Moscow has abandoned its main fortress in northeastern Ukraine, in a sudden collapse one of the main front lines of the war after the rapid advance of Ukrainian forces.
Izyum’s swift fall in Kharkiv province on Saturday was Moscow’s heaviest defeat since its troops were forced to withdraw from the capital Kyiv in March.
This could prove to be a pivotal moment in the six-month war, with thousands of Russian soldiers giving up ammunition and equipment as they flee.
Russian forces used Izyum as a logistics base for one of their main operations – a months-long assault from the north into the adjacent Donbas region of Donetsk and Luhansk.
State news agency TASS quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying that Russia had ordered its troops to leave the vicinity and intensify operations elsewhere in neighboring Donetsk.
The head of Russia’s administration in Kharkiv asked people to evacuate the province and run to Russia to “save lives”, TASS reported. Witnesses described traffic jams of cars with people leaving the territory held by Russia.
Zelensyy said 2000sq km was done again
The Russian withdrawal was heralded by Ukraine’s leaders.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said: “The Russian army these days is showing its best ability – showing its comeback,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a video address on Saturday night.
Ukraine’s armed forces have liberated about 2,000 square kilometers (770 square miles) of territory since counterattack against Russia started earlier this month, he said.
Ukrainian officials have stopped short of confirming that they have retaken Izyum, but Andriy Yermak, Zelenskiy’s chief of staff, posted a photo of troops on its outskirts and tweeted an emoji of grapes. The name of the city means “raisins”.
“The Russian army is claiming the title of the fastest army in the world… keep running!” Yermak wrote on Twitter later.
Al Jazeera’s Gabriel Elizondo, reporting from Kyiv, said Izyum was “an important military strong point for the Russians for many months”.
“It took the Russians six weeks of fighting to get that city, and now it looks like the Ukrainians will take it back, in a pretty long period of 12 to 24 hours,” Elizondo said.
“It gives you an idea of how definitely the tide is turning. The Ukrainians are clearly motivated in this battle right now in the northeast, as they continue to push back Russian forces.”
The Russian withdrawal announcement came hours after Ukrainian troops entered the city of Kupiansk further north, the only railway hub supplying Russia’s entire frontline across northeastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian officials posted photos early Saturday of their troops raising the country’s blue and yellow flags in front of the Kupiansk town hall.
That caused thousands of Russian troops to suddenly have their supplies cut off along the front that saw some of the fiercest battles of the war.
There are signs of difficulty for Russia elsewhere along the country’s remaining positions on the eastern front, with pro-Russian officials acknowledging difficulties elsewhere.
The Ukrainian armed forces are continuing to advance in different areas along the front, Zelenskyy 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 went to Kyiv today to show that they can continue to rely on us. That we will continue to stand with Ukraine in times of need with the provision of weapons as well as humanitarian and financial assistance,” she said.
Russian forces ‘regrouped’
A few days ago, Kyiv’s forces stormed the front lines and have since retaken dozens of towns and villages in a rapidly mechanized assault, advancing tens of kilometers a day.
“In order to achieve the stated objectives of the Special Military Operation for the Liberation of Donbas, it was decided to regroup the Russian troops stationed in the Balakliia and [Izyum] with the aim of intensifying efforts in the direction of Donetsk”, TASS quoted the Russian Defense Ministry as saying.
Russian forces abandoned Balakliia a few days ago.
Ukraine’s deputy defense minister, Hanna Malyar, has sounded the alarm, urging people not to report early that towns have been “captured” just because Ukrainian troops have entered, as in Balakliia.
“A few days ago there was news that the army had entered the town. Today, we have finally established control in the city, carried out all the necessary operations and raised the flag,” she said.
In Hrakove, one of dozens of villages recaptured during the Ukraine advance, Reuters saw burned-out cars bearing the “Z” symbol of the Russian invasion. Ammunition boxes were scattered along with garbage at locations that the Russians had hastily discarded.
“Hello everyone, we are from Russia,” is spray-painted on the wall. Three bodies lay in white body bags in the yard.
The regional police chief, Volodymyr Tymoshenko, said Ukrainian police had moved the day before and checked the identities of local residents who had been living under Russian occupation since the second day of the invasion.
“The first function is to provide the help they need. The next work was to document the atrocities committed by the Russian invaders in the territories they temporarily occupied,” he said.
Ukrainian officials said Russian rocket fire hit the city of Kharkiv on Saturday night, killing at least one person and damaging several homes, part of an increased barrage of shelling since the uprising. Kyiv counterattack, Ukrainian officials said.
Russia’s abrupt abandonment of the front line south of Kharkiv abruptly ended a period of nonstop fighting on a static front, giving Moscow the advantage of rudimentary firepower.