Ukrainian forces pushed their counteroffensive into the east of the country, exploiting the rapid gains they made in a week of fighting that dramatically changed the tide of the conflict.
Ukraine’s swift action to reclaim Russian-occupied areas in the northeast Kharkiv region forced Moscow to withdraw its troops to prevent them from being surrounded and leaving behind significant numbers of weapons and of ammunition in a hasty retreat.
It came as the war marked 200 days on Sunday.
Cheering Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky mocked the Russians in a video address on Saturday evening, saying that “the Russian army these days is doing the best it can – showing its back”.
On Sunday, he posted a video of Ukrainian soldiers raising the national flag over Chkalovske, another town they recaptured from the Russians during the counteroffensive.
Ukraine’s military chief, General Valerii Zaluzhnyy, said Sunday that Ukraine had liberated about 1,160 square miles since the beginning of September.
He said Ukrainian troops were now about 30 miles from the border with Russia.
The Russian withdrawal marked the biggest battlefield success for Ukrainian forces since they thwarted a Russian attempt to seize the capital, Kyiv, at the start of the nearly seven-month war.
Ukraine’s attack in the Kharkiv region came as a surprise to Moscow, which had moved many of its troops south from the region to await the main Ukrainian counteroffensive.
In a clumsy attempt to save face, the Russian Defense Ministry said on Saturday that the withdrawal of troops from Izyum and other areas of the Kharkiv region was aimed at bolstering Russian forces in the neighboring Donetsk region to the south. .
The claim resembled the justification given by Russia for withdrawing its forces from the Kyiv region earlier this year when they failed to take the capital.
The group of Russian forces around Izyum played a key role in Moscow’s efforts to capture the Donetsk region, and their retreat will now significantly weaken Russia’s ability to continue its offensive against the Ukrainian strongholds of Sloviansk and Kramatorsk, just south.
Igor Strelkov, who led Russian-backed separatists in the early months of the Donbass conflict when it erupted in 2014, scoffed at the Russian Defense Ministry’s explanation of the retreat, suggesting that the handing over of Russia’s own territory near the border to Ukraine as a “contribution to Ukrainian settlement”.
The retreat drew furious comments from Russian military bloggers and nationalist commentators, who lamented it as a major defeat and urged the Kremlin to respond by stepping up war efforts.
Many have sharply criticized Russian authorities for continuing the fireworks and other lavish festivities in Moscow that marked a city holiday on Saturday despite the debacle in Ukraine.
As Russian forces hurriedly retreated from Izyum under Ukrainian fire, Russian President Vladimir Putin witnessed the opening of a huge observation wheel in a Moscow park, a new transport link and a a sports arena.
The action underscored the Kremlin’s effort to continue to pretend that the war it calls a “special military operation” was going as planned without affecting the situation in the country.
Pro-Kremlin political analyst Sergei Markov criticized the Moscow festivities as a serious political mistake.
“The fireworks in Moscow on a tragic day of Russia’s military defeat will have extremely serious political consequences,” Mr Markov wrote on his messaging app channel.
“Authorities should not celebrate when people are in mourning.”
In a sign of a potential split in the Russian leadership, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, said the pullout from the Kharkiv region resulted from mistakes by Russian military leaders.
“They made mistakes and I think they will draw the necessary conclusions,” Kadyrov said.
“If they do not change the strategy for conducting the special military operation in a day or two, I will be forced to contact the leadership of the Ministry of Defense and the leadership of the country to explain the real situation on the ground. .
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said in televised comments on Saturday that the Russians had been cut off from supply lines and predicted more gains.
“It will be like an avalanche,” he said, predicting a Russian retreat. “A line of defense will shake, and it will fall.”
Despite Ukraine’s gains, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the NATO chief warned on Friday that the war would likely last for months.
Mr Blinken said the conflict was entering a critical period and urged Ukraine’s Western donors to maintain their support through what could be a difficult winter.
In another major development on Sunday, the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, was reconnected to Ukraine’s power grid, allowing engineers to shut down its last operational reactor in an attempt to avert a radioactive disaster as the fighting rage in the region.
For several days, the plant operated in “island mode”, with only one of its six reactors running to power cooling systems and other crucial equipment.