Ukrainian forces have broken through the front lines in Kherson, one of the four regions President Vladimir Putin annexed last week, in the latest blow to Russia’s military campaign.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Monday that Ukraine’s forces had “pierced into our defences” thanks to “superior tank divisions” near the town of Zolota Balka, marking Ukraine’s biggest advance in the south since Moscow invaded the country in February.
The Russian military is simultaneously losing ground in the east of the country, after a separate Ukrainian counteroffensive took back the major transport hub of Lyman in the Donetsk region from fleeing Russian soldiers at the weekend.
The fresh setback comes just days after Putin annexed Kherson and three other regions and threatened to use all the means at his disposal to defend what he now considers Russian territory.
Putin’s move was meant to raise the stakes for Ukraine’s western allies by threatening to use Russia’s nuclear arsenal to protect its territorial gains in the seven-month conflict and reframing the war as a defensive effort.
However, it has instead forced Russian forces to admit losing territory only days after claiming it in a lavish ceremony in the Kremlin.
The defeats have intensified pressure on Russia’s armed forces after a heavy backlash against Putin’s decision to mobilise its reserve army, prompting hundreds of thousands of people to flee the country.
The losses put the Kremlin in the awkward position of not being able to confirm how much territory it was annexing — and, by extension, Russia’s current declared borders.
Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, told reporters any decision on how much territory in Ukraine’s Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions to annex required further consultation with the local population.
Peskov said while Russia wanted to annex all of Donetsk and Luhansk in the eastern Donbas industrial heartland, it was “continuing to consult with the population of these regions about their borders”, according to Interfax.
In the south, Ukrainian forces remain more than 120km from the major shipbuilding city of Kherson, the only provincial capital held by Russia since its full-blown invasion was launched on February 24. But an overnight push of more than 30km to Dudchany — a small village along the Dnipro river’s western shore — contrasts with the slow progress in previous months, where Ukraine was liberating a handful of small villages over weeks.
Though the defence ministry said Russia’s forces had made a pre-planned retreat and were inflicting “massive casualties” on Ukraine’s forces, Moscow-installed officials in the area indicated that opposing troops had progressed further still.
Vladimir Saldo, the Russia-appointed “governor” of Kherson who signed a “treaty” annexing Kherson alongside Putin, told Russian state television that Ukraine’s forces had advanced as far as Dudchany, 40km south of Zolota Balka, according to Reuters.
Russian forces in the city of Kherson have started to block people from leaving and making lists of young men they want to mobilise to fight, according to Serhiy Khlan, a Ukrainian member of the Kherson regional council who is now in exile.
But Khlan said news of Ukraine’s advances had created a “victorious mood” among Ukrainians living in Russian-occupied territory.
Pro-Russian channels on social media app Telegram claimed that Russia’s army was holding back Ukraine’s advance at Dudchany — about 100km north of Kherson city — but warned Kyiv’s forces outnumbered Moscow’s.
Natalia Humeniuk, a spokesperson for the Ukrainian army’s southern command, said: “We are doing all possible to oust them from our territory as soon as possible.”
She refused to confirm or deny Russian media reports about the extent of the retreat of Russia’s forces.