Ukrainian forces achieved their biggest breakthrough in the country’s south since Russia invaded, pushing across Moscow’s defence lines on Monday and advancing along the Dnieper River, recapturing a number of villages along the way and threatening enemy supply lines.
Ukraine’s advance targets supply lines for as many as 25,000 Russian troops on the west bank of the Dnieper.
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Ukraine has already destroyed the main bridges, forcing Russian forces to use makeshift crossings. A substantial advance downriver could cut them off entirely.
Kyiv gave little information about the gains in the south, but Russian sources acknowledged that Ukrainian troops had advanced dozens of kilometres along the river’s west bank, recapturing a number of villages along the way.
“There’s a settlement called Dudchany, right along the Dnieper River, and right there, in that region, there was a breakthrough. There are settlements that are occupied by Ukrainian forces,” Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed leader in occupied parts of Ukraine’s Kherson province, told Russian state television.
Dudchany is about 30km (18.6 miles) south of where the front stood before the breakthrough, indicating the fastest advance of the war so far in the south, where Russian forces had been dug into heavily reinforced positions along a mainly static front line since the early weeks of the invasion.
Soldiers from Ukraine’s 128th Mountain Assault Brigade raised the country’s blue and yellow flag in Myrolyubivka, a village between the former front and the Dnieper, according to a video released by the Ukrainian Defence Ministry.
Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior ministry, posted a photo of Ukrainian soldiers posing with their flag draping a golden statue of an angel in a village he said was Mikhailivka, on the riverbank about 20km (12.4 miles) beyond the previous front.
Serhiy Khlan, a Kherson regional council member, also listed Osokorivka, Mykhailivka, Khreschenikvka and Zoloto Balka as villages recaptured, or where Ukrainian troops had been photographed.
“It means that our armed forces are moving powerfully along the banks of the Dnieper nearer to Beryslav,” he said.
The breakthrough mirrors recent Ukrainian successes in the east against Russia, even as Moscow has tried to raise the stakes by annexing territory, ordering mobilisation and threatening nuclear retaliation.
Just hours after a concert on Moscow’s Red Square on Friday where Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed the provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhia to be Russian territory, Ukraine recaptured Lyman, the main Russian bastion in the north of Donetsk province.
The recapture of Lyman – which Moscow’s forces pummelled for weeks to control this spring – marks the first Ukrainian military victory in territory that the Kremlin has claimed as its own and has pledged to defend by all possible means.
Russia’s defence ministry said it had “withdrawn” troops from the town “to more favourable lines“.
The fall of Lyman has opened the way for Ukraine to advance deep into Luhansk province, threatening the main supply routes to territory Moscow captured in some of the war’s bloodiest battles in June and July.
Putin has been responding to Russia’s failures on the battlefield over the past month by escalating, including by proclaiming the annexation of occupied Ukrainian territory.
Al Jazeera correspondent Mohamed Vall, reporting from Moscow, said constitutional changes to demarcate new border lines following the annexation are expected to be approved by the Russian Senate on Tuesday. This step will mean Russia will “officially have 89 entities that make up its federation”, he said.
The Russian government is “already talking about the border and how it is going to be traced”, Vall said.
“For Luhansk and Donetsk, the Kremlin spokesman said the border would be the same as that of 2014 when those two self-declared republics announced their independence from Ukraine.
“For Zaporizhia and Kherson, there will be consultations with residents. We understand that Russia doesn’t control all those territories right now and that they are even losing ground there, so it will be a very difficult battle for the Russians to reach the border they are talking about.”
“The Russians have celebrated this,” Vall added. “But there is a difference between what is being said and the situation on the ground.”
Mobilisation in chaos
Putin’s other big gamble, Russia’s first mass military mobilisation since World War II, has been mired in chaos. Tens of thousands of Russian men have been called up, while similar numbers have fled abroad. Western countries say Moscow lacks the supplies and manpower to train or equip the new conscripts.
Mikhail Degtyarev, governor of the Khabarovsk region in Russia’s Far East, said on Monday that about half of those called up there had been found unfit and sent home. He fired the region’s military commissar.
Russia’s flagging fortunes have led to a shift in the public mood, prompting Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Kremlin leader of Chechnya, to suggest that Moscow consider using low-yield nuclear weapons.
“In my personal opinion, more drastic measures should be taken, up to the declaration of martial law in the border areas and use of low-yield nuclear weapons,” Kadyrov said on his Telegram channel.
Asked about Kadyrov’s remarks, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “This is a very emotional moment.”
“Even at difficult moments, emotions should still be excluded from any assessments,” he added.