Ukrainian troops keep pressure on fleeing Russian troops

KHARKIV, Ukraine (AP) – Ukrainian troops put pressure on retreating Russian troops On Tuesday, pressing deeper into occupied territory and sending more Kremlin troops fleeing the counter-offensive that dealt a stunning blow to Moscow’s military prestige.

As the advance continued, Ukrainian border guards said the military had taken control of Vovchansk — a city just 3 kilometers (2 miles) from Russia that was taken on the first day of the war. Russia has acknowledged that it has recently withdrawn troops from areas in the northeastern region of Kharkov.

Russian troops also withdrew from Melitopol, the second-largest city in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhya region, the city’s pre-occupation mayor said. His claim could not be immediately verified.

Melitopol has been occupied since early March. By taking it, Kiev would have the opportunity to disrupt Russian supply lines between the south and east of the Donbas region, the two main areas where Moscow-backed forces hold territory.

The mayor of Melitopol, Ivan Fedorov, wrote on Telegram that Russian troops were on their way to Moscow-annexed Crimea. He said columns of military equipment were reported at a checkpoint in Chonhar, a village that marks the border between the Crimean peninsula and mainland Ukraine.

In the newly liberated village of Chkalovske in the Kharkov region, Svitlana Honchar said the Russians’ departure was sudden and swift.

“They took off like the wind,” Honchar said Tuesday after loading cans of food aid into her car. “They fled in every possible way.”

Some Russians appeared to have been left behind in the hasty retreat. “They were trying to catch up,” she said.

It was not yet clear whether the Ukrainian blitz, unfolding after months of little discernible movement could mark a turning point in the nearly seven-month war.

But the country’s officials were excited and released footage showing their troops burning Russian flags and inspecting abandoned, charred tanks. In one video, border guards tore off a poster that read, “We are one people with Russia.”

Momentum has switched back and forth before and Ukraine’s US allies made sure not to announce a premature victory as Russian President Vladimir Putin still has troops and resources to tap into.

Facing Russia’s biggest defeat since his failed attempt to take Kiev early in the war, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said troops are hitting back with “massive strikes” across all sectors. But there were no immediate reports of a sudden increase in Russian attacks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukrainian troops were carrying out “stabilization measures” over recaptured territory to the south and east, and rounded up Russian troops, “saboteurs” and alleged collaborators.

In his late night speech, Zelenskyy also promised to restore normalcy in the liberated areas.

“It is very important that along with our troops, with our flag, ordinary, normal life enters the unoccupied area,” he said, giving an example of how people in a village have already started receiving pension payments after months of occupation.

Reports of chaos abounded as Russian troops withdrew — as well as claims that they were surrendering en masse. The claims could not be confirmed.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Kiev is trying to convince even more Russian soldiers to give up by launching grenades filled with flyers before advancing.

“Russians use you as cannon fodder. Your life means nothing to them. You don’t need this war. Surrender to the armed forces of Ukraine,” the flyers read.

In the wake of the retreat, Ukrainian authorities entered several areas to investigate alleged atrocities committed by Russian troops against civilians.

Since Saturday, Kharkiv Regional Police have repeatedly reported that local law enforcement officers have found civilian bodies with signs of torture in areas previously controlled by Russia. It was not possible to verify their statements.

On Tuesday, regional police claimed that Russian troops set up “a torture chamber” at the local police station in Balakliya, a town of 25,000, which was occupied from March until last week.

In a Facebook post, the head of the police’s investigative department, Serhii Bolvinov, quoted testimonies from residents of Balakliya and claimed that Russian troops “always held at least 40 people captive” on the premises.

Meanwhile, military analysts tried to understand Moscow’s blow.

British intelligence said one of the main forces, the 1st Guards Tank Army, was “seriously downgraded” during the invasion, along with conventional Russian forces designed to counter NATO.

“It will probably take years for Russia to rebuild this capacity,” British officials said.

The setback could renew Russia’s interest in peace talks, said Abbas Gallyamov, an independent Russian political analyst and former speechwriter for Putin.

But even if Putin were to sit down at the negotiating table, Zelenskyy made it clear that Russia must return all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, Gallyamov said.

“This is unacceptable for Moscow, so talks are strictly speaking impossible,” he said.

Putin’s past actions “limited his room for manoeuvre,” so he “couldn’t put anything sensible on the table.”

To allow talks, Putin would “need to leave and be replaced by someone relatively unscathed by the current situation,” such as his deputy chief of staff, the mayor of Moscow or the Russian prime minister, Gallyamov said.

The retreat did not stop Russia from smashing Ukrainian positions. It bombed the town of Lozova in the Kharkov region, killing three people and injuring nine, regional governor Oleh Syniehubov said.

And Ukrainian officials said Russia continued shelling around Europe’s largest nuclear facility, where fighting has heightened fears of a nuclear disaster. The Nikopol area, which lies across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, was shelled six times overnight, but no injuries were reported immediately, regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko said.

Strikes have also continued unabated on the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city and a city that has been hammered by artillery for months..

Beneath Kharkov’s scarred apartment buildings, a man returning to feed the birds took a defiant tone, saying the success of Ukraine’s counter-offensive would likely lead to harsh Russian retaliation against civilian targets. But he said the Kremlin would fail to intimidate ordinary Ukrainians.

Putin “will strike so that we have no water and electricity, to create more chaos and intimidate us,” Serhii said, giving only his first name. “But he won’t succeed, because we will survive, and Putin will soon croak!”

The counter-offensive has sparked rare public criticism of Putin’s war in Russia. Some defenders of the war downplayed the idea that success belonged to Ukraine and instead blamed Western weapons and fighters for the losses.

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Arhirova reported from Kiev.

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