Ukrainian forces consolidated their hold on territory in the country’s northeast on Sunday after Russia abandoned several military strongholds following a lightning Ukrainian advance that has routed Moscow’s forces and left them in disarray.
Russian sympathizers were fleeing Russian-held territories in the Luhansk region, south of Kharkiv, said Serhiy Hayday, the Ukrainian head of the military administration of the Luhansk region.
“Mass unemployment is on the horizon,” Hayday told Ukrainian television on Sunday, as the Russians “continue to pack their bags.” “Maybe this [victory] it won’t be in a day or two, but it will happen soon. . . We can say that their morals are broken.”
“People leave as whole families, there are many children. Right now there are more than 400 cars at the border,” Andrei Turchak, leader of the ruling United Russia party, wrote on Telegram, sharing photos of displacement camps on the Russian border.
The Russian withdrawal is one of President Vladimir Putin’s biggest setbacks since he ordered a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, and could mark a turning point, involving the capture of thousands of Russian soldiers and their equipment.
The Russian-installed leader of the occupied areas of the Kharkiv region advised all residents of the area to flee for their lives. Vitaliy Ganchev reminded them that the displacement camps were functioning and could accommodate refugees, the Tass news agency reported on Saturday.
But there were also conflicting reports on the state of play in the sixth day of the Ukrainian offensive that has overrun Russian positions in the northeastern Kharkiv region. The Ukrainian General Staff said that “the liberation of Kupyansk and Izyum districts of Kharkiv Oblast is still ongoing.”
Air raid warning sirens sounded over Kyiv on Sunday morning, there were reports of heavy shelling in the city of Kharkiv overnight and the southern city of Mykolayiv, which is close to a Ukrainian offensive separated around Kherson, also suffered heavy shelling, local authorities reported.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said during an evening speech on Saturday afternoon that the offensive had led to the liberation of 2,000 square kilometers of “our territory”.
In an apparent attempt to encourage more Russian soldiers to surrender, Zelenskyy promised that Ukraine would “guarantee” Russian soldiers fair treatment “in accordance with the Geneva Conventions”.
In comments to the Financial Times, Oleksii Reznikov, Ukraine’s defense minister, described the swift counteroffensive that had taken Russian soldiers by surprise and sent many fleeing as a “snowball rolling down the hill, getting bigger and bigger”.
He claimed that Ukraine’s counteroffensive was also steadily advancing in the southern regions near the city of Kherson. “We’re moving, but probably a little slower” than in the east, he said.
The Russian Defense Ministry issued a rare statement on Saturday describing the withdrawal from Balakliia and Izyum as a move aimed at focusing attention on a different front line, rather than a defeat after the attack by Ukraine, which began on September 6.
“To achieve the objectives. . . it was decided to regroup the Russian troops. . . to increase efforts in the direction of Donetsk,” said defense ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov. He added that to this end, “a three-day operation was carried out to finish off and transfer” Russian troops to that area
The announcement came shortly after Ukrainian troops captured Kupyansk, north of Izyum, a road and rail hub that supplies Russia’s defenses in northeastern Ukraine. This has left thousands of Russian soldiers without supplies.
Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, said Ukraine’s breakthrough is a moment of hope. “This is what we need,” he said on a visit to Kyiv. “We know that the time between the UN General Assembly and Christmas is crucial, and support for arms is crucial, and we will stand by it.”
Analysts said Kyiv’s attack had taken advantage of depleted Russian defenses after troops were sent south to fend off an independent Ukrainian offensive. Up to 10,000 Russian troops may be caught up in the new maneuver, estimated Sir Lawrence Freedman, emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London.
Despite tougher Russian resistance in the south, Nataliya Humenyuk, a spokeswoman for Ukraine’s armed forces near Kherson, said on Saturday that government troops were also making significant gains in the region.
Military analysts said Ukraine had launched the two offensives, almost simultaneously, to overwhelm the Russian military’s centralized command system, which struggles with multidirectional deployments.
“Russian generals are afraid of making mistakes . . . which leads to the centralization of decision-making, because everyone is trying to push decisions as much as possible to avoid responsibility. This kills their ability to cope to multi-pronged approaches,” said Andriy Zagorodnyuk, a former Ukrainian defense minister.
A military commentator, embedded with Russian troops, described it as a “catastrophe” and the “biggest Russian military defeat since 1943”.
Next: Counteroffensive on Friday, September 9. Reports on Saturday suggested that Ukrainian forces had reached both Kupyansk and Izyum.
But analysts cautioned against reading too much into Ukraine’s early successes. “They [the Russians] they have very good electronic warfare. They have very good artillery. They have some high tech weapons. . . So you have to be careful. You always have to respect the adversary,” said General Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Commander.
Russia is reportedly sending more troops. Ukraine’s general staff said 1,200 Chechen soldiers had been deployed to reinforce Russian positions around Kherson. Videos posted on social media on Saturday also allegedly showed the Russian army helicopter carrying fresh troops to reinforce Izyum.