Ukrainian troops pressure Russian forces to leave

KHARGIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian troops are pressing Russian forces to withdraw. On Tuesday, pushing deeper into the occupied territory, more Kremlin troops fled before the counteroffensive, dealing a stunning blow to Moscow’s military prestige.

As the advance continued, Ukraine’s border guard services said the army had taken control of the town of Vovsansk, 3 kilometers (2 miles) from Russia – captured on the first day of the battle. Russia has only recently admitted to withdrawing troops From areas in the north-eastern part of Kharkiv.

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

Melitopol has been occupied since early March. Capturing it would give Kiev the chance to disrupt Russian supply lines between the southern and eastern Donbass region, two large areas where Moscow-backed forces hold territory.

Melitopol Mayor Ivan Fedorov wrote in a telegram that Russian troops are moving towards Moscow-annexed Crimea. He said columns of military equipment were reported at a checkpoint in Sonhar, a village that marks the border between the Crimean peninsula and the Ukrainian mainland.

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

“They left like the wind,” Honchar said Tuesday after loading cans of food aid into his car. “They fled by any means.”

Some of the Russians seemed to lag behind in a hasty retreat. “They were trying to catch up,” she said.

The Ukrainian outbreak is still unclear. The emergence, after months of little-known movement, would mark a turning point in the nearly seven-month war.

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But the country’s officials were upbeat, releasing footage showing their troops burning Russian flags and inspecting abandoned, charred tanks. In one video, border guards tear down a poster that reads, “We are one people with Russia.”

As momentum shifted back and forth, Ukraine’s American allies were careful not to declare a premature victory. Russian President Vladimir Putin still has troops and resources.

And then Russia faced its biggest defeat Its failed attempt to capture Kiev early in the war prompted Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov to say that troops responded with “massive strikes” on all fronts. But there were no immediate reports of a sudden surge in Russian attacks.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian forces were carrying out “affirmative actions” across recaptured territory in the south and east, rounding up Russian troops, “saboteurs” and alleged collaborators.

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

“With our troops, with our flag, it is very important that normal, normal life enters the occupied territory,” he said, citing an example of how people in a village had already started receiving pensions after months of occupation.

Reports of chaos as Russian troops withdrew — as well as claims of mass surrender — abounded. Unable to confirm requests.

Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Malier said Kiev was trying to dislodge more Russian soldiers, launching bombs filled with flyers ahead of their advance.

“The Russians are using 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.

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In the wake of the withdrawal, Ukrainian authorities have moved into several areas to investigate alleged atrocities by Russian troops against civilians.

Since Saturday, Kharkiv regional police and local law enforcement officials have repeatedly reported finding civilian bodies bearing signs of torture in territories formerly controlled by Russia. Their statement could not be verified.

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

In a Facebook post, Serhii Bolvinov, head of the police force’s intelligence department, cited testimony from Balaklia residents as saying that Russian troops “always keep at least 40 people captive in the compound.”

Meanwhile, military analysts tried to make sense of the blow inflicted by Moscow.

British intelligence said a flagship force, the 1st Guards Tank Army, was “severely degraded” alongside regular Russian forces designed to counter NATO during an invasion.

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

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

But even if Putin sits at the negotiating table, Zelensky has made it clear that Russia must return all Ukrainian territories, including Crimea, Kalyamov said.

“This is unacceptable to Moscow, so negotiations are, strictly speaking, impossible,” he said.

Putin’s previous actions have “restricted his room for maneuver,” so he “can’t put anything meaningful on the table.”

For talks to be possible, Putin “needs to leave someone relatively unsullied by the current situation,” said his deputy, the mayor of Moscow, or Russian Prime Minister Kalyamov.

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The retreat did not stop Russia from attacking Ukrainian positions. Three people were killed and nine wounded when shelling hit the town of Losova in the Kharkiv region, regional governor Ole Tsinihubov said.

And Ukrainian officials say Russia has continued shelling around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, where the fighting has raised fears of a nuclear holocaust. The Nikopol region, across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, was shelled six times overnight, but there were no immediate injuries, regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko said.

Strikes also continued unabated on Ukraine’s second-largest city, Kharkiv, which has been under artillery fire for months..

In one of Kharkiv’s war-scarred apartment buildings, a man returning to feed the birds struck a defiant tone, saying the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive would prompt heavy Russian retaliation against civilian targets. But he said the Kremlin would not succeed in intimidating ordinary Ukrainians.

Putin “will strike because we don’t have water, we don’t have electricity, and he will create chaos and scare us,” said Serhiy, who gave only his first name. “But he won’t win, because we will survive, Putin will soon shout!”

The counteroffensive has sparked rare public criticism of Putin’s war In Russia. Some of the war’s defenders downplayed the notion that victory belonged to Ukraine, instead blaming Western weapons and fighters for the losses.

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Arhirova reported from Kiev.

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Follow AP war coverage at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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