Ukrainian troops moved 30 miles closer to the border with Russia on Sunday, officials said, as Kyiv’s counteroffensive continued to gain momentum into the 200th day of the war.
A jubilant Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, poked fun at Moscow in a video message, saying that “the Russian army these days is doing its best by showing its back.”
Ukraine’s swift action to retake Russian-occupied territories in the northeast of Kharkiv Oblast forced Moscow to withdraw its troops to prevent their encirclement and leave a significant amount of arms and ammunition behind in a hasty retreat.
On Sunday, the president also released a video of Ukrainian soldiers hoisting the national flag over Chkalovsky, another city they recaptured from the Russians in a counteroffensive.
The commander of the Ukrainian armed forces, General Valery Zaluzhny, said that since the beginning of September, Ukraine had liberated about 1,160 square miles and was about 30 miles from the border with Russia.
The retreat of Moscow forces was the biggest combat success of Ukrainian forces since they thwarted a Russian attempt to seize the capital Kyiv at the start of the war in February.
The Ukrainian attack in the Kharkiv region came as a surprise to Moscow, which redeployed most of its troops from the area to the south in anticipation of the main Ukrainian counter-offensive.
In a clumsy attempt to save face, the Russian defense ministry said the withdrawal from Izyum and other parts of the Kharkiv region was intended to reinforce Russian forces in neighboring Donetsk region to the south.
The group of Russian troops around Izyum played a key role in Moscow’s efforts to seize the Donetsk region, and the retreat will now drastically weaken Russia’s ability to continue its advance on the Ukrainian strongholds of Slavyansk and Kramatorsk further south.
Igor Strelkov, who led Russia-backed separatists in the early months of the Donbas conflict when it erupted in 2014, ridiculed the Russian Defense Ministry’s explanation for the retreat, suggesting that handing over Russia’s own territory near the border to Ukraine was “a contribution to the Ukrainian settlement.”
The retreat drew angry comments from Russian military bloggers and nationalist commentators, who lamented it as a major defeat and urged the Kremlin to step up military action in response.
Many have been sharply critical of the Russian authorities for continuing fireworks and other lavish festivities in Moscow that mark the city’s Saturday holiday despite the debacle in Ukraine. There have also been reports that some local Russian councils are calling for President Vladimir Putin to step down, a potential sign of growing domestic opposition to the all-powerful leader.
Pro-Kremlin political scientist Sergei Markov criticized the festivities in Moscow as a serious political mistake.
“Fireworks in Moscow on the tragic day of Russia’s military defeat will have extremely serious political consequences,” Mr. Markov wrote on his messaging app channel.
“The authorities should not celebrate when people are mourning.”
In a sign of a possible split in the Russian leadership, Ramzan Kadyrov, the Kremlin-backed leader of Chechnya, said the retreat from the Kharkiv region was the result of mistakes by the Russian military leadership.
“They made mistakes, and I think they will draw the necessary conclusions,” Kadyrov said.
“If changes are not made to the strategy of conducting a special operation in the next day or two, I will be forced to contact the leadership of the Ministry of Defense and the leadership of the country to clarify the real situation on the ground. “.
Despite Ukraine’s successes, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg have warned that the war is likely to drag on for months.
In another major development on Sunday, the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, Europe’s largest, was reconnected to the Ukrainian power grid, allowing engineers to shut down its last operating reactor in a bid to avoid a radiation catastrophe as fighting rages in the area.
For the previous few days, the station had been operating in “island mode” with only one of its six reactors running cooling systems and other critical equipment.