Ukrainian troops keep up pressure on fleeing Russian forces

KHARKIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian troops piled pressure on retreating Russian forces Tuesday, pressing deeper into occupied territory and sending more Kremlin troops fleeing ahead of the counteroffensive that has inflicted a stunning blow on Moscow’s military prestige.

As the advance continued, Ukraine’s border guard services said the army took control of Vovchansk — a town just 3 kilometers (2 miles) from Russia seized on the first day of the war. Russia acknowledged that it has withdrawn troops from areas in the northeastern region of Kharkiv in recent days.

Russian troops were also abandoning the southern city of Melitopol and heading toward Moscow-annexed Crimea, the city’s pre-occupation mayor said.

Columns of military equipment were reported at a checkpoint in Chonhar, a village marking the boundary between the Crimean peninsula and the Ukrainian mainland, Mayor Ivan Fedorov wrote on Telegram.

He did not immediately provide photo or video evidence for his claims.

Melitopol, the second-largest city in Ukraine’s southern Zaporizhzhia region, has been under Russian occupation since early March. Capturing it would give Kyiv the opportunity to disrupt Russian supply lines between the south and the eastern Donbas region, the two major areas where Moscow-backed forces hold territory.

In the newly freed village of Chkalovske in the Kharkiv region, Svitlana Honchar said most of the occupying forces had been stationed in the nearby forest rather than the village. Their departure was sudden and swift.

“They left like the wind,” Honchar said Tuesday after loading cans of food aid into her car. "They were fleeing by any means they could.”

Some Russians appeared to have been left behind in the hasty retreat. “They were trying to catch up," she said.

It was not yet clear if the Ukrainian blitz, which unfolded after months of little discernible movement, could signal a turning point in the nearly seven-month war.

But the country's officials were buoyant, releasing footage showing their forces burning Russian flags and inspecting abandoned, charred tanks. In one video, border guards tore down a poster that read, “We are one people with Russia.”

Momentum has switched back and forth before, and Ukraine's American allies were careful not to declare a premature victory since Russian President Vladimir Putin still has troops and resources to tap.

In the face of Russia's largest defeat since its botched attempt to capture Kyiv early in the war, Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said troops were hitting back with “massive strikes” in all sectors. But there were no immediate reports of a sudden uptick in Russian attacks.

Late Monday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said his troops had so far retaken more than 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 square miles) — an area more than twice the size of Luxembourg — in a matter of weeks.

“The movement of our troops continues,” he said.

Reports of chaos abounded as Russian troops pulled out — as well as claims that they were surrendering en masse. The claims could not be immediately verified.

Ukrainian Deputy Minister of Defense Hanna Maliar said Kyiv is trying to persuade even more Russian soldiers to give up, launching shells filled with flyers ahead of their advance.

“Russians use you as cannon fodder. Your life doesn’t mean anything for them. You don’t need this war. Surrender to Armed Forces of Ukraine," the flyers read.

While dozens of towns and villages were liberated, authorities moved into several areas to investigate alleged atrocities against civilians by Russian troops.

The Kharkiv regional prosecutor’s office said four bodies bearing signs of torture were found in the village of Zaliznychne. It's not clear how many other places investigators have entered.

Oleksandr Shtupun, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military's general staff, accused Russian forces of committing hundreds of war crimes in territory they once held. He said the danger of minefields in liberated towns and villages remained high, and ammunition and high explosives have been strewn across 70,000 square kilometers (27,000 square miles).

"The defense forces are taking measures to return peaceful life to the liberated communities as soon as possible,” he said.

In one indication of the blow sustained by Moscow, British intelligence said that one premier force, the 1st Guards Tank Army, had been “severely degraded” during the invasion and that conventional Russian forces designed to counter NATO have been badly weakened.

"It will likely take years for Russia to rebuild this capability,” the analysts said.

The setback might renew Russia's interest in peace talks, said Abbas Gallyamov, an independent Russian political analyst and former speechwriter for Putin.

But even if Putin were to sit down at the negotiating table, Zelenskyy has made it clear that Russia must return all Ukrainian territory, including Crimea, Gallyamov said.

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

Putin’s previous actions “have restricted his room to maneuver," so he “wouldn’t be able to put anything meaningful on the table.”

For talks to be possible, Putin “would need to leave and be replaced by someone who’s relatively untarnished by the current situation," such as his deputy chief of staff, the Moscow mayor or the Russian prime minister, Gallyamov said.

The retreat did not stop Russia from pounding Ukrainian positions. Early Tuesday, it shelled the city of Lozova in the Kharkiv region, killing three people and injuring nine, said regional Gov. Oleh Syniehubov.

And Ukrainian officials said Russia kept up shelling around Europe’s largest nuclear facility, where fighting has raised fears of a nuclear disaster. The Nikopol area, which is across the Dnieper River from the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, was shelled six times during the night, but no injuries were immediately reported, said regional Gov. Valentyn Reznichenko.

Strikes have also continued unabated on the city of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest and one that has been hammered by artillery for months.

Among Kharkiv's battle-scarred apartment buildings, one man who returned to feed the birds struck a defiant tone, saying that the success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive would likely prompt harsh Russian retaliation against civilian targets. But he said it would not succeed in intimidating ordinary Ukrainians.

Putin “will strike so we don’t have water, electricity, to create more chaos and intimidate us," said Serhii who only gave his first name. "But he will not succeed because we will survive, and Putin will soon croak!”

The counteroffensive has provoked rare public criticism of Putin’s war. Meanwhile, some of its defenders in Russia played down the idea that the success belonged to Ukraine, blaming instead Western weapons and fighters for the losses.

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Arhirova reported from Kyiv.

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

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