kyiv/HRAKOVE, Ukraine –
Moscow abandoned its main stronghold in northeastern Ukraine on Saturday in a sudden collapse of one of the main front lines of the war after Ukrainian forces threatened to encircle the area in a shock advance .
The swift fall of Izium in Kharkiv province was Moscow’s worst defeat since its troops were pushed back from the capital Kyiv in March, and could prove a watershed moment in the six-month war, with thousands of Russian soldiers abandoning stocks of ammunition and equipment during their flight.
The official TASS news agency quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying it had ordered troops to leave the surrounding area to bolster operations elsewhere in nearby Donetsk.
The head of the Russian administration in areas of Kharkiv he controls has told all residents to evacuate the province and flee to Russia to “save lives”, TASS reported. Witnesses described traffic jams with people leaving Russian-held territory.
Ukrainian officials have not confirmed that they have taken over Izium, but President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, released a photo of troops on its outskirts. Earlier, he tweeted a grapes emoji. The name of the city means “grape”.
The announcement of the Russian withdrawal came hours after Ukrainian troops captured the northern town of Kupyansk, the only rail hub supplying the entire Russian frontline in northeastern Ukraine. This left thousands of Russian soldiers abruptly cut off from supplies on a part of the front that saw some of the most intense battles of the war.
There were signs of trouble for Russia elsewhere along its remaining positions on the eastern front, with pro-Russian officials acknowledging difficulties elsewhere and Ukrainians hinting at further advances to come.
A few days ago, Kyiv forces crossed the front line and have since retaken dozens of towns and villages in a rapid mechanized assault, advancing tens of kilometers a day.
Early on Saturday, Ukrainian officials posted photos of their troops raising the country’s blue and yellow flag in front of Kupyansk’s city hall, delivering a blow that proved decisive for Russian garrisons supplied by the Kupyansk railways. the city.
“To achieve the stated goals of the special military operation for the liberation of Donbass, it was decided to consolidate Russian troops located in Balakliia and Izium districts with the aim of increasing efforts in the direction of Donetsk,” said TASS quoting the Russian Defense Ministry. as told.
Russian forces had already abandoned Balakliia a few days ago.
In Hrakove, one of dozens of villages recaptured during the Ukrainian advance, Reuters saw burnt-out vehicles bearing the “Z” symbol for the Russian invasion. Boxes still full of ammunition were strewn with trash strewn in positions the Russians had abandoned with obvious haste.
“Hello everyone, we are from Russia,” was spray painted on one wall. Three bodies lay in white body bags in a yard.
Regional police chief Volodymyr Tymoshenko said Ukrainian police had moved the day before and checked the identity of local residents who had been living under Russian occupation since the second day of the invasion.
“The first function is to provide the help they need. The next task is to document the crimes committed by the Russian invaders in the territories they temporarily occupied.”
A witness in Valuyki, a town in Russia’s Belgorod region near the border with Ukraine, told Reuters she saw dozens of people from Kupyansk, with families eating and sleeping in their cars along the roads.
“I was at the market today and saw a lot of people from Kupiansk. They say half the town has been taken by the Ukrainian army and Russia is withdrawing…the fighting is getting closer” , said the witness.
Belgorod Governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said authorities were providing food and medical aid to people queuing at a crossing point to Russia. Senator Andrey Turchak of the pro-Kremlin United Russia party reported more than 400 vehicles at the border.
Russian rocket fire hit the city of Kharkiv on Saturday night, killing at least one person and damaging several homes, in an upsurge in shelling since kyiv’s counteroffensive, Ukrainian officials said.
Reuters could not independently confirm the battlefield accounts.
The abrupt abandonment of the Russian front line south of the city of Kharkiv brought a swift and sudden end to a period in which the war had been fought relentlessly on a static front, favoring Moscow’s advantage in terms of raw firepower.
Russian forces had fought to capture Izium early in the war, then used the town as a logistical base for one of their major campaigns – a months-long assault from the north on the adjacent Donbass region.
There were signs that Ukraine could capitalize on the disarray with assaults along other areas of the eastern front. Denis Pushilin, head of the separatist administration installed by Russia in Donetsk province, said the situation in Liman, east of Izium, “remains quite difficult – like in a series of settlements in the north of the Republic”.
Further east, Ukrainian officials have hinted at a possible attempt to retake Lysychansk, which Moscow seized in July after weeks of fighting in one of the bloodiest battles of the war.
Ukrainian regional governor Serhiy Gaidai was quoted in Ukrainian media as saying that Ukrainian troops had been spotted on the outskirts of the city. The town’s name means “fox,” and after his grapes tweet, Yermak tweeted a fox emoji.
(Reporting by Reuters reporters; Writing by Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)