Russia has abandoned its main bastion in northeastern Ukraine, in a sudden collapse of one of the war’s principal front lines after Ukrainian forces made a rapid advance.
The swift fall of Izyum in Kharkiv province on Saturday was Moscow’s worst defeat since its troops were forced back from the capital, Kyiv, in March.
This could prove a pivotal moment in the six-month-old war, with thousands of Russian soldiers abandoning ammunition stockpiles and equipment as they fled. Russian forces used Izyum as the logistics base for one of their main campaigns – a months-long assault from the north on the adjacent Donbas region comprising Donetsk and Luhansk.
The state-run TASS news agency quoted Russia’s defence ministry as saying it had ordered troops to leave the vicinity and reinforce operations elsewhere in neighbouring Donetsk.
The head of Russia’s administration in Kharkiv told residents to evacuate the province and flee to Russia to “save lives”, TASS reported. Witnesses described traffic jams of cars with people leaving Russian-held territory.
News of the drawdown came just after Ukrainian special forces published images on social media showing camouflage-clad officers with automatic weapons in Kupiansk, a town of about 27,000 people.
Ukrainian troops had also liberated Vasylenkovo and Artemivka in the Kharkiv region, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his evening address on Saturday.
“The Russian army these days is demonstrating its best ability – to show its back,” he said
Ukraine’s armed forces have liberated about 2,000sq km (770sq miles) of territory since a counter-offensive against Russia started earlier this month, he said.
There was no official confirmation from Ukraine that its troops had routed Russian forces from Izyum, but Andriy Yermak, Zelenskyy’s chief of staff, posted a photo of soldiers on its outskirts and tweeted an emoji of grapes. The city’s name means “raisin”.
“The Russian army is claiming the title of fastest army in the world … keep running!” Yermak wrote on Twitter later.
Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo, reporting from Kyiv, said Izyum was “a key military strongpoint for the Russians for many months”.
“It took the Russians six weeks of fighting to get a hold of that city, and now it appears that the Ukrainians will have retaken it, in pretty much a 12-to-24-hour timeframe,” Elizondo said.
“It gives you an idea of how the tide is certainly turning. Ukrainians clearly have the momentum in this battle right now in the northeast, as they continue to push the Russian forces back.”
Igor Girkin, a former commander of pro-Russian forces in eastern Ukraine, called the Russian pullback “a major defeat” in remarks on Telegram.
There were signs of trouble for Russia elsewhere along its remaining positions on the eastern front, with pro-Russian officials acknowledging difficulties at other locations.
In Donetsk, pro-Russian rebel leader Denis Pushilin said the situation in the town of Lyman was “very difficult” and that there was also fighting in “a number of other localities”, particularly in the northern part of the region.
The reported Ukrainian gains come as pressure grows on Kyiv to demonstrate progress before winter sets in, amid threats by Russian President Vladimir Putin to halt all energy shipments to Europe if Brussels goes ahead with a proposal to cap the price of Russian oil exports.
Ukraine’s foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba said in Kyiv that Ukrainian forces had demonstrated they were capable of defeating the Russian army with the weapons given to them.
“And so I reiterate: the more weapons we receive, the faster we will win, and the faster this war will end,” he said.
Earlier on Saturday, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, who was visiting the Ukrainian capital, said Berlin would continue to support Ukraine in its fight against Russian forces.
“I have travelled to Kyiv today to show that they can continue to rely on us. That we will continue to stand by Ukraine for as long as necessary with deliveries of weapons, and with humanitarian and financial support,” she said.
Russia still occupies extensive territory in the Donbas and in the south near the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized in 2014. Ukraine has for weeks been talking up a big counteroffensive in the south, which is under way though details are sparse.
Amid the reported gains in the northeast, Ukraine’s deputy defence minister, Hanna Malyar, sounded a cautionary note, urging people not to claim prematurely that towns have been “taken” just because Ukrainian troops were sighted.
Troops entered the town of Balakliia a few days ago, she said, but it was only on Saturday that Ukraine established control in the city.
“A few days ago it was reported that troops had entered the town. Today, we have finally established control in the city, carried out all the necessary activities, and raised the flag,” she said.
In Hrakove, one of dozens of villages recaptured in the Ukrainian advance, the Reuters news agency reported burned-out vehicles bearing the “Z” symbol of Russia’s invasion. Boxes of ammunition were scattered along with rubbish at positions the Russians had abandoned in evident haste.
“Hello everyone, we are from Russia,” was spray-painted on a wall. Three bodies lay in white body bags in a yard.
The regional chief of police, Volodymyr Tymoshenko, said Ukrainian police moved in the previous day and checked the identities of local residents who had lived under Russian occupation since the invasion’s second day.
“The first function is to provide help that they need. The next job is to document the crimes committed by Russian invaders on the territories which they temporarily occupied,” he said.