- Governor of Russian region says all Kherson residents welcome
- Kherson is one of four provinces Russia claims to have annexed
- Ukraine defends Bakhmut in east in “brutal” fighting: Zelenskiy.
KYIV/KUPIANSK: Russian-backed forces have made some advances in eastern Ukraine, Britain said on Friday, even as Moscow’s hold weakens in the south, where a Russian-installed official has advised residents to flee a region Russia claims to have annexed.
A British intelligence update said forces led by the private Russian military company Wagner Group had captured the villages of Optyine and Ivangrad south of the fiercely-contested town of Bakhmut, the first such advance in more than three months.
“There have been few, if any, other settlements seized by regular Russian or separatist forces since early July,” said the daily update from London, which normally focuses on Ukrainian battlefield successes.
Ukraine launched a counteroffensive in late August against Russian forces occupying the country since the start of their invasion in February, pushing them out of the northeast and putting them under heavy pressure in the south.
Its main focus now is Kherson, one of four partially occupied Ukrainian provinces that Russia claims to have annexed in recent weeks, and arguably the most strategically important.
Russia’s TASS news agency said evacuees from the Kherson region were expected to begin arriving in Russia on Friday, a day after a Russian-installed official advised all residents of the region to flee, especially those around Kherson city.
While some people in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine have fled to Russia as Ukrainian forces advance, others have reported being forced towards Russia and others still have fled westward to Ukrainian-controlled parts of their country.
A flight of civilians from Kherson would be a blow to Russia’s claim last month to have annexed around 15% of Ukraine’s territory and incorporated an area the size of Portugal into Russia.
Kherson city, the only major conurbation Russia has captured intact since invading in February, controls the only land route to the Crimea peninsula seized by Russia in 2014 and the mouth of the Dnipro river that bisects Ukraine.
Since the start of October, Ukrainian forces have burst through Russia’s front lines in the region in their biggest advance in the south since the war began, aiming to cut Russian troops off from supply lines and escape routes across the river.
Ukraine said earlier on Friday that its armed forces had retaken 600 settlements in the past month, including 75 in the Kherson region and 43 in the eastern Donetsk region, where Optyine and Ivangrad lie.
“The area of liberated Ukrainian territories has increased significantly,” the Ministry for Reintegration of the Temporary Occupied Territories said on its website.
Reuters was not immediately able to confirm the battlefield reports.
Moscow calls the conflict, which has killed thousands of Ukrainians and left cities, towns and villages in ruins, a “special military operation” to demilitarise a country whose moves towards the West threaten Russia’s own security. Kyiv and its Western allies say it is an unprovoked war of conquest.
The British report said Moscow’s overall military campaign in Ukraine was still being undermined by Ukrainian forces along the northern and southern ends of the front line as well as by severe shortages of munitions and manpower.
Russia was targeting Bakhmut, it said, to try to seize the Kramatorsk-Solviansk urban area of the eastern Donetsk region, which was among those Russia said it had annexed despite not being in full control.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in a video address late on Thursday that “brutal” fighting was continuing there.
He also accused the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) of inaction in upholding the rights of Ukrainian prisoners of war and urged it to undertake a mission to a camp in the Russian-occupied east of the country.
In the latest of a series of Ukrainian criticisms of the ICRC, he said no one had yet visited Olenivka – a notorious camp in eastern Ukraine where dozens of Ukrainian POWs died in an explosion and fire in July.
Alongside the annexation, Russian President Vladimir Putin has responded to the battlefield setbacks with other moves to escalate the conflict: calling up hundreds of thousands of reservists and threatening to use nuclear weapons.
This week, Russia launched the biggest air strikes since the start of the war, firing more than 100 cruise missiles mainly at Ukraine’s electricity and heat infrastructure.
Officials in Russia’s Belgorod region bordering Ukraine have since accused Ukraine of targeting its power supplies and hitting an apartment block in the regional capital. Ukraine said the block was damaged by a Russian missile that went astray.
On Friday, Belgorod regional governor Vyacheslav Gladkov said train operations were suspended near Novyi Oskol, a town of about 18,000 people which lies about 90 kilometres (56 miles) north of the border, after remains of a missile fell nearby.
Putin said the Russian strikes on Ukraine were retaliation for a blast on Saturday that damaged Russia’s bridge to Crimea.
Damage to the bridge, which is a showcase project of Putin’s rule, will not be repaired until next summer, a document published on the Russian government’s website said on Friday.