some of the war’s bloodiest battles in June and July.

In the south, Ukraine’s advance targets supply lines for thousands of Russian troops — perhaps as many as 25,000 — on the west bank of the Dnipro. Ukraine has already destroyed the main bridges, forcing Russian forces to use makeshift crossings. A substantial advance down river could cut them off entirely.

“The fact we have broken through the front means that … the Russian army has already lost the ability to attack, and today or tomorrow it could lose the ability to defend,” said Oleh Zhdanov, a military analyst based in Kyiv.

“A month of our work destroying their supplies, and reducing the combat effectiveness of this group means that they are functioning on minimal rations in terms of ammunition, fuel and food.”

Putin responds to failures with escalation

Putin has been responding to Russia’s failures on the battlefield over the past month by escalating: proclaiming the annexation of occupied territory, calling up tens of thousands of men as reservists and threatening nuclear retaliation.

On Monday, Russia’s State Duma, the lower house of parliament that is firmly under the control of Putin’s ruling party, passed bills endorsing the annexation of the four partly occupied Ukrainian provinces.

But Russia’s flagging fortunes have led to a shift in mood on once triumphal state media, where talk show hosts have been acknowledging setbacks and searching for scapegoats.

WATCH | Ukrainian forces recapture strategic railway town: 

Ukrainian forces recapture strategic railway town

The Ukrainian military has taken the strategic town of Lyman, forcing a Russian retreat in Donetsk and disrupting their supply lines.

“For a certain period of time, things won’t be easy for us. We shouldn’t be expecting good news right now,” said Vladimir Solovyov, the most prominent presenter on state TV.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Putin leader of Russia’s Chechnya province who commands a personal army, demanded the commander of Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine be stripped of his medals and sent to the front line.

Kadyrov also said Russia should use a nuclear weapon. Putin and other officials have said they could use nuclear weapons to protect Russian territory, including newly annexed provinces, but had so far stopped short of explicitly saying they will do so. Asked about Kadyrov’s remarks, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: “This is a very emotional moment.”

“The heads of regions have the right to express their point of view,” Peskov told reporters. “Even at difficult moments, emotions should still be excluded from any assessments.”

A Ukrainian serviceman inspects a kindergarten basement that was used by Russian forces in the recently retaken area of Kapitolivka, Ukraine, on Sunday. (Evegniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

Putin’s other big gamble, Russia’s first mass military mobilization since the Second World War, has been mired in chaos. Tens of thousands of Russian men have been called up, while similar numbers have fled abroad. Western countries say Moscow lacks the supplies and manpower to train or equip the new conscripts.

Mikhail Degtyarev, governor of the Khabarovsk region in Russia’s Far East, said on Monday that about half of those called up there had been found unfit and sent home. He fired the region’s military commissar.

Head of nuclear power plant released

Meanwhile, the head of the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine has been released, United Nations nuclear watchdog chief Rafael Grossi said on Monday after a detention that Ukraine blamed on Russia and called an act of terror.

Ukraine said a Russian patrol detained Ihor Murashov on Friday as he travelled from Europe’s largest nuclear power plant to the town of Enerhodar, where many of the plant’s staff live. Ukrainian staff continue to operate the plant in conditions the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says put safety at risk.

The IAEA said on Saturday it had been in contact with “the relevant authorities” without mentioning Russia by name and said it had been informed that Murashov was in “temporary detention.”

“I welcome the release of Ihor Murashov, Director General of #Ukraine’s #Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant; I have received confirmation that Mr Murashov has returned to his family safely,” Grossi said on Twitter on Monday.

Russia and Ukraine have blamed each other for shelling that has damaged buildings on the plant’s grounds, and the IAEA has called for the establishment of a protection zone around the site to reduce the risk of a potentially catastrophic accident. 

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