Moscow abandoned its main bastion in northeastern Ukraine on Saturday, in a sudden collapse of one of the war’s principal front lines after Ukrainian forces made a rapid advance.
Russian forces used Izium as the logistics base for one of their main campaigns – a months-long assault from the north on the adjacent Donbas region comprised of Donetsk and Luhansk.
If the reported gains are held, it would be a serious blow for Russia, which Western intelligence services say has suffered huge casualties. It would also be a big boost for Ukraine, which is keen to show Western nations supplying it with weapons it deserves their continued support.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said in Kyiv that Ukrainian forces had demonstrated they were capable of defeating the Russian army with the weapons given to them.
Ukraine has for weeks been talking up a big counteroffensive in the south, which also is under way though details are sparse.
Russia still occupies extensive territory in the Donbas and in the south near the Crimean Peninsula it seized in 2014.
Days ago, Kyiv’s forces burst through the front line in the northeast and have since recaptured dozens of towns and villages in a swift mechanised assault, surging forward dozens of kilometres (miles) a day.
Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, sounded a cautionary note, urging people not to report prematurely that towns have been “taken” just because Ukrainian troops were sighted. Troops entered Balakliia a few days ago, she said, but it was only on Saturday that Ukraine established control in the city.
In Hrakove, one of dozens of villages recaptured in the Ukrainian advance, Reuters saw burnt-out vehicles bearing the “Z” symbol of Russia’s invasion. Boxes of ammunition were scattered along with rubbish at positions the Russians had abandoned in evident haste.
“Hello everyone, we are from Russia,” was spray-painted on a wall. Three bodies lay in white body bags in a yard.
The regional chief of police, Volodymyr Tymoshenko, said Ukrainian police moved in the previous day, and checked the identities of local residents who had lived under Russian occupation since the invasion’s second day.
“The first function is to provide help that they need. The next job is to document the crimes committed by Russian invaders on the territories which they temporarily occupied,” he said.
‘FIGHTING IS GETTING CLOSER’
A witness in Valuyki, a town in Russia’s Belgorod region near the border with Ukraine, told Reuters she saw families from Kupiansk eating and sleeping in their cars along roads.
“I was at the market today and saw a lot of people from Kupiansk. They say half of the city was taken by the Ukrainian army and Russia is retreating … the fighting is getting closer,” the witness said.
Belgorod governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said officials were giving food and medical aid to people queuing at a crossing into Russia. Senator Andrey Turchak, from the pro-Kremlin United Russia party, reported more than 400 vehicles at the frontier.
Russian rocket fire hit Kharkiv city on Saturday evening, killing at least one person and damaging several homes, part of a surge in shelling since Kyiv’s counter-offensive, Ukrainian officials said. read more
Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield accounts.
“The advance is enormous. There are sporadic battles, but mostly the occupiers are fleeing,” Luhansk regional governor Serhiy Gaidai told Ukrainian television on Saturday.
Reporting by Reuters reporters; Writing by Peter Graff, Andrew Heavens and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Daniel Wallis