Ukraine makes major new breakthrough on southern front, days after supposed annexation

Ukrainian troops recaptured villages along the west bank of the Dnipro River in southern Ukraine on Monday in a major new breakthrough, opening a second big front that is forcing Moscow to abandon ground just days after claiming to annex it.

Russian sources say a Ukrainian tank offensive has advanced dozens of kilometres along Dnipro River

A Ukrainian serviceman sits on a T-80 tank that was claimed to have been captured from the Russian army, in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Sunday. Ukraine continued to make territorial gains on Monday, even as Russia claimed to have annexed four areas as its own. (Inna Varenytsia/The Associated Press)

Ukrainian forces achieved their biggest breakthrough in the south of the country since the war began in February, bursting through the front and advancing rapidly along the Dnipro River on Monday, threatening supply lines for thousands of Russian troops.

In a sign Ukraine is building momentum on two fronts, 300 kilometres to the northeast Reuters saw columns of Ukrainian troop vehicles heading to reinforce rail hub Lyman, retaken at the weekend and now a staging post to press into the Donbas region.

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.

The breakthrough mirrors recent Ukrainian successes in the east that have turned the tide in the war against Russia, even as Moscow has tried to raise the stakes by annexing territory, ordering mobilization and threatening nuclear retaliation.

"The information is tense, let's put it that way, because, yes, there were indeed breakthroughs," Vladimir Saldo, the Russian-installed leader in occupied parts of Ukraine's Kherson province, told Russian state television.

"There's a settlement called Dudchany, right along the Dnipro River, and right there, in that region, there was a breakthrough. There are settlements that are occupied by Ukrainian forces."

The advance in the south mirrors the tactics that have brought Kyiv major gains since the start of September in Eastern Ukraine. (CBC)

One of the fastest advances of the war

Dudchany is about 30 kilometres south of where the front stood before the breakthrough, indicating one of the fastest advances of the war and by far the most rapid 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 Feb. 24 invasion.

While Kyiv maintained almost complete silence, as it has in the past during major offensives, some officials did describe what they referred to as unconfirmed reports of gains.

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. He said it was in the village of Mykhailivka, about 20 kilometres beyond the previous front.

Margaryta Tkachenko, 29, feeds her nine-month-old daughter, Sophia, in the recently retaken town of Izium, Ukraine, on Sunday. (Evgeniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

"In the last days, we have seen the first photo of Osokorivka," Serhiy Khlan, a Kherson regional council member, told Reuters, naming villages in the area.

"We have seen our troops near the entrance to Mykhailivka, we have seen our troops in Khreshchenivka, next to the monument. This means that Zolota Balka also is under the control of our armed forces, and it means that our armed forces are moving powerfully along the banks of the Dnipro nearer to Beryslav.

"Officially, there is no such information yet, but the [Russian] social media pages which are panicking ... absolutely confirm these photos."

Similar tactics in the east

The advance in the south mirrors the tactics that have brought Kyiv major gains since the start of September in Eastern Ukraine, where its forces swiftly seized territory to gain control of Russian supply lines, cutting off larger Russian forces and forcing them to retreat.

Just hours after a concert in Moscow's Red Square on Friday, where Russian President Vladimir Putin proclaimed the provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia to be Russian territory forever, Ukraine recaptured Lyman, the main Russian bastion in the north of Donetsk province.

That has opened the way for it 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.

In the south, Ukraine's advance targets supply lines for thousands of Russian troops — perhaps as many as 25,000 — on the west bank of the Dnipro. Ukraine has already destroyed the main bridges, forcing Russian forces to use makeshift crossings. A substantial advance down river could cut them off entirely.

"The fact we have broken through the front means that ... the Russian army has already lost the ability to attack, and today or tomorrow it could lose the ability to defend," said Oleh Zhdanov, a military analyst based in Kyiv.

"A month of our work destroying their supplies, and reducing the combat effectiveness of this group means that they are functioning on minimal rations in terms of ammunition, fuel and food."

Putin responds to failures with escalation

Putin has been responding to Russia's failures on the battlefield over the past month by escalating: proclaiming the annexation of occupied territory, calling up tens of thousands of men as reservists and threatening nuclear retaliation.

On Monday, Russia's State Duma, the lower house of parliament that is firmly under the control of Putin's ruling party, passed bills endorsing the annexation of the four partly occupied Ukrainian provinces.

But Russia's flagging fortunes have led to a shift in mood on once triumphal state media, where talk show hosts have been acknowledging setbacks and searching for scapegoats.

"For a certain period of time, things won't be easy for us. We shouldn't be expecting good news right now," said Vladimir Solovyov, the most prominent presenter on state TV.

The commander of Russia's western military district, which borders Ukraine, has lost his job, Russian media reported on Monday, the latest in a series of top officials to be fired after the defeats.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Putin leader of Russia's Chechnya province who commands a personal army, demanded the commander of Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine be stripped of his medals and sent to the front line.

Kadyrov also said Russia should use a nuclear weapon. Putin and other officials have said they could use nuclear weapons to protect Russian territory, including newly annexed provinces, but had so far stopped short of explicitly saying they will do so. Asked about Kadyrov's remarks, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said: "This is a very emotional moment."

A Ukrainian serviceman inspects a kindergarten basement that was used by Russian forces in the recently retaken area of Kapitolivka, Ukraine, on Sunday. (Evegniy Maloletka/The Associated Press)

"The heads of regions have the right to express their point of view," Peskov told reporters. "Even at difficult moments, emotions should still be excluded from any assessments."

Putin's other big gamble, Russia's first mass military mobilization since the Second World War, 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.

Ukraine-Russia news roundup

Here's a look at some other news about the countries involved in the conflict:

  • The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, said Ihor Murashov, the director general of Ukraine's and Europe's largest nuclear power plant, in Zaporizhzhia, has been released from Russian custody after his detention last week.
  • Sweden sent a diving vessel on Monday to the site of Russian gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea that ruptured last week following blasts in the area, to probe an incident that has added new tension to Europe's 
    energy crisis. Europe is investigating what caused three pipelines in the Nord Stream network to burst in an act of suspected sabotage that Moscow quickly sought to pin on the West, suggesting the United States stood to gain.
  • A Russian court on Monday set Oct. 25 as the date for American basketball star Brittney Griner's appeal against her nine-year prison sentence for drug possession.